Almost two years ago I made this post, which is uncanny in its applicability to the current Quebec student protests.
A play without a hero
People might point to Quebec’s emergency legislation as proof of the fact that the government is in the wrong. Sure, it is in the wrong, but not in comparison to the student protesters, only in general. The students also happen to be in the wrong.
Misguided would be a great adjective to describe both parties. Anytime a Western democracy passes an emergency powers law it makes an unwitting admission that its legislators have no idea of the history of their own polity. It is an admission of ignorance. Not just of practicality — the fact being that these laws and efforts never work to their intended effect. More importantly is the total ignorance it shows with regards to the history of laws of this nature. Their absence and repeal, over time, is one of the main benchmarks of progress on the road to the prosperous and flourishing society we find ourselves in today. Those in the Quebec legislature cannot argue, without betraying ignorance to the seriousness of crises past, or the relative lack of seriousness of the student protests, that this is a crisis worthy of an emergency powers law. Moreover, there are laws on the books. Not to point out the obvious but, somehow, up to this point in recent history, Quebec has been a relatively orderly place.
The students are more obviously in the wrong, that is to say their wrongness is more conspicuous. They seem to realize that there is a state and that the state has interests. What they are painfully unaware of is that they are not an oppressed minority standing up for itself, but rather, an incredibly fortunate group merely protecting their interests.
Wrapping yourself in righteousness
Were these students aware they were receiving essentially a corporate hand out from the state, at the expense of the rest of society, and wanted to protect themselves from their subsidy being reduced, they would draw up a public relations campaign that painted themselves as an oppressed, hard-working minority “up against it” as it were by the penurious provincial government “going back” on its word. Moreover they would paint the issue in light of its fairness, its justice, cosmic justice! It would be a brilliant way to brand your interest group and to deceive the public who may or may not know better or who may or may not take the time to find out.
It just so happens, by way of happy accident, that the student protesters have painted themselves in this optimal public relations light: the unwashed, hardworking low men and women on the totem pole, simply fighting for what is right.
The truth is a neat little proof of the fact that, independent of whether age bestows wisdom, those lacking the former don’t possess the latter. I feel partially obliged to write this now since, at twenty-six, my ability to make such statements with any credibility is expiring.
Because the students actually believe what they portend on their placards and signs, they actually shout their slogans with conviction, not in sole interest of fulfilling their interests, but also in interest of supposed and phantasmic cosmic justice. They’ve been tricked by lightswitch enlightenment; the light is on, but nobody is home. Such is the privilege of privilege — the ability to inculcate yourself in the belief that what has been given to you is deserved.
This article originally appeared here and I am indebted to The Mark for publishing it so I do not want this reprint to be seen as anything untoward. Really, I wanted something leading this space that was not the Hitchens tribute, since that piece, apart from being laden with obscure references, probably has the least broad appeal of anything I have ever written, which is saying quite a lot. It seems likely that a few more people will be visiting this space, hopefully spillover from the other blog I have been keeping here. If you don’t know of it, and think that I have just been not writing anything this past while, well I am sure this, this, or this, will convince you otherwise.
Anyways, an update on this piece. Recently the father, his (preferred) wife, and his son were all indicted on murder charges based on the killing of the four women. This has been much publicized so I assume most have come across the story, I mention it in interest of full disclosure. My view, without actually having been in Canada for 15 months, is that the trial and the media coverage I have taken in seems to signal a shift of the conversation from the (often inane) “how culturally relativist should we be” back and forth to the “how can we address this issue in our communities” question.
Sitting in a coffee shop I overheard the barista soothe repeatedly “it is their culture” to an elderly regular. Her statement was both an explanation and an excuse; the customer could not understand why it had happened or how it was justified. Word had spread that the four women who drowned just outside Kingston last July had been murdered, by their own family, in what the National Post’s Tarek Fatah characterizes correctly as an “honour killing.” A man, his son, and his second wife had killed his first wife and their three daughters, ostensibly because one teen acted salaciously and thus shamefully. Fatah, a devout Muslim, takes the view that “the Koran does not sanction such murders, but man-made sharia law … does allow for the killing of women if they indulge in pre-marital or extra-marital consensual sex.” It is their culture. But what the barista offered as a defence should be an indictment.
In 1985, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act became law. The contradictions it contains offer a clear parallel to the mindset of those Canadians today who would offer a similar line.
(1) It is hereby declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada to
a) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage;
e) ensure that all individuals receive equal treatment and equal protection under the law, while respecting and valuing their diversity;
Canada is experiencing a widespread conflation between the rights and freedoms a liberal democratic state should endorse and unqualified cultural relativism. It is far from desirable for the state to have citizens preserving or sharing, much less enhancing, barbaric aspects of their cultural heritage. It should also be clear that ensuring the first portion of section (e) will oftentimes be anathema to respecting, much less valuing, diversity.
Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that a belief in basic human equality, when coupled with a desire to inhabit a society freely populated by people from all over the world, constitutes a culture itself. This kind of culture cannot, by definition, be one that welcomes all kinds of cultures into its midst.
One perverse alternative to this arrangement is cultural relativism, whereby members of one culture cannot judge those from another, simply because they “have not walked in another’s shoes.” This is too often the excuse given by Canadians to heinous actions of fellow citizens or to heinous practices accepted in distant lands.
There is no doubt that unjustified xenophobia persists in Canada. However, apologizing for the negative aspects of immigrant cultures is the furthest thing from a rational response to this societal shortcoming. And yet, it is the tactic the politically correct most often adopt. In their minds being called xenophobic themselves would surely be worse than admitting that there are inferior aspects of other cultures.
But what of those who would genitally mutilate their infant children, as if modifying their own property? What of the “traditional lifestyle” that keeps so many First Nation communities impoverished? What of Aqsa Pervez of Mississauga who was slain by her own father because of the choice she made, her choice, not to don the hijab? Surely a hurtful label can be risked in order to speak out against not just these acts, but against any culture that endorses them.
It is actually not that difficult for people from all around the world to cohabit a liberal democracy that affords them relative security, opportunities for prosperity, and the rights and freedoms an “equalist” would expect. People have much to gain from one another. You don’t need any abstract explanation for why a population diverse in geographic origin is preferable if you have eaten sashimi, samosas, or shawarma after growing up on chicken and potatoes. Cuisine suffices, to say nothing of music, fashion, literature, art, or more compelling still, the interpersonal relationships we form. Social cohesion is certainly not induced by lame government-sponsored cultural celebrations, but rather by the everyday social and economic benefits we derive from one another.
This ongoing conflation between the logic of equality and misguided political correctness is harming Canada’s chances of success. There is no hypocrisy in thinking and speaking critically of one’s own culture while doing the same of, and indeed rejecting outright, other cultures. When the freedom of women, the rights of children, or the hopes of the impoverished are at stake, let me suggest we do both.
The imaginary question from the imaginary person, who verily exists in this world, just not in my life, leads one to believe that another, less uncouth, expositor could have come along and been just as well heard and just as well considered and just as doubly well read. This is a falsity held up by Quixotism but maybe more precisely an inaccurate gauge of the state of the world’s other minds.
There are times to argue diplomatically, to make false concessions, to implore and to retract, to self-deprecate and to parry one’s own advances and one’s own territorial claims, that is if one seeks to plant the seed of an idea or perhaps just an emotion of nostalgia in the mind of another whose favour you personally need. This class of discussion need not always be with a women whose bed of which you seek joint custody for but tonight, but across broad surveys, this is when it occurs most often.
To not care what anyone else thinks is the correct stance to take on one’s own public expressions. Not for personal indulgence in smug erudition (while enjoyable), but because not having a stake in changing someone’s mind implies one is not in the literal business of doing so and that no gain of financial or ecclesiastic variety is on the cusp of seizure by hoodwink. The book is already sold; the column is already filed; the cheque is already in the mail and no one with a clip board awaits you as you filter out of the hall angry at that daft prick. Besides the silent electronic donations to the business of literalism which would have once announced their repeated cupidity with the familiar rattling of the collection bowl are the mercurial hindrances of the listener’s emotions, wooed by those who would study Cicero on oration not for what to spot, but for what to do. It is rare for someone to change their mind instantaneously and when it does happen it is often in times of distress and vulnerability, an arrival at gullibility by way of fear and inducement.
When I entreat someone to teach me something, as I do from time to time, I sit with open mind, and their thoughts pour through me like water through a sieve. I am actively ready for my mind to be changed, I know what I currently think on the subject is a hodgepodge ignorance, a collection of common sense natterings at best, and yet their efforts go unquaffed. It takes work for me to rehash and to revisit what has been said and why they have said it. But it is necessary because I am unable to purchase through husbandry or through lottery that which Pascal peddles, to believe without believing.
The wit behind the unapologetic diatribe, unwittingly or not, ensures his toil’s harvest is fairly reaped, that being, to plant the seed of a notion, that the meritocracy of the receiving mind can then promote or fire over time through examination and scrutiny of its own volition. This is the seared impression as gift, not for purchase or for sale. Quite in contrast to all those abnormally alliterative speakers who would wish, with charlatan charisma, others into halcyon hock, impervious to the careful consideration of facts and follies. That is how the man of letters and of the hour could know he had truly succeeded, when a skeptic is defeated despite being filled by his bilious essay with the fluid of choler. To not only dispense with, but oppose the persuasive techniques of the sophists, for the sophistication of ridicule, is not so much of a challenge as an investment in one’s apologies’ integrity.
Some pieces of culture we would all agree are disdainful, and some, though we may not agree which ones, superior in nature. And so some amalgamations of many pieces of culture one would assume by transference are therefore disdainful and inferior in nature. The opposing opinion was something which Hitch perennially derided and shamed, for it is clear that an elevation of those things we should not discriminate against — be it race, creed, party, or religion — is a defense of unsavory tribalism. Any allegiance to these mock, blow up doll divisions for dummies is a type of stupidity similar to that of the bigot. For the culture one has, especially in today’s west, is the culture one chooses, so that one’s culture is ultimately the amalgamation of the pieces of culture one elevates by virtue of deeming them worthy of reflection. Without heed to any ideological or other prerequisite, the amalgamation Hitchens enjoyed, he was by his virtuosity also contributing to until the end.
And so we realize that it couldn’t be done another way, the asshole is reason’s man. No man who chose to respect a peep of his inner milquetoast would be able to stand up for reason and sanity and criticism as much as Hitchens did. Never to hide behind shelves or peers or committees or titles or desks or blackboard and chalk, he says and he writes what he means and he expects to be evaluated on its merits. His causticity is the reaper of the intellectually slovenly habits of so many women and men in this ongoing spectacle, our species’ slow and assiduous awakening, century by century, from its self imposed immaturity.
Think about it (or don’t, as is your natural inclination). It seems to me that the only way in which humans could be considered smart is in relation either to animals or to rocks. But animals, much less rocks, are extraordinarily stupid! I watch documentaries involving evolutionary biologists who have trained monkeys to perform certain cognitive tasks. They are judging the animals cognitive performance in terms of what it can do, what it can maybe understand (more on that later), not in relief of what it can’t do and what it can’t understand. They aren’t judging intelligence in consideration of the fundamentally wrong decisions the monkey would make in an infinitude of situations.
Of course, failing rocks and squids, individuals can always point to other individuals to differentiate themselves as intelligent. A proof of one’s lack of stupidity this is not! If we judged human intelligence in relation to say, not being stupid, I think we would find that we are all very stupid indeed.
One main and overarching point I want to emphasize is the following. The only possible explanation for an endless variety of contemporary and historical phenomenon, whether economic, sociological, political, religious, cognitive, and beyond, is that we are all stupid and always have been. Without this ingredient a great deal of human behaviour is explained without anywhere approaching full satisfaction. Not to say that the we-are-all-stupid-postulate completes or fulfills explanations, but it is certainly true that without it, most explanations will be incomplete.
See, intelligence can be sometimes judged in a prism of choices. On this, humans do not score well. In fact, we almost always make the wrong choice. And worse, when we do make the right choice, it is often by accident! By nature of having a problem with finite choices, say three, you are inevitably going to get some correct by happenstance. And even worse than that, we often make the right choices by experience, that is to say we mime, without rhyme or reason, the apparently (but possibly not) right choices others make or have made. Let me start with an example of this last form of mimicry in intelligence’s clothing.
There are different kinds of mistakes one can make. One is inferring something where there is no inference to be made and one is not inferring something where there is. The latter makes a great deal of philosophical sense, since by making this error, you will not clutter the truth propositions in your mind with false truth propositions. You will remain effectively agnostic, yes ignorant, of inferences not yet made, but you still have the possibility of making them eventually, and when you do, correctly. But in evolution, this Socratic approach does not obtain. To see why, consider a rustling in the bushes (the classic example). If you infer something is there, say a tiger, you will take precautions to avoid said tiger. When it is actually the wind the cost is low, you have wasted cognition yes, but your genitals are very much intact. However if you were to ever make the other type of mistake, to not infer the presence of a threat when one was there in earnest, the cost is very high indeed. Your genes won’t be proliferating themselves via those genitals. And that is what your genes, your design, points you in the direction of, opportunities for your genitals to acquit themselves well.
So we can see making the false inference has low initial cost, a bit of wasted memory and effort, while the no inference has the highest cost, but rarely. The problem with the false inference is that the low initial cost can create a terribly large cumulative cost, as one’s set of beliefs is populated, littered if you will, with untruths and fallacies. Beliefs are, for better or worse, linked together. Members of a tribe would boil water from a river, because they were under the impression the gods of fire and water needed to be appeased before they imbibed this gift of nature. But more precisely, they boiled water because that is what the tribe had always done; they had seen the elders do it and were so instructed. The loop could be hypothetically completed when some member forsake the gods’ silly boiling ceremony, and unwittingly subjected himself to the bacteria any untreated river water hosts. The wishes of the gods, and the wisdom of traditional methods, is upheld.
I submit that an extraordinarily large majority of human behaviour today takes this unthinking form, whether through mimicry, trial and error, or choosing right for the wrong reason. A reason often never thought about. In fact, even when we have no tribal influences upon a certain decision, even no influences whatsoever, our decision making becomes impaired at the precise moment when we make an initial choice. This is because humans are very biased towards a choice they have made that has not resulted in disaster. As a result of our pain-avoiding tendencies, we have formed a strategy to adopt bias towards courses of action that we know work. Not work best, mind you. Simply work. Is the grass greener may be a question that pops into our mind during thoughts of copulation, but when not concerned with the distribution of our genes, we are very much inclined to not even ask. Much less investigate. And our preferences then form from habit. The more you enjoy something, the more you enjoy it. A nice modern example of this is your friend (or you!) who is a total stick in the mud when it comes to what subway sandwhich they order, or how they take their coffee. Our minds actually convince us that we have a strong preference for BLTs and that straight black is disgusting. Everything at subway is actually delicious and every style of coffee is easily quaffed, but you’ll never know because your mind begins to shrink your horizons from the first sip.
There is a point at which a human becomes self-aware, and according to Sartre, there is a point at which a human becomes aware of their self-awareness. They look down and see this self-awareness, and then, depending on your pretentious french interpretation, they either begin existing, or begin existing on a higher level of consciousness. The more people I meet the more it seems to me quite possible that there are not only a large percentage of humans who aren’t aware of their self-awareness, but that there are adults who are earnestly not self-aware in the first place. As in, they never were. The problem with this digression is its empirical boundaries and for that reason a disturbing digression it remains. But, in order to graduate from a hodgepodge of behaviours that could at best be described as the collection of cognitive errors through trial that results in the least disastrous outcomes, to something that resembles intelligence, one would assume we would at first have to become aware of what we are doing and why.
In the study of human behaviour the list of recognized cognitive biases has soared well past one hundred. But amongst the discussions of loss aversion, patternicity, and the illusion of control, everywhere I see an underlying theme, that these are deviations from humanity’s normally noble reason and infinite faculties. It is almost as if the whole zeitgeist suffers from a meta cognitive bias themselves. It being that they regard cognitive biases as though they are some sort of mutilated diaspora flung by untoward circumstances from the homeland of human behaviour, which is of course quixotic and populated by a vanguard who is always right, precise in judgment, and in possession of knowledge of the true kind. There is a simpler and more sensible model: we are all stupid.
And that cognitive biases are the rule, not the exception. Our ability to judge a dollar lost as more important that a dollar won, to see patterns where patterns don’t exist, to see faces where faces don’t exist, to perceive control where we have none, to see the past as predictable after the fact, to be so incompetent in our assessment of various probabilities, less the notion of probability, these (and others) are the norms that constitute the vast majority of human behaviour.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals
Animals! The problem with being an animal is that our brains have not developed to discern what is strictly true and guide us by that light. Rather, our brains care about getting the good news from our genitals and surviving to tell the story. And it came upon all the ways it does this by happenstance. This collection of idiotic habits we all have and exhibit have been accrued through a long history of not being eaten by tigers that probably weren’t there.
So truth seeking, or truth discovering, may be theoretically possible with our brains. Since if our brain stumbled on such functionality, and it provided some with a better chance of healthy procreation, then such capacities would proliferate. But currently we are bowed by the freight that is our survival directed cognition, a mishmash of nonsensical beliefs that often work for reasons far removed from the ones we have concocted. To err, but live nonetheless, is human.