Playing the victim

© Dave DuBay

The word victim gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes it’s a description. Other times it’s a criticism.

People are victims, in a technical sense, when they’re the target of a crime; and in a more colloquial sense whenever they’re treated unjustly. This is situational. But certain groups encounter injustice far more often than others, and some say they’re oppressed in a pervasive way due to race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, social class, and so on.

Others collect grievances, including seemingly minor offenses, or microaggressions, such an Asian-American being asked where they’re from. This can lead to the accusation that some people think of themselves as victims in a generalized sense, though the accused usually deny this.

Whether someone is playing the victim is not for me to say. But there is a red flag I often see: the desire we’ve all experienced to blame others for our dissatisfaction in life.

Tribalism is a feature of every human culture. Even toddlers form cliques. It may be biologically hardwired. But that doesn’t mean it’s our destiny. We’re intelligent creatures, and we’re capable of taking steps to mitigate tribalism.

Still, us vs. them is a compelling narrative. It’s all too easy to find an enemy—real or imagined—whom we blame for our difficulties in life. Some ideologies even find a scapegoat for everything that is wrong with the world.

Some Christians blame atheists. Some Muslims blame infidels. Atheists often blame religion. Conservatives and progressives blame each other. Libertarians and anarchists blame the government. Feminists blame the patriarchy. Men’s rights activists blame feminists. And so on ad nauseum.

There’s a failure to realize that while someone may have done something to us, and while we did not choose this situation, how we react to it is up to us.

Epictetus observed that “an ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.”

He isn’t saying that the situations we find ourselves in are our fault. Circumstances, according to Epictetus, lie outside our sphere of control. But whether circumstances lead us to become dissatisfied with life and resentful of others is up to us.

In other words, instead of thinking that they’re out to get me I can decide what action I’m going to take. It’s the difference between learned helplessness and being proactive.

But blaming others has its incentives. Being persecuted puts us at the center of attention. It gives us a feeling of moral superiority. And blaming others absolves us of any responsibility for acting to resolve things.

This phenomenon is magnified when we belong to an ideological group with a defined enemy. But we should be skeptical of all ideologies. None have it all figured out, and all have their weak points. But we should be especially distrustful of ideologies that blame a particular group or person for what’s wrong with the world.

Challenging our group’s orthodoxy is much harder than criticizing an outside group. It takes no courage for a political party to criticize its opponents, but it takes great courage for a party member to stand up and say, “You know, we’re not really morally superior to our opponents.”

I like the fact that Stoicism has no external enemy—not even Epicureanism. Though the two philosophies disagree, neither thinks the other is out to get them. Stoicism teaches that if I’m unhappy then it’s up to me to change that. The obstacle is the way, as Ryan Holiday puts it.

To be more direct, if I have an enemy then the enemy is me. So it’s my responsibility to change my own behavior.

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Anxiety and locus of control

Do you focus on your choices or on events you don’t control?

© Dave DuBay

In book two part thirteen of his Discourses Epictetus makes an astute observation:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety I say, “What is it that he wants?” For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters a theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that his something that lies beyond his control.

I feel anxious when I want a certain outcome but I’m not sure if it’ll happen. Or worse, there’s an outcome I don’t want but I may not be able to prevent it from happening.

Psychologists talk about an internal or external locus of control. People who believe they can control the outcome of events have an internal locus of control while those who think they have little power have an external locus of control.

This is important because people with an internal locus of control are more likely to take action and to take responsibility for themselves. But people who think things are the result of dumb luck are more passive and more likely to blame the circumstances.

Stoicism makes a key distinction between things that are not up to us—which includes all external events—and things we do control, namely our deliberate choices.

So does Stoic philosophy promote an internal or external locus of control?

Some might say that Stoicism’s locus of control is external due to its claim that external events are not up to us. In a Facebook discussion someone asked why a Stoic would even try to accomplish something if the outcome is not up to her. But that’s anxiety talking—it ignores what is up to her.

I think Stoicism’s locus of control is internal due to its claim that our deliberate choices are up to us. Put differently, we have no power over events (though we may have degrees of influence), but we do have power over how we respond to these events.

Let’s return to the lyre player. Why even bother learning to play in the first place? Because trying or not trying to learn a musical instrument is a deliberate choice. How hard he practices is also a deliberate choice.

Innate talent, or talent relative to other musicians, is not a deliberate choice, however, so the musician must approach his endeavors with a reserve clause: I’ll do my best but also try to practice non-attachment regarding my desired outcome.

Besides, the musician must realize that ultimately he will lose his ability to play. He’ll get older and less nimble. Arthritis may strike.

And most important for Stoics, the only thing that cannot be taken from him is his character. Even if Alzheimer’s strikes and he begins exhibiting inappropriate behavior we cannot say that he willfully sacrificed his character but rather that his brain has become diseased.

But for now the musician must focus on his chosen response to events. Even if the audience boos him he can still maintain his character by not retaliating and instead holding his head high with dignity.

Judgmentalism reveals our insecurities

And that also puts other people’s judgmentalism into perspective.

© Dave DuBay

Everyone knows that a stronger person can overpower you. But perhaps that’s not quite true.

Physically, yes, you can be overpowered. But even if they threaten to kill you they still can’t make you do something that you think is wrong. Socrates chose to die rather than agree to something he thought was wrong. Jesus is probably the best known example.

They can’t even make you believe something that is false. If you verbalize agreement when really you disagree then they haven’t truly changed your mind.

Philosopher Epictetus points out that at noon when the sun is shining brightly someone cannot really make you believe that it’s nighttime, even if you say it’s night. If someone sincerely thought it was night they would be mistaken. That’s why he thought that most people hold false beliefs (which they might act on) not out of maliciousness but out of ignorance. Still, ignorance can have very destructive consequences.

Assent can only be given freely—coercion can merely appear to do so. Brainwashing can be resisted, though it may be a formidable challenge. And even if brainwashing succeeds we cannot say the asset was given freely.

Which brings me to feelings of anger, anxiety, and shame over being judged for a choice or opinion that belongs to me and not to the person rendering the judgement.

Judgment is a type of insult. It threatens social exclusion. And judgement springs from insecurities over someone else having a different viewpoint, and uncertainties over those opinions.

If I express my opinion on something—say a political issue—then someone who disagrees might judge me or even tell me what my opinion should be.

Of course, if my opinion was a judgement on something that’s none of my business, or if the facts demonstrably refute me, then they’d be right to object—but not in a way that attacks me personally.

Otherwise, they’re not entitled to judge me because my opinions don’t belong to them. I could point this out to them—but that would be defensive, and it’s likely to result in a pointless argument.

Instead, one simple statement would suffice:

“I do not assent to your judgements.”

What could they say to counter that? They could tell me I should assent. Or reiterate their judgements hoping that the repetition will overcome me. But if I remain firm there is nothing more they can do.

I can remain firm by reminding myself that they have no power over my choice to give or withhold assent. And by reminding myself that their misperceptions are probably due to ignorance rather than maliciousness.

Another scenario: Someone else expresses an opinion that I think is offensive—such as claiming that certain people are inferior.

My objections can be expressed without moralistic judgment, such as stating why I think opinions like that cause harm. I don’t need to attack the character of this person, which again are probably due to ignorance. Their opinions don’t belong to me, so I’m not entitled to judge them. But my opinions are mine, so I can express why I disagree.

Are they likely to respond to my objections with judgements and insults? There’s a good chance. I have no control over their judgements, so what would getting upset or retaliating accomplish except to show that they’ve bested me?

Besides, their judgements reveal their insecurities. That observation doesn’t need to pointed out to them—that would be petty. Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is to not be like your enemy. That means responding to your enemy with kindness rather than anger. Maintaining my composure but not backing down on my viewpoint is the best approach.

Stoic compassion

Stoic compassion isn’t an oxymoron.

© Dave DuBay

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.

Dreaming of handguns

The other night I dreamt I was in an office. There was a locked glass door, and if someone buzzed to get in I could push a button that would open the door.

I heard it buzz, but no one was at the door. Instead a cart that looked something like a rectangular skateboard was rolling toward the door. The cart had a box on it. This seemed odd to me.

I thought maybe I shouldn’t open the door. But whoever set the cart in motion wanted the cart in the office, and I didn’t want to disappoint that person.

So I opened the door. I took the lid off the box that was on the cart. Inside was a handgun. I knew that in the office there was another box that had several guns in it, so I picked up the handgun and put it with the other guns.

I decided it was no big deal. But then the police arrived looking for a man who just killed someone. I realized that the gun must be the murder weapon, and now my prints were on it because I touched it.

Why myth matters: a review of Jordan B. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning

Somewhere in northern Arizona

Maps of Meaning. That’s psychologist Jordan B. Peterson’s description of myth. His book is by a professor for professors, so it’s a challenging read – very technical and dense. I didn’t make it through the entire book, but enough to get the gist.

Part of what Peterson does is connect neurology to “the architecture of belief,” with a particular focus on Jungian archetypes. I won’t go into detail about that. But the basic idea is that just as the general structure of language is hardwired in the human brain even though specific languages must be learned, the general structure of storytelling is also hardwired even though specific stories must be created and learned.

Science & myth

Peterson makes a crucial distinction about the role of science and the role of myth. Science describes the world of things – what composes them, how they physically interact with other things, etc. But myth is about meaning. More so, myth is a call to action.

Familiar territory feels predictable and safe, but unexplored territory feels unpredictable and chaotic. The unknown is both frightening and alluring at the same time. And myth is a journey from the known to the unknown to bring back something of value.

The basic mythological template, Peterson writes, is a metaphor for our lives. Our present state is familiar, and we may be complacent even if things aren’t so good right now. But we also have an ideal future – a desire for how things could be better.

That desire is an expression of meaning. It’s not a scientific endeavor even though scientific knowledge can help us navigate the world. Further, this hero’s quest is a responsibility. Responsibility being the primary source of meaning.

Myth is a challenge

The challenge myth articulates is that we must act without truly knowing what our actions will bring. Unpredictability is chaos, and when things don’t go as expected we can become irate.

The world is a forum for action and myth serves as a guide. A particular pitfall, however, is that we’re inclined to compare what we have with what we want, not with what may actually be. That is, we’re prone to illusion.

Each person’s challenge, Peterson says, is to develop a personality capable of facing even extreme conditions. The exploratory act quells chaos, freeing something valuable from its grip (sometimes represented as a dragon’s gold). By incorporating this value we are transformed.

Psychology

Peterson analyzes myth and claims there are common archetypes or images used to represent the process – the hero’s journey – of leaving the comfort of familiar territory, which protects us from chaos, to undertake the dangerous task of confronting chaos in unexplored territory.

Seen through a Freudian lens, the unknown is the Id, the known is the superego, and the knower/hero is the ego.

The structure of myth

In myth there’s a threat to the comfortable state of affairs. This status quo, this unself-conscious paradise, however, is incomplete. It represents childhood, and the terrible mother – nature’s chaos – is the threat. The hero confronts her but is swallowed, often represented as a visit to the underworld. There the hero must defeat a monster (or perhaps death itself), and be transformed. The hero must then return to transform the community.

Sigmund Freud’s student, Carl Jung, articulated several archetypes or characters that appear in myths worldwide. It all starts with primordial chaos before creation, represented variously as dragons, serpents, waters of the deep, and so on:

  • Nature is the eternal unknown. Every archetype has positive and negative aspects. At the positive pole, the great mother gives birth to nature from primordial chaos. But everything must also die. The terrible mother is a devourer, the goddess of anxiety, depression, even pain and death. Nature uses destruction to create new things, so primordial chaos is somewhat retained in nature. The great mother also gives birth to the hero, who might be her lover as well. Myths are weird in the same way that dreams are weird. Maybe that’s where many myths came from.
  • The known is culture – the wise king or father whose shadow is the tyrant. Culture is predictable and disciplined, but can be restrictive and tyrannical. Ritual imitation of the great father protects us from the fear of unprotected exposure to unexplored territory. The resulting culture, or group identity, restricts the meaning of things and makes social interactions more predictable. But it can also heighten social aggression when the unknown intrudes. And denial of the unknown (“we have infallible knowledge”) can lead to hell on earth.
  • The knower is the hero, who is sometimes a sun god or the son of the great god. The hero slays the dragon, vanquishes the villain, or defeats death, which represent chaos. But the hero’s shadow side is the adversary – the prince of darkness – who rejects the unknown. Loyalty to personal interest – identification with the hero – is important to counteract group pressure.

According to Peterson, myths feature the positive aspects of order (the father) and the hero (usually the son) protecting against destruction (the terrible mother); or the negative aspects of tyranny and the adversary against creation.

Notice that he places the masculine and feminine in opposite directions. It’s like the father and the hero’s positive poles point one way, and the mother’s pole points in the opposite direction. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Real world implications

Throughout human history myth has been central to people’s worldviews. Modern Western society is an outlier because myth is seen as superstition. But science and myth are not incompatible considering the distinction that science is an objective description of things while myth is a guide for acting on the subjective meaning we ascribe to things.

However, Peterson warns that involuntary exposure to chaos can unleash forces that can undermine a culture’s known world. The societal destruction that accompanied European contact with the people of the Americas is one example.

Further, there’s a tension between freedom and security. Order can keep the chaos of untamed nature at bay, but order can also be overbearing and deadly. The hero must achieve a delicate balance of creating order from chaos while maintaining novelty and flexibility.

Too much order and predictability denies the unknown, which can lead to violence to suppress the perceived threat. Lucifer’s pride is thinking that all he knows is all that’s necessary to know – an apt description of religious fundamentalism or secular utopian schemes such as communism and fascism. This arrogance creates hell on earth.

Is reason overrated?

Carefree, AZ

That we are primarily driven by emotions seems obvious to most of us. But even before Plato some have believed that with a little effort we can – and should – make reason primary.

Is that even possible? Seneca, writing On Anger, says anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Emotions easily override reason. Seneca isn’t necessarily saying that reason can’t redirect emotion, though. But being a Sage is almost impossible.

The elephant and the rider

Not so fast, says Jonathan Haidt. He published The Righteous Mind in 2012. He says his research on moral reasoning shows that moral reasoning is intuitive, or driven by proto-emotional sensibilities that may or may not develop into full blown emotions. And reason’s role is providing excuses after that fact. Haidt quotes David Hume as saying that reason is the servant of the emotions.

Haidt uses the image of a rider on an elephant. Our intuitions and emotions are big and powerful like elephants. And like elephants, emotions are intelligent. But they can be unruly and are sometimes destructive.

The rider can’t totally control the elephant, but a skilled rider can figure out what the elephant wants and try to guide it to a better path. The rider’s most import task, however, is to convince other elephants that this is a good elephant – even if that’s not true. Haidt describes the rider as a PR spokesperson and defense attorney.

The lord of the rings

The self-serving bias – and everyone’s lack of self-awareness regarding it – is well documented in psychology. Within the individual, reason is about self-justification. Conscious reasoning is mainly about persuading ourselves and others that we’re good, regardless of the truth.

Haidt points to a debate between Plato and his brother Glaucon. Plato thought it’s better to be good than to have a good reputation. But Glaucon claimed that people care more about their reputations than actually being good, so the only way to really be good is to be held accountable to others.

Glaucon even said that if you had a magic ring that could make you invisible then you’d become evil because you could do anything with zero accountability. J.R.R. Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, seemed to agree.

Most psychologists side with Glaucon, but ancient Stoic philosophers often sided with Plato. Epictetus, however, adds an important caveat. He says we get confidence and caution backwards. We shouldn’t worry about things we don’t control. But we should be cautious, rather than confident, about things that are up to us such as our chosen beliefs, and deliberate thoughts and actions.

Epictetus wrote, “To act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.” He fully understood how easily we let the elephant steer while the rider believes the lie that it is in control.

Reason is indifferent to virtue

It’s noteworthy that Haidt isn’t saying reason is useless. Without reason we wouldn’t have modern science. And reason, after reflecting on a situation, can come up with better ways of handling things, which in turn might influence future behavior.

How we think about things is central to Stoic philosophy. But in contrast to the Stoics, Haidt says it’s a delusion to think that reason is our most noble attribute. Put differently, reason is indifferent to virtue and vice. Further, reason detached from emotion is psychopathy.

But in Stoic philosophy virtue must be reason’s goal. And by virtue Stoics mean not just ethics, but excellence in general. That’s also why Stoicism values cultivating positive emotions.

Reason is a social activity

No other animal is capable of reason like we are. The trick is to use reason well. Haidt says that reason is used best when we know that knowledgeable people will be made aware of our choices, but we don’t know if they’ll approve.

Stoics also believe that being social creatures is central to human nature – no other species cooperates on the scale human beings do. So reason, virtue/excellent, and sociability are essential to each other.

The Stoic focus on sociability shows that Stoics have never thought that most of us can be islands of virtue unto ourselves. But our desire for reputation questions the Stoic claim that virtue is the only thing we need to be happy. Maybe that’s why the Sage is a mythical figure – and no Stoic philosopher ever claimed to be a Sage.