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Public Shaming… and Your Own Worst Decisions

What is the single worst decision you have ever made?

What if, by chance, your worst decision was caught on video? Or perhaps someone snapped a few photos? What if it was uploaded, shared, and spread across the planet?

(Heck, let’s not even talk about your worst decision. Let’s consider your ninth or tenth poorest decision, down the list of moral or ethical severity. In fact, it might be something you even think about doing or saying everyday, tucked away back in the darker recesses of your mind.)

What if millions of people based everything they thought about you on that single video or image?

Does that make sense? Do you define yourself by your poorest choices? If not, upon what grounds would other people’s poorest choices be appropriate grounds for defining them?

Why do we pounce on the viral mistake of the hour, like a bloodthirsty mob in need of a sacrificial scapegoat?

Perhaps, when we shame others (from the safe distance of our anonymous keyboards) we ourselves can feel just a little bit better about our own slip ups. Perhaps our mob mentality is collective self-appeasement made manifest. As long as another poor victim is suffering on the alter of humiliation, and being pilloried in the stocks of shame, we ourselves, individually, are safe from one another’s prying ridicule.

The mob has not changed. We have simply traded stoning and lynching for mentions and hashtags. It is notably less violent now, but only negligibly less devastating.

Shame on the shamers? No, I am too guilty. This is self indictment. This is a confession.

Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.

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Organization is a Devil’s Plaything

Humans — we love our systems. We love collecting all the pieces, all the data, and all the references — and then compiling the whole edifice in a beautiful binder with a shiny cover. We love authoritative volumes, collectors editions, and codifications of our knowledge. We love a comprehensive syllabus and a thoroughly exhaustive handbook. From Alexandria, to Britannica, to Wikipedia — we archive, collect, and codify. We are unparalleled organizers.

J. Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, told this story:

…the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket.
The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?”
“He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil.
“That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend.
“Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.”
(Krishnamurti, 1929)

This story reminds me of a quote by Walter Bagehot: “The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were valuable at first, and deadly afterwards” (Bagehot, 1873, p. 74).

Our tendency to codify is double-edged: it enables one generation to build on the knowledge of past generations, but it also makes it difficult for us to escape the entrenchment of our own ideas. In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Jerome Bruner uses the concept of crime as an example of culturally codified knowledge:

…the impact of ideas does not stem from their truth, but seemingly from the power they exert as possibilities embodied in the practice of a culture. Can you shed the concept of crime when there are courts, police, and prisons? (Bruner, 1986, p. 138)

The point is not whether our concept of crime is necessarily right or wrong — the point is that most of us are blind to even thinking about the question. Our knowledge is codified. Not open for reexamination. It is entrenched in our institutions and society. Perhaps you are so accepting of your society’s definition of crime that you reacted emotionally to the hint that it might not be absolutely true. The institutions of our knowledge are very powerful indeed.

Today, as you go through the tasks and routines before you, perhaps you will come across a piece of Truth laying by the side of the road. Perhaps you will pick it up and put it in your pocket. As you walk along, you might ponder to yourself: how do I organize this truth? How do I systematize it? Rarely do we stop and consider the implications.

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Victims, Villians, Heroes

“The victim-rescuer-persecutor syndrome occurs frequently in human relationships of all kinds and is common in many helping relationships,” writes Lee Ann Hoff (Hoff, 2001, p. 121). This is a common phenomenon: when a well-intentioned person tries to help somebody else, the person receiving assistance often becomes considered a victim, both by themselves and by their helper.

The implication of seeing yourself as a helper or a rescuer is that your self-description becomes dependent on the existence of a disempowered, helpless, or victimized other person. (This is especially a problem for social agencies who must promote the fact they are helping ‘disadvantaged’ people in order to justify their funding.)

Without victims, the rescuing role would be obsolete, and therefore nullified. Complementary victims are required for every person who fancies themselves a hero. A hero with no one to save is no hero at all.

Juxtapose the notion of ‘helping people’ (and thus potentially, inadvertently victimizing them) with the essence of the word community. A group of people in common unity exists precisely because none of them are victims, villains or heroes. Only within this commonality can the corrosive power triad be avoided. In fact, the common unity disintegrates into a power structure as soon as any single point of this triangle is established within the group.
Your closest circle of human relationships is comprised of individuals who are neither victims, villains or heroes towards you, nor towards one another. Where the power triad exists, common unity is altogether impossible.

Perhaps heroism is bad for community?

Or perhaps true heroism comes not in our rushing to the aid of a victim in their plight, but rather joining in common unity with them. The most effective way to keep a needy person needy is to treat them like a needy person. The most effective way to “de-victimize” someone is to include them in a tribe of unvictimized individuals who refuse to abide by the power dynamics of the victim, villain and hero triangle.

Perhaps the story of victims, villains and heroes is just simply the rhetoric of heroes? Saving victims and naming villains sure goes a long way to justifying one’s own particular valour and ethos. In fact, anyone who would choose to be a hero must begin by identifying a victim. Gary Harper writes, “A villain is a misunderstood hero; a hero is a self-righteous villain.“ (Harper, 2004, p. 1) Or, in the damning words of Eric Hoffer,

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless. (Hoffer, 1951, p. 14-15)

Today: reconsider what it means to help others. Are your altruistic actions founded on the doctrine of heroism: “I will save you!” Alternatively, instead of being a hero, what does it mean in your context to be a builder of common unity? What would it look like if you were to ‘commune with’ others instead of trying to ‘rescue’ them?

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In Praise of Discovery

Discovery is one of the best things about life.

Sometimes discovery is intentional, the result of a long voyage, or a tiresome search, or a tedious series of experiments and calculations. When a discovery is finally made, every investment in order to acquire it is justified, and instantly a new map is drawn, highlighting the route of synaptic connections that were traveled to the journey’s destination.

At other times, discovery is accidental or serendipitous, as one finds themselves seemingly arrested without warning or preparation. Across the wavelengths of conversation, media, or even internal contemplation, all of a sudden a new perspective is uncovered, like a gem veiled by a thin layer of dust is exposed by a gust of wind. Old, blinding assumptions are thwarted by the light of new understanding as one stumbles onto the view of a broader vista.

What if life were void of further discovery? Just imagine: what if everything we knew right now was all we would ever know? Our current knowledge, our present way of thinking about the world, our familiar conjectures — frozen, solidified, stratified.

Discovery is nothing if not an imperative. The discovery impulse is, ultimately, hope. Who are we if not explorers?

What was the last thing you discovered? I mean really discovered. Not just a link that you found interesting or an article that you thought was moderating intriguing — but a life-interrupting ‘uncovering of knowledge’ that immediately adjusted your lens on the world around you. When was the last time you had one of those discoveries?

If you need to pick up the trail of discovery again, perhaps a good place to start is where you left off, back at the site of the last revelation. Today, return to the last insight that quickened your heart.

What discoveries might yet be unearthed?

What might lay beyond the jotted journal notes of the last insight?

Nobody knows. Enjoy.