New morals, new principles, compromised beyond repair

Condensed from Milton Mayer’s They thought they were free; the Germans, 1933-45 (U. of Chicago Press, 1955). The following comments are attributed to a German philologist (pp. 166-172).

It took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath.

The whole process was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your `little men’; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about, but kept us so busy with continuous changes and `crises’ and so fascinated by the machinations of the `national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.

To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it, unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, `regretted,’ that unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these `little measures’ that no `patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing.

How is this to be avoided? Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims `Resist the beginnings’ and `Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist the beginnings, and how is this to be done?

Your `little men’ were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders.

One doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to `go out of your way to make trouble.’ And it is not just fear that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets `everyone’ is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, `It’s not so bad’ or `You’re seeing things’ or `You’re an alarmist.’

And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. On the one hand, your enemies intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, people who have always thought as you have.

In small gatherings of your oldest friends, you feel that you are talking to yourselves, that you are isolated from the reality of things. This weakens your confidence still further and serves as a further deterrent to – to what? It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait.

But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest … But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

And one day, too late, your principles all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy saying `Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you were born in – your nation, your people – is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed.

Life has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father could not have imagined.

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

Crucible

If you’re not really listening to them, then they’re not really important to you, and they feel it

According to Susan de la Vergne in “We’re Terrible Listeners — And Here’s Why

In technology, when we find a problem with a product, we pursue its root cause. What’s really making this happen? Then we fix the root cause. We know we could just tinker with things so the symptoms stop appearing, but without getting at what’s really wrong, it’s only a matter of time before the problem shows up again.

Same thing applies here. When we’re trying to listen, we could count to seven before speaking or remind ourselves not to interrupt, but those are just symptoms. Becoming a better listener requires taking a deeper dive into the problem. We need to get at the root cause.

Why don’t we listen well? The person we’re listening to isn’t important. Change that perspective, and you fix the problem.

“Giving undivided attention is the first and most basic ingredient in any relationship.”

According to Kare Anderson in “What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life

A few years ago, DisneyWorld executives were wondering what most captured the attention of toddlers and infants at their theme park and hotels in Orlando, Florida. So they hired me and a cultural anthropologist to observe them as they passed by all the costumed cast members, animated creatures, twirling rides, sweet-smelling snacks, and colorful toys. But after a couple of hours of close observation, we realized that what most captured the young children’s attention wasn’t Disney-conjured magic. Instead it was their parents’ cell phones, especially when the parents were using them.

Those kids clearly understood what held their parents’ attention — and they wanted it too. Cell phones were enticing action centers of their world as they observed it. When parents were using their phones, they were not paying complete attention to their children.

Giving undivided attention is the first and most basic ingredient in any relationship. It is impossible to communicate, much less bond, with someone who can’t or won’t focus on you. At the same time, we often fail to realize how what we focus on comes to control our thoughts, our actions, and indeed, our very lives.

Don’t confuse what your priorities should be with what your priorities are.

Your priorities are objectively measurable by how many resources you invest in them, such as, money, effort, attention, thought, creativity, planning, concentration, pain, care and time.

Changing your priorities means reallocating your resources.

Self-discipline is congruence between your priorities and your deepest needs.

Of course, we all know how hard it can be to invest short-term pain for long-term gain. As I write here

A key to happiness is doing what you don’t enjoy. (That is, doing cheerfully and promptly what must be done but is not pleasant.)

But don’t underestimate the challenge of achieving awareness of your deepest needs.

Why do so few unwrap the gift of Santa Claus?

The Santa Claus game is a loving demonstration that 

  1. The entire society, including your nearest and dearest, will conspire to tell you noble lies.
  2. No matter how absurd, you will believe them. 

So why doesn’t this lesson sink in?

Aside: The deep lie beneath the jolly surface lie is karma — a causal arrow from my personal choice of naughty or nice to whether I’ll taste every good thing in life or only the switch’s sting.  If the horn of plenty flows to me like the hot water in my morning shower, while those others must fetch back their rations in a dirty old bucket, well then, I deserve it and so do they.

Originally posted December 2008.

Christmas_bear

It’s not that the computer is slow, it’s that it’s doing something else

Cognitive capacity is a scarce resource. The struggle of poverty drains it away like a regressive tax. According to Sendhil Mullainathan

Our results suggest that when you’re poor, money is not the only thing in short supply. Cognitive capacity is also stretched thin. That’s not to say that poor people are less intelligent than others. What we show is that the same person experiencing poverty suffers a cognitive deficit as opposed to when they’re not experiencing poverty. It’s also wrong to suggest that someone’s cognitive capacity has gotten smaller because they’re poor. In fact, what happens is that your effective capacity gets smaller, because you have all these other things on your mind, you have less mind to give to everything else.

Imagine you’re sitting in front of a computer, and it’s just incredibly slow. But then you realize that it’s working in the background to play a huge video that’s downloading. It’s not that the computer is slow, it’s that it’s doing something else, so it seems slow to you. I think that’s the heart of what we’re trying to say.

But what if the poor are only the most outrageous example of such societal intelligence wasting? Which video is your own, more fortunate, brain downloading right now? What could you achieve if you could just kill that background process somehow?

Update: Shalom in the comments gave another great example of misfortune forcibly taking over your mental resources.

People with severe health problems in the family are also hard-pressed to concentrate on constructive activities.

See also “How multitasking messes with your brain” and “Keep thinking, think of it everyday“.

Aside: How can we break out of the consensus trance and stop brooding cuckoo eggs?

The paradox of values — “We shape ourselves like clay from someone else’s dream.”

According to John Wareham in The Anatomy of a Great Executive (pp. 41-42)

The Paradox of Values. Most people cherish what they imagine to be an almost sacred right to hold and live by a system of values that springs from invalid and conflicting beliefs. They do so, believing that to live in accordance with one’s beliefs bestows integrity, gives meaning to life, and makes us free. The exact opposite, however, is more likely to be the case. People are mostly prisoners trapped within the cage of their own beliefs, yet unaware of any restraint.

He also says

The earlier our values are acquired, the greater their power. Early values become the voice of conscience.

According to Danny Elfman

We shape ourselves like clay from someone else’s dream.

In all the world there’s no one like you or me

Clothes make the man.

A story told by Arthur Naiman

A man goes to a tailor to try on a new custom-made suit.
The first thing he notices is that the arms are too long.
	"No problem," says the tailor.  "Just bend them at the
elbow and hold them out in front of you.  See, now it's fine."
	"But the collar is up around my ears!"
	"It's nothing.  Just hunch your back up a little … no,
a little more … that's it."
	"But I'm stepping on my cuffs!" the man cries in
desperation.
	"Nu, bend your knees a little to take up the slack.
There you go.  Look in the mirror -- the suit fits perfectly."
	So, twisted like a pretzel, the man lurches out onto the
street.  Reba and Florence see him go by.
	"Oh, look," says Reba, "that poor man!"
	"Yes," says Florence, "but what a beautiful suit."
		-- Arthur Naiman, "Every Goy's Guide to Yiddish"

Naked

According to Mark Twain

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.

According to Steve Jobs

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

If you aren’t real, you aren’t powerful.

According to Jules Buccieri

If you aren’t real, you aren’t powerful.

See this essay by Howard Fine on why a speech was almost universally considered a disaster. It shows why you come across so much better when you’re spontaneous, and how important it is to have something important and real to say, compared to merely trying to say it well.

According to Phil Gyford’s notes on Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares

Be careful when rehearsing with a mirror — teaches you to watch the outside, not the inside.

According to John Wareham (The Anatomy of a Great Executive, pp. 35-36)

A person will often present a facade founded upon the aspect of his or her personality that he/she most fears — or knows — to be missing.

He says to ask yourself

What is the impression that this individual takes the greatest trouble to convey to me?

Then, until you discover more, work on the assumption that the real person may likely turn out to be the exact opposite of this facade.

Robbing ourselves

According to Scott Ballum

When we align ourselves with the opinions of others without examination, we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to analyze our own preferences and desires, to determine our own solutions. We miss the chance to review the criteria others are utilizing, to question their biases and seek our own inspiration. In stunting the development of our own individual perspectives and initiatives, we trap ourselves in lives that appear to be predestined, and deny the possibility of realizing our personal potential.

According to Blayney Colmore

Mary Dyer and Jon Daniels […] turned from an identity adopted from surrounding culture, to their own inner identity and authority. It’s the kind of authority that cedes to no one what we call conscience, but what might more accurately be named authentic self.

Get out of that pickle barrel!

According to Daniel Kahneman

Look at yourself as a point in the distribution.

You may be a superhuman outlier, but don’t count on it. We’re herd animals, and a psychological force of gravity pulls us into orbit around the norms of our current social network.

According to Philip Zimbardo

It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people.

and

You can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel.

When you notice that the system or your social network are a corrupting influence on the people around you, better play it safe and move on before you catch the same disease.

According to Trent Hamm

The first surprise about change is that the problem usually isn’t people, it’s the situation. If you want change, you’ve got to change the situation a bit.

According to Magic Johnson

If people around you aren’t going anywhere, if their dreams are no bigger than hanging out on the corner, or if they’re dragging you down, get rid of them. Negative people can sap your energy so fast, and they can take your dreams from you, too.

The arts and the insistent, speechless self

According to Mark Edmundson

The truth of what we’re best fit to do is latent in all of us, Emerson suggests, and I think this to be right. But it’s also true that we, and society, too, have plenty of tricks for keeping that most important kind of knowledge out of reach. Society seems to have a vested interest in telling us what we should do and be. But often its interpretation of us — fed through teachers and guidance officers and priests and ministers and even through our loving parents — is simply wrong.

and

To be young is often to know, or to sense, what others have in mind for you and not to like it. But what is harder for a person who has gone unhappily through the first rites of passage into the tribe is to know how to replace the values she’s had imposed on her with something better. She’s learned a lot of socially sanctioned languages, and still none of them are hers. But are there any that truly might be? Is there something she might be or do in the world that’s truly in keeping with the insistent, but often speechless, self that presses forward internally?

This, I think, is where literature can come in — as can all of the other arts and in some measure the sciences, too. By venturing into what Arnold memorably called “the best that has been known and thought,” a young person has the chance to discover new vital possibilities. Such a person sees that there are other ways of looking at the world and other ways of being in the world than the ones that she’s inherited from her family and culture.

and

It’s probable that most people will be relatively content to live within the ethical and conceptual world that their parents and their society pass on to them. Burke and Johnson thought of common-sense opinion as a great repository of wisdom stored through the ages, augmented and revised through experience, trial and error, until it became in time the treasure of humanity. Perhaps the conservative sages were right. But there will always be individuals who cannot live entirely by the standard dispensation and who require something better — or at least something else. This group may be small (though I think it larger than most imagine), but its members need what great writing can bring them very badly indeed. We professors of literature hold the key to the warehouse where the loaves lie fresh and steaming, while outside people hunger for them, sometimes dangerously.

Call yourself what you want to call yourself

According to Neil Tweedie, writing here of the modern French Foreign Legion

“We don’t accept the hardened criminals any more, the murderers or rapists,” says Capt Samir Benykrelef, “so this makes our job easier.”

But there is still a hint of romance: all recruits must assume a new name on joining the Legion. This is because some recruits do indeed want a new start and new identity, and it is fairer to make all new Legionnaires undergo the same process. Soldiers can revert to their real identities after a year.

“Real” identities?

According to Bob Dylan, when asked why he changed his name

Some people …. you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens, You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.

Maybe everyone should change their names every 10 years. Your “given name” doesn’t come with a gift receipt, so no refunds, no exchanges? Why should we be stuck with their choice? Yet, we feel we are. Same for our “family name”. Why doesn’t each wedding announce a cool new “family name” for the couple, like the reign name of popes and emperors?

I was tempted to title this section “Self-hatred is underrated.” Too strong, yet there’s some truth to it. People are so attached to whatever identity they got imposed on them, and accidentally acquired, often by bad choices and limited experience, or even victimhood and suffering. That’s the most dangerous attachment.

If you could reboot into a totally different self, why would that be so bad? It’s a trick programmed into you somewhere; loyalty is often so foolish.

Self-improvement, rewrite the program, reboot. Reinvent according to your own blueprint, not theirs, not the accidents of history. Sure, putting on airs, playing like you’re a bigshot, can be ridiculous, but the impulse to better yourself is not at all ridiculous.

According to James Camp

As the publication date drew near for Slaughterhouse-Five, on which Vonnegut had worked, fitfully, for 20 years, he brooded over his author photo. He was clean-cut, clean-shaven, a bit paunchy—in 1969, an unlikely candidate for cultural eminence. He decided “to cultivate the style of an author who was in.” “To meet the expectations of his audience was key,” Mr. Shields writes. “He lost weight, allowed his close-cropped hair to become curly and tousled, and grew a moustache. … He looked like an avant-garde artist and social critic now, not rumpled Dad-in-a-cardigan.” His upper lip would never reappear. Slaughterhouse-Five became a number-one New York Times best-seller, and its tousled (not rumpled) author became an icon of the counterculture.

Maybe that’s the way he saw his real self. Maybe it was the first time he was authentic?

Is authenticity overrated?

According to David J. Gordon in Shavian comedy and the shadow of Wilde

But Wilde’s dandies are self-possessed because, paradoxically, there is no single self for them to defend, only a mask or persona to adopt opportunistically; it is in fact Wilde’s main argument against “sincerity” that it must be false because there are many selves.

His footnote cites The Picture of Dorian Gray

For the canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art. Form is absolutely essential to it. It should have the dignity of a ceremony, as well as its unreality, and should combine the insincere character of a romantic play with the wit and beauty that make such plays delightful to us. Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities. 

Such, at any rate, was Dorian Gray’s opinion. He used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence. To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead.

and The Critic As Artist

ERNEST. Well, at least, the critic will be sincere.

GILBERT. A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. The true critic will, indeed, always be sincere in his devotion to the principle of beauty, but he will seek for beauty in every age and in each school, and will never suffer himself to be limited to any settled custom of thought or stereotyped mode of looking at things. He will realise himself in many forms, and by a thousand different ways, and will ever be curious of new sensations and fresh points of view. Through constant change, and through constant change alone, he will find his true unity. He will not consent to be the slave of his own opinions. For what is mind but motion in the intellectual sphere? The essence of thought, as the essence of life, is growth. You must not be frightened by word, Ernest. What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.

Aside: Unrelated to selves, but also about sincerity, from The Picture of Dorian Gray

“I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either.”

   […] “How English you are Basil! That is the second time you have made that observation. If one puts forward an idea to a true Englishman — always a rash thing to do — he never dreams of considering whether the idea is right or wrong. The only thing he considers of any importance is whether one believes it oneself. Now, the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it. Indeed, the probabilities are that the more insincere the man is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be coloured by either his wants, his desires, or his prejudices. […]”

Electronically induced memories and skills — practical mind control is on its way, ready or not

According to Kazuhisa Shibata, Takeo Watanabe, Yuka Sasaki, and Mitsuo Kawato

Although previous fMRI online-feedback training is a promising technique for influencing human behaviors, as in lesion or TMS studies, it could at best reveal influences of the entire extent of an area/region on learning/memory, which is a certain limitation for neuroscientific research. In contrast, the present decoded fMRI neurofeedback method induces highly selective activity patterns within a brain region, thus allowing the investigator to influence specific functions. It can “incept” a person to acquire new learning, skills, or memory, or possibly to restore skills or knowledge that has been damaged through accident, disease, or aging, without a person’s awareness of what is learned or memorized.