Why low-faith people struggle in a high-faith world

It's all kind of shit, but all virtuous behaviour in Western society is predicated on thinking that it isn't

A quick note: it’s been too much faff maintaining the SSL certificate at affect.blog, and life is too short to worry about what your (potential) employer(s) will think of something that you wrote on your personal blog, so it’s all at casey.li now. I’ll be moving some of the blog posts from here back into the Thinking section of casey.li over the next little while. Thanks for reading :) And as always, feel free to push back.

I think most institutions are shit.

Families are shit, companies are shit, governments are shit. The “values” that most of us claim to hold near and dear rarely extend beyond a thinly veiled delivery mechanism for what essentially boils down to self-interest. For all our talk about family values, people don’t care at all about other people’s kids. People don't even wish your children ill; they are simply indifferent to whether they win Wimbledon or roll into a ditch. We exalt the ideas of innovation, and of a Puritan work ethic, but founders love the idea of their company more than any of their employees ever will. Managers love their own comfort and career aspirations more than they love their teams. Politicians love their own importance far more than they love the abstract idea of their country or their values. Even religion and cultures can't keep hold. Priests grapple with their own emotional turmoil and allow it to override the morals they claim to have dedicated themselves to. Activists and people with strong moral judgements are hypocrites of one kind or another. We all kind of suck.

The least awful institutions that we've been able to come up with so far - democracy, free markets - are simply ways of organizing this self-centeredness and selective blindness to our own flaws in ways that result in the least amount of death and violence. History is the ugly story of broken institutions banging into each other, running the gamut from well-intentioned hubris to downright murderous intent, with the resulting outcomes being impossible to tell apart in many cases.

One thing I've been told repeatedly in my career is that I don't start with trust. I’m always on the lookout for people to exhibit hypocritical or selfish behaviour; being the flawed human beings that we all are, this vigilance never takes very long to confirm its own necessity. This then leads to anger, a questioning of everything, and a lack of ability to buy into the idea of the company.

I assume that most managers are incompetent because they care more about the banal and petty circle of their own well-being - and perhaps that of their immediate family - than they do about shaping the organization that dictates so much of my conscious life. I assume that every rung of hierarchy is motivated to extract as much value as possible from the rung underneath it, within the constraints of maintaining the status quo. A company does not provide you with dinner and health insurance because you are family to them. A company provides this because you are a free market agent and if they are not careful, you will leave to go work elsewhere.

I once read a paper on inter-generational trauma in children of first-generation Chinese immigrants living in Western Canada. In simple terms, the Communist party fucked up their parents, and then this kind of fucked up the kids. You can't help but feel angry when you read something like this. For a real exercise in feeling pointlessly angry at the stupidity of human consciousness, check out Yang Jisheng's Tombstone - the story of the Chinese famine from 1958 to 1962, when a spectacularly dysfunctional set of humans with terrible ideas starved 36 million people to death. We have so much respect for say, Semmelweis or Pasteur, for their contributions to the germ theory of disease. Isn't it so cool that the work of a few motivated people could enable so many more generations to live, find small enjoyable hobbies, flirt with cute baristas, fall in love, marry, have kids, assemble Lego cars, and enjoy peaceful Sunday mornings at the zoo? Now take that ever-expanding circle of love and invert it into itself, turn it all dark and stupid and nasty. Isn't it amazing that the thoughts of one asshole of a man (whose picture still hangs above Tiananmen) could fuck up so many endless generations into the future?

When you are embroiled in dysfunctional institutions as a child, the optimal strategy - indeed, one that may be necessary for survival - becomes to question and undermine the supporting structures of that dysfunctional institution. The highest survival rates during the famine were found in the families of party officials, and among the families of kitchen staff - a statistical anomaly that should not have arisen if we assume that they had all been living loyally by the maxim of "to each according to his needs". Note that even to this day, many Chinese folks think that the most chic thing you can do is not to climb to the top of the Chinese economic and cultural hierarchy, but to step out of it - to make enough money within the constraints of this ugly Communist-market hybrid monster to buy a one way plane ticket to (insert Western liberal democracy of choice) and never look back.

If you grew up with emotionally unskilled parents, questioning intent and pushing back on demands for your investment (emotional, financial, or otherwise) is not only a wise thing to do, but necessary. Though you also can't hold it against someone for being emotionally unskilled, if their primary concern as a child was to not starve to death. Just as it is unreasonable to expect someone to be charming at a dinner party, if they spent their childhood with no control of their vocal cords.

Anyone who blindly accepted CPC ideology in 1950s China would have worked themselves to death, and 36 million did. Likewise, blind acceptance of parental beliefs and "wisdom" - when the parents dispensing said wisdom are dysfunctional themselves - would be emotional seppuku. Check out some of the stories in r/RaisedByNarcissists or r/AsianParentStories. Sure, some of them are the grumpy ramblings of a 12 year old who just wants their curfew to be later. But some of them also describe emotionally incompetent behaviour that, if manifested in friend or partner, would be immediate cause for severing the relationship. And indeed that is what many do. The problem, however, is that once you learn emotional relief can be had by simply distancing yourself from one set of humans, you start trying that trick with pretty much everything and everyone else - and that is a quick path to loneliness.

Turning away from a dysfunctional institution in favour of more functional ones is a recipe for recovery and growth; turning away from functional institutions that sometimes manifest flaws is a recipe for nihilism and isolation. The struggle of being a low-trust, low-faith person is that you often cannot see the difference.

Western liberal democracy is a high-faith society, and its actors - whether companies, families, or a hopeful date that you met on Tinder - are constantly looking for investment. If you want to be an emotionally impenetrable asshole who doesn’t form bonds because you're actually scared shitless inside, nobody is going to stick around and try to melt through your layers of ice. There are too many fully-thawed, perhaps never-frozen, emotionally healthy folks out there who are ready to go all-in and build things. They are psychologically skilled and considerate. They have endless depths of patience and a heart as big as the sky. They understand the value of a relationship. They can appreciate the little beautiful things in life because they aren't so wrapped up in themselves. They are the perfect partners, friends, parents, and team leaders, not because they are perfect, but because they are predisposed to try, and to think that there is something worth trying for. They are the real winners of Western liberal democracy, and despite being infinitely flawed, they represent the best of us.

What would it take to join them?

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