Category Archives: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Does Money Make You Mean?

“Human nature has a flaw. Under conditions of apparent competition, when a hierarchy of relative winners and losers is created, no matter how, the people at the top tend to fall for something called a self-affirmation fallacy which causes them to attribute their high status to their own merits and qualities, even if they became rich by winning at some gamble which could have gone the other way. Being rich literally makes people change, makes people less sympathetic, less compassionate, less law-abiding, less honest.”—Helga Vierich, Professor of Anthropology, Yellowhead Tribal College (Spruce Grove, Alberta)

LordvoldemortAfter years of being an overweight sweetheart, this guy I knew in high school started working out, lost all of the weight, and eventually looked like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Before this dramatic transformation, he had plenty of female friends who adored him and confided in him (but alas, never hooked up with him). The girls saw him as a sweet, understanding, empathetic guy. But soon after his manly metamorphosis, he became a repulsive “bro” who used girls with the indifference of a sociopath. And, just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about a garden-variety player. I’m talking about a full-blown misogynistic asshole with the conscience of a turnip! At one point I confronted him about his nasty behavior: “What happened to you? You used to be such a nice guy.” “I’m hot now,” he said, with a sleazy smile, “and you don’t have to be nice when you’re hot.”

That’s when I realized that he was, in fact, always an asshole; he was just really good at hiding it. The power that came with his newfound hotness afforded him the opportunity to behave in ways that accorded with inclinations that were always there. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s aphorism—“You will never know for sure if someone is an asshole until he becomes rich”—follows the same logic: money doesn’t make people mean, it just allows mean people to be mean. Or, to put it another way, as Taleb once did on his Facebook page, in a clarifying remark: “People reveal their temperament when they have choices.” Paul Piff’s research into the relationship between social class and unethical behavior suggests that Taleb may be wrong about this. In numerous experiments, he has demonstrated that you can turn a completely normal person into a sociopathic jerk. It’s actually quite easy: just give them some power. If Piff is right, then it’s not so much that latent asshole tendencies are brought out by wealth but that wealth (in and of itself) can turn many perfectly normal people into assholes.

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2017)

Emotional Intelligence and Hissy Fits: The Cultural Ecology of Antifragility

turkey prozac

We all have experienced this at times: other people can drive us crazy! We love our families and friends, so why this old saying: fish and house-guests stink after three days?   Why can’t we live together peacefully, like elephants? Why aren’t we rational enough to avoid doing things that annoy each other?

Look at the list of things about, um, other people that can grind our gears… and even drive friends and family wild with frustration, or even apart with resentful anger: recklessness, cruelty, meanness, inconsistency, pranking, deceit, maudlin sentimentality, duplicity, illogical beliefs, gullibility, hubris, sanctimoniousness, jealousy, manipulative wheedling, conniving, and sheer over-the-top emotionality (making “a scene”, being a “drama queen”)

What if I suggested that such things about human behavior are not bugs but features? What if they are all part of the overall adaptation of human nature, that somehow helped turn our adjustments to living in social groups into the building blocks of a whole second replicator?

I suggest that “rationality” and analytical intelligence are evolved traits, with a starring role in shifting our species into a new level of networking and communicating, bumping up the flow of information, and personnel, within much larger communities and much wider geographical ranges than are characteristic of any other primate.   Inter-links between people at several or more degrees of separation meant that  individual networking actually disarticulated the individual from restriction to any local group. I suggest that even territoriality, linked to defensive aggression, and such a normal feature of the behavior of many primates, fell under negative selection in hominids at some point in our evolutionary history.

I, furthermore, suggest that dominance hierarchies and ranking systems, based on aggression, were actively curtailed. They had to be, to permit the evolution of the degree of infant helplessness, and the longer childhoods that accompanied brain enlargement during human evolution.   Sure, humans are capable of violence, especially in groups.   But I am suggesting that this was because violently aggressive individuals have always had to be contained and countered by coalitions of the brave and compassionate.   Without such opposition from the “good guys” who rally behind heroes, there would never have been sufficient blow-back to keep bullies and killers in line.

We individual humans are, for the most part, the products of a long evolutionary history that has favored compassion and cooperation, but that does not mean we are uniformly so kind and rational that we never lose our tempers, never yearn to get our own way, never wish for the personal luxury of solitude, having a beautiful object (a bauble or a blanket…!)

Now we might ask ourselves, what exactly was the evolutionary environment that gave a thumbs up to hyper-sociability, and a thumbs down to inter-group and intra-group competition and aggression? What possible environment generated higher fitness for individuals whose activity tended to flatten gradients of stress and life expectancy?

My initial insights in trying to answer this question arose from a field study among a patient and kindly bunch of hunter-gatherers. The Kua were my teachers for three years, and yet, as I left the Kalahari, my dominant sensation was not that I was leaving a group of peaceful and “noble savages”, but rather that this foraging economy produced individuals as ordinary, as flawed, as insightful, wistful, funny, and sometimes as intensely annoying, as any other humans I have ever known. It was merely a different economy, not another way of being human.

I have thought about this over the intervening years. What if our obvious capacity, for small deceptions, fractiousness,  and occasional surliness,  actually balances our kindness and sociability not by accident but, rather, as it were, by design? We can hardly ignore these aspects of human interpersonal antics today… well, what if it was precisely some kind of continuing see-saw between naughty and nice, convivial and argumentative, politeness interspersed with occasional huffy misunderstandings and temperamental behaviour, that was precisely the behavioural mechanism that kept these bipedal apes ecologically solvent?

2cab2e339136fb565536e7576f611f5cWhat if, in the long game of playing off individual genetic destinies against benefits to the collective cognitive niche, the occasionally explosive mix of emotional and irrational behavior was the key to generating “antifragile” cultural ecologies that were less likely to over-exploit any given local resource?

Thus, as humans evolved, reflection literally was an after-thought. As irritations and small conflicts increased, even as individuals found themselves holding back from escalating an argument, even as everyone’s impulse control was tested, there was always “the last straw”: an emotional scene that might set everyone packing to leave.   And, just as we still often find ourselves doing today, reflection after the event will then supply “good reasons” to justify it.

The fact that this pattern is at least partly learned, and not just an innate drive, made it more flexible still. It permitted more condensed and sedentary organization in richer ecosystems, more dispersed and mobile organization in poorer ones. Further, as learned system, it could incorporate the tighter social control during the more condensed phases within a cultural repertoire or an annual round of economic activity, without sacrificing the overall scope of individual networking.

People, today, when living in more crowded and sedentary communities, still tend to establish networks, through marriage and friendship, and those of each individual are still variable and rarely identical even among siblings. Furthermore, these tend not to be limited to a single community or neighbourhood. indeed, many individuals have maintained networks spanning the globe.

Despite the idea of “tribal” tendencies that cause links between people in groups to converge, individual life histories among human beings still tend to create ties (even “weak” ties) to more physically distant relatives, acquaintances, “pen pals”, and “old childhood friends”. Such links tend to be kept up more actively by some individuals. Sociological research into networks has suggested that such people are hubs in terms of information flows between communities. The idea that people across continents are hardly ever more than six links away from everyone else – the “six degrees of separation” model, has been experimentally confirmed many times. It began with the appearance, n 1961, of a seminal piece of work, in the form of a doctoral thesis by Michael Gurevitch, entitled “The social structure of acquaintanceship networks”.  This was presented and accepted by the  Department of Economics and Social Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This research, and the many studies that followed, suggest that extensive networking is a human adaptation to culture, an aspect of the “social brain”: so perhaps it is not a contingency of any one kind of economic system. It is species specific, not culture specific. And we come by it through our evolutionary history as social mammals, and particularly, as social apes.

People appear to activate networks to achieve some consensus about who should undertake leadership roles.   In small scale subsistence economies, such leadership roles – in rituals, in setting up task forces, in dispute resolution, and in disciplinary courts, and in safeguarding community assets – often go to quiet and modest people that can be trusted not to abuse their positions. Often such responsibilities fall upon older people, especially those who are already hubs within local networks.

A reputation-based system of rank, thus, imposes a burden of responsibility on the most trusted elders, so they have authority over communal working groups, as well as for the convening of assemblies to undertake dispute resolution.

Even mobile hunter-gatherers can stick it out despite arguments with neighbors and even intimate betrayal, especially at times of greater aggregation, given that such ephemeral institutions for conflict resolution emerge at such times.  The rest of the year,  impulse control and reflective philosophizing over human foibles comes into its own.  And this is incorporated into even the most mobile forager culture. Networks of family and friends, therefore, can effectively restrain people: no one wants to lose a hard-won reputation for strength of character.

That the historical and ethnographic record from hunter-gatherer societies suggests that such roles can disappear and reappear with the seasonal cycles of aggregation and dispersal is critical. Mobile hunter-gatherers are not nomadic in the sense of wandering ceaselessly in search of food: on the contrary, they circulate through a variety of locations with known resources.

Arrangements between families to meet at particular localities to camp together are often made during seasonal aggregations, and are always negotiated via networks among friends and relatives. So the times of aggregation could be characterized as a kind of network convergence, pulled toward those particular gregarious and trusted persons who serve a hubs linking many individual networks together. And this temporary integration of networks in a larger gathering, under leadership of the most trusted and respected persons, affords people the necessary time to negotiate camping parties and permissions with those who hold primary rights to each small local part of the overall territory within the aggregate.

It is conceivable that this flexibility – what Julian Steward called various “levels of integration” above simple “bands” – represents a capacity for organizational complexity not often attributed to foragers. And yes, it does indicate that even mobile foragers have the capacity for political and social organizational arrangements well beyond the scale and scope of the simple camping party.

Recently, David Graeber and David Wengrow suggested that the emergence of such leadership and more complex organization, during hunter-gatherer aggregations, indicates that humans have an innate tendency to develop political hierarchy. Is the term hierarchy the correct one in this case?   The term is synonymous with “pecking order” and has often been used to describe the way dominance of one animal over another in a ranked system is related to access to food and solace.   It conjures up a flow of authority and even coercion from the individual at the “top” which controls the movement and opportunities of individuals further down.

Brian Hayden has even suggested that “aggrandizer” personalities make use of these emerging hierarchies during periods of aggregation to seize power over others, partly by persuasion and partly by Machiavellian manipulation of others.

Hayden suggests that these self-promoting persons may have some overlap with the sociopathic traits seen on Hare’s checklist. In other words, when people live in more settled aggregations, they become vulnerable to the self-serving aspirations of a narcissistic and psychopathic minority, who make themselves “big Men” and assume power over others. In other words, the emergence of the bully gang explains the way hierarchical political power evolved in humans. (1)

One of the difficulties with this interpretation is that it does not always correspond with observed behaviour in people who are diagnosed as psychopaths today (2).  Another is that it does not situate the cultural behavior (or the ruthless individual) in terms of the consequences within that particular environment (3).  The most striking aspect is, of course, the way both the New Guinea and the NW coastal systems of leadership tend to exhort their communities to produce surpluses.   There is an obligation to contribute to a communal store of fish or other food and even material goods, a store managed by a trusted – and haranguing – senior leader. This results in higher overall productivity than is called for by the simple calculus of dependency ratios.

This communal store is risk insurance. Food and other assistance can be secured for families who meet with illness or injury. I would suggest that is why leadership in a band or tribal system is a function of trust and respect; if leaders merely hoarded or extorted tribute for personal gain, they would not last long.

Such surpluses also fuel a certain level of recurrent ceremonial socializing. Feasts can be planned which assemble people from many more surrounding communities. Thus, while a display of generosity towards those in hardship within a community can demonstrate the character of the leader, any display of generosity where a village hosts many of its neighbors during a festival goes well beyond this. It demonstrates the quality of the people of the hosting community. The net effect is that the people in each community are given additional motivation to work harder.

Why is this important? I suggest that such regional festivals also redistribute food across regions where not all harvests of are likely to be equal. Each local community is thus less exposed to risks of famine. The community, with the most surplus food in any given year, trades this food for higher prestige and simultaneously reduces the chances that hungry neighbors will come to raid.

What happens if the concentrated settlement becomes more permanent: a village? Organizational improvisations can become entrenched institutions, with people developing hereditary rights to leadership roles – especially in adjudicating disputes.   Vested interests that resist change can entail internal conflict, which can be resolved by proof of generosity and earned reputation for diligence. In this case, the famous “potlatch” can also offset conflicts between neighboring communities over access to fixed resources.   Political and judicial roles maintain cooperation, restore peace, and offset risks in a sedentary community.

Lineages and “big man” systems, therefore, appear to be risk aversion strategies – aspects of cultural adaptation, not evidence of selection pressures on human genomes causing novel shifts in innate behaviours during the Holocene.  Hierarchies of coercion and the self-affirming narcissists are not, as Hayden suggests, products of evolutionary genetic change, but rather, I think,  illustrations of the behavioral plasticity of human beings, and the way people have learned to collectively cope with higher environmental risk.

Meanwhile, we see further cultural reification of emotional sensitivities to behavior causing physical or reputational damage to other persons. This takes the form of legal codes, ethics, human rights, and codes of polite behavior. This always involves symbolic evaluation; labeling behaviors as negative, positive and even sacred and profane.


However the danger under such circumstances comes not from people who are born psychopaths but from brain changes caused by power.  What the foragers seem to all have understood only too well was that the human “behavioural plasticity” can take a wicked turn: people have a great emotional weakness- the “sin” of pride, more specifically the kind of hubris that comes of being placed somehow above one’s fellows (4). That was the point that Richard Lee was trying to drive home when he wrote “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari”. One  old guy’s comment was: “If a man is praised for sharing the meat of his kill, he may come to think he is better (more important) than other people. Someday he might kill someone.” 

It has taken years of research to uncover this aspect of our human nature. To uncover the fact that the assumption of authority or wealth, even the the conformity that prompts a person to suspend their own judgement to a higher authority, can give rise to evil actions that hurt other people.  Even in an experimental setting putting people into roles that permit harm to others somehow turns off empathy and compassion. It seems that even just being richer than others, or higher up in the chain of a corporate or civil service ladder, can set in motion the “banality of evil.”.  This is a human characteristic that is far beyond normal fractiousness  and occasional hissy fits, and it gives rise to far more serious trauma and human tragedy than mere incidents of rage and tears.

The only good thing this research discovered is that it does not happen to everyone – there are people who see what is happening and fight it. People who say “this is wrong”. Often they are the folks who either stop the experiment, or in real life will resist tyranny and injustice.  They risk their lives – or die on the barricades. Human beings do have the capacity to act with heroism. The fact that we have a word for this in every known culture should tell us something.

By the way, the word for “hero” among foragers is often translated incorrectly as “warrior” since it means one who fights on behalf of others. I have a feeling that the first battles among human beings were fought, in fact, by heroes of this kind.  In his book, Hierarchy in the Forest, Christopher Boehm suggested that one of the very early developments on the path that led to the evolution of our species, was an overthrow of aggression-based dominance hierarchy.  This led to an egalitarian revolution led by coalitions of people who resisted bullies and protected the vulnerable.  If so, this converted the desirable ideal of adulthood from a self-serving “alpha” into a heroic “first among equals”.. the epitome of the trusted leader.

A human being who lives as a hunter-gatherer could thus refuse injustice; could fight for equal treatment – or walk away. Personal faults and foibles, jealousies and temper tantrums were possibly part of  human nature evolved to create a relatively antifragile economy where high mobility makes it possible to vote with one’s feet. A hunter-gatherer inhabits an economic system that preserved and even enhanced the stability and diversity of the ecosystem that supported that way of life.   A hunter-gatherer cannot be thrown out of their job or lodgings.

But most humans on this planet can, and frequently are. Entire peoples have had their whole landscape taken taken out from under them. Look at the Scottish highland clearances. And that was done by their own clan leaders. And the pain of people under such circumstances, and the guts it takes for them to try to remake their lives elsewhere, is heart-breaking. Makes me weep. And we wonder why the world is full of people in a rage, crying out for justice and radicalized; while those who are relatively well-off tend to develop elaborate explanations that affirm their own superiority. 

Footnotes

1) Brian Hayden Big Man, Big Heart? The Political Role of Aggrandizers in Egalitarian and Transegalitarian Societies

http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-0-230-11626-9_7#page-1

Abstract

Anthropological theories of elites (leaders) in traditional societies tend to focus on how elites can be viewed as helping the community at large. The origin of elites is cast in functionalist or communitarian terms (viewing societies as adaptive systems). A minority opinion argues that elites were not established by communities for the community benefit, but emerged as a result of manipulative strategies used by ambitious, exploitative individuals (aggrandizers). While the communitarian perspective may be appropriate for understanding simple hunter/gatherer communities, I argue that elites in complex hunter/gatherer communities and horticultural communities operate much more in accordance with aggrandizer principles, and that it is their pursuit of aggrandizer self-interests that really explains the initial emergence of elites. This occurs preferentially under conditions of resource abundance and involves a variety of strategies used to manipulate community opinions, values, surplus production, and surplus use. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-0-230-11626-9_7

2) Although Hare does suggest that psychopaths might be more successful within aggressively competitive systems, their comparative rarity even after some five thousand years of hierarchical civilization tends to weaken arguments that such systems are functionally dependent upon the success of a type of personality. It seems more likely to me that the development of stratified societies may have occasionally increased the chances of highborn psychopaths not being spotted and eliminated.

3) See: “Pathways to power: Principles for creating socioeconomic inequalities” in Foundation of Social Inequality edited by T. D. Price and G. Feinman. 1995.     https://books.google.ca/books?id=ZGth6qbXg6oC&dq=“Pathways+to+power:+Principles+for+creating+socioeconomic+inequalities”+in+Foundation+of+Social+Inequality+edited+by+T.+D.+Price+and+G.+Feinman.&source=gbs_navlinks_s

(4) see  Monbiot on “the Self-affirmation Fallacy” where he summarizes recent research showing that socio-economic inequality generates precisely the kinds of narcissism that Hayden wishes us to believe is psychopathology  expressed in hierarchical leaders. “The findings of the psychologist Daniel  Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, are devastating to the beliefs that financial high-fliers entertain about themselves . He discovered that their apparent success is a cognitive illusion. For example, he studied the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers, across eight years. He found that the consistency of their performance was zero. “The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.” Those who received the biggest bonuses had simply got lucky.

Such results have been widely replicated. They show that traders and fund managers across Wall Street receive their massive remuneration for doing no better than would a chimpanzee flipping a coin. When Kahneman tried to point this out they blanked him. “The illusion of skill … is deeply ingrained in their culture.”

So much for the financial sector and its super-educated analysts. As for other kinds of business, you tell me. Is your boss possessed of judgment, vision and management skills superior to those of anyone else in the firm, or did he or she get there through bluff, bullshit and bullying?” http://www.monbiot.com/2011/11/07/the-self-attribution-fallacy/

In contrast, of course, the operation of networks – which can be sensitive communicators of reputations based on observed ethical and kind behavior, continue to do, in these other forms of economic system, exactly what they do in hunting and gathering economies:
http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-11-social-networks-cooperation-discourage-selfishness.html

Better the Devil You Know

lead_960Trashing journalists and the media has been a mainstay of Western intellectual life at least as far back as Nietzsche, who implored his readers to “live in ignorance of what seems most important to your age!” Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Aaron Haspel, thinkers I’ve profited from immensely, are similarly hard on the media. Taleb’s contempt for journalists is legendary. In the revised 2016 edition of The Bed of Procrustes he says that he takes “a ritual bath after any contact, or correspondence (even emails), with . . . journalists, and those in similarly depraved pursuits”—whilst Haspel quips in Everything (2015): “News is noise.” I was once quite partial to this view. But far less so lately.

If the citizenry buys into the idea that journalism is little more than propaganda, and journalists are little more than paid trolls, who benefits from this, if not paid trolls and bullshit artists like Sean Hannity, who can now afford to hide in plain sight, with get-out-of-jail-free cards in their wallets which read: “Everybody’s Doing It Why Can’t We?” Same is true of those who denigrate science: they’re usually doing so because serious science is a threat to their particular brand of bullshit.

hannity3-edit“Media isn’t about truth, it is about power.” Seriously, Brent? Is that actually what you believe? Is media often about power? Absolutely. Too often? Probably. But are you really ready to say, with a straight face, that there’s no difference between The New York Times and the propaganda machines that masquerade as media outlets in totalitarian states like North Korea and the former Soviet Union? Are you really ready to say that there’s no difference between Peter Jennings and Alex Jones? Because claims of this stamp are patently and demonstrably false. Regardless, I read Adbusters religiously in my early twenties, and I was a bible-thumping Pentecostal in my teens, so I know full well why folks on the far left and the far right are in love with this false equivalency. They love it because it levels the playing field. After all, if news is nothing but propaganda, and it’s all just about power, then we can spew out our own bullshit with impunity, and we can do it with a clean conscience.

Removing a well established institution from your society is like getting a seemingly superfluous part of your body—like your appendix or your tonsils—surgically removed. We too often discover the usefulness of things like the tonsils after they’ve been irretrievably removed. So, before you entrust the body politic to the radical’s knife, it’s good to ask: Is this institution performing an important function? And, if it is, who’s going to perform it after it’s gone?

Trashing the mainstream media without a viable alternative in mind is like invading Iraq without an exit strategy and toppling Saddam Hussein. The monsters that slither out of the chaos to fill the power vacuum are sure to be much, much worse. Be careful what you wish for, friends, be careful what you wish for. Order is fragile.

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

Salafism Isn’t Really a Religion

jihadijjThe problem of evil is always, to some extent, a problem of naming. Hannah Arendt understood this better than most. She saw, when others did not, that the absence of clear language had itself become a barrier to understanding 20th-century evil. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she argued that, if you’re trying to make sense of Nazism and Stalinism, words like “fascist” and “communist”, “right-wing” and “left-wing”, aren’t particularly helpful. Among other things, these labels belie the degree to which Hitler and Stalin transcended traditional political divides to forge nightmarish states that were eerily similar to each other. Stalin’s Soviet Union was, Arendt argued, best understood as a totalitarian state, not a communist state. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has just made a strikingly similar claim about the 21st-century evil known as Salafism.

If Western liberals find it hard to see Salafism for what it is, if they’re woefully lacking in moral clarity, it’s because they’re committed to tolerance and religious freedom, and Salafism is defined as a religion. This is, Taleb maintains, a grave error—because Salafism isn’t really a religion; it makes far more sense to think about it as “an intolerant political system, which promotes (or allows) violence and refuses the institutions of the West—those that allow them to operate. Unlike Shiite Islam and Ottoman Sunnis, Salafis refuse to accept the very notion of minorities: infidels pollute their landscape.” We need to stop thinking about Salafism as a religious movement and start thinking about it as “a political movement, similar to Nazism, with their dress code an expression of such beliefs.” Taleb goes on to suggest that Western liberals might be far more open to the idea of, say, banning burkinis, if they saw it as analogous to banning swastikas: “these people you are defending . . . will deprive you of all the rights you are giving them should they ever ascend to power.” Indeed, if they had their way, your wife would be in a burkini! Salafists are, then, inherently problematic, for the same reason that political parties that promise to abolish elections if they’re ever elected are inherently problematic.

If you think this is all just semantics, consider, for a moment, the case of The Church of Scientology, an organization that has done a great deal of harm to countless people. Scientologists have gotten away with all sorts of horrible bullshit for decades precisely because they were able to get themselves defined as a religion from the get-go. Respecting religion runs deep in our culture. And the bad guys know it. That’s why we have to unmask the Salafists and Scientologists of the world, deprive of them of their “religion” status, and show the world what they really are. Demonizing Islam is as stupid as it is unwise. We need to isolate the Salafists. They’ve been hiding behind the politicized bodies of women and the banner of Islam for far too long.

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

Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“Distrust those cosmopolitans who go to great length in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfill around them.”—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile (1762)

11893893_10153118448507683_2349096820217962039_oI’ve dealt with a number of famous authors and activists who rail against materialism in their books and interviews. They claim to have nothing but contempt for worldly things in public. Yet in private they turn into hard-nosed capitalists as soon as the subject of “getting paid” comes up. They want to be put up in the finest hotels, taken out to the finest restaurants, paid top dollar for their talk. It’s always so disappointing, so gross. These people, who talk about how much they love humanity in their books and interviews, are often abusive assholes in person. I watched one famous Canadian environmentalist (who shall remain nameless) reduce a teenage waitress to tears. Why? Because her salad wasn’t quite right. She was a terrible tipper too. It was actually embarrassing.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb isn’t like this. Not at all. The man is consistently kind to taxi drivers and waiters, janitors and hotel staff, bartenders and street people. What’s more, he cares about getting heard and spreading his ideas far more than he cares about getting paid and spreading his brand. I could give you numerous examples but the following should suffice. When the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability asked Taleb to come up to Montreal for a talk, the event organizers made it clear that, due to budget cuts, they had no money. Taleb said that was fine: he’d do the Concordia talk for free and pay for the entire trip out of his own pocket. And he did! Seriously, dude wouldn’t even let us buy him a shish taouk! Meanwhile, two weeks later, a well-known environmentalist, who rails incessantly against capitalism and greed, told us, in no uncertain terms, that he wouldn’t show up for less than $10,000.

It’s nice to know that there are public intellectuals out there, people like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who walk their talk; people who remember what philosophy is, what the examined life looks like, and what this whole ideas thing is for.

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

The Spicy Pleasures of Stoic Practice

“A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude, one who says ‘f*** you’ to fate.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012)

chili-peppers1Unless you were probed by a fish-faced alien last night, an alien who refused to use lube (much less protection), your problems are probably pretty generic; but that doesn’t make them any less problematic. Putting your problems into perspective works well when you’re a fly on the wall; not so much when you’re the fly caught in the web. We’re very good at being philosophical about other people’s losses. For instance, we find it easy to calmly remark “Well, you know, these things happen” when we learn that our next-door neighbor’s kid has accidentally broken a glass, scratched the new car, or stained the white-leather sofa. But when your kid breaks your precious-little-antique-cup-you-got-in-Cape-Cod-when-you-were-eleven, you freak out. When it’s your new car that’s been scratched, you freak out. When it’s your fancy sofa that’s been stained, you freak out. Stoic practice seeks to remedy this by making you just as philosophical about your own losses as you are about other people’s losses.

In The Art of Living, the Roman Stoic Epictetus maintains that we should meditate—each and every day—on what it would be like to lose everything we care about: our stuff, our health, our wealth, our reputation, even our loved ones. This is all supposed to make us better able to deal with adversity when it comes our way. But in my experience it rarely does. I’ve seen stoical John Wayne types fall apart under pressure and I’ve seen emotional basket cases behave heroically in a crisis. So I’m inclined to believe, with Aristotle, that people often surprise you, and that a man’s “philosophy” isn’t a particularly good predictor of how he’s going to behave in the face of adversity. If you really want to know what a person’s made of, you’re going to have to wait and see what they’re like in the face of actual (as opposed to theoretical) adversity. Be that as it may, I think the aforementioned Stoic visualization technique is good for you regardless of whether or not it helps you deal with future losses. Why? Because it feels good. Because it’s pleasurable. In fact, as I said to my friend Graeme Blake on Mount Royal yesterday, I’ve come to suspect that Stoicism is really just a refined form of Hedonism.

As baby-food manufacturers well know, some things, like the sweetness of sugar and the saltiness of salt, taste good the first time. They’re straightforwardly and immediately pleasurable to all. Other tastes—like the face-pinching sour of vinegar, the burn of really spicy food, and the bite of hard alcohol—must be acquired. Things of this kind do not taste good the first time. All to the contrary! For instance, I’ll never forget the first time I accidentally ate a mouthful of really spicy food. We were in a crowded Cuban restaurant in Washington, DC. And it was horrible. Felt like a near-death experience or a panic attack or a really bad acid trip. At first everything got really quiet, like someone had just turned down the volume on the room. Even the voices of the people at my table sounded muffled, distant, and barely audible. My chest seized up and I forgot how to breathe for so long that I thought I might pass out. And then came the burn—oh, the burn—a burn so hot it felt cold at first. I frantically reached for my glass and brought it to my lips. But the water only made things worse. Way worse. Tears streamed down my face and my light-grey t-shirt was soon drenched in sweat. Alas, this was not a positive experience. Even so, I grew to love spicy food, just as I’ve grown to love many things I initially hated, like whiskey, wine, and Stoic meditation.

Like the thrill of a roller-coaster ride or a really good horror movie, the pleasure we derive from Stoic visualization is always, to some extent, masochistic pleasure. At first we’re shocked and unsettled by the horrors we’re imagining, but then we’re comforted by the realization that everything’s actually okay and we’re really not in danger. The spicy pleasures of Stoicism are, then, not so different from the pleasures people derive from skydiving and bungee-jumping. We’re dealing, here, with the thrill of the near-death experience.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Wrapping Yourself in the Flag (Of Science)

“They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”—George W. Bush, “Address to the Joint Session of Congress Following the 9/11 Attacks,” (delivered on September 20, 2001)

The pro-GMO guys have, it seems, taken to wrapping themselves in the flag of not only Science, but Philosophy and Atheism too. What a splendid piece of propaganda this is! Brings to mind George W. Bush’s infamous speech to the Joint Session of Congress Following the 9/11 Attacks, wherein he famously declared: “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

We’re well aware of how sleazy conservatives like Bush wrap themselves in the flag of patriotism (e.g., if you oppose my policy you hate our Country). And we’re well aware of how sleazy fundamentalists wrap themselves in the flag of religion (e.g., if you oppose my doctrine you hate God). But we’re less aware of how public relations experts wrap themselves in the flag of science (e.g., if you oppose GMOs you hate science).

(4) Timeline Photos - We Love Atheism, Philosophy and Science. - Google Chrome 2016-02-014.jpgWhilst I admire the skill and sophistry of the Don Draper who produced this meme, I find its message profoundly dishonest. First of all, I know plenty of atheists who oppose GMOs and plenty of religious folk who support them. Same is true of philosophy: philosophers are to be found on either side of this issue. Regardless, philosophy and atheism have nothing to do with GMOs, so this is really neither here nor there.

Unlike the absurd attempt to link support for GMOs to atheism and philosophy, the attempt to link anti-GMO sentiment to anti-science sentiment is at least plausible. These two patchouli-scented crowds do indeed overlap with some regularity. Still, it’s specious to suppose that someone who’s anti-GMO is anti-science in 2016. After all, the debate over GMOs is nothing like the “debate” over Climate Change or Evolution.

Look, if you still believe—today, in 2016—that climate change isn’t happening, and that we’re not causing it, you’re no longer welcome at the adult table. Likewise, if the overwhelming mountain of evidence in support of the theory of evolution by natural selection still hasn’t convinced you, you’re a lost cause. But to say that the same is true of GMOs is deeply dishonest. There are plenty of well-respected researchers—people with PhDs who publish in the same peer-reviewed journals you publish in—who maintain, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, that the potential risks associated with the widespread usage of GMOs far outweigh the potential benefits. In light of this, it’s disingenuous to imply that I’m an enemy of all things modern just because I oppose GMOs.

I’m not anti-science, dude. I’m just anti-bullshit.

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

Why Courage is Better than Moral Clarity

Then Samson said to Delilah: “if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man.”—Judges 16:17 (King James Version)

Samson_and_Delilah_mg_0034The philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb was once offered a piece of unsolicited advice from an unnamed correspondent: “Dear Mr Taleb, I like your work but I feel compelled to give you a piece of advice. An intellectual like you would greatly gain in influence if he avoided using foul language.” Taleb’s reply consisted of two words: “Fuck off.” What I love about this comical anecdote is that it makes manifest a particular kind of cluelessness which is often present but rarely visible. Telling Taleb to refrain from using foul language in his books is about as absurd as telling him to avoid using personal anecdotes (or telling him to avoid talking about trading or New York or Lebanon or anything else that makes him who he is). Form and content are inextricably linked in any truly philosophical work. And, as a consequence, you can’t limit the vitality of a book’s form without limiting the vitality of a book’s content. Besides, a cleaned-up Taleb would be about as powerful as clean-cut Samson. Moral clarity’s great, but courage is better. Because your heart can be in the right place; but if your balls aren’t, well, you’re probably not going to do the right thing when it matters.

Shamelessness is often mistaken for courage. Sometimes we think we’re looking at courage, when we’re actually just looking at a sociopath with the empathetic capacity of a turnip. Recklessness is also often mistaken for courage. Sometimes we think we’re looking at courage, when we’re actually just looking at an asshole. Alas, how are we to know when we’re looking at the real thing—true courage—as opposed to shamelessness or recklessness? As Aristotle made clear long ago, in Book 3 of the Nicomachean Ethics, it’s not easy. You need to look at the overall pattern of a person’s behavior. For instance, when a normally shy woman stands up to the sexist pig at the dinner party and puts him in his place, you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at courage. But when an abusive loudmouth (with an overgrown sense of entitlement) tells off the waitress in a crowded restaurant—because her food isn’t coming fast enough—you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at recklessness. Likewise, when you watch a proud single-mom walk into a food-bank—red-faced and downcast—because her three kids need to eat, you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at courage. But when you listen to a bunch of drunken salesmen at a sports bar bragging about their latest exploits, you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at shamelessness.

Normal people find it very hard to violate social norms. My wife, a sociologist, illustrates this point experientially for her students by having them get on a crowded bus or metro, walk up to a complete stranger, and ask them to give up their seat. Most of her students find it impossible to complete the task, no matter how hard they try. They are quite literally crippled by embarrassment. This is because they’re normal. This is because they have shame. The shameless don’t have this problem. For instance, when I mentioned this experiment to the most shameless I guy I know—a douche-bag I know from high school, who I ran into last year on the metro—he walked right up to a middle-aged woman and asked her for her seat—without hesitation, right in front of me. The woman looked surprised and shocked, but she got up regardless. And he sat down in her seat, smirking. Clearly it was effortless for him. Do I even need to tell you what he does for a living? Yes, he’s in sales. And he’s very good at it. Why? Because he’s shameless.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Something Really New for a Change: A Review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile

“And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field”—Genesis 2:20 (King James Version)

Adam-naming-animals-by-Theophanes-at-Meteora-04_zpsa983d6cc
Theophanes the Cretan, “Adam Names the Beasts of the Field,” Monastery of Saint Nicholas (Metéora, Greece)

Academic culture, as presently constituted, seems to reward scholars who do one of two things: (1) repackage a commonplace with some sort of fancy-sounding language (e.g., saying “H2O” instead of “water”); or, (2) repackage an existing concept, like, say, hegemony, give it a new name, and then confidently declare that it’s a “BRAND NEW” idea that explains just about everything. Most of what passes for fresh new scholarship is in fact one of these two sleights of hand. Perhaps that’s why the central concept of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book—“antifragility”—is so initially off-putting. Because Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder (2012) is the exception that proves this rule.

41y+-2A1XZL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Taleb’s central idea actually is something new. It’s not a repackaging of some old thing, nor is it an abstruse articulation of a commonplace. All to the contrary. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of antifragility actually gives name to a “beast of the field” that didn’t have a name, something which, when you think about it, clearly exists, around us, in us, between us, everywhere! Once you grasp the concept of antifragility—truly grasp it—it does precisely what any good concept ought to do: it makes clear things that were previously unclear; it gives you the language you need to talk about certain things, things which we really need to talk about if we’re going to make sense of this divine comedy around us, which we like to call the world.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Sticks and Stones may Break your Bones, but Aaron Haspel Draws Blood: A Review of Everything: A Book of Aphorisms (2015)

“I approach deep problems such as I do cold baths: fast in, fast out. That this is no way to get to the depths, to get deep enough, is the superstition of those who fear water, the enemies of cold water; they speak without experience. Oh, the great cold makes one fast! And incidentally: does a matter stay unrecognized, not understood, merely because it has been touched in flight; is only glanced at, seen in a flash? Does one absolutely have to sit firmly on it first? Have brooded on it as on an egg? Diu noctuque incubando, as Newton said of himself? At least there are truths that are especially shy and ticklish and can’t be caught except suddenly—that one must surprise or leave alone.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1887)

41XBc2HTu0L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In a letter to a friend, Nietzsche maintained that the only readers who could really claim to have understood his Zarathustra (1891) were those who were, at times, profoundly wounded by it. I couldn’t help but think of this remark as I read Everything (2015). Although this book is quite short and extraordinarily clear, it’s not an easy read. Far from it actually. Haspel says that he asks but “one thing of literature: that it draw blood.” And he delivers on this score, again and again, with aphorisms like the following: (i) “Whatever you think you like — are you sure you like it? Or do you like being the sort of person who likes it?” (ii) “Whatever you have done, you are the sort of person who would do that.” (iii) “It never seems to occur to the teacher who complains of inattentive students that he may not be worth attending to.” (iv) “If you want to destroy your marriage talk about it.”

But these are only some of the most obviously challenging aphorisms contained in this volume. The more insidious ones are like time-bombs or retroviruses: I rarely “get” them the first time I read them. Don’t even necessarily get them when I’m reading them. Instead, something happens or someone says something, days or even weeks later, and a bell goes off in my head and I think “a-ha”—that’s what he meant! For instance, this aphorism (which I posted the other day on Facebook) is loved at first for almost all of the wrong reasons: “If it has never crossed your mind that you might be stupid, you are.” People who’ve been (like me), at times, painfully aware of their inadequacy, read this and feel smart. Until, that is, they realize, a few days or weeks later, that although failing the aphorism’s test proves that you’re stupid, passing it doesn’t prove that you’re smart. A week or two later, however, it gets worse: the self-congratulatory glow loses all of what’s left of its luster when you realize that you can be stupid and know you’re stupid.

Some of Haspel’s aphorisms are laugh-out-loud funny, such as: (i) “Passion, n. An overwhelming urge to spend your life at something you don’t do especially well.” (ii) “The ideal work environment for a writer is jail.” (iii) “Blaming an actor for being a narcissist is like blaming a tiger for being a carnivore.” (iv) “It is when we recognize our hopeless inadequacy at everything else that we discover our vocation.” And some of them are straightforwardly brilliant, such as this one, which is, to my mind, the best summary of the Socratic way of life I have ever read: “A grudging willingness to admit error does not suffice; you have to cultivate a taste for it.”

Still, if you’re looking for the kind of writer beloved of avid readers of The New Yorker—the kind who knows how to make his educated liberal audience feel superior to all of those yahoos in the sticks who hunt, pray, vote Republican, and believe in weird stuff—don’t buy this book. Seriously, don’t. Because you’ll hate it. Haspel holds up a mirror, and, trust me, you’re not going to like everything you see. I know I didn’t. If Haspel has an overarching message that he wants to impart it’s that we’re not exempt from the follies of our day, even (and perhaps especially) when we think we are: “We are more like our contemporaries than we imagine, and less like our ancestors.”

I read a great deal (probably more than I should), and I’ve been a great lover of the aphoristic genre for over twenty years. Yet never before have I encountered so many aphorisms written by a contemporary of such a high quality: Haspel is in a league of his own. At his best, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s aphorisms in The Bed of Procrustes (2010) rival those of Epicurus (e.g., “Love without sacrifice is like theft” is something I wish I had written). But my fellow Canadian, George Murray, probably deserves the prize for second place. His most recent collection of aphorisms, Glimpse (2010), is often outstanding (e.g., “Rubble becomes ruin when the tourists arrive”). Even so, the collection is scandalously uneven, and it really doesn’t hold a candle to Everything. To wit: Aaron Haspel is the greatest master of the aphoristic form writing in English today. It’s always hard to know which books will stand the test of time, which books will be read 300 years from now. But if I was a betting man, I’d bet on Everything.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)