Being civil doesn’t mean you have to hide your contempt for someone.
The latest addition to the growing body of modern Stoic literature is William Ferraiolo’s Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure. A series of personal reflections, it’s a book in the tradition of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.
I’ve just begun reading it, so in this and future posts I’ll highlight passages that catch my eye. In book one part six Ferraiolo writes,
Do not pretend to respect other persons either more or less than you actually do respect them. You owe no one a pretense of deference… You should have nothing to do with sham collegiality or faux civility. Some persons are worthy of your contempt… Do not allow yourself to be pressed, bullied, or cajoled into relations that strike you as unhealthy or pointless.
Ferraiolo isn’t advocating uncivil behavior. He’s against faux civility. It’s a call to sincerity. No one likes phonies. And we’ve all heard people say things like, “Well, he doesn’t like me but at least I know where I stand.”
Other people may create unhealthy dynamics, but that’s beyond your control. Whether you choose to allow yourself to be pressured into such relationships is within your control.
Reading this passage though, it occurred to me that respect can mean different things. “I respect you” could mean I hold you in high esteem. “Treat others with respect,” however, isn’t necessarily a demand to think highly of someone. It could simply be a more polite way of telling someone not to be rude—that is, to be civil.
Put differently, there’s respect in the active sense (conferring high regard on someone) and respect in the passive sense (refraining from uncivil behavior). Ferraiolo’s passage seems to refer to respect in the active sense.
It’s insincere to pretend to hold someone in high regard if you don’t. While contempt is the opposite of respect in the active, high esteem sense, contempt is not necessarily in conflict with respect in the passive sense of refraining from incivility.
Because being stoic (in common parlance) is equated with a lack of feeling, the notion that Stoicism promotes compassion may seem like a contradiction.
After all, Epictetus counseled his students not to get caught up in other people’s psychodramas:
When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care that you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement that he has formed about it.”
At first glance that might sound like a disingenuous approach. But Buddhism—which is virtually synonymous with compassion—also teaches that we contribute to our own suffering because of the way we think about things.
Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is like a flower. Flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, soil, and so on there are no flowers. Reflecting on this shows us how everything is interconnected.
Suffering too is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on. And these interconnections can have serious consequences.
This echos Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “everything is interwoven in a sacred bond.” He continues,
We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions.
By looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects other people and things, and what to do about it.
Marcus says we should
See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare—as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.
This approach can help prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
It starts with ourselves. To react in anger is to lack compassion. And that creates suffering. So the first aspect of Stoic compassion is not to create suffering for yourself or others.
Further, getting mired in someone else’s suffering is unhelpful because we lose our objectivity. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if we also become too distraught we can intensify that person’s distress.
Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, being a support to your fellow traveler—which requires maintaining a cool head—can help that person gain perspective on the situation and the aspects of it that are and are not within their control.
Will Republicans lose the Senate in 2018? Will Democrats make gains in the House of Representatives? Will President Donald Trump be reelected in 2020?
Who knows. Democratic victories in November 2017 show the strength of anti-Trump sentiments. But progressives are wrong to think that getting rid of Trump will make Trumpism go away. Trump harnessed a pre-existing dynamic. And that populist dynamic—white identity politics, nationalism, anti-free trade—will continue without Trump.
Democrats and the mainstream media, though, don’t have a good track record for making predictions. During the 2016 primaries they predicted that Republicans wouldn’t nominate Trump. Then they predicted a revolt at the Republican National Convention. Next they said Trump would not win the presidency. Then they said he’d be impeached within a few months of taking office. Some still think Trump will be impeached.
Even if Trump is eventually impeached, the Republican establishment won’t come roaring back. Writing for Arc Digital Media, Nicholas Grossman declares that “the Republican civil war is over—the populists won.” Republican Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker framed their retirements as a principled decision, but really it’s a retreat.
Resting on their laurels and expecting dissatisfaction with Trump to provide Democratic electoral victories in 2018 would be a mistake. An alternative is for Democrats to listen to and talk with middle America. But identity politics truncates real discussion because it creates a power competition.
Mark Lilla’s postmortem of the 2016 election—The Once and Future Liberal—is controversial. Lilla writes that,
Speaking as an X…sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. …I think A…now takes the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.
He says that “JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country…became…what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?” Republicans historically have focused on our shared identity as Americans—as citizens of a democratic republic. But Democrats focus on “our identification with different social groups within it.”
As conservatives co-opt identity politics, however, their focus on our shared identity as Americans withers. And barely more than a third of Americans approve of Trump’s performance—lower than any president in recent memory. Generic polls asking whether possible 2018 voters prefer Democrats or Republicans vary from a three point Democratic lead (The Economist and Yougov) to a fifteen point Democratic lead (FOX News). Of course, a lot can change in a year. And we can’t assume that a general preference for Democrats will apply to specific House and Senate races.
But the Democratic Party leadership getting solidly behind the establishment is perhaps a bigger mistake. The populist wave that brought Trump to power—and which almost enabled independent Bernie Sanders to become a usurper in the Democratic Party—is not a fad.
There’s no shortage of news items about male feminists who have fallen from grace. It’s infuriating and puzzling for people on the left. It’s schadenfreude for the right. Some commentators have noted how similar this is — with left and right reversed — when an evangelical preacher falls from grace.
But other people aren’t surprised. Even ordinary male feminists can come across as pandering and sycophantic. Feminists often distrust male feminists’ motives. Some feminists seem to think men should be seen but not heard (unless they’re checking their privilege or confronting other men about their behavior). And male feminists must accept that women in the movement may mock them.
What’s happening here? The observations that follow are not excuses for bad male behavior. We should all know what appropriate behavior is and is not. No excuses.
Nor are these observations comprehensive. The reality of sexism and misogyny are well articulated elsewhere, so I’m going to focus on other factors.
Seeking women’s approval
We all crave attention, and negative attention is better than invisibility. I doubt I’m the only man who has felt a deep desire for female approval. For most of us this starts in childhood with the need for our mother’s approval, which some mothers manipulate. Though men often talk about father wound, mother wound is discussed far less often. Emotionally it’s a much more difficult discussion to have.
Further, women have immense sexual power over men. And this can lead to feelings of inadequacy and resentment.
It can also lead to a sense of entitlement. A man who fancies himself as one of the good guys may start to think he deserves women’s approval . If that’s not forthcoming then he may feel entitled to punish women.
The desire for women’s approval may lead some men to call themselves male feminists or allies (though that’s far from the only reason for choosing these labels).
But feminism is a movement of women for women. It presents a one-sided rather than a comprehensive view of gender. So a man who calls himself a feminist or an ally must take his talking points from women, restricting his ability to speak authentically about gender issues.
Particularly, he must overemphasize the negative aspects of masculinity and focus on women as victims of masculinity while ignoring female privilege and entitlement, including situations where women take advantage of men. This can lead to feelings of frustration and resentment, which often manifest passive-aggressively.
Getting past pandering
I support gender equality, but I’m not a feminist. This phrase is really annoying to many people. But I think it’s important to make it clear that my labels are my choice. I don’t believe feminism is the only perspective on gender equality. I also distance myself from reactive identitarian groups like the men’s rights movement.
I try to understand what feminism gets right and what it gets wrong . My goal is to develop a proactive perspective on gender equality that’s more comprehensive and non-identitarian.
Today’s gender myth implies that the dark side of human nature is masculine, which oppresses the feminine. It claims that gender is purely a social construct.
But I acknowledge that biology also plays a partial role. And I think it’s more accurate to say that masculinity can be both benevolent and tyrannical while femininity can be both nurturing and smothering.
Then there’s introspection. It’s important for men to examine the mother wound, acknowledge feelings about women’s power over us, and how this may contribute to a dysfunctional seeking of female approval.
But putting women on a pedestal is a particular problem. Of course, today’s version of the pedestal differs from yesterday’s. It’s understood that it’s sexist to say women shouldn’t be firefighters because they’re so delicate.
But women who wish to remain on a pedestal must maintain their innocence, which means having someone to blame. Men can become scapegoats.
I try not to enable this. This means accepting responsibility for my failings but refusing to accept responsibility for other people’s failings. And failing to realize that we’re not entitled to anything is one of the biggest failings at all.
Ancient Stoic beliefs about Nature face challenges in the modern era.
Stoicism is experiencing a renaissance after fading away with the fall of the Roman Empire. But modern Stoicism departs from its ancient ancestor in important ways. Modern Stoicism is effectively agnostic. That is, some modern Stoics believe in God while others are atheists.
Contrary to the stereotype that Stoicism is about repressing your emotions, virtue (or being the best you can be) is the core of Stoicism. Emotions are okay but losing control is not because you’re at your worst when you lose control.
Ancient Stoics believed in living in accord with Nature. They were pantheists—the universe is God, which is a reasoning entity. To live according to Nature is to live in accord with Logos, or reason. And this leads us to the four cardinal virtues—wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.
But critics of Stoicism often ask how Stoics define Nature and how they know that certain virtues are in accord with Nature.
The God question
Despite fake internet quotes attributed to Marcus Aurelius, ancient Stoics did not look at agnosticism favorably. Fake Marcus is alleged to have said:
Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
In contrast, real Marcus wrote:
If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening—the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us.
Many modern Stoics are atheists, however, while others believe in God. I’ve previously written that atheism creates a vacuum. Human beings seem to need a comprehensive framework that provides a sense of moral order. Whether you think that moral order arose from evolution or from a transcendent source is another question.
But if you don’t believe God then on what basis can you equate reason with Nature? Does attributing reason to Nature imply that Nature has consciousness? If so does this mean that Nature is God, or is this universal consciousness not divine?
These questions might seem like a distraction, but Stoicism is philosophy and these are philosophical questions.
We survive in groups, so being good team players evolved as part of our psychology. But human psychology is flawed. Our most basic moralistic impulse is selfish—”you shouldn’t do that to me.” The cultural concept of universal human rights is necessary to protect every individual’s hardwired sense of personal boundaries.
This argument is pragmatic, however. It asserts that virtues like justice are cultural concepts—tools, if you will—that are instrumental in creating the kind of society we all want to live in.
In other words, my framework doesn’t deny the importance of virtue or human excellence, but it’s not in total agreement with ancient Stoicism. Of course, modern Stoicism is free to update itself based on modern views of the world.
Virtue and modern Stoicism
This doesn’t mean that modern Stoicism has to abandon virtue. For many people modern Stoicism’s appeal is the idea of keeping your cool and putting things in perspective by distinguishing between what’s under your control and what’s not under your control. Perhaps it makes sense to start with the practical usefulness of Stoic ideas and to extrapolate from there that reason, wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation are the most effective values for maximizing the benefits of Stoicism.
True friends of free speech support the first amendment even when they’re deeply offended.
I’ve been an ardent supporter of free speech since high school when I first became interested in politics.
In the 1980s free speech was considered a liberal issue. Conservatives—especially the Christian Right—frequently tried to ban books. Even Judy Blume novels.
The left wing free speech movement, however, which was born at the University of California Berkeley in the 1960s, died at Berkeley in 2017.
Free speech becomes a conservative issue
Today it’s not uncommon for people to think I’m a conservative because I support free speech. I’m neither conservative nor liberal/progressive.
With progressives disinviting not only conservative speakers but even centrist or left of center freethinkers—and others shouting down anyone they disagree with rather than engaging in thoughtful dialogue—conservatives have been vocal about the importance of free speech.
Meanwhile, progressives have increasingly argued against free speech. It’s popular to claim that hate speech is not free speech. But that only shows progressives’ ignorance of the first amendment.
Free speech is a guarantee that you will be offended. So expect it. Deal with it. You’re an adult.
And remember, defending free speech doesn’t mean you agree with what’s being said. You can’t agree with everyone, but you can defend everyone’s right to free speech.
Yelling fire in a crowded theatre
People also like to repeat the cliche that you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre. This comes from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1919 opinion in Schenk v. United States.
But Justice Holmes was wrong. Schenk was a challenge to the Sedition Act of 1918 which made protesting US involvement in World War I illegal. Many socialists, including Eugene Debs, were thrown in prison for anti-war protests.
The first amendment does indeed protect public opposition to war and criticism of the government in general.
Besides, being anti-war is in no way comparable to yelling fire in a crowded theatre. And if you did yell fire then your crime isn’t what you yelled but rather the bodily harm you caused to people who subsequently panicked.
You hurt my feelings
Progressives today, however, defend the “yelling fire” argument by claiming that free speech hurts their feelings, and therefore speech (and even open dialogue) is violence even when no bodily harm occurs.
These are the same people who wonder why they can’t win elections.
More to the point, you’re contradicting yourself if you support the “yelling fire” argument while also supporting Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. Kaepernick has hurt many people’s feelings, and that’s the same as violence according to progressives and their predecessor, Justice Holmes.
But progressives only oppose speech they disagree with. They quickly abandon their alleged principles when someone says something they agree with.
And so conservatives hold themselves up as paragons of American liberty.
Not so fast
As it turns out, conservatives also support free speech only when they agree with what’s being said and abandon their principles when someone says something they disagree with.
It’s as wrong to say Ann Coulter should be deplatformed as it is to say NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired.
Are you offended when football players kneel? Get over it. Free speech means you will be offended from time to time.
But it gets worse. Republicans control all three branches of government. The first amendment doesn’t apply to private universities or companies like Google even if ethically they have a responsibility to uphold American values like free speech.
After all, free speech is the cornerstone of human rights. Without it all other human rights are at risk.
Government officials and agencies, however, are legally bound by the first amendment. Yet President Trump called for the FCC to revoke NBC’s license because he doesn’t like what the media says. To its credit the FCC rebuked the president. Revoking NBC’s license would be unconstitutional and unAmerican.
That the most powerful conservative in the world—Donald Trump—is so disdainful of free speech, American liberty, and the United States Constitution—and that so few conservative proponents of free speech chose to denounce Trump—shows that conservatives are false friends of free speech.
Everyone believes they have rights. But individual rights crumble without universal human rights.
The universe, or nature if you prefer, seems indifferent to me.
Species evolve then die out. And things go on.
An animal eats another animal alive, at great suffering to one and benefit to the other.
Millions of human beings have lived and died but today are completely forgotten as if they never lived.
Yet, human beings evolved a set of behaviors that enhance the survival of individuals who depend in part on the group to survive.
Those who did not play well with others in the evolutionary environment found themselves ostracized — and perhaps unable to survive without the group. And the group killed some for being a threat to other people’s survival.
Our innate moral sensibilities, in order of importance, are:
You shouldn’t do that to me.
You shouldn’t do that to people I care about.
I shouldn’t do that to you if others will hold me accountable.
We’re first and foremost concerned about what happens to us, and how we treat others is often an afterthought — especially if we think there won’t be any consequences.
This sounds cynical and selfish. But everyone is self-interested. Those who deny this are the most dangerous of all because they fail to see their selfishness until it’s too late.
But just because selfishness is part of our evolutionary inheritance does not mean things ought to be this way. The fact that we can do better challenges excuses for acting selfishly.
Further, morality isn’t just a matter of personal preference. It’s true that no man is an island — even a hermit needs other people to survive.
An important aspect of morality, then, consists of standards generally accepted by a group for continued membership in that group.
And the recognition that we are incorrigibly egotistical is necessary to see the larger group picture.
That’s why various iterations of the Golden Rule — from the Far East to the West — tell us to treat others the way we want to be treated.
It’s a moral ideal precisely because it runs counter to our impulses.
The problem, however, is that a group might oppress a minority or an out-group without negative consequences. Tribalism is also an evolved feature of human behavior, and it has serious consequences for our treatment of foreigners, minorities, and so on.
On what basis can say this is wrong?
If our primary moral sensibility is that “you shouldn’t do this to me” then the rights of the individual are the basis for all human rights.
To put it selfishly, if you don’t support human rights for others then you have no reason to expect others to support your human rights.
Moreso, culture is the mechanism for promoting ideals such as universal human rights.
If limiting ourselves to our biological inheritance were sufficient then we’d still be living in caves. But we are capable of creating technology that improves our lives and reduces the capricious effects of nature.
Likewise for culture extending moral ideals beyond our selfish impulses.
Still, we cannot completely eliminate tribalism. But we know we’re failing when we point a finger at others.