On the talking and acting of ordinary people

i.e. nearly all people (995 of 1000 or more).

Link > Étienne de la Boétie

First, as regards the talking, because it struck me as I was briefly listening to a discussion program on the radio led by a supposedly eminent Dutch journalist, including Dutch ministers and experts, incidentally on the non-subject "onthaasting" (being a ministerial neologism referring to living with less stress):

The talking

·        is a selection of known clichés that support popular choices about how things should be and appear to be regardless of how they are - how things really are seems to be almost never known and to interest almost none: what is discussed is social fiction, consciously maintained

·        much depends on a primitive use of kind-terms - like "people", "democracy" always used in an unqualified apodictic way ("our" "people" and "leaders" are invariably "true democrats" of undoubted excellency and highly moral intentions)

·        suppresses proper quantifications - like "all", "some", "most", "75%": in political discussion such quantifiers are normally left out

·        almost always reduces the discussion of moral norms and principles to what "we" are said to believe and desire by the speakers, without factual or rational support - the justification of a moral norm is rarely its factual consequences but normally its being liked by "us"

·        discuss politics in highly personalized terms, like family affairs, as if politicians are "our" fathers and mothers - national and international politics are publicly discussed as if they are sitcoms, where what matters are the feelings and interests and careers of the players, and not what the play is about or for, at least not principially.

Also, in so far as "facts" are introduced, they are supposed idealized facts that conform to the position taken: "So you see people do such and such to achieve so and so" (which is true as long as there is 1 person satisfying it, but generally supposed but not said to be true of most or all people), and they always are extreme: examples that support our case positively are uniformly excellent; examples that support our case negatively are totally bad. And nearly everyone tries to reduce everything to the most common places, the most hackneyed phrases, and popular euphemisms - and indeed, the few who don't are regarded by the rest as incomprehensible academics, who refuse to talk sensibly like the vast majority.

In fact, in nearly all cases what happens is simply mostly conscious lying, and in all cases it is conscious hypocrisy (role-playing):

·        People almost all say what they believe their social role requires them to say, and not what they believe themselves is the case, and usually know this, and know that what they pretend is true is social fiction even if they also happen to mostly believe it.

·        Moreover: the playing of a social role requires no knowledge other than how to play the part: whether the statements that belong to the part are independently true or rational or reasonable interests almost none, since they are interested in the benefits of playing the role.

This holds for politicians and for the people they rule, in more or less equal parts: they are actors playing games for personal ends, without much interest in the play or its truth, but only in what it pays them in terms of status, power and income.

There are exceptions, but rarely in politics, and these exceptions tend to be journalistic or academics, and to make little real contribution to current affairs, that tend to be played out in terms of slogans and wishful thinking, even unto the battle-field.

And indeed, in every society it is much easier, less demanding and more profitable to behave like a blindfolded social conformer than to try to find out what might be really true or what would be really in the interest of most, for the real truth is difficult to find, difficult to establish, and often unpopular, and nearly always to complicated to discuss rationally in a parliament or from an election platform. TOP

Second, as regards the acting, here are some quotations from T.H. White's "The Book of Merlyn", which I have given summary titles of my own. Also, there are brief notes in brackets.

Diagnosis of the human situation:

"What are we, then, at present?"
"We find that at present the human race is divided politically into one wise man, nine knaves and ninety fools out of every hundred. That is, by an optimistic observer. The nine knaves assemble themselves under the banner of the most knavish among them, and become 'politicians': the wise man stands out, because he knows himself to be hopelessly outnumbered, and devotes himself to poetry, mathematics or philosophy; while the ninety fools plod off behind the banners of the nine villains, according to fancy, into the labyrinths of chicanery, malice and warfare. It is pleasant to have command, observed Sancho Panza, even over a flock of sheep, and that is why politicians raise their banners. It is, moreover, the same thing for the sheep, whatever the banner. If it is democracy, then the nine knaves will become members of parliament; if fascism will become party leaders; if communism, commissars. Nothing will be different, except the name. The fools will still be fools, the knaves still leaders, the result still exploitation. As for the wise man, his lot will be much the same under any ideology. Under democracy he will be encouraged to starve to death in a garret, under fascism he will be put in a concentration camp, under communism he will be liquidated. This is an optimistic but on the whole scientific statement (...)"

p. 50-51: This seems to me essentially correct, and those who deny this are either fools or knaves. TOP

About fascism and communism:

"(..) "you are not defining the ants as fascists or communists because they fight wars, but because..."
"I am lumping all three sects together on their basic assumption, which is, ultimately, to deny the rights of the individual."
"I see."
"Theirs is the totalitarian theory: that men or ants exist for the sake of the state or the world, not vice versa."

p. 89: This indeed is the fundamental distinction for humans: Are you an individual, who tries to be his own master (and who hopefully tries to follow rationality in understanding and reason in dealing with others), or are you a born follower, who must serve leaders and the group from lack of individual distinction? TOP

About Marx and the Égalité Fallacy:

"Marx was a bad naturalist (..) because he subscribed to the Égalité Fallacy, which is abhorrent to nature. Human beings are no more equal in their merits and abilities, than they are equal in face and stature. You might as well insist that all people in the world should wear the same size of boot."

p. 90: This is simply a matter of palpable fact. There is only one human species, however colored, but the one human species is unique in its having so much variance among its individuals, that make each and everyone's capacities like a mountain-range, mostly with many tops, but most tops also lower than those of some others. TOP

About liberty, equality and fraternity:

"Liberty, Equality and Fraternity..." (..)
"Liberty, Brutality and Obscenity", rejoined the magician promptly. You should try living in some revolutions which use that slogan. First they proclaim it: then they announce that the aristos must be liquidated, on high moral grounds, in order to purge the party or to prune the commune or to make the world safe for democracy; and then they rape and murder everybody they can lay their hands on, more in sorrow than in anger, or crucify them, or torture them in ways I do not care to mention.(..) Yes, that is the equality of man. Slaughter anybody who is better than you are, and then we shall be equal soon enough. All equally dead."

p. 90-91: Again, this is historically quite correct, and sketches e.g. the history of socialism in the 20th Century. TOP

About ability, merit, opportunity or reward:

"Fortunately there is no such thing in nature as equality of ability, merit, opportunity or reward."

p. 93: Fortunately, because else humans would be ants, or rather: There would be no human individuals, but only a mass of clones, totally exchangeable for any other, and none with any really individual contribution only he or she could make. Also, for the sentimental: There would then be no reason for love, for praise, for blame, for merit, or indeed for personal interest: If every one is just like you ("your equal"), everyone must be boring from the point of view of each. Again, those most fanatic for universal equality are those who have most to gain by it, because they are so clearly less gifted than some, and envious. And again: the fanatic levelers are those most prone to confuse - on purpose or through stupidity - the very important difference between the libertarian notion that equal rights for all are desirable because all are unequal, and the totalitarian notion that all are equal or should be equalized. TOP

On being human (and sensitive and intelligent) 1:

"They could say it abstractly, even with a certain dialectic glee, but for him is was the concrete: it was for him to live among yahoos of flesh and blood. He was one of them himself, cruel and silly like them, and bound to them by the strange continuum of human consciousness."

p. 97: "They" are the animals in the tale this excerpt comes from. As to my own and your cruelty and silliness: We all share it, being human, but if we are willing we can mostly control it. TOP

On being human (and sensitive and intelligent) 2:

"For what hope had he among mankind? They had murdered, almost invariably, every decent person who had spoken to them since the time of Socrates. They had even murdered their God. Anybody who told them the truth was the legitimate object of their treachery (..)

(p. 128: Again, this is far more true than false.) TOP

On being human (and sensitive and intelligent) 3:

"It is all too true that people are ferocious and stupid. They haven given me every sorrow but death. Do you suppose that they will listen to wisdom, that the dullard will understand and throw down his arms? No, he will kill me for it"

(p. 143: See previous remark.) TOP

On having good intentions

"That was it, to mean well! He caught a glimpse of that extraordinary faculty in man, that strange, altruistic, rare and obstinate decency which will make writers or scientists maintain their truths at the risk of death. Eppur si muove, Galileo was to say; it moves all the same. They were to be in a position to burn him if he would go on with it, with his preposterous nonsense about the earth moving around the sun, but he was to continue with the sublime assertion because there was something which he valued more than himself. The Truth. To recognize and to acknowledge What Is. That was the thing which man could do (..). They might be stupid, ferocious, unpolitical, almost hopeless. But here and there, oh so seldom, oh so rare, oh so glorious, there were those all the same who would face the rack, the executioner, and even utter extinction in the cause of something greater than themselves. Truth, that strange thing, the jest of Pilate's. (...) But then again came the wave of sorrow over him (..) the thought of that cruel and brutish majority, to whom the martyrs were such exceptions (p. 155: See below).

All quotations are from what is nominally a children's book (as is "Gulliver's Travels").

As to "The Truth": The term is commonly abused as a common whore, and in real social life "The Truth" is as rare as real love. Also, what really matters is not whether what one believes and dares to act on is really and truly as one believes it is (in that case one is usually mostly mistaken) but whether one is honest and does not lie: whether one does not say what one believes to be not so in order to further one's own interests; whether one is not a conformist hypocrite moved by personal greed. (If one is not capable of not being a conformist hypocrite, all speculation about the truth is mere play-acting: without honesty all asserted truth is hypocrisy.)

Finally, as to the intelligent, the stupid, and man's ferocious nature: The human race raised itself above the other animals due to the presence of a small minority of thinking individuals - who created language, mathematics, art, science, and values to live socially by.

To the great majority, the main things that count in a human life are bodily pleasure, social rank, and conformity, all of which are values of animal hordes, and the great majority will persecute any individual who noticeably differs from them, for no other reason that such a different individual is not sufficiently like them. The process has little or nothing to do with truth or intelligence: it is the scapegoating animal hordes need to conform to the group and confirm the group's character. And indeed, De la Boetie - more of whom below, in Dutch - saw very correctly for humans this is a conformist bondage from free will.

However, what is true is that it is humanly important

·        to agree that there is objective truth, independent from human wishful thinking; and

·        to agree to rational argument, according to standards that hold for each and any argument, again independent from human wishful thinking.

And also, in this context:

·        To agree that even if there are revealed truths, as most religions claim, these are at best subjectively but not objectively true:

They may be a personal inspiration to those who had or claim to have had them, but have no authority or rational standing for anyone who does not claim such revelations or who claims others.

·        Human beings must work out their agreements to live together and cooperate apart from theology, based only on such facts and arguments as all can agree to apart from their religious beliefs if any: if human beings cannot agree on the basis of what they share - their common humanity, their common agreement to rational inferences and reasonable behavior - they cannot agree.


Continued in Dutch: Link > Étienne de la Boétie

Copyright: maartens@xs4all.nl

Editorial note: This is a note of June 17, 2000.
Slightly edited in July 2000.