• The difference between the people and the system

    Right, I’m back.

    Let’s start with a comment from the known moral philosopher Wesley Snipes:




    For all three of you who don’t recognize him, that’s Simon Phoenix from the film Demolition Man – the only film that managed to effortlessly combine Wesley Snipes, Sylvester Stallone and Sir Nigel Hawthorne.  One of the reasons it is a medium classic.

    The context of the above line [you three – spoilers] is a dystopian future, but a dystopia that follows Brave New World rather than Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Raymond Cocteau (Hawthorne) has engineered a society where everything from bad language to sex with physical contact (don’t ask) is banned as being bad for you.  A certain number of people are not happy with this arrangement and flee to the sewers and maintain a counterculture, one that engages in repeated acts of disturbance  (graffiti, theft of food, etc.).

    Cocteau’s plan to deal with the counterculture is to resurrect the most fearsome criminal of the twentieth century and program him to kill the counterculture.  This works about as well as you might expect.

    This is the genius of that line: It is not that you shouldn’t take away people’s right to be assholes as a matter of moral principle, it is that you cannot take that right away as a matter of empirical fact.  In order to do so you would need a means of enforcing your edict, which would mean something like an “asshole police”.

    Now what sort of people might be attracted to a position where you get to monitor your fellow human beings’ speech and thought, and penalize them if they stray?


    This is the common thread in all those stories you read about Political Correctness Gone Bananas.  Whatever the offence is – an off-colour joke, a slightly retrograde comment on gay rights, speculation that goes a little beyond what we think is appropriate – it is nowhere near as bad as the spectacle of a gang of power mad little lunatics ruining lives and careers for a momentary lapse.  Instead of cracking down on assholes, political correctness ends up empowering them.

    In lieu of trying to make everyone nice, let me suggest an alternative: since a certain percentage of human beings are always terrible [citation needed], the point is to work out a system where the damage that terrible people can do is minimized, and the good that virtuous people can do is maximized.

    System versus Substance

    Let me define my terms here.  There is the system, which is the way that people are going to interact with each other.  And there is the substance, which is the actual people and what they are.  Think of it like a football team.  There is a defined position for goalie, defenders, and so on, and each of these roles has a defined set of ways in which its holder can and cannot interact with the rest.  The system remains the same even as the identity of the people in it changes.

    You can have good systems with terrible people in them, and bad systems with excellent people in them.

    Example of the latter: Nazism and John Rabe.  While people say that the Second World War started in 1939, if we are really going to think of it as a world war, it started rather earlier than that, when Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria.  The massacres committed by the imperial army are horrifying even by the standards of that war, and the worst of all was the Rape of Nanking.

    When Nanking fell to the Japanese, John Rabe organized a safety zone to protect the native Chinese civilians.  He saved a quarter of a million lives.  He was also a ranking member of the Nazi party, and repeatedly wrote to Hitler directly, appealing for the Führer’s intercession.  The American doctor Robert O. Wilson (played by Steve Buscemi in the wonderful film) would later say that Rabe made him want to put on the hakenkreuz himself.

    None of that changes the nature of Nazism.  Similarly, the good Communists – and there were many – who fought against the Third Reich, or against segregation in America or Apartheid, do not change the nature of communism.

    This confusion between systems and substance is what leads to a lot of unproductive shouting on the internet.  Minor example: the fact that Mandela was a member of the communist party in his youth is brought up negatively by certain types.  But neither Mandela’s character, nor the necessity of the anti-Apartheid struggle is discredited by his early membership in a rancid system.

    Conversely, I should have no problems being a monarchist if the monarch in question was Frederick the Great.  Unfortunately, the history of monarchy shows that this is not exactly what is usually on offer.

    The failure to distinguish between system and substance leads to a lot of tragedy.  Good people end up supporting an evil system because they see that great people are doing so, and innocents are condemned out of hand for their support – or otherwise good systems get discredited by the presence of unpleasant people.  Or you can get a situation where person A is shouting about the substance, while person B is shouting back about the system, and no one ever gets anywhere.

    (A common accusation against Islamorealists is that we “hate Muslims” because we recognize Islam as evil.  Not so – most Muslims are good people.  It’s just that Islam, the system, maximizes all the worst aspects of humanity and clamps down on the good aspects.)

    Since I’m on the right, I tend to find examples of things going to hell on the left, so let me take an example from the right on this.  It’s easy to find plenty of right-wingers complaining about racial grievance mongers and whatnot.  This comes across as petty, and leads others to describe them as racists, bigots, throwbacks and so on.

    That’s not exactly right.  I hang with this crowd and I have never heard anyone of them say anything along the lines of “You know, the Civil Rights movement was a bad idea”.  What annoys them is the presence of grievance hucksters, political correctness bullies, charlatans talking sneering at western civilization while basking in it – and so on.  The line is that being opposed to this nonsense – and it is nonsense – doesn’t make you opposed to racial equality.

    In my last post I argued that even good systems will inevitably fill up with narcissists and other creeps and losers, all desperate to salve their psychic wounds at the expense of everyone else.  This cycle is inevitable – all revolutions decay.  If I am right about this, then the above phenomena are an inextricable result of the revolution in race relations.  They are part of the price we pay for abolishing racism – in South Africa, Jacob Zuma is the logical consequence of the abolition of apartheid, because the revolution has exhausted itself.  Now I think that’s all a price worth paying, but it is still a price.  What conservatives are doing is promoting the highly unconservative idea that you can get something for nothing.

    A good system is worth defending even as it fills up with bad people

    There’s no way to avoid the decay of a good system – a successful revolution erases the need for itself.  The thing is, a good system filled with bad people is nowhere near as a bad system filled with bad people.  I’ve commented on how western feminism has decayed to the point where it consists of nothing but promiscuity, irresponsibility, abortion and misandry – but even so, it is far better than some systems we’ve had.  I would far rather that Amanda Marcotte and Laurie Penny make a pest of themselves online than were raving in the pages of the Völkischer Beobachter.  Of course, I’m not saying that Marcotte and Penny would have been Ilse Koch or Sigrid Hunke had they been born under different stars…

    …except that is exactly what I am saying.  I’m not saying that they are moral equivalents as they exist now, but that is because we have a reasonably okay system in place that ensures that even purestrain narcissists do little damage.  Narcissistic nutters are an eternal part of the species, and they will always find some way of getting their fix.  Scott Alexander has put together a collage of feminist cartoons of nerds, and shown how these are identical – not similar, but identical – to the Nazi cartoons of Jews.  Is it really too hard to imagine that instead of yelling about nerds feeling entitled to female company, in another time they would be yelling about licentious jews polluting good Aryan womanhood?

    Or inspiring lynching.  When I was looking into the Manosphere (and finding it a mixed bag), I found the following article on rape hysteria that used to lead to innocent black men being lynched in the United States.  It is well worth the read, even if it is on Return of Kings.

    Here’s where you can make a clear distinction between the system and the substance.  As appalling as the false rape accusations you get today are – and they are very appalling indeed – they haven’t lead to murders or pogroms, and that is an advance worth having.

    Getting good people into a good system requires things to have gone to the dogs

    The ideal is how you get decent, or moderately decent, people into a worthwhile cause.  This runs into the basic problem I’ve mentioned before – oppression sucks, and so does the struggle against it.  What would you rather do – agitate for a fundamental change of the system so it is easier for you to get what you want, or focus on thriving within the system?  Remember, option 1 involves a great deal of time and frustration and even if you succeed, chances are you will be too old to make any use of it.  Things need to be at the point where there is really no other choice but to change the system itself.  Alternatively, you won’t see the better people join a cause until there is some risk in it.

    There’s no way I can see of escaping this dynamic.  The only lesson I can take – and this is particularly important for atheist advocacy – is to try and keep the good system in as good a working order for when we need it.  The reason we try to maintain a decent system is so that, when things go bad, people will not turn to less good ones.




    Category: Life and ReasonThe Enlightenment continues

    Article by: The Prussian

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    • Good to have you back! I didn’t even have time to draft a response :)

    • kraut2

      The question is: what is a good system? Is it a capitalism that approaches corporatism (i.e. crony capitalism as in the US), is it the concept of Soziale Marktwirtschaft as falling apart in Germany? Is it Chinas mix of no longer existing communist ideas mixed with freewheeling capitalism? Is it libertarianism that in the end based on its own philosophy leads inevitable to regressive power structures? Is it a Russia where some goodly portion of authoritanism is mixed in with free market ideas and a return to the influence of the church?

    • alfanerd

      Now what sort of people might be attracted to a position where you get
      to monitor your fellow human beings’ speech and thought, and penalize
      them if they stray?

      That is a crucial insight. I need to write it on a big post-it next to my computer screen for when I’m arguing against PC.

      On the other hand it’s only useful when convincing the mushy middle that PC is actually evil. When you’re arguing with Atheism +, well then you’re arguing with the assholes in question and they’re none too keen about being unmasked.

      What conservatives are doing is promoting the highly unconservative idea that you can get something for nothing.

      That idea may be unconservative but it doesnt mean that we should not fight back against the Zumas and the Sharptons of this world.

    • nicky

      I think your system versus substance is really a pertinent distinction, and potentially useful.

      In defence of Zuma (and I do not think he deserves any defence, he’s kind of indefensible): he did not oppose the roll out of a serious anti-AIDS program, contrary to his predecessor, who -from many pov’s was a better president- obstructed the fight against AIDS. I still think Mbeki (his proxy Tshabalala-Msimang died of alcoholism) should stand trial for causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. I think the change of AIDS policy is Zuma’s only positive…

    • Jeff Pinner

      System vs Substance, aye, there’s the rub…

      We all whine about bureaucracy and its minions, but few realize why it came into being in the first place. It’s a way of getting jobs done coherently when they require a whole bunch of people to do them. For instance, it was a bureaucracy called NASA that put men on the moon. They brought together the individual companies with various capabilities, and pointed the way to use their technologies to get the job done. Anyone overly ready to give up on their results? Send your smart phone back, and go back to wired telephones?

      Any system can and will be abused by the human beings who are a part of it, whether a relatively small system like NASA, or something humongous like a democracy or the capitalist markets. The prime reason that governments are so unwieldy is that we have attempted to build in safe guards to watch out for the bad actors. Fear is the proper response to an agile government – someone has stripped the safe guards from the system, and it will not be to the benefit of the people. (Example: See the repeal of Glass-Stegel regarding the systemic financial crash of 2008.)

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