We’re fond of figuring out what we stand for. Of thinking about all the ideals, virtues and principles we want to promote. It makes us feel good to think and say, “Me? I believe X. I stand for Y.”
And it’s a good idea to do this, to figure out what we’re about. It provides us with purpose and direction. It gives us a guide which we can use to make better decisions and enhance the desired impact of our actions.
But the most important aspect of this exercise is one that goes unappreciated. If we figure out what we stand for, we are also, simultaneously, discovering what we must stand against.
See, it’s easy to be for freedom. It’s harder to fight against tyranny. It’s easy to support the equal distribution of wealth and information. It’s much more difficult to oppose those who try to monopolise these things. It’s easy to campaign for intellectual courage. The idea that we should seek out all things contrary to our beliefs and examine them with fairness and impartiality. It’s something else to challenge and expose intellectual cowards.
Nassim Taleb has said that a man is defined by his enemies. He was wrong. Extraordinary men and women are defined by their enemies. Most people choose to define themselves by their allegiances. By the ideas and people they associate themselves with. It’s easier that way. Because what does it cost to add our energy to something that is already rolling downhill? Nothing.
But to stand against something? To plant our feet in the face of the oncoming avalanche? To define ourselves by the things we oppose? That takes courage. That takes will. That takes strength. And that’s the true test of our cherished principles and ideals. Will we fight when they’re in danger of being violated?