Ain’t Gonna Study War No More

Epistemic Status: Personal

People are often confused when I say I’m an anarchist, and it takes a while to explain what I mean, so I think it may be worth posting about.

The thing is, I believe in peace.

Yep, this is the old-fashioned non-aggression principle.  Consent. Voluntariness. Mutual benefit. Live and let live. All that jazz.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 

For me, it’s not an abstract formalism set up to justify why taxes should be lower or something.  Peace is a state that you can be at, or not, with others. Peace is what happens when two cats take a nap next to each other in a square of sunlight, and they don’t bother each other, but are okay in each other’s company. Peace is a state of deep, secure, calm nonintrusion.  Peace is what my husband and I try to practice in our marriage, for instance.

Peace means that nobody is giving orders, implicitly or explicitly. It means when you speak to a person you’re saying “I think you would value hearing this”, not “I’m going to try to alter you.”  It’s a kind of politeness and respect for privacy.  To get it exactly right takes a lot of work, and everyone makes mistakes at it.  But it’s a beautiful thing when it can be achieved.

Peace is the precondition for individual perception or creation. You have to be left alone for long enough to have a mind of your own. A child who gets enough time to play and dream will start making things. Poking and prodding interrupts that process.

Adults also have to be left alone to make things, if we are ever going to have nice things.  If you don’t let people make factories or houses or drugs, we won’t have any.

And cruelty hurts. Harshness hurts. Normal sympathy tells us that.  All things being equal, being mean is bad. I don’t care that it sounds childish, that’s what I actually believe.

Ok, but non-peace is everywhere. The world contains wars and governments, and pushy assholes, and probably always will as long as there are people. And there may be necessary evils, situations where aggression is unavoidable. Isn’t it naive of me to just stand here saying “peace is good”?

This is the point when I have to make clear that I’m talking about a stance rather than a system.  The question is always “what do I do?”, “where do I place the Sarah in the world?”  I don’t have a God’s-eye view; my understanding literally comes out of my own brain, which is embedded in one person, who exists in the world.  So there’s no real principled separation between believing and doing.

What defines you, as an agent with bounded computation, is what you focus on and what simplifying heuristics you use. Defining the “typical case” vs “outliers” is a form of frame control that is inevitable, an ineluctable form of choice, so you may as well do it intentionally.

My stance is that my attention belongs on the win-win, peaceful, productive parts of the world. My stance is to place myself on the side of aspiring to higher standards and aiming for joyful wins.  I think that outlook is both well suited to me and significantly undervalued in the public.  We may need people in this world who are all about making harsh tradeoffs, protecting against tail risks, guarding the worst off, being leaders or guardians or sheepdogs — but that’s a completely different frame, a different stance, and I don’t think it’s really possible to see the world through both simultaneously.

In the frame I find healthiest, the “typical case” is that people are individual persons who fare best when their consent is respected, that by default “doing well” and “doing good” correlate, that “do your own thing, seek growth and happiness, don’t aggress upon others” is usually the best bet, and that cases where that’s not possible are the exceptions and aberrations, to be worked around as best as possible.  Peace is the main course, force is a bitter condiment that we must occasionally taste.

This is the lens through which Leopold Bloom sees the world:

But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.

— What? says Alf.

— Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.

I’ve often noticed a hope deficit — people are very quick to try to decide which necessary evil they have to accept, and it doesn’t occur to them to ask “what would it look like if things were just straightforwardly good?”  There’s a creative power in optimism that people don’t seem to appreciate enough.

I think I’m not going to do that much more digging into social-science topics, because they aren’t as amenable to finding peaceful wins.  The framing puts me in the position of asking “do I support inflicting this harm or that harm on millions of people?”  And this is ridiculous; I, personally, will never do such a thing, and don’t want to.  If I ever make a valuable contribution to the world it will almost certainly be through making, not ruling. So anything that sets things up as the question of “what would I do, if I were a ruler” is corrosive.  The world is a mixture of peace and war, but I want my part in it to be peaceful.


5 thoughts on “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More

  1. Very interesting!

    An issue that I feel that I have to contend with is: how much coercion will be necessary in order to create the world in which I want to live?

    My *hope* is that the answer is “none”. My *fear* is that it may be something other than “none”. My *suspicion* is that the “standard” way of getting around this problem is to (self-)deceive, thereby giving up integrity. It may not be possible to have all three of (i) non-coercion/non-intrusion, (ii) honesty/integrity, and (iii) a world that doesn’t suck with respect to my values. It is, in any case, an empirical question that depends on the properties of humans.

    You write: “If I ever make a valuable contribution to the world it will almost certainly be through making, not ruling.” A problem arises if the things we want to make are, in part, made of people. For then making becomes difficult to distinguish from ruling.

    Another observation perhaps worth making is that, although the label you assign to yourself is “anarchist”, this post seems to place you as a “liberal” rather than a “conservative” in the sense of the “we-live-in-fun-times vs. zombie-apocalypse-is-imminent” spectrum.

    • Agreed with all of the above. I think it’s probably best not to give up integrity, though last month I would have been way less confident in that. I think an accurate statement would be “Peace may not always be possible, but force is always painful and costly.” And sometimes it’s only possible to find the occasionally-possible if you take the attitude that it’s findable. You have to love peace and know what it is, in order to *ever* stand a chance of achieving it.

  2. I think I’m not going to do that much more digging into social-science topics

    Selfishly, this is a shame, because those posts are very informative.

    Also, I feel that the area of understanding & improving society is precisely the area where it is most necessary to understand how to increase peace, and to what extent peaceful solutions work.

  3. Eventually someone with such a mindset, me included, is going to get world weary I guess. Tho exposure is the only thing there is if we are to expect constructive change. Even tho statistics say generally things are looking up it is worrying even with so much recorded history around us we still have the risk of regression. Exposure has to be constant, non militant hopefully… With me I used to not understand and hence dislike gay people when I was a teenager but exposure thru culture mostly expanded my view. So if you can throw constructive exposure out there without attaching too much to the outcome I say keep doing it. In our little worlds that we control there can aim for peace if we want to which is great. Btw just discovered your blog… Peace

  4. This post has been ringing around in my head for months now, pretty much ever since you posted it.

    My first reaction was a complicated mess, partly admiring you for making a decision that would make you happier and also frightened that all the good/sane/rational people will/are/should follow your lead and go off and largely ignore politics. “You’re right, but don’t say it or else all the rational people who listen to arguments will leave and the only people left on the field of battle will be the evil ones!” And I guess that sort of meta-concern, a worry that if *I* don’t stay then I can’t be sure anyone will, kept me going on as I had before. That an addiction to the outrage and anger that helped cover up my fears about politics and life more generally, and served as a distraction from the close-in world around me that I really can effect.

    I’m not sure where I was before the rise of Trump, but I know that before and especially after his election I was and am in the frame of mind that violence and force and irrationality are the norm, with peace and reason being under threat and fragile. I’ve become obsessed with compromises, and what sort of things you have to say and do in order to stop the threat, and what things you have to give up in order to hold the line around things more precious. It’s been exhausting and corrosive to my spirit.

    Increasingly I think you were basically right. You have to choose your frame. There may well be a place for people who’s primary orientation is how to avoid losses, how to prevent the worst-case, etc. But it doesn’t have to be me, and I don’t have to view the things I value most as fragile and under threat and rare if I don’t choose to. After all, people always and everywhere want a better life for themselves and their families and those in their communities, however they define those things. And I’m confident that liberalism (international/old meaning) actually gives them that, and does so more effectively than anything else. Each person can be reasoned with, if given time and compassion. You can make new things which solve problems we used to think could only be solved with force but now are open to cooperation and negotiation, and can work to make improve things given the levers near you, the ones you have a prayer of pulling if you yank hard enough.

    I definitely think a lot of the social science and politics I have surrounded myself with foster an attitude “what if I was a ruler?” when I won’t ever be, and while I’m confident I could do better than most at it, I’m increasingly skeptical of whether I would want to. Even thinking about it regularly has made me callous, angry, dismissive. To be one? To actually hold the ring of power in my hands? I never understood why Dumbledore would choose not to hold power, not really. But increasingly I think I do. It wasn’t just that he may be tempted to do terrible things For The Greater Good. It was that it would corrode his own ability to connect with others, to find joy and love, to be happy. I think I see that, feel it, in a way I simply haven’t before. And I don’t think I would have, really, if it weren’t for this post jostling me all those months ago and ringing around my head in the interim.

    How successful do you think you’ve been at not studying war no more? What sorts of limits have you set for yourself? I love sociology and economics a lot, and find all manner of topics in social science interesting. Politics is engrossing and difficult to pull away from, but I think that may be easier for me to disengage with, at least on the day-to-day level. I find it hard to imagine pulling back from my fascination with the social sciences though, and have been considering what might be involved with a pivot away from the Big Picture and toward things more connected with my real life and that I might have more influence over. I think I maybe have more of my identity wrapped up in these topics than you did/have, but I’m not sure. I’d be really interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter.

    And thank you very much for writing this. 🙂

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