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.
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.