Brain bugs Archives

May 27, 2010

Underachievers of the world: Slack off!

One of my self-identified Lefty comrades recently wrote, in connection with a topic mentioned earlier here:

So either one is arguing for meritocracy (who did that?) or we accept and advocate for people performing below their full potential. My that binary looks good on you. Can we please not simply argue for the opposite of what the other side does. We are smarter than that.
Note the giant unexamined assumption here that's there something wrong with "people performing below their full potential." When did that commandment get added to the Decalogue?

It's just a lemma, of course, of the whole bourgeois instrumental-rationalist notion that life is all about maximizing some function or other -- utility, hedony, efficiency vel sim(*).

But let's focus specifically on the idea of "performing at full potential". This phrase is of course just modern pseudo-quantitative managerial-pedagogical jargon for what used to be called the virtue of Industry.

As virtues go, this is an awfully new one. Industry would not have been considered a virtue in the ancient world, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance. Aristocrats would have found it revoltingly ungentlemanly, and peasants, artisans and slaves would have thought it insane. In fact, they might have fragged you for practicing it and making the rest of 'em look bad.

I doubt that the virtue of Industry is in fact much older than, surprise, the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps a little. Anybody got texts to suggest from before, say, the later 18th Century?

The first person I can think of, offhand, to write in praise of Industry (The Virtue) is Benjamin Franklin, who notoriously compiled a list of thirteen -- count 'em, thirteen -- virtues. (The Middle Ages only had seven, three theological and four natural.)

Ben's list is well worth reading:

  1. TEMPERANCE -- Eat not to fulness; drink not to elevation.
  2. SILENCE -- Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. ORDER -- Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. RESOLUTION -- Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. FRUGALITY -- Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself i.e., waste nothing.
  6. INDUSTRY -- Lose no time, be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary action.
  7. SINCERITY -- Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. JUSTICE -- Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. MODERATION -- Avoid extremes, forbear resenting injuries as much as you think they deserve.
  10. CLEANLINESS -- Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. TRANQUILLITY -- Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. CHASTITY -- Rarely use venery but for health and offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
  13. HUMILITY -- Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
A text worthy to be inscribed on every sweatshop wall, isn't it?

D H Lawrence has never been my favorite writer -- though I knew a girl once who was crazy about him, and she was quite something -- but he's very good on Ben and his virtues:

This is Benjamin's barbed wire fence. He made himself a list of virtues, which he trotted inside like a grey nag in a paddock.

.... A Quaker friend told Franklin that he, Benjamin, was generally considered proud, so Benjamin put in the Humility touch as an afterthought. The amusing part is the sort of humility it displays. 'Imitate Jesus and Socrates,' ... One can just imagine Socrates and Alcibiades roaring in their cups over Philadelphian Benjamin, and Jesus looking at him a little puzzled.

.... He had the virtues in columns, and gave himself good and bad marks according as he thought his behaviour deserved. Pity these conduct charts are lost to us....

He was a little model, was Benjamin. Doctor Franklin. Snuff-coloured little man!

... I admire him. I admire his sturdy courage first of all, then his sagacity, then his glimpsing into the thunders of electricity, then his common-sense humour. All the qualities of a great man, and never more than a great citizen. Middle-sized, sturdy, snuff-coloured Doctor Franklin, one of the soundest citizens that ever trod or 'used venery'.

I do not like him.


(*) And you often find a further utterly unjustified and entirely unexamined idea that these three maxima are mutually implicit -- maximizing one implies maximizing the others. What a hoot, huh?

Mr Doolittle on the virtue of industry

Anent an earlier topic. It's all been said before, and said better. From Pygmalion, of course:

Doolittle. What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am.

Think of what that means to me as a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You're undeserving; so you can't have it."

But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's... I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, 'cause I'm a thinking man....

Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving.

What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.

Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I'm playing straight with you. I ain't pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that's the truth. Will you take advantage of man's nature to do him out of the price of his own daughter what he's brought up and fed and clothed by the sweat of his brow until she's growed big enough to be interesting to you two gentleman? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you.

Higgins [rising, and going over to Pickering] Pickering: if we were to take this man in hand for three months, he could choose between a seat in the Cabinet and a popular pulpit in Wales.

Pickering. What do you say to that, Doolittle?

Doolittle. Not me, Governor, thank you kindly. I've heard all the preachers and all the prime ministers - for I'm a thinking man and game for politics or religion or social reform same as all other amusements - and I tell you it's a dog's life any way you look at it. Undeserving poverty is my line. Taking one station in society with another, it's - it's - well, it's the only one that has any ginger in it, to my taste.

Higgins. I suppose we must give him a fiver.

July 1, 2010

A Crow's Eye View of the Authoritarian Personality

The post, with excellent comments.

Every relatively healthy adult experiences cognitive dissonance as a severely distressing condition. In the face of overwhelming refutation, supplied by people and world around them, they sooner or later back away from the insupportable belief. It's not easy, sometimes, and it can take ages to make headway. But it does happen. The defensive constructs of wilder and wilder dissonance pall and finally gall so much that it's a relief to give up on them. What comes after, of course, varies.

The Crow's Eye post (and comments) takes a hard look at the serial imputation of idealized qualities to public figures who invariably fail to live up to them. The qualities, if they existed, would be sufficient to impart vast integrity in the face of totalizing systemic obstacles to their exercise. As the systemic obstacles are indeed totalizing, effectively so at that, the vast integrity remains forever out of reach. But there's no shortage of new faces to which it can be assigned. And that's a lot easier than taking a step into what looks like chaos. The dissonance, then, is a comfort. Not distressing except in the moments between new faces.

About Brain bugs

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Stop Me Before I Vote Again in the Brain bugs category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Blue skies, nothin' but blue skies is the previous category.

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