Do (Part Of) The Right Thing While Doing Nothing At All

Or, The Use and Abuse of Cynicism, and Embracing Cognitive Dissonance

Dubai Supermoon

The Problems:

SO, I READ something. Or I watch a video about something. Or someone tells me something. It’s about how horrible something is or was somewhere in the world. Slave labor is being used to build Dubai, where people from other countries are tricked with false terms into coming over to work, and then their passports are taken to prevent them from leaving. A mother in New York informs us all how dangerous it is for children with food allergies when other kids leave their snacks on the playground. A scientist in California has what seems like strong evidence that Americans’ massive over-consumption of sugar is at least partly responsible for the modern cancer epidemic.

So, how do I react? Well, I might decide that these things are important or disturbing, and to keep them in mind, and may even worry about them. But if I fancy myself a rather vigilant and/or cynical person (which I do), I might instead find some fault in them. For example, I might find the Dubai article manipulative, and thereby question the truth of the whole thing, and I also might consider that pretty much every place in the world has been built by slaves or via other such nefarious techniques, so getting on a high horse about Dubai is a bit hypocritical and ignorant. And I might think that the woman complaining about food allergies on the playground can’t expect the world to cater to every need of her child. And as far as cancer goes, how do I know if this report is true? Everything seems to cause cancer, and I’d have to stop eating altogether if I paid heed to every report.

Now, none of these things is untrue or unwise in any way. But neither are they necessarily merely the vigilance and cynicism I might take them to be. Thinking these things, and especially if I let my thoughts about these subjects end with these things, may just be hiding some subconscious motivations. I might, by thinking them, be giving myself permission to not care about the original problems, even if just partially.

This may seem extreme, but hear me out. To be sure, I’d like to think of myself as just a guardian against the ever-pressing tsunami of bullshit in the world that is constantly trying to breach the walls of reason and evidence. This seems like a positive attributes to have. And in part, it is. It’s necessary, as there actually is an ever-pressing tsunami of bullshit in the world that is constantly trying to breach the walls of reason and evidence.

It’s just that it’s more than that. I’ve found that my cynicism is often an unconscious defense of my position and psychological well-being, masked as the virtue of vigilance. On the extreme end, it protects my self interest and privilege. On the less extreme end, it merely protects me from having to think too much about unpleasantness.

And, even worse, I make this self-interest motivated cynicism a virtue, let it really inflate my ego. This cynicism tells me how very clever I am, that I am generally the smartest person in a discussion, that while everyone else is busy debating minutia, I am sitting back with the big picture in my head, noticing all the errors everyone else is making.

The practical effect of this is that cynicism is often an insidious force in the world, hindering justice, the progress of knowledge, and the good. It tells me that I don’t have to change my mind or actions about something, because I’m too smart and can see right through it. And, even worse, if I proclaim my cynicism publicly, it tells other people that they don’t have to change their minds or actions either. And, if I am a person who likes to be known as a cynic, it will also stop me from championing change and causes for justice even when I do see a strong need for them, for fear of being seen as weak or uncritical, since that may be the way I’ve always seen other people who champion change or justice.

Anybody could be doing this, being party to blocking the progress of justice or knowledge, even if you’re otherwise a very moral or intelligent person, doing any number of concretely good things in the world, like volunteering for tsunami relief in Japan or teaching English to immigrants or marching for civil rights or giving to charity. It’s actually dangerous to think of yourself as a “good person” based on the good things you do, because it might give you just the sort of permission you need to mask your subconscious motivations for less than noble things. Probably most of the people who committed all the great injustices of history could have made a list of all the good things they otherwise did and thought, as if that somehow proved they weren’t doing or thinking something bad at that moment.

The Solutions:

So what can you do? There is much to be said about this, but I’ll just give you two practical techniques I’ve tried to use to avoid self-protecting cynicism without becoming mushy-headed.

1. Let Everything In

The first thing to try is letting everything in. Whether it’s from Fox News or George Will or a TED talk or The New Yorker or Jezebel, if you hear it or see it, let it in. Make it your default stance that this person has something to say. Especially if lots of people have been saying it for a long time, they probably do. Recognize when their manner is irritating you and about to make you block it out, and put that irritation aside and let what they are saying in. After it is in your mind, really in there, then you can strip away the things that you think are manipulative, or take note of the things that are only half of the story.

I find that, usually when I do this, important truths still remain, undiminished by the method in which they were conveyed or any facts not considered, and I learn something from it. If, say, someone on Fox News is grotesquely misrepresenting some mildly leftist idea as socialist, that doesn’t mean he’s not saying something important and true about liberty (although, I have to add, I personally rarely see anything from Fox News except when people are making fun of it, though I try to keep up with the libertarian perspective in other ways). And if someone on Jezebel is, say, pretending that men and women are basically identical (which, by the way, is a very convenient way to insult men), that doesn’t mean she’s not saying some essential and underrepresented things about the way women experience the world, or the ways in which men make it shitty for them.

To help you conceptualize doing this, consider what information you are gathering from what someone is telling you. Are you gathering information about the topic at hand, or just information about what they think of you? I think so many people encounter new and difficult information, and the only thing they learn from it is “someone thinks they are better me, thinks I have been insensitive and stupid, and is trying to piously tell me what to do”. A million articles and videos on a million different topics, and the only information they keep gathering is this same thing over and over.

In short, you can continue to be clever. The world needs clever people and cynics. But let your cleverness be a sieve, not a wall. Let it in first, then filter it out. Not only will this make the world a better place, but it will actually make you much smarter and more powerful, which is ironically what you think you’re achieving by being cynical. You’ll be able to take in and wield a lot more information when you don’t feel the need to be smarter than everyone else and make snap judgments about everything. You might just come to find challenges to your beliefs to be quite exciting.

This is probably not going to be very controversial. It’s just recognizing a dual nature of cynicism. But I have a second technique, and I think I might lose some people on this one. It’s this:

2. Embrace Cognitive Dissonance

Whether or not there is anything you can, should, or even want to do about a situation has nothing whatsoever to do with acknowledging that it exists.

I think a lot of people deny terrible facts, or allow the facts to be mitigated by other circumstances, because they either don’t think they can do anything about them and think it’s useless to worry about things they can’t change, or they don’t want to do the difficult thing that would be required of them if they did let those facts into their mind. This is one reason among several that people deny global warming, and a big reason people deny that racism/white privilege still exists in America.

However, denying the facts merely adds insult to injury. Not only does the injury remain, as nothing is done about the facts, but the injured parties’ experience is denied to even be true. The injured parties are turned into non-entities because of the discomfort of the privileged (usually), and they become invisible.

I think the problem is that we place too much emphasis on immediately acting on our beliefs. This creates a stark choice for people: either believe and act right now, or don’t believe. Most people choose to not believe if acting is too onerous.

Instead, I advocate a middle way. Let the belief come first, and don’t worry about acting on it. Just let the fact enter your brain in totality. Don’t let it make you feel terrible about yourself, but also don’t find reasons to justify the behaviors that you continue to engage in that contravene that fact. And don’t congratulate yourself for holding the right idea if you’re not acting on it, either. You don’t have to feel good about it, bad about it, or anything. Just take in the fact, and sit with any cognitive dissonance you might be feeling: “This thing happening here is shitty, but I still like doing this other thing that kind of supports that shitty thing, and I don’t think I’m ready to stop.” Just own that.

At best, the idea will begin to work on your mind and maybe a few months or years down the road, you will no longer want to do the action, will feel good about stopping, or even better will find yourself compelled to actively stop the injustice itself. But even if you never stop doing the injury, at least you are no longer perpetuating the insult as well, and no longer complicit in replicating an idea that is causing the injury or making the injury worse. In some cases, you may even conclude that the shitty thing is just part of nature, and not really able to be changed. Even in this situation, you can still fully feel and acknowledge the pain and harm. This is a good in itself, but even further, when you do that, you will be open to it if ever you do find a way to change the situation and stop causing the harm.

These two strategies work for everything. They would, say, free you up to read all the anti-meat literature you could get your hands on for example, even if you loved eating meat and didn’t want to give it up. Even if you thought you might still not believe it was wrong after all was said and done. Heck, you could read it all while eating a Big Mac. You could admit that slavery in Dubai probably exists, and is terrible, even if you were currently profiting from doing business in Dubai, and weren’t ready to give up that profit. You can acknowledge how hard it must be for a parent to have a child with extreme food allergies, without thinking it thereby must be your responsibility to do something about it. And you can acknowledge that sugar could very well be increasing your risk for cancer, even if you love sugar. Just let the ideas into your head, without worrying about acting on them, until or unless you feel like it.

And if you do this for the little things, you’ll be ready for something big. Like if, say, some men in uniforms and with guns show up to take your neighbors away one day. Maybe your neighbors are Jews or Palestinians, or Tutsis, or Albanians, and you’re not. I don’t know. Forgive me this somewhat un-earned and overly dramatic ending. But I think the stakes really can be this high.

So just imagine if that did happen. Maybe you’d be forced to admit to yourself that you are too weak to really stop them, and that you’re not ready to put your life on the line for a neighbor. That’s really a lot to ask of someone. But it might make you feel really terrible about yourself that you didn’t do anything.  If you had gotten used to putting these ideas into practice, though, you might just find that you have the strength of mind to just admit that to yourself, that a terrible injustice occurred and you stood by. This may seem cowardly, but really it is so much better than the alternative: convincing yourself that your neighbors deserved it.

-Joe Kern, June 2013


If you’re interested, I’ve given some examples here of how I would apply this technique to the three situations I mentioned at the start, Dubai, food allergies on the playground, and sugar causing cancer, and what I would personally conclude was worth taking away from them.

I also very recently discovered a book called Being Wrong which relates to this post. It blew my mind just a little, by giving me new insight into how my mind does and does not process being wrong, and how and why my mind expects itself to be right almost all of the time, against any reasonable probability. I’ve put up some quotes from my favorite parts of the introductory chapter on this page, and will leave them up there at least until the publisher contacts me and tells me to take them down.

The Straight White Male & RPGs: An Expansion Including Candy Land

John Scalzi’s post Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is, in which he compares life to a role playing game is a nearly perfect metaphor:

In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

He goes on to talk about the number of points you are given at the start, and how the way you apportion them will affect your results. Nearly perfect metaphor. It will stick with me for a long time, and I haven’t played an RPG since about 1991.

And I’ve thought of a way to extend that metaphor to even more usefulness. Today I was listening to episode 4 of Slate’s negotiation academy podcast, and they were talking to Dr. Richard Haass, a guy who had been involved in some of the biggest and most important negotiations of modern times, such as those between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As he was discussing negotiations he brokered between Arabs and Israelis, I realized that he went into it having completely lost his qualitative sense of who these two groups of people were.

What I mean is this. When you think about Israelis, or about a specific Israeli, or about Arabs or a specific Arab, you most likely get a feeling in your gut about that person based on everything you know of their culture, food, religion, clothing, history, everything. That feeling could be positive or negative, and your reaction to that feeling could be positive or negative as well. For example, if your gut is giving you bad thoughts about an Arab, you still might have the presence of mind to override that gut feeling. And further, the way you act on that may be to overcompensate, or compensate perfectly, or do nothing.

That’s qualitative. You see an Arab or hear the word “Arab”, and you have a feeling about him or her. What Dr. Haass did in the negotiation situation was to attempt to have no qualitative response at all. Instead, he just saw the Arabs and Israelis as having particular competing interests, particular histories, particular economic situations, etc. These factors may all sound qualitative, but the video game analogy helps provide a mental crutch for removing the qualitative aspect, for suppressing your gut reaction to the word “Arab” or “Israeli”. It allows you to see (or at least attempt to see) another person not as Arab or Israeli, or black or white, but as a human blank slate to which has been added quantifiable characteristics.

To be sure, I’m not advocating that this is the way everyone should regard each other, all the time. Engaging our intuition and qualitative feelings is an important part of human interactions, and an essential part of the kinds of relationships most of us want, friendships and loves. What I’m saying is, the quantitative approach can be a useful tool, both for use in specific cases and interactions, and in thought experiments aiming to change your general paradigm.

For me personally, mention “Arab” or “Israeli”, and I immediately am awash in feelings and judgments. And closer to home, as much as I want to be neutral and want to fight for social justice, I know that when I see a black person I get certain qualitative feelings welling up inside me, based on direct friendships I’ve had with black Americans, based on my lifetime of experiences with the African-American culture through person-to-person contact and the media, based on all the thinking and philosophizing I’ve read and done, based on conflicts I’ve been in, and likely based on other factors I haven’t thought about. Some of the associations are positive, some of them are negative. And what I choose to do with these associations is constantly evolving, and again is sometimes positive (which I of course strive for) and sometimes negative (which I of course strive to weed out).

What the video game analogy does is allow us to put all of those qualitative things aside, and instead give everyone the same blank human-shaped slate, and then characterize that slate with numbers. Or, more accurately, with “numbers”, since you won’t actually be assigning specific numbers to any specific characteristics. You will just be thinking in terms of reducing all characteristics to those that could be assigned numbers. So for example, in this model, there are no numbers for “black” or “white”, because those are qualitative. But there might be a number for degree of marginalization of a person’s culture, and another number for degree to which the person can be recognized as coming from that culture. Or maybe you can reduce these characteristics to things even more fundamental than those. I won’t even begin to try to provide a list of characteristics that could be reduced in this way.

In the game Candy Land, there are six colors and six kinds of tasty treats that stand in for numbers of spaces moved. This analogy might not work as well if you never loved Candy Land as a kid, but when I was five I very specifically remember getting caught up in the game. The colors and especially the treats all fired my imagination, even though they were all just stand-ins for simple numerical values, spaces on the board that were closer or further away from the goal. I love numbers and analytics and can be quite competitive, and part of my excitement in the game was indeed in getting the largest numerical jump forward possible, but if the cards had just shown numbers they never would have gotten me into the game the way the colors and treats did. The fact that the candy cane and the gum drop were the least desirable of the candy spaces and the fantasmagoric neopolitan ice cream sandwich was one of the best meant so much more to me than if they had merely been given, say, letter designations (e.g., “move to space D”). This quantitative and qualitative coupling has served me into adult life, where Monopoly and Risk are two of my favorite board games.

So you can see how you can apply this to people. That person across from you is not black or white, is not an ice cream sandwich or a gum drop. They are a person with certain underlying analytical characteristics that represent their experiences, desires, blind spots, struggles, joys, angers, confusions, etc. What’s more, you yourself are too.

As a concrete example of the benefits of this technique, try this thought experiment: what if we did this exercise and discovered that the numerical profile of Irish and Northern Irish exactly matched that of the respective numerical profiles of Arabs and Israelis? (Clearly not so, but just by way of example.) This is similar to the techniques I imagine Dr. Haass uses. As a good negotiation facilitator, he would have to drop his cultural associations and open himself to understanding the ways in which, say, Northern Irish and Israelis might be the same. Or Northern Irish and Arabs. Or any such combination. But mention any of these four groups to me and I am immediately flooded with emotional associations about them, and they are all very different. But by imagining applying the quantitative approach, I suddenly see them very differently, almost as an alien would. All of my qualitative feelings about their cultures and stereotypical behaviors get washed away, and I’m left with only the image of blank slate human being filled with characteristics.

And then I can see myself in the same way. I’m not that special. Just a container of characteristics.