The other day I was at a cool public meetup. I pissed somebody off. In my defense, it was pretty much the first conversation I had that evening and I hadn’t really calibrated my post-COVID sociability. In fact, I’m still working on that. It annoys me that I annoyed someone, then again I did interrupt what seemed to be a coherent riposte. The problem was that he brought up slavery in ancient Egypt, or Rome, can’t remember which. Keyword: infinite ethics.
“Yes well what did you expect them to do before the invention of the steam engine?”
This was how I interrupted my interlocutor as soon as the word ‘slavery’ was uttered, the implication being that I approved of his heinous example of immorality. Yes I approved in exactly that indifferent way I approve of the use of oxen to pull plows or Japanese peasants to plant and harvest rice by hand. Both the oxen and the peasants were doing work necessary for their economies. What is so superior about our economy now?
Like so many of you out there, I don’t have enough social connections to rate a patient explanation of my every rhetorical question. My best friend is often a good sounding board, but between the two of us, there are still limits. Since I’m a Stoic, I am really obnoxious about history, over which I have no control or particular reason to candy coat. Since I am neither a Progressive or a Regressive, I have no interest is trying to paste moral post-its saying ‘Never Again’ or ‘Always and Forever’ on past ethical mishaps. I, perhaps foolishly, think that we’ll all survive bumbling forward and some tiny fraction of us will figure something out that truly improves X. Like the first human, who very likely was a teenaged boy, who pulled an oyster off a pier piling and declared its wiggly guts to be delicious. Since this incrementalism both up and down, stands defiant of revolution, I am cool.
So while so many people lose their shit over Elon Musk and legacies of slavery and the existence of guns and horrible traffic jams, my indifference pisses them off. I abstain from their participatory outrage. They want to pull my card. Although I grew up in a roughneck neighborhood, it has been several decades since anyone has been up in my face threatening me personally. So pissing people off in intellectual debates is beneath my radar, so to speak, I’m often also given to radiate such vibes as befit one who has not shied away from contact sports. I’m no goon but I do have the habit of sizing men up physically. These attributes combine, I might presume, to those who are within 5 minutes of learning my name, that I might haul off and do a Will Smith or worse, pull out a MAGA cap, stand up and grunt ‘Wut, nigga?’
I do not ever lose my shit, but I sometimes use analogies that fail to parse. So on the off-chance that my almost friend by dint of our closer association with Less Wrong and ACX happens by, I apologize for saying that you reminded me of Dennis, the constitutional peasant. I actually do appreciate a little bit of anarchy and yes I do confess that I’m not particularly offended by the shit that happens in the world. I also confess that it’s probably wrong for me to assume those who are quite offended have designs on establishing a new regime by some ends-excusable means. But I also confess that I’m never quite sure if people have political agendas, wishlists, and aides-de-camp and so I distrust all of their schemes and by extension, their solicitations.
It’s difficult, on the other hand, for me to apologize for being insouciant or non-plussed by any argument that includes slavery as some extreme evil. I suppose that if I were wearing a Scoutmaster uniform, the same interlocutor might bring up pedophilia, or if I appeared Jewish something related to coordinates: 52°45′28″N 9°54′28″E. Therefore I simply accept that other folks are subject to using failed analogies as well. That doesn’t change the expression on my face in the moment. Although I am unlikely to roll my eyes, in the split-second it takes for me to talk about steam engines, I might appear to take you for an idiot.
As a matter of diversion from such sloppy situations, I used to start ripping out French. Although I did not do that on the occasion when FBI agents did get up in my face threatening me personally. (Logan Airport, circa 1993) My best friend tells me this missed moment is called “l’esprit de l’escalier”, the witty and proper response coming to you on your way down the staircase after the cocktail party is over. I’m also cool with the Feebs too. One cannot get too upset at the distribution of idiotic moments, nor assume they are all generated by actual idiots. As an affluent well-traveled, well-read, well-mannered first worlder, I’ve got to keep that in mind. They used to call us gentlemen, but it has been a while. BTW, the proper response at Logan should have been. “Pay attention. This is what it looks like when a mistake is made.” But I knew it, and I knew that the man in charge of the undercover bust knew it too, so we both suffered a good day’s embarrassment.
You and I know that the current mood in these dark days is to assume the psychological fragility of X which justifies their outrage, hostility and revenge activism. It’s sad to know that you might be infected with such a memetic substrate when evaluating the remarks of someone with whom you disagree for unknown reasons. One of the other ways in which I disagreed with Dennis was that I think it still matters if a gentleman wears a jacket and a watch rather than a hoodie and a cell phone. He reminded me that nobody wears jackets any longer. I protested “But I’m going to New York.” And what I should have said is “I’m going to be filmed on an interview show with Jon Stewart” which is never going to happen, but I think he would have understood. Maybe.
At a deeper level, there is a black man inside of me who is rather pissed off that Americans have decided to take casual Friday towards Type 2 IDGAF. Social capital is why. I expect mine to be recognized and respected, not because I’m psychologically fragile, but simply because I should have the choice to have a shortcut towards explaining all of the above context by wearing a cashmere sweater in a society that recognizes gentlemen who wear cashmere sweaters. Then again, I suppose I can blame Barack Obama for saying “I am Trayvon Martin”. Idiot. Still, I’ve been working at home for 11 years and it has been at least 6 since I’ve been to NYC. I still have to find a nice blazer.