Category Archives: Ideology

The Golden Age

“Creating the future is a frightening enterprise, especially when we do it without any awareness of the past. I am amazed how little we actually care to examine past human experience. It’s like hunting in a wood full of bears, ignoring all the disarticulated skeletons of dead hunters, and confidently proclaiming that bears don’t really exist. They belong to the past!”—Joseph Gresham Miller

Lucas_Cranach_the_Elder_-_The_Golden_Age_-_Google_Art_ProjectDo you dream primarily of what is, what once was, what could have been, or what could be? Your answer to this question tells me almost everything I need to know about you. Political conservatives locate their Golden Age somewhere in the not-too-distant past (e.g., the 1950s), whilst religious fundamentalists locate it somewhere in the unsullied early history of their movement (e.g., the Early Church for Pentecostals, the Pious Predecessors for Salafists). Progressives and starry-eyed idealists locate it somewhere in a future purged of the sins of the present, whilst Romantics locate it in a past purged of modernity, a pastoral place that looks a whole lot like The Shire described by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. Most environmentalists seem to locate it in some eco-friendly pre-modern past wherein we all lived in happy harmony with sweet Mother Earth. Computer geeks locate it in a shiny future replete with flying cars, robots, and killer apps, whilst defenders of the status quo, apologists of the present like Steven Pinker, insist that we’re living in a Golden Age right now. The outliers, of course, are the pessimists, like Arthur Schopenhauer and St. Augustine, who insist that life in The City of Man has always more or less sucked, and that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a Golden Age.

St. Augustine argues in The City of God that Original Sin has so corrupted human nature and the natural world—with sin, disease, and death—that the reformation of the individual and of society will always, of necessity, have to be a highly circumscribed exercise. All is not possible, insists the Bishop, because the freedom to do good is habitually hemmed in by this-worldly corruption. “The choice of the will,” avers Augustine, “is genuinely free only when it is not subservient to faults and sins.” St. Paul the Apostle likewise believes that decisive victory in the war against sin is not possible in a fallen world; the battle is, instead, fated to rage on and on, even within his body: “I know,” he once lamented, “that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:18-19). Like Paul, Augustine maintains that there are some intractable human problems which the individual and society will have to grapple with again and again, until the end of time. Perfection can be nothing more than a noble goal in The City of Man. Always before us, yet perpetually out of reach. A beacon on the horizon of a fallen world.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

Libertarians, a libertarian world won’t be perfect. But it doesn’t need to be.

John Faithful Hamer recently posted a great aphorism:

Having an answer for everything is the infallible sign of not having an answer for everything.

And followed it up with these candid remarks:
As is no doubt obvious, Chris, this aphorism is the product of recent dealings with people (three in one day!) with airtight ideological armor. One was an old-school communist I work with (who you know), another was an otherwise sweet Muslim friend who thinks the answers to everything are to be found in the Qur’an, and the last was a brilliant but intransigent libertarian.
As a libertarian, that last part resonated with me.

I’ve always tried to convince my libertarian compatriots away from trying to do what John just talked about: that is, arguing that libertarianism solves everything. Many libertarians—especially market-fundamentalist types—believe that their libertarian world will also maximize utility. (And here, you can fill in whatever you like for “utility”.) On virtually any issue, they will have a ready response detailing why and how a libertarian world—fitted, of course, with laissez-faire capitalism—will be the best at solving it.

It won’t. At some point, you just have to bite the bullet.

I remember being praised for my honesty by a gracious non-libertarian professor a while back for having admitting this. I said: “Look, sometimes a libertarian world won’t have as much x, or be able to address problem y as well as we would like. Indeed, there will always be problems that might be better solved through a central state apparatus (government intervention). But that’s the cost of respecting individual rights.”

What libertarians need to focus on is that last part. Sure, libertarians, it might feel like you’re “losing the debate” when you can’t convince the other side that a libertarian world will completely solve the issues with which they are concerned. But remind them: “What, then, is your solution that doesn’t violate people’s rights? Isn’t that a consideration too? What solution do you have for achieving your goals that doesn’t involve coercing or conscripting people into projects against their will or consent?”

If they can give you an answer that apparently solves every social problem without any apparent trade-offs, then you should be suspicious, for it looks like we’re back at square one. Having an answer for everything is the infallible sign of not having an answer for everything.

—Chris Nguyen

The Year of Living Homerically

emile_levy_-_circeGetting sucked into the insanity of the 2016 election was like getting sucked into an ancient myth. One minute you’re living your life, next minute you’re a character in Homer’s Odyssey. Seriously, I feel like I should write a sequel to A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically (2007) entitled The Year of Living Homerically (2017). Were we not, like Odysseus’s men, turned into swine? Were we not, like Odysseus, bewitched? Did we not lose track of time, trumping till two, night after night? Waking up this past weekend, after a thoroughly unhealthy, year-long obsession with American politics, I felt like disoriented Odysseus, coming to his senses on the Island of Ogygia.

Angry people are incredibly easy to manipulate. Same is true of the self-righteous. The more “political” you become, the more you become a mere pawn in someone else’s chess game. Your ideas are no longer your own. They’re not even your friends’ ideas. They are, instead, prefabricated ideas, manufactured by spin-doctors, mad scientists of the spirit, who understand human nature better than most, and are practiced in the art of deception. These master manipulators understand that the pleasures of politics may be ugly pleasures, but they’re pleasures nonetheless. Anger feels good. Self-righteousness feels good.

But these pleasures come at a cost. Politics erodes your creativity far more than it erodes your humanity. I can’t believe how boring I’ve become. I can’t believe how boring many of my friends have become. Thinking prefabricated ideas all the time is sort of like moving into a prefabricated suburban row house. You get to choose the drapes, what color to paint the walls, little else.

Oh Aristotle, stop snickering in the back row! Yes, yes, yes, I know! Man is indeed the political animal. But it’s equally true that the political too often brings out the animal in the man. And you, Edmund, for God’s sake, save your breath! I know what you’re gonna say: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Of course there’s truth to what you say, much truth. But can you not conceive of a species of evil that’s akin to quicksand? Can you not see why Epicurus admonished his followers to shun politics?

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

How to Kafkatrap like the Joseph McCarthy of Montreal Feminism

kafkatrap, v. To accuse someone of some form of “ism” (sexism, racism, etc.) and to proclaim that their denial, or any attempt they make to defend themselves, is proof that they are guilty.—Urban Dictionary

STEP ONE: Insert yourself into online debate about anything: monetary policy in Bolivia, forestry practices in Bulgaria, salamander mating habits in Belgium, the placement of stop signs in Baie-d’Urfé. Truth be told, pretty much anything will do.

STEP TWO: Claim that the thing in question is a clear example of misogyny.

STEP THREE: When some poor sucker objects, attack them viciously; be sure to call them a misogynist, and, for good measure, refer to them as a hapless tool of the patriarchal order.

1docksPoking fun at Zionists who seem to believe that anyone who disagrees with them is an antisemite (or a self-hating Jew), Aaron Haspel once quipped: “Anti-Semite: A person whom Jews hate.” There are feminists who reason in a similar fashion: they seem to believe that anyone who disagrees with them is a misogynist. Hence, for this minority (and they really are a minority) we might quip: “Misogynist: A person whom feminists hate.”

The history of the struggle for social justice is filled with symbiotic relationships between radicals and reformers: radicals angrily insist upon the moon, and, as a consequence, make those asking for the mountaintop seem, by comparison, reasonable. But that’s not what’s going on here. The Joseph McCarthy of Montreal feminism isn’t a radical; he’s a buffoon. He doesn’t make more moderate feminists seem reasonable; he makes all feminists look ridiculous. After all, if an argument explains everything, it explains nothing.

A colleague of mine at John Abbott College worked with two different radical environmental organizations back in the heady days of the 1980s. These groups were being infiltrated by undercover agents often. But the spies were pretty easy to spot, he says, because (1) the spies were invariably those “activists” taking the most insanely radical positions on every single issue; and (2) the spies were invariably those “activists” who consistently advocated violence. The aim of these agents provocateurs was clear: to discredit environmentalism. The aim of the Joseph McCarthy of Montreal Feminism is far less clear. Obviously he’s not being paid to discredit feminism. I’m sure he means well. But with friends like this, feminism really doesn’t need enemies.

Like snake-oil salesmen, who need to convince you that you’re sick before they can sell you their cure, Nietzsche maintains that Christian missionaries had to first convince pagans that they were all born guilty—tainted, from Day One, by Original Sin—before they could sell them on the Jesus cure. The worldview of social justice warriors like the Joseph McCarthy of Montreal Feminism is strikingly similar. But does it really make sense to say that we’re all sick, that our society’s sick, that the Original Sin of misogyny and racism taints us all from birth? I don’t think so. A net that catches the whole sea isn’t much of a net. And an argument that explains everything, explains nothing.

Saturday Night Live needs to bring back Dana Carvey and resurrect his Church Lady character as an obnoxious social justice warrior. Aside from a new outfit, they’d just have to replace “Satan” with “misogyny” (or “racism”). Unlike Satan, racism and misogyny are real, and that’s an important difference. But it’s less salient than it might seem at first blush. What made the Church Lady character so funny in the late 1980s was, not so much her belief in Satan, but rather the fact that she blames everything on Satan. Everything she dislikes about the world is, directly or indirectly, a function of Satan. It is, then, not the content, but rather the form of the Church Lady’s argument—its stridency and circularity—that makes it so ridiculous. The same is true of the claims made by the most obnoxious of the social justice warriors. If there’s no way for you to be wrong, you’re not making an argument, you’re making a statement of faith.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

On Political Philosophies and “What Works”

This is mostly in response to John’s fine piece titled “Why Libertarians Are Like Judgy Know-It-Alls Who Don’t Have Kids”, which can be found here

The problem with arguments against normative theories that appeal to “what works” is that in them is already built a normative theory. As a result, they beg the question.

This took me a long time to realize, though Aaron Haspel clearly knew about this for awhile now. When I first met Aaron at John’s place and this topic came up, Aaron nonchalantly rattled off the above observation as though it were a matter of course. It was humbling and, to be honest, mildly embarrassing.

At any rate, in this fine piece, John writes that “Much in America works. And works very well.” But to libertarians (and Marxists, etc.), violating people’s rights doesn’t count as “working”, even if the overall arrangement is generally desirable or pleasant. This point is brought out especially well by Ursula Le Guin’s award-winning short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In this story, Le Guin writes of a utopian city known as Omelas.

Omelas is shimmering, bright and beautiful. Everyone is happy, has food to eat and there is no social strife. Everything works wonderfully. However, Omelas has a dark secret. It turns out that the city’s splendor depends on the infliction of suffering and misery on a single child who is locked away in a basement.

When they come of age, each Omelian citizen is taken to see the child. The story is about the ones who, after seeing the child, decide in the dead of night when everyone’s asleep to walk away from Omelas.

The point is this: To those who walk away from Omelas, the city doesn’t “work.” For before we can do or judge what “works”, we need to know what counts as working. As normative theories, Marxism, libertarianism and (insert political philosophy here) try to provide the criteria for what counts as working.

Now, this does not take anything away from John’s insight that libertarians are very wrong—and indeed, childish—when they complain that the government does nothing well. The government undoubtedly provides many valuable services, and sometimes does so well and efficiently. To categorically say otherwise is false and, worse, dogmatic.

But on political philosophy more generally, I agree with Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen that our principles of justice (which are delivered by our particular political philosophies) ought to be fact-insensitive. That is, I don’t think facts about a principle’s feasibility (in terms of people’s willingness to comply with it) should count as evidence for or against the principle. More concretely, “But, in the real world, people will always rape!” is not a valid objection to “Rape is wrong.”

As the saying goes, Marxism may not work “in practice” because we are too selfish and greedy to be good Marxists, but most people agree that it’s morally the right way. That is enough to concede that Marxism is true. (Libertarians, of course, disagree.) Indeed, Marxism is just a normative thesis, and normative claims do not entail anything about what descriptively is or will be the case. Their truth stands independently of it.

Appeals to “what works”, then, either don’t count as any evidence against Marxism or libertarianism, or beg the question against them.

—Chris Nguyen

Like Giving Guns to Kids

“The genuine man of words himself can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give-and-take of controversy. If he formulates a philosophy and a doctrine, they are more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith. His vanity, it is true, often prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery and even venom; but his appeal is usually to reason and not to faith. The fanatics and the faith-hungry masses, however, are likely to invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ, and make them the fountainhead of a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.”—Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)

ygo9eA lot of the ugliness we see in Social Media Land is a function of precisely the problem that Eric Hoffer identifies in this passage. Putting dangerous ideas into the hands of faith-hungry fanatics is like giving firearms to schoolchildren. The sociological concept of “privilege” is a case in point. In the hands of a skilled practitioner (like my wife), it can clarify much and pave the way for positive social change. But in the hands of a dimwitted idiot with an internet connection, it can become a deadly weapon, which tears people apart, and discredits the desire for social justice.

There are social justice warriors who would have you believe that only a rich, racist, reactionary rube could refuse to drink the Kool-Aid of their progressive prognosis. But most of us know that there are perfectly decent people—poor, penniless, privileged people—who bristle when they hear preachy puritans and pushy prophets prating on and on piously about Power and Privilege, Patriarchy and Persecution, the Proletariat and the Past. They wonder, sometimes aloud: Where’s my prosperity? Where’s my prestige? Where’s my white male privilege? And I sympathize with them at times, really I do, but they’re asking the wrong questions. After all, being privileged is, at the end of the day, not unlike getting ten penalty shots at the end of a hockey game: much as it helps, there’s no guarantee that you’re gonna score, no guarantee that you’re gonna win the game. In fact, having all that unfair advantage can make losing that much more humiliating.

Like many of the sociology professors I know, my wife can talk to her students about systemic social problems—like sexism and racism—without making any of them feel like group representatives. She can do this because she’s an intellectual, first and foremost, and intellectuals are adept at dealing—gracefully and effortlessly—with the paradoxical nature of reality; they’re good at binocular thinking, at seeing “the forest” and “the trees” at one and the same time. But alas, professors who aren’t intellectuals aren’t nearly so good at this, especially if they’re ideologues. For instance, a former student of mine who wears the hijab told me that one of her professors—a progressive who, as she put it, “talks about privilege all the time”—often calls upon her in class when they’re discussing things like Islamophobia, I.S.I.S., women in Islam, etc. As you might expect, this makes her extremely uncomfortable. The professor means well, very well actually, but that doesn’t make her pointed questions any less offensive. She has apparently called on black students for “the black perspective” a few times too, and, of course, systematically silenced any young white man who dared to “take up too much space.” She never seems to remember her students’ names. Why does this not surprise me?

Even as we struggle for justice, we should never lose sight of the essentially tragic nature of all human life. No life is devoid of struggle and pain. Death is coming for us all. And it’s coming for everyone we love too. Suffering and loss are inescapable features of the human condition. Life sucks regardless of how much privilege you have. But it usually sucks less if you’re privileged.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Why We Strike

student-demo-20150321Over the upcoming weeks you will be seeing an increase in footage and reporting about Quebec teachers on strike and protesting. I wanted to take this opportunity to give you a bit of context that will most likely not be provided by news outlets so that you understand what is being protested.

The popular perception of teacher protests is that they are mainly motivated by cuts to salaries and benefits. While this is undoubtedly a motivator, I do not think that I speak only for myself when I say that this is not the primary issue that is bringing me to the picket line. We have already accustomed ourselves to salary increases that lag behind the cost of living, and while the proposed salary freeze is even more regrettable, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Mixbook Beautiful Possibilities A Graphic Introduction to the Examined Life by John Faithful Hamer - Google Chrome 2015-09-27 103535 PMFor me, the main concern is a series of proposals whose effect would be to undermine the quality of education that students receive by reducing the autonomy, working conditions, and quality of living of teachers. We are being asked to increase class size and work load, to allow non-departmental figures to select department chairs and coordinators, and to deal with budget squeezing that has already had a marked effect, among other proposals.

IMG_3390But the most toxic issue by a long shot is one that you have probably never heard of: the continued growth of the two class education system that is taking over Cegeps and has already poisoned higher education systems across North America. While day teachers enjoy a decent salary and good working conditions, Cont Ed teachers must perform the same job as day teachers but at a much lower salary and with access to fewer resources and less support. The students in Cont Ed classes often come from underprivileged backgrounds and have weaker skill sets. They clearly require more support, and yet they are placed in a situation where they must pay more than daytime students for classes taught by teachers who are given working conditions that discourage any extra effort, and that do not pay them for the obvious efforts that they already make. Try to tell a teacher worthy of the name that they do not have to meet, speak, or correspond with students outside of class time because they are not paid to do so (which they are not). The teachers that I know feel a moral and professional obligation to do this regardless of whether they are paid for it, and it is an insulting policy to assume that teachers should appeal to their pay check to excuse themselves from the basic duties of their profession.

411704_10150630542152683_897430939_oThe corporatized lens through which education is increasingly filtered will mean that the public will probably not hear about these issues. The proposed cuts are ways of promoting “efficiency”. Teachers must learn to “do more with less”. Cont Ed is a great “profit centre”, even if this profit is at the expense of anyone who should profit from it (students and teachers, in case you were wondering). Austerity is “inevitable” (it is not). Given the climate where this type of thinking dominates, it is not surprising that Cont Ed has experienced rapid growth at a time when daytime enrolment is projected to decline.

It is a cliche to point out that investing in education is investing in the future, and since we have heard the cliche so many times we probably forget just how profoundly true it is. The ideas, skills, and values made possible by our education system determine the economic, social, and environmental well being of our country. If you have been disturbed by displays of ignorance over this election, you might have a sense of what is at stake.

Investment in teachers and their working conditions is an investment in students and the future that they will create. The more that this system provides teachers with good working conditions and benefits, and ways of implementing creativity and innovation, the better the outcome for students and society. This is not something that should be so readily compromised.

—Geoffrey Pearce, Dawson College (Westmount, Quebec)

Tolerance Isn’t Tolerance Unless It Hurts

IMG_0647-002Much of what passes for tolerance these days is in fact a kind of glorified indifference. So the next time you’re about to self-righteously pat yourself on the back for your tolerance, ask yourself: Was it hard to tolerate this? Did it require effort? Did it cost me anything? If the answer’s NO, if it was more or less effortless, you’re probably trafficking in counterfeit virtue. Because tolerance isn’t tolerance unless it hurts. We tolerate the heat. We tolerate the cold.

It’s easy to be open-minded about things you deem trivial or unimportant. It’s much harder to be open-minded about things you care about. For instance, it’s easy to tolerate your friend’s belief in astrology or prayer when you secretly think it’s all bullshit and you really couldn’t give a shit one way or the other. But when a diehard feminist decides to put up with her sexist little brother, despite all of his MRA bullshit, I know I’m looking at real tolerance. Likewise, when a hardcore fundamentalist decides to accept and love his gay son (and his son’s partner), despite his heartfelt beliefs about homosexuality, I know I’m looking at real tolerance.

In The Bed of Procrustes (2010), Nassim Nicholas Taleb maintains that “love without sacrifice is like theft.” What I’m saying about tolerance is of a similar stamp: tolerance that doesn’t involve some sort of sacrifice isn’t tolerance. That being said, it would be a mistake to conclude that I’m trashing indifference. Indifference is, for most of us, a coping mechanism, a highly effective coping mechanism; and, truth be told, I suspect that I’d be a total stress case if it weren’t for my well developed capacity for indifference. So I’m not knocking indifference, I’m merely saying that indifference isn’t tolerance.

Nor, I hasten to add, am I saying that we should tolerate everything. Tolerance without reasonable limits is like walking around with a “KICK ME” sign that you put on your own back. Some things are intolerable. Some things shouldn’t be tolerated. And we all have to balance the moral imperative to be tolerant with other equally valid moral imperatives: such as the need to be kind, loving, humble, and just. Ultimately, we choose to tolerate that which we can live with but are not exactly cool with.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

The Tao of Boo

Fullscreen capture 822015 25942 AMPENNSATUCKY: Did you know I didn’t shoot that nurse lady [at the abortion clinic] for any type of holy righteous thing like they all think? I, uh . . . I got really mad and she hurt my . . . . She hurt my feelings. And sometimes . . . I get this . . . I get this really bad temper. Phew. . . . You still like me or. . . .

BIG BOO (laughing): Oh, Doggett . . . don’t you know what this means?

PENNSATUCKY: Yeah. I’m going to hell.

BIG BOO: No, no. It means you’re the normal one. I mean, come on . . . some bitch insulted you, so you shot her? Now, to me, that makes a hell of a lot more sense than shooting a complete stranger that you’ve demonized for your own agenda. I mean, being too militant about anything . . . never ends well.

—“Finger in the Dyke,” Orange is the New Black (S03E04)

How an Obsessive Concern with Disrespect Poisons the Soul

“She disrespected me. Now, I’m gonna have to kill her.”—Pennsatucky, Orange is the New Black (S01E12)

Harboring Hate
dis-disease (n.): degenerative disease of the soul characterized by a hypersensitivity to real and imagined insults. What starts out as garden-variety touchiness grows into an obsessive concern with disrespect. Before long, the sweet kid you once knew has turned into a hateful, poisonous adult: the kind of person who harbors resentments for decades; the kind of person who keeps a detailed record of every past “dis” (real or imagined); the kind of person who prayerfully pages through a hateful little Naughty List each and every day.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker maintains that the transition from a “culture of honour” to a “culture of dignity”—all by itself—leads to dramatic drops in violence. What’s more, Pinker details the horrific social costs of an obsession with disrespect; but this morning, as I contemplate the troubled mind of an old friend, I’m reminded of its horrific psychological costs. Even in a society like ours, which has (for the most part) transcended the culture of honour and embraced a culture of dignity, there are people who slip through the cracks. Like Mohammad Shafia (who murdered his own daughters), these poor souls are consumed, over time, by their hypersensitivity to real and imagined insults. What starts out as garden-variety touchiness grows into an obsessive concern with disrespect. Before long, the sweet kid you once knew has turned into a hateful, poisonous adult: the kind of person who harbors resentments for decades; the kind of person who—like an Angry Middle Eastern Sky God—keeps a detailed record of every past “dis” (real or imagined); the kind of person who prayerfully pages through a hateful little Naughty List each and every day. I wonder if they realize how much damage they’re doing to themselves. I wonder if the damage can be undone. Is there a cure for dis-disease?

There’s a charismatic con artist in my neighborhood who’s fooled all of us once (myself included). He’s a remarkably good actor with a winning smile and effortless charm. After a warm “Hello, how are you?” he proceeds to give you an impeccably well-scripted sob-story about his dear little sister, who’s dying—right now!—in a Toronto hospital. He desperately wants to get on a bus to Toronto forthwith, but can’t seem to do so because his bank cards have all been frozen (for reasons which remain a mystery to him). He fooled me once. But he didn’t fool me twice. Probably hasn’t fooled anyone twice, because we’re quite good at remembering strangers who screw us over. My guess is that he’d be out of business in a week if it weren’t for the steady stream of tourists and students who come to this neighborhood to party.

A bonhomme who didn’t know how to remember slights would be an easy mark for our friendly neighborhood con artist. In fact, we’d rightly refer to him as a sucker. Our local con artist could fool this Forrest Gump day after day after day. So it seems fair to assume that in a state of nature, vengeful folk, with a well-developed capacity for holding grudges, will always prevail, sooner or later, over suckers who lack this capacity. And since we’re all descendants of the ones who made it—the human groups that survived—it should come as no surprise to discover that a heart of darkness beats within many a breast.

When it comes to dis-disease, Pennsatucky, the charismatic meth head from Orange is the New Black, is a kind of perfect storm. Along with being addicted to a drug that distorts and amplifies the vengeance drive, she was in all likelihood socialized, from Day One, into a dysfunctional poor southern white culture that’s already overly obsessed with honour, shame, and disrespect.

Like a dangerous but well-trained guard dog, our capacity for hatefulness isn’t really much of a threat to our day-to-day health and well-being when it’s directed at outsiders and enemies—since, as Rousseau rightly observes in Émile (1762), most of us spend very little time interacting with outsiders and enemies, and the “essential thing is to be good to the people with whom one lives.” The vengeance drive is, like the sex drive, necessary and normal; without it, we would have gone extinct long ago. But the sex drive and the vengeance drive are also extremely dangerous. They can rip human groups apart if they’re not highly regulated by taboo boundaries. The part of the brain responsible for the regulation of these powerful drives is known as the frontal cortex. When it’s damaged by accident or disease, an ugliness emerges from the human heart which is often quite shocking.

Jonathan Haidt discusses such a case in The Happiness Hypothesis (2006): “A schoolteacher in his forties had, fairly suddenly, begun to visit prostitutes, surf child pornography Web sites, and proposition young girls. He was soon arrested and convicted of child molestation. The day before his sentencing, he went to the hospital emergency room because he had a pounding headache and was experiencing a constant urge to rape his landlady. (His wife had thrown him out of the house months earlier.) Even while he was talking to the doctor, he asked passing nurses to sleep with him. A brain scan found that an enormous tumor in his frontal cortex was squeezing everything else, preventing the frontal cortex from doing its job of inhibiting inappropriate behavior and thinking about consequences. (Who in his right mind would put on such a show the day before his sentencing?) When the tumor was removed, the hypersexuality vanished. Moreover, when the tumor grew back the following year, the symptoms returned; and when the tumor was removed again, the symptoms disappeared again.”

Just as damage to the frontal cortex can cause people to focus their sex drive on children and insiders—who ought to be off limits and thus subject to taboo boundaries—I suspect that damage to the frontal cortex may also cause people to focus their vengeance drive on friends and family. My reasoning is based, in part, on the following observation: excessive abuse of alcohol and certain drugs (especially speed and meth) severely impairs the functioning of the frontal cortex, and drunks, speed-freaks, and meth-heads are notoriously vengeful. They can’t seem to let anything go. If you doubt me, I suggest that you have a long conversation with the mean drunk in your family later on this evening. If that doesn’t convince you, not sure what will.

I worked with this guy in the early 1990s who eventually died of A.I.D.S. He told me that he first suspected that something might be wrong when he noticed two things: (1) he seemed to catch every single cold and flu that was going around; and (2) it often took him a month to recover from a cold that others recovered from in a day or two. The symptoms of dis-disease are strikingly similar: (1) the person seems to get extremely offended often, by slights which most view as trivial or unimportant; and (2) the person seems to take an exceptionally long time to get over real or imagined insults (e.g., they’re still talking about something that happened last year with an emotional intensity which would lead an eavesdropper to suspect that it happened earlier on today at work). When the sex drive is allowed to run free, it often destroys families and rips communities apart. The same is true of the vengeance drive. So you’ve gotta find a way to keep your self-righteous inner accountant in check—by, for instance, taking up meditation, seeing a therapist, or getting treatment for your substance abuse (if that’s the root of your particular problem). The strategies to be found are diverse, but they all come down to this: our friends and family need forgiveness and grace as much as we do. And they won’t be our friends and family for long if they don’t get it.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)