mcgann_letterhead

#28 On wilful blindness

Dear Jamie,

At the moment I’m into Jordan Peterson’s ideas and his theories about morality and how to live so let’s pull that in. He says that we must act in a way so as to win multiple games. One must simultaneously question oneself as to how to play the “will I survive the day?” game, the “can I feed my family?” game, the “is my community stable?” game, the “is my nation going in the right direction?” game and the “is humanity going to survive the next decade?” game. I’ll call it the contribution hierarchy.

Notice that this is a perfect inversion (and I would say perfect alternative) to the despicable Bedouin saying: “I am against my brother, my brother and I are against my cousin, my brother my cousin and I are against…” etc. This sounds more like a competition hierarchy. Satisfying the contribution hierarchy hierarchy is more personally difficult, but globally constructive because the solution is often self sacrifice. In contrast the Bedouin one is more of a short-sighted “win at any cost” strategy. It probably works well in unpredictable, harsh environments. But then again what is the environment but the result of the games people play?

Satisfying this collaborative hierarchy at all levels is hard enough in a straightforward game. As humans we have to play it an unknown number of times within a complex system. It’s impossible to play perfectly, but Peterson says the myths of old are kind of (or, in many cases, actually) an oral tradition of the evolved solution to this hierarchy problem by people who had no other way to articulate the knowledge (or the problem itself for that matter).

The solution common to the myths of the most successful societies is something like: societies age and this is only a problem if the people (or the ruler) ignore the pathologies inside. If this happens for long enough chaos takes over, and can only be defeated by a brave person (hero) with a mix of tradition (conservatism) and vision (progressiveness) who is almost always damaged by the process. Out of this there are two strategies 1) self sacrifice to improve your tradition without destroying it, 2) avoid the blindness of traditions in the first place.

I agree that satire never obviously caused important change, maybe it’s because it isn’t the hero. My new definition of satire is:

Satire makes heard inarticulable truths

For a truth to work it has to first be able to be said and second to be able to be heard. At the articulation end it’s a lot like art, perhaps the truth can’t be said in words and needs a picture or other medium. But I’m thinking that what separates satire from art is that satire makes itself heard. In some cases the truth is suppressed, like an open secret, and so only can only be said in a roundabout way. On the hearing end, the truth may have been said so many times that people are bored with it, in which case it’s a problem of attention and satire will find ways to make it entertaining or unavoidable. Perhaps someone was never told the truth, but what’s just as common is that a person is wilfully blind and the truth must be smuggled in.

Just thinking aloud but this might explain why satire seems weak from the perspective of you or I. Many would disagree but I think truth is alive and well in our civilisation. Satire’s ineptitude is not a problem with satire but a strength of liberal democracy. Satire is better at exposing hidden, embarrassing truths, taboos and pathologies, which is why religious, fascist and communistic states were so scared of it. In our society the blind spots aren’t: “is our leader legitimate?” (they are), “is Trump an ignoramus but everyone’s pretending he’s not?” (he is and they’re not). These facts can’t be said of a dictatorship.

And here I think your criticism of the satire of Trump brings it all together:

Why wasn’t Trump hit where it hurts? Why wasn’t the knife really stuck into his ego, the fact that he’s an effete billionaire who’s never worked a day, that he’s a whiner, that he’s a conman, that he’s an atheist (probably) — things that Trump supporters care about? Instead there was a whole bunch of stuff about how crazy, xenophobic, backward and unconventional his ideas are: things liberals care about, kind of.

Liberal “daily show” satirists were and are playing the Bedouin game. As you say inconsistency isn’t a problem between left values and right values, that’s the frickin’ point of a political spectrum. Inconsistency is something that needs to be solved within the individual, then within the political side, then within the community, and so on as we each contribute up the hierarchy. Western satire’s most fertile ground are our own political positions with wilful blind spots being the most fecund.

We western humans have somehow created a form of governance that is more truthful to us than we are to ourselves. Black and white political cartoons fall flat daily in newspapers while partisan comedians puff themselves up every time they “destroy” competing ideas from within their community. I prefer it when comedians deflate themselves, and I think most people do if they’re honest with themselves. As a couple of wise men once said “you have no claim to what you don’t piss on”.

On the left satire works best when it’s against the weak. Pointing out that sometimes the weak are complicit in their weakness. Pointing out that justice for an individual can mean injustice for many. Pointing out that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Pointing out that sometimes being kind is being cruel.

On the right it’s most powerful against the ignorant. Pointing out that just because something was done in the past doesn’t mean it’s right. Pointing out that the divinity of the individual is also the divinity of a stranger. Pointing out that scientific facts can mean what you think is wrong. Pointing out that sometimes being cruel is being cruel.

But, like most healthy things, satire gets weaker the less you need it. Satire “sticks” proportional to its unspoken truth, and if heard, satire vanishes. The impotence of satire is the success of humanity.

Weirdly Christian,
Mat