The Morality Of Toast
Editor | On 01, Mar 2018
I’ve known it for a while, of course. The main job of conferences is to make me angry. Great for sparking some deeper thinking, not so great for my mental health. Which is why I have to limit how many and which ones I attend. I learned something this year: some conferences are more hazardous to health than others. It’s not just how many conferences I attend that affects my health, it’s also how toxic they’re likely to be. The main toxicity driver seems to be the number of politically-correct liberals in attendance. It often takes an extreme example to make the realization hit home. Like toast. Surely not the sort of topic that people should expect to get upset about. But apparently, nothing is off limits these days. Enter the main protagonist, Professor Invertebrate. Who is telling the audience about his moral dilemma with the aforementioned carbonized bread. It’s really bad for people, the good Professor began telling us, hands-wringing uncomfortably, I’m concerned that my research will be seen as endorsing the consumption of more toast.
At first I thought he was joking. I looked around the rest of the audience, thinking they were all waiting for the punch-line like I was. They weren’t. Apparently, the Professor had hit an uncomfortable nerve. Nay, within the next couple of minutes, he’d sparked a liberal hand-wringing epidemic. I was in political-correctness Hell.
Here’s the problem. All of this getting offended on behalf of others actually has the exact opposite of the intended effect. It assumes that a ‘command and control’, ‘I know better than you’ strategy will be helpful, when in reality it just creates a horrible downward spiral in which we all – society – find ourselves seemingly unable to say anything at all without offending someone. Command-and-control and complex systems do not make for useful companions. Try and command and control a complex system and all you do is push everyone to the edge of chaos.
The toast episode was the final straw for me. Before the end of Professor Invertebrate’s naïve ill-conceived diatribe was over, you’d have thought he was responsible for the creation of a napalm replacement. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was thinking, maybe we’ve stepped a tad too far away from sanity here, but, as I looked around the room, it was clear no-one was going to say anything. And when nobody feels able to call out stupidity when we hear it, we’re all in trouble.
Here’s what I think was happening in the morality-of-toast sermon:
That was almost the exact picture I drew while I was sat there gritting my teeth and trying to rationalize why the room had gone nuts. It felt like I was on to something, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was trying to encapsulate several different downward spirals into one central ‘root-contradiction’ cycle, and the complexity of the situation wasn’t going to allow such a thing to happen.
What I needed, I eventually worked out (a few days later, I might add, after my initial anger at Professor Invertebrate’s nonsense had subsided), was to look at the different stakeholders involved in a generalized situation in which a political-correctness-Nazi feels the need to step in to a situation where they see something ‘bad’ happening.
Figure 2 illustrates the basic vicious cycle people like Professor Invertebrate very easily find themselves trapped in:
The more people like the Professor interferes in other people’s problems, the less impact they have, the angrier they become, the more they look around for other things to whine about.
This is a sad state of affairs. But not nearly as toxic as the effect they have on the actual person that is suffering from the supposed bad thing. Figure 3 makes an attempt to represent the vicious cycle the Politically-Correct intervener has on the only important person in the story, the victim:
The politically-correct intervener, according to this cycle serves only to make the victim more and more fragile. The best of intentions, in other words, serves to deliver the worst of outcomes. This is what Command-and-Control does. It tampers with what would have otherwise been a self-organising system that would have worked out virtuously for the victim. That virtuous cycle looks something like the image shown in Figure 4:
When people are nasty to us, it never feels good. It’s not supposed to. The discomfort we feel is the mechanism that forces to get out of our comfort zone and learn something. What we are likely to learn in the situation when people say dumb things to us is that it was indeed dumb, and that dumb stuff happens all the time, not just to me, but to everyone else as well. We’re all victims at some time or other of dumb stuff. The more I realise that dumb stuff is merely that, the less fragile I learn to become. That’s why, when we look at the background of some of the most famous and successful people on the planet, we see they got where they did thanks to their ability to overcome adversity and this kind of virtuous harm-into-good cycle.
So much for the victim, now let’s have a look at the world from the perspective of the person saying the dumb thing. First up, what happens when Professor Invertebrate gets involved and makes their adverse comment:
Calling dumb comments out, makes the person saying the dumb stuff defensive and this in turn starts a downward spiral of more and more dumb stuff. Contrast this with what happens when the Politically Correct liberal learns to shut up:
Without Professor Invertebrate in the picture, people that say dumb things learn to say them less. It’s counter-intuitive – to the politically correct liberals at least – but that’s the way the world used to work: an ocean of virtuous and vicious cycles we all (naturally) learn to navigate, provided we keep command-and-control out of the picture.
So is toast bad for us or not? Let the self-organising system tell you the answer not some politically-correct scientist with no skin in the game: Eat too much toast and you’ll become obese and your pants don’t fit anymore. That’s a signal to eat less of it, dummy. Don’t eat enough toast and you’ll feel like you’re missing something in your life. That’s a signal to go and eat more of it. Two balancing feedback loops mean we’ll eventually realise how much toast we should allow ourselves to consume. It’s not rocket science.
It’s time to call out the politically correct: they think they’re helping. Now we know they’re not, and, more importantly, that we have the answer to whatever bullshit they come out with to try and shut us up: they’re best intentions turn virtuous cycles into vicious ones.
We (the West) have forty-plus years’ worth of political correctness to unwind, so its not going to be an overnight job. Political correctness, for the moment at least, isn’t a crime, but if anyone’s interested, I’m happy to start a petition if it will help speed things up.