Sunday, May 10, 2020

Our Deadliest Weakness

     “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal….The mind's ability to rationalize its own shortcomings is unlimited.” – Robert A. Heinlein

     From the moment I finished and posted yesterday’s essay, a phrase has been ringing in my head. It’s a familiar one; you’ve heard it many times and have probably used it as well. It refers to a tendency observable in nearly everyone, at least at some points in life. Whether it’s good or bad – that is, whether the characteristic it describes is beneficial or detrimental in any particular sense – is a matter of context and personal priorities.

     The phrase is “the path of least resistance.”

     Unpacking that phrase usefully requires contextualization. “The path of least resistance” isn’t always the path that demands the least effort, whether physical or mental. Neither is it always the path that incurs the smallest cost to oneself, whether material, social, or spiritual. The context is the determinant.

     Consider an old image: that of a prisoner on a chain gang, currently tasked to break rocks by the use of a sledgehammer. What is the path of least resistance for him? Depending on the consequences of not swinging his hammer, it might be to do as he’s been told until he drops from dehydration or exhaustion. That’s hardly a low-effort path.

     Consider the situation of a schoolboy whose parents have been warned that he’s failing. The path of least resistance for him will depend upon the foreseeable consequences of going on as he has, or of making just enough effort to pass, or of “going all out” to become an honor student. Note that one of those courses involves considerably more effort than the others…yet depending on the little snotnose’s parents, it might prove to be the path of least resistance.

     Or consider any First World woman of the years before World War II. As she confronts possible paths forward, which appears the path of least resistance? To allow herself to be courted, become a wife, mother, and homemaker, and settle into domesticity? Or to resolve upon spinsterhood, that no such web of obligations could ensnare her? Or to strike out boldly in some fashion, and strive to become a trailblazer of the intellect or spirit? Many contemporary women would say that in that era the first course would be the path of least resistance. Yet the same judgment would hardly be automatic today.

     The relevance of the Heinlein quotes above will soon become clear.

     Courtesy of Peace or Freedom comes the following:

     Read it from end to end; don’t skim it. Absorb it in its entirety. Take a moment to react to it.

     Then take another moment to think about your reaction.

     I am fairly well known for being personally indifferent to other peoples’ opinions. (Got plenty of my own, thanks.) That hasn’t kept me from taking note of how other people’s opinions, however they’re expressed in words or deeds, have shaped our behavior.

     Consider the opinions expressed in the image above. For the sentiments it expresses are nothing but one arrogant man’s opinions. Moreover, they’re as unjustifiable as they are harsh. To call them “false moralism,” while baldly factual, doesn’t condemn them adequately. I can well understand why their poster prefers anonymity.

     Now: Why do I, who (once I’m done with it) routinely return the shopping cart to the little stand designated for their repose, feel that way? If you, Gentle Reader, feel some other way, can you explain why?

     Were you aware that most supermarkets employ people to fetch the shopping carts from where they’ve been abandoned around the asphalt prairies? Were you aware that shoppers who personally return shopping carts inflict more damage, both to the carts and to shoppers’ cars, than those paid hirelings?

     No? Don’t be embarrassed; I had to research those things for myself. Add that many shoppers are obliged to shop in tightly constrained timeslices, whether because they have to return to their jobs or are accompanied by children who, even if well-behaved, probably need to pee. The minute or two it takes to return a cart to the designated stand might make a huge difference that no one else is aware of.

     But most persons will follow the path of least resistance, won’t they? Only where is that path, in this particular case?

     The typical shopper who lets his cart lie where he emptied it is following one sort of path of least resistance. The person who is intimidated by the sentiments in the image above is following another. My own path of least resistance is habit: I return shopping carts because I’ve been doing so for more than fifty years.

     Most people don’t arrive at their choices through a logical process. When called to explain them, we rationalize. That’s not a judgment on the choices, which may be as good as any. It’s a reflection on how we make most of our choices: usually, by a semiconscious (at best) process that selects a path that seems, according to one’s own convictions, desires, and fears, to be the path of least resistance. Oftentimes that path is determined by…drum roll, please…other people’s opinions.

     The miscreant who wrote the text of the image above isn’t just opinionated. He clearly feels justified to judge others according to his personal standards – and by “to judge” I mean to indict, try, convict, sentence, and execute. He wouldn’t be safe around me. I might let him pop off once without penalty. On the second incidence – which in the case of such persons usually occurs about five seconds after you’ve let the first one pass – I’d haul him up by the scruff of his neck. (Politely, of course; I never kill or cripple on first acquaintance. Well, hardly ever.)

     Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. [Matthew 7:1-5]

     Do you think “Anonymous” has ever reflected on the implications of that passage? Hasn’t every adult in the First World read or heard it at some point in his life? Haven’t we all had occasion to notice the equilibrium principle that governs the world of men? It says, most plainly:

As ye give,
So shall ye get.

     That’s not from the Gospels, nor from any venerable source. It’s from this novel, and this one. And it is the reverse of the coin whose face reads “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which is both excellent ethical counsel and the only practical mind-reading technique available to us lowly humans.

     Don’t be like “Anonymous.” That particular fellow should reflect on his path of least resistance – i.e., to be a hyper-opinionated, loudmouthed, and rashly judgmental jerk – before it gets him hurt.