Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Of souls and society

How does one reconcile the need for the soul to find its purest expression with the need for society to effectively function? This is perhaps the most difficult question for one who places unlimited value on the beauty and nobility of the human soul but who also admits of the need for people to assemble and march forward together.

And it is a thornier issue than some might think. This is not simply the conflict between individual and society. It is that and more. Sure, we can point to the importance for the individual of having the opportunity to self-express, an opportunity without which there might not be anything to express. But one can make a case that the needs of the soul are also the needs of society. That society cannot function without the robust and diverse development and expression of individual human souls. Much as we require biological diversity on our planet, we require the diversity of thought and behavior to help us refine our knowledge and our methods of living. John Stuart Mill expressed this same position in On Liberty:

"In the case of any person whose judgement is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so?... Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind."

This is as true for the small adjustments we must make to move from legitimate expertise to even greater levels of accuracy and Truth as it is for the major leaps forward that require truly divergent thinking.

So if both individuals and societies need a diversity of expression of the soul, how can we insure this diversity while also respecting the more mundane needs of society?

I'm not going to offer any good answers here. I don't have any yet. But perhaps I can offer a few thoughts that may prove useful.

To start with, I think it important to acknowledge that some souls are just screwed up. Whether nature created them that way or they became so by dint of a malformed nurture, some people have evil at their core. Allowing them an opportunity to explore, develop and express their souls will accord them and society no benefit. They must, somehow, be prevented from doing so. And whether we conceptualize this as a necessary infringement on the rights of the soul based on Mill's greatest liberty formula or we argue that an evil soul is really no soul at all and that its restraint is actually a nod of respect to the human soul, most reasonable people agree that the restraint of an evil soul is good.

But this is almost easy. What of souls that are not evil but which are only non-conformist? The most extreme case might be where an individual rejects formal laws on moral grounds. The American Revolution would be one such example. Socrates' behavior in Athens another. The recent Iranian demonstrations another. And so on. What behavior should we support? In this case it seems hard to me to support maintaining the formal law and looking down on an individual that follows his soul in an effort to dismantle an unjust law. On the other hand, what if he is wrong? Do we want anarchy?

A less extreme case would be where an individual, in the search for a pure expression of soul, violates not a formal legal rule but an informal social more. Say he burps at a table where such behavior is considered impolite. In this case, it seems difficult to argue that individuals should restrain themselves. Sure, a loud burp might be unpleasant, but would we really want to stifle all thought and behavior that upsets social mores and prevailing opinions?

So it seems to me that there is a continuum along which we can place the various types of situations. At one end, lie situations where the pursuit of individual aims and the expression of the soul can only damage society. This is the case of the evil person bent on wreaking havoc. At the other end lie cases where the individual cannot meaningfully damage society. In the middle lie the difficult cases. The violation of law on purportedly moral grounds. The extreme business risk in pursuit of success. And the like.

From the perspective of society, I suppose we can talk about the expected value to society of pursuing the individual expression of the soul versus blindly maintaining the prevailing system. At least here we have a grounds for comparison in the common unit of value (though in practice it may be difficult or, even, impossible to measure).

But how can we ever decide between the value of letting souls pursue their beauty and nobility and the need to maintain societal harmony?

Which brings me back to my opening question. None the wiser but considerably more tired!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Yeah, it's that fast

I got a message from Twitter on Sunday at 12:15AM that some entity was now following me (I'll leave the name out but it sounded like some marketing agency). Ten seconds ago (so that's almost 24 hours to the minute), I got a direct message from them with a "special offer" to their new "Twitter friends" for their internet marketing training program.

Don't I feel special.

They have already been blocked and unfollowed.

It didn't have to be this way at all. They could have let me read their stuff for a while. They could have sent me a message telling me who they are, what they do and the kind of content I could expect from them. Over time, I might have been receptive to a pitch about their internet training. Now they will never know. They apparently wanted to skip the introductions, avoid buying me dinner and just hop right into bed. All without the benefit of me seeing how hot they are.

My friend Jeremy Epstein writes about this all the time. The world has changed. If you try to get in my face with your selling as opposed to engaging me respectfully in a relationship, you're done. You're done because it's just that easy to block you.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Is courage worth it?

WARNING: For this post, I am going to conflate non-conformity and courage. I recognize that they are not the same thing. But they do share certain features and I am in the mood to conflate. If you are allergic to conflation, please consult your philosophy professional before reading this post.

The question posed in the title of this post is something I have been grappling with personally and professionally for some months now. In my life I have seen ample evidence of Emerson's comment that "for nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure." I have felt the sting of that whip many times. And lately it has got me wondering whether it's worth it.

After my two recent posts about change (see the most recent one here), I wanted to write about courage. Specifically, I wanted to exhort and encourage my tiny readership to act with courage in their lives.

But now I'm not so sure. I wonder if it's worth it.

On the one hand, courage is so badly needed in order to produce the revolutionary change I discussed in my last post on change. Someone must have the ability and willingness to challenge the prevailing order and produce the ideas that will illuminate the future.

On the other hand, there is that whipping.

So I don't know.

But it seems to me that those who are non-conformists, who are courageous just don't have a choice. I would imagine that the soldier that jumps on a grenade does so not out of a careful consideration of the relative merits of maintaining his own life versus preserving the lives of others, but simply because he cannot help himself. The thought of not saving the lives of his comrades is just not part of the package for him.

In a much smaller way, I think about myself. I feel that my life would be so much easier if I just went along. If I thought as others did, felt what they felt and acted as they act. But then I think about that life. It feels very much akin to what Thoreau meant when he wrote that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." I cannot really imagine living that life. I cannot imagine being happy without the ability to imagine a different world and attempting to bring it into existence.

What scares me about that is that I see a lifetime of whipping. It was much easier to take as a 20 year old. It's starting to hurt as a soon to be 40 year old.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

This is priceless!

It almost doesn't get any better than this.

a recent post, I included a video from There's Something About Mary. The video was of the scene where Ben Stiller picks up the hitchhiker whose brilliant business idea is a 7 minute abs workout program to compete with the market leader, the 8 minute abs program.

Stiller points out that the idea is all well and good until someone else comes out with a 6 minute abs program.

Well today, my friends, I have found the 6 minute abs program!

This is just cracking me up.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A guide to change Part II

A few weeks ago I wrote about change. I identified two types of change: evolutionary and revolutionary. I focused that post on evolutionary change and promised to come back with my thoughts on revolutionary change.

If you've been waiting for the Part II (and you know who you are) then your dreams are about to become reality.

I should tell you that I have a greater personal affinity for revolutionary change. It's not that I don't think both types are equally necessary. They absolutely are. It's just that my heart lies more with revolutionary change. You may see that affinity in the way I write about change but please don't take this as an intellectual position that one is more important than the other.

I do hope you will go back and read the post on evolutionary change. But here's a quick synopsis: Evolutionary change is about making stuff work and work better. It takes early form ideas and their early implementations and slowly makes them better to the point where they work really well. Evolutionary change is what makes society work.

So what about revolutionary change? We'll come to that in a moment. But first I feel a responsibility to point out that revolutionary change is not, necessarily, an armed insurrection. Armed insurrections are, certainly, one form of revolutionary change but I will speak more generally about revolutionary change. Furthermore, please do not mistake my passion for revolutionary change as support for armed insurrection. I am not one of those who likes to literally storm barricades. Please contact your local law enforcement agency for any details on the legality of armed insurrection in your jurisdiction.

And now we can talk revolutionary change.

1) What is it?
This is the rapid progress that constitutes major shifts in thinking and, therefore, behavior. This takes society from a belief that the answer is 3 to a belief that the answer is Q. Or guacamole.

Revolutionary change is a change in a significant paradigm, framework, perspective, mental model. Use whatever bit of jargon you like. The point is that it is a major qualitative change in thinking.

When I say that revolutionary change is rapid, I do not mean to indicate chronological rapidity. Revolutionary change may happen very slowly over time. Ideas ferment. They are discussed and debated. This can take centuries. Instead, I mean logical rapidity. Revolutionary change is discontinuous. The intellectual activity that led to the American Revolution stretched very far back in time from 1775. One could make a case that it stretched back at least 560 years to the Magna Carta. Still, to people not involved in the intellectual or creative activity behind the scenes, there is often a single moment in time that delineates the old world from the new. At one point there was a shot heard round the world and the colonies were in rebellion.

Great! After having disassociated myself from armed insurrection, I give you an example of armed insurrection to describe revolutionary change. Here's another example: gay marriage. The arguments in favor of legalizing gay marriage in the U.S. are decades old. But today, Vermont started legally marrying gays. Yesterday they didn't. Today they do. See?

2) What is it used for?
Revolutionary change is designed to replace foundational ideas (whether for an individual, a business, a state, a society...) that are either wrong or that simply have run their course as means of guiding or inspiring behavior. Newtonian Physics worked well for a while. It wasn't useless. But Einsteinian Physics was found to be a much better theory.

As I pointed out in the other post, evolutionary change is designed to increase functional performance. It makes things better. But at some point the evolution runs out of steam because the guiding principles behind it have produced all of the improvements that they possibly can. When that happens, a revolution is needed. A new idea. Something to inspire continued progress.

3) What does it contribute?
New ideas and the massive shifts in thinking that lead to great new behaviors, policies and products. Revolutionary change is the engine that drives progress in the world. Even though, as I pointed out earlier, evolutionary change is critical, evolutionary change needs something upon which to exercise its evolutionary powers. Something has to create the new ideas and the prototypes that will serve as fodder for the processes of evolutionary change. And that something, my friends, is revolutionary change.

4) What are its flaws?
The biggest flaw is that it's messy. The qualities that make it so valuable also, unavoidably, make it messy. Because it brings about significant change and we are rarely ready to completely absorb that change and deal with its implications and effects.

This messiness is also manifest in the behind-the-scenes intellectual and political ferment leading up to the discontinuous effects. Revolutionary change can cause significant discord because not all people agree. Not everyone agrees that a fundamental change is needed. And even those who agree will often disagree on which revolutionary path to follow. Revolution demands quite a bit of faith precisely because it is so new and untested. And it is difficult to get everyone to agree on matters of faith. This sort of messiness sometimes ends up in actual armed insurrections which may be necessary at times but certainly impose a significant cost on everyone involved.

Another flaw is that revolutionary change is so inspiring that it can pull people away from taking the time to evolve ideas and make them better. The prospect of new ideas, new behaviors, new products can be so sultry and alluring that people may too hastily discard the existing ideas. Revolutionary change may cause people to treat everything as a fad and make it more difficult for them to respect the sort or stability that most people need to live healthy well-adjusted lives.

5) How do you create revolutionary change?
You ask lots of "why" and "what if" questions. You fantasize. You challenge the most sacred laws. Of religion, society, culture and, yes, nature.

BTW, when I say that you challenge these laws I do not mean that you go around acting rude or pissing people off. I mean that you challenge them in your mind. You play with them mentally to see whether they are really true and necessary. You discuss with others.

6) What kind of people are good at revolutionary change?

People who can hold two opposing thoughts in their mind at once. People who can acknowledge that objects fall when dropped but also imagine a world where objects can fly.

People who just have an ability to look at the world and see it as it could be rather than as it is. People who can see past (or through) the structures that have been created and understand the underlying principles behind them. And then destroy those principles.

People who are more comfortable than others being laughed at. People who are more inspired by their ideas than they are by the opinions that others have of them. Because let's face it. The Wright Brothers probably took a lot of shit. As Emerson said, "for non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure." So true. You've got to be able to tolerate the whipping. This is not masochism. I'm not talking about people who just like being whipped. This would actually be very conformist. I'm talking about people who can tolerate the whipping. Who either don't feel it because they are so wrapped up in the inspirational content of their ideas or who feel it but can live with it because they value truth and progress more than the feeling of not being whipped.

Leaders of revolutionary change must have lots of courage. Which is a topic I hope to address in an upcoming post.

To quickly sum up both of my recent posts on change, evolutionary change makes society work better today. Revolutionary change allows it to continue working tomorrow. Balancing the two types of change and the need for some modicum of stability is a tricky task. Leaders must consciously plan for this lest their institution sway too far to an extreme, sacrificing today for tomorrow, tomorrow for today or simply whipsawing back and forth so quickly that people can never feel settled in their lives.