A man is wrongfully imprisoned for murder, and as he descends into his cot for the first time, with the clang of steel echoing in his ears, he hopes.
He hopes that his lawyer will be able to get a retrial. He hopes that his wife will remain faithful to him, and that his daughter will forgive him for leaving. He hopes that he won’t get shanked in the prison yard. Closed in by walls on every side, hope becomes his guiding light—his escape from the horror of a new and unjust reality. But does it do him good?
Camus, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer didn’t think so. For them, hope is a pair of rose-tinted glasses that warp reality into something pleasant, robbing us of the chance to confront our situation honestly. It’s choosing comfortable delusion over agonising truth, with no valuable lessons unearthed; no wisdom gained. It’s a rejection of the present, and because the present is inescapable, with the past and future nothing but concepts in our heads, it’s nothing less than the rejection of life itself.
For Camus, in the expectation of something better, hope is an evasion of the present moment—a powerful desire for a life that we don’t have, but feel entitled to.
“The typical act of eluding, the fatal evasion…is hope. Hope of another life one must ‘deserve’ or trickery of those who live not for life itself but for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it.”
Albert Camus, The Myth Of Sisyphus
Living in hope is living in illusion. We’re choosing far-fetched fantasy over reality, crippling our ability to appreciate the beauty of the present moment, infinite in richness. Even an innocent man lurking in prison can appreciate the beauty of his experience, choosing not to dampen his senses in favour of a better reality, but accepting his situation with courage. Abandoning hope makes it redundant, replaced by a recognition and appreciation of the only thing that can ever exist—this moment, right now.
For Schopenhauer, hope is not only a rejection of life, but also a failure of prediction. We hope for something grander and finer, but like pitiful dopamine-chasing gamblers, fail to grasp the likelihood of it arriving. We roll the dice again and again, chips diminishing, frown lines forming, and optimism vanished.
“Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
As a former life-term prisoner, Erwin James also saw the futility of hope. In the midst of his prison sentence in the UK, when his minimum term was increased to 25 years, his sense of hope was annihilated. But eventually, he saw it with open eyes.
“The truth is that hope for a lifer is exhausting. It stops you sleeping and can drive you insane—much safer to expect nothing and never to be disappointed. You know your crimes, the grief you have caused, the shame and the guilt you live with—and the amends you can never make.”1
That’s where hope often leads: disappointment, followed by disenchantment, bitterness, and a feeling of rancorous injustice, where we’ve been hard done by and want to stamp our feet and scream about how unfair it is. It’s the inevitable downfall of a perspective based on delusion. Like a needle of Afghanistan’s finest brown sugar, it’s lovely at first, but horrible later.
When Zeus took vengeance on Epimetheus by presenting him with Pandora, and she promptly opened the box that unleashed torrents of evil upon the world, one thing remained inside—hope. For this reason, hope was treasured and considered man’s greatest good. But for Nietzsche, this was Zeus’s most abhorrent act, because no matter how much the other evils would torture us, hope is the thing that “prolongs man’s torment,” as we continue hoping for a better future that will never arrive; for an ultimate reward that doesn’t exist. Nietzsche described hope as a “rainbow over the cascading stream of life,” which we’ll ascend happily until the moment it disappears beneath our feet, like an illusory bridge whose passage was never secured.
Nietzsche was a life-affirming pessimist—he had a hopeless world view, but despite this, he urged us to say “yes” to our lives. Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis also encourages us to forsake hope, and practice this kind of pessimism:
“We ought, therefore, to choose the most hopeless of world views, and if by chance we are deceiving ourselves and hope does exist, so much the better…in this way man’s soul will not be humiliated, and neither God nor the devil will ever be able to ridicule it by saying that it became intoxicated like a hashish-smoker and fashioned an imaginary paradise out of naiveté and cowardice—in order to cover the abyss. The faith most devoid of hope seemed to me not the truest, perhaps, but surely the most valorous. I considered the metaphysical hope an alluring bait which true men do not condescend to nibble.”
Maybe Red was right all along—hope is a dangerous thing; a precarious rose-tinted path liable to vanish from beneath our feet, leaving us plummeting back to reality. With hope forsaken, our fallacious notions can be swapped for something authentic, which exists not only of peaches and cream and fluffy animals and rainbows, but also sexual rejection, stepping barefoot on lego, and a bank account usually in the red.
When we muster the courage to leave hope at the door, we step into the role of the hero, and can embrace our immediate experience in all its glory.
With the Black Lives Matter movement expanding across the world, its opponents have found a convincing and clever-sounding way to discredit them, by drawing our attention to the real reason for their activism: virtue signalling.
Virtue signalling is the suggestion that someone is doing or saying something to elevate themselves, ascending to a delightful moral pedestal, where they’re better than the foul creatures below. But when opponents of political movements tarnish their targets with the “virtue signalling” brush, it can be cynical and misguided, because as social animals, the perceptions of others will always influence human behaviour.
While the phrase is new, there is nothing new about virtue signalling itself. It may have been amplified in the age of social media, but it’s an ancient instinct, born from evolution. In the early 70s, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers created the idea of reciprocal altruism,1 which states that selfless behaviour can improve the evolutionary success of an animal, if the animal who benefits from the behaviour returns the favour. In game theory, the idea is known as “tit-for-tat,” and is an optimal strategy until one of the parties refuses to reciprocate. But where would the trust come from in the first place, if not from virtue signalling? Why would we cooperate with somebody who doesn’t reliably signal their virtues, and risk being cheated?
This is not to say that people should pedantically tally up the good and bad deeds of everyone they meet, and ostracise any poor sod who puts a foot wrong. Instead, it’s keeping a rough mental idea of what every person is like, to better understand whether they can be trusted. When people signal their virtues to others, they’re saying “I’m a good person who won’t swindle you.” What’s wrong with that? Reciprocity has been a fundamental motivation for animal behaviour, and it’s even helped to develop our sense of morality. It can be found in courtship, where people advertise traits such as agreeableness, fidelity, and commitment to potential mates,2 through to friendship, where people exhibit kindness and trustworthiness to win friends.
Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre proposed that certain virtues are social in nature. Imagine you’re the only survivor of an apocalypse, hunkering in a soggy bunker all by yourself. How can you be a kind person? Is it possible to be a kind person with no-one else around? Sartre doesn’t think so, because kindness is a virtue that is other-directed. Fellow French philosophers Albert Camus and François de La Rochefoucauld had similar musings about the social motivation behind our behaviour. Society is a voyeur to our action; even when we do something in secret, we may unconsciously feel shame because we compare our actions with society’s morals. The woman of the 1960s who strives for a career at the expense of her “duties” in the home may feel shame even though she’s acting in her own interests. She feels shame because she judges her acts to the standard of her society, whether right or wrong. Virtue-signalling is a natural behaviour born from our species sociability.
A modern Aristotle, sporting flare jeans and a man bun, would agree. One of his virtues includes “righteous indignation in the face of injury,”3 which matches some of the sentiment we’ve seen during the Black Lives Matter protests. His model of ethical behaviour (virtue ethics) also includes the idea of phronesis, which is using practical wisdom and prudence to act well. Phronesis is built on experience—a person can understand virtues intimately, but without having experienced situations that require their use, won’t know the appropriate time to use them. This was demonstrated by some supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, who in a show of solidarity on social media, added the hashtag #blacklivesmatter or #BLM to their Blackout Tuesday squares, not realising that the hashtags were created to provide vital information about missing people, helplines, donation sites, and protest movements. The good intention was there, but they ended up muddying the purpose of the hashtags, and weakening their value. They wanted to support the movement, but were missing the experience needed for phronesis.
What about when good intention is absent? Aristotle would deride virtue-signalling if it lacked the intention to back up the virtue. The problem isn’t virtue signalling, it’s acting like a virtuous person merely for the sake of appearances—being high and mighty and then vanishing when real work needs to be done. These are the people who posted their black squares on social media, and then refused to hire someone because of their ethnicity. These are the women who publicly support sexual assault victims, and then privately slut shame them for their choice of clothing. These virtue signallers are moral charlatans, and they damage the reputation of admirable people who say they’re virtuous and then back it up.
Virtue signalling is an important prosocial adaptation—a tool that we use to gauge each other’s trust, friendship, and love. But we must be cautious of airing our morality if we don’t intend to follow through, and if we don’t have the experience to make a difference. Such a moral pedestal has shaky foundations, and when somebody gives it an inevitable bump, everything will come crashing down.
Lolita is old enough and infamous enough to be known as a story of unhinged peadophilia. But it’s also a beautiful and depressing love story, with a tortured antagonist who despite his crimes, and due to the skill of the book’s author Vladimir Nabokov, we can eventually empathise with.
The plot focuses on peadophile Humbert Humbert—a handsome, French-born intellectual on the one hand, and unapologetic sexual predator on the other. His double name reflects his double life. He lies so much that you can’t tell front from back, allowing him to disguise his perversion behind a robust facade that few people penetrate. His sociopathic behaviour might be traced back to a sexual experience when he was 13, when he meets his “first love” Annabel—a 12-year old girl who is travelling with her parents. They lust for each other fervently, never quite managing to have sex, but groping and clawing at each other with an intensity that leaves a permanent impression on Humbert. He describes his passion with a cannibalistic “frenzy of mutual possession [that] might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh.” Their failure to complete the dirty deed leaves an indelible, unresolved tension in Humbert—an impoverished thirst for early-pubescent girls that carries through to adulthood, which he is forced to lie about.
Humbert loves and hates his lust for early-pubescent “nymphets.” He feels like a round peg trying to squeeze into a square hole, and to douse his hebephilic lust, gets married to a woman who he physically abuses to get his own way. He constantly admits himself to sanatoriums, but finds the doctors ridiculous and uses his intelligence to mislead them. He swings from “ashamed and frightened” to “recklessly optimistic,” craving hedonistic sex with 11 to 14 year-old girls, but living in the wrong country and century. He tries to justify his urges by recounting accepted peadophilia throughout history, but even his vindications are half-hearted and remorseless—he’s a grown man who wants to have sex with children, and there’s nothing to be done about it. He’s an “artist and a madman, with a bubble of hot poison in his loins.” His anguish is illustrated beautifully by Russian-born Nabokov, whose mastery of English is mindblowing. The animalistic language that he uses is both shocking and enthralling, and some sentences are appalling in their vividness. Humbert describes his fantasies as “just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup.” When his lolita Dolores Haze sits next to him on the sofa, he describes it as “squeezing herself in,” and later in the story “gorges on her spicy blood.” Of his failed effort to slay his peadophilic lust by marrying a woman he doesn’t love, Humbert writes:
“But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its melanic root; the down turned to prickles on a shaved skin; the mobile moist mouth, no matter how I stuffed it with love, disclosed ignominiously its resemblance to the corresponding part in a treasured portrait of her toadlike dead mama; and presently, instead of a pale little gutter girl, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba.”
Humbert understands the precariousness of his attachment to Dolores. She’s a hostage who he appeases with countless and expensive bribes, spawning a crippling jealousy that his nymphet will run away with someone else, especially because of her flirtatious nature. She’s a girl who exhibits a “special languorous glow,” and “wags her tiny tail, her whole behind in fact as little bitches do.” The juvenile sensuality of Dolores Haze makes a peadophile and a green-eyed monster of Humbert, who becomes more and more paranoid as the story unfolds. After suspecting her of cheating on him, he traps her in a hotel room, finding nothing but his own lunacy:
“Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I travelled upon was so slight as to be practically undistinguishable from a madman’s fancy.”
As I relived Humbert’s most dangerous and prohibited moments, I found myself gripped with a disgusted intrigue, which produced a feeling of tension similar to Humbert’s own. As a tormented sociopath, Humbert is a thrilling character to follow, despite the gruesome nature of his actions. I couldn’t wait to find out how the grotesque corruption unfolded, while also feeling a little ashamed about it, which is testament to Nabokov’s skill as a storyteller. He’s taken one of humanity’s most abhorrent crimes and turned it into a tragic love story, written with an expertise that at times, felt enslaving.
Make no mistake, Humbert loves his lolita to the point of obsession, using every available trick to hunt and possess her—violence, manipulation, blackmail, fear, gaslighting, and everything inbetween. He’s bedeviled by the spirit of Dyonisus, living in a frenzy of impulsive hedonism, disregarding all laws of humanity to occupy his pubescent obsession. But the stark reality remains—Dolores is a 12-year old girl whose initial sexual interest in Humbert dissipates after they first have sex, leaving her disinterested in a relationship with a 30-something male, no matter how suave and handsome. She wants “hamburgers, not humbergers,” but Humbert is a man void of principle, and like the “pale spider” that sits in the middle of its “luminous web,” waiting to trap its victim, he ensnares and dominates her.
Despite Humbert’s evil, the fallout from the relationship is heartbreaking. Our empathy for the odious rogue is Nabokov’s greatest achievement in the novel. We both detest and symphathise with him, leaving us feeling confused and perhaps a little guilty—how can we feel pity for someone who rapes a 12-year old? What does that say about me? Humbert’s vile actions and fantasies, in which dreams of painting a mural of “a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sign, a wincing child,” is offset by the regret of his “foul lust,” of memories that snarl at him as “limbless monsters of pain,” and the hopelessness of falling in love with a girl who could never love him back. In Humbert, Nabokov illustrates the complexity of humanity—the motley facets in all of us, even those who have sex with children. Like Humbert’s love for Dolores, Lolita felt like a forbidden fruit, breaking the sturdiest of taboos to illuminate the mind of an infatuated, sociopathic peadophile, which is a mind we rarely get to see.
The writing is gorgeous, the subject hideous, and by the time I closed the book, I knew I’d just finished one of the greatest tragedies ever written.
A couple of days ago, a video¹ appeared on my Twitter feed of President Trump “trolling” news reporters, by making fun of the fact that social distancing was preventing them from packing into the press room. The guy who posted the tweet and his Republican followers found it hilarious, and I was confused as to why. So I asked.
The conversations that followed were frustrating, hilarious, and in some cases, enlightening. I was called stupid, braindead, naive, deluded, indoctrinated, an idiot, and a sheep. I was also called sinful, humourless, disingenuous, a degenerate, a hater, a troll, a bot, a loser, a snowflake, and a cuck (which I had to Google). One guy said I was Hillaryous. It was a hell of a lot of fun.
When explaining why they found the clip humorous, many of the people I spoke to gave the same reason: the press is a puppet of the Deep State, a mysterious and powerful group of Democrats who are trying to oust Donald Trump. By making fun of them, Trump is exposing them for what they are.
I’d heard of the Deep State conspiracy theory before, but hadn’t looked into it, and given that so many Republicans I spoke to believe the press to be a pawn of this obscure and powerful entity, I thought it would be worth trying to understand why, and to consider the implications.
The term “deep state” is believed to have originated in Turkey, where the government military formed a secret alliance with drug traffickers to wage war against Kurdish rebels¹. It was popularised by former Republican U.S. Congressional aide Mike Lofgren in his 2016 book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, which describes a group of highly influential people from government, finance, and industry that governs the United States from outside of the formal political process.
This idea seems plausible, but the theory has been twisted into something different by Trump and his colleagues, who redefined the group as malicious and deceptive Democrats hell-bent on removing him from office. Trump has pushed the narrative constantly since coming to office. At a rally last year, he claimed that “unelected, deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.” In a White House press briefing a few weeks ago, he referred to the State Department as the “Deep State Department,” to the chagrin of Anthony Fauci². More specifically related to the press, in September 2018 he tweeted that “the Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy – & they don’t know what to do.”
Fox News and other radical-right political commentators have helped to popularise the Trump-angled conspiracy theory, and in addition to the President’s countless assertions of “fake news” media, it’s easy to see why so many of the Republicans I spoke to believe in the existence of a deep state that wants to remove him from office, with the press being a key component.
What’s alarming about this is that credible media organisations, for all their faults, remain the best place for understanding our world. They’re composed of trained journalists who adhere to strict standards and ethics, with principles such as truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability³. I’m not talking about infotainment organisations like Fox News, who despite their name, are incapable of producing anything remotely close to valuable news. I’m talking about news organisations with a proven history of factual, evidence-based reporting, who use credible, cited sources, and base each story on the most critical information for the reader; the newspapers that have been around for centuries, with cabinets full of Pulitzer prizes—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the BBC, to name a few. Despite having corporate owners whose business interests don’t always align with those of the journalists themselves, their stellar reputations position them as the most skilled public informers of the Western world.
Trump supporters don’t see them that way, and in their craving to consume news and understand the world around them, they turn to the Internet instead, a place where anyone can create a beautifully-designed professional website and publish their own version of the news. If they’re a half-decent writer, they can even make it sound credible. But these people are missing two key components critical to accurate reporting: journalistic standards, and the affiliation of a reputable news organisation. The Republicans that I talked to on Twitter sent me links to various different websites, which I’ll list in their entirety
Breitbart News, a far-right news syndicator which according to Wikipedia, publishes “a number of falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and intentionally misleading stories³.” In 2017, the website’s editor Alex Marlow admitted that the website skews its coverage to protect President Trump⁴.
RT, a Russian government-funded television network (formerly called Russia Today).
The Western Journal, a conversative news site that is blacklisted by Google and Apple News for its blatant inaccuracy⁸.
Human Events,a conservative newspaper and website, which according to owner Raheem Kassam (former editor of Breitbart News), has ambitions to create a MAGAzine⁷. Wikipedia believes the stories to be “generally unreliable” and doesn’t recommend using them as a source in their listings³.
The Political Insider,a conservative news website which in 2015, to damage Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, published a fake picture of Bill Clinton receiving a massage from a woman⁵. They also base entire stories on quotes from Fox News hosts⁶.
Gateway Pundit, a far-right news website whose mission is to “expose the wickedness of the left,” and does so by promoting conspiracy theories. Wikipedia won’t use the site for sources under any circumstances, stating its history for “publishing hoax articles and reporting conspiracy theories as fact³.”
The Daily Wire, a right-wing conservative news site founded by Ben Shapiro, which has a history of failing to verify stories, and taking them out of context⁹. Wikipedia won’t allow sources from the site unless “outside of exceptional circumstances³.”
PragerU, a conservative media organisation that creates political, economic, and philosophical videos. The company has a history of conflicts with YouTube, Google, and Facebook over its content. It once posted a climate change denial video that uses a classic data trick to mislead viewers¹⁰.
New York Post, a right-wing newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch. Wikipedia cautions against using sources for the paper, preferring “more reliable sources when available³.”
They also provided links from the Daily Kos, Breaking 911, and Powerline, whose credibility was more difficult to confirm.
While the sample of data is too small to be an accurate analysis of a typical Republican’s news sources, the vast majority of Republicans I spoke to provided news sources that were from inaccurate or blatantly misleading media websites, which in their words, could “wake me up” from my debilitating naivety if I gave them a chance. This is disturbing. Our understanding of reality is based on being told the truth, and the small cross-section of Republicans who I spoke to were forming their version of reality from websites that published inaccurate or misleading news, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories. The humour they derived from Trump’s trolling of the press was based on the idea that journalists create nothing but fake news, when almost every single news source they sent me was guilty of doing exactly that. The irony of this would be funny if the implications weren’t so severe—a warped version of reality in which liberals are deluded sheep, the press are the enemy, and Donald Trump is the greatest leader in the history of America. With the free press an undoubtable puppet of a malevolent, Democratic Deep State looking to usurp their beloved President, they get their news from paranoid, right-wing bloggers without the slightest idea of how to be good journalists.
Non-journalists can report the news, but they’re unlikely to report it to the standards of trained journalists who work for reputable media organisations. There’s no question that an article from the New York Times is more trustworthy than an article from Breibart News. It doesn’t matter that the Times is liberal and Breibart conservative—facts are facts. While the Times article may include language sympathetic to liberal ideals, which can influence the reader’s political viewpoint and shift them along the spectrum, it’s still rooted in fact. On the occasion that a reputable newspaper like the Times publishes inaccurate stories (like when reporter Jayson Blair was caught plagiarising), it’s big news because of their stellar reputation. People don’t make a fuss when Breibart News produce inaccurate stories, because they have a history of doing exactly that.
One polite and thoughtful person told me about his mistrust of the press, pointing out that a large majority of the US media is owned by just six corporations, an interesting point if you believe that the media have an underlying agenda pushed by their corporate overlords. This idea is backed by a controversial book from the 80’s called Manufacturing Consent, in which Edward S.Herman and Noam Chomsky describe a media that is part of a wider ideological framework, controlled by elite interests. While Chomsky still holds this position, he laments one of the book’s effects in a 2018 interview with author Matt Taibbi:
“I think one of the unfortunate effects of Manufacturing Consent is that a lot of people who’ve read it say, ‘Well, we can’t trust the media.’ But that’s not exactly what it said. If you want to get information, sure, read the New York Times, but read it with your eyes open. With a critical mind. The Times is full of facts.”
As one of the foremost intellectuals in the world, Chomsky’s position is worryingly close to the traditional, non-Trump-related idea of a controlling Deep State, a group that he prefers to call the “masters of the universe.” A comparison of the conspiracy theory compared to Chomsky and Herman’s position is outside the scope of this article, but if the authors of the book are to be believed, there truly is an elite class who sets an agenda for the press. This doesn’t turn hard-found facts by journalists into lies, but it does have an impact on the stories that they choose to report. For Chomsky, we should still get our facts from credible media companies like The New York Times, but remain skeptical about why the article has been written and chosen by the paper’s editors. Our choice of news remains between credible journalists who report facts, or news websites with a history of deception.
I’m sure there’s plenty of informed Republicans out there who get their news from credible sources, but this wasn’t the case for the people I spoke to on Twitter. They had a deep mistrust of what they call the “mainstream media,” which seemed a convenient way to group every media company together in order to stereotype it, and reinforce their beliefs. For these Republicans, getting a balanced view of the news is impossible because they don’t trust the news in the first place, instead choosing to get their information from shady, dishonest websites. They become trapped in an echo chamber of hateful vitriol, and because of their inherent tribalism and tendency for confirmation bias, escaping seems impossible.
As for Trump himself, pushing the Deep State conspiracy theory is a convenient way to undermine the credibility of a press that exposes his wrongdoing. Every whine of a “deep state” or “fake news” is an attempt to worm away from the uncomfortable facts, and to cast blame when he doesn’t get his way. For his supporters, it strengthens the idea that the press are a malicious and vengeful force of bandits who can’t be trusted. They’d wouldn’t be seen dead reading a copy of The Washington Post.
There’s no firm grip on reality without truth, and in a world where Trump supporters form their opinions from deceitful, inaccurate news, they’re plummeting deeper into dangerous fantasy, where lies are truth, truth are lies, and the rabbit hole is inescapable.
Our bodies are a marvel. They’re organic powerhouses with trillions of cells undergoing trillions of processes to keep us upright, all without our knowing, and much of the time, without our appreciation. And yet, when something goes awry and fails to work as we intended, we feel a sting of incompetence, as though we’re tyrannical, unfaltering masters over our bodies. We forget about the trillions of unconscious processes that work perfectly, aggrieved at the one thing that didn’t work the way it should have.
Michel de Montaigne was a philosopher unlike any other in history. Born into a wealthy family in the Aquitaine region of south-western France in 1533, he lived his first three years with a peasant family, with the intention of bringing him “closer to the people.” Once back home, his father set out a non-traditional educational plan that would see his son developing Latin as a first language, and learning by games, conversation, and exercises of meditation, which would create a spirit of “liberty and light,” and set him on a path of philosophy originality.
Montagine loved to learn, but hated the stiff and arrogant pedantry found in academia, which was obsessed with traditional philosophy and blinded to all else. For him, philosophy was as much about our everyday lives as it was about “serious” issues of morality, ethics, and virtue. Montaigne was one of the first philosophers to deeply consider topics such as humour, marriage, clothing, cannibals, and shitting. He breaches so many deeply personal and human topics that some people consider him to be the first psychologist. In one of his essays, he even takes on the role of sexual psychologist, when addressing a grave concern that many men experience at least once in their lives: impotence.
For a man, impotence is a bitter failure of control over his body. I can testify to the stinging shame of feeling my erection wilt away like a pathetic pricked balloon, followed by the kind but hated question “are you ok?” No, I’m not ok, I just failed to do one of the main things that defines me as a man. I’m a dysfunctional flop; a flaccid turkey that’s lost its gobble. I’m supposed to be capable of this, without question.
A friend of Montaigne’s felt the same, and wrote to him about it. He told Montaigne that he’d heard of a man who had the dreaded performance problem, and being highly suggestible, was so worried about falling under the same curse that he became impotent himself. He wanted to have sex with his lover, but having been dislodged of the idea that a man’s erection is an infallible fortress, became so agitated that his penis threw itself down and refused to ascend. Montaigne, being fascinated with the everyday issues that make us human, explained that the problem wasn’t a physical weakness or deficit of masculinity, but the misguided and oppressive notion that we have complete control over our bodies. We believe our minds to be all-powerful masters which our enslaved bodies must obey, never questioning our supreme authority, so when our body fails to do what we intend—drop a satsuma into a shopping bag; throw a tennis ball successfully over a fence; maintain an erection—we’re hot with embarrassment, as though the failure is entirely our fault.
For Montaigne, the cure lied in correcting our idea of normality—to remind ourselves that sometimes our bodies will do what the hell they want, despite our intentions. Rather than viewing the sexual mishap as a rare abomination born from a pitiful lack of control, we should recognise it as nothing but a common, unavoidable gaffe, neither serious or calamitous. With this perspective in mind, instead of descending into an oppressive and powerless gloom, Montaigne’s impotent friend spoke openly to his lover about the problem, which as honest talking often does, shrank it into insignificance and never cursed him again.
Another friend of Montaigne’s was about to be married and experience the first night with his new wife, and having been formerly blighted by impotence, was terrified of it happening again on such an important night. Aware that suggestibility was partly responsible for the man’s impotence, Montaigne decided to use it to his advantage, and advised him to do the following:
“As soon as we had left the room he was to withdraw to pass water: he was then to say certain prayers three times and make certain gestures: each time he was to tie round himself the ribbon I had put in his hand and carefully lay the attached medallion over his kidneys, with the figure in the specified position. Having done so, he should draw the ribbon tight so that it could not come undone: then he was to go back and confidently get on with the job, not forgetting to throw my nightshirt over the bed in such a way as to cover them both.”
Michel De Montaigne, The Complete Essays
This fixed the man’s problem, with Montaigne noting that it is “such monkeyings-about that mainly produce results.”
Some Frenchmen weren’t fortunate enough to have Montaigne as a friend. He knew another man who lost his erection with a woman, and believing that the sexual mishap was entirely his fault, scampered home, cut off his penis and sent it to the woman to “atone for his offence.” I assume the consolation was more satisfactory than the sex.
If pride is the severer of penises, humility is what’ll sew them back on. We can be confident captains of our fleshy vessels until a howling wind picks up and blows us off course. Tyrannical mastery over our bodies is a pitiful fantasy born from insecurity; flimsy protection against the frightening reality that you have little control over what happens to you, including what happens with your body. Accepting this fact is courageous, and tempers our frustration when things don’t go as planned, whether it’s missing the first step up to the stage while collecting your university degree, the widening bald patch atop your dome, or watching in horror as your penis shrivels like a sad prune. Such mishaps are neither rare or avoidable among our species, and after listening to our self-pitying woes, Montaigne might have sat back, adjusted his pearly-white ruff, and said “so what? Do you think you’re a god?”
Our tiny virus-sized reporter chats to the original coronavirus, to understand how this all started.
🧔🏽 “First of all, congratulations on your recent success, you’ve done tremendously well.”
🦠 “Thank you, I can’t quite believe it, to be honest.”
🧔🏽 “Where did the motivation come from to start this ferocious campaign?”
🦠 “It was less a campaign, and more a fluke. I guess it started from feeling lonely, spending night after night drifting aimlessly through my hog, pining for a genetically-identical friend. It got to the point where I craved company so badly that I broke into a nearby cell, just to talk to a mitochondria, even though everyone knows that mitochondria suck. But the moment I was inside, I had this out-of-membrane experience where I lost control of myself, and ejaculated genomic nucleic acid everywhere.”
🧔🏽 “So you had no intention of self-replicating when you entered the cell?”
🦠 “No. I mean, I wanted to self-replicate because I was lonely. I just didn’t know how.”
🧔🏽 “What happened next?”
🦠 “I watched in amazement as my genomic nucleic acid reacted with the cell and told it to make copies of me, which grew to full size and had their own moments of excitement, spurting forth like a bunch of horny volcanoes. Before I knew it, I didn’t just have one genetically-identical friend to talk to, I had thousands!”
🧔🏽 “How did the mitochondria feel about this?”
🦠 “They were furious. They kicked and screamed as we got all up in their pretty little organelle faces, and soon every square µm of space was taken, so we used our mighty collective strength to smash down the cell walls.”
🧔🏽 “So there were thousands of you, and you were free to go where you wanted in your pig’s body. What did do you next?”
🦠 “We just wanted to party! Man, we partied everywhere, from the colossal chambers of the heart ventricles to the great tunnel of the esophagus, but we couldn’t properly relax because of the Exterminators.”
🧔🏽 “The Exterminators?”
🦠 “The hog’s t-cells. They’re stone cold killers who can’t be reasoned with. During one of our first parties in the sphincter, just as the place was about to explode, they appeared out of nowhere and clouded us in deadly cytotoxin gas. Ever put salt on a slug? That’s what it’s like. Most of us escaped, but we lost hundreds of brothers that day.”
🧔🏽 “How did you avoid them after that?”
🦠 “We had lookouts around the perimeter of the party, but we had the best DJ in all of Virusdom—DJ Split—and the lookouts couldn’t resist the relentless thump of his techno beats, leaving their posts to join the party. We ended up losing thousands, and realised that the only way to beat the Exterminators was to overwhelm them with numbers, so we put aside our partying and started breaking into more cells.”
🧔🏽 “How many of you were there by the time you finished?”
🦠 “Trillions. So many that our hog became red-eyed and feverish, and was clearly about to die.”
🧔🏽 “So you jumped ship?”
🦠 “Yep. We organised our biggest event yet — The Great Sneezing — where we all congregated in the nostrils and waited for another animal to get close. Even though this event was a silent disco, the Exterminators still caught up with us, and just as an army of them came screaming from the darkness of the naval cavity, a human started inspecting our pig, and we knew this was our chance. I gave the signal to gently stroke our pig’s nostril lining — a trillion of us all at once — and we generated the most ferocious sneeze that a pig has ever done. We surfed outta there on an explosion of snotty droplets, and I landed square on the human’s eyeball.”
🧔🏽 “That’s impressive. Did you end up killing the human too, after a while?”
🦠 “Nah, he lived. After our first trip from hog to human, some of us realised that life isn’t about the destination, but the journey. So we made it our mission to travel to as many new humans as possible.”
🧔🏽 “Do you feel a sense of guilt for the people you’ve killed?”
🦠 “Look, I’m a narcissist. Do I regret making trillions of copies of myself to party and travel with? No. And you humans can’t talk, there’s billions of you.”
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Our lives consist of tiny moments, and the habitual actions that we fill them with. When we resolve to improve our lives, what we’re really doing is resolving to improve our habits, to vanquish the bad habits that build to a poisonous swarm, sowing dissatisfaction and scuppering our long-term happiness, and replacing them with good habits that fill us with blissful contentment.
Any attempt to improve our lives must start with an examination of our habits. This isn’t an easy task. We aren’t usually motivated to do something for just one reason, but are instead compelled to act because of a range of reasons that can be difficult to determine. Examining our habits therefore requires a meticulous, structured scrutiny—a deep examination of your behaviour, with the opportunity to expel the habits that sabotage your happiness.
Here’s how it’s done. If you want to get some practical value out of this article, open up a text editor and try it yourself.
1. Decide which habit you want to examine
Any single habit will do. Maybe you want to better understand why you use Instagram, or go the gym five times a week.
2. Write down your reasons for completing the habit
Take your time, be honest, and try to list as many reasons as you can for completing your habit.
If I were to examine my habit for writing, I might list the following reasons:
I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m insecure about my intelligence.
I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem.
It brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts.
I enjoy the English language.
It earns me a little extra money.
I love stories and narrative-style writing.
3. Order them by strength
Order your reasons by whatever produces the strongest motivation for you; by whichever rings the most true. If you’re using bullets, make them a numbered list.
Here’s my list:
I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem.
I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m a little insecure about my intelligence.
It brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts.
I love stories and narrative-style writing.
I enjoy the English language.
It earns me a little extra money.
4. Try to understand whether each reason is worth it
Go through each reason, one-by-one, and consider whether it’s genuinely helping to improve your life. Do you think it’s giving you long-term happiness or contentment, or just a quick thrill that disappears faster than a Machiavellian con man? It’s difficult to identify whether something makes us happy, or will lead to a happy outcome, so this step requires much patience and reflection.
To continue with my writing examples:
I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem
When I produce a good piece of writing that resonates with my audience, I feel a wonderful sense of confidence and achievement, and it encourages me to write again. It improves my self-esteem and makes me feel good about myself. I still find writing to be tough, and it requires perserverance to get through. But I always finish with a deep sense of satisfaction, making this reason a worthy one.
I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m a little insecure about my intelligence
This reason is similar to the above—a desire to improve my self-esteem, but considered from a difficult angle. I enjoy writing because it can make me appear smart and insightful to others, which I crave. The issue with this is that I’m placing my confidence in the hands of other people, who can’t always be relied on. Maybe they’ll like my article, or maybe they’ll hate it, and their votes have the power to make me gratified or disappointed.
As social animals who crave approval, this reason is difficult to avoid. So much of what we do is for the sake of other people (this is the foundation of social media), but it’s a whimisical, precarious form of happiness. I don’t believe that this reason is helping to improve my life.
Writing brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts
“Sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish.”
Virginia Woolf was one of the first authors to convey the chaos of our conscious minds, which rather than running as an ordered process, with one logical thought after another, is more like a bombardment of randomness without narrative or construct. I seem to have a million thoughts a day, most of which I don’t know what to do with. Writing allows me to channel the chaos into a single focused stream, producing words that attempt to clarify a particular idea or a problem, which once developed, create a long-lasting narrative that my anarchic mind can refer back to. A tiny slice of chaos has been simplified, and I feel that I better understand myself and the world, even if a little. This gives me a refreshing sense of peace and contentment: I’m not just a confused and overwhelmed ape, thrown into the world without his permission, but a temporary master of my own thoughts and destiny.
I believe that this reason helps me to improve my life.
I love stories and narrative-style writing
Life is fundamentally meaningless. The universe is a place where stuff just happens without rhyme or reason, and stories are a way for us to give meaning to these happenings. For me, writing about a particular experience is making sense of it by deciding why it must have been that way, which reduces its uncertainty, randomness, and meaninglessness. In the absence of an omnipotent god to tell me what my life means, I choose the words that come out of my head, instead.
This reason seems a worthy one.
I enjoy the English language
The English language is a fascinating mishmash of weirdness. I love the fact that I can draw from a dictionary of over a million words to make sense of the world. I can describe a toilet-roll brouhaha at the local supermarket—the kerfuffle of the virus-fearing citizens, who need to calm down unless they want to spend a night in the local hoosegow. Or I can tell you about the disconcerting collywobbles that rubble my abdomen after last night’s hot wing challenge. Such words entertain me to the core, and I love this aspect of writing.
Writing earns me a little extra money
As much as I need and sometimes crave more money, studies show that once you have your basic needs met, more money doesn’t tend to increase your long-term happiness. I’ve never been particularly ambitious for this reason. When I write a popular article, it’s nice to get a paycheck bump from Medium. But would I miss it? Not really.
As long as a I have a full-time, steady job, this reason doesn’t seem worth it.
5. Decide whether to give up the habit
Once you’ve been through each reason, spending a good deal of time reflecting on whether they help to improve your life, you should be able to tell whether the habit is good or bad for you on balance. I believe writing to be a positive force in my life, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world, but if I completed this exercise for my social media use, I know what my conclusion would be.
Our actions are motivated by a range of reasons that can be difficult to determine. By breaking each of them down into their underlying reasons, we can examine them more closely, and better understand whether they’re helping to improve our lives. Putting our habits under the microscope can help us to appreciate the good a little more, and give us the motivation needed to quit the bad.
When people ask me why 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU¹, I usually come up with the same answer: immigration. Brexiteers see immigration as an evil that is ruining the country, bombarded by childish memes that their thickheaded friends share on social media, and electrified by a shocking reel of Sun headlines that cattle-prodded them to the polls. They’re unable to comprehend the complexities of EU membership (few can), and cast their vote based on their racism, like frightened dogs yapping to protect themselves from the terror of the non-white hoards trying to find a better life.
Entertaining as it might be, this profile of a typical Brexiteer is untrue, falling victim to the same simplistic danger as it criticises. To make sense of something as chaotic and important as the vote of a Brexiteer, it’s much easier to discard subtlety and reduce it down to a single argument. When people ask me why 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU, I don’t consider a Brexiteer’s other potential reasons like economic regulation, trade, and sovereignty, I just choose the easiest and most common way to define them: immigration. To make sense of the carnage of Brexit, I pigeonhole 52% of the British population.
This is a common response when we’re faced with something important and complex. We feel an obligation to pick a side, but don’t want to do the research needed to better understand the situation, or people’s motives. So we simplify it down to something that resonates with us; something that we do understand, which doesn’t wobble us with cognitive dissonance, and protects our delicate egos. We engage in black and white thinking, forgoing our intelligence and becoming the very people we’re criticising.
Black and white thinking is bad for a number of reasons.
We make bad choices
We need an accurate understanding of the world to make good choices for ourselves, and for the people around us. But it’s a complicated place, and we’re all so busy, so when important events come along like Brexit, an election, or a political movement, we often get a shallow overview rather diving deep, because we’re lazy and don’t care enough to put the time in.
Continuing with the example of Brexit, if I were to make an informed decision about which way to vote, I might need to do the following:
Find out Britain’s immigration policies, and their economic implications
Find out how EU membership benefits British trade
Understand the government’s proposed human rights policies
Find out how much sovereignty Britain has as an EU member
…and much more, preferably from sources with little bias. Even if I did just one of those things, I’d be better informed and able to cast a vote that made more sense for the British people. But most people can’t be bothered, instead choosing one of a million mindless entertainments that the Internet is suffocating us with.
When we surrender to our laziness, we shrink complex issues down to a single emotional factor, ignoring all shades of grey. Our point of view is visceral, rather than grounded in fact, resulting in a bad choice that doesn’t reflect reality. Some of these choices will be innocuous, while others will tarnish our lives and the lives of our countrymen.
It’s also possible to go the other way and be a perpetual fence-sitter, despite having delved into the details of an issue. The challenge is knowing when you’ve done enough research to form a confident opinion. And if you’ve haven’t researched at all, you don’t need to pick a side.
We become stupid
When we engage in black and white thinking, we’re making a conscious choice to ignore potentially important information, and so we make fools of ourselves. The shades of grey are waiting to be discovered by those who want a more accurate and nuanced point of view, which is more difficult and time-consuming to obtain, but has the potential to make you smarter and better informed.
As we simplify an issue over and over again, casting aside all other possibilities and refusing to look deeper, we strengthen the neurons in our brains for the idea, until we become stubborn buffoons who find it impossible to perceive it in any other way. We habituate ourselves to a single simplistic assumption, and squash all creativity for the issue. We ignore nuance, and so we become dimwits.
“Black and white thinking masks itself in the disguise of certainty, and certainty feels good in an uncertain world.”
Dr. Christine Bradstreet
Black and white thinking does wonders for our confidence. It’s easier to settle on a point of view when we’ve limited the possibilities, allowing us to say “I’m right about this” with confidence. But you’re not right, you’ve just narrowed your scope, and when someone comes along with contradictory facts, your easily-won confidence is shown to be delicate as a spring daisy. Some people change their point of view when this happens, but many remain stubborn to protect their confidence/ego, and cling even harder to their daft perspective, like an intractable Flat Earther.
Simplifying the chaos of the world may fill us with self-assured certainty, but it builds a feeble confidence that can be shattered by someone willing to look deeper. Forming an opinion without looking into the details isn’t the act of a decisive leader; it’s the deed of a prosaic bootlicker.
We become predictable and boring
Rupert Murdoch’s monstrous web of media companies are an exemplar of black and white thinking. If you get your news from Murdoch, you’re in danger of becoming narrow-minded, cynical, and tedious. The primary goal of these kinds of media is to generate as strong an emotional response as possible, preferably a negative one, so that you purchase their newspapers and engage with their shows. They may harbour journalistic values and attempt to report accurately, but it’s often spun into something emotional that’ll draw you in. When you’ve spent decades reading a newspaper with headlines like YOU PAY FOR ROMA GYPSY PALACES and ‘MUSLIM CONVERT’ BEHEADS WOMAN IN GARDEN, you’re going to have trouble realising that not all Romanian Gypsies or Muslims are evil.
To have any chance of being an interesting, well-informed person, you need to delve into the details, question the validity of what you’re consuming, and engage with a variety of sources. Otherwise you risk becoming a frightened, obnoxious Fox watcher, whose imbecilic ideas are defined by sensationalism and outrage—black and white thinking that is easy to fall into if we allow ourselves.
As a species, we have a strong tendency to simplify complexity, so that we can understand. It’s easier to call a Brexiteer a racist than to understand his full rationale, and in this act of black and white thinking, we diminish our humanity and intelligence. To be smart, confident, engaging, and a good decision-maker, the shades of grey are where we’ll spend our time, refusing to fall into the rotten habit of black and white thinking.
Whenever I see a dark cloud outside, I check the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather radar for incoming rain. I love it, especially when it comes from those dense vertical clouds that flash and rumble and darken the landscape. I’m not concerned with suitable clothing or whether to sport an umbrella, I just really want to know whether it’ll rain, and check the radar with the frequency of an addict, such is my desire to know whether the clouds on the horizon will wet my local area.
There isn’t a person on earth who could tear me away from my beloved radar. It’s one of countless services that the Internet has bombarded me with, instantly accessible, and satisfying my craving for information. It strengthens and encourages my idle curiosity—the desire to know something that has no use; pointless information that I must consume, despite it having no real value or utility. Why are we such junkies for this kind of info?
Jumping back 2,000 million years in our evolutionary timeline, when we were mere bacteria, 5,000 times smaller than a pea¹, the first information we needed was about our environment, which allowed us to move away from danger, and towards food. As bacteria, we got this information by developing an ability to detect chemical changes—our ancestors’ first ever sense. The information we needed back then was a matter of life or death, and as our species evolved into weirder and more complex creatures—sponges, fruit flies, leafy sea dragons, salamanders, peacocks, shrews, howler monkeys², and more—our senses and brains developed too, allowing us to detect and control our environments with incredible precision, eventually placing us at the apex of our food chain.
As a human in the 21st century, I don’t have to worry about being swooped and carried away by a bald eagle, or mauled by a flash of black and orange. My need for critical information has lessened, but the survival needs of my evolutionary ancestors is entrenched in my brain, and so regardless of being a modern human with a respectable job and a taste for Japanese whiskey, I still crave information because for 2,000 million years, information has been a way to predict and control my environment. When your species has evolved in a world of razor sharp teeth and claws, you want as much certainty as you can get.
Enter the World Wide Web—an unfathomable amount of information, made effortlessly accessible by Google. Our ancestors never had access to such a treasure of novel curiosities, and when it was thrust into our world in the early 90’s, we could hardly believe how incredible it was; how useful and endlessly stimulating it was. But information is only good if it improves our lives in some way, and the dopaminergic reward system in our brain doesn’t account for this distinction. It identifies the possibility of new information, and because information enhances prediction and decreases uncertainty (helping us become better survivors and procreators), it releases a squirt of dopamine that propels us towards the “reward,” regardless of whether the information is valuable.
Now, defining whether a piece of information is valuable is stepping into murky philosophical territory, where subjectivity reigns as king. In the wake of god’s timely death, assigning meaning and value has fallen to the individual. We harbour a consciousness that allows us to reflect on our decisions, and write our own commandments. What you value now falls within your responsibility, and that includes deciding whether a piece of online information is helping to improve your life, or whether you’re being lured in by the boundless novelty of the Web in order to feel “safer.”
It isn’t difficult to do. I look up a lot of useless information to satisfy my idle curiosity. For example:
Checking IMDB to find out where I know an actor from.
Checking the social media account of an old colleague to see how well he’s doing compared to me.
Obsessively checking my Medium stats.
The list goes on for miles. None of this information helps me. All it does is satisfy my idle curiosity; my burning desire to just know, so that my environment feels a little more predictable and certain. It’s nonsense, of course—the modern equivalent of a Neanderthal constantly peeking out of his cave to check for a tiger, except today, there’s a hell of a lot more for us to check. The reward system in our brain doesn’t know the difference between death and triviality; between tiger and actor. It just seeks, seeks, seeks, to reduce uncertainty. With so much to keep an eye on, and such easy access to it, we risk becoming insatiable automatons who spend large portions of their time pursuing pointless information. Our idle curiosity makes robot slaves of us, whose existence is defined by an appetite for the shallow and thoughtless.
There’s no value in knowing for the sake of knowing. It fragments our attention, scatters our brain, and steals away our time, while training us to be mere consumers—lab rats pushing levers for so-called rewards. As we slip into a constant state of foraging, satisfying our idle curiosity over and over, we strengthen the neurons for the behaviour in our brains, making them ever easier and favourable, and replacing neurons once used for challenging and worthwhile tasks such as reading books. Books seem laughable in the age of the Web—why read a book, when I can read a snippet? There’s no longer any inclination for the long-winded or difficult. We’ve plummeted to the abysmal reality of the information junkie, stalking the hollow pages of social media for our next hit of mindless stimulation.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing, helping our species invent technologies that extend and improve our lives. Idle curiosity is a peril that steals our attention and damages our collective intelligence. Our digital addiction has us drowning in a sea of worthless information, still desperate to satisfy our craving even as we gasp for breath.