Base your self-esteem on your rationality

byThePrussian4y22nd Jul 201526 comments


Some time ago, I wrote a piece called "How to argue LIKE STALIN - and why you shouldn't".  It was a comment on the tendency, which is very widespread online, to judge an argument not by its merits, but by the motive of the arguer.  And since it's hard to determine someone else's motive (especially on the internet), this decays into working out what the worst possible motive could be, assigning it to your opponent, and then writing him off as a whole.

Via Cracked, here's an example of such arguing from Conservapedia:

"A liberal is someone who rejects logical and biblical standards, often for self-centered reasons. There are no coherent liberal standards; often a liberal is merely someone who craves attention, and who uses many words to say nothing."

And speaking as a loud & proud rightist myself, there is more than a little truth in the joke that a racist is a conservative winning an argument.

I've been puzzling over this for a few years now, and trying to work out what lies underneath it.  What always struck me was the heat and venom with this kind of argument gets made.  One thing has to be granted - the people who Argue Like Stalin are not hypocrites; this isn't an act.  They clearly do believe that their opponents are morally tainted. 

And that's what's weird.  Look around online, and you'll find a lot of articles on the late Christopher Hitchens, asking why he supported the second Iraq war and the removal of Saddam Hussain.  Everything is proposed, from drink addling his brain, to selling out, to being a willful contrarian - everything except the obvious answer: Hitchens was a friend to Kurdish and Iraqi socialists, saw them as the radical and revolutionary force in that part of the world, and wanted to see the Saddam Hussain regime overthrown, even if it took  George Bush to do that.  No wishing to revist the arguments for and against the removal of Saddam Hussain, but what was striking is this utter unwillingness to grant the assumption of innocence or virtue.

  I think that it rests on a simple, and slightly childish, error.  The error goes like this: "Only bad people believe bad things, and only good people believe good things."

But even a basic study of history can find plenty of examples of good - or, anyway, ordinary - chaps supporting the most apallingly evil ideas and actions.  Most Communists and Nazis were good people, with reasonable motives.  Their virtue didn't change anything about the systems that they supported. 

Flipping it around, being fundamentally a lousy person, or lousy in parts of your life, doesn't proclude you from doing good.  H.L. Mencken opposed lynching in print, repeatedly, and at no small risk to himself.  He called for the United States to accept all jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich when even American jewry (let alone FDR) was lukewarm at best on the subject.  He was on excellent terms with many black intellectuals such as W.E.B DuBois, and was praised by the Washington Bureau Director of the NAACP as a defender of the black man.  He also maintained an explicitly racist private diary.


The error that I mentioned leads to Arguing Like Stalin in the following way: someone looks within himself, sees that he isn't really a bad person, and concludes that no cause he can endorse can be wicked.  He might be mistaken in his beliefs, but not evil.  And from that it is a really short step to conclude that people who disagree must be essentially wicked - because if they were virtuous, they would hold the views that the self-identified virtuous do.

The heat and venome becomes inevitable when you base your self-esteem on a certain characteristic or mode of being ("I am tolerant", "I am anti-racist" etc.)  This reinforces the error and puts you in an intellectual cul de sac - it makes it next to impossible to change your mind, because to admit that you are on the wrong side is to admit that you are morally corrupt, since only bad people support bad things or hold bad views. Or you'd have to conclude that just being a good person doesn't put you always on the right, even in big issues, and that sudden uncertainty can be just as bad.  Try thinking to yourself that you - you as you are now - might have supported the Nazis, or slavery, or anything similar, just by plain old error.

Self-esteem is hugely important.  We all need to feel like we are worth keeping alive.  So it's unsurprising that people will go to huge lengths to defend their base of self-esteem.  But investing it in internal purity is investing it in an intellectual junk-bond.

Emphasizing your internal purity might bring a certain feeling of faux-confidence, but it's meaningless ultimately.  Could the good nature of a Nazi or Communist save one life murdered by those systems?  Conversely, who care what Mencken wrote in his diary or kept in his heart, when he was out trying to stop lynching and save Jewish refugees?  No one cares about your internal purity, ultimately not even you - which is why you see such puritanical navel-gazing you see around a lot.  People trying to insist that they are perfect and pure on the inside, in a slightly too emphatic way that suggests they aren't that sure of.

After turning this over and over in my mind, the only way I can see out of this is to base your self-esteem primarily on your willingness to be rational.  Rather than insisting that you are worthy because of characteristic X, try thinking of yourself as worthy because you are as rational as can be, checking your facts, steelmanning arguments and so on.

This does bring with it the aforementioned uncertainty, but it also brings a relief.  The relief that you don't need to worry that you aren't 100% pure in some abstract way, that you can still do the decent and the right thing. You don't have to worry about failing some ludicrous ethereal standard, you can just get on with it.

It also means you might change some minds - bellow at someone that he's an awful person for holding racist views will get you nowhere.  Telling him that it's fine if he's a racist as long as he's prepared to do right and treat people of all races justly, just might.