In the aftermath of the Capitol Building being stormed by fanatical, violent Trump supporters—an act not seen since the British breach over 200 years ago—empathising with them seems impossible. How can a sane, ethical person put themselves in the shoes of someone so batty and immoral; so dangerously flammable; so maddeningly illogical? And should we even bother?
America has never been so divided. Before the internet, extreme political views were spread through pamphlets, newspapers, radio and television shows, and the occasional book. Today, we can access them wherever we go. They’re the subtle lie in a humorous meme, shared by your racist cousin on Facebook; the insidious idea whispered into a podcast microphone by a radical influencer; the two-minute video that uses a simple data trick to convince people that global warming is a natural phenomenon. Before the internet, someone with these ideas needed to invest time and money to make themselves heard. Today, they can create a YouTube account in 30 seconds and step up to the tallest soapbox in history. The result is fanatical partisanship, political polarisation, and the election of someone clearly unfit for the job.
The formidable canyon between left and right must be narrowed, and it cannot be achieved with hostility, no matter how good it may feel. While we may never agree with a Trump fanatic, we can at least recognise the reasons why they’ve formed their political views, most of which are outside their control. This simple act of empathy can help to soften our animosity towards them, make conversation easier, and help to dilute the toxic polarisation that is poisoning the country.
It’s impossible to map the entire evolution of a Trump fanatic’s political views, but we can identify the strongest influences. The main determiners of personality, character, and behaviour are our genes, and the environment that we grow up in, i.e. our nature and nurture.
First, let’s talk about nature. Every single person receives 50% of their genes from each parent, which defines their susceptibility to disease, their physical characteristics, and most of their personality.1 We may inherit genes that bless us with a svelte outline, a sharp brain, and an inclination to hug everyone that we meet, or we may inherit genes that curse us with a turkey neck, a gullible mind, and an appetite for throwing molotovs at our political adversaries. Either way, we don’t get to choose, which means we can’t be held entirely accountable for our personality. Some people are just made from a blueprint with “Arsehole” stamped across the top.
Next, there’s nurture. As babies and children, we’re the most helpless species on the planet, counting on our parents to protect us, shelter us, feed us, and educate us. Some parents do wonderful jobs that help to create happy, confident children. Some do the best they can, creating children a little more cautious and anxious. Others are unfit to be parents, botching the job so badly that their kids turn into frightened, confused, and hopelessly angry adults. Again, a child doesn’t get to choose its parents, so can’t be held accountable for the quality of its upbringing. Some children are just raised by arseholes.
We also encounter thousands of people in our childhood, each one with the power to improve or subvert our character. There’s the uncle who shoots pool like a god; the smooth schoolyard friend who teaches us how to talk to girls, and the teacher whose explanation of black holes inspires us to become physicists. There’s also the brother who got a little too handsy; the hungover dentist who bungled a tooth extraction, and the local gang who hardened us with collective strength. Every experience helps to shape our personality in one way or another, and we cannot dictate how they’ll go.
Then there’s the cultural aspect of nurture—a powerful force that forges our most potent beliefs, including momentous forces such as religion, media, local customs, and the ideas of the community. Pluck a baby from Florida’s Big Bend and place it in the care of Californian parents, and it probably won’t end up as a Trump fanatic. It’s unlikely to give two figs about guns, same-sex marriage, or the rights of foetuses. Such beliefs are absorbed from our local culture, and when that culture changes, so do we. Again, something that we have no say over. Combine a horrible environment with genes that favour neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low openness, and you have the perfect storm for a Trump fanatic.
Everyone chooses their actions. The violent Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol Building are fully accountable for what they did, but not for the powerful causes that shoved them in that direction—their nature and nurture.
With their genes, upbringing, and environment, you may have draped yourself in the colours of the confederacy, placed a MAGA hat atop your head, and stormed the country’s most sacred democratic building. With their genes, upbringing, and environment, you may have turned out the same.
Put the word “routine” into a thesaurus, and you’ll be presented with dreary synonyms such as unremarkable, plain, and conventional. You might personally conjure adjectives such as ordinary, monotonous, and tedious, and happen to be someone who considers routine as appealing as a turd baguette.
And yet, routine could also be a synonym for human existence. We’re obliged to repeat the same processes day in day out, whether it’s the repetitive tasks of our job, emptying the infernal dishwasher, or mindlessly scrolling through Netflix like a member of the undead. Often, we complete our routines wishing we were doing something else; that some excitement might snatch us away before our final brain cell dissolves with a sad whimper.
In Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, we witness an unconventional character who thinks and behaves in the opposite way. Paterson is a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. He wakes up around 6:15am without the need of an alarm clock, kisses his wife Laura, eats cheerios, walks to work, drives his bus, eats dinner, walks their dog Marvin, has a beer at the local bar, and then goes home to sleep. You may consider Paterson’s existence to be a Sisyphean hell if not for his kindness, his calm demeanour, his enviable relationship with his wife, and the poetry he writes in the quiet moments of the day.
For Paterson, routine isn’t stifling banality to be avoided at all costs, but a wellspring of beauty and creativity. As he quietly eats his cheerios, he picks up a box of blue-tip matches from his kitchen counter, and inspects them closely. Few of us would pay much attention to something as trivial as a box of matches, but as someone who rejects face value, Paterson is able to suffuse them with charm, inspiring a love poem for his wife that talks of “sober and furious and stubbornly ready” matches that are ready to burst into flame, lighting the cigarette of the woman he loves. As he drives his bus, he smiles as school kids talk about the arrest of Hurricane Carter in a Paterson bar, as blue-collar workers reveal their supposed romantic exploits, and as teenagers talk about an Italian anarchist who published his seditious thoughts in his own Paterson paper. As he sits in the same spot at the same bar with the same drink, a fresh round each day, he watches, listens, and chats with the bar’s owner and its patrons, giving every little thing his full attention. He “looks down at his glass and feels glad,” and is only able to do so because of his deliberate absorption in his own life; his embracing of his own routine.
Paterson doesn’t appear to have aspirations of luxurious, far-flung holidays; of rubbing shoulders with dolphins or sea-turtles or celebrities with bulging buttocks. He doesn’t seem troubled by the privacy of his poetry, confined to its “secret notebook” rather than rocketing him to fame. His willingness to engage with his day-to-day experiences provide him with a satiating richness that dispels the need for something “better,” destroying the pervasive idea that life should be grander, more exciting and more spectacular—a dizzying blast of sound, colour, and aroma that fills us until we burst. Far from being a torturous bore, Paterson’s routines are a goldmine of novel curiosities that he can access because he chooses to be fully involved. His unwavering attention gives him perhaps the greatest gift of all—the idea that life isn’t just enough, but more than enough.
Routine forces us to learn. When we go through the same task enough times, it shifts from consciousness to unconsciousness, and becomes entrenched in our long-term memory. We no longer have to think about the necessary steps, allowing us to switch our attention to the world around us, to discover its charms. Like Paterson, we can become absorbed in our city and merge with it—one living, breathing metropolis, exploding with run-of-the-mill spectacle, witnessed by many, but examined by few.
When routine becomes automatic, our conscious mind is unleashed upon the world; a mental state that we can experience as boredom or fascination, depending on our level of engagement. With the attention dial turned up, routine can be transformed from a pointless and punishing bore to a captivating venture, flush with meaning. Like the Japanese man who inadvertently encourages Paterson to write again after his dog eats his treasured notebook, we might find ourselves saying “a-ha!” at the ordinary and commonplace. And when we regularly recognise beauty in the things that most people would call banal, we too might become poets.
When you’re listening to a song, do you skip the middle part because you’re desperate to hear the end? Or when you’re eating a meal, do you wolf it down because you can’t wait to reach the final bite?
Me neither. It’s sacrificing the joy of the experience. Living with the end in mind. But according to British philosopher Alan Watts, this is exactly how many of us live.
In 1951, while Watts was teaching comparative philosophy and psychology in San Francisco, he published a short 150 page book called The Wisdom of Insecurity, which was a distillation of his philosophical views up until that point. As a lifelong lover of Eastern philosophy, Watts’s views are heavily influenced by Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which he eventually helped to popularise in the west, and which form the essence of his wonderful little book.
According to Watts, many of us fail to live in the present moment. We’re constantly focusing on future goals or ruminating about the past, at the expense of the only thing that actually exists—this moment, right now. When we forgo the present moment to brood on a long-dead past, or an ethereal future that doesn’t yet exist, we miss the splendour of the world in front of us. We live with our eyes closed, our ears and noses blocked, our touch numbed, and our taste dulled. The plans that we obsessively make for ourselves are useless, because when they finally arrive, we’re not experiencing them because we’re busy making new plans. As long as we continue to live inside our own heads, always planning and hoping for something better, we’re mere spectators; sitting in the bleachers while our life is played out in front of us, lacking the courage to join the game.
“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”
Humanity’s obsession with forward-thinking has cheapened the present moment—the only thing that actually exists. To use another of Watts’s genius analogies: it’s like eating the menu instead of the meal. We obsess over concepts, ideas, and plans that we think will make us happy, while forgoing the very thing that will make us happy: the real world.
“If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves, vanish into the abyss of death.”
For Watts, our obsession with the future comes from our sense of insecurity. We know that the universe constantly changes; that nothing lasts forever, including ourselves. And it terrifies us. So to gain a morsel of control, and to make our future feel a little more secure, we plan, plan, plan, desperately trying to stifle a truth that we cannot bear to hear: you have little control, and one day, you’re going to die.
It’s futile, of course. And as with many of life’s troubles, the answer is devilishly simple yet difficult in practice—acceptance. You cannot make yourself secure in a world that is based on insecurity and change. So there’s nothing for you to do but accept your inevitable death, and then start paying attention.
“To put is still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”
At its core, The Wisdom of Insecurity is a book about mindfulness, which is a dime a dozen these days. But Watts is a wordsmith of such exceptional class, that when I chance on such a writer, the ubiquity of the subject no longer bores me into a lull, but instead hypnotises me, having been explained with captivating vigour and lucidity. This is the only book that I’ve finished and then restarted immediately. It was that good.
Watts teaches us about mindfulness in a way that few other people can, and the result is 150-pages of fascinating, funny, and enriching philosophy.
The internet has allowed anyone with a computer to publish their ideas online, many lacking the expertise, research skills, or objectivity to produce quality information. The result is a deluge of blogs, “news,” social posts, videos, and podcasts, impeccably designed and posted on authoritative-looking websites, tricking us into believing that the ideas are credible.
Knowing how to validate the reliability and accuracy of information has never been so important. The rise of dangerous ideas such as climate change denial, anti-vaxxing, and the authenticity of COVID-19 are a result of people believing misinformation, and as it becomes harder to separate the wheat from the chaff, it also becomes harder to make decisions that save lives. As an anti-vaxxer tries to protect her son against autism, he dies of measles. As people gather to protest against the conspiracy of COVID-19, they indirectly kill. As narcissistic world leaders dismantle fossil fuel regulation,1 the temperature moves closer to the tipping point that drastically alters the earth’s climate,2 putting millions of people at risk.
Good information gives us a more accurate understanding of reality, allowing us to navigate the world effectively. We can make decisions that allow us, the people around us, and the rest of our species to flourish. Quality of information is critical for the wellbeing of humanity, and being able to identify whether a news article, blog, or video is credible can help you to make good decisions.
We can’t see through the fog of information pollution unless we know how to identify it, and in this article, we’ll explain how.
Why is there so much misinformation?
The web isn’t regulated
Content posted on the web isn’t regulated. This gives people the freedom to post whatever they want, but lacks the principles and rules to ensure that the content is accurate.
While the web itself isn’t regulated, some reputable media companies have validation processes to ensure their information is as accurate as possible, for example The New York Times, the BBC, or the Wall Street Journal.
The more people who view a piece of content, the more money the creator will be able to make from advertising, paid reviews, paid subscriptions, public speaking, and other business opportunities. It’s in a content creator’s best interests to generate popular content, which isn’t necessarily the most accurate content. When faced with a choice between accuracy and profitability, it can be difficult to do the right thing.
Insufficient research, and no expert review
The world is a complex place, and many ideas are determined and affected by a large number of factors. For a piece of content to be credible, it must be rigorously researched, and if necessary, reviewed by experts. Many content creators don’t know this, and regardless of their good intentions, they end up publishing misinformation that can warp a person’s understanding of reality, leading them to harmful beliefs, and bad decisions.
Disclaimer: this article has been rigorously researched, but hasn’t been reviewed by experts.
With so much content and such little time, we’ve become skimming experts. We want the specific information that we’re seeking, and we want it ASAP. So when we’re faced with a 5,000 word monster of an article that provides an excellent overview of a topic, we’ll probably close it down and find something shorter, even though the shorter article lacks the depth needed for deep understanding.
Content creators understand this, and the length of their work is shortened to suit. This can narrow the subject’s scope at the expense of explaining it effectively.
To use an example from boxing, a video editor can put together a 10-minute compilation of David Tua’s most powerful left hooks, under the title “David Tua—the best left hook in boxing.” Unless you’ve seen every one of that boxer’s fights, and watched enough boxing to get an understanding of the frequency and power of a typical left hook, you’ll be inclined to believe that David Tua has the best left hook in the sport. This is a trivial example, and it won’t affect your ability to make good decisions, but it’s something that content creators do constantly to grab your attention and get you to click on their content. It doesn’t matter if the video is accurate. What matters is that you click.
The information that we consume shapes our beliefs and behaviours. We can be fed information from nefarious governments, companies, groups, and individuals, who bombard us with disinformation as a way to influence our beliefs and encourage action. One of the most damaging examples of this is Russia’s supposed interference in the 2016 US election, where they bombarded American citizens with emotive social media memes, helping Trump to win the presidency.4
Companies and individuals whose income is based on content are under pressure to create. In theory, the less content they create, the less money they make. This creates incentive to produce as much content as possible as quickly as possible, at the expense of thorough research and peer reviews.
As social animals, being accepted by others is important for our mental health. An effective way to be accepted and respected by others is to create content that seems smart, well-informed, and useful. To the content creator seeking social approval, it doesn’t matter that their information is dumb, shallow, and harmful. They still get the kudos.
Information quality attributes | How to spot information pollution
Information quality is a term usually associated with the quality of information in a system (typically a computer), but we can use some of its metrics to determine if a piece of content is credible. We can also use elements from academia’s CRAAP test5 (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, purpose). The guidelines below are a mix of these methods, with some additional checks thrown in.
When a content creator has the expertise and experience to explain a subject accurately, they’re an authority. This is one of the most important indicators for information quality.
Authority can be assessed for a piece of content in two ways: the individual who created it, and the organisation who published it.
Authority of the person
A person’s authority can be determined by their credentials and experience, usually outlined in their profile. Do they match the topic they have covered? An electrical engineer shouldn’t be telling people how to manage their diabetes.
If a content creator hasn’t listed their credentials, or if they’ve listed credentials from an unrecognised educational institution, they may not have the skills or experience needed to explain a topic accurately. People can still educate themselves and draw on their life experiences, and there’s plenty of subjects that the average Joe can elucidate, but if something complex is being explained—medicine, physics, economics, psychology, etc.—you’ll probably get more accurate information from somebody who has studied and practised it.
Of course, it’s easy for a content creator to lie about their credentials. Other information quality attributes should be checked before choosing to believe their content.
Authority of the organisation
Organisations create content for one reason: to attract an audience. Whether a newspaper, blogger, YouTube channel, or business, they’re all creating content as a way to attract or keep “customers,” and make money. Unfortunately, when money is the main reason for doing something, morals are often abandoned, and quality of information neglected. It no longer matters that content is accurate and well-researched; all that matters is that people view and share it.
The organisations with the best standards are established newspapers and media companies, whose purpose is to produce content. They usually adhere to the five principles of ethical journalism—truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability6—which allow them to create accurate, relevant, and authoritative content. There are plenty of exceptions—most content produced by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is trash, including Fox News, Sky News, The Sun, and The New York Post.7 Every media company is also politically biased to some degree,8 which must be recognised when viewing their content. Finally, there’s the troubling theory of every media company acting as a propaganda tool for their corporate overlords, as outlined by Edward S.Herman and Noam Chomksy in their meticulous book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. But this book doesn’t question the accuracy of the media’s reporting, just the political purpose of the stories they cover, and how they might influence you in ways that benefit the powerful. You can still get facts from a reputable paper like the New York Times, but you should ask yourself why they’re choosing to report those particular facts.
Reputation is the best indicator of an organisation’s authority. Some have built their businesses on accuracy—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Al Jazeera—but others are more difficult to identify. There’s websites such as Media Bias Fact Check,9 but their analysis has been called unscientific,10 so should be viewed with skepticism. Some organisations such as Nestle, Amazon, Coca Cola, and Disney are infamous for their sins, and their lack of integrity often leads to a lack of standards, extending to any “informative” content they produce. If you’re unsure whether a company has a reputation for producing accurate information, try Googling their reputation and credibility, and reading what others have to say.
Another way to determine authority is by comparing the subject of the content with the organisation’s purpose. If you’re reading a climate change article from Scientific American, it’s clear that the topic matches their area of knowledge, and there’s a greater chance that the article will be accurate. Authority is boosted further if the organisation has been producing this kind of content for a long time (although there are exceptions to this rule).
Content is usually created for a purpose, and identifying this purpose can help to determine whether the information is trustworthy. What is the content creator trying to achieve with their content? Are they trying to entertain you, educate you, influence you, or mislead you? Are they trying to sell you a product or service?
Fox News promotes itself as a serious news organisation, and has the trust of roughly one in four Americans.11 But the purpose of its stories are entertainment first, and information second—a more accurate name for the corporation would be “Fox Infotainment.” There’s nothing wrong with watching Fox for amusement, but watching it for educational purposes is like asking a Nazi to teach you about Jewish history. You’ll end up with a warped sense of reality.
Content that is created primarily to educate is the most trustworthy, especially when created by somebody with authority. Discerning the purpose of a piece of content can help you to decide whether it should be believed.
Data analysis and the scientific method allow us to understand the world more accurately than ever before. If somebody makes an unfamiliar assertion that cannot be known without data, scientific analysis, or another type of real-world evidence, they need to provide a credible reference to back up their claim. This includes climate change denial, proof of conspiracy theories, political scandals, character assassinations, or anything else requiring hard evidence to be correct.
If a content creator can’t provide you with credible evidence for their claim (which is often the case), their content shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Scope, comprehensiveness, and completeness
“The world is too complex for simple answers, and we don’t want to be the ones giving them.”
Kurzgesagt, Can You Trust Kurzgesagt Videos? 3
Even the most seemingly simple of subjects are complex, with an intricate web of relationships. Few topics can be properly explored in a few thousand words, let alone a few hundred. To explore an idea, a content creator must understand the level of scope needed to portray it effectively. If important details are missed, the viewer may end up with biased or incomplete knowledge.
For example, to understand the dictatorial motives of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s useful to know about his allegations of political corruption. Even if the scope of the article is small, it’s important to include further reading on the topic to offer the reader supporting background knowledge. The BBC are forerunners for this, providing supporting links throughout most of their news articles, allowing you to better understand the story by broadening your scope of knowledge.
Many content creators are unable to determine scope and comprehensiveness because they lack the knowledge and experience to write about a topic, which is why authority is such an important measure of quality.
As humans with values and opinions, we naturally introduce bias into content that we create. It can’t be eliminated, but it can be controlled by giving equal voice to different sides of an argument, encouraging the viewer to choose their preferred position. With people becoming more politically polarized over the last few years, content creators are moving further down the political spectrum, and as their ideas become more extreme, so does their content. This makes balance more important than ever. The more polarized we become, the harder it is to empathise with each other, and the less chance we have of cooperating. We become enemies, not friends.
If a piece of content requires both sides to be heard—for example political issues, social commentary, education—and the creator provides a one-sided argument, you may want to find something more balanced. Otherwise, you could come away with a biased opinion.
For content to be objective, the creator must provide you with the facts, and let you interpret them on your own. Much of the web’s content is based on opinion, which is fine when the topic is trivial, but when it’s something important that requires hard facts, the creator should try to be as objective as possible, and allow you to make up your own mind. Objectivity is a core principle for journalists.
Timeliness (also known as currency or relevancy)
Research that was considered credible in its heyday can still be found, despite it being long disproven. Francis Galton’s eugenics, aspects of B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviourism, and many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas gained a great deal of academic support at the time, but have since been obliterated or replaced by better ideas.
Progress is fast in the modern world, so keeping an eye on the publication date for a piece of content is important, to avoid consuming out of date information. Many older ideas still hold their ground, but it’s usually worth checking for something fresher.
Composition and organisation
As a content creator, presenting an idea in a coherent, logical way is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s critical to getting the message across. It often requires diligent editing and re-editing, ensuring that each sentence, scene, or section follows logically from its predecessor, providing the viewer with the best chance of understanding the argument.
If a piece of content seems scattered and fuzzy, and you’re struggling to follow the argument, the creator may not have the skill to explain it effectively.
Who is the target audience?
Some content creators are trying to achieve a specific goal for a specific audience. Conservative tabloids such as the New York Post write stories with an anti immigration sentiment, which increases sales, and helps to push their conversative agenda. At the opposite end of the political scale, CNN is extremely liberal, and never has a good word to say about Trump (something that is difficult, admittedly).
Identifying the target audience for a piece of content allows you to uncover potential motives, and better understand why certain facts are being reported, and certain language is being used.
Few ideas are original. The ideas that run through most of the web’s content come from another source, and are being expressed in a new way. Even journalists rely on news agencies for much of their information (Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters, and Agencia EFE), which they expand on and add their perspective to.
A piece of content doesn’t have to be unique for it to be valuable, but if the idea comes from another source, it can be worthwhile checking out what was originally said.
In scientific studies, if a method is reproducible, it produces the same result when applied to different data of the same type. The scientific community recently went through a reproducibility crisis (or replication crisis),12 when they found that many scientific studies were difficult or impossible to reproduce, making their claims much less convincing.
If you’re reading a scientific study that hasn’t been reproduced, you can’t be sure that the conclusions of the study are accurate.
Spelling and grammar
If a piece of content is filled with spelling and grammar errors, as harsh as it sounds, the creator may not have the knowledge, skill, or intelligence to explain the topic effectively.
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, 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?”