From cancel to propel culture

Moses Naim, in his book The End of Power, describes a contemporary phenomenon he calls ‘the Gulliver Effect’. In the contemporary landscape of power, a large number of small actors have the possibility to prevent all sorts of things from happening – but there is no actor powerful enough to take resolute action.

I’ve come to understand ‘cancel culture’ as one component of the Gulliver Effect. It may rightly be seen as the downtrodden rising up against oppression, using the tools at their disposal for justice, speaking truth to power. This may well offer a needed emotional outlet to some who deserve it, and rightly condemn abuses of power. Yet the effect is not generalized empowerment, or a greater capacity to coordinate change.

Anger is a consuming passion. Cancelling mobs have a fascinating power. All eyes are glued on social media. Making those channels prime real estate for advertisement. And so, with every cancel storm, shareholders cash in. Behind the shouts of popular anger, can you hear the background chuckle of Zuckerberg, pension funds managers and wealthy boomers. 

It’s not just about money flows: it’s energy spent. It takes effort, and time, to organize a social movement, articulate an alternative worldview, or build a work of art. Anger will drain much of that energy. And then, to soothe the angst, we spend our cash on Uber Eats and Netflix subscriptions. Besides, polarised minds are ill-prepared for the creative efforts of inventing a new world. It’s too much complexity to hold. So, by leaning into the anger, we may well leave a wide empty playing field for large corporates. Once again, I can hear the chuckle of Sillicon Valley tycoons and wealthy boomers in the background.  

So here is a proposal, to counter the Gulliver effect. What if we were to deliberately stop engaging in those anger games, engineered to the benefit of wealthy boomers and billionaires. What if we were to use that energy to create new worlds instead? Easier said than done – well, here is a possible first step. What if, instead of ‘cancel culture’, we were to build a ‘propel’ culture. What if we were to use our brains and hearts and bodies not to destroy what we hate and despise, but praise and uplift what we love and admire?   

This is – in fact – what I propose to do over the coming months or so. Shift the tone to gratitude, identify people I admire, projects I find promising, books and ideas I find inspiring and admirable – and articulate what it is about them that I like. As an act of resistance against engineered malaise.

Tim Ferris Questionnaire – self-portrait

A portrait of the artist at the airpiort

A few years ago, I worked with someone who was obsessed with Tim Ferris. American business podcasters are not on my list of people to follow –  this was my introduction to them. I didn’t quite get the fascination, but I did find a few interesting things. Including, a set of standard interview questions that Tim Ferris uses with his guests. At the time, I tried answering them for myself as a sort of exercise in self-reflection. I enjoyed it – and would very much recommend it! Here is the set of questions and answers.

When you think of the word successful, who’s the first person who comes to mind and why?

For me, that’s Oedipus. He had it all, then it turns out he’d been sleeping with his mum the whole time, after killing his dad and taking his throne. He’s a reminder that there’s no way to tell failure from success, until you die. If I look again, I would bring up the people who left something behind, whose work continued after their death, through generations inspired by them, teachers, ancestors: those are the successful one. So, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed, Aristotle, Ignatius – and my great-grand-parents. 

What is something you believe that other people think is insane?

That no one is ever wrong. It’s just that you just haven’t figured out yet in what exact way they’re right. But if you try hard enough, you will see that their ‘wrong’ is just part of an iceberg: below the surface, there’s an entire worldview. Exploring that worldview, that’s how you grow. Unsurprisingly, I tend to get irritated by the whole debating paradigm. Trying to prove the other person wrong, throw counter arguments or worse, challenge opinions with facts. In my world, that’s a sign of little intelligence. So, this is my take on ‘there’s something to be learned from everyone’. Of course, it takes a lot of time and listening, but then again, isn’t listening more important than speaking. Many people must think that’s insane, judging by the way they hold themselves in conversations.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift?  

Crowds and Power, by Elias Canetti. I first got it as a gift, actually. I’ve read it maybe ten times now. I rank it as the richest, most intelligent book about the behaviour of human collectives. It’s based on extensive ethnographic readings, and is therefore remarkable by its concreteness. I became engrossed in it when I was doing research on collective nouns, and it’s inspired my work on community building. It’s also one of those interesting books, in terms of its reception: though Canetti did get a Nobel Prize, and it was hugely popular in Germany, it never really made it across the Atlantic.

What is your favorite documentary or movie?

Ce Jour La, a Swiss movie by Portuguese film-maker Raul Ruiz. It’s a sort of surreal tale: this young woman, funnily mad, is the heiress of a beef stock empire. She’s about to receive her inheritance, but the family want it for themselves – so they send a serial killer, evaded from the asylum, to kill her. Except, they develop this strange romance, and he ends up killing all the family members, as they check on progress. It’s darkly comic (I rarely laughed so much), set in Switzerland, and I have a fondness for the country. It’s the height of democracy, it’s wealthy, well-kept, beautiful – and quite unknown. If you want something more mainstream (i.e. American), that would be Full Metal Jacket, The Shining – and Legally Blonde.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last 6 months?

I bought a book by Dan Brown on my Kindle. I love reading, but when the money goes low, I become hesitant. It causes me almost physical pain – a blockage. (I got a few others too – but Dan Brown was the liberating one – I tend to be really bad at relaxing, so, I pat myself on the back when I do it).

What are your morning rituals? What do the first 60 minutes of your day look like?

I’ve embraced my inner chaos. I sometimes wake up at 4am, sometimes at 10h30. I’ve tried to structure my life so that it’s possible, and it’s done me a lot of good. I’m perplexed when I see people praise episodic fasting and interval training, and all sorts of acknowledgements that we’re cyclical being, yet they’re got this firm discipline for sleep, or for the morning. Then, it’s coffee – black or with condensed milk. Not too much food, on the sweet side, but light – fruit, yoghurt, maybe some toasted pita bread with jam. I’m in a dance routine phase, might pass. 

What obsessions do you explore on the evenings or weekends?

I read detective novels set in exotic locations. White-man-in-Asia types an embarrassing favorite.

What topic would you speak about if you were asked to give a TED talk on something outside of your main area of expertise?

‘You cannot uncook an egg, and other lifeskills I learned in the kitchen’. As a writer, as an intellectual, I don’t do much with my hands. Words you can edit as much as you want, leave them, return, reshape. But cooking not so much: there is a timing, a rhythm, and a linear irreversibility: once you’ve mixed a dough, try taking out the eggs or flour. It’s taught me a lot about the resistance of the real – and I find it exhilarating. So, I throw myself in cooking sprees, somewhat unprepared, a bit like improv’ theatre.

What is the best or most worthwhile investment you’ve made? Could be an investment of money, time, energy, or other resource? How did you decide to make the investment?

Learning Ancient Greek as a kid. I was obsessed by a cartoon called The Knights of the Zodiac (I think the proper English name is Prince Seiya), and from then, I developed an obsession Greek mythology. I guess it’s a gay thing too – the Greeks were acceptable homosexual role models against ambient homophobia. So, in year 8, when I had the chance to add an Ancient language to my course, I picked up Ancient Greek. That choice completely defined my intellectual fabric and later trajectory. For one, it  made it simply possible for me to join Ecole Normale Superieure. It gave me a connection to the deep past. It taught me the art of philology – which is deep listening applied to text. Later, it allowed me to learn modern Greek and embrace my Mediterranean heritage. All and all – joining that Ancient Greek class may be the most defining choice I ever made.

Do you have a quote you live your life by, or think of often

Heraclitus, fragment 28. ‘If you don’t hope for the without-hope, you will never find it, since it is unfindable, and shapeless.’ I had a great moment when I encountered Taleb’s books. I also found that again in Kierkegaard. And Pascal’s wager. Acknowledge the limits of human reason, and the need to go ‘beyond’. I like to think about risk, but then hope and jump. It’s a celebration of imagination. And a retort to the nay-sayers and status quo warriors out there.

What is the worst advice you see or hear being dispensed in your world?

That you should find a way to monetise. Our entire paradigm is flawed. Focus on small-scale things. How is your business going to make money? What matters is your personal bottom line – partner, family, investment, wherever you get it from. What matters is your impact. Sustainability for non-profits, I think it’s criminal. Tying back to the previous question – it is a complete denial of hope.

Billboard

‘You’re not original, you’re just ignorant.’ Having read a lot, and studied – I think a lot is already there if you read Aristotle carefully. That’s also why I dislike debating. You know, there’s a quote I often bring up, it’s by a Mexican writer called Sergio Pitol, who was also a diplomat, and he writes – talking about Americans – ‘In my culture, it is not respectable to be ignorant’. My anglo-friends twitch a little when I share that. My Chinese, Latin and Indian friends relate.

Favorite failure

I wrote a PhD back in France. Three weeks before it was due, I was not allowed to defend. It ‘went beyond disciplinary boundaries’. This set me up to go out of academia.

I later realised I was short-circuiting systems by holding them to their own logic, and revealing their contradictions. Because I survived this big thing, I’ve learned to mistrust institutions, and trust in my own resilience.  

What is something weird or unsettling that happens to you

I’ve got a very vivid imagination: I went through spiritual exercises, you focus – and I had those completely over the top visions, like I was on mushrooms or something.

I’m afraid of ghosts. I used to believe it was universal, but apparently it’s not. I will sometimes experience creepy presences. In my apartment, staircases often, empty streets. Like The Shining, it’s a blessing and a curse. I try to live with it.

What have you changed your mind about

I used to believe I wanted to be a ‘writer’, and I had this whole construct around it, publishers, recognition. Then, well – I had a coach who said ‘just write’, and I did that. I can do it whenever I want, and it might get picked up, or it might not. My new fantasy is that an AI might read my texts, so I put everything online. I don’t think it matters, because – I just don’t know, I have no control over it. Emily Dickinson became a sensation – others were forgotten. It’s entirely out of my control. Writing is one thing I control, so I do just that.

What do you believe is true, even though you can’t prove it.

You know what? The Gospel. Virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, the lot!  

Corona thoughts – On n’a pas que de l’amour

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1.

From business closures and frustrated dreams to the deaths of dear ones, and general loss of trust in institutions, what will be the emotional impact of COVID-19?

2.

I grew up listening to a French rock band called ‘Rita Mitsouko’. They were quirky punks, with funky clothes and philosophical lyrics. One of their songs accompanied my teenage years. It went: ‘On n’a pas que de l’amour, ça non, on n’a pas que de l’amour à vendre, ah ouais, y a de la haine.’ For non French speakers out there, the translation goes something like ‘we don’t have only love, oh no, we don’t have only love for sale, oh yes, there is hatred’. Later in the song (still in translation), it goes ‘hatred needs to spread as well, of yes, without brakes… we have to put it somewhere after all’.

That song came up in one of my feeds during a phase of deep lockdown, and triggered reflection. I holds some wisdom in its lyrics (wow, I grew up on good music, haha).

3.

I’ve been working in start-up and innovative environments for about eight years now. In my experience, those tend to be toxically optimistic. Founders look ahead, and have little capacity to process ‘the dark stuff’. Meditators invite to focus on the positive. Others would rather negativity stay away from the workplace, thank you very much.

Over the years, I have accumulated quite a bit of negative feelings, which positive psychology certainly doesn’t help me deal with. So, I had to figure out how to handle my own shadows, and all the weight of darkness I took on by proxy.

4.

As part of lockdown 2.0, I tried a little personal project: learn to rest and relax. Part of it, involved a return to meditation. One of the tracks I listened to, ‘deep healing’, invited me to breathe in negative feelings, then breathe them out. This way, they would no longer saturate my body. The process worked for me, but as I let those negative feelings out, I couldn’t help wondering. Where did they go? Who would look after them?

5.

I found one rather sinister answer. The founder of 8Chan was born with brittle bone disease, and grew up accumulating resentment. He created a space for hatred to grow. If all hatred goes to the same place, it ends up concentrated, and explodes arbitrarily. Service providers have reacted, blocking the site – but it just popped up back elsewhere.

6.

All the negative emotions triggered by the pandemic and government response, where will they go? Our world is saturated. Positivity, technological development, new ideas, none of this is enough. The dark side encroaches.

One proposal is to look for more space, by flying off to Mars, reducing the global population, or expanding the built and digital environments. But can we get out of our predicament simply by creating more storage space for emotional junk? And is there a risk that we just create vulnerable points, ready to explode?

I wonder though, is there an alternative? Could we create an ecological model for hatred management – one where we learn to digest it, decompose it, recycle what we can – and safely lock away whatever hard nugget remains?

7.

If you’re curious – here is a link to the song!

On root causes

Most of my work has to do with wicked problems. As the name indicates, like evil itself, those never disappear altogether, but can only ever be contained, or at best eliminated locally. Technically, wicked problems involve a large number of factor, all interconnected, so that chains of cause and effect are difficult to track. Effective interventions are always difficult to find, never perfect, rarely straightforward.

Enter the pandemic. In 2017, I was working with the Global Challenges Foundation, preparing a short introduction to global catastrophic risk. Pandemics featured in the booklet, alongside nuclear winter and supervolcanoes. To people around me, this all sounded like sci-fi. No more today, as I was reflecting with Phil the other day.

Pandemics – as all other global catastrophic risks – are wicked problems on steroids. Factors include urban congestion, encroachment over wild areas, global interconnectedness, compromised immunity, poverty, misinformation, mistrust in institutions, you name it. Except when one strikes and unleashes, it doubles as a chaotic problem for local and national governments. Underlining the shortcomings of our governance systems.

Chaotic problems, unlike wicked ones, present themselves locally, and take the form of extreme urgency. Any reaction is typically better than none. There is no time for robust analysis and full understanding. Both types of problems often go hand in hand. Climate change is complex, the 2019 Australian bushfires were chaotic. Pandemics are complex, the 2021 Delta variant outbreak in Melbourne is chaotic.

The curfew brought a deep sense of rage, and killed my spirit for a while. As the first wave of emotion passed, I took time to reflect further, and realised, I feel profound frustration at yet another governance failure. We let a wicked problem run its course until it manifested as local chaos, then addressed it with appropriate anti-chaos measure – blanket authoritarian bans. I am frustrated by a reactive government that addresses symptoms instead of causes, and aims to pass off short-term compliance as civic virtue.

Yet the Victorian Premier, and the Chief Medical Officer, are following the terms of their mandate. Letting the local outbreak go wild, in the present state of affairs, will cause more harm than harsh measures. Imposing a curfew is in itself pointless, but easing enforcement and strengthening the signal will increase short-term compliance, and the chances that Victoria manages this one outbreak. Their mandate is Victorian welfare, and most likely, given the outbreak, the chosen course of action is optimal.

Except, this is a game where everyone loses in the end. Because the signals sent, and the structures put in place, are affecting our local capacity to tackle wicked problems in the long run. Financial resources are running low – and with greater immediate pressure when things open again, who will take the time to sit and analyse long-term wicked problems, let alone work on them. And right now, we’re all affected in some ways – brain fog and a spectrum of mental health issues – limiting our capacity to do the tough long-term work. So, here goes another month with limited progress, in Melbourne, on global wicked issues. Which, meanwhile, evolve and grow.

Worst, probably, following an official rhetoric that blames individuals for non-compliance, we’re collectively shifting the burden of causality, not on inadequate governance systems, but individual morality. Which will neither help us address future pandemics, nor climate change, nor geopolitical breakdowns, and the wave of suffering that is likely to follow.

And this is not a cause for rage, but sadness and fear.

Beyond Justice

The curfew broke my spirit.

Saturday late afternoon, I was with a friend in Princes Park. We sat down in the middle of an oval, and drank a bottle of wine. Sunday, I was out on the MCG grounds. I sat on a bench to meditate, then read a book, walking. It was sunny, people were out, in pairs or small groups, some with their masks off, smiling. I came back home and told Philip: ‘This time around, it feels like the lockdown is so much more humane. That’s good, that’s what we need.’

In 2020, I dreaded the police. I was a mess back then. I was leaving a Green Tech startup that turned out toxic, put the final touches on a PhD, co-wrote a book on governance innovation, and kept an eye on the charity that I founded. All difficult and complex projects, all for the greater good, each one a leap of faith.

Keeping my mental health stable was a stretch. To cope, I would often go for long walks, beyond the allocated two hours. I avoided crowded places, wore a mask, and stayed within my radius. But I broke the letter of the rules, and didn’t want a fine I could hardly afford. Police were not on my side.

Back in primary school, when the class went into chaos before recess, the teacher would sometimes look at us and say: ‘nobody will go out until you’re all silent.’ Silence took a while to settle. I always experienced this as injustice. I didn’t speak, or not much. Why punish everyone for the failings of a few? Every time, I felt my default allegiance shift, from the teacher to the rebels. In the face of authoritarian excess, resistance starts to look very much like virtue.

One sure way to gain short term control, as a government, is to set harsh rules, and enforce them loosely. The Chief Health Officer told it very clearly. In itself, the curfew serves no purpose. It sends a message. It’s the teacher shouting at the class, imposing order through the threat of punishment.

As an adult, I understand the urgency. I feel compassion for the Premier too. Imagine running a state through one of the world’s harshest lockdown, successfully bringing case numbers to zero, spending months in hospital with fractured ribs, facing another outbreak – and then watching videos of drinking crowds on the streets and large engagement parties? I would certainly start shouting.

So, the strong measures and strong language make sense. Sending a strong signal makes sense. Both in terms of their intended effect, and our leaders’ mental state. But it is not fair. And as happened when I was a child, I sense a shift of my allegiance towards the rebels. Power is a subtle balance. Stray too far from justice in the name of efficiency, and you risk losing public trust.

I love Melbourne and Melburnians. I love our sense of civic virtue. I built a charity to promote intercultural understanding, nurtured by the spirit of our city. I have made a deliberate choice to devote my professional life to the complex systemic problems of the 21st century – whether I get paid for it or not – again, nurtured by Melbourne. I am not alone. Many of us, inspired by a city that believes in collective thriving, go beyond the letter of the rules, to support each other, and create a better environment for all.

Civic participation is what makes Melbourne one of the world’s greatest places to live. Neither market nor government can fund or manage this adequately. It is too deep, and elusive. Besides, civic participation, social innovation, community care, all require some bending of the rules at the edges. If only because we have no market signals to guide us.

I have compassion for the Premier. I also have compassion for the rule benders – including myself. We’re tired, and well aware that there is much work to do. To preserve our own mental health and that of others. To support the small businesses we love, keep contact with the people we love, and stitch what is left of the civic fabric, so we can weave it back quickly. All this for its own sake, but also so we can tackle climate change, and refugee challenges, as the recent IPCC report and return of the Taliban reminded us.

Some probably stretch too far. Large engagement parties and pub crawls are probably too much. But are they born of pure selfishness, or a confused and somewhat misguided desire for civic rebirth? And do they really call for punitive language and harsher measures imposed on a tired population that tries its best, or compassion and gentle reminders?

People will often take on the roles you cast for them. Are we a city of mindless rule breakers, adamantly pursuing our own selfish interest? Or a global beacon of civic participation, trying as best we can – and sometimes failing – to find the right balance between our needs, individual and collective?

Right now, I feel like calling a strike on civic participation. ‘Is this how you wanna play it? OK, let’s all stick to the rules, and see what happens.’

That curfew broke my spirit. I hope it mends.

On reading Harry Potter

Over the course of lockdowns #5 and #6 – and that short nondescript period of time in-between – I ran out of gay fiction to read. To keep myself sane, I turned to that millennial classic, and finally read the seven volumes of Harry Potter.

For about a year, I have renewed my commitment to writing fiction. The exact project is still taking shape. It started as a climate change revenge tragedy, and evolved into rom-com. It has, however, prompted me to read genre, unashamedly. Since March, I have devoured gay literature. Much recommended in times of pandemic. It started on a high with Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and slowly went downhill from there. Before trying my luck with How to Bang a Billionnaire, I thought I would take a pause.

Harry Potter was referenced in almost all of the books in my gay rom-com pile. I missed that train at the time – but it struck me that I could not really understand my own generation without reading Harry. And that it could even make for a good time. Well it did. And it prompted a few reflections. I have not engaged with the fan-fiction, or any critical reading, so I’m sharing impressions here in a loose manner, somewhat unsure how much of this will be somewhat original, or totally self-evident. If the latter, I hope at least it will show the ongoing relevance of the book.

From about the end of volume two, I started telling my partner: ‘I think Harry Potter is about climate change.’ Of course, I’m biased – it’s a key preoccupation, and the latest IPCC report is not helping. But bear with me here. Isn’t Voldemort all about unrestricted appetite for power, and contempt for all life-forms he perceives as below him? And isn’t that the precise ideology that has led us to climate change? A sort of coal-based dark magic, that will not recoil at destruction and pain, let alone consequences, to get its way?

Then come the Horcruxes. Claim immortality by tying parts of your soul to precious material objects, and lose your human shape in the bargain. Isn’t that exactly what Western boomers have been doing, trading their conscience for jobs in the system, to buy SUV’s and house extensions with the cash? A vain attempt at immortality.

I recognised a lot of my own feelings in Harry’s experience – I’m only two years older, after all – particularly the lack of elder support, and a sense of betrayal from those in power. Ministers are not to be trusted. ‘Wait a minute,’ I thought, ‘I’m sure Scott Morrison was imperiused by Gina Rinehart and the coal barons.’ That’s what Dark Money‘s all about, right?

The book does encourage a healthy mistrust of power. Our politicians would rather force youth into silence than acknowledge their own limitations, past errors, or present fear. Large parts of the population side with them. Those who don’t are soon disposed of, or drained of their souls by the media dementors.

The final heroic triumph of youth, however, gave me some hope. Go Greta, go the climate kids! Maybe you can defeat evil. Painting youth triumphant is part of the young adult trope, certainly. What I enjoyed in Harry though is how this youth is trained, not purely naive. Knowledge is part of the package – enter Hermione, saint patron of nerds – and knowledge is something you learn at school.

Hogwarts is a the core of the series. It is a school where people actually learn things, and what they learn is useful in the world. It is what all my friends working in education and edtech are looking to build. A place where you develop the skills to change the world for the better, build deep companionship and a sense of identity. Note how, as part of the package, Harry Potter values teachers. McGonaggal is fierce. Even Snape knows how to turn a good potion. None of that ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ bullshit here.

Beyond this clear respect for knowledge, I enjoyed and celebrate the book’s radical technophilia. There’s no wizard without a wand. And good magic is not purely about the mind. It involves matter – knowing plants, spells, and the structures of the real. It involves objects, and learning how to use them appropriately. To defeat the Voldemort’s of today, and their armies of doom – vampiric boomers and Fox News dementors – the path is not to retreat into the forbidden forest, and embrace centaurian arrogance. It’s about building tools, learning to use them, and take over from evil through better magic.

On arguing and listening

Sometimes, little linguistic observations reveal the deep shape of your thinking patterns. I was sitting at the breakfast table with my partner this morning, and said about the coming US election: ‘My friend X was saying the other day, no matter who wins the election, I think the US-China relationship will improve. It was fascinating to me how detached she seemed to be. As if, being Chinese, the US election was somewhat less existentially central to their world.’ My partner replied, interested ‘oh, why did they think the US-China relationship will improve?’ I experienced a very familiar sense of embarrassment. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘they didn’t say more, and I didn’t ask.’

People have often described me as open and accepting. Here is one of the manifestations. I often let people take positions without asking why, and I certainly don’t argue. My focus, when I listen, tends to be elsewhere.

Many people seem to like having positions, defending them, attacking the positions of others. The whole debating circus. I find all that about as dull as competitive sport. What interests me more is existential embodiment. Figuring out the personal, emotional, cultural details of why that person came to have that position at that time in history? What categories are they using to frame their position? What do those categories tell me about the world they inhabit? And what does all this tell me about the world that I inhabit, and the categories that shape my own thinking? For this, I must often be silent: if I started asking for justifications after every statement – or worse, if I was to start arguing – how would I ever hear enough that I can begin to sense how another person thinks, and how I think differently from them?

The result, however, is this regular sense of embarrassment when I discuss things with someone else, and realise, in the course of listening for categories, I took on someone else’s position, almost by default – repeated it, and find myself challenged on it. Often causing a measure of perplexity from the person I speak to, wondering how come I utter second-hand opinions, without knowing what reasoning goes behind them. Strength of your weaknesses, weaknesses of your strengths: the method I adopt to follow the thoughts of another person properly, comes with this regular blindspot.

values cards project – spirituality

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I hear ‘spirituality’, the first picture that comes to mind is the Virgin of Lourdes in a yoga pose. A bunch of ex-hippies, some sort of new age thing. A mix of tradition, moral education, Kumbaya community. A sort of, Canada Dry, it looks like religion, but it’s not religion.

B: I like that you’re articulate spirituality and religion. Let me try a definition. For me, spirituality is about relating to something greater than yourself. Buddhism, for instance, is a spirituality. Though now it’s also a religion in Japan, with established schools, and distinct symbols, and people who belong to it or not. So, yes, that would be the distinction. Religion is about formal schools, symbols, and a group with clear boundaries. You’re in it or you’re not. But spirituality, it’s looser. I’ve actually seen the word… there is this thing, this website called Kumbini, where you see two words, and you must pick one. One of the pairs that often comes up is religion vs spirituality. Most artists choose spirituality. It’s almost as if religion was an insult.

A: I’ve been associating spirituality with a form of new age commodification. And so, from a religious perspective, a Christian perspective if you want, there’s something sinful about it. It’s fetishism, idolatry. Then there’s this illusion of choice. That when you talk spirituality, you choose a tradition, like you can pick your favourite yoghurt at the supermarket. It’s the opposite with religion, tradition picks you, and then you can accept it, or you can refuse. Even when you convert, it’s about acceptance, rather than a proper choice. Spirituality, it’s not about conversion, it’s, yes, it’s consumerism.

B: Maybe, it’s a bit like, rationalism. Look at France and the cult of republic. It’s not just the cult of established power, there is a certain… ideal. We could call it French Republican monotheism, we replaced the kind with a president-king, and we have an atheistic dogma to replace the dogmatic church. And then there’s the rejection of communities, particularly Muslims, they’re too religious, too different.

A: I’ve always thought an enlightened Catholic is better than a dim atheist. And the question here is, do we fight religion, or dogma, or just stupidity? But there’s another take on this, when we were speaking, I started to think about this thing, the cult of the Holy Spirit, and mad preachers in the Church. They could qualify as ‘spiritual’, quite literally. That’s, those American mega-churches, then? Are they ‘spirituality’, while the more established rituals, they’re religion? And so, then again, maybe that’s the ultimate downfall, when monotheism meets commercial practice. So maybe yes, spirituality does represent an intrinsic corruption of religion?

B: I wonder, what do you think would be spirituality for a rational, atheistic society? I think, when we took political power away from the church in France, we took out the good, and there is nothing really to replace it.

A: Well, there is the cult of common ancestors, the Pantheon and the ‘Great Men’ of the Republic. The unknown soldier. War monuments as landmarks of atheistic, republican spirituality. But there is something, I don’t know, kitsch about this. It’s like those shops in Paris, they called them ‘boutiques de creation’, they were selling arts and craft supplies, beads, ribbons, paper, that kind of stuff. And I always thought, it corrupted the meaning of creation. Trivialised it.

B: For sure, New Age caused more harm than good to spirituality. Because now, we can no longer talk about spirituality without seeming like we’re about to call in a Hare Krishna.

A: Could it be that, if we look again at those American mega-churches, or Pentecost even, there’s a revolutionary potential in spirituality, when it becomes common practice. It can create new communities, almost instantly. But when it’s just an individual practice, then it’s only consumerism.

B: So, could we say that one goal of religion is to establish new norms of exchange, based on a gift economy. And so, when enough people join, that’s very challenging to structures of power. But if it remains a set of disconnected individual practices, then it’s not a problem. So, religion is dangerous to the powers in place, but not spirituality?

A: That may be true. That we’ve limited spirituality to just individualism, and it reduces its subversive potential. While if you can extend it to the community, then it becomes the basis for new forms of solidarity, and it can threaten the power of the state. And for individuals, it’s the end of slavery.

B: I’m thinking now about those religious practices that have a social impact, like Zakat among Muslims. You give 2% of your income either to the poor, or to the mosque. And that’s somehow in addition to tax, but also creates another pool of money, parallel to what the state gets from tax. And here, I don’t know, I think we could say the divine goes before the state, this religious duty trumps tax, and that’s not in the interest of the state. It’s a counter-power.

A: In the same way that the Christian martyrs were resisting the power of the Roman state. And what this shows you, maybe, is that non-violence always wins in the long term. Because it’s just about the refusal to obey. But – that’s the greatest paradox of political philosophy, that La Boetie put forward, why do we do what we’re told? And if people start to refuse obedience, then everything collapses. Power is based on voluntary serfdom. And for that, non-violence is the most threatening strategy. It’s undermining the very basis of power structures. And so, that’s what spirituality can achieve, even maybe for individuals.

values cards project – respect

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: OK, I’ll start with that. I like to think of respect as a kind of mutual distancing, a power equilibrium if you want. It’s about finding stability, and it always involves, yes, distance between individuals.

B: Well, for me, respect has to do with authority. So, I have this impression that respect implies an unequal relationship, a power relationship. And it’s not about natural authority, like when you join a movement, because there’s a charismatic leader, but authority within an existing hierarchy. That’s what respect is about for me. Also, it’s the same when you think about filial respect, my impression is, it’s got to do with authority, with a relationship that’s clearly unequal.

A: I wonder how the two relate. I can’t, every time I think about respect… you know the commandment that says ‘respect your mother and father’. I had a conversation with a friend, it was a long time ago, when I was at university, but it stayed with me. They were studying Arabic, and said, based on the etymology, the words of this commandment said something like ‘far your mother, far your father’. Keep your parents at a respectful distance. That’s what it’s about, not a kind of emotional worship, or submission, but it’s about keeping your distance with them. Don’t get caught up in their affairs. Keep them at arm’s length.

B: I don’t know, when I think of respect… There’s two words in Japanese, ‘sonjo’ and ‘sonke’. The first is universal, unconditional respect, the kind of respect you should have for any human being. Even a jerk, they deserve that minimal level respect, sonjo. The other, sonke, it’s closer to what we would call esteem. It’s conditional. You don’t have to esteem everyone, or anyone. Esteem is based on a quality that someone has, whether it’s a certain ethical trait, or a technical skill, or a craft. But that’s not for everyone, not necessarily.

A: So, that makes me think of conversations I’ve had often about work and payment. With writers and artists, or with young people. That they feel a professional lack of respect, when they’re expected to work for free, talk for free, even when it’s an unpaid internship. It’s very strong in the arts, and the community sector, because there’s so many people there who don’t get paid, or not properly, and then after a while it breeds resentment, and it’s experienced, yes, as a lack of respect.

B: Maybe we’re touching something then, something about respect, youth, and anger. You know the figure of angry young men – angry young people in general – they’re angry because they want respect, and they’re not getting it. There’s an expectation there, from them, but it’s a confused expectation. Part of it is that unconditional human respect, and maybe that has to do with adulthood, they want to receive what any other human is receiving. But another part has to do with what we’re calling esteem, conditional respect. Only the two get mingled, it’s not quite clear what they want, so they feel frustrated, and angry.

A: We’ve got this way of thinking about unconditional respect, professionally when we say that ‘tout travel mérite salaire’. Because you do have the case of interns, who don’t get paid. And here, well, true, power relationships are not in their favour, they feel maybe, that they need to work for nothing, and they’re not respected in that sense. But then, it’s not necessarily the case that they should have esteem for what they do, many, they’re starting, it’s good that they’re out there, but they’re not doing wonderful work, they’re still learning. And so yes, the two things get mingled, and everybody’s angry.

B: So, maybe yes, there is a confusion between what we feel is our right to respect, unconditionally, and then this idea that you get respect on the basis of achievement, success. And the result is what you see sometimes, people who feel they have a right to be successful, and they get angry when they’re not, but that’s just because we messed up with the categories. It’s like, everybody wants to work in the sexy industries, like working for the arts or in graphic design or start ups, or whatever. But they won’t accept not to be paid for it. And that creates a power relationship that’s not favorable to the workers. And then, the personal desire for success, as the basis for respect, it becomes a problem for the whole community.

A: We had this thing, in Australia, a big movement to ‘pay the writer’. And I always found there was confusion in what people were asking for. It was surprising even, that writers, intellectuals, were confusing categories. I mean, they were looking for ways that writers would live with more dignity, and get their bills and rent paid, and that’s very fair. But then they were also – it was like, there was a right to be paid, for whatever you wrote, and the desire to be paid for their writing, not in another way – because that would somehow validate their status. It was messy, it still is, I find.

B: Well, we all have a need for recognition I think, but the question is, how is this recognition materialized, how is it generated socially, and how is it perceived? I mean, one characteristic of a neoliberal society is that we’ve commodified everything. And so, recognition goes through money. If you can’t get money for it, it has no value. So; the writers want to be paid for their writing because otherwise – it has no value, and they won’t be respected for it.

A: You’re right. There’s a need for recognition – esteem, for craft and effort – and there’s a need for food and shelter, but people conflate both, and they turn that into the need to be paid for their art, and so they can’t think about it creatively.

B: I wonder, if it’s the same for the young people you were talking about. They’ve got a need for some esteem, and that’s about identity, finding out who they are and where they can excel. It’s even, maybe, to help with their decision making. And then there’s a different aspect, that’s material needs to be met. And we’ve got a problem when we can’t find a way to separate those two.

A: That’s what I like about the idea of a universal basic income. It actually dissociates those two. You’ve got unconditional respect, on the basis of human dignity, and you get food and shelter. But then you’ve got esteem, and that depends on your achievements – and when you’ve got a universal basic income, that might be monetized or not, it no longer matters so much. I think, that need to monetise everything, it’s a problem for society. We push people to selfishness. While with all moral codes, they’re all about pushing people to be less selfish.

B: Maybe then it is about courage, and virtue. Because – there’s a lot of mediocrity. Generally speaking, we’re all rather mediocre. And we can move away from mediocrity, just a little, when we’re in the right environment. And if you’re in a setting that allows you to be less mediocre by default, then you don’t need so much courage to do things – but then do you deserve more respect? That’s what I wonder.

A: It’s like, international development, should you think of it as a form of justice, or charity? And if you’re simply doing the right thing, should you be praised for it? I mean, there’s this image in the Gospel of the widow who gives a little coin to the temple, but Jesus says she deserves most respect, because she had so little to start with.

B: It’s the same thing in Buddhism. If you give an offering of something you don’t need, it doesn’t count. You must give from the things you need, and then you will get merit.

A: Something I wonder, are we so decadent that we praise people for doing something like giving up what they don’t need. It’s a little depressing.

B: It is a little depressing. It’s, I mean it’s hypocrisy too, and I don’t know that it’s a new thing. I mean, there are many people who just want to look good, but then the cynicism comes through. Their way to gain respect is by moralizing others and judging them, but then they don’t apply the same criteria to themselves, and those people, I mean they deserve fundamental respect, yes, but not our esteem.

A: So, do you think, social, where we direct our esteem is fundamental question, and a fundamental mechanism, to promote certain behaviors?

B: Well, yes – and so, we might wonder then, what could we do, to give conditional respect in a way that promotes more prosocial behavior? Like, maybe we need not just universal basic income, but also more recognition for the most socially useful jobs, and then that will get us somewhere?

Values cards project – happiness

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: There is a song by a Belgian singer, Angele, that’s about happiness, and it says: ‘Il n’existe pas sans son contraire.’ I like that song, and I’ve been thinking, it’s probably difficult to recognise happiness, while unhapiness, that’s something you can recognise.

B: Maybe it’s that, one way to define happiness is just as an absence of suffering. So, there is no proper definition, we just look for its opposite.

A: You know the buzzword in startups, ‘chief happiness officer’. I hate it, it makes it sound like happiness is something that the company will try to sell you. Maybe you know this guy? Arnaud C**. That’s his whole platform. Pure platitude.

B: What if we tried to see it from a different angle? I like to think of happiness as a well-functioning immune system. Like a form of Nietschean ‘Great Health’, it works like a kind of armor, it’s, somewhat artificial, and protective.

A: What about this? We could say that most of the things we think about are things that will happen in the future. And they will only happen if we believe that they will. So, happiness is about our approach the world, the way we choose to encounter things. And there are different forms of approach, some more positive, some more negative. But if you somehow anchor yourself in the present, then there is a form of happiness that’s directly connected to this sense of a better future. And so, yes, maybe happiness is just something that derives from hope?

B: Maybe we can tie this with etymology. ‘Hap’ – or ‘heur’ in French – it has to do with what happens, what unfolds. And so maybe, thinking about hope, happiness is a certain way to perceive our environment as conducive to something positive, and that will naturally unfold into the future. If we think of it this way, we can make sense of injunctions, like Gide says, that it is our duty to make ourselves happy. It’s about cultivating a relationship with the world that sees the possibility of future good. And that relationship is experienced in the present as happiness.

A: So maybe, this also tells me something about cynicism and suspicion. When I reject what I would call ‘happiness in a can’, those happiness recipes and tricks and chief happiness officers, maybe that has to do with my own sophistication. I’m saying, this wouldn’t work for me, therefore it’s intrinsically wrong. Or it there is some truth to it, it would work, but only for less sophisticated people. But when I think like that, I fall into the pit of snobbism.

B: I like this image of ‘happiness in a can’. If we come back to the idea of happiness as an immune system, maybe that kind of happiness you describe is like an over-reactive immune system, and that’s dangerous, for individuals and for the collective. It’s like an allergic reaction, it can kill you. Or like drugs, it helps in the short term, but it’s harmful in the long run. Because, that kind of artificial happiness, It disconnects you from the real.

A: Or maybe it’s just that this ‘in a can’ feature, this pre-formatted message, it negates a characteristic of happiness, that it’s always experienced on a personal level, not as an abstract universal.

B: Is it then that this ‘happiness in a can’ presents happiness as a means, not an end in itself?

A: Yes, while wisdom traditions, like the Greeks, take happiness, eudemonia, as an end in itself, as a form of healthy relationship with the world.

B: But could it be that happiness is precisely the means to this healthy, fair, harmonious relationship with the world?

A: I think, happiness is a personal thing, it’s experienced individually, not collectively. It’s impossible for a collective to pursue personal goals. So, we cannot pursue happiness as a group. It doesn’t make sense.

B: Well, that would be particularly true if, as we said in the beginning, happiness is hard to define. Because if an end, or a goal, is hard to define, it is also difficult to pursue. And so, we could shift things a little and say the collective goal is to pursue the absence of unhappiness, but that’s way more depressing.

A: Doesn’t Aristotle write about happiness as a type of satisfaction that directly derives from the pursuit an activity? So maybe, we should think of happiness as an aristocratic type of virtue. That’s what you see today in startups, and all this talk about, your work should make you happy. You can get that kind of happiness if you’ve got slaves who do the dirty work. It’s probably not so easy to feel happiness from your activity when you’re a cleaner or a delivery person. And so –the practice of virtue that leads to happiness, that takes time, and it calls for certain conditions. So, there’s something dangerous about this discourse that says we should pursue happiness, and if we’re not feeling happy, we’re doing something wrong. I think, it’s hiding something, it’s not in touch with the real.