Keeping partisanship out of Stoicism

Honest people may disagree on what is just.

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© Dave DuBay

Stoicism is primarily about justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom. Mitigating negative emotions by distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not up to us—and what belongs to us and does not belong to us—is a way to practice these virtues.

But politics, like religion, is increasingly a moralistic endeavor. Conservatives, progressives, centrists, and libertarians all believe that their political ideology is the wisest and most just. It was simply a matter of time before some Stoics would start suggesting that a true Stoic must endorse this or that political ideology.

Partisan politics, however, undermines trust and respect in a group. It shows a failure to understand what’s your and what’s not yours.

I’ve seen a few Facebook posts promoting psychologist Jordan Peterson as a Stoic hero. Peterson’s big idea is that you will only create chaos if you try to change the world before you get your own life in order.

But his politics often overshadows his self-help message. Peterson shot to fame with his vocal opposition to adding gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law.  Most legal experts, however, disagree that people will be forced to use alternative gender pronouns.

Peterson sees pronouns as a symptom of a larger problem. He rails against “postmodern neo-Marxism” (a straw man conflation of two different things). And his caricature of the left has caught the alt-right’s attention, though Peterson condemns the alt-right.

Meanwhile, left leaning Stoics are pushing progressive politics. Author and philosopher Massimo Pugliucci recently wrote on his blog that of course Stoics should call themselves feminists and support other progressive social justice causes.

I disagree with Massimo, however. I don’t disagree that feminism is about women’s equality. But women’s equality and gender equality, though related, are not the same thing. Further, feminism is only one of many ways one can support women’s equality. And I disagree with feminism’s frequent anti-male rhetoric, the way it ignores issues other genders face, and the popular claim that conservative women cannot call themselves feminists (especially if they’re pro-life).

I also disagree with the frequent progressive failure to reject bigotry as a matter of principle (e.g. “It’s not sexist when women say derogatory things about men,” “African-Americans can’t be racist,” or “Religion is just an excuse to discriminate.”).

Not being a progressive doesn’t imply lack of support for social justice. I believe that the equal rights of the individual are the basis for universal human rights. Further, these rights exist independent of government, and government’s first task is to protect these rights by not placing restrictions on how you live your life (so long as you don’t impose yourself on others). And I endorse the belief that people should be judged by their character, not by their race, sex, gender, religion, etc.

But I am not about to say that Stoics should be classical liberals. Other people’s choices don’t belong to me. Rather than say that Stoics must adopt certain political labels or causes, my position is that if a Stoic claims to value justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom then it is that Stoic’s responsibility to develop political positions that reflect this. Honest people will disagree, however, so this means there will be conservative Stoics, progressive Stoics, centrist Stoics, libertarian Stoics, and so on.

The best response to someone who says that a Stoic should adopt this or that political label or position is: “That’s not up to you.”

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Maybe we can’t get past our pain, but we can get past our tunnel vision

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

I just finished watching Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Roosevelts. Eleanor Roosevelt is known to history as a kindhearted person, a woman of character who treated others with human dignity. She was the primary mover behind the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And there’s Mr. Rogers who taught the inherent worth of every person. And people who knew him say, yes, he was really like that.

Neither Eleanor Roosevelt nor Fred Rogers lived a charmed life, however. Mr. Rogers had a lonely childhood and was bullied by his peers. As a child Roosevelt’s mother would tell her how ugly she was. Her father’s alcoholism killed him, and she lived with abusive, drunken uncles. She married her cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt (so her maiden name and married were name the same). He was repeatedly unfaithful to her.

But Roosevelt and Rogers were forces for human dignity because of their pain. Not because they somehow got over their pain, but because they got past their tunnel vision. Their pain was the source of their empathy—even when personally attacked they could see the pain inside the other person and respond with compassion.

It’s something many of us aspire to but fail to achieve. And people who can’t get past their tunnel vision not only can be destructive—they often think their abuse of other people is morally justified.

They see themselves as the real victims. Hitler, for example, was abused as a child and claimed he was defending Germans against their Jewish oppressors. Stalin was once a political prisoner who subsequently sent millions to the gulag in the name of economic justice.

Abuse is often excused as a justified punishment for a moral transgression. When we feel the desire to punish someone we should stop and ask ourselves what our true motives are. Setting healthy boundaries with people or not bailing people out from the natural consequences of poor choices aren’t the same as punishment. And punishment is sometimes necessary, as when someone commits a crime. But other times it’s revenge we’re after.

The Washington Post recently ran an op-ed called “Why can’t we hate men?” The outrage and the defenses it sparked were predictable. There’s a petition to sanction gender studies professor Suzanna Danuta Walters for writing the piece, but I don’t think that will accomplish anything. There are too many calls to fire or punish people instead of genuine efforts for dialog.

Men too often take the bait with articles like this. Their anger and defensiveness gives others the opportunity to laugh at them. Instead we must simply observe the fact that misandry has always been a thing in feminist circles. I’m not saying that all feminists hate men, or that misandry is a central aspect of feminism. But it is tolerated.

Far too many women have been subjected to gender based abuse, and this is the source of much misandry. And though we as a society rarely talk about it, women’s gender based abuse of boys and men is the source of much misogyny.

But none of this is an excuse for hate. Yet, we have no control over what other people do. The starting point is oneself. Promoting human kindness and avoiding hate is the most powerful thing I can do. It’s my responsibility. Look at what Eleanor Roosevelt and Mr. Rogers accomplished for humanity compared to Hitler and Stalin.

This is a challenge for every age, and ours is no exception. Every day brings a mean tweet from President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, millionaire Bill Maher hopes for a recession so Trump won’t be reelected, despite the harm this would cause for millions of working families.

Over at the New York Times David Brooks advocates “personalism.” He notes that, “We talk in shorthand about ‘Trump voters’ or ‘social justice warriors,’ but when you actually meet people they defy categories.” These labels ignore “the uniqueness and depth of each person.”

Personalism, Brooks continues, is about seeing each “person in his or her full depth.” This approach is I-Thou rather than I-It: “get to know their stories” instead of seeing them as data points.

Punishing people like Professor Walters won’t defeat the hate she promotes. Recognizing her humanity while also setting firm boundaries—including her responsibility to recognize the humanity of others—is a better approach.

And this can start with the question: “What do you think increased hatred will achieve for the equal human dignity of all people?”

MS-13 are animals. We all are.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

President Donald Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals.”

E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post disagreed, saying that “It’s never right to call other human beings ‘animals.’”

And writing for the National Review, Dennis Prager responded that Dionne reveals “the moral sickness at the heart of leftism.”

Dionne thinks his position is beyond debate: “No matter how debased the behavior of a given individual or group…dehumanizing others always leads us down a dangerous path.”

Worse, “Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”

Prager, however, writes that dehumanizing some people actually protects the rest of us. He continues, “By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human.”

Prager means human in the moral, not biological sense. Otherwise, what meaning does the word “inhumane” have? Would Dionne not see the Nazis as inhuman?

Prager clarifies that inhumanity should be based on behavior and not “directed at people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other immutable physical characteristic.”

Dionne deals in absolutes: never and no debate. But the problem with absolutes is a lack of nuance. However, Prager doesn’t add enough nuance to this discussion. He still imputes inhumanity to individuals based on group membership. Certainly joining the Nazi party or MS-13 involves a serious moral compromise. But some Nazis and gang members commit worse atrocities than others.

We have all harmed others. A key question is: At what degree of harm do we lose our moral status as human? And what must we do to gain it back? Too often the answer is self-serving and lacking in self-awareness.

We are all animals. Biologically and morally.

Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years. And like our chimpanzee cousins, we can be vicious. Even bonobos may not deserve their peaceful reputation. And we still carry this evolutionary heritage with us. But we also evolved frontal lobes capable of inhibiting violent behavior—capable even of reason when we are at our best.

We are all animals. But we can do better.

Prager’s statement about the sickness at the heart of leftism highlights the problem. His us-vs.-them attitude seems to assume that progressives are sick and conservatives are morally elevated.

Does Prager recognize that he too is an animal?

The animal within can too easily escape if we fail to admit we too are capable, under certain circumstances, of inhumanity. Those who fail to understand this are in danger of becoming the monster they seek to destroy.

Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.

Go ahead & vote for a third party if you want to. Well, maybe.

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Mt. Blue State Park, Maine

People say that a vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson is really a vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and/or Trump, depending on which poll you believe, respectively.

Well, no one I know has actually said that. They say a third party vote is really a vote for someone else. But that logic is flawed, as my parody illustrates.

A vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for Gary Johnson, and a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Jill Stein. It really is that simple.

Of course, what people mean is that a vote for a third party candidate has the effect of electing the ideologically opposite major party candidate.

But they’re forgetting about the Electoral College. I noted before that the United States has always been a two party system because the president is elected by the Electoral College and not by popular vote.

This winner take all system means a third candidate could thwart a majority in the Electoral College, throwing the vote to the House of Representatives where it’s sure to become a cluster fuck.

A third party vote in swing states like Ohio or Florida could affect the national election, if there’s critical mass in that state and if the Electoral College math nationally is close. That did happen in 1992 when Bill Clinton got elected with a minority of the popular vote.

But most states clearly lean Democratic or Republican. Hillary Clinton will not win Texas, and Donald Trump will not win Massachusetts.

There probably aren’t enough Gary Johnson supporters in Texas to give Hillary a victory there. And Massachusetts Green Party voters are unlikely to hand Trump a victory in that state.

So vote the way you want. But with this point of caution: My personal metric (which I’m pulling out of my hat) is that if the major party candidates are less than 10 percentage points apart in your state, and if a third party candidate seems to be getting a lot of attention, then you should think about the possibility that a split vote could elect the worst of two evils.

Baby Boomers and Millennials don’t exist

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Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Some say Millennials are really two generations – younger Millennials had different experiences growing up.

And P.J. O’Rourke claims Baby Boomers are made up of four classes.

I know what he means. My father was born in 1946. His youngest brother was born in 1964. Both are Baby Boomers, but they’re not from the same generation.

In today’s fast moving world, people born sixteen to eighteen years apart grew up in different cultural contexts.

Maybe it’s better to talk about cultural cohorts rather than generations. The world of your tween years to early 20s has a far bigger impact on your worldview than any other time in your life.

You’re likely to share a similar cultural context with someone born three or four years before and after you. That’s a six to eight year span. Anymore than that and your cultural context drifts farther apart.

Pop culture makes an early impact. And while politics comes later, pop culture recedes as you get older.

But there’s a big overlap. I didn’t list specific years in the chart below because you might have been ahead or behind the times.

The first column lists when different cohorts were born, when they came of age and formed their worldviews, and the important political and pop culture events of that time. I’m sure I’ve missed many things, but you get the picture.

Born Early/Mid 1920s

Came of Age Before 1945

Great Depression & World War II, Glenn Miller Band, big band
Born Late 1920s to Mid 1930s

Came of Age Mid 1940s to Early 1950s

Early Cold War, nuclear fears, 1950s conformity, TV introduced, Frank Sinatra, I Love Lucy
Born Late 1930s to Mid 1940s

Came of Age Mid 1950s to Early 1960s

Beginning of the Civil Rights movement, early rock n roll, Elvis
Born Late 1940s to Mid 1950s

Came of Age Mid 1960s to Early 1970s

Countercultural revolution, Civil Rights, Vietnam, second wave feminism, early gay rights movement, the Beatles, acid rock, hard rock, The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Born Late 1950s to Mid 1960s

Came of Age Mid 1970s to Early 1980s

Post-Nixon malaise, stagflation, disco, All in the Family
Born Late 1960s to Early 1970s

Came of Age Mid to Late 1980s

Reagan Revolution, culture wars 1.0, AIDS crisis, MTV & HBO, Madonna, Cold War ends
Born Mid 1970s to Early 1980s

Came of Age Early to Mid 1990s

Neoliberalism, third wave feminism, Internet 1.0, grunge rock & hip hop, Seinfeld
Born Mid to Late 1980s

Came of Age Late 1990s to Early 2000s

Tech bubble bursts, 9-11 & fighting 2 wars, Internet 2.0, American Idol & reality TV
Born Early to Mid 1990s

Came of Age Mid 2000s to Early 20-Teens

Continued war, first smartphones, Great Recession, first black president, social media, gay marriage gains ground, Lady Gaga & Katy Perry, Internet TV
Born Late 1990s to Early 2000s

Will come of Age Mid 20-Teens to Early 2020s

TBA: The Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton presidential race will set the stage

What does this tell us about Americans today?

Look at how the world has changed for people born in the early to mid 20th century! Not just technologically, but culturally as well. Who in 1945 would have believed that gay marriage would be a nationwide thing by 2015?

Older Baby Boomers came of age just before the countercultural revolution. Some of them stuck with the old ways. But younger Baby Boomers were more likely to embrace this shift.

Older members of Generation X developed their political consciousness in the late ’80s after the Reagan Revolution had taken hold. But younger GenXers were more informed by Bill Clinton’s neoliberalism.

Older Millennials distinctly remember 9-11 and graduated from college just as the Great Recession hit. Younger Millennials barely remember 9-11 but do remember how scared adults were. In their experience, the US has always been at war and the economy has always been terrible. That creates a sense of unease and uncertainty.

And what about people born in the first decade of the 21st century?

They’re just starting to come of age. Their first political memories are of a loud and opinionated man who wants to be president, and who promises to bring back the past. (They must be thinking, “What was the past like?”)

His opponent looks like grandma. But adults say they don’t trust her even though she doesn’t say mean things like the other guy does. And most adults seem really mad about the whole thing.

How will their worldview develop and mature? I don’t know. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election will have a lot to do with it.

Disagreement Isn’t Closed Minded

Years ago a coworker told me that she and her fiancé visited his Lutheran pastor because they were to be married in his church. The pastor asked her if she believed in Christ. She said no, she was raised Christian but is now a Unitarian-Universalist (most UUs believe in God but not the Trinity).

The pastor asked her why she was so closed minded. And that pissed her off. Not believing what he believes doesn’t make her closed minded, she told me. She respected his beliefs, and in the process of rejecting Christianity she had taken the time to educate herself about Christian belief.

Too often, when someone tells you that you don’t understand or that you’re not being open minded, what they really mean is that they want you to agree with them. But it’s entirely possible to understand a situation yet come to a different conclusion.

Religion and politics are where charges of closed mindedness occur most often. Who is more closed minded, conservatives or liberals? Or is that a bullshit question? I’ve met too many open minded conservatives and closed minded liberals, and open minded liberals and closed minded conservatives, to draw a facile conclusion. Rather, I think the more strident people’s ideologies, the less open minded they tend to be.

In brief, this is what open mindedness means to me: the effort to understand each perspective, even if I disagree; and trying to accurately and respectfully represent my opponent’s views without distortion (even if I sometimes fail).