SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - The Fine Print On Our Social Contract
"They love me, they love me not." —Humanity.
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
There are few times left in our modern lives when we are truly alone.
Even that word — alone — has expired in today’s constantly connected world. How alone can you be if you’re always a call or text away from other people? Even isolated in the middle of nowhere, an internet connection puts you in contact with as many people as your not-so-lonely heart desires.
The pandemic lockdown has tested our tolerance for isolation, even if that isolation is the least isolating version of isolation that’s ever existed. I can spend a month at home, yet speak to as many people as I’d like for as long as I’d like every day. This is isolation on easy-mode and yet, we still feel its effects.
Wired connections can’t satiate our desire for primal connections.
FaceTime shows us faces we can speak to in realtime, and yet one cannot live on FaceTime alone. Humans need humans, our social nature is partially what makes us so human; would cultures and cities and countries spring from a species that seeks isolation?
As much as we are each other’s only doom, we are also each other’s only salvation.
Humans don’t thrive in isolation, something we’ve known and used against each other for eternity. Solitary confinement is just another sunny day to animals that are already solitary, but to a human, it’s torture.
Like our constantly connected quarantine, isolation can be felt even in the company of others. It’s the sense of confinement that can break us, just as it did to one person in 1956 at the US Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. This guy holds the honor of being the reason people are now psychologically screened before Antarctic expeditions. His break down into a paranoid schizophrenic state required teammates constantly sedate him and keep him in a mattress-lined room.
But hey, who hasn’t had friends sedate and confine you to a padded room? Give him a break.
Antarctic and submarine expeditions give us the best understanding of what voluntary isolation can do to us. These scenarios laid the foundation for the ultimate in confined isolation: space travel. In all these environments, people are restricted to a small space in a hostile environment; exposed flesh freezes within minutes in Antarctica, you’ll suffocate in space if your lungs don’t explode first, and the ocean’s pressure will force the air out of you and replace it with water.
What happens to a human in the most unforgiving form of isolation?
In the most extreme forms of isolation, even people hand-picked for their mental health and resiliency will degenerate. No person actually thrives in these environments, some people just lose it more slowly than others. In Antarctic missions, people have become depressed, resentful, insomniacs, hypersomniacs, and paranoid; in space, more sleep disorders, depression, hallucinations, and cognitive slowness.
It’s not the science, but the psychology that often puts these missions at risk. In one case, astronauts blocked mission control and played the outer space version of hooky, turning off their radio and spending the day watching Earth go by.
In all these hostile environments, it was earth and the human population we scorn that brought comfort to the isolated. Unlike being in the deep darkness of the ocean or the frozen white abyss of Antarctica, being able to see what Sagan called our pale blue dot from a spaceship is an experience of awe deserving its own title — the overview effect.
You . . . say to yourself, ‘That’s humanity, love, feeling, and thought.’ You don’t see the barriers of color and religion and politics that divide this world.
— NASA Astronaut, Eugene Cernan
The first picture of Earth from outer space (December 1968).
Unity and connectedness are the feelings that comprise the overview effect astronauts report. It’s the same feeling we chase in music festivals, nature, and psychedelics.
Just like you’ve learned to cherish the simple pleasure in cafes and concerts, astronauts return from the isolation of space with a deep love for this messy, massive, unmistakable rock we call home. While most of us would experience NASA’s duct-tape-and-sedatives-restraint policy in the isolation of space, the laborious effort to fabricate the human connection we take for granted on Earth teaches a simple lesson we’re determined to fail:
Perhaps finding not less, but more ways to create unity and connection in our only home has been the obvious answer to our divisions all along.
Sure, sure. It’s easy to love Earth from that distance — there’s no Twitter in orbit.
The social contract is something you probably don’t think about by name often, but probably do think about in practice daily. Back up to pre-society times; you have your tribe and that’s about it. You’re hunting in the forest and suddenly you lock eyes with a stranger. What do you do?
In pre-society times, you had two options: fight or flight. There was no small-talk or exchange of hunting tips; that requires trust, and in nature, trust can get you killed. This is the pre-social contract state of nature that Thomas Hobbes called “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He wasn’t much of an outdoorsman.
We love nature in so far as we can control it.
Fast forward to our current society; you leave your house, likely without a weapon, you drive to a store that hasn’t been pillaged, you purchase food instead of killing the cashier and stealing it, then you politely smile at strangers walking by you as you go back home, which also hasn’t been pillaged.
And people still claim they have trust issues in 2020.
Completely boring, routine errands like grocery shopping are miracles compared to most of history. Seriously, consider how much you trust your society: you assume that almost every stranger you come across isn’t going to kill you. You might not own even a single weapon for self-defense, the ultimate proof of your trust that everyone will uphold their side of the social contract.
Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacque Rousseau were the celebrities of social contract theory. At the core, they all believed society is simply an agreement between you and me to give up some freedoms in exchange for others. Giving up freedom here isn’t the same as prison; society’s restraints are the difference between nature’s anarchic freedom and society’s philosophical freedom.
Remember our pre-society scenario? That was nature’s anarchic freedom — no laws besides those of nature itself. Epicurus believed justice was a fiction, something that exists only within the constraints of society. In our tribal past, if I wanted your cool moccasins, I killed you. It wasn’t injustice because you were free to kill me for my moccasins too.
There is a cost for total freedom; without some constraints, we never thrive, we merely survive.
Enter philosophical freedom, the freedom borne of society’s constraints. When we agree to live within society and abandon our anarchic state of nature, we give up the survival rat race and adopt the wealth rat race. Wealth is a dirty word, but think of it more abstractly.
In society, the wealth you can build is just as much internal as external.
When you aren’t constantly at risk of being murdered for your moccasins, you can do frivolous things like writing a book called The Social Contract. If Rousseau was busy hiding from moccasin thieves, he’d have bigger issues to think about than some foo-foo idea like SoCiEtY.
The Leviathan — one man made of many, the Hobbesian metaphor for society. Also a pretty metal visual for 1651.
Our social contract believes the best society is one that provides as much freedom as possible to choose your life while revoking the anarchic freedoms of nature that interfere with the lives of others. The reason we tolerate lifestyles and ideas we dislike isn’t just because we’re great people.
Our right to live and think as we choose depends on the right of others to do the same.
You wanna live in a van down by the river, read Marx, and sell erotic art? That’s freedom. You wanna force everyone else to live in a van down by the river, read Marx, and sell erotic art? That’s not freedom — it infringes on the freedom of others to live in a cabin in Wyoming, read Burke, and sell corn husk dolls.
The social contract is the difference between a protest and a riot. A protest is your right to differ, a riot denigrates the rights of others to differ — it infringes upon others. The chaos that results from breaking the social contract is the chaos of nature, where no law but survive exists.
When you break the social contract that closed the door upon nature’s anarchy and trigger our ancient drive to survive — expect blood.
Society vs. Nature.
As with any contract, all sides must uphold their end; when one party breaks their promise, the other can rightly break theirs too. While harassing other citizens in the street breaks our contract to uphold the freedom to differ, this more visible breach may be a response to a previous, more subtle breach.
A government that doesn’t uphold its end of the deal is no longer granted what the social contract offers. When equality degrades through corruption, the social contract is broken. Hobbes believed a government that was too weak to prevent civil unrest forfeited its authority. Locke advocated disobedience and even violence in changing failed leadership.
And people still believe the Enlightenment thinkers are just stuffy dead white guys.
The Twilight Zone: The Obsolete Man (1961) dir. Elliot Silverstein
The social contract in one sentence.
Our society is not perfect and never will be; it is a human invention and like all such things, error-ridden. Yet, to flippantly call for the nullification of our social contract is to underestimate the hellish anarchy of nature it replaced.
When business owners watch their livelihoods burn, when mobs intimidate individuals, when violence occurs, the chaos felt is that of our primitive past — a world where the strong always rule.
The breaking of our social contract is no joyous act of liberation. Yes, you will be “free,” but only free to return to that “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” state of nature where your very life is never guaranteed.
Society is a precious, fragile, living organism we’ve all agreed to care for.
When we break the social contract, we skip our turn to care for this fragile beast. It’s easy to take society for granted — you’ve never felt the primal terror of a world that would painfully extinguish your life without even a tombstone to mark it. Blind? Elderly? Injured? Peanut allergy? Nature obeys no non-discrimination laws.
It may not be the best deal, but breaking the social contract is never a clear path. It’s only society — people who’ve agreed to abandon the might-makes-right law of nature in favor of the invention of justice — that makes possible a world where you can smile at strangers.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.