Truth versus getting something done

Truth is the first casualty of war. It is also very commonly the pre-casualty of getting something done.

Feel bad? Throw a tantrum. Makes no difference if your reasons are right. Just go nuts and often you will get something done and may even feel better for it.

Confident assertion carries the day, especially among those who have power or are wannabe power types.

You can see this principle at work in politics, war, business, interpersonal relations, schools, science, religion—pretty much anywhere you look.

Truth, when out, is strong, but in most situations it is weak and quickly trampled by those who are getting something done or who promise to.

Communists in Russia and China said some true things before they got power. Once they got power, they still paid lip-service to truth, but became preoccupied with getting something done, especially getting more power.

Truth in Russia went from a semi-reasonable (semi-reasonable if you ignore the principle being described here) to unbelievable, wanton, astonishing violence and mass murder on a scale not seen in Europe since the Mongolian invasion of the 13th century.

Somewhat similar events unfolded in China a few decades later. Some partial truths were trampled by violent fanatics who killed scores of millions. Then Mao got Alzheimer’s and the country was ruled from behind his doddering throne by the Gang of Four, one of whom was his wife. After they were deposed, the country slowly opened up. Today it is ruled by a small oligarchy made up of the children and grandchildren of the original Chinese communists who brought about the revolution, which had been based on partial truths and a massive ability to get something done.

I am half-way through The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam by Douglas Valentine. So far, the book shows that the same sort of thing happened there. A misconceived program got started and kept going because untruthful reports looked good to LBJ who wanted to get something done. He used people who also wanted to get something done. So something became anything became terror, blowing up villages, while using American “advisers” who had next to no knowledge of Vietnam.

I doubt it was much different in Iraq. Untruthful “intelligence” was sold as truth and mayhem got done. That there probably were more sinister goals than “birthing democracy” is a sort of refutation of my point that proves the point. The people that claimed to want to get something done were the ones who carried the day.

When we emphasize truth over getting something done, many things change. In interpersonal relations, we will find that something like FIML practice is essential for without it we will tend, at least sometimes, to ignore the small voice of truth as we rush forward to get something done.

From what I have read, CEOs do not deserve their rock star reputations anymore than hedge fund people do. They get high pay and respect based on statistical fluctuations. In any year, there will be a number of CEOs or hedge funds that have outperformed the average. Given more years, there will be regression to the mean and their track records will look no better than chance.

Our next presidential candidate will fill the media with small truths and many lies while ardently promising to get something done. It won’t happen. It never does. They fool us because it feels good to listen to someone promising to get something done, even if we know it’s not true.

Speech pathology

An insidious and common kind of speech pathology is having more in your imagination than you are allowed to say.

What prevents you from speaking may be cultural. Or it may be a lack of skill, which in this case is almost certainly due to being in a culture that does not train its members to do this.

I would hypothesize that a person’s degree of emotional/psychological suffering scales very closely to the degree that they are not able to speak about what is in their imagination.

Some people kill their imaginations to save themselves the trouble of feeling bad. This is what alcohol addiction, and some other drugs, can accomplish. This is also what is accomplished by becoming subservient to the conventions of a culture that proscribes or inhibits speech that might free its members from the suffering described above.

As far as I can tell, there is no large or major culture anywhere in the world that allows its members speech to match their imaginations.

Imaginative speech in art is mostly OK in most cultures. But interpersonal imaginings are not.

If you imagine anyone in any way, especially in a way that is painful to you, but you cannot speak about it to them, you have this speech pathology, or your culture does. If the person you are imagining is just an acquaintance or conventional friend, this does not matter too much, though it is not an ideal situation.

If the person you are imagining is your primary interlocutor, you have a serious speech pathology.

“Creative intimacy” – the importance of pairs

Read an interesting piece this morning that focuses on the importance of pairs, or partners in creative work. An excerpt:

…given that our psyches take shape through one-on-one exchanges, we’re likely set up to interact with a single person more openly and deeply than with any group. The pair is also inherently fluid and flexible. Two people can make their own society. When even one more person is added, roles and power positions harden. This may be good for stability but problematic for creativity. Three legs make a table stand in place. Two legs are made for moving.

Pairs also naturally engage each of the two people involved. In a larger group, an individual may lie low, phone it in. But nobody can hide in a pair. (Source)

Please read the whole piece and not just that short section.

I agree with the above and would add that groups all but force us to employ lowest-common-denominator semiotics in communication.

Moreover, it is very important to understand that the meso-level of communication (words and semiotics) between two people is not now and probably never will be describable in terms of neurons or the physical matter of the brain. The more we know about the brain, the better. But even if we have perfect knowledge, we may never be able to use it to predict the trees of association that will form in your mind after being prompted by virtually any semiotic, word, or concept. It is very unlikely that thought will ever be entirely reducible to neurons or chemistry.

What do you imagine or associate with the simple composite of a sheep plus an apple? Then what do you imagine or associate with whatever that is?

It is very unlikely that any micro-science of neurons will provide us with an answer to that, though you could easily just tell me what your associations are.

Thus, at the macro-level of society or more than a few people, it is difficult or impossible to arouse the depths of your mind, your being, your creativity, your unique existential reality.

At the micro-level of physics, it is unlikely we will ever be able to describe those processes or phenomena, let alone improve on simply speaking honestly to each other.

At the meso-level of communication with a trusted partner we can achieve detailed and fulfilling psychological traction. We can discover aspects of thought and feeling that we cannot find in any other way. An individual alone cannot check their work. A group cannot handle significant detail. Only partners (maybe more than two) can find robust clarity and depth in the meso-reality of interpersonal semiotics, that level at which we most deeply recognize ourselves.

FIML practice is designed to be done by two people. It works by providing partners with a means to unlock the profundity and complexity of the meso-level of semiotic exchange between them. In the linked essay, Shenk puts it well why we need partners. FIML gives ordinary people the means to become extraordinary by showing them how to investigate the meso-level of semiotic exchange between them.

Tone of voice during a FIML query

In basic FIML, tone of voice during a FIML query ideally will be neutral.

In practice and as time goes along, partners will find that it is not as important to maintain a neutral tone of voice during a query as it was in the beginning.

What is important at this point is for both partners to understand that when one of them queries the other, if there is a discernible tone of voice when the speaker makes the query then the listener should assume that the speaker is wondering if the listener is thinking whatever. The listener should not assume that the speaker is thinking that.

This opens the mind of the listener to a kaleidoscope of potential interpretations while relaxing the speaker, who knows that the listener is not judging or interpreting prematurely.

A listener to a query should understand that the speaker of the query may be wondering if the listener is thinking something that statistically is less common than something else. Let’s say that the speaker is wondering if the listener (their partner) is thinking something that only 5% of listeners might be thinking in that situation.

Their wondering about something with a statistical chance of 5% is of some interest but is not of any particular emotional or intellectual concern. It doesn’t matter all that much if they are wondering about something rare or common, something unusual or usual.

Indeed, creativity is sometimes vaguely defined as the making of rare associations. Why should either partner fear wondering about something rare, let alone common?

It is not the job of the one being queried to have a strong interpretation about what the speaker is asking or why they are asking it or what they are imagining as they are asking it. Just answer the query honestly as per FIML guidelines.

After a while, after the basic query has been completed, the one being queried may or may not explain why they were wondering what they were wondering if they had been wondering anything. At that same point and not necessarily before or after the listener, the speaker might profitably reveal what they had imagined the listener might be thinking. Or what they wanted to be sure the listener was not thinking.

Understanding the above will give both partners access to much wider and more various contexts than is normally possible. Having such access frees both partners emotionally and cognitively from conventional and idiosyncratic confinements, expectations, habits, limitations, and so on.

Kevin MacDonald

I am a huge supporter of free speech, both in public and in private. I mention this because I am dismayed at how little can be said in private even among close friends, while even less can be said in public.

I am also terrified at the idea that the USA may eventually enact hate speech laws. As a linguist, I know from study and practice that limiting speech to pre-approved topics and emotions is the bane of social and intellectual progress.

As a Buddhist, my main complaint against the Dharma as we have received it is its emphasis on “right speech” with no mention of right listening. Over-emphasizing speech while ignoring the importance of good listening gives all power to the listener to interpret what they hear without analyzing it.

Having grown up in a community that was about 40% Jewish and having spent many years in China and East Asia, I am very used to how these groups speak about themselves and others. Editorials that would be deemed “racist” in the USA or Europe are common in East Asia where discussions of race and racial/ethnic interests are normal.

Kevin MacDonald is a scholar of Jewish history and Jewish “group strategies” as interpreted from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. It is refreshing to read MacDonald’s work because it is clearly referenced and argued and because he is not Jewish.

Not being Jewish gives him an objective point of view that frees him from some bias. One bias that affects the way many Americans perceive Jews today is the great prominence of the Holocaust in our understanding of Jewish history coupled with almost complete ignorance of the prominent role played by Jews in the Great Famine (Holodomor 1932-33) in Ukraine. Here is a piece by MacDonald on that subject: Stalin’s Willing Executioners: Jews as a hostile elite in the USSR.

Here is an essay posted by MacDonald just today: Žižek, Group Selection, and the Western Culture of Guilt. In this piece, he defends and explains himself better that I can. I highly recommend both of his linked essays.

When he is not being completely ignored, MacDonald is often called a racist or even a neo-Nazi, words strong enough to scare most listeners away. What is conspicuously absent is reasoned refutation of his well-argued ideas. Either he is right or wrong or partly right and partly wrong. But no one who has read his Culture of Critique could in good conscience dismiss it out of hand or conclude that MacDonald is racist or anti-Semitic.

I admire MacDonald for his scholarship, much of which I accept as adding to our understanding of the past and present. And I also admire him for his courage to speak publicly and to make his views known to a wider audience through The Occidental Observer, which promotes “white identity, interests, and culture.”

If those last few words make you shiver, go live in China where the promotion of Chinese identity, interests, and culture is the rule, not the exception. Or read any of scores of Jewish publications that do the same. Or Japanese, or Korean, or Mongolian, or pretty much anywhere in the world.

But white. Why white? Why not Irish, or French, or Polish, or Italian? Why white? The reason is the genes and culture(s) of European-derived peoples are mixed together. So if you want to preserve or promote the interests or culture(s) of those people you probably should use a simple word like white.

I have spent much of my life supporting civil rights, first for blacks, then for women, then for everyone. Then I became involved in promoting the interests of Chinese immigrants, followed by the interests of Tibetans in Tibet (now a largely lost cause, I fear). But only recently did it ever even occur to me to support the interests of white culture.

I got this way due to time and growth but also due to my painfully slow realization that the non-white groups I was supporting virtually never supported my group, the white people group. Yes, they sometimes supported me, but only if I were supporting them, often against real or imagined white oppression.

I don’t for a second deny that white people have done horrible things, but so have all the other groups, including Jews. When we don’t have free speech and we allow the listener to decide what can be said or not, we tend always to emphasize one side of things while leaving out other facts and interpretations.

Speech is always suppressed by those with the power to do it. There is much truth in the saying that you can tell who rules over you by what you are not allowed to say. This is as true in a Chinese Buddhist monastery, as it is in a Japanese classroom, as it is in American media.

I do not believe this is good for anyone. We should be open and free in what we say, how we reason, and how we think. Open discussion promotes a safer and better world for everyone. Kevin MacDonald is either right or wrong or partly right and partly wrong. He should be read and discussed widely and not simply ignored or dismissed with ad hominem attacks.


Edit 11/03/15: Just discovered this answer to MacDonald from 2009 by Paul Gottfried: In Search of Anti-Semitism.

Edit 04/16/16: Here is one from 2003 by John Derbyshire: The Marx of the Anti-Semites. And one from 2009 by Eric P. Kaufmann: Verdict: Suicide—Eric Kaufmann Replies To Kevin MacDonald.

Always important to read both/all sides of any argument. I find none of these answers to MacDonald strong enough to convince me that he is not mostly right. Derbyshire, in particular, seems to be viewing Jewish behavior from an abstract distance that does not  recognize the strength, even violence, of Jewish networking and ethnic nepotism. He reminds me of Western sojourners to China or Japan who enter those societies at high levels (academic, diplomatic, or business) and thus fail to perceive the intense ethnocentrism that prevails outside of the well-mannered (and often phony) venues they frequent. The kinds of things MacDonald says are utterly normal topics of public and private discussion in East Asia and throughout the world, with the focus, of course, changed to whichever country one is in. ABN

Alison Weir



This talk was given on March 7, 2014 and applies to events today in Gaza as if she were foretelling them.

I am putting the video up for that reason and also because something she said grabbed my attention. Her claim begins around 1:22. She says, in part, of the Israeli strategy that it is designed “…to keep deaths below the level that would trigger world outrage, while maiming as many as possible.”

I hope she is wrong, though I doubt it. A strategy of this sort is particularly gruesome as maimed individuals can cause more problems than dead ones. If there are many of them, they can hobble an entire society. A maimed individual still has a place in society. If they were leaders, no matter how small, those who looked to them for direction will still look to them though now they will learn a lesson of despair.

Having been deliberately maimed myself (in the USA), I am acutely aware of how effective this strategy can be. Social bonds can be weak and even deep interpersonal bonds can be degraded overnight when one party is maimed, especially if others don’t know what has happened. Maiming can take many forms, including war wounds, poisoning, psycho-surgery, beatings, infection, deliberate medical malpractice, false arrest, and so on.

I hope Weir is wrong about Israeli strategy, but I am certain that strategies of that type have been and are used in many parts of the world, including the USA. If the level of maiming within any particular society is kept largely secret—“below the level that would trigger [societal] outrage”—narrow, partisan aims can be ruthlessly pursued without fear of ever meeting significant opposition.

Ambiguity in interpersonal communication – the “ambiguous commons”

Virtually all interpersonal communication contains ambiguity, much of it very serious.

Basic FIML practice is designed to deal with ambiguity between participating partners. For the most part FIML deals with ambiguity the moment it arises.

Basic FIML works with very small units of communication and for that reason is able to completely clear up serious ambiguities if they are caught soon enough.

An advantage of FIML practice is through its use of small units it is able to achieve almost perfect clarification of those units. Try it. Just  few successful FIML interventions will change your life.

In light of the above, an obvious disadvantage of basic FIML practice is it is not well-designed to deal with larger ambiguities. A larger ambiguity would be one that arises or perdures under circumstances that cannot be subjected to an immediate FIML query.

Situations like this will occur when FIML partners interact with other people. During time spent with others, it is generally not possible to do a FIML query. Matters worth inquiring about can be brought up later, when partners are alone, but it is usually more difficult to resolve them that long after the fact.

I think it is fair to say that virtually all human communication takes place in and around an “ambiguous commons,” a common area of meaning that can be variously interpreted and is liable to always be ambiguous.

“Did I sound dumb when I said that?” you might ask your partner some hours after spending time with friends. No matter how they answer, it is hard to know if they saw or heard the same thing or if either of you are remembering the scene correctly. And even if you can get decent satisfaction with those questions, what about the other people who were there? Have they concluded you are a doof or do they like you better for what you said or did anyone even notice or do they remember or care?

You can sort of fix things up with a phone call and an open-ended apology, but what you are really doing there is just massaging the ambiguous commons, working it your way or toward common ground. You are not really going to remove the ambiguity and/or you are going to create more, because your call might confirm the gaffe in the other person’s mind, or it might remind them of what they had forgotten, or it might seem paranoid of you or considerate, et cetera ad infinitum.

That is the nature of the ambiguous commons and if you look for it you will see it everywhere. If we enter the “ambiguous commons” from one side, our behavior will look different than if we enter from another side, and it has many sides.

You can see it in public life, too. Pretty much any issue of public interest will be worked in and around the ambiguous commons by those who speak on it publicly. Gun-control statistics and emotions can be and are worked from many angles. The winners of the debate will be those who convince the most people based on how they massage the facts, how they get their message out, how much money supports their massaged position.

Wars are started by massaging the commons as well. We can see the power of public views of the commons by how explosive public issues can be in a private setting. Bring up gun-control today at the dinner table and compare the reactions to subjects that are becoming more settled like gay marriage or legal pot.

Basic FIML practice is not designed to deal with a large ambiguous commons, but FIML partners through their practice of basic FIML should find that they have greatly increased sensitivity to the importance of noticing the ambiguous commons and treating it honestly whenever it arises.

Measuring pleasure, pain, bias, and acculturation

It’s a given that our senses of complex pleasure and pain are socially mediated and/or constructed.

Even simple pleasures and pains can feel different in different cultures and contexts.

Complex pleasures, pains, values, biases, and social norms are learned and maintained by social interaction. Just as most children naturally like sweets, most adults naturally cleave to cultural norms.

It is relatively painless for most to hold conventional beliefs and painful to go against them. This is why cultures seems so groundless—even ridiculous—when viewed from a temporal or cultural distance.

An interesting study from Cornell University claims that “…the subjective quality of affect can be objectively quantified across stimuli, modalities and people.” (Source: Population coding of affect across stimuli, modalities and individuals)

An article on the study, which is behind a pay wall, says of it that brain “activity patterns of positive and negative experiences were partly shared across people.” (Source: Study cracks how the brain processes emotions)

That is, different people’s brains appear to show similar activity under fMRI imaging when responding to similar pleasures or pains.

The pleasures and pains charted in the experiment were simple, but I believe it is reasonable to extrapolate from them to general statements about how humans perceive and respond to cultural norms, values, beliefs, and semiotics.

The biases of my culture feel pleasant to me and remain maddeningly simple-minded because I process them in much the same way I process the taste of ice cream or the feeling of a familiar and comfortable chair.

The biases of your culture feel painful to me and remain maddeningly simple-minded because I process them in much the same way I process a fly on my nose.

Virtually all people are trapped in very slow-moving agglomerations of signs and symbols (culture) that determine how they experience pleasure and pain (biases and more).

I think the Cornell experiment, though it does not make such strong claims, is showing basically that.

Empathy’s evil twin and our need to understand it

Empathy literally means the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by another sentient being.

It is almost always bound up with sympathy and compassion. Empathy as we normally think of it is a good thing, a liberal thing, a Buddhist thing, a kindly thing. But is that a good thing?

William Blake wrote the wonderful book of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience. When I first read Blake in my late teens, I adored the poems and illustrations of the Songs of Innocence and largely disliked or ignored the Songs of Experience. I liked the joy, innocence, and passion of the Songs of Innocence but not the sober truths of the Songs of Experience.

Culturally, as far as I can tell, America is infatuated with the innocence of empathy, but not the sober truths that should go hand in hand with it.

If all people were nice and kind and never did bad things, it would be good to be innocent about empathy. But not all people are good. Indeed, most of us are only good sometimes and some of us are really bad a lot of the time.

Do you have the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by a person intent on doing harm? Doesn’t our current sense of what empathy entails leave out empathy’s evil twin, the bad emotions and intentions of other sentient beings?

I don’t know if it is still true today, but Japanese tourists visiting the USA used to get mugged and raped at levels well above their percentage of the population. The reason was, and maybe still is, they were too innocent and could not perceive the evil intent of their new “friend” or the cool dude asking them for the time.

This happened because Japan has less violent crime than the USA and because Japanese tourists were not able to imagine or read American situational exchanges. And this shows that empathy for evil is based both on expectation and culture, which are close in nature.

The Buddha said that we can only really know another human being after long association. Even he cautioned about being innocent and empathizing only with the good we see in others while failing to recognize the bad.

Psychedelics and life/Buddhism

As mass fear of psychedelics subsides and more researchers dare to study them (used to be a career-ending move to even show an interest), more good things are discovered about them.

This recent article from the Washington Post describes, without even hinting that the researchers might be crazy, why psychedelic mushrooms might be good for you: Psychedelic mushrooms put your brain in a “waking dream,” study finds.

The article notes that the mushrooms can make people happier and more optimistic, while also curing depression and anxiety. It further claims that psilocybin produces brain “activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” a chorus of old hippies intones.

More on the study can be found here: New study discovers biological basis for magic mushroom ‘mind expansion’.

I have written several times about the fifth precept of Buddhism, which says: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.” (See Are We Misunderstanding The Fifth Precept? for more.)

I have gotten a fair amount of grief from some Buddhists for pointing out that the Buddha, who was an exceptionally careful speaker, mentions only booze in the fifth. Conspicuously absent from the five precepts, which are guidelines for lay followers, is any mention of psychedelics, which definitely were available in the Buddha’s day.

Many of those same Buddhists accept the use of dubious psychoactive drugs if they have been prescribed by a medical doctor. So, will they change their tunes when doctors start prescribing psychedelics?

My interest in this subject is not to encourage the use of psychedelics or any other drug. I just want us to be clear about what the Buddha actually said and meant. Should our understanding of the Dharma be based on one of the most reliable and widely agreed upon texts we have or regressive drug laws and timid science?