Tag Archives: ego

Is it Freedom or Ego that is the Problem?

There has been much discussion on various anti-liberal blogs that freedom (i.e., the idea behind liberalism) is the cause of all society’s ills. There is the notion that if only liberalism could be abolished then something better would take its place and all the social problems of modernity would be solved. I suppose the thinking is that anything is better than liberalism therefore there is no need to come up with a replacement for it. Or perhaps the reluctance to come up with a replacement reflects the subconscious knowledge that liberalism really is not the problem and that the same issues will come to exist under any type of regime.

One theory I see over and over again is that liberalism leads to evil and specifically mass murder because it is “incoherent.” The theory that liberalism is “incoherent” is based upon the premise that a government action is by its nature restrictive. Even if a government acts to promote the rights of one person or group of people it will necessarily restrict the rights of another person or group of people. Therefore, it is “incoherent” to say that a priority of government should be to protect the freedom of its citizens (as Western governments typically do) because in actuality a government cannot protect the freedom of one group of people without assaulting the freedom of another group of people. For example (the argument goes) if the government protects the right of one group to speak freely it will necessarily assault the right of another group to not have to listen to what the first group has to say.

Let us assume this analysis actually proves the incoherence of liberalism (and not the balancing of competing priorities). Does this incoherence really lead to mass murder as is claimed by the anti-liberals? The anti-liberal’s “go to” example of modern day mass murder is abortion. They argue that because liberalism is incoherent it can be used to justify abortion just as it was used (they argue) to justify the killing of Jews by the Nazis in World War II, the nuking of Hiroshima and the execution of opponents to Communist reform in the Soviet Union under Stalin. This justification arises under the “principle of explosion” apparently because under a contradictory logical construct such as is (supposedly) liberalism anything can be logically inferred to be true.

There are a few problems with this line of thinking. First of all, understanding the “principle of explosion” requires more than a bit of formal logic theory under one’s belt. It is not a theory that is readily grasped by the general public without this education. Therefore, to say that this principle is somehow used by liberals to justify their actions seems to be a bit of a stretch on its face. However, the argument might be that although expressing the principle of explosion in formal logic requires an education in logic that most people do not have, the principle itself is sound because most people on some intuitive level appreciate it to be true and use it to justify their beliefs psychologically. This too I think is a stretch because the intuitive level is governed more by emotion and ego than obscure rules of formal logic. But let us also assume this to be correct.

So then, we are now assuming it is correct that the belief in incoherent doctrines can lead to mass murder. It seems to me that from the perspective of the orthodox Christians who believe this this theory there is an obvious flaw they are ignoring. That is, the belief that incoherent doctrines lead to mass murder not only condemns liberalism (assuming liberalism is actually incoherent) but it would also condemn Christianity itself. There are many tenets in Christianity that are incoherent on their face (arguably). For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is logically incoherent. The belief that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man is logically incoherent. The belief that the Eucharist is actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ during the Roman Catholic mass is logically incoherent. The theodicy question suggests an incoherence to Christianity as well. These are but a few examples of arguments that could be made to demonstrate the incoherence of Christianity that are far more convincing (in my mind) than the argument that supposedly demonstrates the incoherence of liberalism.

All that being said, I do not consider either liberalism or Christianity to be incoherent. Nor do I believe that an incoherence of a doctrine logically leads to mass murder. So then the question arises what does give rise to these incidences of mass murder than take place in modern times? I think a far more logical explanation for the existence of mass murder in modern times is the modern technology that makes it possible.

The anti-liberals will argue that these acts of mass murder have only occurred under liberal regimes. But the fact that these events have (arguably) occurred only under liberal regimes does not prove that only liberal regimes are capable of committing acts of mass murder. Indeed the same people who argue only liberal regimes can commit mass murder are the same people who argue there are only liberal regimes in modern times. I think it is clear that this line of thinking easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy because if there are only liberal regimes in the world then any crime committed in the world can be blamed on liberalism. Moreover, examples of illiberal regimes committing acts of mass murder (albeit on a smaller scale) can be pointed to in the Inquisition and the Crusades. It is easy to conceive that these acts of cruelty could have been much more extensive had the perpetrators had access to modern technology.

I use these examples not to attack Christianity. I am a Christian. I use them to demonstrate that any political philosophy or belief system is capable of mass murder given the right circumstances and therefore to believe that the supposed incoherence of liberalism is responsible for these acts is a fallacy.

But modern technology is not the whole explanation. So what then is the discriminating authority that causes one person or group of people to commit an act of violence on another person or group of people? Might I suggest that it is ego. It is the voice within the self that says I am right and he is wrong. It is the voice within the self that says I am different than him (or her). It is the voice in the self that says I am better than him or her. It is the voice within the self that says if you disagree with me you must lack the capacity to understand me. It is the voice in the self that says you are my enemy. In my mind (and I would think most reasonable people would agree) this is the real problem.

 

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Essentialism and Egotism

ESSENTIALISM AND NOMINALISM

From what I gather reading the Orthosphere and other related anti-liberal blogs, anti-liberals believe essentialism and anti-liberalism go hand in hand. To aid my loyal readers who may not be familiar with this term, Essentialism is a philosophy holding everything has a set of characteristics that define it and that this essence has an existence logically prior to the existence of the thing itself. For example, a dog has a set of characteristics that make it a dog and not a cat. In other words, there exists an essence of “dogness” that all things we call dogs possess which is why we refer to them by the same name. Put another way, the label “dog” is indicative of a pre-existing truth.

Essentialism is typically contrasted (by anti-liberals) with nominalism which is a philosophy holding that these essences are only labels or intellectual concepts without any actual corresponding reality and that only things (not the essence of things) exist prior to the labels man applies to them. For example, a dog is a thing man calls a dog because it makes it easier for man to conceptualize a grouping of similar things. In other words, the things man calls dogs exist but this label “dog” is a just a creation of man. Moreover, man could just as easily contrived some other labeling system that did not segregate dogs into a discrete category the way man is used to thinking of dogs.

I can see different appealing aspects to both philosophies. The appeal of essentialism is that it presumes a reality and truth that exists independent of the mind of man. The universe has an order to it and it becomes man’s job (if he chooses) to seek after this pre-existing truth of reality. By contrast, the appeal of nominalism is the presumption of a universe in which man is free (to a certain extent) to define and shape as he sees fit. Whether a person identifies as an essentialist or a nominalist depends upon their view of the world which is in turn determined by their culture, religion, education and psychology. I imagine most people do not consciously identify as either. Interestingly enough, I have observed that anti-liberals tend to use nominalism as a pejorative term.

THE GOOD

There also seems to be a link between what anti-liberals consider to be orthodox (small “o”) Christianity and essentialism. This link has to do with there being one true definition (i.e., the essence) of the good which is reflective of God’s will and exists independent of man’s speculation or opinion of the good. Among essentialists there does exist some degree of agreement on at least part of the definition of the good. One can certainly look to the Bible and to the magisterium of the Catholic church (if one happens to be Roman Catholic) for guidance on this subject. Of course, not everyone happens to be a Roman Catholic or even Christian and so in this general sense there does not exist a universal agreement as to the definition of the good. Essentialists believe this definition exists none the less despite the fact that even they do not possess one hundred percent clarity as to what is in fact the definition of the good.

Even Saint Paul laments, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). Based on this passage it seems to me to be extremely arrogant for a person to presume to know the mind of God which is the vault in which resides the exact definition of the good. I accept, certain aspects of the good can be discerned from various secondary sources but the entire picture remains (as Saint Paul accurately points out) inscrutable in part.

THE ESSENTIALISM / NOMINALISM DICHITOMY

I am not convinced that liberalism (defined as the political philosophy espousing that the freedom and equal rights of citizens should be a nonexclusive priority of government) has a special relationship with nominalism. Perhaps one could argue that the very notion of freedom implies a rejection of the tyranny of labels. But one could also conceive of a person being “free” within a specific set of rules or parameters. It has been my experience that most educated and reasonable people understand the notion of freedom as used in political discourse to refer to Western political structures which are relatively more free than dictatorships, police states and authoritarian polities and not the non existent, straw man society where every citizen is absolutely free. As such, the “freedom” liberalism espouses is not a total rejection of authority and labels by any means and is therefore not incompatible with essentialism as far as I can see.

I am also not convinced that the essentialism / nominalism dichotomy is an accurate reflection of how people generally look at the world. Essentialism holds that a definition of the good exists independent of man’s conception of the good. Nominalism rejects this pre-existence of the definition of the good and thus leaves it up to man to make this determination. But I can certainly conceive of a person believing in freedom and a pre-existing definition of the good at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. I can also think of a third category where there is a pre-existing definition of the good that man does not have one hundred percent clarity as to the exact nature of the good so therefore there is room for speculation. I can even think of a fourth category where essentialism is true for some things but not others. I suspect, however, that the rejection of this dichotomy would be seen by an essentialist to be a symptom of nominalism.

EGOTISM AND ESSENTIALISM

Based on my admittedly limited experience the impression I get from many essentialists is that they have convinced themselves that they have clarity as to the exact nature of the good. The process of convincing themselves may have been augmented by their tendency not to converse with or take seriously anyone who might hold a different perspective or challenge them in any way. One can see how easy it would be for a person believing himself to have clarity as to the exact nature of the good to judge and criticize those with a different perspective.

It would make sense that an essentialist who truly believed his own dogma to be true would also have to believe that anyone who disagreed with him was either dishonest or lacked the capacity to understand his particular position. He might very well view the ability to see things from different points of view as smacking of the heresy of nominalism.

It seems to me that a true essentialist would be humble because he would know there are truths greater than the self and the mind’s ability to conceptualize. As Saint Paul reminds us, God’s ways are inscrutable. But for a man to have convinced himself of his own hold on truth and goodness seems to me to be closer to nominalism than essentialism. If given temporal power who knows what cruelties he might inflict on those he would condemn from his lofty perch. This (it seems to me) is the true danger of arrogant egotism combined with essentialism.

 

 

 

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The Prodigal Son’s Older Brother and the Conservative Mind

In a previous post I wrote about how Christ’s parable of the prodigal son gives insight into the dynamic of ego and shame. I recently re-heard this reading and was struck by how the older brother in this story provides valuable insight into the mind of the anti-liberals who write and contribute to the Orthosphere and other related blogs. I use the term “anti-liberal” rather than conservative because this group of people are far to the right of what would pass for an average Republican in the United States. For example, some of them advocate a return to Monarchy. Some reject the notion that freedom is a good that a society should strive for. What seems to bind them is their rejection of liberalism, leaving aside the fact that it is always unclear just what any one person on these blogs actually considers a liberal to be.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger son of a rich man asks his father for his inheritance. His father gives it to him and the younger son then goes away and squanders his money on riotous living. He subsequently falls upon hard times, sees the error of his ways and returns to his father begging for forgiveness. Surprisingly, the father welcomes him home with loving arms. He clothes his son and orders the slaughtering of the fatted calf in celebration. Meanwhile the older brother who had remained loyal all this time arrives home from working in the field to see this new state of affairs and becomes angry. When his father tries to convince him to join the feast he retorts:

‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

LK 15:29-30

We can all sympathize with the older brother. Surely there should be some reward for remaining loyal. At the very least there should not be a reward for disloyalty and sinful behavior. On the other hand, the older brother is using his loyalty to justify his lack of compassion and his judgment of his younger brother. In a very similar way the folks at the Orthosphere seem very justified in judging and blaming liberals for all the evils in the world.

Now the father in the parable represents God the Father. His attitude is love and compassion and does not seem to be concerned with matters of fairness, property or finances. To him, the important thing is that the prodigal son has returned. To the older son the father says:

‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’

LK 15:31-32

Jesus ends the parable here leaving it unclear as to whether the older son was convinced by the father’s argument. I suspect that he is not, primarily because the father’s argument does not provide any new knowledge that the older son does not already possess. The older son already knows that he shares in the father’s property. In fact, this is probably part of what is upsetting him because the return of the younger son presents a challenge to the remaining portion of the father’s estate that he will eventually come to own. The fact that the younger brother was ‘lost’ and is now found probably does not change the older brother’s attitude either because while the younger son was lost he was doing all the things the older brother had the discipline not to do.

The part of the parable that does not fit the analogy where the Orthospherians are the older brother, God is the father and liberals are the younger brother is that the prodigal son actually returns to the father. In the view of the Orthospherians the liberals left with their inheritance a long time ago and never came back. They are the ones who remained loyal and are out working in the fields. Perhaps the fact that the liberals have not yet returned justifies the Orthospherian lack of compassion and judgment of them. Perhaps they would in fact join God in a feast if the liberals ever returned. But I am not so sure about that.

I suspect most liberals would interpret this parable differently as it relates to them. I suspect at least some of them would argue that they never left with their inheritance in the first place and continue to work the fields with their older more conservative brother. Perhaps they would argue they work on opposite ends of the field but are still working in the field none the less.

 

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Message Boards and Comment Sections Part II

In my last post “Message Boards and Comment Sections” I talked about how debates in these particular forums almost always turn into a battle of egos rather than an honest and authentic discussion of ideas. True to form a debate followed in the comment section where this very dynamic played itself out. Ostensibly the debate concerned whether there are any free societies and whether the freedom of citizens is a good and proper goal to which a government to aspire. But as the process played out I found myself in the anxious situation where I felt the need to respond to every comment (or risk tacitly conceding a point) and then dreading seeing the the little red circle pop up indicating that a new comment had been made.

Although to a certain (not insignificant) extent there was an interesting and legitimate exchange of ideas there was also an underlying current of egoism which over time increased in importance. Eventually, the ideas of the discussion became the weapons used to fight a battle of egos. I certainly am not accusing my worthy opponents of being entirely responsible for this. I, by no means am innocent of this process. (In fact, I wrote a book about my prior experiences and lessons learned in this world.) Perhaps because of these experiences I am simply more aware of of the dynamic. I suppose I also have to accept the possibility that I am the only one who is really experiencing this dynamic and that I am projecting my experience on to the other people. But, I say that more as a disclaimer because I truly believe this is what is playing out despite any potential denials or protestations I might receive in the near future.

More and more I find this decent into egoism to be a drain on my energy. There is certainly a part of me (my ego) that has a strong desire to jump back into the game and in the short run this game can be very exhilarating. But like all addictions, the short term benefit gradually becomes overwhelmed by the long term detriments.

At this point I am weary of writing another post on a political topic because I (sort of) dread the debate that ensues in the comment section. I dread the feeling of having to respond or risk a humiliation however small. This is not to say that I will never reengage with the game. Like all addicts I suppose that I will relapse and come back to the well eventually. And honestly, I do feel lately I have been gaining an education and questioning some liberal beliefs I have held that frankly could use some questioning.

I even have a topic in mind that I have been mulling over. These topics tend to sit in the back of my mind for a while gaining mass and organization. At a certain point they achieve a critical mass and then push themselves forward out onto the page. This is the way it always happens. The cycle will repeat.

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Message Boards and Comment Sections

I have been involved in many conversations on message boards and in blog comment sections over the years. Very few of these conversations have been respectful and compassionate although this sometimes occurs. More often these conversations start as a difference of opinion about a specific issue but then morph into a battle of egos. Neither side will admit this of course. They always couch their position as if it is motivated chiefly by a search for the truth. This proclaimed motivation, however, is almost always betrayed by the snarky, sarcastic quality the comments take on and by ad hominem attacks made against the person espousing the opposing position.

I should know better than to get sucked into these debates. They always end up the same way, sour my mood and muddle my thought process. But this is the nature of an ego based exchange. As I said, ad hominem attacks (as opposed to an honest discussion of the issues) is a good indicator that the conversation has turned in this direction. Another indicator is when the debate replays itself in my mind when I am not actually engaged in the debate. This is the ego preparing itself for the next round. And the goal is not really to show the opposing side the errors of his ways. The goal is always to humiliate the other side. This is why it always gets personal.

I have my theories as to why a person chooses to make a debate personal. Choose is actually the wrong word because this decision is made on a very primitive and neuro-chemical level. That is, reward chemicals are released when a person senses that he has humiliated his opponent through text. Over time his brain rewires itself in response to this reward. Through this rewiring he becomes addicted to the reward and then acts on it through compulsion.(1) This is why a troll does what he does. But the question remains why these chemicals are released in response to this scenario in the first place. It seems highly likely that this neural pattern is based on prior experiences of being humiliated (probably by primary care takers at an early and formative age). This creates the mechanism that rewards humiliating other people.(2) But often within the throws of an exchange it feels like a struggle for the truth is at stake. It is forgotten (or never known in the first place) that the real motivation is to humiliate the other even though this motive remains alive and well on a subliminal level.

Another aspect to this dynamic is a failure (or refusal) to appreciate the other person’s position. Once things get personal this obstinance only calcifies. For example, Zippy talks about the positivists wearing blinders in the following passage:

For sane people, a real counterexample calls for revision of the theory or metaphysics which its existence contradicts. For positivists, a real counterexample is something to be dismissed unless it can be incorporated into positive theory.

However, he fails to see the beam in his own eye in this respect when it comes to his obsessive anti-liberal stance. He is so wedded to his own belief that liberalism is the cause of all evil in the world that he dismisses out of hand all counterexamples (usually with an  ad hominem attack thrown in for good measure). Moreover, within the echo chambers of the comment sections of the Orthosphere and his own blog his absurd points of view are largely confirmed. The best example I can give as to this is his argument that the USA and North Korea are equally free societies. (See the comment section to this post). I can only attribute his ability to believe this to the fact that he has a loyal band of people who readily agree with him and reinforce this belief. Unfortunately, such is the post truth / alternative fact world in which we now find ourselves living.

In closing, I write this post mainly to put a bookend to this series of posts I started writing a while back. It started when a self proclaimed white supremacist and Orthosphere commenter by the name Thordaddy start spamming my blog with literally hundreds of comments. Something I said clearly irked him and he made it his mission to read all my posts and comment copiously on them. I sort of enjoyed this for a while because it gave me a wealth of material on which to write. But as I mentioned before this type of exchange eventually becomes emotionally and spiritually draining. Later I started engaging the more sane contributors on the Orthosphere in an honest attempt to understand their point of view. This worked for a while. My original position was merely to document my thought process as I followed their arguments and evaluated the natural counter arguments that arose in response. But eventually that position devolved into the present position where I find myself engaging in silly debates about whether a person can coherently say he would rather live in a free society such as the USA over an un-free society like North Korea. The answer is obvious to me and it is equally obvious that any further debate would only serve to feed each other’s ego. It is Lent after all and I would rather follow the advice of St. Paul and set my mind on things above rather than earthly things. (Col 3:2)


(1) See The Cure for Alcoholism, Roy Eskapa, PhD, (2008)

(2) See Healing the Shame that Binds You, John Bradshaw (2005)

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Readings for Ash Wednesday

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment. (JL 2:12)

There is an interesting nexus of psychology and spirituality in the readings for Ash Wednesday as observed by the Roman Catholic Church. The first reading from The Book of Joel talks about authentically returning to God. This is to be done with your “whole heart.” That is, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion to use the language of the Presidential Oath of Office. Nor is this to be done through compulsion but of one’s own volition. We are told to “rend [our] hearts, not [our] garments.” Again, the actions (specifically fasting, weeping and mourning) must be accomplished on the deepest level of the self as opposed to making a show of action or pretending to act. But what exactly is the action we are to take? What does it mean to return to God whole heartedly? It seems the action of fasting is an act of self sacrifice. It is intentionally taking on discomfort as an act of devotion to a greater good above the self. The weeping and mourning suggest that there is sadness and loss in a return to God. Are we mourning the loss of our earthly lives and desires? Are we mourning the loss of the self? Is this not something we should readily give up without a sense of loss? Perhaps if one is honest there will always be a sense of nostalgic loss anytime one is either separated from God or returning home from this separation.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (MT 6:1-6)

In the Gospel reading Jesus speaks of not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing when giving alms. In other words Jesus instructs us not to let the ego take credit for the act of charity as a means of self aggrandizement. This is not merely giving alms in secret so that other people do not see you and give you credit for the act. This is giving alms (in a sense) in secret so that your self (i.e., ego) does not take credit for the act. Again, we are talking about authentic action but perhaps even a level deeper than what Joel described. In this way, your Father who sees in secret will repay you. In a sense this might seem to be an act of trickery – that is, the ultimate goal is to receive payment from the Father who sees in secret. But if we are to follow the theme of authentic action to receive authentic results then this payment by the Father who sees in secret cannot be a kind of payment that the ego would find pleasing. It must be an authentically Good and True form of payment. It is as if Jesus is trying to explain something selfless and non-egocentric in the language of the ego as if that is the only language his disciples could possibly understand.

 

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The Solipsism of Creativity

img_0810For me, creativity is the joy of life. It is also a delicate fire that can be easily put out if not properly nurtured. Being creative requires a willingness to fail. It seems that for every ten failures there is one success. Very often that one success is not possible without those ten preceding failures. Being creative (at least for me) requires a certain level of exposure. There has to exist the opportunity to be judged by others to raise the stakes and risk catastrophe. This raising of the stakes gives it an energy that it would not otherwise have. This means that creativity requires a willingness to be vulnerable. In this way there are two counterbalancing forces at play. On the one hand creativity requires nurturing but on the other it must also risk negative judgment.

I make myself vulnerable in this way on a weekly basis when I write this blog. I write about what I am thinking. I enjoy the process of creating and putting it out there. The fact that what I write can be read by other people matters more than whether it is actually read because all of this is an internal and solipsistic process. In other words it is my own anticipation of my writing being read by others that (to a certain extent) fuels the fire of creativity

On the other hand there are very real, judgmental and sometimes hostile voices out there. These voices can manifest themselves as actual people in my blog’s comment section or as an internal critical voice. To a degree I enjoy their hostility because there is a power in getting their reaction. This is an ego based sort of enjoyment and as such is ultimately self annihilating in nature. As is the judgmental hostility it is interacting with. For this reason this enjoyment is something that I am not all together comfortable with. There is also a certain amount of defiance of this hostility on my part at play in this dynamic. This also fuels the fire. Moreover, if I were to not write and publish for fear of being judged I would only be stifling myself. This is a another form of self annihilation. So I must write.

These hostile forces share similar qualities. They all seem to take offense at true expression on supposed moral grounds. This is always the way with the ego who is threatened by the free expression of others. The ego is always comparing itself to others and placing everything on a hierarchy. It is threatened by the idea of equality and it employs shame to create this false hierarchy very likely because that weapon was used so successfully on it. I suspect there is jealousy at play here. The hostile force’s free expression had been shut down by shame and so it cannot bear to see free expression in others. It touches a point of pain that is too much to endure. Because it cannot be free no one else can be either. It sees freedom as rebellion and radical autonomy. It denies that freedom is actually the expression of one’s true nature which is the expression of God’s will.

 

 

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