Malice, Stupidity, or Egalité Irréfléchie?

by lionhearted1 min read13th Jun 201162 comments


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Anyone who has decided to strike off the mainstream path has experienced this: Strong admonitions and warnings against what they were doing, and pressures not do it.

It doesn’t really matter what it is you’re trying to change. If you’re trying to become a nondrinker in a drinking culture, if you’re trying to quit eating junk food, if you’re trying to become a vegetarian or otherwise have a different diet, this will have happened to you.

If you decide to pursue a nontraditional career path (artist, entrepreneur, etc), you will have experienced this.

If you try to live a different lifestyle than the people around you – for instance, rising each day at 4:30AM and sleeping early instead of partying, you will have experienced this.

People will pressure and cajole you in many different ways to keep doing it the old way. Almost always, it will be phrased as though they’re looking after your best interest.

The specifics will vary. It could be phrased as cautious prudence – “What if your business doesn’t succeed and you don’t have a college degree? That could be really bad for you.”

It could be phrased as desiring for you to have the best way in life – “Go on, live a little, a beer won’t kill you.”

It could be encouraging you to do whatever you’ve set out to change without any specific reasoning at all.

I used to wonder why this is so common. Are people stupid? Or malicious? They must be one of those two.

If someone has a preference that has an expected value of a better life for them and they really want to live that preference, then why would someone that’s in their peer group or family want to discourage them? Is it because they have different calculations of what’s valuable, even when pursuing obvious no-brainer decisions like quitting the lowest quality junk foods? Is it because they’re malicious and want to hold you back and tear you down?

I think now – neither. Rather, I think it’s an uncritical, unexamined form of desire for equality.

The egalitarian instinct is strong in humans. Most people want others to do and act broadly similar to them. It’s almost an affront if you don’t live the normal way – do you think you’re better than them? No matter how subtle, gracious, or modest you try to be about it, it makes people feel bad if you’re breaking from the egalitarian way.

There’s plenty of research on this. High performers getting punished or shunned.

The French in the title is probably wrong (you’re welcome to correct it if you’re fluent), but I think it has a nice ring to it – Egalite Irréfléchi. Unthinking egalitarianism.

There’s a place for some egalitarianism in the world. A desire to bring others up, to open opportunities for others, to decentralize knowledge, to make resources available for people who want to use them.

But that’s a thoughtful egalitarianism, that examines how we can get everyone to be better. An unthinking egalitarianism generally promotes the status quo and punishes people who strive to do better.

But it’s not stupid or malicious. Stupidity implies poor judgment and malice implies poor motivations. Rather, the egalitarian instinct appears to be natural to most people. Pressures on you to conform (even when conforming is bad for your health and life) are not made out of stupidity or malicious intent, but rather from a natural instinctual drive towards equality that was never carefully examined.

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