The hard work of civility

Content warning

I’m pretty sure this is gonna annoy or piss off nearly everyone.

In both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections here in America, there were widespread expressions of shock. Many Americans began to see a near-majority of us as being demonstrably evil. Or, at the very least, the other half sees evil as a tolerable state of normalcy.

I chose to use the meme above because of how confrontational it is. To forgive mistakes and to see the good in those that are guilty of evil feels very different now. Nearly impossible.

Nor am I exempt from this. Lots of queer people like myself get used to people-pleasing because we are so deprived of acceptance that any price might seem acceptable. I won’t belabor this point but I’ll say that, in order to reverse this destructive psychological tendency, I swung hard in the other direction.

I essentially adopted a policy of zero expectations from others and license to do whatever I want, without explanation or justification. Pure fairness.

This belief is also embodied in a well-known adage from Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible: “If your happiness or success is offensive to someone, DESTROY THEM”

This continues to be one of my favorite quotes and I’ll probably embroider it on a homey lil doorway decoration that all cute, quaint little houses seem to have.

I believe in my lived truth: I cannot do otherwise. I know what it is like to learn the value of dignity the hard way. But even if the specific point of contact between lived truth and objective reality is difficult to perceive, it must be grappled with.

This would be true anyway, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it unavoidable. The new, resilient and even more contagious strain that originated in the United Kingdom is now in America, and even before that we’ve fucked up our response so badly that we got travel-banned by the EU. Our negligence, as private individuals, is now pushing the limit of our healthcare, administrative and scientific infrastructure. Those who did not take the first lockdown seriously are now saying that we should have followed the order better the first time around. Reality has become so negotiable that we see it as our due when we make exceptions to break quarantine. Across America, hospitals are being filled to capacity and dead bodies are quickly and efficiently removed because of the need for more hospital beds. Our belief in our right to ignore the needs, humanity and mortality of others has enabled this pandemic to become what it is here.

There is, though, a less obvious but equally pressing need for greater unity. A society that values democracy as an aspiration will not change without minds being changed. Minds do not change without conversation. The portrayal of civility above as a naïve attempt to marry an unstoppable force with an immovable object is a lived reality in many respects. I have no desire to sit down with people who do not think I am as human as they are, or that the historical trauma of my ancestors was an acceptable price to pay for the proliferation of Western culture. But there is no other way forward.

In an adversarial duopoly such as the one America is subject to, there are convenient and practical reasons not to believe this. We are shown that the side opposite our own will stop at nothing to defeat us, including sabotage, deception and potentially even violence. We often feel that to play by the rules under those circumstances is a mistake. A friend of mine once said “When you try to be reasonable with unreasonable people, you get played.”

If you were not alive for it, then consider what racial integration in public schools must have looked like when Lyndon Johnson decided to enforce it with the military. At that time, it must have seemed like a question with a diversity of opinions on both sides and to claim that you are right and so many others are wrong would have sounded like sweeping arrogance. Yet we now take racial integration in society for granted. Democratic change happens through exposure to other ideas and sometimes that exposure must come through confrontation. A first blow needs to be struck sooner or later. When the abolitionist John Brown was publicly hung, a young solider named John Wilkes Booth was in attendance who would go on to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, other contemporaries of Brown equated his willingness to die for the greater good with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The early skirmishes preceding change are always seen in the most polarizing and combative lights. If these necessary challenges to popular wisdom are to last, though, conflict cannot be the end even when it must be the beginning.

If not sooner, conversation must happen later. And the prospect makes my blood boil, at times. I grew up practicing a marginalized religion and my Christian neighbors spent both my childhood and their own trying to convert me and convince me that Western conquest could not have been that bad if Natives got Christianity out of it. The various rounds of bathroom panic create an expectation that myself and those who share my gender identity are sexual predators and that we are obligated to explain how we are not. Transphobia and stealth racism have become fashionable brands and a method for washed up political figures and celebrities to renew their cultural relevance. I have dated people who saw me as racially inferior and my gender identity as false and I simply took the time to civilly engage them in conversation about it when I could. And it has never gone well. I detest the prospect of nobly taking one on the chin for the moral edification of others for the rest of my life.

On the other hand, I could not have made it this far in my life and achieved this much success and happiness if I thought everyone who demonized me and people like me were demons themselves. This admission, though, must co-exist with the point of contact between lived truth and objective reality. What would such reconciliation actually look like?

I once had a traumatic encounter with someone who was released from prison mere weeks beforehand, having been jailed for victimizing others the way he did me. Might I, potentially, be required to shake that person’s hand, or the hands of those like him? During the few occasions where he approached me in public afterward, I could not even bring myself to make eye-contact with him. When he was seen around my mother’s workplace a few years later, I ended up binge drinking for days.

Perhaps there is a boarder to the territory of forgiveness. If so, I don’t know definitively where it is and I doubt anyone else does. I would also like to clarify that I am not equating violent people with those who give voice to bigotry. We are all familiar of the conversational slope of “what about”-ism, though. I am only relating that memory as my only experience that could furnish a worst-case scenario of forgiveness. Yes, someone who enables or condones evil might not be an evil person- but what about those who have committed predatory acts and have an established pattern of it? If conversation is necessary in the long run, then the scope of necessary engagement will probably include some painful conversations. If all movements for positive change start as a marginalized effort, though, then the fear of a bad outcome cannot stop us from trying.

There is a concept that has degraded from misuse by bad faith pundits in the last decade. This is the free market of ideas. Without those harrowing conversations, we cannot say that we have given the range and applicability of public discourse it’s due. The free market of ideas cannot be dismissed as a dishonest ploy from hipster commentators if there are ideas that have not entered the market for fear of bad company.

The true, ethical imperative of civility and dialogue can lead to frightening responsibilities and confrontations. It frightens me. But what alternative exists? If we see those who disagree with us as monsters in human form, what would the application of this belief look like? If we cannot deign to associate with them at all, then we cannot claim to be the victims of unfairness when they accuse us of being tribal and unreasonable. As potentially terrifying and mysterious as such negotiations may be, a pandemic in which our healthcare system is bursting at the seams is not the time to experiment with disposing of civility.

At the same time, though, we need to be able to recognize other common-sense needs. We need our Lyndon Johnsons and our John Browns and those who are willing to use their power unapologetically for the greater good. I absolutely support the push for Progressives in Congress to force a vote for Medicare for all and a greater stimulus effort because the health care system and our profit-driven society simply have not left us prepared to face things like a long quarantine during which we can’t work in person (or at all). Civility must be weighed in balance with external demands, but the degree to which other people create external demands means civility will keep coming up.

Other contemporary events, such as civilian violence, may also be attributable to others who feel driven by necessity. This has the appearance of an impossible and escalating gridlock. I acknowledge that it is possible, but I do not think it is necessary. Not only does civil discourse need to be weighed in balance with circumstantially necessary action. It must remain possible at roughly the same time (whether intermittently or perpetually).

This will not be easy. Yet when we are driven to act unilaterally, we can at least be honest about why. Those reasons being laid bare enables others to speak to us on the level at which we need to be heard.

-Leonard Cohen

Leftism, transphobia and Zeno’s paradox

Zeno’s paradox, for our purposes, can be summarized thusly: someone shoots an arrow and measures it’s progress by halves. While measuring by halves, one is constantly shaving off a half of the difference no matter how close or far the arrow is. While measuring in the halves of the closing distance, one could potentially keep measuring the relative halves down to subatomic increments and never actually record the impact.

Obviously, the arrow is going to hit something sooner or later. This is undeniable, but it is also possible to measure the progress in such a way that it cannot be perceived.

Since the American presidential election ended, I’ve taken a break from writing about political stuff. It simply wasn’t doing my mental health any favors. I was watching a video from the YouTuber called Thought Slime, though, about transphobes attempting to weaponize philosophical materialism. A commonly echoed point shared by this flavor of bigot is that A. trans people claim that gender is a social construct and B. social constructs are not real.

The analogous relationship this claim has to Zeno’s paradox is also uncannily relevant to the recent voter-shaming fad within the American left. To keep things sequential, though:

The gender-essentialist avenue of transphobia typically allies itself with a clash between philosophical materialism and linguistic fluidity. You know, the Jordan Peterson/J.K. Rowling types that hold that post-modernism is being turned against cultural institutions that are validated by human nature and tradition. Ergo, the notion of social constructs amounts to consensus reality and consensus reality empowers things that are not real.

This is easily refuted by both sociology and animal psychology. When pack animals are threatened by a separate species, they respond with the typical fight/flight response. When threatened by members of their own species, the fight/flight response becomes posture/submit. Pack animals typically try to signify victory or submission rather than engage in mortal violence. Naturally there are exceptions to every rule, but this is an observable and documented behavioral convention among pack animals.

Consciousness, famously, is an emergent phenomenon. The exact electrical/chemical process that gives rise to our experienced consciousness cannot be observed, yet we know enough about the electro-chemical interplay of the brain to infer how it leads to consciousness.

An emergent phenomenon is where you know what goes in, you know what comes out but you don’t know the middle stage. In that situation, you can make educated inferences about the transformative phase based on the beginning and ending, but until you can observe it, an educated inference is as good as it gets.

Now…we own that humans are pack animals, and pack animals typically show behavioral evidence of shared psychological experiences. This is what people usually mean by the ‘herd instinct’. Since the expressed convention of the herd instinct predictably shows itself in a specific type of animal, it is likely that this behavioral pattern has a biological origin. This cannot be objectively documented any more than the emergence of consciousness itself, but the herd instinct’s ubiquity among pack animals is a strong sign that the herd instinct is not fabricated out of whole cloth.

This means that social constructs are almost certainly real. Social constructs and their predictable origins in the herd instinct cannot be observed, but to include it’s inscrutability in philosophical materialism leads straight to fallacy. Similarly, we understand that our eyes receive and compile refracted light: most of the things we take for granted, such as color, are not as literally real as we think. The color of an object is not an inherent, material quality; it’s just the color of the photons that pigmentation bounces outward into our eyes.

If things that are not literally, materialistically manifest are not real, then our eyeballs and their neurological interface with our brain are bullshit. I don’t know anyone who would actually commit to that chain of reasoning.

The falseness of the claim made by gender essentialist and gender critical feminism, though, still leaves a lot of room for uncertainty. Externally documented patterns with strong implications about things that cannot be documented leaves room for subjective claims on any side. Another common talking point is that lived experience does not validate anything outside the binary, ala J.K. Rowling. The evidence that Rowling and those like her advance is their own lived experience as cispeople and their belief in the reality of claims made by cispeople (ciswomen, most frequently). Those experiences may, absolutely, be real to the people who have them, but it does not advance their central claim about philosophical materialism. It does not even relate to anything beyond the feelings of specific people.

Having spent years trying to convince doctors and family members of my own dysphoria before being permitted to medically transition, I feel as if I will always be an outsider to the binary even though I’m a binary transwoman. I am a binary transwoman because my dysphoria is relieved by medical interventions that create feminine secondary sex characteristics. Yet I did not have the same childhood and early social conditioning as a ciswoman, nor did I have the same childhood as a cisman. As a child, I simply chose to express myself as “female-like” or girly as possible, up to and including frankly describing myself as a girl if anyone asked. This led to relentless teasing in elementary school and non-stop suicidal ideation for my entire adolescence and early adulthood, but simply “stopping” was never a genuine possibility.

On one hand, my medical transition fits within the binary. On the other, there are many experiential differences between my life as a transwoman and the lives of ciswomen and cismen. While I am a binary transwoman, I will never be a ciswoman. If I am a binary female only in the sense that I am a “binary transwoman”, one almost begins to wonder what the distinction between binary and non-binary even means. If anything, my lived experience has led me to believe in a third gender category at least.

Of course, I know that arguing this point against actual transphobes is probably pointless, since everyone has a subjective expeirence that backs them up. This is simply an expression of the frustrating social facet of Zeno’s paradox: there is almost certainly a biological prompting for a lot of our mental states, but our existence is still fundamentally rooted in our subjectivity. The two probably meet through cause and effect, but because we can only measure the distance relative to ourselves, we’ll never actually perceive the moment of impact. Lately, it seems like every social phenomenon lends itself to that analogy and it’s scream-into-the-void frustrating.

Like, remember when I wrote that Biden’s expressed commitment to trans rights, on it’s own, might have been enough to get me to vote for him in spite of the rest of his record? This has lately come back to haunt me. Since winning the 2020 election, Biden has elevated a few state-level transgender political leaders. To his credit, Joe Biden has also committed himself to rolling back the Trump-era executive orders regarding trans healthcare. Meanwhile, Lael Braenard and Tony Blinken are in line for cabinet posts in Biden’s White House, two of the most infamous forces of military intervention from Obama’s presidency. They are joined by Neera Tanden, who has given voice to the opinion that we should seize Libya’s oil as our due compensation for the resources we spent occupying their country. On one hand, American trans people are more protected, on the other, so is the American war machine.

Commitment to civil rights can be used with cynical abandon by politicians who want to launder their image while continuing business as usual. Business as usual, in this case, is proceeding apace in spite of the fact that we may be in the final decade in which we can still roll back the damage done to our biosphere. Republicans and Corporate Democrats relentlessly hit leftists with the “#whereisthemoney” argument, which we need to be able to respond to, clearly and loudly.

I believe the correct loud and clear answer is the dismantling of the military industrial complex: the American war machine spends money in proportion to the money it makes, which means it requires billions of dollars every year to continue functioning. By hitting the military industrial complex, we can begin to rehabilitate our image on the world stage while simultaneously liberating funds for a green new deal. While perpetual war is an apalling crime against humanity on it’s face, it is now standing directly in the way of America’s chance to ease away from the damage we are doing to the collective future of our planet. If this does not change, the conversation about the survival of our species may need to move from saving Earth to leaving Earth.

The incremantalist reading of these events is to take the wins when we can. Biden’s complicity with the military industrial complex might stop any effective action toward climate change, universal health care or any other pressing necessity, but at least he is nice to trans people. Trans equality is now further within the Overton window. The same incrementalists also claim that, while Biden’s expressed concern about perpetual war and environmental protection are lip-service, it makes the right choices possible in the future if not right now, irrespective of the ticking clock.

Increased safety and access to medical care for myself and people like me is an unambiguous win, but we are still dealing in the gold-standard of subjective values (societal ethics) without any consideration for outside pressure (the biosphere and perpetual war). This year’s presidential election was a passionate, psychologically harrowing experience for a lot of us, but so long as we measure things relative only to ourselves, the clash with the wider world must necessarily take us by surprise.

Civil disobedience and “social issues”

In my last post I wrote about the legal precedents being set in states like Tennessee and New York that punish non-lethal civil disobedience as severely as violent crime, entailing in some cases a felony conviction. This is particularly amoral since civil disobedience is one of the few tools that American political minorities have historically had at their disposal. Punishing civil means of resistance and discourse can radicalize people for lack of any other option and could contribute to civil war.

Remember, this was done ostensibly out of a fear of violent uprising. If vandalizing public property, blocking access to public places and other non-lethal crimes are punished with felonies, then political minorities are shunted squarely in front of militarism out of necessity.

This is clearly a double-bluff: with fear of rioting being the stated reason for these crack downs, Republican legislators have framed the notion of civil unrest in a way that takes attention away from the natural outcome of the policies they plan to enact. That outcome, civil unrest, will confirm what they’ve positioned as a worst case scenario (rioting). This reflects a calculated awareness of the purpose of civil disobedience and a wish to use the result for political gain.

To address some common sense concerns, yes it makes sense to punish minor crimes and the law is meant to be followed. However, that attitude must coexist with other social realities. Ever since the labor organizers of the early 20th century and the nineteen sixties civil rights movement, civil disobedience has been established as a means of civil discourse.

What is the thing that stops it from being insurrection? Non-violence. If no one is harmed, then no one is alienated against the inevitable implication: that this specific law can be broken or that a prospective or related law can be given social censure. More often than not, the implication is that the specific law should be broken or that a legal or political act should be censured. The subtle depth to what has happened in Tennessee and New York is that, when non-violent crime is punished identically to violent crime (a felony charge) it discourages non-violent activism and emboldens those who claim that civil discourse is fruitless. If civil activism is not seen as an effective choice then non-civil activism begins to look practical. If that course is followed, then those decrying BLM as violent will claim to have been right all along.

Such well-informed social engineering enacted from above makes me wonder about everyone else. Especially since the ability to define an idea by being the first voice in a conversation to articulate it is used so carefully (“BLM are violent” *does things that drive out non-violent protestors and leave the violent ones* “See?”). Social calculations and dynamics are mixed up in how we think about social issues.

The importance of the herd-instinct and our mammalian, prosocial hard-wiring cannot be overstated. Language is how most problems are solved between individuals and language (whether it’s speech, writing, typing or any other medium) is how we are taught to express ourselves. After the example of self-expression, it is no surprise that the language we use most frequently probably looks a lot how we think our private thoughts.

It follows that some of our private thoughts may resemble external social dynamics. If one believes that those in power will never negotiate with those without, then an actual refusal to negotiate will create the appearance that you are right. If this “you” is a BLM protester, others will remember claims about how violent your movement is and will think they are right while you are receiving the message that nothing short of violence will be heard.

This is nothing new: most of us have heard about stereotype threat (aka labeling theory) and confirmation bias. If you have not: both of those things refer to ways that social stereotyping can effect both behavior and private thoughts.

Recent events have made me wonder what the current state of things looks like, though, through the eyes of social engineers. In a recent speech, Trump mentioned that he was afraid of running against Bernie Sanders since Sanders had a movement following, like himself. With Joe Biden, he is less afraid, since the majority of those voting for Biden are doing so because he is not Trump.

Donald Trump realizes that the Democratic Party scattered their base when the DNC gave the nomination to Biden. He is now attempting to hit us where it hurts: by saying he was intimidated by Bernie’s movement, he is trying to touch a sore spot of progressives to stop the left from uniting.

The senators in Tennessee and New York are preparing to punish civil disobedience harshly enough to escalate violence. And Trump just attempted to use the emotional momentum of the scattered Democratic base against itself. One reflects a calculated effort to get people to think and act a certain way and the other reflects an informed knowledge of how people feel to begin with and how to exploit it.

This kind of manipulation only works with people who believe that their value system furnishes everything they need to know. If one believes they have an airtight grasp on an issue, it becomes easy to be disinterested in other consequences. What most people know more about, than anything else, are their personal experiences. The kind of political issues that can most directly effect our experiences are often social issues.

Speaking of recent political events, Kamala Harris used an interesting rhetorical device in her speech to the DNC: she began talking about an impersonal and voracious virus which turned out to be a metaphor for racism.

If you start talking about a virus right now, people are going to think of COVID-19. Did she say COVID-19? Nope. But I think it’s importance in general (to say nothing of it’s importance in American politics) is hard to ignore. I don’t know of anything else such a metaphor could be referring to. It strikes me as likely that she did intend to use COVID-19 as a metaphor for racism.

This rhetorical technique is familiar: start your talk with something everyone knows about in order to frame your point as comparable to it. Is a viral pandemic the same kind of problem as racism?

I’m not saying it’s not possible for overlap. Racism effects the function of government infrastructure, so systemic racism can impact how a response to a pandemic unfolds. And I have no doubt that it has. But when you equate a social issue like racism with a non-social issue like a pandemic, it’s clear which directions the emotional support is coming from and going toward within that analogy. With the intended metaphor and the metaphor’s meaning, the emotional momentum of anti-racism is related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of those two things we all probably know at least something about, and the other is a mystery that our best doctors and scientists are still laboring over. For most people, to relate those two things will allow one to borrow emotional “weight” from the other. It makes the mystery less scary.

But if the effect that racism has on the pandemic is the actual point, the comparison cannot be literal. It relies on the emotions that the viewers bring with them. To start with emotional momentum is not necessarily proof of bad faith but it makes it easy to suspect: either the emotional momentum is supposed to make the truth evident or the emotional momentum is the point itself.

In either case, the psychological button being pressed is more visible than what the person pressing it wants. Not knowing what someone wants could make one feel like they’re not being honest. If their end game is not stated, then they either feel no need to or think you already know. Neither inspires confidence.

Obviously not every statement that invokes ideas with strong social resonance with a vaguely defined or undefined goal is social engineering. Context, as usual, must complete the picture. What makes the legislation in Tennessee and New York so unique is that it reflects both a knowledge of the function served by civil disobedience and how to exploit it. Every day, though, I wonder when the psychological momentum summoned by those in power will clash against forces it cannot move.

Lying by Sam Harris (by a beleaguered “fan”)

There are certain Sam Harris books that I think are worth reading in spite of his willingness to kiss the conservative ring.

Since Harris did away with his fig-leaf disguise of neutrality through his embrace of Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray, I have largely stopped following him. I therefore don’t know if his loyalty to the right has been expressed in print.

(And yes I’m aware that Harris had substantial disagreements with Peterson- read the very first post of this blog if you want my breakdown on that)

If not, then his bibliography may allow posterity to remember him at his best rather than his worst. A look at his writing reveals him to be a succinct, accessible and subtly brilliant philosopher. Sam Harris had an early bite at the atheist hipster apple when he wrote The End of Faith, which put him in the same company as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For awhile after that, though, Harris was less interested in fad-chasing than Dawkins or Hitchens: his best work was either completely divorced from atheism or only peripherally concerned with it.

This is one of them. It is almost as small as Free Will, even though Free Will is the bigger bombshell and arguably more important (my favorite Sam Harris book is Waking Up). The subject of lies might strike some readers as so prosaic or universal as to be too bland to write about. What I took from it, though, was an essential critique of the most common reasons for common lies, which adds up to its own kind of bombshell.

One weakness of this book, however, is that it is written from a perspective of good intentions. A central message is that to tell “white lies”, to spare someone’s feelings, avoid harsh truths or to spare your own nerves, is to infringe on the autonomy of another.

Illustrating examples in the book include infidelity and secrecy around health care. Person X is being cheated on by their spouse and it’s an open secret where they work. Person X does not know, but no co-worker will tell Person X that it is happening: their co-workers assume that either Person X must already know and, if not, it’s not their place to reveal it to them. It is uncomfortable, and if Person X gets a divorce as a result, the snitch may feel as if they made Person X worse off. The co-workers, then, have made a decision that their personal comfort and the apparent “bliss” of Person X’s “ignorance” is a good enough reason for Person X not to know.

Another example, offered by a reader and used by Harris with their permission, involves a middle aged woman with MS. This event took place before women were trusted by doctors with their own health care and would often share urgent information with husbands first, believing that a woman would take the news better from her spouse. In this story, the doctor tells her husband that the MS has spread too far for medical intervention. The husband, therefore, decided not to tell her that she has MS, because he believed that her final days should be as comfortable as possible and that she shouldn’t be bothered by worrying about a problem that cannot be solved.

The woman, meanwhile, figured out she was terminally ill on her own and refused to tell her husband because she wanted to spare his feelings. Both wife and husband are now suffering in silence and isolation. Later, during a family doctor visit, the doctor casually mentioned the MS, believing everyone is up to speed. The couple’s adult son is with them and he had no idea. Their son learns from his parents that they both knew but actually kept it from each other and chose not to tell him for the same reason: to spare feelings.

In both examples, secrets are kept from the people they directly involve in order to spare their feelings and the discomfort of a difficult conversation. The avoidance of “harsh” truths, then, can at worst allow a person’s life to crumble without their notice or, at best, force the involved parties to suffer in isolation when they could have had the support and understanding of each other.

If something bad is happening to someone without their knowledge, to keep it from them is to make their decision for them: that you know more about what is best for them than they do. If subverting the autonomy of another person is too abstract for you to care about, then what is unavoidably tangible is that you are either closing off avenues of support or causing them to be surprised by tragedy.

Another common motivator for avoiding difficult problems with others is the possibility that they will not believe you or accuse you of sadistically lying. If one avoids it due to this fear, you have not even given the person the chance to either agree or disagree.

In order for this assessment to be true, the observations of others would need to be genuine, or at least honest. Harris addresses this, saying that,while honesty may frequently turn out to be more practical if less comfortable, it is still possible that someone may be mistaken about a harsh truth. The book offers an implicit rebuttal to this: to not broach a possibility is to cop out of finding out if you are right or wrong. Which is worse: embarrassing yourself by being wrong or allow someone to suffer if you are right? Does your pride matter more or less then the well-being of another?

While I cannot disagree with these answers to the risk of being wrong, I believe Harris sold short the vast influence of this fear. I apologize for being anecdotal here, but a lot of the worst examples of secret-keeping and rumor-mongering are done because of how convinced we are of the facts and of our own altruistic intentions. This can, arguably, be refuted by Harris’s remarks about how people avoid verbal confrontation because they want to spare their own comfort and the feelings of others. Yet I think people’s certainty of their own perceptions can do just as much harm as good. It is, admittedly, a two-sided coin and it is easy to discuss the role of good intentions in passive dishonesty while overlooking the role of good intentions in active dishonesty.

This fine point comes up again when Harris makes another, related claim: that to commit to rigid honesty is to live without calculation or the pressure to “keep a story straight”. More specifically, he writes that “the world” itself can become “your memory”. This can, in effect, turn out to be true in practice, but the opposite is just as probable. After the age of eighteen, I realized that my grasp on the chronology of my life was growing less perfect by the year. Almost everyone I know describes the same thing- the longer you live, the harder it is to remember fine points about events that are spaced between more colorful memories.

One psychological possibility is that less things of personal interest happen in adulthood compared to childhood, so in the long run we don’t feel the need to retain as much. Whatever the reason, though, even with the intention of being honest, it’s still possible to misremember or confabulate.

Let’s recap the weaknesses: can one spread destructive falsehoods and compromise relationships because of a sincerely-meant misunderstanding? Yes. Does Harris adequately address it? He does so admissibly, if not perfectly. Do I have any unambiguous disagreements? Only with Harris’s claim that committing to honesty in all things removes the pressure to maintain a timeline and that the “facts” will always back you up. That point is not central to the book, though.

However, the resonance this book had with me was because of some personal experiences of my own, which involved a conclusion that would have been at home in a book like Lying. Victor Hugo has influenced me more than any other writer because he got me to think of the consequences of human behavior, however subtle, as things that one is ethically responsible for. Are we in control of the layers of cause and effect that emanate from our decisions? Not on the level of direct authorship. Nor does it make sense to act like every consequential ripple is something you knowingly did.

But novels like Les Miserables, Quatrevingt-treize and L’homme qui rit are written with clear moral and spiritual sympathies and portrays the struggles of their characters in terms of their social meaning, either contrasting or complimenting the original psychological origins of a given act. This complimenting and contrasting relationship between society and the psychological origin of behavior had a profound impact on me. It seemed to invest the moment to moment ethical and practical calculations of ordinary people with the import of nearly mythic struggles, as if the currents of history are running just beneath the surface of our minds.

After my first reading of Les Miserables, I was never the same. I was, and remain, unable to contemplate any position I hold or act I might commit without considering every possible ramification and whether or not I am comfortable being the author of those ramifications.

This has led me to behave in ways that others have found strange. Like when my dad adopted a litter of cats to help out with a rodent infestation. The cats began hunting as soon as they were mature enough and our mouse problem vanished. A friend of mine told me to tell my dad to get the cats’ bells for their collars. They said that the cats could still hunt mice with bells because their ears won’t pick up the ring, but that song birds would be warned by it. Because, he said, birds make pretty sounds and look nice and shouldn’t be killed. I refused to relay the message because it seemed like an unethical way to treat the cats: the cats were adopted because they would hunt. The cats were desirable because of their cat behavior: it would therefore be wrong to punish the cats simply for following their nature. This friend has never stopped giving me crap about my “strangely serious” attachment to inter-species morality.

Victor Hugo’s influence on how I thought of ethical responsibility caused me to interrogate any action before carrying it out. I felt compelled to match what I wanted to be responsible for with what I am, in fact, responsible for. Not only does honesty make us more considerate of the autonomy of other people, but it also makes your own personal assessments of what you believe and the kind of person you want to be more rigorous and accurate. One may be afraid to be honest for fear of being wrong, but honesty can also train your mind so you are less likely to be wrong.