Colorblindness and Cynicism

test-250We often imagine that people who are exceptionally good at something are endowed with special strengths, extraordinary talents, or rare virtues. However, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb quite rightly maintains, this isn’t always, or even usually, the case: “Success in all endeavors requires the absence of specific qualities: 1) To succeed in crime requires absence of empathy. 2) To succeed in banking you need absence of shame at hiding risks. 3) To succeed in school requires absence of common sense.”

Success is often a function of some sort of absence. Seeing through camouflage is a case in point. We now know that there’s an upside to colorblindness: the colorblind can see through many kinds of camouflage. Because they’re not distracted by colors, they can often see the contours of a thing—its outline—with unusual clarity. Even so, despite this upside, being colorblind is, on balance, a net handicap to the colorblind individual. They’re missing out on a great deal.

I’ve always been amazed by people who know how to cut through the crap with ease, people with extremely well developed bullshit meters, people who are exceptionally good at discerning the real motives behind actions, people who always seem to know what’s really going on. People, in short, who are exceptionally cynical. But I’ve long since noticed that these very same people frequently fail to see a great deal that the rest of us mere mortals do see.

Cynics often sneeringly maintain that whatever they can’t see or experience isn’t real (e.g., true love, genuine altruism, empathy, divinity, spirituality, transcendence, communion with nature, etc.). And this leads me to suspect that those who are especially good at seeing through bullshit pay dearly for their gift. I suspect that being able to see past nuance comes at a cost. The ability to rapidly reduce complicated moral questions into simple either/or propositions is probably a function of an absence. To wit: the moral clarity of most cynics is probably a function of some sort of emotional colorblindness.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

5 thoughts on “Colorblindness and Cynicism

  1. I love your notion of “the occasional cynic” and I have to partially disagree with Nassim on this one.
    Yes, there are some people who are ‘successful at crime’, no matter how. Also there are people who succeed in banking by hiding risks, in school without having any common sense, in economy without understanding “probability, risk, and second-order effects” and in media without having a clue about anything.
    But what we have here is exclusively short term success. Eventually all these guys end up tumbled in the famous ‘history’s garbage dump’.


  2. premise 1, that criminal success requires a lack of empathy, is wrong. very. in fact, empathy with the people who might catch you is essential to success.

    but this doesn’t need to be debated. you can prove otherwise trivially by this example: a mother steals food from a glutton for her starving children. that’d be a crime.

    shit, the American Revolution was a crime at the time.

    this is an extremely simplistic view of criminal behavior.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s