Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Frets are Very, Very Far Apart

Like many of us, I'm saddled with a few awful people. Narcissistic, poisonous, resentful, uncompromising, and unreasonable, they are living embodiments of Dunning–Kruger's observation that dumb, incompetent people often feel super smart and extra-competent simply because they're too stupidly incompetent to recognize their own stupid incompetence. They condescend and manipulate, bolstered by the visceral conviction that the opinions, intuitions, and preferences amply gurgling from the pits of their minds are solid gold.

I understand how they got this way. They never left behind the cognitive error we're supposed to outgrow after adolescence, continuing to assume that spotting other people's stupidity makes them smart. Over the decades, they've grown expert at spotting stupidity (never their own), to the point where they feel very smart, indeed. They never grew or learned because whereas smart people are driven to correct their own stupidity, they see only other people's stupidity, in endless supply. Smart people become smart via fixation on their own foolishness. Dumb people stay dumb by fixating on other people's foolishness (here are some other topsy-turvy shifts).

Even now, they continue to disappoint me, which is puzzling. It means I've never stopped overestimating them - hard to believe given my jaundiced assessment. My puzzlement reveals my own miscalibration. I've failed to recognize the non-linearity of human awfulness.

Extreme brutality is very different from, say, blithe insensitivity, but we compress and conflate all bad things into indistinct blobs of badness (BoB). Not only are the levels distinct, but they are more widely spaced at the extremes, like guitar frets becoming steeply wider. This is why we prematurely resort to Nazi comparisons. The frets are very, very far apart, yet we misconstrue a light year for an inch (we do the same in judging food).

I only recently realized that none of these awful people is actually evil. None would go out of their way to purposefully hurt anyone. There's no proactive malice. They might well maim or murder you via thoughtless stupidity and selfishness, and could easily justify self-serving behavior which incidentally brought you harm. But they'd never do so intentionally, just for sport...though this world is full of sportsmen.

So, as awful as they are, these people, being incapable of evil, rate no worse than 5 out of 10 on the human scale of depravity. And, in a way, that's downright noble. A person who's sunk to depths of selfishness is an eyelash away from evil. To steadfastly resist this boundary requires a moral commitment exceeding my own. These most-awful-people-in-the-world, who spew such poison and misery, turn out to be "5s": essentially principled and admirable. 

So what, you ask, does this have to do with Donald Trump?

As many have declared over the past two years, George W Bush wasn't so bad after all. An honorable man, even a mensch, albeit a misguided pinhead. Going even further, one must concede that even bona fide villains like Cheney and Rumsfeld were at least patriots, however we may disapprove of their blinkered, bitter attempts to serve a country they genuinely loved. Neither would ever be spotted humping the leg of a Vladimir Putin, or undermining the American judicial system to save their own ass.

GWB was a downright decent guy, and Cheney and Rumsfeld were "5"s. They committed atrocities, sure, but never just for kicks. They believed they were helping. Trump doesn't imagine he's helping. "Helping" to Donald Trump is like impressionist painting to a gnat. It's not even a Thing.

Yet even Trump is no serial murderer or a despot. His inclinations might point toward the latter - he may be despotic-adjacent, and even despot-enabling - but this shmuck, who's descended us to basement levels we'd have preferred never to explore, is in a whole separate league from a Putin, much less a Kim or a Hitler. Taunting journalists is different from cold-bloodedly murdering them. Persecuting minorities is different from slaughtering them. Rebuffing NATO is different from making war with them. We have dipped our toes into a fetid, poisonous pool, and feel we've drowned.

The Left - never ones for subtle distinctions - see only a BoB encompassing the entire swathe from Trump voters who merely craved a shake-up to those who dare use terms like "illegal aliens" to earnest, befuddled GWB to villainous-but-principled Dick Cheney to Trump to Hitler.

The frets are much, much, much further apart. If we were better able to parse the gradations and to recognize the non-linearity of it all, then Godwin's Law would be unnecessary. My awful people - and GWB - felt like full-on oppression, though they're actually okay human beings. Trump is by no means "okay", but just because he's off the curve of our accustomed existence in the immense freedom, joy and plenty of First World 21st century life doesn't make him The Worst Thing Ever. Or anything close to it. Or close to close. The frets are very, very far apart.

But you'd never know it from the whining. For those convinced that we're the most suffering sufferers who've ever suffered, and that Trump is the biggest Big Bad ever, I have good news and bad. The good news is that we've been spoiled rotten, which explains why we gnash our teeth at the lower end of a spectrum of unprecedented prosperity, tolerance, and high-mindedness - as if someone's snatched away some tiny morsel of our towering portion of astoundingly delicious lasagna. The bad news is that when you've lost all sense of proportion, you curse yourself to apocalyptic pain whenever the floor drops further. And it can and will, because the frets are so far apart, and it's non-linear, and Trump represents not The Bottom of Everything but the bottom of the very tippy top (i.e. the un-self-aware assholes’ last hurrah).

The next demagogic populist president with authoritarian instincts won't arrive with an impeachable portfolio of traitorous Russian collusion and mobbed-up money laundering....and won't shoot himself in the foot a dozen times per day. We may one day miss Donald Trump, just as we currently miss GWB. And even then we won't be anywhere near the sort of utter horribleness witnessed even as recently as the previous century.

1 comment:

Anonymous coward said...

Great post, I think people have trouble seeing the difference between gradients of evil. A mob boss, may be evil, but he is no darth vader.

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