Friday, October 29, 2010

The Last Unicorns

In second grade I saw the most tragic film of my childhood, The Last Unicorn. I remember sitting on the floor, cross-legged, elbow-to-elbow with the other little-ones in that classroom filed with child-sized desks and chairs, before an elevated television. My neck strained from having to tilt my head up at a forty-five degree angle to view the screen.
Though I haven’t seen the movie since that early afternoon in the nineteen-eighties, and I’ve all but forgotten the plot, I can remember commenting on many occasions since then that it was the only movie that ever made me cry, a record that was replaced the day I saw Awakenings with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
What I remember of the plot, with a little help from IMDb, is the quest of a unicorn, the last of its kind, seeking the whereabouts of its lost species. This same concept, the last of a particular breed or species searching for clues to the whereabouts of its kind, has been reproduced myriad times in other Hollywood dramas.
Consider Harry, the Sasquatch in Harry and the Henderson’s, or Manny, the mammoth in Ice Age. There is something tragic about the plight of the last-of-a-kind’s quest to discover their lost peers. Most of us have experienced loneliness at some point in our lives, and can empathize with these characters misfortune. They are the extreme minority in a world full of social collectives.
Our world seems to cater to majorities over minorities, on both a political and socio-economic level. While it is true that some minorities have managed to gain political and social attention through carefully organized campaigns, many misfit minorities still have few advocates.
Sadomasochists, prostitutes, anarchists, witches, and even corporate executives are all examples of misfit minorities, who find little representation in this democratic society. The average person spends little time worrying about the civil liberties of the sadomasochist or prostitute. They have a hard time empathizing with millionaire executives, and can’t begin to understand anarchists or witches who espouse political and social views so different from their own. As a member of this latter class, the anarchists, I can relate with the dejected emotions of the last unicorns of the world.
The life of a misfit is one of a perpetual sore tongue from being bitten so often. I rarely find myself in an environment where I feel my opinion is welcome. At first my diffidence kept me from sharing my opinions with others. I soon learned that keeping quiet about my differences, particularly in the classroom setting, resulted in days of regret for not speaking my mind. On the few occasions I did share what I saw as an unwelcome opinion, I was frequently rewarded with an unexpected thanks from someone who shared a similar dissenting view as my own, though not brave enough to share it. These “thank you for sharing” moments filled me with days of gratitude that I had shared my views in the face of a majority of opposing opinions. Now I don’t keep quiet as much, but share my dissent as often as I feel it’s appropriate.
One such rewarding moment happened at a recent Halloween party I held at my home. While parties are not typically the place for serious political discussions, this was my party and I’ll cry if I want to. I’m not sure how the discussion arose, but I was soon engaged in a debate over the fallacies of utilitarianism and the virtues of libertarianism. The gist of my argument was that libertarianism, the notion that you don’t own other people, was not only a more ethical philosophy but was also more pragmatic on a socio-economic level. Like the many other debates I’ve had over the years, I didn’t expect many converts to my ideas. However, a friend I have had for over ten-years was impressed by my words and expressed his agreement with many of my ideas.
Since that night we have shared dozens of text messages and spent hours on the phone discussing these ideas. And unlike the last unicorn, I’ve discovered that there are more of my misfit kind out there in the world. Let it be a lesson to all who conceal their beliefs out of fear of social rejection, they may be missing out on a potentially enduring fraternity.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The valley of validation in the land of truth

Cognitive dissonance and selective exposure are two related concepts in communication theory that have always interested me. Perhaps it’s because I’m part of the civilized minority who actually change their behavior when faced with a challenging notion that demands I do such, in contrast to the uncivilized majority who do just the opposite—nothing.

If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is look at my past … consider where I’ve come from, and who I am now. I’ll spare you a long history, not only because it may bore you, but also because there is a slim chance that this blog may someday be read by someone who knew the old me – the pious me. To summarize, the views I hold now are dramatically different (let me emphasize “dramatically”) from the views I held six years ago. Even more, on a less dramatic level, my views are different than the views I held six months ago.

I believe this fact sets me apart from the average human. First of all, I have my own views in general, which can’t be said about the majority of humans. To be clear, most humans don’t have their own views at all, but have something like a hereditary adoption of their parent’s views. And if this is not the case, the most likely alternative is they hold the exact opposite views of their parents, simply out of rebellion, which still means they don’t have their own views.

Perhaps one of the reasons people are slow to adopt their own philosophy is their belief that a particular school of thought is not widely accepted. There is something within them that makes them believe that numbers equate legitimacy. They believe the masses as a collective are better at determining truth than is the individual. In fact, the government would love for you to believe that.

Remember the class exercise where you did a role-play by yourself and then as a group and discovered that you were better at solving the riddle as a collective than as an individual? You’re supposed to garner from that exercise that you can’t trust yourself to your own ideas. You need the help of a collective to make decisions, hence the government and media’s success at getting you to participate in their systems.

Undoubtedly there is some truth to the notion that combined brainpower is more often effective at solving problems than the individual. Of course, there are obvious exceptions like Einstein or Tesla to name a few. Fortunately, in the same class that I learned about the benefits of collective decision-making, I also learned about synergy.

Synergy is the idea that while two may be better than one, ten may be worse than nine. In other-words, more in not always better when working in groups. Limiting participation in decision-making can effectively create synergy.

If the theory is correct, the whole concept of democracy may be obsolete. Of course, it’s no revelation that democracy may not be such a good idea; many great minds have questioned democracy as a rational approach to governing. Alexis de Tocqueville called it the tyranny of the majority. This blogs namesake, H. L. Mencken, said “under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right.” Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” Jefferson said “a democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”

I for one think truth is not absolutely shared by those who find themselves in the most numerous collective, as in Democracy, but by groups who specialize in a particular field of truth. For example, doctors know more about medical truth than lawyers. Lawyers know more about law than garbage men. Garbage men know more about garbage than economists. Economists know more about economics than environmentalists. And so on. Are you beginning to see the problem with democracy? The whole premise of Democracy relies upon some notion that everyone is an expert, whose ideas we can trust. What the majority decides is right, is right, and the arm of the law will make sure nobody disagrees. 

That’s insanity if you ask me.

That’s why the market truly works better than the government. The market allows experts to prove their expertise through successfully demonstrating through their actions and achievements they are indeed that—experts.

I do see one benefit to the popular notion of democracy: it’s kept the majority in the dark about some really amazing things. And those few of us who are privileged enough to be a part of the civilized minority revel in the secret knowledge we posses. There’s a whole vast library of exciting truth that you’ve never heard awaiting you if you’ll just open your mind. Here, I’ll give you a hint: Mises. That one word, should you choose to Google it, is the beginning of a discovery filled adventure. Think of it as an intellectual Atlantis.

I hope you’ll Google it or click the links, and let it take you to where it’s taken me: the valley of validation in the land of truth.

Enjoy the journey … or not. You decide.