SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - The Intolerant and the Anti-Fragile
A simple guide for peasants and ex-peasants.
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A life well-lived is a life well-examined. A life well-examined always has a little weird and güd within it. This newsletter is an examination of our weird and güd world.
Lately I feel like the least favorite peasant in a small, repressed village.
It feels like I’m biding my time before the village mob needs a reason to dust off their pitchforks and the defiant act of holding differing ideas is enough to attract the rageful eyes of cruel peasants.
I imagine the unreasonable yells of a frenzied crowd descending upon my door.
I’ll open the door and ask my crime, but today I’ll be told:
“We’re here to imprison you for your deviance of thought in the name of defending our town’s culture of tolerance.”
There’s a wave of intolerance in our society, though it’s not found at the roots.
When we talk about intolerance today, it’s not the same intolerance our parents spoke of. Our parents learned that tolerance was a principle, a philosophy extended to all people, or by definition, it wasn’t tolerance you were extending, but approval.
We’ve made the mistake that educated people often do—we’ve confused knowledge for wisdom.
We’ve been seized by often-quoted but less often read political philosophers like Herbert Marcuse, who perfected the kind of up-is-down philosophy that births chaos while promising order, including the idea that your intolerance of another’s intolerance is tolerance.
Two tyrants don’t make a democracy and intolerance today in the name of some tolerant paradise tomorrow is not tolerance.
Education gave us the shiny tools of argumentation to passionately rationalize even murder if it’s in the service of some greater good. Information is abundant and the ability to twist that information into knots to create any form that flatters you is impressive, but it’s not wisdom, and it’s certainly not inherently good.
Intolerance is more complicated than some political tool or oppressive act—intolerance is a mindset. Psychologists like Allport and Rokeach both found that intolerance, just as easily as introversion, can be categorized based on personality traits.
It’s not your beliefs, your politics, or your rationalizations that best indicate whether your intolerance is intolerance—it’s you.
People who dislike ambiguity, crave structure, definiteness, and are closed-minded and dogmatic are more likely to be intolerant. If you can’t accept the existence of other people’s differing views and practices, you are—by definition—intolerant.
The research behind intolerance creates a problem for those who enjoy wielding intolerance in the name of tolerance.
When intolerance isn’t marked by an identity, but is a mindset that can be held by any identity, there’s no narrative left to conceal your intolerance.
Our cultural narratives have accustomed us to using conceptual shortcuts for ideas like intolerance. Categories like conservative or liberal are massive nets; sure, you catch more fish, but you also catch the wrong fish, and many more escape through a net too wide to ever be accurate.
Our identity-based shortcuts for naming intolerance are simple but come at a dangerous cost—they blind us to the rise of intolerance in any form besides the ones we’ve come to expect.
Humans haven’t failed to be tolerant of each other throughout our entire history because tolerance was the easier choice.
The core of tolerance isn’t accepting what you hate, but recognizing that just as you’ve used your freedom to choose your views, others can too. There is no freedom without tolerance, and there is no tolerance without tolerance for the outcomes that freedom allows—even the outcomes you disagree with.
When we can’t tolerate the freedom of others to believe in what we hate, it’s not others, but their freedom that we become intolerant of.
A society where everyone is forced into agreement may enforce your views today, but it won’t be free, and neither will you.
No one wants to live in a paranoid peasant village where the wrong opinion or unusual appearance can get you bumped up in the queue for being the next bonfire kindling. And yet, we are designed to be peasants; we disdain differences, we feel threatened by outsiders, and whether it’s the discovery of fire or the solar system, new things always appear in an ominous fog of fear.
I don’t think people want to live in an oppressive peasant village, but I do think people unknowingly enact that primitive world because we are of that primitive world. It’s easy to take for granted that your society is an aberration when it’s the only society you’ve ever known.
Yes, we created this society, but slowly and bloodily over centuries in opposition to hundreds of thousands of years spent slowly and bloodily building civilizations on the backs of those paranoid peasants.
Empires end, cities turn to ruins, lives become histories; to expect immortality of any earthly thing is to provoke a painful awakening.
Destitute Dead Mother Holding her Sleeping Child in Winter by Octave Tassaert, 1850.
We don’t have to revive our peasant past nor do we have to light candles of mourning for the wild-child society we have today.
The answer is surprisingly simple but expectedly immense: to maintain a free and open society, that society must be comprised of free and open individuals.
Most people are not free, whether they live in free lands or not. They subjugate themselves to rotting tyrants, like addiction, self-annihilating ideologies, and authoritarian personalities—whether of their politicians or their partners.
Most people are not open. Even the people whose identity is built upon the idea of openness recoil at the appearance of what they aren’t open to.
Openness isn’t the act of accepting what you’ve decided to accept—everyone is open to what they approve of.
Openness is the ability to find curiosity, even appreciation, for the many ways a human being can be unlike you while being just like you.
Freedom and openness are the opposite of the obedience and conformity that mark our past societies.
Like someone that watches an amazingly talented musician and scoffs, “I could do that,” we’ve taken for granted how truly rare and difficult it is for humans to be the free and open individuals required to uphold a free and open society.
That’s where your job comes in, citizen. Have you ever thought about what it means to be a citizen of a free and open society?
We’re quick to critique our society, but so slow to consider our responsibility to that society.
While it’s a lovely bit of rhetoric, your rights are not as God-given as our political poetry suggests. Your rights didn’t exist for nearly all of human history. Hell, your rights don’t even exist for many humans on earth right now.
Your existence isn’t enough to support a free and open society. If it was, every society would be free and open, as existence en masse is cheap.
Your job, citizen, is to become an anti-fragile thinker. Rather than resort to those beloved pitchforks we’ve long relied on, the anti-fragile thinker is improved by the very ideas and people that once threatened them.
As it comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, anti-fragility is the quality of something to not just resist or recover from stress, but to improve. The idea that a person could not simply withstand the existence of differences and offense, but grow because of them isn’t as radical as it sounds. Anti-fragility already exists all around you—like plants that thrive in random bouts of harsh weather—and within you—like your immune system that improves through exposure to stressors.
An anti-fragile thinker would be someone who welcomes what their peasant predecessors would have attacked.
Rather than seeing even the most offensive differences as a threat, the anti-fragile thinker sees offense as a chance to innoculate themselves against the pesky peasant fragility that lingers within us like an incurable illness.
For you and me, the honest truth is that we aren’t fragile or anti-fragile in the face of disagreement, but resilient. We can respect and tolerate what we disagree with…but appreciating and growing from that disagreement is another endeavor entirely.
That anti-fragile mindset is exactly the endeavor every citizen of a free and open society should take as their service to uphold that society.
If we only withstand the strife that’s inevitable in a free and open society, we’re building a society with nothing more than a cold tolerance for the labor of its best qualities.
Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
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