The Ten Commandments could be more useful. I hope this doesn’t immediately turn off every Christian, Catholic, or Jewish reader, but do you really need to be told to be good to your parents? Do you need to be told not to kill or steal? And honestly, when is the last time you’ve properly remembered the Sabbath (i.e. rest, church, no work)?
In 1969, British philosopher, mathematician and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell wrote “A Liberal Decalogue.” (The word “decalogue” is another way to say the “Ten Commandments.”) Russell felt the “essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it,” so breathe easy – these aren’t meant to serve as a replacement for not killing and stealing, but a way for us to better live in society together.
These commandments are, Russell wrote, what he would wish to make widely know as a teacher. I enjoyed them so much that I added onto what Russell had written. I believe these commandments, if followed in a liberal society, could push knowledge forward, ease our modern political tensions, and make the internet a more bearable place full of fruitful ideas.
1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
I’ve been wrong a lot, just as I’m sure most other people have. Something I was sure of ended up being complete bullshit more times than I’d care to admit. With these stinging memories in mind, I’ve found that probabilistic thinking is far better than certainty.
There are facts, theories, and events that we can be all but certain about, but certainty destroys the shadow of the doubt. This makes it OK to stop listening, allowing people to retreat further away from unfamiliar viewpoints and perspectives.
Robert Burton, former chief of neurology at University of California at San Francisco-Mt. Zion hospital, told Scientific American said the profound “feeling of knowing” creates fertile ground for fundamentalist beliefs – religious or otherwise – such as UFOs and false memories. Certainty, he says, also tickles the brains pleasure centers – the same areas that are lit up by gambling, cocaine, and alcohol.
It feels good to be certain, but that doesn’t mean being certain is good. Be sure of what you think, feel, and believe, but try to open yourself up to being wrong. It takes a brave person to be wrong, as much of our conversation now comes in public and on stage on social media platforms. However, I’d rather be wrong in the past and closer to right in the future than always stuck on some degree of certain-no-matter-what.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
One can look no further than how bad politics have become to see why they should consider following this commandment.
Concealed evidence of thoroughly researched scientific evidence has become shockingly mainstream: Climate change isn’t happening and it’s not manmade, one side says. The earth is flat, another side says. Biological differences between men and women are sexist pseudoscience, another side says. Black people and white people are different to the point where we discrimination should be considered necessary, another side says. Evolution is “just a theory,” another side says. All of these twist the arms of our world’s body of knowledge to the point of breakage.
The U.S. has gone so far down the rabbit hole of concealing evidence – or in many cases, intellectually dishonest framing of evidence – that concealment has now become a weapon. It’s not hard to see why we live in what many call a post-truth era when we’re so happily ensconced in weaponized lies, scientific, personal, or political. In politics, think Reagan’s Iran Contra. Think Clinton’s “wag the dog” blowjob bombings. Think GW Bush’s WMDs. Think Obama’s ever-expanding surveillance state. Think Trump.
This is us now. Are you OK with that? I’m not.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
It’s as easy as it is unfair to stop someone’s thought process. We’re social animals who do much better in atmospheres where thoughts, conversations, and disagreements are in the open and accepted as an inevitability of life. However, the open, social conversation that our country enjoyed for decades is being muted by fear of stepping on a social landmine.
I’ve spoken in private with many people who hold views that would be seen as shocking if they were posted on social media. Most people know these views are shocking and purposefully conceal them. In fact, I think I could say that the majority of people I ever talk to, once we’ve gone deep enough in our conversation, have plenty of thoughts that could feasibly get online activists of various stripes lathered up and ready to send screen shots to the opinion-holder’s employer.
Do we really want to live in a time when so many are afraid to express their true beliefs and opinions that they’d rather stay quiet than express the belief? This will not only allow people to grow comfortable with not expanding their thoughts or hearing opposing opinions, it may make their opinions more dug-in, fanatical, and powerful.
Allow me to make a comparison from this to how marijuana went from dirt weed to knock-you-on-your-ass medical grade cannabis: Police began raiding fields where marijuana grew wild when the War on Drugs began in 1971. When the government started showing in interest in locking away marijuana growers, the growers stopped using visible fields for fear of being locked away or shot.
At this point, growers moved crops indoors. In Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, Pollan explains that by moving the crops indoors, growers realized they could clone female cannabis plants, or sensimilla, in dark rooms with a lot of water and a lot of artificial light (they are, after all, “weeds”). Marijuana potency (or its psychoactive chemicals) before the war on drugs was between 1 and 3 percent. Now, the potency of strains like “Nova OG” are about 36 percent. Much of this can be attributed to marijuana’s transformation from a wildly grown to hydroponically grown, Pollan claims.
Let’s bring this back to the discouragement of thinking: When made to conceal thoughts, opinions, and beliefs, people do not lose them. They don’t go away; they’re simply locked in a dark mind with high volumes of proverbial light and water. This is how you get opinions that consider the opposing view to be not just wrong but evil. This is how you grow extremists. This is how you get modern American politics.
Allow people to think and openly debate – even the racists, even the communists, even the fascists, even the fundamentalists, even the holocaust deniers, even everyone else – and their bad ideas will be squashed. Let them grow only within small, dark spaces and their bad ideas will increase in potency.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
Does “because I said so” work? It should not, even when stated by the most erudite sources.
In a society based on liberal science and open conversation, there can be no special authority. In Jonathan Rauch’s “Kindly Inquisitors,” he writes that liberal science must be an open game that everyone can play. Two rules serve as its backbone: No one gets final say and no one has personal authority.
“You may claim that a statement has been established as knowledge only insofar as the method used to check it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker, and regardless of the source,” Rauch writes.
This is not to say we should stop listening to experts, but how often do you hear an expert asserting their authority and using the “because I said so” or “trust me, I’m an expert” argument? It holds quackery’s hand, in my experience. Experts will not speak purely from authority but will show their work and respond when a good challenge is stated. To carry this in our toolbox of public life and conversation would allow more societal craftsmen. For this, we would be stronger.
My personal reasons for loving this rule are that it gives everyone agency, shows respect, and allows people who may not have knowledge of a subject to understand something new. Authority gives none of these – it simply serves to make the other person bow down and kiss the ring.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
See the above, but factor in that intellectual, philosophical, and scientific debates are almost never one-sided. Voices of authority show why they should have their authority by giving evidence, not simply asserting that they’re an expert and they know everything.
Ideally, this is how life would work: instead of “I know I’m right because I’ve studied/read about/experienced this,” the conversation would open up into a more satisfying explanation where both sides are able to understand the other’s level of comprehension and perhaps move up a level.
This may seem counter intuitive to those whose main forum is the 140-word-at-a-time Twitter, but it will be vital to understanding an opposing viewpoint or experience instead of an immediate agreement or disagreement.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
For this commandment, let’s take a look at the Streisand Effect.
In 2003, singer Barbara Streisand sued a photographer for $50 million for distributing a photograph of her mansion. She didn’t want the public to know what her home looked like; fair enough. How she went about suppressing it, however, had the opposite effect.
At the time, the photograph – shot by a photographer who worked for the California Coastal Records Project, an agency that studies coastal erosion – had only been accessed six times. During and after the lawsuit, the photo was viewed more than 1 million times and reprinted by the Associated Press. Safe to say the public knew what her home looked like after this lawsuit.
Think of this in terms of recent events: How many additional people knew who Milo Yiannopoulos was before protestors at DePaul University stormed the stage and protestors at UC Berkeley set fire to the school? I had no idea who he was until the DePaul kerfuffle, but I figured he must be worth listening to if people wanted to so badly conceal him. While it turns out that he isn’t worth listening to in the least (he’s fucking awful, it turns out, in that he’s bland, boring, and about as provocative as a pair of stale socks), his star grew and he became a popular gadfly. I pin his rising star on the same bug that made people want to see Streisand’s house.
Look man: I’m a journalist by trade. Once someone starts trying to keep something from me, I wanna find out what it is and expose it. Over the years, I’ve found that far from making me special, this is the standard mode in the human brain. If you tell me something is bad or evil or unethical, I’ll want to see it for myself.
I think this can work to our advantage as a society. As Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light is the most efficient policeman.” Instead of trying to suppress opinion and allowing the opinion to suppress you, refute the opinion and allow it to publicly hang itself.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
Geoffrey Miller’s fantastic Quillette piece – “The Neurodiversity Case for Free Speech” – discussed Issac Newton’s would-be status as a 2017 intellectual. Miller’s estimation? Newton would never make it:
“Sooner or later, he would say ‘offensive’ things that get reported to Harvard and that get picked up by mainstream media as moral-outrage clickbait. His eccentric, ornery awkwardness would lead to swift expulsion from academia, social media, and publishing. Result? On the upside, he’d drive some traffic through Huffpost, Buzzfeed, and Jezebel, and people would have a fresh controversy to virtue-signal about on Facebook. On the downside, we wouldn’t have Newton’s Laws of Motion.”
While we live in times where having an odd, out-there, or unique opinion will get you quickly thrown against the internet’s electronic walls, I feel that no one should ever be afraid to express genuinely-held opinions.
I often see and read people bristle at opinions or beliefs that are not of the popular canon and bristle they should, if they so feel the ire is deserved. However, someone who holds odd opinions should still have the platform and ability to express how they think and feel. This, however, becomes harder as much of the public bristling ends with the opinion holder’s job loss, public shaming, and the potential for becoming stuck with the label of “the person who thinks like a fucking asshole.”
All of these are frightening, I admit, but they’re also exciting. A microphone as large as the internet deserves to be shouted into; I truly believe that when people are affected by your words and opinions, you’re doing something right, even if that something is changing your own opinion. You cannot control the reaction people have to what you think and feel, but you can hope that there is some level of constructive feedback to allow you to improve your word and opinions.
Like Miller, I agree that we need to create a better atmosphere for those who think and speak in unique, odd, weird, and sometimes terrible ways to have less fear that they will be disciplined for their thoughts. You can’t stop a company from firing you, I suppose, but you can at least make ratting on someone for their thoughts and beliefs as much of a social taboo as believing something outside of the Overton Window.
The internet is a tool that will make the world better if we all use it properly; in my estimation, creating a new dark age for open thought from odd ducks will only allow us to stagnate or deteriorate.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
I love this Russell commandment more than any other.
If I disagree with you, it means that I respect you enough to put myself out there in a vulnerable spot. This may seem against the grain, but it’s genuinely how I feel – we disagree, that means I think you have the capacity to take it without freaking out. I would never take the time to disagree with someone I didn’t think had the capacity to change their mind or help me change my mind. When someone else disagrees with me, I feel the same way. It’s a sign of respect, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
I understand this may not come naturally to many people, but I hope that it is something we can work on as a society. I’ll do my part by disagreeing as often as possible; please do the same to me.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
As I’ve previously written on this blog, I’ve tried to stop lying since reading Sam Harris’s “Lying.” I was never a big liar – never a yugeeee one, either – but I certainly lied enough to get an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach when I had to blurt out an uncomfortable truth at work or in a relationship.
However, uncomfortable as the truth may be, the axiom that the truth sets you free has held true for me.
While I’m not batting 1.000 in the game of truth-telling, I now get the terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach when I lie. I’ve corrected myself a few times and felt instant relief. I’ve gained equal amounts of respect and dirty looks from telling the truth when it’d otherwise be prudent to simply nod along.
The best part: I don’t lie to myself anymore. When I do, I internally call bullshit. This, I’ve noticed, has strengthened my intuition and made me work harder at getting what I want. Perhaps the placebo effect is in effect here, but I no longer see myself as an impersonator, a full-grown teenager with no business of being in the adult world. I no longer worry about piffling white lies exposing me as some kind of serial fib artist. I actually have a sense of pride when I look at myself in the mirror.
It feels fucking good to tell the truth.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
Let me translate this for 2017: If you look at your social media feed and notice everyone is having the happiest, best day of their lives meanwhile you’re eating your third depression pizza of the week and battling to stop the next episode of Frasier from autoplaying as you numbly stare at the TV, don’t worry; you aren’t alone.
I feel like shit sometimes, too – hell, I spent a good chunk of today wondering what the fuck I’m doing with my life. The people you see posting all happy, smiley pictures likely also have moments where they wonder where they went wrong in the midst of so much that feels right. It’s a human feeling and we all – or at least most of us – have those moments. Those moments suck, but they’re also useful. They allow you to take stock of what you’re doing, what you have, and what needs to change. Feelings of discomfort mean that you aren’t settling for less when you could be getting more.
Also, let me say of those who seem endlessly happy: perhaps this is a bias for people I know, but every person I’ve ever met who puts on a social mask of happy-all-the-time has as many worries and anxieties as any other downtrodden, average soul. Some people are very good at hiding how they feel, but I don’t believe anyone should have to hide their true feelings. Why not be openly sad? Why not be willing to be publicly uncomfortable? Why fake being happy?
This goes back to what I said in the commandment about honesty over lies: Living in a life bolstered by lies can only make one feel so good. There’s a limit. You look in the mirror before bed and see a liar. That’s the Fool’s Paradise Russell wrote about.
Those people who deal with their demons with balls and bravery will be rewarded. The reward won’t be a bullshit world where every moment is a full-toothed smile and sunny day, the reward will be knowing themselves and having a realistic idea of how their world works. If that includes sad days and setbacks, so be it; there will be time to reassess and recalibrate. They’ll be able to look in the mirror at night and see someone worthy of self-respect. They’ll worry not of being found out, of being discovered as a phony, a teenage adult. They’ll be themselves, unapologetically. They’ll be free.