Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Individualist Collectivist

     Once in a great while, someone asks me a question that deserves its own article. It happened fairly recently, and I’ve been chewing over the appropriate treatment ever since.

     The question, as best I can recall it, ran thus:

     “You’ve embraced all these ugly collectivist labels: racist, sexist, Islamophobe, and so on, but you also call yourself an individualist. How does that work?”

     That question, asked with no trace of the “Hah! Gotcha!” attitude that it would carry from the lips of an adversary, brought a broad smile to my face. The recognition of the apparent contradiction involved indicated that the asker is open to the possibility of new knowledge. However, rather than answer it at once in the compressed fashion that a conversation-on-the-run would demand, I asked my interlocutor to be patient with me: “I’ll get back to you.”

     And here I am to do that very thing.

     In discussions over politics and related subjects, it’s supremely important never, ever to assume any shred of the responsibility for other people’s preconceptions. I made use of that notion in a different context in Polymath:

     Presently Todd said “You think I talk too much, don’t you?”
     Redmond, caught in mid-bite, gave himself a few seconds to chew and swallow. He set his slice of pizza down carefully and caught Todd’s eyes with his own.
     “I can see why you might think so, but no, not really.” The engineer’s expression grew pained. He appeared to be casting about for words. “It’s more...well, forgive me, Todd, but every now and then you say something that would be better lived than said.”
     Todd peered at Redmond in confusion. “I don’t follow you.”
     Redmond’s look of chagrin deepened. “Todd, these days there are very few people who really can do all they say they can do. That includes most of the most capable people alive today. There’s a notion going around that self-promotion is expected, even demanded of us. That it’s not enough to be good, that we have to constantly talk ourselves up so that everyone will know we’re good, and so people who already know it can’t possibly forget it. You know what comes of that when your ordinary human fallibility gets its vote in?”
     Todd bit his lip. “I can guess.”
     “I’m sure you can.” Redmond shook his head bemusedly. “So why can’t anyone else? Reticence about your abilities is a better policy no matter how confident you are about them for precisely that reason. Don’t trumpet them; simply use them. Others will notice, and they’ll notice your taciturnity as well. They’ll start to speculate about what you can do that they haven’t seen yet, always in your favor. It’ll do more for your reputation than any amount of bragging or any number of PR agents.”
     Todd mused over it in silence for a few seconds before a realization struck him. He opened his eyes wide and jabbed an index finger at Redmond. The engineer’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Hah! Gotcha!”
     “What? What do you—”
     “That gets people thinking that you can do anything, that you have no limitations at all. But everyone has limitations. So what happens when his legions of admirers discover that Louis Redmond can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound?”
     A delighted grin spread across Redmond’s face for the second time that day. “That’s the fun part, Todd. You don’t say a word. You just give them this look. You make it say ‘Where on Earth did you get such a crazy notion?’ You shake your head a little, and you walk away. And your reputation gets better still.”
     Todd’s mouth dropped open. “You’re a manipulator.”
     “Absolutely not. I just prefer to let other people reach their own conclusions.”
     “And their own illusions, too.”
     “Especially those. Why would I want to be responsible for them?”

     Preconceptions can be murder. If you assume anything about your conversational partner (or if he assumes anything about you), it had better be accurate. The terrible damage that’s been done to our language, especially the terms we use in discussing politics and the things relevant to it, has made conversations about them, even conversations with good friends begun in total innocence, into a minefield, largely because of the preconceptions associated with those terms.

     Consider the terms racist and sexist. What do they really mean? Some time ago I allowed that under the current [ab]usage, I qualify as a racist and a sexist. But note the specifics – originally set forth in this essay — and ask yourself whether you would use those terms in that fashion:

     Before we proceed, allow me to state a few things very, very plainly.
  1. I am a Caucasian of Irish and Italian descent, whose parents were immigrants from those lands.
  2. My loyalties are to my family and the United States of America. I would defend either or both to the death. Apart from a mortgage and a car loan, I owe nothing else to anyone.
  3. What matters most to me about others is their character: their willingness to respect the rights of others and to discharge their proper responsibilities, without whining about any of it.
  4. I believe that there is an American culture, and that it is infinitely superior to all the other cultures of the world, past or present. More, I believe that Americans are the finest people in the world -- that no other land produces anything remotely comparable to our general standard of decency, justice, generosity, or good humor.
  5. I believe that the races, as conventionally defined, differ in various ways. The importance of those differences is topical and contextual.
  6. I believe that the sexes differ in various ways. As with racial differences, the importance of those differences is topical and contextual.
  7. I believe that homosexual sodomy is self-destructive, but that, at least in certain cases, sexual orientation can be changed.
  8. I believe that there is such a thing as general intelligence, that it is at least partly inherited, and that it varies widely.
  9. I believe that the handicapped should receive our sympathy and compassion as individuals to other individuals, but that they are not entitled to more as a matter of right.
  10. I believe that laws that mandate preferred treatment for the members of any group, however defined, are both unConstitutional and destructive.
  11. I hold these convictions not because anyone else holds them, but because the evidence of my senses and my own powers of reasoning have led me to them.

     According to the major taboos of our time, this makes me a racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic chauvinist abuser of the physically challenged. By copping to all this, I've violated all the major, politically correct taboos of our time: about race, gender, sexual orientation, the handicapped, and multiculturalism. Needless to say, the enforcers of those taboos would like to see me boiled in oil.

     They can dip their outrage in beaten eggs, roll it in crushed walnuts, and shove it up their asses.

     See Items #5 and #6 specifically: I believe there are statistical differences among the races and between the sexes. Actually, I don’t merely believe it; I know it. Those differences have manifested themselves in various observable patterns. The patterns are available for anyone to study and contemplate. But under current conditions, merely to note the existence of the patterns, much less to suggest that race and sex might have a causal connection to them, will get you called racist and sexist more often than not. Don’t take my word for it; ask John Derbyshire or Charles Murray.

     John Derbyshire’s treatment of the matter as it pertains to race is characteristically well considered and well phrased:

     (4) The default principle in everyday personal encounters is, that as a fellow citizen, with the same rights and obligations as yourself, any individual black is entitled to the same courtesies you would extend to a nonblack citizen. That is basic good manners and good citizenship. In some unusual circumstances, however—e.g., paragraph (10h) below—this default principle should be overridden by considerations of personal safety.

     (5) As with any population of such a size, there is great variation among blacks in every human trait (except, obviously, the trait of identifying oneself as black). They come fat, thin, tall, short, dumb, smart, introverted, extroverted, honest, crooked, athletic, sedentary, fastidious, sloppy, amiable, and obnoxious. There are black geniuses and black morons. There are black saints and black psychopaths. In a population of forty million, you will find almost any human type. Only at the far, far extremes of certain traits are there absences. There are, for example, no black Fields Medal winners. While this is civilizationally consequential, it will not likely ever be important to you personally. Most people live and die without ever meeting (or wishing to meet) a Fields Medal winner.

     (6) As you go through life, however, you will experience an ever larger number of encounters with black Americans. Assuming your encounters are random—for example, not restricted only to black convicted murderers or to black investment bankers—the Law of Large Numbers will inevitably kick in. You will observe that the means—the averages—of many traits are very different for black and white Americans, as has been confirmed by methodical inquiries in the human sciences.

     Derbyshire, a serious student of mathematics, is scrupulous about his uses of statistics, knowing how easily they can be put toward a sinister agenda. Moreover, he writes right up front that in individual encounters, the default principle of normal courtesy and respect supersedes all statistical considerations. Treat individuals as entitled to the presumption of dignity and respect until they demonstrate otherwise, but when dealing with an aggregate, be guided by the patterns known to prevail among them! What could be more evenhanded – more respectful of the norms that must be observed in a free society that operates under a Rule of Law?

     The same logic applies to the sexes, to the followers of Islam, to self-segregating ethnic groups, and so forth -- as statistical aggregates. But to say so in public is currently an act of considerable daring.

     The great Walter Williams once discoursed on racism in a refreshing fashion. His take on it was that whatever one might believe about differences between the races, the sole important aspect of such a belief arises in one’s attitude toward rights. Dr. Williams proposed that the charge of “racism” should be reserved for the conviction that one race should have more or higher rights than others. He argued that only that conviction could give rise to true sociopolitical conflict. So long as every recognizably human individual is conceded the same rights as any other, dangerous conflicts can be averted.

     How refreshing! How wise. To concede that aggregates, however defined, need not be identical under all measures, but to insist that individuals, who are all equal before God, must be treated that way by the mechanisms of politics and government! That whatever we may learn about any particular aggregate, we must never deny an individual the natural human rights to his life, his liberty, or his honestly acquired property because of his skin color, his sex, his ethnicity, his creed, or his membership in any other aggregate!

     The simplicity and power of Williams’s approach are astonishing. We wouldn’t have to have quotas for black concert cellists or Jewish NBA forwards. We could let people find their ways to what they do best without interference – and without feeling guilt that there aren’t “enough” female coal miners or male midwives. But the Left, which is responsible for essentially all the brutalities inflicted upon our lexicon, refuses to allow it.

     Rather than let this drag on interminably, I’ll state my position plainly:

I’m an individualist when I deal with individuals;
I’m a collectivist when I discuss collectives.
I’m a believer in individual liberty and justice for all.

     If there’s a more rational way to cope with the dizzying variety of challenges to intellect, ability, courtesy, and safety contemporary American life presents us, I can’t imagine what it might be.

     Food for thought.


Unknown said...

So, if nearly everyone on earth had the same convictions and beliefs as you and I and Walter Williams (in whom I have great respect) there would be no reason for the agreement we made, while in our Spiritual Nature, to our Creator that we were willing to assume a role as a human body with a soul and go down to a dimension where all the worst kinds of adversities abound, and fight the good fight against all kinds of evil until called back home. Faith is a substance. It is weaponry of unlimited power, and if we weren't so distracted by our physical senses, perhaps we might grasp it at will, and then be able to create an existence dangerous to the universe at large. I'm glad you decided not to quit writing in this space, Francis. God bless your hands.

furball said...

VERY well said, sir!

Tim Turner