Values cards project – dignity

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’s this idiom we use, we speak about ‘human dignity’, but it’s just a set phrase. In Japanese, there’s two different terms. There’s ‘son-ke’, which is respect for whatever is above you, and it implies a hierarchy, it’s tied to the notion of a status. And there’s ‘son-cho’, which is about universal respect, and that’s tied to that concept of human dignity. What son-cho’s about is that every person deserves a certain form of respect, there are things you just can’t do to them. Like you can’t lynch a criminal.

B: So there’s something about dignity that’s unconditional?

A: Yes. It’s also connected to the word ‘respect’. ‘Le respect de la dignité’, it’s a set phrase in France. But then, when you hear the way that it’s used, often the person who’s asking for that dignity to be respected, I’m getting the impression that they’re asking for conditional respect, not unconditional. I mean, they seem to want respect in for a competence they don’t have. Like, they’re smart, or they deserve something, when that’s just not the case. So, it’s associated with a kind of entitlement.

B: Well, that reminds me of this thing that happened to me. There’s an organisation here called Leadership ***, and they run programs for migrant community leaders. I saw that pop up in my feed one day, and thought I might apply. I got shortlisted and went to their session for shortlisted appliances. And then I had a shock. I was the only white person in the room, and there was this woman talking to us, and she was saying things like, ‘so, there’s 45 of you shortlisted, but we only have 30 places in the programs, so you must understand that not everyone will get in. Duh. But if you’re from Africa, we’ve got a program that’s for African community leaders, so you might also get into that.’ And she was using – I don’t know, there was a tone, and the way she was talking to us, it was like we were complete idiots. And I was thinking, wow, we’ve been selected as community leaders, and that’s how they’re treating us. I actually, I almost ran off. They needed you to be there at certain dates for the program, and they said ‘and we expect you to be there at all those dates’, and I raised my hand and said I was travelling on those dates for my work, so was it worth me doing the second interview? And she seemed annoyed, but said, then probably not. And after I left, I realised, it was the first time in my life I got condescended to. As a middle class white man, it never happened to me before. And that time I understood what it feels like, and I told all my women friends and my Chinese friends, it’s horrible! But so yes, I guess that’s what condescension is about, it’s refusing a certain unconditional dignity. It’s saying, if you want a relationship, it’s gonna be based on a strict hierarchy, and you’re starting on a lower rung.

A: Wow, that sounds tough. I mean, when I hear that, I wonder if dignity is actually about unconditional equality? One thing we might look at is how each culture handles its minorities. When you look at France, we have a hierarchical relationship with black people from Africa, and for Muslim populations, it’s rejection. In Japan, there’s a hierarchy where white people are at the top, but you might still be rejected as a foreigner. It’s a rejection on principle. It’s like you’re excluded from a club, and you won’t ever get in, no matter what you do. That’s actually what racism is about. It’s a hierarchy that’s based just on status, not actions. While dignity, that’s about the capacity to develop a relationship on the basis of radical equality. And so, when you there’s somebody that gives you this unconditional dignity, but they still disagree with your actions, then that disagreement has a real weight.

 

Values cards project – learning

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: I remember, when I was working for the government, I had this colleague who refused to do professional development. She said ‘I’ve had enough with university, I won’t sacrifice my fun’. Our business manager was trying to get her to sign up for some training, for her performance review or something, and I remember, she said she wouldn’t do it, and I was so judgmental of her!

B: Maybe we can look at learning as either a means or an end? When it’s connected with curiosity, it’s an end in itself. That’s what curiosity is, learning without a goal.

A: Well, that colleague didn’t have much of it. But then you have this other thing people say, they say ‘I have to keep learning, when I stop learning I’ll change jobs’. And I’ve always found that’s a very self-centered thing. What about the value you’re adding when you’re able to do things at your peak, because you’re not stretching all the time?

B: If you’re managing someone, it’s always more useful to treat them as an end in themselves. But if it’s about yourself, I think it’s actually more respectful – to the group – to think of yourself as a tool for the task, not the task as a tool so you can learn something. Otherwise, you just take work as entertainment.

A: Yes! There’s this book by Kierkegaard that I love, Stages on life’s way. He talks about three stages that people go through – or three different ways that we can experience life: aesthetic, ethical, religious. That thing of ‘I have to keep learning or I’ll move on’, it’s typical of an aesthetic approach to life, it’s work as hedonism. And Maybe that’s a thing in the way that many startups operate, where you’re joining to learn something, rather than do the job.

B: Well, it’s easier to relate to your job aesthetically when you’re in a tech startup than if you’re a cleaner.

A: So then, the question we could ask is, how can we move towards an ethical stage and continue learning. Not as an end in itself, for pleasure or entertainment, but so we can do the job better, or prepare for the future. Learning as a form of responsibility.

B: There’s a thing you see when you work in professional development, it’s the workshop hoppers. Those people who just go from workshop to workshop, but it’s never quite clear why they’re trying to learn something.

A: Maybe they’re bored at work, and learning is part of their lifestyle? It’s so different from the way we’re looking to develop our learning program in that startup I’m joining. It’s all about finding ways for everyone to really get how everything works, in depth: understand the tech, the business model, the goal, the context and the culture.

B: Well, that’s the opposite of typical corporate learning, where it always goes outwards. It’s about learning new things and bringing them in. When you look at it, there’s two problems that companies face, and they’re very different. There’s the technical skills, and mindset, or adaptability.

A: That’s the capacity to make use of your skills in context, right? I’ve been doing work on that.

B: Yep. But then there’s this American thing to say that ‘everything is a skill’. Adaptability, that’s a skill. Making use of your skills, that’s a skill. And so you have the impression that everything is a ‘technical skill’, and that’s rather confusing. There’s other things you can learn, but you need a different model to learn them. And I don’t think we’re doing that yet.

 

Values cards project – peace

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: Wow. Peace. It’s so simple, but it’s so difficult.

B: OK, let me start here. A few years back, I was meeting with that woman who used to run a leadership program I attended in Melbourne. I was asking her for help with Marco Polo Project. I was looking for a mentor, and I was asking if she could help me find one. And so, she was asking me – I mean, she was about to send an introduction email to someone – she was asking me, why did you work on Marco Polo Project? And I responded, well, at the core of it, it’s about world peace. And she scoffed, and she said, well, they won’t be taking that seriously. So, we came up with something about intercultural understanding. But that felt like a cop out.

A: And that prospective mentor.

B: We had only one conversation, and it, well, it really didn’t get anywhere. You know, it felt like we were not at the same level of abstraction, so we couldn’t really talk. We were not really, sharing the same world, in a way. But yes, peace, it’s too vast, too complex, too abstract, or taken-for-granted, and so, it’s like you’re not allowed to say that’s what you’re working towards. It doesn’t sound serious.

A: Well yes, when you start talking about peace, you see that ironic smile. I wonder why.

B: It feels like you’re saying you want to join a cult, like you’re talking about the Hare Krishnas or something.

A: Well, there’s something hippie about the word. When you say you care about peace, even when you talk about it, you’re taking a stance right against cynicism. And since cynicism claims to be the only way you can prove your intelligence these days, it’s not surprising.

B: So, question now, would you say that it might be because peace feels like someone else’s responsibility.

A: And yet, you look at people like Monbiot, you look at what Design for Social Impact Leadership is doing, or School of Slow Media, they’ll say, when it comes to peace, there’s no ‘them’, there’s just ‘us’.

B: So, that may be one way to think about it. OK, when we say ‘the government this’, ‘the government that’, the government feels like something external. ‘The government’, that’s them, not us. I mean, when you’re an expat, that’s how it is. There’s no way to join the government, or even influence it. There’s no connection with the government, emotional, intellectual, or just, de facto. But in a democracy, it’s dangerous to speak about the government that way. Though sure, it’s also very convenient to believe that it’s a distant thing out there, and it’s got nothing to do with you.

A: What about we thought about it this way. That peace is odd when we think of it as a noun, as its own thing. Because peace is more like an adjective. It’s a quality that applies to all sorts of other things. Peace is not an objective in itself, that would be weird, but it applies to a whole range of other activities. You can even go to war to get peace.

B: Well, have you seen this documentary? GateKeeper. It’s about the Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service. It’s a series of interviews with the six directors of security in Israel. And one of the things they say is, actually, that you can’t do peace using war-like processes.

A: So, this would mean, depending on how we do politics, we’ll be going either towards conflict, or towards peace?

B: It’s also maybe that collaboration is harder to learn than competition. When you’re a child, and you’re playing, you learn to make war. You won’t see many children playing peace.

A: I wonder there, is it just because peace is boring? Dead boring. And because to keep the peace, you must make sure that resources are not all accumulating in the one place, and that requires effort?

B: Or maybe it depends on the size of the group. Two people at peace, that’s boring, but when we reach three, four, five, that becomes interesting.

A: What about fair play then? Maybe peace is about having the same rules accepted by all, and accepting defeat.

B: So then, is peace about common laws, and a sense of order? Should we say that peace is just a mechanism that ensures those common laws are accepted and acceptable by all? 

A: How does it work in a company? There’s a number of rules that are imposed, and you go with it because you get paid. But the rules are rarely something you can discuss. There are few mechanisms to change them if they’re not working, or very few. Unless there’s a good boss who decides to step in.

B: So, should we say that there’s a connection between peace and obedience? That would mean, sometimes, obedience is the better choice, because it keeps everything stable. Then we could say that rebellion and blind obedience are like the two poles, two vices in opposition. While deliberate obedience, is the virtue that marks a point of balance between them.

A: Or it’s about choosing consensus, so that the group can stay together.

Values cards project – joy

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: I see joy as associated with a desire for power.

B: There’s something about it that’s exuberant, something to do with activity.

A: It’s not a permanent state, but it’s connected to something you do.

B: It’s derived from an activity that’s geared towards the good.

A: It’s also connected to something particular. It can be an object or it can be an action, but it’s about something.

B: Maybe joy and happiness are like fear and anxiety. One is about a specific thing, the other is more like a looser state, without a clear object.

A: There are also people who are more or less prone to joy. You know those people who just seem particularly joyful.

B: And joy can be more or less calm.

A: There’s something religious about it too. Something Christian. I mean, it’s in Christian songs.

B: It’s like a greater capacity to rejoice – enjoy – whatever is coming from the outside.

A: It’s kind of like a candy-machine where you don’t need coins, it just comes when you press a button.

B: OK, so joy has an external source. It means there’s no self-contained joy. It’s a positive attitude, but also something to do with a kind of openness.

A: Yes, happiness is more about having a harmonious relationship with yourself, while joy is about your relationship with nature, or with God, or with other people.

B: So, what’s the opposite of joy? Maybe it’s vice, as the pursuit of an activity that will bring you temporary pleasure on the spot, and remorse afterwards.

A: Another opposite of joy would be rejection. When you’re closed off to things.

B: Or there’s pain, that’s more physical, there’s despair, and that’s more about your inner psychological state, but then there’s sadness, and that’s the opposite of joy?

A: Is joy an end in itself then?

B: Cultivating joy is an end in itself.

A: So, it’s about the pursuit of happiness, as a right and a duty.

B: A right that’s not associated to a duty doesn’t deserve to be defended

A: There’s Andre Gide, saying it’s a duty to make yourself happy

B: Or Gandhi, saying there’s a duty to be happy from the mere fact that you were brought to the world.

A: What about joy and desire?

B: Ha, well, at a first level, desire is about wanting what you don’t have. But at a second level, it’s about the capacity to rejoice from the things you have.

A: In Ignatian terms, you’d say the goal of our existence is to figure out the unique manner in which we’re called to pay homage to your creator. And then do that. Joy is just an epiphenomenon.

B: So, there’s a duty to be joyful. You can’t tell somebody to be happy, but you can bring joy to others through your own joy.

A: It’s a kind of hospitable virtue.

B: A Mediterranean virtue.

A: And what about joy and truth? There’s this passage from Descartes, in the Passion of the Soul, where he it’s better to feel fake joy than true sadness. I call that the Cartesian dilemma.

B: Well, this sounds like one of the only real ethical dilemma.

Values cards project – inner peace

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: Oof! I have an epidermic reaction to that word! It’s that thing life coaches will say, find your inner peace. What’s the assumption? That you should look for some sort of interior peace when things are moving too fast around you? Is this about a kind of peace that you can have complete control over, when there’s too much you can’t control? Like a kind of internal kingdom detached from the external world? Or is it just what you get when you go through Buddhist meditation practice, yoga, something spiritual? And so then I’m thinking, OK, but what is it useful for?

B: I’d say, when I hear about inner peace, it’s like you’re not dominated by your neuroses or your own contradictions. There’s an alignment between passions and desires, what you feel and what you want. And so, you’re free to act. You’re not limited by some uncontrolled desire, or a neurotic block, or a value conflict, or whatever. So, yes, your whole capacity to act, your whole capacity to create, depends on inner peace.

A: So, OK, what makes it a value?

B: Maybe it’s because inner peace is a sign of something. Ignatius says this when he talks about ways to discern between the good and the evil spirit. The voice of the good spirit is like the sound of water dripping on a sponge. That sense of inner peace, that calm, it’s telling you that whatever you’re sensing is right. If you’re feeling all agitated, it means you should hold off. So, inner peace is a value, because it’s telling you that you’re in the right path.

A: Is it about wisdom then? There was this image in Confucius, that wisdom is like a mountain, and intelligence like a river. I wonder then, if there’s something about wisdom that’s about calm, or inner peace.

B: Well maybe. I mean, maybe one way to think about it that peace is about finding satisfaction in something that repeats. There can be a lot happening when you’re at peace, but it’s all cyclical, it’s all stuff that repeats. While conflict is heading towards resolution, transformation. So, there’s something about inner peace that tells you the system is working, and the sign of it that you’ve got a sense of happy calm when you’re in the middle of it.

A: OK, but then what about this thing of inner peace as detachment from external influence then? This whole inner peace thing, I don’t know, it’s just pop Buddhism to me.

Values cards project – passion

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’s a certain discourse around that ties everything back to passion. ‘Follow your passion’, that kind of thing. To me, that sounds awful. It’s like you’re trapped in your own emotions, and nobody’s helping you get out of it.

B: Well, I’ve been thinking about that actually. I started working with this guy who is very lymphatic, like super calm and non-neurotic. And whenever I’m with him, I think about this quote from Hamlet: ‘Give me a man who is not passion’s slave, Horatio, and I will hold him to my heart of hearts’. That’s how I feel with him. It’s such a gift to be not passionate, but calm and rational. I think we certainly don’t value this kind of people enough!

A: Well I think… There’s this belief, this theory, it comes from neuro-linguistic programming, that passion, desire, is a pre-requisite for anything. If there’s a will, there’s a way. If you want something strongly enough, it will happen. And if you don’t want it, there’s a lot of chances it won’t happen. That kind of thing. It’s on Oprah too. And sure, you need an intention, but intention doesn’t lead to results, not necessarily. So, there’s this myth of passion as the driving motor. And when that plays out, it’s often in a situation that is not viable. You see that a lot in Japan. That if you’re motivated enough, you will succeed. That’s just not sustainable.

B: Do you remember this song from the 2000’s in France? I think it became an anthem for the Besancenot party, that left-wing group, whatever their name was. ‘Motivé, motivé, il faut se motiver’. It was in all the demonstrations too. And it’s a cool song, it’s great when you’re marching, but I always thought about it as a kind of… tautological stupidity. My etymology-nerds moment, sorry, but if you want movement, you need to get motivated, duh! It makes me think of communist propaganda, you know, Stakhanovism, Leng Fei, that kind of things. Let’s pump up enthusiasm so we can do big things together. And if you’re not motivated enough, that’s probably because you’re not the right kind of believer, or there’s something wrong in your ideology. Agitation over execution or strategy. It’s a dangerous form of dumbness. it’s actually killed a lot of people. And there’s this air of exalted morality about it. I find it rather scary.

A: Well, I like to say that a moral injunction only works in the first person. And always in the negative form. It’s about ‘I wont do that’, not ‘you do that’.

B: I was talking about communist propaganda, but there’s something I find very American about this discourse on passion, very moralistic, this passion for passion. You’ve got to be passionate or you’re a failure. It’s part of that whole authenticity thing. On the one hand, you’ve got to be yourself at all times, and on the other, you’ve got to be seen to do things. So, you need to be passionate, and if you’re not, well, pretend. That kind of stuff will drive you crazy. It’s something I experienced in my family, when I was a teenager. My parents had completely different ways of seeing the world, and they wanted completely different things from me. My mum was fine in a way, all she wanted was for me to get good marks and stay out of the way, and I could do that – it kind of made sense. My father, it came from a good place probably, but he wanted me to feel things all the time. And if I didn’t, I was just a ‘cold monster’. And I didn’t know what to say, but I was just sitting there thinking, you can ask me to do anything, that’s fair, but ask me to feel something, it’s not in my control. I can’t be responsible for my feelings. What do you want from me, lie about it? I mean, maybe that’s what it’s all about, like this quote from La Bruyere, hypocrisy’s an homage paid by vice to virtue. Except here, it’s like passion means virtue, and cold rationality means vice. I’m really not sure that’s how it works.

A: You know, there’s this concept of Ikigai that people have been bringing up lately. It’s that point of intersection between what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. Passion, mission, vocation, profession. And I think that’s completely disconnected from, say, the Confucian model, where it’s about your place in society.

B: This whole idea of society as an ‘alienating thing’ that you should ‘free yourself from’, it never made sense to me. Maybe that’s generational, maybe that’s what the Boomers had to do when they were young. But now, it seems just… I don’t know, made up. It’s like this American idea that you should always try and aim higher up. It sounds really tiring, and not particularly useful.

A: I mean, society as a source of alienation, that’s just a soft left-wing cliché. This idea that plain rejecting society is always a good thing, it’s this kind of punk position, and it’s just quite dumb. I mean, we were looking at passion as a value here. I’d say that it’s morally neutral. But then people often try to make it into a virtue, and that’s where it becomes dangerous. I’m thinking now about the way we talk about ‘passions’, and how it has a negative connection.

B: Well, if passion is the motor, it’s pushing you forward. And so, it’s out of your control. And now if intelligence is what’s allowing you to be rational, and being rational is what allows you to do something independently from passions, then there is an implicit opposition and intelligence. And so – yes – there’s something about it that seems just, a celebration of dumb.

A: So, is it important to be passionate? I’m not convinced. It’s about either something that makes you do more, or something that starts controlling you. It’s not a virtue, it’s not about the point of balance between two vices. It’s something else. It’s like it’s about chance, like a lottery. It’s about, have you found your passion. That’s, have you come across something that you like? If you can figure it out, or if you stumble upon it, you’re lucky.

B: Well, in Jesuit practice, we talk about the good and the bad spirit. You should closely listen to your passion, because that comes from God and it’s telling you what you should be doing. But when you’re hearing something, or sensing something, it’s never quite sure if it comes from the good spirit or the bad spirit. So, when you feel something strongly, you should always pause and ponder whether you should follow, or resist. So yes, look, this whole idea that passion is something you must look for, something you should pursue, it just feels dumb dumb to me. It’s not something you’re pursuing. Competence, virtue, it’s about discernment between the positive and the negative passions. And if that’s what it’s about, then consideration ‘passion’ as this one whole thing that you should aspire to, just like that – well, it’s a buzzword, but it’s just not properly thought-out, and it just doesn’t make sense.

Values cards project – structure

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: I find it strange that structure is listed as a value. Something can be well structured, or badly structured, but structure in itself, how is it a value?

B: Well, when I think of structure, I think about a hippie share house, you know, where under cover of freedom, everyone can impose their desire on everyone else – and it’s just a matter of arbitrary power. If you want real freedom, you need a minimum of order.

A: That’s a basic principle in the art of hosting. You set up boundaries, and so the structure matters. There’s a hippie vibe to the movement, but it’s not chaos. I’m thinking of those political and social movements that are not structured, the Yellow Vests, Occupy. There’s commentators saying that this is the real voice of the people – but it’s only chaos. The guy with the strongest voice is heard, the guy with the best Facebook video is heard. It’s surprising, actually, how people do not understand the system around them, how democracy works, how it favors a caste of people who know the system, or have the resources to understand it more efficiently. And they believe that in total chaos something good and new can emerge.

B: That’s where I like to call myself a conservative. If something’s been around for a while, you know that you can live with it, or you would be dead already. There’s something like that about structures, a conservative wisdom: better the devil you know. That’s one of the points I think I have an attraction for Asia – the social structures – I see them as a façade, something that’s very good at protecting the individual.

A: I’ll agree with you on that one. It’s much more oppressive to pretend that something artificial is natural than to set a structure that is explicitly artificial, and ask everyone to follow. Foreign businesses in Japan are a good example of liberating the surface to control the essence of the work. By contrast, in traditional Japanese companies, there’s a lot of control over the ritual, but that’s a way to give staff members autonomy. If you’re happy to play the game, and if you don’t see it as useless, then you can get all sorts of things done. If you’re a western consultant, you think all these structures and rituals are not rational and you destroy them – but you miss their social function in the organisation of work – and everything falls apart.

B: There may be something there about human passion. Fear. I think we’re all terrified of chaos, and we can’t do things together without addressing this fear of chaos. That’s why we put structures in place. I’ve seen this in churches. The ones where the ritual is very structured, where there’s a stable form, they’re also the most open theologically. While the loose happy clappy ones have a much more dogmatic message. Same with the monarch. I think people need a symbol of cohesion that is not purely rational, this allows for greater freedom, and that’s exactly what the Queen does.

A: Well, you would see this in France, where the president is supposed to be above parties, but is actually supporting one party. This can be extremely dangerous.

And so yes, as we said, I think we have a sort of aversion for chaos. Apart from certain dysfunctional people who might like chaos, and seem dysfunctional because they are likely to create chaos. And that would be how structure becomes a value. Not in itself, but as a protection against chaos.

Values cards project – sensuality

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: Let’s start with this. What about, sensuality is about increasing you own sense of calm. ‘The best way to resist a temptation is yield to it’, right? So, when you satisfy your desire, you’re more calm. Temptation is gone. Sensuality, then, is about increasing your capacity to satisfy you own desire. That’s something I actually came to when I reflected on temperance: that paradoxically, if we became more able to gain pleasure, we would crave fewer things. And so, sensuality may be the cornerstone of temperance.

B: Ah, to me, it has more to do with physical distance, and physical contact, how close you are, or you’re willing to be. And this varies person to person.

A: Well, there is something about reciprocity. I like to think of sex as a massage. It’s pleasant, let’s have more of it. But then also, it’s not that meaningful. It’s somehow – interchangeable

B: I like this. But then, is a massage with a masseur sensual or not, and why?

A: OK, the way I like to think of it is this. Sport increases our capacity to act, build up muscles and project ourselves outwards. That’s one of the things we do with our bodies: it’s the shell, and the muscles to punch. But the body’s also a receptive tool, a sensory medium. And there are other practices – Qi gong, mindfulness, I guess that’s what tantra does as well – that are about increasing our capacity to perceive. Sharpen the senses so we understand the world more accurately. And so, sensuality then is about prudence and strategy.

And then, there’s an interesting paradox. Because in a way, if you train yourself to resist pain, it’s probably a good thing right, but then you probably reduce your capacity to feel pleasure as well. And what that means is, to reach the same level of excitement, you need greater stimulus. While sensuality is all about increasing the capacity to feel, so you can get excited faster, and be satisfied faster. And so, what I’m saying is, if the body gets trained too much, that is, if you’re just building the muscles as a shell, then you might be less receptive to pain. That’s what those gym people are about – but then, what about your capacity for pleasure. Pleasure becomes a form of guilt, or weakness, or it’s connected with excess. The simple satisfaction of the senses, that kind of animal well-being, it becomes limited.

B: So what you’re saying is, the more you go to the gym, the less satisfied you are, the more you consume, the more you serve the capitalist machine. I like that. There’s this seires I like. It’s called Bref, and it shows how the Paris metro attacks the five sense. If you’re going to take the metro in Tokyo, you have to block your senses, or it’s unbearable. In an inhuman place, you have to put the reception of the external world on off mode to preserve yourself. And so interestingly, orgies in the metro are super typical of Japanese porn. Fucking in the metro or at the back of the bus, it’s a kind of standard fantasy.

I’ve always found that a bit weird because – here’s a thing – when you do a mindfulness exercise with black chocolate, the quality increases when you try to feel all the flavours. But I tried that with a Mars Bar, and it’s really gross. Industrial chocolate bars only work if you put your sense on off mode, or lose attention.

A: Ha, so here’s a thing that would be fun – run a mindfulness workshop in McDonald’s – mindfully munching through your big mac, feeling the sweetness of the sauce, the crunch of the lettuce, the smell of the meat, savour all the flavours, and feel how shitty the thing is. That’s how we might get rid of it!

 

Values cards project – consistency

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: I wonder, how does the word ‘consistency’ translate into French? Is it ‘constance’ – the stability of a person over time – or ‘fiabilité’ – the fact a person can be trusted to do what they say they will do – or ‘coherence’ – an internal logic between actions and discourses?

B: Here’s how I would approach it. If we adopt a constructionist perspective, we’ll say that conversations create a new reality. But this can only happen if people believe that what is said in the conversation is true. Consistency, then, is about creating an impression of truth. If people believe that the conversations are lies, they develop alternative strategies.

All we do in business is based on a future that does not exist. Consistency creates confidence. It gives value to those conversations that shape a shared reality. If you don’t believe that what the person says will happen will, indeed, happen – then it’s hard to have an impact on the future.

So, consistency is about avoiding a mad organization, one where the different departments do not align.

A: Or is it about reducing the gap between promise and reality? Consistency increases our capacity to predict the future – which is a fundamental human need.

B: Well, psychometric assessments are about consistency: they predict how people will react. And here’s the thing. We like predictability for others, but we don’t like it for ourselves. That’s why there’s a mistrust towards psychometrics. It’s about the illusion of freedom. If we can predict things based on genes, then we might have a position in society that is based on our genome. And then what happens when a part of the population is considered good for nothing?

A: So is it that with consistency, racism is the most fundamental problem? Here’s a thing I’ve been saying for a while: that when dealing with China, or people from other parts of Asia, we – that’s, we westerners – just can’t imagine that they have the same level of complex subjectivity. So we go to cross-cultural trainings, and we learn about cultural traits and strategies, and that helps. To some extent. We can anticipate a few things.

But here’s the crux. One of the premises of cross-cultural understanding is still that everyone is fundamentally different. It’s impossible to reach predictability on the individual level. So we need shortcuts, like evaluation grids or other thing like that, artificially created. They give us an illusion that we’re getting closer to the individual – because we know that they come from a collective culture, and so they will be doing x, y, z. But in fact, this might just cement our prejudice.

B: OK, here’s another angle. At any moment, any situation can evolve in an infinite number of ways. We face an infinite number of possibilties. And so, consistency might be about reducing the risk that we’ll be overwhelmed by the burden of choice. So, consistency reduces freedom in a way – because it’s about letting the past shape the present – but it also reduces cognitive load, and that’s a form of freedom.

A: So what you’re saying is, consistency can fall on the side of prudence, or the side of sloth?

B: Yep. And that would mean consistency is morally neutral. it is not in itself a virtue, or a value.

A: OK, so then, consistency – is it a form of mediocrity, dumbness? Should we say that it obliterates our capacity to understand the world in its complexity, and have us behave the same in all situations, rather than adapt. That if we’re consistent, we lack the capacity to understand the unique originality of any situation? Or the willingness to do that? Then it would mean that our life is just the performance of a stereotype. And at worst, consistency is just the pure banality of evil?

B: I think it depends. In a leadership situation, what if a person makes different decisions but has consistency in their principles, a line, or a direction that they follow consistently? This creates predictability, not in the manner that the person adapts, but how the person adapts, but what remains important. And this can create trust. So here, consistency is capacity for a person to act with just one voice, in all different situations, rather than changing all the time. It’s the opposite of schizophrenia, or hypocrisy.

A: So then, if we were to push for greater consistency between the personal and the professional, that could lead to higher virtue – and a stop to the practice of acting as a sociopath in business, and a good citizen privately.

 

Values cards project – acceptance

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: So, when I think of acceptance I think, is it a virtue? If it’s about the capacity to accept any type of difference, then we’re in the field of pop philosophy. It sounds like accepting everything and detaching from the world, Buddha style. But then, how do you manage that kind of society?

What you might end up with is a group of ‘perfect beings’, and the rest. That’s what you see with the Cathares in France, and you see the same thing in Thailand. Thai Buddhism, the ‘Little Vehicle’: it’s about personal practice, with a clear distinction between the perfect and the non-perfect. It’s very different from Chinese, Korean or Japanese Buddhism, where the goal is to reduce the suffering of other people – and so, it’s also about playing a role in the community.

B: Yes, there’s this kind of extreme realism in Asia. While monotheism is more a project of self-transformation.

A: I also think that acceptance sounds a bit like nihilism. When you of an extreme level of acceptance, it’s actually not something you would want. You don’t give a shit because nothing matters. It’s harder to spread high level enlightenment than nihilism – and so, when you try to promote acceptance, you might just promote nihilism

B: Another way to think of acceptance is to frame it as politeness, where you ‘round up the angles’. I do that with a colleague: you don’t give up on your own internal shape, you just present it in a way that reduces conflict. That’s politeness, it’s both self-acceptance – you know your own shape – and self-transformation – you transform some of the outer layer, or you angle in a way that avoids conflict. In fact, acceptance might even be a preamble to resolve conflict. It allows you to communicate better, because you’re not in denial, and you can tell it like it is. It’s also the underlying principle of non-violence communication. Before you can express you feelings and needs, you must be able to accept them.

A : In Japan, we say that people can ‘read the air’, but in fact, it’s more about the capacity to understand the prevailing norms. It’s about information sensing. Japan is a very unified and uniform society, so things work even if people don’t understand each other. Now if you look at the US, you have to make everything explicit, because there are no more unified norms.

B: When I think about acceptance, I also think about tolerance, in its physical sense: tolerance as strength, what makes it so that a bridge does not collapse when a big trucks goes over. It’s about the capacity not to break down when there is something unforeseen or undesirable.

A: I like that. But acceptance is not the same as tolerance. It doesn’t stay in a place of discomfort.

B: Yes. It’s like there is a form of realism in acceptance – and so, it ties back with prudence. Once I’ve accepted that there are trucks outside my door, I accept this as being reality. Then I can change strategies to change it, or I can accept this new situation and change myself, or I can sell my house and move elsewhere – change the context.  So I wonder if a way of understanding this more was to ask, what would be the opposite of acceptance? Is it belief? Idealism? And so, is acceptance like a cousin of realism, which is a form of prudence?

A: Well, here’s another example: Islam in France. France has this ‘state atheism’. Islam is challenging the atheistic vision of the world – but that’s also because this French idealism is projected onto Islam. A more realistic way to approach this would be to say that there are different value systems, and a significant part of the population has one that’s different. Then the question becomes, how can we adapt our society within the system collapsing?

B: Yes. It goes back to Buddhism right? We suffer because there’s a gap between our expectations and reality, and that’s not useful. Then acceptance is a way to reduce suffering.