If there’s one passage that sums up the ethos of skepticism, it would have to be what Karl Popper says at the beginning of The Open Society:
“If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason. Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whose defence civilization depends, and to divide them. The responsibility of this tragic and possibly fatal division becomes ours if we hesitate to be outspoken in our criticism of what admittedly is a part of our intellectual heritage. By reluctance to criticize some of it, we may help to destroy it all.”
What I think Popper is advocating for is the adoption of a greater respect for truth, and as a consequence, a greater irreverence for authority, instead of the reverse—a respect for authority that suffocates truth.
Put more simply, I think Popper is talking about pedestals. He’s saying that we should put no one on them, that we should place no one beyond the reach of challenge and criticism.
The use of pedestals in my own life occurs in two forms. The first use of pedestals is when I put myself on one. When my arrogance, my ego, my entitlement, and my over-confidence compels me to think that I’m on a platform higher than others. Some of the things I said when I first started writing about mastery, strategy and practical philosophy contain this unspoken assumption. That somehow I’m superior to my reader, that I’m talking down to them from up high.
The second manifestation of pedestals in my life is when I put others above me. When I look up to someone and venerate them. When my respect for them is so great that I am unwilling or unable to question them, to challenge their ideas, to not make excuses for behaviour that, if anyone else had committed, I would normally condemn.
I’ll give you an example. A few weeks ago, Nassim Taleb posted something about heartbeats and life expectancy. I read it and thought it was kind of interesting. Because I have a background in fitness and strength and conditioning, I also follow some coaches. Alex Viada, a performance coach, strongly disagreed with Taleb’s ideas, attempted to contribute to the Facebook comments and explain why, and got blocked.
I saw this, and while it did make a crack in the edifice of respect I have for Taleb, I still found myself rationalising and justifying what basically amounts to an instance of intellectual cowardice; a refusal to acknowledge and listen to views contrary to those you hold.
Those are the two instances of pedestals in my life. But I began to wonder if there was a third, an instance of absence. What if we didn’t put ourselves above others, and we didn’t put others above ourselves? What if there were no pedestals and we were all on the same level?
A few days ago, I spent the day with a friend. He’s an independent creative like me and we were talking about the sometimes-questionable conduct of certain organisations and individuals he’s run into. He believes in transparency and honesty when he’s doing business, and the parties he works with, judging by their actions, do not. The way he was talking about them and describing himself made me think that he thought he was better than them. I asked him, and he kind of did feel that way and kind of didn’t.
I then made the point that putting yourself on a pedestal, saying we are better than them, is at the root of a tremendous amount of human conflict. It is from this position, from the pedestals we put ourselves on, that we direct hate and anger and entitlement onto the world and others. Consider this passage from Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy:
“Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our systems of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.”
But how do we go about actually creating an enemy? The answer to that question can be found in Robert Greene’s The 33 Strategies of War. Greene names his first strategy of war “The Polarity Strategy.” It is by identifying the polarities of life, then choosing and displaying which pole we align ourselves with, that we find our enemy. Mind versus body. Black against white. Then versus now. East pitted against West. Action opposed to reflection. Presence or productivity. Right-wing or left-wing. Freedom or security. Appreciation or accomplishment. The collective versus the individual. We can pick any side we choose. But in the act of picking, all we are doing is saying our end of the spectrum is better than the other, that we are better than those who hold the opposite position.
I don’t want to play that game any longer. I’m not above you. You’re not above me. Neither you or I are one hundred percent wrong or one hundred percent right. The world isn’t so handily black and white. We’re all shades of grey. No matter who I am, no matter who you are, no matter our relative positions in the arbitrary hierarchies of society, we can and should challenge each other and call each other on our own respective bullshit. But that can only happen when we get rid of pedestals and cease looking up and looking down, when we favor irreverence and truth over submission to authority.