We had a visit from an IRS agent last week.
I was tied up, so my wife Cathleen dealt with him: He needed either me or our accountant to contact him.
We’re five years behind in tax filings, but any attention the precious feds pay to us is a money-losing proposition — for them. We make money some months, lose money many others, but we have been unprofitable, year by year, since 2006. Whatever we might owe can’t amount to a fart in a gale of wind — and we can’t pay it anyway. There is no point in our filing returns, but, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t. We can either each work 100+ hours a week, thus to keep our business barely afloat, or we can do useless government paperwork and drown. I think we have made the wiser choice. To say the truth, I don’t give a rat’s ass if they throw me in jail, so it’s just as well I didn’t get a chance to meet the agent.
But afterward I was aware that Cathleen was totally freaked out. Thoughts racing, stomach churning, unable to get back to work. I couldn’t feel it, lucky me, but I could see it in her face and in her manner.
Very interesting to me. We’ve been talking a lot about the idea of the existential — what really happened — which is best contrasted with the imaginary.
Looking at a very distressed Cathleen, I said, “Holy cow, were you arrested?”
“No, of course not.”
“Were you perp-walked on the TV news? Locked up with drooling predators?”
“None of that happened.”
“Then why are you reacting as if it had?”
Boom. A blinding epiphany. I understand a lot about how I think, and I think I understand a lot about how you think. But then I run headlong into a huge epistemological error — in my own wife, no less – and I realize that there is so much more for me to learn about this stuff.
“That’s how they own you.” I said that to Cathleen.
“Other people. That’s how they own everyone. If they had to jail you, they couldn’t do it. Everyone would have to be jailed. But if they can get you to cower in terror as if you were locked up — when there is zero doubt that you are not — they don’t need jails or jailers. You’re fulfilling both roles, right now, securely locked up in your own imaginary prison.”
Here’s another scenario, a so-called hypothetical — which means entirely imaginary — situation just for you:
You’ve made plans to go to a business conference. You made a mistake when you calendared the event, so you arrive at the hotel ballroom thinking you are twenty minutes early when, in fact, you are forty minutes late.
You open the door to the function room slowly and ever so slightly, trying to sneak into the room sideways — and silently. But — wouldn’t you know it? — everyone in the room turns to stare at you anyway, and the speaker cuts himself off mid-sentence. You are the center of attention, existentially, and yet all you want, in that moment, is to disappear — a factual impossibility.
You had come early — you thought — because you knew there would be coffee and pastries at the back of the room. Now you look at that spread of treats, and you can feel the void in your stomach. But instead of grabbing something — are you mortified, in that instant, at the imaginary crash of a fumbled saucer? — you scurry to an open seat at the back of the room and pretend to be engrossed by some paperwork.
For a minute there — a minute that seemed like an eternity — those people owned you, didn’t they? They not only made you feel two inches tall, they cheated you out of a breakfast you paid good money for. Not just a breakfast, though, they cheated you out of a part of the whole experience of the conference, a part you had been anticipating both mentally and physically.
And your being owned isn’t over, even yet, is it? The people nearest you seem to think they are white blood cells and you are an infection. You see them sneaking glances at you, and you feel as though they are trying to push you out of the room with propulsive eye-power.
But then someone on the other side of the room blurts out an objection, and it’s clear that the speaker is not amused. He issues a retort, half-scornful, half-jocular, and the whole room erupts in laughter.
You laugh, too, although you have no idea what is being discussed or why anyone else thinks the conflict is funny. You’re laughing because everyone else is laughing — and because it is a way for you to come to be one with the group. And it works, too. Your nearby neighbors reward you with nods and smiles and winks.
And guess what? Those people own you. You have done nothing you yourself wanted to do since you entered that ballroom. Everything you have done has been an attempt, by you, to satisfy the unspoken demands of the other people in the room — of the whole audience, of the speaker, of your table-mates. You have devoted your full attention to trying to suss out whatever it might be that they want from you, and you have devoted not one second to thinking about what you yourself want.
Can this get worse? You also were not thinking about what was really going on. Instead you imagined one impossible scenario after another, as Cathleen did for the IRS, and then ran yourself through those imaginary gauntlets. Your only relief came when you could deflect the crowd’s imaginary powers against another victim, at which time you happily ganged up on him, too. Surely it is always unjust to pile onto someone who says something you don’t want to hear, but you can’t even say if the person who raised the objection was right or wrong. How do I know? Because you were so busy thinking about power relationships — other peoples’ power over you and your power over them — that you could not possibly have invested any effort in thinking about right or wrong. Had you cultivated the habit of thinking clearly about right and wrong, none of the events I’ve described would have happened, not in that way.
But your life really does play out this way, doesn’t it? Not those exact details, surely, but events just like those — unjust submission to the herd and unjust domination by the herd — over and over again, for all your life. Not all the time, but often, possibly more often than you ever thought about, until now.
You live your life cowering in terror of one imaginary catastrophe after the next, but every one of those supposed disasters really is the same one fear: You live in horror of being on the wrong side of someone else’s bad opinion of you. You can come up with as many names as you like for that horror — shame, guilt, fear, embarrassment, mortification — but these all come down to the same thing, to be the object of public opprobrium — any disapproval at any time, from anyone or any group of people. Your only real hope for safety is to become one with the group, whichever group you happen to be in at that moment. If the massed force of collective scorn is to be deployed, your furtive hope is to be among the folks doing the sneering or snickering, not the poor sap being held up to public ignominy.
Am I wrong about you? I hope I am, but my experience argues otherwise. To the contrary, I think most people are owned, in the way I am describing that idea here, for virtually all of the time they spend among other people. It is the rarest and sweetest and most memorable experience to spend time around someone who is content to let you be who you are, without your having to wonder, constantly, who you are expected to portray.
If I wanted to come up with a fate more horrifying than anything you ever whipped up in that dread-blender in your mind, this is it: To spend every minute of every day of your life trying to “fit in” to one crowd after the next, with the required fitting-in behaviors being wholly arbitrary, but with the failure to honor them in precise detail being the sole grounds necessary to exorcise your demonic influence from that particular body politic. You crave inclusion into any group, anywhere, and you live in terror of exclusion.
None of this is real, not any part of it, but it plays itself out in your mind over and over again, until caving in to the presumed demands of other people and demanding presumptuously by the power of your posturing that they cave into you — this is all there really is to your life. Other people own you all the time, every minute you are around them, surely, but also every other minute of your life — every slice of time you devote to worrying about how other people will react to you and not how you yourself choose to act.
This is actual selflessness. Since you were old enough to parse speech, people have been hectoring you about selflessness, but this is the real thing, the actual practice of an egoless existence. Do you want to protest that you are not like this, at least not all the time? I believe you, but I don’t care. What matters is how much of the time you are like this, how much of your life you lose to selflessness — and how little of it you retain for yourself.
Your continual pursuit of selflessness is itself an expression of that dreaded evil your parents warned you about — peer pressure. And that just by itself is funny for a couple of reasons. First, for the most part your “peers” are not doing anything overtly, not anything that could be transcribed in fathertongue. Mainly, your reactions to the many groups of people you seek to fit into are not actual reactions — responses to prior actions — but, rather, your anticipatory concessions to the demands you imagine they are making of you. You conform where no conformity is required, at least not explicitly. And the second reason your constant capitulation to peer pressure is funny, at least to me? Your parents got around to talking to you about the pressure to conform about ten years too late.
You didn’t habituate these behaviors when you were twenty-four, and not when you were fourteen. Other people took ownership over your life — and you let them — when you were four or five years old. If you want to break free — if you want to stop being the slave of anyone and everyone — it is there you will need to go to discover and correct your errors.
Here’s some good news. There is nothing you have done that cannot be undone. Stick with me and I’ll show you how.
* * * * *
I have two young friends — let’s call them Robbie and Davy. Robbie is almost four-years-old, and his younger brother Davy is two-and-a-half. They’re my friends in the sense that I have known and loved them since they were born, but, as with everyone else, they are also my involuntary lab rats. I don’t perform experiments on anyone, but I observe everyone I see, all the time. Even so, most adults are not terribly interesting to me, where young proto-humans of that precise age, the age of graduation from toddlerhood to childhood, are endlessly fascinating to me.
Here’s why: That age — from the cultivation of rudimentary speech to a full fluency in fathertongue — is when normal genetic homo sapiens children are undertaking the process of becoming human beings. This is what the acquisition of fathertongue is, in its essence, the process of learning the uniquely human manner of life — a conceptual understanding of existence coupled with a completely free moral agency, which is in its turn informed and guided by steadily-more-rigorous conceptualization.
A toddler is an exceptionally talented animal — far more intelligent than a dog, for instance, but no more able than is a dog to conceive of alternatives to its existence. A child is an inexperienced human being, capable in principle of conceiving of anything any other human being can postulate, and capable of discovering or learning, encoding and transmitting concepts to other human beings.
I’ve written about mothertongue and fathertongue at length, notably here and here. For now it is enough to say that mothertongue is any kind of bodily signaling — from a dog’s tail wagging to a baby’s crying to the imaginary ballroom speaker’s calculated sneer. Mothertongue is any kind of message or expression that does not require abstract conceptual notation.
By contrast, fathertongue is any sort of notation system — words — written, spoken or simply pondered — mathematical symbols, musical scores, etc. Mothertongue is active, immediate, visceral and fleeting, where fathertongue is generally passive, patient, cerebral and enduring. The baby can only cry in the moment, but the words “the baby is crying” can denote a hypothetical — and hence imaginary — present-active-indicative state in perpetuity — which is itself an imaginary contradiction considered in existential or ontological terms, since a baby cannot possibly cry in perpetuity.
But a toddler’s grammar is all expressed in the present-active-indicative: I am eating. I am sad. I want to play with my brother’s toys. That last is a partial invocation of a subjunctive state — an imaginary world not in evidence — and the graduation from mothertongue to fathertongue, for any particular child, represents the gradual acquisition and mastery of the subjunctive mood in grammar: I wish we could have cake instead of broccoli. I want to be a fireman when I grow up. Things would be different if I were in charge around here.
Robbie and Davy are especially interesting to me because their fraternal dynamic is a little skewed. Typically, in a family like theirs, we would expect Robbie to be dominant by birth order, by his greater size at that age and by his more-impressive acquisition of skills. First-born children are only children, at first, and very often they will come across as verbally-precocious mini-grown-ups. But Robbie has a mild speech impediment that has kept him from pulling too far ahead of Davy in verbal fluency. And because Robbie has not fully-occupied that verbal niche, in the competition for parental attention, there is room for Davy to flower verbally, where a second-born son might more commonly compete for attention with physical prowess or with defiant or risk-taking behavior.
Even so, Robbie is not just dominant by birth-order, he is a naturally dominant personality — an incipient alpha-male. He’s not a bad boy, but he is very good at getting what he wants — by persuasion, by suasion, by trickery or by force. With the exception of well-timed tears, he can’t dominate anyone larger than himself, but he is very good at dominating Davy.
In his turn, Davy is submissive by birth-order, but he is also probably naturally submissive — an incipient beta-male. These are not value judgements, they are ontologically-normal categories of human (and proto-human) behavior, certainly before the acquisition of fathertongue, but, unfortunately, afterward for most people, too. To be submissive, in this context, is not to imply that you are doomed as a matter of ontology to be pushed around. It simply means that you are not driven to push other people around. Alas, in the world that we live in now, to be submissive is to be expected to submit, again and again, to the arbitrary demands of the dominant personalities around you.
Both of these boys are without guile, since an elaborate attempt to fool another person implies a strong fluency in the subjunctive — in the willful invocation of imaginary worlds not in evidence. Robbie is dominant in the same way an alpha-dog is dominant, because he is impelled by his appetites to dominance and because he is getting away with it. He will submit to just about any grown-ups, especially his parents or his adult friends. But because Davy is both dominated by his size and by his greater skills, and because Davy is more submissive in his nature, Robbie is in charge of the body politic, when the two brothers are alone.
So they play with the toys Robbie wants to play with, in the manner Robbie wants to play. Davy does not always like this, but if he resists, Robbie will tend to roll right over him — with entreaties and expressions of enthusiasm, usually, but also with physical coercion. Davy really doesn’t like that, but he will not always pull the emergency cord — crying out for adult intervention. Sometimes he does, particularly if Robbie has come to be too forceful in his attempts at suasion. But often Davy simply puts up with Robbie’s dominance.
Why does he do that? Why does Davy tolerate being dominated, virtually all the time, by his older, bigger brother?
Because it’s the only game in town. Davy wants to play, and he would be happy, most of the time, to play at just about anything. But Robbie only wants to play in certain ways, with certain toys. Davy goes along with Robbie, most of the time, because Robbie really cares about his plan of action, and Davy really does not. Davy’s objective is general and diffuse, where Robbie’s is definite and elaborately detailed. Robbie’s dominance of Davy is continuous, but adults only notice it when it gets out of hand.
This is a completely statistically normal political relationship among toddlers. I’m inclined to say it is ontologically normal, also, since the impetus to social dominance will be as much a part of our genetic inheritance as it is for dogs, for wolves, for apes and for other mammalian social species.
But: Dominance and submission are not ontologically normal for true human beings — genetic homo sapiens in whom the inborn capacity to reason and choose by reference to fathertongue has been cultivated — that is to say genetic homo sapiens children who have been raised by human parents.
Even so, as we saw above in the hotel ballroom, dominance and submission are very much the statistical norm in human social relationships. This is not an ontologically-necessary consequence. To the contrary, it represents a tragic inversion of the actual form human social concourse should take. But that notwithstanding, dominance and submission are everywhere.
Here’s why: Almost every social encounter in your life is governed by unspoken power relationships for one simple reason: Because you don’t have the guts to say the names of the games that are being run on you, and, accordingly, you don’t demand better treatment. Davy is a volunteer, and so are you.
Here is the reality of Davy’s life, so far unknown to him: If, every time Robbie tried to assert dominance over him, Davy were to go limp like a little Gandhi-in-training-pants, refusing to play with his brother until Robbie backed down, Robbie would not only back down, he would in due course learn to control his domineering appetites. Robbie wants to play, too, and if Davy refuses to play Robbie’s way, Robbie will learn in very short order to meet his brother half way.
But that strategy is entirely subjunctive — one imagined conditional future perfect state after another — and Davy does not yet have the ability to think subjunctively.
Meanwhile: What’s your excuse?
* * * * *
This is interesting: When Robbie actively coerces his little brother — when he pushes or pinches or hits Davy — he immediately looks up to see if his behavior had been observed. In other words, he knows at some level of consciousness that he is doing something his parents have made plain he should not do, and he is checking to see if he got caught.
I would argue that evil is taking an action you know in advance is wrong, but the word “know,” in that context, implies that you know conceptually, by a subjunctive projection of imagined future events and their imagined consequences, that the action you are contemplating would be wrong according to your own previously abstracted or adopted moral code.
Viewed that way, is Robbie’s coercion evil? I don’t know. I know that he is aware that it is behavior he will be punished for, if he is caught, and, in cognizance of these facts, he takes pains to conceal his forceful domination of Davy — and then he looks around to see if anyone saw what he did.
Does he know that it is wrong, as a matter of ontology, for one human being to attempt to dominate another? Surely not, not yet.
Is he capable of the kind of guile that would disguise his coercion — for instance, by pinching his brother while they are wrestling, so no one else can see? Not so far.
Moreover, while he will plead for leniency, when he is caught using force on his brother, he has not yet reached a state where he will try to lie his way out of trouble. His verbal infelicities will make this difficult, in any case, but he is not yet so adept with the subjunctive that he can try to convince you that you didn’t really see what you think you saw.
Meanwhile, even though Davy has not yet figured out the John Galt solution to his dilemma — to go on strike for better treatment from Robbie — he has worked out a strategy for communicating that enough is enough: Retaliation. When Robbie pushes Davy too far, Davy has taken to biting Robbie.
I don’t want to imply that these children are being badly reared. Very much the contrary. They have smart, active, eager, involved parents, and they are being raised in the very best of circumstances. The behaviors I am describing are not rare, they are extremely common. It’s just that no one is paying attention.
But what do we do when we catch a toddler behaving badly?
We invoke the subjunctive, of course. “Robbie, would you like it if Davy took your toy away from you?” “Davy, would you like it if your brother bit you?” “Is that a nice way to behave?”
That much is not awful, although I have to wonder how much of a world not in evidence a toddler can see. Even so, in moments when a toddler is being punished, you will have the kid’s complete attention, and it is conceivable to me that these little hypothetical discussions could be the child’s first introduction to the subjunctive idea.
What else do we do? We time the kid out. We send him to his room or to the time-out chair. We exclude him from social concourse for a span of time.
That’s interesting to me. What did you fear, to the outermost limits of your ability to think, back in the ballroom? Oh, yes, it was the fear of being excluded by the mob. When did your fear subside? When the mob welcomed you into its warm embrace, as you and the other mobsters ganged-up on the person who had dared to question the authority of the speaker.
In reality, I think your fear of exclusion and your corresponding desire for inclusion come more from your relationships with other children than they do from your parents. But it is an interesting twist that the fate-worse-than-all-other-fates to be visited upon a misbehaving toddler is exclusion from the group.
But even more interesting, to me, is that all of these behaviors — dominance and submission effected by means of social inclusion and exclusion — all of this predates the acquisition of fathertongue in each child’s mind. Some children are dominating other children in mothertongue, and those other children are in their turn voluntarily submitting to that domination in mothertongue.
Moreover, which children are dominant and which submissive will depend on the social group the children happen to be members of. When the two boys are alone, Davy is Robbie’s property, but when any adult intervenes, both boys are owned by that adult. Every human social group is like that, and each one of those groups is constantly in flux as members come and go and as power relationships change accordingly.
In a sense, every self-identified group of people is in some respects a lord-of-the-flies-like “civilization” — arbitrary power being wielded largely in mothertongue. To the extent that the objectives of the members of the group are made explicit in undeniable fathertongue, the behavior of the group will tend to be unobjectionable. But the more that group conducts its business in mothertongue — in smiles and smirks and sighs and snickers and shrugs — the greater the likelihood that the group will do evil, awful, unconscionable things.
* * * * *
And that’s where you come in. You don’t so much want to belong to the group — you may actually despise the group and loath your own membership in it — as you want not to be excluded from it. Simply to be an outcast might not be that awful a fate, but to be scorned and spurned and derided as an outcast — this is a punishment you cannot bear — nor even bear to contemplate.
What’s interesting is that none of it is real. There might be audible snickers or visible smirks, but really, in the normal course of life, there is almost nothing — and none of it matters anyway.
Even the group itself is almost always nothing. Your family matters, and it’s hard to get away from the people you work with. But why would anyone give any thought to the offended sensibilities of a room full of strangers — strangers to you and to each other, assembled as a group only then, only temporarily and then never again. We can’t share in that kind of experience without following certain rules, but entering the room late is hardly a disruption. The stares, the glares, the silence that you feel — or imagine you are feeling — these are precisely as meaningful as your dog barking at the window when the postman saunters by.
Why does that group turn on the questioner? For the same reason you did — presumptively to portray your inclusion in the group as a matter of established fact — by which means you hope to avoid the agony of further exclusion. Each member of the group turns on the apostate-of-the-moment as a way of asserting and sustaining membership in that group and warding off the threat of excommunication.
And behold the power of the subjunctive: I have you all tied up in knots over your imaginary reactions to my imaginary events. But you know the truth, don’t you? While none of the particular events I’ve described here have happened to you, events just like this have scarred your life again and again.
If you have not been hand-cuffed, perp-walked and locked up, why would you react as if you had?
Why on earth, when you have walked into a conference room late, would you portray in mothertongue the apology and shame for having plastered the speaker’s face with a pie?
Why do you live so much of your life in a subjunctive hell of your own devising, where your every word, your every deed, your every thought, even, is subject to the continuous oversight of anyone and everyone — provided none of them are you? And, remember, every bit of this is unreal. To the extent the mob dominates you, it does it with your own power — your own voluntary submission to it. And each individual member of that mob — even its putative “leader” — is doing just exactly what you’re doing: Desperately grasping to figure out what pose or posture or pronouncement the mob might want next.
You are owned by anyone and everyone except yourself, and everyone else who behaves like you do is owned in the same way. Everyone owns everyone, and no one owns his own life, his own mind, his own will. This is not a horror story, this is real life, at least some of the time, for virtually everyone alive right now: You’re a slave. Not to a plantation owner, and not to the state. You are a slave to the group, to any group, anywhere, in any part of your life. So is almost everyone else.
But here’s something even more horrifying: It gets worse.
* * * * *
Philosophy is almost nobody’s favorite subject, but we have to dip our toe into serious human thought to discover what you’ve been getting wrong, so far, and how you can correct your thinking, going forward.
That’s the good news, actually. All we are talking about, ultimately, is a tiny error of knowledge you made when you did your learning in mothertongue. You have bad mental habits, and all you need to do, to live a life of complete independence from other people, is identify and amend those habits of mind.
So: These are the branches of philosophy critical to understanding human life and the human mind and ego:
- Metaphysics — What is it that exists?
- Epistemology — How do I validate my knowledge?
- Ethics — What should I do to maximize my own existence?
- Politics — How should I behave toward other people?
- Economics — How will I obtain my survival values?
This is the way that I would answer those questions:
- What is it that exists? All of reality, which exists prior to and independent of my consciousness of it.
- How do I validate my knowledge? By reasoned conclusions drawn from the objective evidence available to me.
- What should I do to maximize my own existence? Pursue my own rational, long-term self-interest.
- How should I behave toward other people? I should leave them alone, and I should demand that they leave me alone.
- How will I obtain my survival values? By my own production or by free, mutually-voluntary exchanges with other traders.
That seems pretty non-controversial to me. I expect that you found nothing significant to object to in that list. This is the way that all sane people live — when they are behaving sanely.
But what does your actual philosophy look like, when you are under the sway of your fears of the imagined bad opinions of the other members of the group?
- What is it that exists? Whatever the group insists exists right now.
- How do I validate my knowledge? By looking to everyone else in the group, trying to imagine what they want for me to say or do or portray.
- What should I do to maximize my own existence? Either fit into the group or take it over, at all costs avoiding beng shunned by the group.
- How should I behave toward other people? When I am not submitting to their imagined domination, I should imagine that I have dominance over them.
- How will I obtain my survival values? By rent-seeking — by begging, borrowing or stealing values honestly produced by other people.
Yikes! This is not just astoundingly wrong, it is essentially its own conceptual category: The anti-right. You could not possibly devise a philosophy less likely to produce happy results for anyone who follows it. And guess what? It works. Trying to live like this makes you miserable, doesn’t it? What a huge surprise.
The worst injustice you do, though, is to yourself. It is wrong of you to try to dominate other people, and it is very wrong of you to try to scourge outcasts with your scorn. But the very worst thing you are doing, in the moments when you behave this way, is annihilating the only life you will ever have.
Your only job, as a human being, is to pursue your own values. But when you are under the sway of the mob, the only values you must never pursue are your own. When you burn every fevered cycle of your brain trying to figure out who it is that everyone else wants you to be, you cannot possibly spare a thought for being who you really are. You cannot focus on what you want when you are striving in vain to try to imagine what it might be that everyone else wants.
Here’s what matters: You don’t have to live like this. You don’t have to let other people own your mind. You don’t have to behave abominably in order to avoid having abominable behavior visited upon you. None of this is real, and, hence, you have no need whatever to attend to it. It’s nothing, and here is how much thought you should devote to nothing: None.
When Cathleen and I talked about the IRS agent, I suggested she make a sign to post on her computer monitor, so she will see it all the time. This is the text of that sign:
Pursuing my values is my only job!
The point is to remind yourself, as often as necessary, that other people do not have any right to your mind, and they can only get in there if you invite them in.
The next step is to demand complete transparency — in undeniable fathertongue — from any group you happen to be involved with. People who like dominance and submission self-select for each other, so you might find yourself in fewer — but probably more enjoyable — groups of people, as time goes on.
That much is all great fun, and if you pursue positive human values, and if you cultivate your friendships among people who pursue positive human values, your life will get better and better with every passing day.
But: You made a very serious epistemological error as a toddler: You argued to yourself that you could rely on the mob to guide your behavior. Over the years, you habituated a host of bad behaviors, each one rooted in that awful error of knowledge. Now that you are aware of this, you have to correct that error, and you have to learn better habits of mind.
If you do, you’ll reap all the joys I’m promising here and many more. If you don’t, your life will go on pretty much as it has.
But if you are not in handcuffs, if you are not in chains, if you are not in a prison cell, the only power other people have over you is the power you yourself give them in your imagination.
That power is not real. It never was. You can be as free as you want to be, as soon as you want to be free. I think you’ll be amazed to discover just how powerful you’ve been all along — and how powerless the mob is without you…