2013-03-25

That's Crazy

The other day, someone on my Google+ feed posted a link to the following video from libertarian philosopher Stefan Molyneux:


I must confess that I found the whole the rather odd. Molyneux starts with a flawed premise: that those who derive the most enjoyment from fictional, fantastical tales of heroism are the people least likely to engage in true heroism (because they're nerds lol!). He then proceeds to reason that all heroic fiction is designed to teach us that heroism itself is a fantasy, and that the only thing we can ever hope to do is be a mindless cog in the state-led machine. Molyneux concludes the video (spoiler alert, I guess) by declaring that we all have it within us to be heroic, and that heroism just happens to be... pretty much engaging in the kind of lifestyle Molyneux himself would prefer that you lead.

Let me begin this discussion by stating a few important points.

First, I sympathize with Molyneux's libertarian world-view. Faithful Stationary Waves readers know me to be an outspoken libertarian myself. So, I would ask you to keep that in mind as you read my criticism of Molyneux's video. I certainly don't intend to criticize the concept of freedom, nor do I consider it "unheroic" to take a philosophical stand in favor of freedom, individuality, and all the other aspects of my creed that Molyneux also shares.

Second, it appears to me that Molyneux's entire premise rests on the notion that people who enjoy comic books, fantasy novels, and science fiction are weak, cowardly nerds, and he buttresses this claim with nothing other than a rhetorical appeal to the viewer's own biases against nerds. It is as if Molyneux is simply saying, "Think about who likes fantasy. Nerds like fantasy. You don't want to be a nerd, therefore we can all agree that fantasy is for nerds. Therefore, it must be that fantasy encourages people to become nerds. Therefore, it must be that the authors of fantasy want people to be nerds. Therefore, fantasy must be, at its core, a statist concept. Therefore true heroism is libertarianism. QED."

I am in a charitable mood today, so I will temper my true reaction to this argument and respond as follows: By appealing to a bandwagon fallacy and his viewers' aversion to being thought of as nerds, Molyneux is the one who sounds like he's trying to brainwash people. (Of course, I leave open the possibility that Molyneux has simply brainwashed himself.)

Either Way, This Video Is Weirdly Alarming
To be honest, when I watched the video, I recoiled in disgust. The core analysis is sloppy and hinges on the idea that anyone who likes fantastic fiction (we might as well start calling it Romanticism, since that is the proper literary term for fiction that appeals to our ideal types) is some sort of a philosophically stunted child. That is a claim so preposterous that even responding to it legitimizes it. There is absolutely no need to "respond to" that claim in an attempt to "refute" it, any more than there is a need to refute the idea that the Matterhorn is made of chocolate or that Brad Pitt is the criminal mastermind behind the kidnapping of the Lindbergh Baby. Just because someone levies a claim against an individual or a group does not mean that the accused needs to craft a rebuttal. It is Molyneux who is making the claims here. Let us consider the evidence. Oh wait, he didn't supply any.

Even so, if we accept Molyneux's point as true, then his video is all the more off-putting, for in it he slanders the victims of the state. In order to get viewers on his side, he first insults them, calls them weak and unheroic, and then dares them to comply with his own personal view of heroism. It's manipulative. Think about it: If this happened in a romantic relationship, it would be called abuse.

From the assumption that Molyneux's ultimate conclusions are correct, his method is highly coercive and underhanded. From the assumption that Molyneux's reasoning is sloppy and flawed, his conclusions have nothing to offer us. Either way, the video sucks.

Forces At Work
I can only really see two possible explanations for a video like this, and in all likelihood what's really going on is a combination of the two. Let's consider them now.

The first possibility is that Stefan Molyneux, who quite often posts videos, writes articles, and makes public speeches that reference psychology, knows enough about psychology to employ his knowledge in the crafting of his message. That is, Molyneux knows that he is being manipulative when he is being manipulative, and he's doing it because he thinks it's for the greater good.

The analogy here is sort of like when a parent says to a child that taking too much Halloween candy is "greedy" when what the parent really means is that eating too much candy is unhealthy and grabbing huge handfuls of free candy is taking advantage of your neighbor's generosity. The parent knows that the full explanation for exactly why a child shouldn't take too much Halloween candy would be lost on the average five-year-old, so the parent contents himself/herself to give the topic the "because I said so" treatment. With a single word ("greedy") the child can (perhaps) learn both not to eat too much candy and not to take undue advantage of a neighbor's kindness.

Similarly, Molyneux might be arguing against living with one's head in the clouds, believing that the word "heroism" only applies to strong, near-perfect beings who confront world-threatening danger and subdue the unyielding terrors that threaten the universe. Molyneux might simply be saying, Look, you have more heroism in you than you realize. You just have to learn to see that anyone can be a hero by standing up for what they believe. You don't have to be a wizard or a super-hero, you just have to actively pursue the world you would like to live in. The whole, "What are you, a statist nerd???" thing might just be there to simplify the message.

But notice how this explanation requires us to believe that Molyneux is a parental figure, or that he possesses a greater understanding of such things as individuality and heroism than the cowardly nerds who desperately need him to tell them how to be truly heroic. There is something overweening about that attitude.

The second possibility going on in this video is that Molyneux has become so practiced at applying his unique brand of "everything you know is a statist lie" reasoning, that he really does believe that anyone who ever wrote an entertaining story about a super-hero saving the world was a statist hell-bent on stunting your mind, harvesting your labor for the benefit of the state, and nefariously plotting the next step toward total control of the collective populace.

Of course, the ironic thing about this possibility is that, in order to believe it, we must believe that Molyneux's view of politics is a literal incarnation of the kinds of stories being told in the comic books and sci-fi movies he so criticizes. And if this second possibility is true - if Molyneux actually does believe that the state deploys Romanticist artists to stunt our philosophical heroism and control us, body and soul - then Molyneux himself is the greatest nerd of all. For it is he who has crafted a fantastical fiction about an evil plot to rule the world, one that can only be overturned by a libertarian revolt against the state's mind control.

The whole thing borders on paranoia.

These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible that Molyneux not only knows enough about psychology to create manipulative videos, but also that he is creating manipulative videos with the express purpose of sparking a revolt against the statist knaves who are trying to control our minds. Fight fire with fire, if you will. Or, that there is some blend of these two things. For example, perhaps Molyneux tells himself that when he insults his target demographic and then challenges them to win his approval, he is just crafting a "persuasive argument" for his ideas. Further, he might not believe that all Romantic literature is statist, but he might believe that enough of it is statist to present an existential threat to impressionable young minds.

In fairness, this is the more likely scenario. It is probably the case that Molyneux sees videos like this one as being persuasive, not manipulative; and he likely sees the state as willing to propagandize rather than devoted to mind control. But these concepts are gradients of the same thing. It is akin to saying that perhaps Molyneux is not so much a bad man as he is terribly confused or deeply flawed in his reasoning.

I can temper these statements so that they more easily appeal to those of my readers who are fans of Stefan Molyneux. But the fact remains: Molyneux has at least publicly claimed that Romanticism in literature is statist mind control. As the subject line of the blog post indicates, that's crazy. I'm sorry, but it is.

Another Way Of Looking At It
From my perspective, the frustrating thing about this video is that it is so completely unnecessary. There is no need to tag Romanticism as statist. There is no need to declare that fans of sci-fi and fantasy are cowardly, nerdy weaklings. Why on Earth should anyone take it so far?

Here at Stationary Waves, we too believe in individuality and dispelling our illusions. It is the de facto mission statement of my blog.

But when I tell you to set aside your illusions and live in reality, it is not because I think the state will get you if you don't. No, living in reality is beneficial to you because you are more capable of comprehending life and what's going around you, and that will make you better-equipped to deal with the challenges you face in life. And that's all there is to it. I am not after your donation to support my blog. I am not after your ideological commitment to my own personal political ideas. I don't even know most of you! I want you to live in reality because overcoming my own illusions works well for me and I personally believe it will also work for you. Period.

And when I tell you to pursue individuality, it is not because I am antagonistic toward collectivism, but rather simply because I see individuality as being existentially satisfying. That has been my own personal experience, and individuality has been good for my own personal mental health. That is the message I want you to take away from my blog. It has nothing to do with a war between competing world views or a challenge to rise to my concept of heroism.

I believe every human being deserves to be happy. I believe life is what you choose to make of it. The happier we all are, the better off we'll all be. We'll be healthier, we'll treat each other better, we'll be less inclined to harm or distrust each other. It's just a belief I have, a theory. So when I write about it, it's because I'm thinking about it and I want to share my thoughts with others, to see if they also feel this way.

But that's it. It's not a movement. It's not a team. It's not a political objective. It's a conversation. That's why I blog for free, and that's why I like to write. Join in the conversation, rub up against my ideas, challenge them, put your own thoughts out there, too.

And if I'm qualified to give advice about videos like the one above (and really - I'm not qualified), then my advice is to steer clear of intellectual poison designed to make you feel ashamed of being "a nerd" so that you will join somebody else's political cause. That's crazy.

See? When you say it out load it even sounds crazy. And it's certainly not happiness.