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.

4 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

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