Ninety-nine years ago politicians would be sending me to Europe to die in a muddy trench, almost certainly. One hundred years ago, it would have been peer pressure that would be sending me to die.
Public attitudes also influenced individual decisions, in particular the widespread view in many parts of the country that those who failed to enlist were cowards.
source: Canadian War Museum
In 1917, Canada started conscription for the army, in 1916 it was voluntary. There’s a subtle point that haunts me. People, young men, were shamed into choosing death.
In The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien describes the influence of family, friends, community, and society to bend an individual into accepting the burden of fighting and dieing in an unjust war. The book was about Vietnam. O’Brien felt that the truly courageous thing would have been to dodge the draft, slip into Canada, and reject the duty forced on him by the society of the time. To O’Brien, it was easier to accept death than to accept shame. Luckily he lived to tell the tale.
Human beings haven’t had enough time to evolve since the first world war, let alone Vietnam. Peer pressure is just as powerful today as it was then.
Shame is not a strictly bad thing. Shame has a function. In The Secret of Our Success, Joe Henrich describes hunter gatherer societies in the Kalahari that rely on taboos(shame) to solve the societal problem of distribution. Recently slaughtered large-game prey has to be shared somehow. There are specific body parts that specific people can eat: the man who killed the animal eats the ribs, his wife has to cook the hindquarters and share with all of the other women in the group (only women), and young men eat the organ meats.
In these tribes, hunts are more likely to be successful if there is division of labour, which requires sharing food, which requires rules of who gets what. Taboo. Shame. They keep these people fed. It’s how they prevent the guy doing ‘all the work’ of killing the animal to feel that he owns the meat. After all, it’s the same for us, we feel we deserve to enjoy the spoils of our labour. We don’t always recognise that we accept a lot of support. You might even say we fail to ‘check our privilege’.
Deviation by the Kalahari tribe members would result in a failure of future hunts. By shaming, all people police all other people, and the society provides.
In the Orphan Master’s Son, which is a story about living in modern day North Korea, Adam Johnson describes families in which parents are too afraid to talk with their children. The children go off to school where they are brainwashed by the state education system. They are taught to rat on their parents for not fully living the values of society. The values of the despotic government. So at dinner time, the family in the book just sits there rehashing state slogans in support of the glorious leader.
Shame works very well in tribal society…but it can be a force for terror in large societies. Shame itself is amoral.
I was inspired to start this post after watching the following interview. The whole video is worth watching, but the key idea is at the 8:30 mark when the subject of ‘colonialism’ is brought up. Paikin (the interviewer) summarises the point it’s “Not free speech, but equitable speech” that we need today…and the Ash (the interviewee) just says…
“The BUT is quite wrong in that. It’s free speech AND equal speech. That goes all the way back to ancient Athens […] Where I agree with the student is that there are power relations […] Everything we do to enable and empower voices, I am unconditionally for. Anything we do to ban and close down speech […] we should be absolutely against.”
They then go on to talk about ‘Non-platforming’ where universities are banning speakers that hold ideas that are not considered politically correct on the basis of denying them a platform to spread their ideas.
I started this project to document and remember what I am thinking now, so that I can see how I will change. Free speech is a topic that has been popping up a lot in the last few months, and I find it perplexing. I don’t know where history is going with this topic. There is a chance I’m on the wrong side of history, although I certainly don’t think so.
I don’t believe that speech is violence. I don’t agree with the U of T student, and what appears to me to be the majority of university aged people…I say that acknowledging that speech and shame would have condemned me to death a century ago. I am not ignorant to the very real power of speech, unregulated speech.
Niall Ferguson has wrote The Pity of War and incorporated the ideas into a BBC Special. One of the salient moments is a scene in which the personality of Winston Churchill and his political allies persuaded the anti-war cabinet ministers to relent, to send Britain, and by default Canada, to war. The thesis of The Pity of War is that this decision was the greatest mistake made by the British government in modern history. Ferguson suggests that it was because the anti-war ministers were afraid of losing the election, via shame, to an even more pro-war political party.
In other words, a form of self-censorship, a failure to speak and voice an unpopular opinion was one of the conditions that had to be met in order to allow the horror of trench warfare to commence…at least for the British. But worse than that, Furgeson thinks the entire second world war may not have happened. No Hitler…No Stalin…Who knows? He wouldn’t claim that any of this is certain.
I like to think of myself as a progressive, or a liberal, or whatever…and at the same time, I like to think of myself as a conservative, in the way that is captured by the old saying:
Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
I also like the saying
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Does that make me a racist? It feels like the answer is: yes. At least by the standards of much of our media today. I could be convinced I am wrong about this, but I don’t think I am so far out of the ballpark.
I identify as a progressive, though. I understand the desire for non-platforming. Ideas, bad ideas, have an ability to spread like a virus. That, I shit you not, is a theory in Academia. I also shit you not, I sort of buy this idea of a mind virus. It makes a certain kind of sense to me.
As a progressive, I also understand that there are extremely unjust ways that people interact with each other. There is prejudice, prejudice, and successful, progressive ways to combat prejudice. I could fill an endless set of links with examples of prejudice…I chose papers/topics or topics that I actually studied in grad school…hopefully I proved some progressive sort of education. I think there is a lot of work already done to document systemic racism. But perhaps much less work has been done to unpack just how complex it is, and in many ways deeply rational for individuals, for a general audience.
My current thinking on racism is something that I may write about in the future. I will try to summarise here. Everyone is a racist. It is only human. I view myself as at least somewhat racist. Although, I think I have stronger biases towards wealth stratification.
Really poor people make me uncomfortable. Really rich people make me uncomfortable. Only people like me make me feel comfortable.
Further…when people say shit like I’m not racist, all I can think of is that I could probably prove you wrong. There are many, many, many, many simple experiments that have been done by people studying institutional/systemic racism. I think I am at least somewhat sexist…for similar reasons. There are studies that show people with more symmetric faces are considered more trustworthy.
I’ll reveal another bias. These so called ‘social justice warriors’ are certainly racist. It’s only human. All feminists foster bias against men and women.
If you aren’t getting my point. It is: All people have bias. All people have bias that makes them treat different people differently. Nobody is really all that virtuous. They are playing a very complex game related to climbing a social ladder.
That said, I don’t think we should stop talking about racism, sexism, etc… but we have to stop jumping the gun on people. 99% of all people are basically decent. Which is why it says this in the bible:
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Alright!? Ok. You can replace ‘he’ with whatever pronoun you want. I just don’t know how I am supposed to write that sentence, and I needed to communicate. Let’s continue…
Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature which documents the long march towards a less violent world teaches us that progressive values have led to a safer, better world. His book deals with physical violence, but a large portion is devoted to the idea that simple changes in behaviour, imposed by an elite class, led to greater civility, and hence lower levels of violence.
For example, the elites of medieval Europe invented a complex system of smaller and smaller, specialised forks…and this simple set of taboos and rituals, enforced by shame, claims Pinker, got people to stop stabbing each other at the dinner table. They used to eat with their knives, and when they got into an argument…well.
All of this to suggest that the people fighting for social justice aren’t all entirely nuts. There is a confusing sort of logic to trying to shut down freedom of speech. It is rooted in the desire to make a better world.
And yet. I think self-censorship is worse. I think we have a fight on our hands, for a fundamental democratic right. And the opponents are good people, who just want us to be compassionate. I just don’t think they are taking the time to consider the unintended consequences of constantly shaming people.
The biggest trainwreck I have been following is the Jordan Peterson story out at U of T…it seems like Toronto is ground zero for a lot of this news.
Here is Conrad Black, Vice, The Varsity (U of T), Jordan Peterson (himself), Joe Rogan Podcast, The Rubin Report, Christie Blatchford, The Globe and Mail…I have sunk hours into this story, and most of the media here is in support of Peterson. I know…I am aware of my own echo chamber at least.
The gist of this story is that Peterson refuses to use gender pronouns. He is also standing up against a law in Canada (already passed) that is intended to extend some form of protection to a marginalised group in our society, those in favour of the law claim the law is for:
Equality for trans and non-gender binary Canadians. It’s pretty simple. And right. And decent.
And that sounds good to me.
But I still side with Peterson. The devil is in the detail. I don’t agree with Peterson about many things. But he is essentially correct. Some of the claims of the law are absurd.
Also on TVO…(this Steve Paikin guy is killing it, btw.)
The one panellist, Nicholas Matte, literally says:
Basically, it’s not correct that there is biological sex.
I just…can’t agree. If:
I think therefore I am.
Is enough for us to sort of believe that we are actually here, thinking, being.
I have a penis, therefore I have a biological sex. It is male.
That is about as far as I am willing to go with this idea.
Which makes me wonder…Is this where I get left behind by history? I’m not really that open minded, not to debate this. I can get that there are people who are in between, but there is biology. IT EXISTS!
And, I’m not just trying to be belligerent. This distinction is at the core of Peterson’s critique of the new law in Canada. Peterson claims that these types of definitions about gender and sex are making their way into Canadian Law:
So…fundamental to this legislation is a definition that is not based in reality. It is based in allowing whatever someone wants to believe about them-self is part of their core human rights, and that it is not legally ‘ok’ to question people about it. Even if there are basic biological facts about what human beings are.
I think Peterson has a point here, and I don’t think he is a hateful man. It’s unfortunate that he is not the perfect messenger. It is unfortunate that he has decided to engage his rivals as if they are some sort of Stalinist movement…He may have an academic way to back that claim up, but it’s bad communication.
In closing. I wrote this to get my own thinking somewhat sorted. I am sharing it in the hopes that it is some sort of progress. I think the way people engage on these topics is getting ridiculous, and I would really like to live in a world where people can speak up…because one hundred years ago, a lot of people marched into machine gun fire. They believed they died for something. Maybe they did?