Why bother observing inconsistencies?

A friend noticed that I tend to say things like this: “The number of people who are genuinely interested in this kind of social policy minutia is probably small, as the popular support for programs like UPK shows” and he asked: why bother if no one cares?

In some existential sense one could ask why anyone bothers doing anything. More specific to this case, I write to find out what I think—I’m not alone in this—and writing solely for yourself has a pointless, masturbatory quality. I also write the kinds of things I like to read, and to understand the world better. Not everyone is interested in that but I am and presumably many readers of this blog are.

Most ideas also have histories, and most beliefs about subjects outside of science don’t advance linearly.* They’re subject to fashion. So one way to determine current fault lines in social (and legal) thinking is to look at what other people in other places and other times have thought.

Take this example: In Sexual Personae Camille Paglia says that the Marquis de Sade’s work “demonstrates the relativism of sexual and criminal codes.” His major works were done more than 200 years ago. Is it not strange that the same points are made, over and over again, through the generations? One reading of this could be that posts like mine are useless: little changes, despite writers like me. Another could be that the optimist hopes tomorrow will be better, for some value of better, than today despite evidence to the contrary.

In Western society criminal codes are designed above all to regulate three things: violence, sex, and property. The relations among the three could be said to be the primary driver of life and hence literature. One could derive a general principle from lots of specific examples.

Virtually everything “big” starts small. This is true of startups, other businesses, novels, countries, and life itself (via evolution). In general it’s better to start with the specific and move towards the general. The more specific the better in most cases. While it is true that most people don’t especially care about hypocrisy, some do, and observing how a society or individual responds to hypocrisy or is hypocritical can be tremendously revealing. Some people don’t care about revelation, and that’s okay. My reasons for writing this blog and thinking about and observing things are similar to the ones Paul Graham enumerates:

I do it, first of all, for the same reason I did look under rocks as a kid: plain curiosity. And I’m especially curious about anything that’s forbidden. Let me see and decide for myself.

Second, I do it because I don’t like the idea of being mistaken. If, like other eras, we believe things that will later seem ridiculous, I want to know what they are so that I, at least, can avoid believing them.

Third, I do it because it’s good for the brain. To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.

I tend not to get in too much “trouble” because I’m not well known enough to generate intense scrutiny or hate mail or misreadings. People misreading Graham are legion and frequently, unintentionally, hilarious. I don’t have nearly as many, but I still like to think I’m making a difference, however small, at the margins.


* This could be an argument for being in fields that unambiguously advance: at least you know when you’re right, as opposed to being merely morally fashionable.

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