"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Luck Of The Draw–Randomness And How A Good Hand Beats Good Intent All The Time

There is a great deal of purposefulness in America today.  Everyone not only has an opinion but a cause.  Feminists, environmentalists, civil and animal rights advocates, locavores, fundamentalists, community boosters, and cyclists all vie for public investment and private donations to enable the attainment of their goals.  The world will be a better place, they insist, with dedication and commitment.

Not only is social progress possible but imminently attainable. Whether it is cleaner environment, a less violent, gun-free society, a world without war or civil conflict, or a society annealed by respect, tolerance, and sharing, it only takes collective, purposeful action.

Children can be brought up an educated within this progressive worldview.  They can be taught to reject gender distinction, to condemn bullying and antisocial behavior, to see all men and women as absolutely  indistinguishable equals.  There are no fat people, nor gawky, ungainly ones.  There are no slow learners, dwarves, or wall flowers.  Problems are all to be solved by temperate resolution, selfishness to be punished, untoward ambition to be discouraged.

All goes for naught, of course.  Children will always fight to defend their corner of the sandbox, grab toys, make guns out of carrot sticks, and defy all attempts to corral, break, and harness them. Adults, regardless of their commitment to social integrity and progress, will never give an inch when unfairly challenged.  They will fight against  injustice, greed, intemperance, and reactionary conservatism. 

A colleague and his wife, Jane,  have both been in the vanguard of progressive causes – world peace, nuclear disarmament, feminism, civil rights, and environmentalism.  They have been unfailing in their support for what they consider right movements – those that help propel America towards a better and more just world.  They have led academic protests against sexual violence, argued for affirmative action, and shown solidarity with Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street.

Jane was a relatively high-ranking executive in a professional association whose charter was to promote the cause of women – especially women of color – within academia.   The association was of course diverse.  Although there were no men, there were women of all races, sexual preference, and national origin.  The board of directors and senior management wanted the association to look exactly like the universities of the future.   It was meant to be diverse and tolerant of difference and individuality within the context of race, gender, and ethnicity.  It was to be a model not only for academia but for society as a whole.

To Jane’s surprise, chagrin, disappointment, and great disillusionment, a black woman challenged her for an important position within the association – one that Jane had been the presumptive nominee for years.  The position was much sought after, for whoever was chosen for it would have final say in the association’s planning and future directions.  Jane was experienced, competent, and intelligent; and fully expected to get the post.

Her challenger was less qualified  less experienced than Jane, but  far more ambitious and savvy.  She saw advantage in her color, understood the sensitivities of older white women who had come up through the Sixties’ civil rights movement and their old-fashioned commitment to diversity and integration, and knew that she could push them around.  How, she rightly surmised, could any one of these women possibly challenger her without exposing themselves to charges of racism, perhaps the worst criticism and condemnation that they could possibly imagine.

The challenger pulled out all stops, insinuated herself into the ruling cabal of the association, curried favor with the board of directors, and felt that she was unstoppable.

Once Jane had gotten over her shock, picked herself up, and saw the dream of her professional lifetime disappear, she was angry, resentful, and determined.  Despite all her training, all the inculcation of progressive ideals, all her determination to do good in the right way, she picked herself off the mat and prepared a very aggressive, militant offensive strategy.   She would have to negotiate the minefield of race very carefully, but she knew that if she played her cards right, her challenger would be left swinging in the breeze without knowing who hanged her.

There were skirmishes, firefights, moves to recruit allies and consolidate their support, feints, end-runs, frontal assaults, and strategic retreats.  The two enemies were well suited.  Jane was intellectually smart.  Her challenger had street smarts; and they both had will, determination, and purpose.

The board of directors were not sure what to make of the battle, but as long as it was fought within respectful bounds, far be it from them to intervene.

Jane eventually won but without many wounds and battlefield scars.  Worst of all was her disillusionment.  If this raw aggression could occur within the most progressive sanctuary in Washington, then what could be expected of society as a whole?

Bitterly disappointed and now seeing the world in a very different way, Jane not only left the organization but gave up her membership and active support of all her previous causes.  She had seen the light.  Human nature was, is, and always will be territorial, self-protective, and aggressive; and countervailing force was the only operational theory to guide human conflict.

Far more intelligent men and women had concluded the same.  Nietzsche, for example, is the best-known of all the determinist philosophers who postulated that in a random, meaningless universe, the expression of individual will was the only validation of human experience. 

Tolstoy in both the body of and epilogues to War and Peace set forth his own deterministic theories which rejected Nietzsche’s valuation of the individual.  In Tolstoy’s view, there was no value whatsoever in so-called individual achievement, conditioned as it is by the millions of random events which precede any action.  Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino was not the result of a surprisingly myopic military strategy, but because of a cold which clogged his sinuses and clouded his brain.  A cold which was brought on by cold, wet feet which in turn were the result of a forgetful valet who, obsessed over his wife’s infidelities, brought the Emperor leather shoes instead of gum boots. 

The valet’s wife was unfaithful because….and here Tolstoy didn’t need to go on.  The web of random events which preceded Napoleon at Borodino extended in all directions in to the distant past, across continents, time, and history.


Jane’s epiphany came independently of Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, or Sartre.  She simply understood how if in a perfectly constructed social environment, one built on accommodation, respect, harmony, and tolerance, all hell could break loose, then there was no point in conceived purpose.

The variables affecting the office fracas – the black woman’s tarpaper shack North Carolina upbringing, affirmative action scholarships, progressive idealism, and narrow political agendas, the woman’s own DNA – were all understandable, predictable, and unavoidable.  Each one of them, however, was not initiated with any purpose.  The black woman could have just as easily been born white on the Upper East Side.  She could have had genetic traits of complaisance and shyness.  Her willful and determined aunt could have left for Chicago and not stayed in Parker’s Point.

Jane herself could have gone into science as her father had urged instead of political science.  She could have married Longworth Harris, scion of a Boston industrialist family and not Bobby Bilder, son of activist Quakers. 

When one finally comes to these conclusions, there are only two paths forward.  The first is to ignore the stochastic nature of history, and conclude that if everyone is propelled by chance and not purpose, then free will, purpose, and mission are real.  The second is to accept randomness and purposelessness, ignore idealism, play the hand of cards you are dealt, and enjoy the game as best you can.  Epictetus was right.  Since all events are beyond are control, it is better to stay calm and accept them dispassionately.  Epicurus was even more right.  In the face of a random world beyond individual control, he said, hedonism is the only logical choice. 

Jane’s life after the fracas was a combination of the two.  She accepted that her every action was determined by millions of precedent random ones, but that she had only the hand of cards she was dealt to play; and she resolved to live without the compunction of purpose and commitment.  Epictetus did not deny the idea of responsibility, but, he said, “We have no power over external things and the good that ought to be the object of our earnest pursuit, is to be found only within ourselves.

Freed from such moral purpose and judgment, she found that she was far happier than she ever had been, a hedonist at heart, realized before it was too late.

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