Pang Tong & The Power of Humility

Anyone who has read my fiction knows that I have a soft spot for the literary masterpiece, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is counted as one of the Four Classics of Chinese literature.  For those unfamiliar with the novel, or with Chinese culture in general, it’s worth investigating (though there are no official subtitle tracks of acceptable quality for the latest television version, Three Kingdoms (2010), so you’ll have to watch it on YouTube where the Jiang Hu translation was hardsubbed into the video itself).

The clip I’ve linked within this article requires a little backstory to fully understand.  Pang Tong is a hideously ugly man with one of his era’s brightest minds, and is therefore highly sought after by all of the warlords of his day.  To avoid being imprisoned and compelled to work for one of the less high-minded warlords, he spends most of his life wandering under various aliases in search of a worthy lord and master.

His search first brought him to Sun Quan, the lord of the second most powerful kingdom of the day.  But Sun Quan was persuaded by his court (and his mother) to shun Pang Tong due to Pang’s obtuse, drunken belligerence at a state funeral for Sun Quan’s deceased Grand Commander, Zhou Yu.  Pang Tong’s belligerence and drunkenness were considered to be insults of such magnitude that he was rejected from a face-to-face meeting with Sun Quan, at which point Pang Tong sighed and left Sun Quan’s kingdom in search of a worthier lord.

He arrived in Liu Bei’s relatively small, but quickly-growing kingdom and presented himself as a potential clerk or low-level magistrate.  He barely managed to simultaneously avoid detection and also get a job as a magistrate of a small village/township on the outskirts of Liu Bei’s kingdom, and after he got the job he descended into drunkenness and belligerence yet again.  He also refused to do any administrative tasks for his first month (edit to correct: it was actually his first 100 days) on the job, drawing the ire of the feisty Zhang Fei–Liu Bei’s sworn brother–who paid Pang Tong a visit with every intention of cracking his skull for insubordination.

Pang Tong, still drunk and belligerent, dismissed Zhang Fei’s concerns.  He said that the work of a low-level magistrate was beneath him, so why should he bother to work every day when the job could be done much more efficiently?  Zhang Fei commands him to ‘put up or shut up,’ and over the course of the ensuing afternoon Pang Tong completes all of the unaddressed administrative tasks–all while drinking like a sailor–and, after completing these tasks, retires to his room for even more drunkenness.

Zhang Fei, who is far from the sharpest tack in the box, runs back to his brother Liu Bei and pleads with him to come see Pang Tong (who is still operating under an alias) for himself.  Liu Bei drops everything he is doing, rushes off to meet with Pang Tong, and patiently waits outside Pang Tong’s residence until the spud-faced genius finally emerges in a hangover–and naturally he demands someone refill his wine.

Liu Bei recognized the value of such a brilliant and eccentric person, and bent over backwards to try to recruit him.  He ignored his own sick child, he ignored the matter of his noble rank and Pang Tong’s commoner status, he even went so far as to try to give his horse, Hex Mark (which had saved his life) to Pang Tong as a parting gift.

Pang Tong pushed Liu Bei as far as he could in trying to determine whether or not Liu Bei’s ‘eye was on the prize,’ as it were.  A truly worthy leader needs to think of nothing but success for himself and the people who are with him.  Pang Tong’s point is simple: if a leader is willing to pass up the opportunity to pluck a diamond from a pile of manure simply because the act of doing so might somehow sully him, he is unworthy of the diamond.

Humility, as Liu Bei demonstrates time and time again throughout the Romance of the Three Kingdoms tale, is a potent weapon which can often prove decisive in crucial matters.

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Free Speech and the dying ‘Right vs. Left’ paradigm.

The ‘Left vs. Right‘ paradigm is one that’s dying, and its pending demise is necessary if we want to build on the legitimate progress made by our forebears.  But in today’s world, those labels still have meaning and so I’ll discuss them a little before examining (in admittedly verbose and, at times, rambling fashion) their roles in the ongoing Free Speech battle in Western Civilization.

The concept of a linear, one-dimensional political spectrum which starts at the ‘Right’ end of the line and runs to the ‘Left’ is one with which most of us are familiar.  The idea is simple (which is why we all have a meaningful degree of familiarity and understanding with this paradigm): if you’re on the Right side of the spectrum, you’re a ‘Conservative‘ (meaning you err toward caution when presented with opportunities to reform a given facet of society/tradition) and if you’re on the Left side, you’re a ‘liberal’ (though this label no longer means what it ought to, so a better way to think of someone on the Left is as a Progressive).  But what does any of that even mean?  This post isn’t an attempt to answer that particular question–instead, it’s an attempt to determine why that question is one most of us find ourselves asking at one point or another.

There is also a lot of discussion about ‘horseshoe theory‘ when discussing the Left vs. Right (predominantly false) dichotomy. Most of us will hear people say ‘I’m a fiscal conservative, but a social liberal,’ or some variation on that theme, which suggests that in spite of its simplicity a lot of people are still confused by the ultra-simplified Left vs. Right paradigm.

And they should be confused, because asking someone if they are on the Left or the Right of the political is a rigged question for anyone who’s actually interested in learning the answer.  But more on that later.  As the headline suggests, this essay is primarily about the purpose and value of free speech in Western society.

To understand why Free Speech is even a thing, we need to understand our species’ history to a minimum degree.  Throughout human history, there have been people who wanted to dictate, from positions of authority, how others lived.  An accurate term used to describe these people is ‘Authoritarian‘–and the dirty little secret that we’re waking up to is that Authoritarians aren’t uniquely ‘Left,’ or ‘Right,’ or ‘Religious,’ or anything else.  Authoritarianism is hard-coded into human nature, so learning how to deal with it and keep it in check is important.

That’s where Free Speech comes into play.

Back in the 60s the Free Speech movement was most certainly ‘Leftist’ or, more pointedly, anti-Right/anti-Conservative. And they were right to rail against the excesses of state influence over speech, thought, and media. Having been born long after their rebellion’s flames had turned to smoldering embers, I can’t comment directly on the radicals’ motives–thankfully I’ve got people like Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers (aka, The Factual Feminist), both dyed-in-the-wool feminists  and free speakers from that era, to do that for me.

Back in the 60’s, it seems to me that a major (probably even primary) reason for the government stepping in as hard as it did in attempting to influence culture, thought, and speech, was deceptively simple: the global rise of communism. The government, falling into a trap as old as vested power itself, decided against battling the core *ideas* of communism in the marketplace of ideas and instead decided to apply state force to keep communism from gaining purchase. Those in power, be they in the government, media, or even the business world, opted to employ Authoritarian tactics to coerce conformity in the 1950’s rather than waging the harder, but more meaningful battle in the arena of ideas.  Their intentions might have been good, and it’s hard to argue with any chosen course that seeks to eradicate the real-world horrors of communism from the face of the planet, but you probably already know where a road paved with good intentions might lead…

Fast forward to today and the script has flipped 100% on just about every single issue. The hard ‘Left’ activists are pro-communism, and they gain immense support in the media and popular culture while people who want the country to go back to the way it was are sneered at by virtually everyone with a microphone or live camera feed. The pendulum swung too far to the Right in the 50’s and 60’s, and now it’s gone too far to the Left to lead off this century.  And the most powerful, nonlethal weapon in our arsenal which we can use to dampen the eccentricities of that pendulum’s increasingly severe movement is Free Speech.

The good news is that we’ve been through cultural upheavals like this before. We’re all still here, the skyscrapers in our metropolises are still standing, the heartland continues to be the beating heart of both our economy and identity, and all in all life keeps a-goin’. So with that in mind it becomes important to recognize that cultural revolutions are not only acceptable, they’re NECESSARY. Such revolutions are a core reason why the First Amendment got top billing over the Second Amendment. It’s better to wage a war of ideas than it is to wage a war of arms, so Free Speech got primacy over all other itemized freedoms in the USA’s founding principles. But in order for a real war of ideas to commence, all involved parties need to have the unrestricted ability to transmit, receive, and process information independently.

It’s probably obvious by now that Free Speech and Authoritarianism cannot coexist.  Free Speech was specifically designed to prevent Authoritarianism from dominating society by distributing information-processing throughout society rather than keeping information-processing (and, by extension, decision-making) sequestered within the Corridors of Power.  So naturally Authoritarians want to be able to control what is or isn’t said by the general public–because they know, just like Mr. Style Over Substance Noam Chomsky himself knows, that language plays a crucial role in shaping much of how we think.  So if an Authoritarian can control how a person speaks, he/she also gains control over how that person thinks.  None of this is rocket surgery, but I think it warrants stating anyway.

I’ve got more to say on the subject, and I expect I’ll do just that in the weeks to come, but for now I’d like to end on a conciliatory note.

We all get into discussions with people, and where those discussions take place (on the internet, around the water cooler, in the bleachers while we watch our kids perform/compete, or anywhere else) is less  important than how we conduct ourselves during them.  Authoritarianism isn’t the only hard-wired piece of social psychology each of us is born with–tribalism is another one, and it’s probably even more prominent than the desire to exert power which underpins Authoritarianism.  Free Speech and tribalism, however, are almost as incompatible as Free Speech and Authoritarianism–and if they’re not incompatible, per se, then they’re far from synergistic.

When we talk with like-minded people (meaning people who largely share our views) we often improve our understanding and perspective but, perhaps alarmingly, we also put ourselves in a position where we might fall victim to confirmation bias.  Speaking with people who disagree with us is difficult-bordering-on-impossible, but it’s only by speaking with people who don’t share our views that we can genuinely expand our horizons and determine which ideas are strong and which ones are weak.

So the next time any of us feels like rolling our eyes and dismissing a conversation partner with whom we’ve stumbled into one of the proverbial political landmines of our time, and with whom we disagree on an important issue, take a second to realize that you have an opportunity not to win an argument or debate with that person.  Instead, recognize you have a chance to lay bare each others’ ideas and supporting thoughts, evidence, and experiences in the hope that you’ll come away with a stronger understanding of the subject than you had going in.

If you can do that, you’ll recognize that precious few people are ‘Right’ or ‘Left,’ and that most of the people around you with whom you engage in vigorous, spirited, and meaningful discussions are clustered tightly around the Center–just like you.

Don’t let wedge issues divide us into a false Left vs. Right conflict.  If you can avoid that particular pitfall, the Authoritarians who hail from all extreme points of the political spectrum will be every bit as powerless as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and John Adams wanted them to be.

Cultural Plurality vs. Multiculturalism

The tolerance of plurality is one of the West’s greatest achievements. And, indeed, tolerance is as much as a system of law can *possibly* hope to achieve. Anything more is up to the distinct, plural groups individually (how’s ‘groups individually’ for an oxymoron?).

Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist (who many consider to be the contemporary Father of Libertarianism) has a beautifully articulate speech titled ‘The Pencil,’ which I’ll link below. Key takeaway: there is not a single human being in the world who can manufacture a common pencil. The only way to make it is by cooperating with literally THOUSANDS of other people–many of whom you might despise.

One of the most profound and horribly misunderstood features of a Free Market system is that it enables people who might *hate* each other to cooperate from opposite corners of the world–so long as they all agree on the goal of prioritizing mutual gain. That fundamental agreement forms the basis of Cultural Pluralism–which, strangely enough, stands in DIRECT OPPOSITION to what *most* of us think of as contemporary Multiculturalism.

Where legitimate Cultural Pluralism and contemporary Multiculturalism differ, in my view, is simple: one advocates the TOLERANCE of divergent cultures, while the other demands EQUAL STATUS for all cultures. It’s the old ‘Equal Opportunity vs. Equal Outcome’ argument playing out in the marketplace of ideas–for that’s really all a culture is: a constellation of ideas, manifested (generally) as a set of traditional teachings, values and practices.

Tolerating ‘The Other’ is *essential* to seeking truth and achieving harmony. If one does not assume he or she Knows What Is Best on a given subject, then he or she *must* be open to new information–including the falsification of previously-held values and ideas. Once we can *tolerate* differences, we can examine them–even at arm’s length–more clearly. That process of honest, dispassionate examination is how we learn more about The Other and, more importantly, ourselves. Comparing and contrasting isn’t just something we’re supposed to do in High School English essays–it’s one of the most proven methods by which humans can learn new information: by referring an unknown item/idea to a known one.

Demanding *equal status* for The Other, however, does the exact opposite. When one demands that all cultures be TREATED equally irrespective of the apparent (and not-so-apparent) merits and flaws of each represented culture, one is circumventing the compare-and-contrast mechanism at the outset of experience with The Other. Compare-and-contrast is, fundamentally, a scientific/logical/empirical process. Disallowing its application to *anything* is anathema to the Pursuit of Truth and enlightenment generally.

Science doesn’t operate by consensus, or by ‘proving’ claims or statements. Science is a process of systematized elimination and falsification, by which statements and claims can *only* be DISproven. Which means that enduring legitimately HELPFUL criticism will *never* be a pleasant experience. But it *is* the only method by which humans have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to revise and reform traditional ideas and practices. In order to conduct such revisions, it’s necessary to remove all possible impediments from viewing angles to better ensure a clear vision of what a given thing is or is not.

After all: monkey see, monkey do.**

 

*The author requests your tolerance of his asterisk abuse, and wants to assure you that he holds no grudge against Roger Maris.

**This post originally appeared at drdetectovision.wordpress.com as a comment in a thread discussing a recent article by Katie Hopkins.

Revision-proof Religion is Revolting

Revision-proof religion is revolting.

In my day job as a science fiction and fantasy writer, I get to ponder subjects for days, weeks, months and even years that most people can only processs in drive-thru fashion.  A lot of my thoughts, since a very young age, have centered on religion.  During my pontifications and perusals of historical records, I’ve encountered some thought-provoking and eye-opening examples of how humans interface with their religious institutions.  From Thomas Jefferson’s treatise on how to encourage ideological reformations within religion, to Machiavelli’s ultra-pragmatic thoughts on how a ruler and his subjects should regard their home-grown religious institutions, we find commentary from the best and brightest of our species’ history on this all-important subject.

From Ancient Egypt’s glorious polytheistic take on divinity all the way through the American Secular Reformation and its enduring imprint on Christianity; we have a record of how religious institutions impact their respective societies.  From the Cradle of Civilization with the birth of the so-called Abrahamic Religions, across the Asian continent to witness the inexorable march from Taosim, to Confucianism, to Buddhism, and back to Europe where Christianity played a pivotal role in the creation of modern Western Civilization–the far-reaching impact of religion on the way we think, speak, live, love, and learn cannot be underestimated.

I’m not a learned scholar, and I’ve never been published in the theological arena.  I’m an amateur with an inquisitive mind and an openness to new ideas.  As a young kid growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, my skepticism with religion was fairly obvious even at the age of nine.  Today, I would best describe my relationship with religion by borrowing a phrase from the great Freeman Dyson (of eponymous Dyson Sphere fame, which if you’re a sci-fi nut like I am you already know how bright this guy’s light bulbs are).  He said “I am a practicing Christian–I am not a believing Christian.”  I take it even more broadly and expand upon that statement: “I support religion, specifically Christianity, as an empiricist and a humanist–and I don’t need to believe any of the outlandish claims made therein in order to justify that support.”

Let me be perfectly clear: I’ve got four beautiful children, and we’ve never gone to church.  I’ve attended funerals during my time here in the Philippines, and many of those begin in churches, but I’ve never–not once–attended a church occasion in the last decade that wasn’t somehow associated with beginning- or end-of-life ritual ceremonies that are more or less social occasions conducted in a church.  Total number of these types of events I’ve attended?  Less than ten in a decade.

So don’t write me off just yet 😉  As far as my place on the atheism spectrum, I’d slot myself in shoulder-to-shoulder with Thomas Jefferson.

And so it should come as no surprise that I find Thomas Jefferson’s writings on religion to be about as dead-on as anyone’s that I’ve read.  His ultimate idea was simply to make religions stand on their own feet in the court of public opinion—and to do so without co-opting government authority or corporal power in order to move hearts and minds.  If the ideas being presented and preached by a church’s clergy were apparently sound, and the populace accepted them (along with their baggage) as superior to available alternatives, Jefferson appeared to think that was all the progress we needed to root out the stupidity and unwanted aspects of religion.  Not instantaneously, mind you, but both he and Machiavelli (who many refer to as the ‘ultimate pragmatist’) displayed marked temperance on the issue of religion.  Neither was religious by any stretch, but both of them recognized the immense culturally-stabilizing effect that religious institutions generate for their native populations.  This effect cannot be ignored in any reasoned discourse on the issue of religion and its current or future roles in human affairs.

Christianity has a violent a bloody history, and *much* of that blood was shed during Christianity’s myriad Great Reformations.  Whether it was the schism with the Eastern Orthodoxy (the Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Rome’s State Religion which departed from mainstream Christianity mostly in terms of decentralizing authority more than its Western counterpart), Martin Luther’s heresy (which allowed any who wished to do so the ability to read the Bible in their own time, in their own language, and in the privacy of their own homes), Henry VIII’s break with Holy Mother Church by founding the Church of England, or the American Secular Reformation, the history of Christianity is littered with the bones of ongoing ideological warfare within the religion itself–to say nothing of its ongoing feud with Islam for the last thirteen hundred years!

Thomas Jefferson wanted something different for our future.  He looked back and saw all of the Great Reformations and recognized the price we paid in blood and treasure to move the ball forward a few inches.  To him, as a secular humanist, that price was simply unacceptable.  And so he and his contemporaries devised an ingenious, unprecedented mechanism: the Separation of Church & State.  His hope was that the Great Reformations would be a thing of the past, and that replacing them would be an Ongoing Reformation with no battles, little bloodshed, and–most importantly of all–they would have no respite.  In Jefferson’s mind, each reformation or revision of religious practice and dogma gives a chance to take down one more piece of the ‘artificial scaffolding’ that he talked about in his February 27, 1821 letter to Timothy Pickering.  That’s primarily what the Separation of Church & State was about: the whittling away of the undesirable components to lay bare the human truths which resonate with a religion’s adherents.  Sometimes (usually?) it’s three steps forward and two steps back, but on long timescales–and when left uninterrupted–meaningful progress does indeed occur.

All religion is inherently authoritarian in nature.  “Because *I* said so” becomes “Because God said so,” and it’s pretty difficult to argue with an all-powerful deity.  But anyone versed in the scientific method knows that the whole concept of Ultimate Truth certainly breaks down in the face of empirical evidence.  Ultimate Truth was just a mechanism by which the psycho-social practices ensconced in religious dogma and tradition could be imposed more effectively than via simple suggestion and group consensus.  Humans, as animals well-versed in (and well-suited to) a hierarchical social structure, generally respond better to authority than to reason.  That dependence on authority should change over time (especially now that the sum total of human experience is now available on our smartphones), but it’s who we’ve always been as a species and it’s who we still are today.  Ignoring that reality is foolish and self-destructive (or ‘regressive’ as people like Dave Rubin refer to the phenomenon generally).

So it becomes clear that revision is essential when it comes to religion, and any religion that disallows it isn’t worth following—and humans seem to agree with this thesis, demonstrated by the many Great Reformations, followed by the early American cottage industry of dime-a-dozen tent-pole ministries, each of which bore decreasing similarity to existing churches.  And each new ‘church’ attempted to appeal to a different slice of the population pie with not only their doctrinal interpretations, but their emphasis and de-emphasis on certain passages contained within the primary doctrinal sources.  That’s what peaceful religious reformation looks like, and like any other transaction in the marketplace of ideas it was best facilitated in the early USA.

Accepting that religion requires revision to remain relevant and compatible with modernity negates the vast majority of the problems anti-religious people have with religion as a human institution (the most common and sigh-inducing refrain being: “the Bible is historically inaccurate and based on superstition, THEREFORE *none* of it is worthwhile and it should *all* be ignored.”  There’s a saying about babies and bathwater that applies here…).  Personally, I think Thomas Jefferson hit this subject right between the eyes every time he put pen to paper on it.  And a big part of why he was right has to do with his firm belief that a de-centralized decision-making apparatus, operated by everyday people living ordinary lives, is inherently superior to a centralized one with levers pulled on the highest floors of ivory towers.  Cognitive dissonance plays a key role in validating his opinion of this de-centralized process’s advantages–and cognitive dissonance is especially important when it comes to  religion.

Sam Harris, a cognitive neuro-scientist and philosopher of our time, does a good job discussing how cognitive dissonance plays a part in increasing the ‘rationality’ quotient of a population.  Basically, the more contradictions there are in a given constellation of doctrinal sources, the more opportunities an adherent has to use his or her own judgment to determine a course of action—conflicting directives give us the opportunity to *choose* which directive we would prefer to employ, and the large-scale impact of this cannot be overstated.

In general, people (even horrifyingly bad ones) want to live in a ‘good’ world where people are courteous, trusting, and compassionate toward each other.  So when we’re allowed to question a point of dogma in the manner described a few sentences up from this one, it’s an opportunity to *make* the world we want to live in without abandoning the world we were born into (a world largely defined by ensconced traditions).  And that ongoing improvement is, in the end, what most all of us want—not only for our neighbors or for ourselves, but for generations yet to come.  Breaking the decision-making down to the individual level, and functionally *empowering* people to make their own decision as to which doctrinal sources/passages should be more or less emphasized, is a *perfect* example of de-centralized (or distributed) decision-making superseding a centralized decision-making apparatus.  Some funny conclusions can be drawn from this line of reasoning, including the seemingly bizarre one that supports the *intentional* introduction of contradictions *specifically* in order to stimulate free thought.  I don’t *think* that’s what the authors and editors of the world’s holy texts were consciously trying to do when they collected the various works which comprise the world’s primary doctrinal sources, but I honestly wouldn’t put it past at least some of them.  After all, we’re no *smarter* today than we were a thousand years ago.  We’ve just got access to orders of magnitude more information, and we have significantly more time as individuals to ponder that information.

I obviously have more to say on this subject, and I might even write a whole book on the issue at some point, but for now I think I’ll close with the following axiom from Ancient China, along with what that means in the context of this essay:

“To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable–but to be certain is to be ridiculous.”

AnyTHING that is claimed to be perfect is necessarily immune to the process of revision, and anyONE who claims to have perfect knowledge is behaving ridiculously–and, more importantly, they are behaving regressively.