Leviathan Grumbles: Simplicity and the Betrayal of Discourse

Leviathan Grumbles: Simplicity and the Betrayal of Discourse December 22, 2017

Hello, beautiful creatures, and welcome back to Misha’s House of Discourse! Today’s special is Finding Ways To Resurrect Nuance, glazed with a reduction sauce of Saving Our Own Asses From Destruction In The Process and served on a bed of steamed And Maybe Avoiding Further Traumatizing Our Own Folks While We’re At It. Sounds delish, right? The house suggests pairing it with a chilled ’09 Château de Subtilité, and closing with a dish of This Doesn’t Mean Compromising With Bad Actors1. Are we ready to order?

…okay, all attempts at being clever aside: I spent our previous moments together writing at some length about what I called “the necessary problem of nuance.” By this, I’m referring to the tension between our desire to achieve some level of comfort, i.e. control of our own circumstances, and the reality that life is intrinsically far more complicated than we can really deal with. This complexity is scary for most humans for a lot of reasons, most of which boil down to our fundamental inability to cognitively grasp the true nature of reality and reconcile it with our desperate desire for safety. This existential terror ultimately leads to what Thomas Hobbes identifies in Leviathan as the greatest evil of the human condition: the “continual fear and danger of violent death” which is the natural state of human existence, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes goes on to suggest that the organizing of human beings into societies is the sole and best way to escape this “state of nature” in which we are all pitted against one another, struggling for survival in an essentially hostile universe.

"There is no power on earth to be compared to him" (Job 41:24). Abraham Bosse's evocative frontispiece for Hobbes' Leviathan.
“There is no power on earth to be compared to him” (Job 41:24). Abraham Bosse’s evocative frontispiece for Hobbes’ Leviathan.
Good times, right? Whether one agrees with him or not—and I have quite the list of quibbles myself—it’s beyond debate that Hobbes’ work was one of the foundations of modern political and social theory, along with John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Between them and over time, they developed the idea of the social contract, which suggests that the very idea of sharing a society with others is dependent on surrendering some amount of freedom in exchange for mutual benefit. At a wildly oversimplified level, it works like this: you agree not to shoot me, I agree not to stab you, you agree not to steal my sheep, I agree not to steal your cows… and when we scale that up, it starts to look an awful lot like what we call “civilization.” Those agreements become laws, by which we agree to abide in order to retain membership in society, which affords us protection by those very same laws2.

Of course, the success of the social contract depends on the participants acting in good faith and abiding by the terms of the contract, both in discourse and in action. In other words, everyone has to play nice. When bad actors choose not to abide by the terms of the social contract, they may better their own situation in some way, but they do far worse than injure or exploit individual people: they tear at the fabric of society, and risk the lives and well-being of every member of that society3.

Why do I bring all this up? Here, let me explain.

Anti-Intellectualism as a Game-Breaker in Discourse

There’s a trend in American discourse, one which waxes and wanes over time, to view complexity with a dim eye, to mistrust intellectual depth and rigor. To believe that, if a thing is true, it must necessarily be simple and easy to understand, devoid of nuance. This is what we call anti-intellectualism, and while it’s hardly a uniquely American phenomenon, we do seem to have an especially virulent case of it. Our home-grown tradition of anti-intellectualism views complexity as not only a threat to one’s personal safety and well-being, but to one’s family, culture, society, and way of life. We have to resist nuance and complexity, because they threaten to destroy everything we hold dear. Nuance is how they trick us, get to us, corrupt and pervert us. Nuance is the realm of the boogeyman, the banner of the evil empire. In other words, nuance is the work of the Devil. (Yes, yes, I see you folks in the back cheering. Settle down. We’ll get to you soon enough.)

Paradoxically, it is precisely this simplification and binarization of public perception and public discourse in the service of “safety” which endangers us most. As I wrote previously, this kind of simplicity is a lie, a theme-park version of reality which glosses over or elides a lot of scary, uncomfortable truths. It washes out our understanding, as surely as a black-and-white photo washes out the very idea of color, and hides the real from us. If we wear rose-colored spectacles, we risk not seeing stop signs, and getting smashed into nothingness at the next traffic intersection. Anti-intellectualism is an attitude of bad faith which violates the principles of discourse… and, therefore, the social contract, the agreement to play nice and abide by the rules for everyone’s benefit.

Moreover, its reliance on oversimplified binaries is emphatically contrary to the base assumptions at the heart of Pagan, polytheist, and magical practice. Of course, you’d expect this good/evil, safe/unsafe, black/white binary paradigm to be antithetical to a movement which is avowedly polytheist, pantheist, or at least henotheist in theory and praxis, but the modern Pagan/polytheist/magical movement arose and exists within the context of its own cultural matrices. In the United States, that means it grew in a metaphorical soil bed heavily laced with Christianity, most iterations of which are decidedly binary in their theological and cosmological assumptions. Even as we adopt or reconstruct systems of practice and belief outside the Christian mythosphere, we do so within the gravity well of a culture shaped by Christian theology, cosmology, terminology, and practice. We are, in effect, unwittingly smuggling Christianity into our Paganism, polytheism, sorcery, and witchcraft4, and that affects everything we do. It shapes the ways we relate to our gods, how (and if) we work magic, who we work or worship with, our attitudes towards our own bodies and sexualities, the environment around us… in short, everything.

More on that soon. Until then, dear ones, stand strong in all your messy, complicated power. ♥

  1. People who behave poorly, not actors who perform poorly. I mean, actors are people, too. Most of them, anyway. Oh, you know what I mean.
  2. Social contract theory is fascinating stuff, and my coverage of it here is necessarily simplistic and surface-level, but I strongly encourage anyone who lives in a society to check it out. (Spoiler: If you’re reading this, I’m talking to you!)
  3. This is basically the textbook definition of a collective action problem. Collective action is also a fascinating subject, linked to sociology and game theory and all kinds of interesting stuff, but it’s another rabbit hole we’re not going to dive into today. I encourage you to check it out, though, because it’s immensely important to understanding why human beings act the ways they do.
  4. I’m not here to suggest that there’s anything inherently wrong with Christo-Paganism, dual observance, or simply using the cultural terminology closest to hand. However, as always, I am here to suggest that we do these things critically. Using a pipe wrench for a hammer isn’t best practice, and using a hammer as a pipe wrench is a really bad idea. (Using a hammer with a pipe wrench is, however, sometimes necessary.)

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