Ten the Hard Way
I don’t believe in any organized religion, and I’m against prescriptivism in general, so the Ten Commandments can go pound sand as far as I’m concerned. But here’s a decalogue I wish I’d taken less time to learn:
I. Be careful about anyone who says they’re doing something “for your own good”. It’s one thing when someone tells you they’re only trying to help, but any claim that they’re acting on behalf of your mutual commonwealth is probably a lot more interested in their own convenience than your own good. Even the most self-destructive people in the world are the leading authority on what they really need, even if they’re not pursuing the best possible agenda; someone who says they know your needs better than you do is almost certainly selling something. As one of America’s forgotten martyrs put it, “How can you say what my best interest is?”.
II. Distrust of authority can be a wonderful thing, but don’t make a career out of it. This is particularly difficult for me to say, because I’m absolutely down with the idea that bosses are never looking out for you, owners are rotten no matter what they own, and the rich are the scum of society no matter where you go. And in recent years, distrusting authority in all its forms has certainly been the way to bet; everyone from banks to power companies to government agencies to charities have proven their almost religious dedication to being corrupt, dirty-dealing sons of bitches who lie like it’s ice cream and cheat like it’s the only idea they ever had. But people tend to think of authority the wrong way: they don’t often consider that one man’s rebel is the next man’s oppressor, and that just criticizing a specific authority doesn’t mean you aren’t an authoritarian. They’ve come to believe that power is a dichotomy instead of a spectrum, and that’s too bad, because it’s caused them to believe all sorts of hokum in the name of resisting authority. One of the worst manifestations of this is in the embrace of health quackery, where a somewhat sensible resistance to AMA-style expertise, which can easily be read as elitism, has mutated into the valorization of gibberish like the anti-vaccination mania, the bewildering distrust of fluoridation, and expensive boutique pseudoscience like homeopathy. These start off as manifestations of a reasonable distrust of authority, but they quickly become the championing of another kind of authority, and lead to the very consequence anti-authoritarianism is meant to avoid: the un-skeptical acceptance of manipulation.
III. Hand someone a hammer, and they’ll go looking for nails. Another problem with authority is that once we grant it to someone, we tend to assume they know what they’re talking about, even when it’s something far beyond their area of speciality. This is the real problem with elites: it’s not that they don’t know anything, but that they often assume they know everything. In our expertise-driven society, we often greatly reward people with a valuable and specialized type of knowledge to the extent that they are taken seriously when they begin weighing in on subjects they know nothing about. You can see this manifested everywhere in a technocratic society like ours. Scientists in one field of study are brought out as global warming denialists, as if one science is the same as all the others; the possession of a Ph.D. is read as license to weigh in on every idea, when, in fact, there is nothing so ignorant as an educated man who strays from the borders of his education. Engineers and computer scientists are drawn to libertarian hogwash because they incorrectly assume that human beings behave in the same mathematically predictable way as numbers and objects. We cede the management of government to economists because we have confused running a government with running a bank, with predictably catastrophic results. We are so impressed with the presence in others of skills we lack that we’ve decided if they know something we don’t, they must know everything.
IV. Justice isn’t the same thing as punishment. I’m not against violence; I never have been, and life certainly hasn’t gone out of its way to disprove the efficacy of a good old country ass-kicking. The folks who insist that it’s wrong to say that violence never solved anything are right; where they err is the incompleteness of the thought. Violence never solved anything that could not have been better solved without it, and that’s where it all gets complicated. Anyone who’s ever been harmed — which is to say, everyone — knows how satisfying is the idea of returning that pain, preferably with interest. But the problem is, punishment isn’t justice. Punishment is about vengeance, and justice is about fairness. Punishment is about satisfying yourself, and justice is about doing what’s best for everybody. Punishment is quick and easy, and like most things that are quick and easy, it’s not especially satisfying; justice is slow and difficult and can even mean working against your own interests. Once you get accustomed to thinking about things in terms of punishment instead of justice, you start approaching social problems in the language of warfare. And once you realize that what you’re waging war against is yourself, it’s usually too late.
V. Spite is a two-edged sword of exceptional keenness. Everyone talks about spite in negative terms, but like a lot of other ‘negative’ emotions and behaviors, it has its utility; you just have to know the right time and the right way to use it, and that can be fiendishly difficult to work out. Entitlement is one of the most poisonous things in the world, and there are times when, just to teach someone that they don’t get what they want whenever they want it, it can be pretty useful to stick your hand in the gears. Figuring this out has been one of the great contradictions of my life; I don’t think I’m better than other people — indeed, one of the only victories in my life is that I won’t go to my grave thinking I’m a wonderful person despite all the evidence to the contrary — but if people make an obvious show of telling me they’re better than I am, I will go to disturbing lengths to demonstrate that they are not. The big problem with spite is that you have to make sure the person you’re using it against actually cares what you do. It’s one thing to cut off your nose to spite someone else’s face, but spiting your own face doesn’t make you Tycho Brahe. Which brings me to:
VI. Your opinions should always be about you. If I have learned one thing in my decades of engaging, one way or another, with culture and art, it’s that if you’re going to make a public critique of something, make sure that your critique stems from what you believe, and not what other people believe, or what you think other people believe, or what you think other people believe about what you believe. It’s fine to contextualize your ideas within a popular or social framework; it’s even necessary at times. But there is absolutely nothing more wasteful or pointless than building your criticism around what other people think about something. If your opinions aren’t your own, if they’re not built around aesthetics or theories or ideas that you have about art, then why bother to have them? One of the most frustrating, boring, stupid things about criticism in the present age is watching people react against ideas that they think someone else has, or write about opinions they assume are prevalent about this or that cultural object, or let their expressions be guided by the reaction they anticipate some completely imaginary person is going to have about them. If you can’t be bothered to believe in what you’re doing, why on Earth would anybody else?
VII. Remember who loves you when you’re down and out. We make a lot of bogus assumptions about pretty much everything. One thing we still do all the time is assume saintliness on the part of the downtrodden; despite George Orwell having called bullshit on this a half-century ago by pointing out the only difference between the rich and the poor is their income, we often, even from positions of comfort, make the mistake of thinking that poverty confers decency. Learning this isn’t true, especially for those who are themselves new to the low life, can be a devastatingly hard lesson. Mistreatment of the poor isn’t a sin because the poor are saints; it’s a sin because the poor are people. And because they’re people, you will find among them terrible excesses of greed, violence, exploitation, and connivance. You will not find your fellows quick to aid you just because you have fallen to their level. By the same token, it’s easy to be anyone’s friend when they don’t need anything from you; when life has given them a thorough beating, though, and the merest means of survival are outside their grasp, showing them friendship often becomes a burden from which good friends will flee. If you ever go through truly hard times, remember the people who helped you out, and remember the people who disappeared. The former group, whether they’re friends, or family, or acquaintances, or strangers, or just people, are the ones you will know you can always love and trust. They were there when being there cost.
VIII. Forgiveness is not a leash. Everybody fucks up at least once in their life. Most people do so more than once. People like me seem to do it about as often as they get their oil changed. Fucking up, though, as opposed to being cruel or acting with evil intent, is something that you should always consider worth forgiving. It’s not always easy to say why someone made a mistake or engaged in bad behavior, because sometimes it’s not really something they can explain to themselves, let alone someone else. If you’re a halfway-decent person and you fuck up, it’s your job to be genuinely contrite, to offer up an apology, to try and make amends, and to accept any reasonable consequences. You can’t demand forgiveness; it’s offered or it isn’t, and you have to accept it either way. As the offender, you don’t have the right to set conditions on the offended. But if forgiveness is offered, it can’t be used as a restraint. You either forgive someone for what they’ve done, or you don’t; that’s your decision to make. But if you say you forgive them, and then keep holding their sin against them to get what you want, or to keep them in their place, or to use as an instrument to punish them for some other slight, you really haven’t forgiven them at all. To place such conditions on forgiveness, to employ it as a weapon, is to destroy everything that is good about the idea of forgiveness.
IX. You can learn a lot about someone by the things that they hate. I’ve gone back and forth a thousand times over the course of my life about what people have to have in common to love one another. Though my opinion is likely to change by the next flip of the calendar, my current way of thinking is that having interests in common is less important than merely having interests. It’s not so much that two people, to live a happy life, have to like the same things, but they have to like things in general; it’s less a question of being passionate about the same movies or music or beliefs or ideas than it is a question of being passionate about movies/music/beliefs/ideas in the first place. I’m less concerned with what tree my partner is focused on as long as I know we’re both looking at the forest together. But I do think it’s important, and here we go back to the previous number, to know what people hate. I think it’s essential to know what enrages them, what they consider beyond forgiveness, what inspires in them not passion and enthusiasm but condescension and contempt. You can always learn what to do to make someone happy, but it can save you a lot of wasted time and frustration if you know ahead of time what makes them angry.
X. Boredom is the greatest sin. Folks, I don’t know a better way to say this: the world, fucked up as we have tried our best to make it, is an astoundingly beautiful place full of heart-stopping natural beauty, transcendently amazing culture, and a handful of genuinely wonderful people. It is true that the people in charge will try and keep you from that beauty, will try and replace that culture with tedious garbage, and will try and prevent you from spending time with those people. The fun of being alive is in not surrendering. Unless you’re lucky enough to be able to completely control your own destiny, the point of life is frustrating society’s attempt to convince you that you don’t matter by doing what you want to do instead of what it tells you to do. The bosses always want you to be bored, because bored people will buy shit they don’t need, and do things they don’t want to do, and get accustomed to letting other people push them around. But if you always keep your eyes open and focused on the things that fulfill you, if you seek out the experiences of travel, of genuine friendship, of culture that’s meant to provoke and inspire instead of placate and stultify, of realizing your consciousness isn’t a prison from which you can’t escape but rather a landscape that you can alter and transform in any number of ways, you can avoid boredom. And people who are always looking for a way out of boredom are people who are, on a number of levels, looking for a way out of being pushed around. Go forth and do likewise.