Base your self-esteem on your rationality

Some time ago, I wrote a piece called “How to ar­gue LIKE STALIN—and why you shouldn’t”. It was a com­ment on the ten­dency, which is very wide­spread on­line, to judge an ar­gu­ment not by its mer­its, but by the mo­tive of the ar­guer. And since it’s hard to de­ter­mine some­one else’s mo­tive (es­pe­cially on the in­ter­net), this de­cays into work­ing out what the worst pos­si­ble mo­tive could be, as­sign­ing it to your op­po­nent, and then writ­ing him off as a whole.

Via Cracked, here’s an ex­am­ple of such ar­gu­ing from Con­ser­va­pe­dia:

“A liberal is some­one who re­jects log­i­cal and bibli­cal stan­dards, of­ten for self-cen­tered rea­sons. There are no co­her­ent liberal stan­dards; of­ten a liberal is merely some­one who craves at­ten­tion, and who uses many words to say noth­ing.”

And speak­ing as a loud & proud rightist my­self, there is more than a lit­tle truth in the joke that a racist is a con­ser­va­tive win­ning an ar­gu­ment.

I’ve been puz­zling over this for a few years now, and try­ing to work out what lies un­der­neath it. What always struck me was the heat and venom with this kind of ar­gu­ment gets made. One thing has to be granted—the peo­ple who Ar­gue Like Stalin are not hyp­ocrites; this isn’t an act. They clearly do be­lieve that their op­po­nents are morally tainted.

And that’s what’s weird. Look around on­line, and you’ll find a lot of ar­ti­cles on the late Christo­pher Hitchens, ask­ing why he sup­ported the sec­ond Iraq war and the re­moval of Sad­dam Hus­sain. Every­thing is pro­posed, from drink ad­dling his brain, to sel­l­ing out, to be­ing a willful con­trar­ian—ev­ery­thing ex­cept the ob­vi­ous an­swer: Hitchens was a friend to Kur­dish and Iraqi so­cial­ists, saw them as the rad­i­cal and rev­olu­tion­ary force in that part of the world, and wanted to see the Sad­dam Hus­sain regime over­thrown, even if it took Ge­orge Bush to do that. No wish­ing to re­vist the ar­gu­ments for and against the re­moval of Sad­dam Hus­sain, but what was strik­ing is this ut­ter un­will­ing­ness to grant the as­sump­tion of in­no­cence or virtue.

I think that it rests on a sim­ple, and slightly childish, er­ror. The er­ror goes like this: “Only bad peo­ple be­lieve bad things, and only good peo­ple be­lieve good things.”

But even a ba­sic study of his­tory can find plenty of ex­am­ples of good—or, any­way, or­di­nary—chaps sup­port­ing the most apal­lingly evil ideas and ac­tions. Most Com­mu­nists and Nazis were good peo­ple, with rea­son­able mo­tives. Their virtue didn’t change any­thing about the sys­tems that they sup­ported.

Flip­ping it around, be­ing fun­da­men­tally a lousy per­son, or lousy in parts of your life, doesn’t pro­clude you from do­ing good. H.L. Mencken op­posed lynch­ing in print, re­peat­edly, and at no small risk to him­self. He called for the United States to ac­cept all jew­ish re­fugees flee­ing the Third Re­ich when even Amer­i­can jewry (let alone FDR) was luke­warm at best on the sub­ject. He was on ex­cel­lent terms with many black in­tel­lec­tu­als such as W.E.B DuBois, and was praised by the Wash­ing­ton Bureau Direc­tor of the NAACP as a defen­der of the black man. He also main­tained an ex­plic­itly racist pri­vate di­ary.


The er­ror that I men­tioned leads to Ar­gu­ing Like Stalin in the fol­low­ing way: some­one looks within him­self, sees that he isn’t re­ally a bad per­son, and con­cludes that no cause he can en­dorse can be wicked. He might be mis­taken in his be­liefs, but not evil. And from that it is a re­ally short step to con­clude that peo­ple who dis­agree must be es­sen­tially wicked—be­cause if they were vir­tu­ous, they would hold the views that the self-iden­ti­fied vir­tu­ous do.

The heat and ven­ome be­comes in­evitable when you base your self-es­teem on a cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tic or mode of be­ing (“I am tol­er­ant”, “I am anti-racist” etc.) This re­in­forces the er­ror and puts you in an in­tel­lec­tual cul de sac—it makes it next to im­pos­si­ble to change your mind, be­cause to ad­mit that you are on the wrong side is to ad­mit that you are morally cor­rupt, since only bad peo­ple sup­port bad things or hold bad views. Or you’d have to con­clude that just be­ing a good per­son doesn’t put you always on the right, even in big is­sues, and that sud­den un­cer­tainty can be just as bad. Try think­ing to your­self that you—you as you are now—might have sup­ported the Nazis, or slav­ery, or any­thing similar, just by plain old er­ror.

Self-es­teem is hugely im­por­tant. We all need to feel like we are worth keep­ing al­ive. So it’s un­sur­pris­ing that peo­ple will go to huge lengths to defend their base of self-es­teem. But in­vest­ing it in in­ter­nal pu­rity is in­vest­ing it in an in­tel­lec­tual junk-bond.

Em­pha­siz­ing your in­ter­nal pu­rity might bring a cer­tain feel­ing of faux-con­fi­dence, but it’s mean­ingless ul­ti­mately. Could the good na­ture of a Nazi or Com­mu­nist save one life mur­dered by those sys­tems? Con­versely, who care what Mencken wrote in his di­ary or kept in his heart, when he was out try­ing to stop lynch­ing and save Jewish re­fugees? No one cares about your in­ter­nal pu­rity, ul­ti­mately not even you—which is why you see such pu­ri­tan­i­cal navel-gaz­ing you see around a lot. Peo­ple try­ing to in­sist that they are perfect and pure on the in­side, in a slightly too em­phatic way that sug­gests they aren’t that sure of.

After turn­ing this over and over in my mind, the only way I can see out of this is to base your self-es­teem pri­mar­ily on your will­ing­ness to be ra­tio­nal. Rather than in­sist­ing that you are wor­thy be­cause of char­ac­ter­is­tic X, try think­ing of your­self as wor­thy be­cause you are as ra­tio­nal as can be, check­ing your facts, steel­man­ning ar­gu­ments and so on.

This does bring with it the afore­men­tioned un­cer­tainty, but it also brings a re­lief. The re­lief that you don’t need to worry that you aren’t 100% pure in some ab­stract way, that you can still do the de­cent and the right thing. You don’t have to worry about failing some lu­dicrous ethe­real stan­dard, you can just get on with it.

It also means you might change some minds—bel­low at some­one that he’s an awful per­son for hold­ing racist views will get you nowhere. Tel­ling him that it’s fine if he’s a racist as long as he’s pre­pared to do right and treat peo­ple of all races justly, just might.