“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who”
-Rudyard Kipling, The Elephant Child
With all due respect to Mr. Kipling I have found that there are three (3) questions which rank as being of primary importance in the world we live in. These questions are sadly not asked frequently enough, and if they were asked more, answered honestly, and then the answers acted upon, we would live in a very different world indeed. So, without further ado, let’s begin.
Watch 1:00 to 1:30
The most frequently asked of these infrequently-asked questions, why is actually a prime example of a question almost universally not being answered satisfactorily and honestly.
Many Some of you may recall that I am fond of this question and especially the formulation of what I call a “why ladder” (“Logical Disgreement/Beyond Good and Evil,” 26 June 2012), where you essentially keep asking “why?” until the person either a) communicates the answer (root cause) if they know it, b) gives an answer of “I don’t know” if they legitimately don’t know and are honest about it, or c) anger. I mistakenly assumed when I wrote that post that these were the only three outcomes when constructing a why ladder, but there is actually a fourth: circular reasoning.
For example, I have this one friend with whom I often discuss matters with and I have realized that trying to communicate ideas with him is an uphill battle. For whatever reason he doesn’t like to hear new ideas from me even if they are relatively self-evident or backed by science. I could go on and on about his dated assumptions regarding so-called human nature, his high-esteem for the merits of drudgery, his sophomoric attempts to pass off something he learned in a lecture as the missing link to all human understanding, and of course his insistence that there is a feminist plot to enslave mankind, but that would simply be vindictive and a result of my bitterness about his many successful attempts to stymie my pursuit of logic. In an effort to overcome his stubborn refusal to admit that I might (from time to time) know what I am talking about, I decided on a different approach; I would ask him questions, mostly “whys,” in an effort to lead him toward finding knowledge on his own. I unfortunately sorely underestimated his anti-intellectualism, and I realized that he (shrewd asshole that he is), understanding what I was asking him and sensing he knew (unconsciously or otherwise) where I was going with it, would refuse to answer my questions honestly and would respond to subsequent whys with previously given answers.
Me: Well, you seem to feel that A is a problem, but what caused it? (why?)
Him: Well its cause of B
Me: Okay I see, but why does B exist as such?
Him: Cause of C
Me: Well, what conditions are in place (why?) that give rise to C?
Him: I already told you, its because of B!
You see what he did there? B is both the cause of and a result of C. How is this possible? Well its not, but sadly such circular, self-referential reasoning is far too commonplace. And whether it is religion, the social system we have, or some other deeply-held belief or value-system which people strongly identify with, everyone has a box in which they can not argue outside of. For if they did acknowledge that the answer might lie outside of their cognitive comfort-zone it would open them up to the possibility that they might be mistaken about other things as well (God Forbid).
This is why I emphasize that these questions must not only be asked, but answered honestly. After all, do we really think that it is some political party, or union, or criminal, or music genre, or violent video game which is the root cause of all of our problems? Of course not, yet these irrelevant issues are constantly attacked as if overcoming them will make life better somehow, when in fact they are actually so removed from the life sequence of value as to be less substantial than a popcorn fart.
…a Final Word on “Why”
For a long time Jeopardy has been my favourite game show. I find the formula of “questioning answers” instead of answering questions to be an interesting take on the typical trivia format. And as this post makes clear, I, like Alex Trebek, am a fan of people asking the right questions. However, I have noticed that the questions contestants respond with are always in the format of, “who is ____?” or “what is _____?, or infrequently, “where is _____?” I have never to this day seen a contestant answer with “why is _____?”
Think about that for a second.
Now think of what kind of clue could be given to necessitate a response beginning with “why?”
“Why is our socio-economic system such an abysmal failure, Alex?”
Something tells me that such a question wouldn’t serve the purposes of Alex Trebek’s overlords at Sony Corporation. That actually brings me to my next question…
For those who don’t read latin, this translates to, “To Whose Benefit?” This is an oft-unasked question because the answers can frankly be scary. After all, people don’t want to think that someone benefited from a tragedy or crisis, but it holds true that this is often the case. Don’t believe me? Consider the following:
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” -Rahm Emanuel
“All we need is the right major crisis…” -David Rockefeller
“Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” -Warren Buffett
“Fortunes are made in recessions” -Anonymous
You see my point I hope. Even outside of the financial and political realms this is true. On an interpersonal level, I have been aware for some time that there is no such thing as bad news, just “news” and how you take it and use it is what matters. For example, if you have a bit of a spat with someone or disappoint them it can rightly be seen as an opportunity to redeem yourself and find yourself in higher esteem than you would if you hadn’t gotten into a bad situation in the first place.
When it gets scary is when you realize that some person or some organization of great means might actually effect a crisis in order to benefit from it. This is colloquially called “conspiracy theory” but it is in reality the aforementioned law principle Cui Bono, handed down from the ancient-Roman legal tradition.
“Now its conspiracy … something that should not be even entertained for a minute: that powerful people might get together and have a plan. Doesn’t happen. Youre a kook, youre a conspiracy buff!!”
-George Carlin, relevant as always
I think the truth in this question rests in the fact that regardless of your opinion on orchestrated tragedies, crises, etc., you have to concede that because we live in a competitive system, some person(s) must lose so others can win. IN EVERY TRANSACTION! After all, we can’t all be millionaires, right?
Now go ahead and mull that point over for a sec because I want to make sure you are in agreement with that basic truism of our system before I go on, as my next point is predicated on it.
Seriously, think it over for a sec. I’ll go watch porn for a few minutes.
Are we all in agreement then? Do you acknowledge that in a competitive system there has to be a loser for there to be a winner? Good, because you must then also acknowledge the corollary, that there must be a winner to be a loser. Think about that: every loss you have ever had has been a gain for someone else, usually a financial one. Everything you dread, fear, or cower from is dollar signs for someone else. Car breaks down? Dollar dollar bills for the auto-service industry. Loved one dies? Pay-day for a mortician. Terrorist attack? Foreign Belligerent? War?…
I’ll just leave this here…*
I really want to make clear that everything bad that happens, whether deliberately brought about or not, is profitable for someone. When we start asking who benefits, we start to see the world in a much more honest, if sometimes cynical way. But cynicism is the cult of the weak; a temple for those who feel indignant and impotent. Much better to empower yourself…
What Would YOU Do?
You have probably heard of this Jesus guy at some point. People have in recent years pondered what he would do in any given situation. We know they were pondering this because they wore cheap bracelets with W.W.J.D. inscribed on them:
I never had one but I think I’ll start bringing it back.
In any event, I don’t think most people would know what Jesus would do. My respect for the man comes not from the bible but from an interpretation of his acts which I read in a non-violence class I took. He was actually kind of a badass who seized upon the moral initiative, establishing himself as alpha-dog in social situations and pre-empting violent confrontation…
Well, MOST violent confrontation…
…with the strength of his presence, knowledge of self, and social clout. But even if you possess my knowledge of the man (a knowledge which rivals that of any biblical scholar), and furthermore a knowledge of what he would do, that still begs the question: What would YOU do?
Not such an easy answer, is it? I think in our heads we mythologize Jesus and treat him as kind of a superhero; something unattainable. In fact, that is missing the point; MY Jesus is the most accessible, down-to-Earth guy ever invented and he lived by a simple code. Anyone can live up to the Jesus-code because it doesn’t ask more than anyone can give, but it does ask for all they can give.
Now I don’t want my admiration for and dick-riding of Jesus to get in the way of the point I am trying to make because nobody has to do what Jesus would do. However, anyone who poses direct questions to themselves and finds honest answers finds themselves in the unique and lamentable position of no longer being ignorant. And when you are no longer ignorant, a moral imperative arises, for you can no longer carry on the way you did in ignorance and keep a clean conscience. When you know a behaviour is harmful or that you are contributing to a problem, it will gnaw at your conscience and peace of mind every time you engage in said behaviour. We shouldn’t try to suppress this, for it is every fibre of our being telling us to do the right thing.
So what would you do? Sometimes doing the right thing is passive, amounting to little more than abstaining from socially harmful behaviours. Other times it is much harder, requiring difficult choices and actions. But following the hard path, whether you want to call it the Jesus-path, the Gandhi-path, the MLK-path, the Zeitgeist-path or whatever, is much more satisfying, even if not rewarding in the superficial sense. You know it from those times you did right by someone for no reward, or from those times when you intervened and prevented great tragedy from befalling someone. And whether you call it altruism or enlightened self-interest, there is a feeling you get both from direct action and from making the right long-term choices which is the true meaning of life. If this sounds preachy, its because it is: unqualified, uncompensated love for another human being is the greatest joy I have yet found.
I think if we ask honest questions of ourselves, both the first two questions I posted and others, we come to certain truths rooted in natural law and universal human need. And when we realize these truths, it is actually more difficult to resist the path of good than it is to follow it. Let me say in closing that the hardest decisions I have ever arrived at were actually easy choices to make but difficult to follow through with.
*Taken from the facebook group for the army regiment I belong to.