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Dignity (lastwordonnothing.com)
174 points by collate 53 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments

One of the most poignant and evocative things I've read of late. I don't want to spoil the experience if you plan to read, so just two excerpts.

> What I learned from the book is that the differences between the back and front row are more than money, marginality, jobs, and education. That is, the back row kids chose lives and educations that weren’t going to get them fancy jobs and high salaries, and they did it only partly because their schools and towns and society hedged them in. They also chose the lives that were going to keep them close to their communities, their families. I believe that, I’ve seen it. And it’s admirable.

> Looking back I had never expected to have my atheism challenged. Certainly not in the drug dens of the South Bronx, but that is what happened. Part of it was recognizing a simply utilitarian value in faith. It was a more informed scientific view of religion. The realization that what the cold secular world that science so often offers up is just that, Cold & secular. Science is not very appealing and often hard for those dealing with trauma to see what “good” it offers. [...] It became a realization that being educated and wealthy had removed me from the best evidence for the “truth” behind faith. When you shield yourself from the messy details of life it is easy to convince yourself that humans can figure it all out, that we all got it under control, or that with enough data, thinking, and computer power, we could figure it out. Maybe, just maybe, we couldn’t and can’t ever do so. Maybe there is stuff just too big and complex to understand and perhaps that is the essential truth.


Succinctly illustrates something that is a complete blind spot for the mythical "Silicon Valley", with it's mood of techno-optimism and focus on "technology" (sic software). I'm sure reality is much more nuanced even for people with one foot in this bubble. I don't want to kickstart a cliched thread so we can all pile on SV, but I wonder how (where from) others here get such broader perspective in life. It would also be great to hear from people in very different circumstances & geography, about how they manage their intellectual interests and their human side.

I had never expected to have my atheism challenged [..] part of it was recognizing a simply utilitarian value in faith

That feels odd to me. Recognizing the value of community doesn't seem at odds with a rejection of supernatural entities. Likewise, I don't see the value of evangelizing my agnosticism to communities of different structure. Pluralism to me is an essential component of a society as large as our current one.

Maybe there is stuff just too big and complex to understand and perhaps that is the essential truth

Speaking only for myself here, but I don't need a god to acknowledge that our material and social world in complex beyond comprehension. At the same time, I also don't feel the need to have a being in my life that does comprehend all. It is enough for me to know the limits of my knowledge, and to scope my life within that context. Even more to the point, I find that the quest for "one essential truth", to the point of denouncing different conceptions of the unknown, is in itself detrimental to society.

So as to your question, I believe there is tremendous value in allowing people to be secure in their religion. It provides security, comfort and community for them. And I believe the recent surge in anti-scientific movements is in part motivated by (atheists') relentless attacks on the core tenets of other communities. Gods have always resided in the unknown, not in the unknowable. As the limits of our knowledge progresses, so have gods changed their shape. But by attacking faith on the unknowable, people have created much more animosity and defensiveness than should have been necessary.

> But by attacking faith on the unknowable, people have created much more animosity and defensiveness than should have been necessary.

You skipped over the fact, that religions hinge on explaining the unknowable, often in ways that harms certain communities and life styles. The attacks on religion have been squarely targeted at those aspects of religion. Atheists attacking a person's belief in a higher being (deists) is rather rare.

Friction is central to any change. If anything, the defensiveness and animosity is a necessary part of shifting power away from religious organizations.

> that religions hinge on explaining the unknowable

I don't think that is right. Mircea Eliade suggested that the primary function of mythology was a series of stories our lives could participate in and experience, and I think that's closer to the way religion is usually understood in most parts of the world outside the corner of Protestantism where your view holds most weight.

> often in ways that harms certain communities and life styles

My kids get to navigate three very different cultures -- traditional Indonesian society where getting married, procreating, and raising children is central to the family business economic order, the US where those are entirely separated from each other, and Germany where the recognition is you cannot have gender equality without support particularly for motherhood. I don't think you get that the conflicts between these are not merely religious but much more about the economic and social constitution of the societies, and that seeking to deprive, for example, Indonesia of their family business economic order in the name of sexual individualism or whatever harms these communities by opening them up to foreign exploitation. It's colonialism pure and simple.

Religion is an expression of culture and we assume our superiority over others culturally at great peril to both sides.

This interview is one of the most insightful things I've read in a long time. It is truly profound. I think you quoted two of the best passages in the interview.

The observation that some people in the "back row" have (to some extent) chosen to be there in order to be closer to family struck a chord with me. This isn't to suggest that it's "their fault they are poor" or anything like that. It just provides deeper insight into why they have made certain choices. Consider that the children of the "front row" suffer from disproportionately high instances of mental illness and substance abuse [1]. It appears to be because people who are in the "front row" are afraid their children will fall behind, and place enormous expectations on them. If you stay in the "back row" with your family, maybe you avoid some of these problems.

More and more I am convinced that as a society our increasing economic inequality is forcing everyone to make choices that have no good options. It needs to stop.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-dolphin-way/20...

> but I wonder how (where from) others here get such broader perspective in life

Not sure if that is what you were asking for exactly but for me personally reading the books of Jacques Ellul [1] was very eye-opening in terms of getting me out of the technology bubble. Maybe it's nor for everyone, and I've been reminded on this website that Ted Kaczynski (aka Unabomber) was also a fan of Ellul so probably in the eyes of that commenter Ellul's writings are invalidated by this sole fact, but for me personally his ideas managed to get me out of the positivistic view.

Ivan Illich's [2] booklet "Deschooling Society" has also had a very profound effect on me and on how I see most of today's world, which relies so heavily on education (Ellul favorably cites Illich more than once). Illich also makes very good points against most of today's development trends, like building highways, which granted has managed to become a mainstream-ish idea nowadays but back in the '70s (when the book was written) was total anatema.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Ellul

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Illich

Check out the book if you can. Among other things, it gave me a new perspective on McDonald’s as one of the greatest social institutions in postmodern America. I think a lot of HN readers would find that part interesting.

Like others, I was struck by the discussion of (not) moving away from home. Arnade describes the bewildered reaction that he usually got from people if he asked them why they never left the area where they grew up. i.e., how is that even a question?

What curriculum doesn't teach you about negative numbers until the 7th grade??

After reading the article, I thought this comment may have been the funniest possible first post.

He mentions coming from a small 750-strong or something poor town? Perhaps that curriculum?

Isn't the curriculum set by the state?

Wikipedia has an article about the former principal of Randolph County High School in Alabama: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hulond_Humphries

There were tensions over interracial prom dates, then the school burnt down (it was unclear whether the Panthers or the Klan was to blame, but the smart money is on the Klan), there was something of a consent decree, and the principal was promoted to superintendent.

There are large tracts in the country that are so backwards that they cannot be improved, also because anyone capable left generations ago.

Are all schoolrooms able to absorb / taught the same state mandated curriculum though? I can imagine tons of things being skipped in more "poor/inner city" like classrooms, compared to things taught to middle class kids... (I can also imagine jaded teachers, huge commotion from the kids, etc preventing fully covering things).

Not sure, so just saying...

It might have not been 40-50 years ago.

This is all about travel. In the terms of the author I have to consider myself a front-row person. But I can easily go back to the rural area I come from - and I do so regularly - and I really enjoy it every single time. If I could, I would probably live there.

The thing is: you cannot live where your roots are and be who you want to be at the same time. You have to travel. A guy from the Ukraine cannot be a Stanford professor and be close to his parents at the same time.

But traveling technology can make this simpler. It will probably never fully resolve this issue, but it can get better.

In all these talks about how traveling damages our climate and our cities we should never forget what purpose it can serve.

> A guy from the Ukraine cannot be a Stanford professor and be close to his parents at the same time.

They can, however, use their experience from Stanford, and try to improve education in Ukraine, be an independent researcher in Ukraine, try to create a "mini-Stanford" around themselves in Ukraine, etc. An uphill battle for sure, but possibly with more immediate impact.

That is not the point. This would be like telling people who want better working conditions to found a company and implement them. When our hypothetical professor starts building Stanford in the Ukraine he stops being what he wants to be, a Stanford professor, and becomes something entirely different, a Stanford builder.

Sure, I got the point, one cannot do the exact same thing in both places.

> This would be like telling people who want better working conditions to found a company and implement them.

In some situations that may be a reasonable thing to say, and indeed, many companies are founded that way.

But let me back down for a different reason: in the same situation I am not practicing the advice I was giving.

> you cannot live where your roots are and be who you want to be at the same time

thank you for this, it describes so many of us these days

The more you travel, the more you find that one persons front-row is another persons back-row, and so it goes on and on in circles, until eventually you realize that travel is the only way to go.

Russ Roberts interviewed[1] Chris Arnade on his excellent podcast EconTalk about this book, a month ago. It’s been on my reading list since then.

[1]: http://www.econtalk.org/chris-arnade-on-dignity/

Dignity is a really under-used word these days. And leaving it out is why so many of the discussions on class and money get nowhere - because it exists outside the monetizable sphere. Or rather, there are all sorts of ways to sell it but few to buy it back again.

There is a way to buy it back, but it is very expensive, with time and a lot of thought and even more of actions.

I do not expect this title has anything to do with reasoning about people's choices at all. Nor with the concept. I think it might have more to do with dismissal. Its opposite.

What irks me is that talking as if "people/science cannot understand" is a different kind of hubris. Not humility.

It's only that this limited quant approach is not enough. Too reductionist, too simplified. World is much richer than such spherical cow models.

To falsify this idea, consider when people thought men flying on daily basis was impossible. Yet here we are. And we can do, as a whole, so much more.

The idea that something is unknowable is not productive. It may make you feel good or accept your limitations, but there are so many other ways of doing that which are not regressive and do not apply your presumption on state of knowledge, humanity or the world on others.

Respect is a two way street. Lacking in the USA lately, while forced and faked in the some Asian cultures.

Respectability is a separate matter stemming from it.

Dignity is a word of many and inconsistent meanings, mostly undefined. Excellent way to hide what you really mean.

Very interesting and provocative read, so another book on my reading list.

I grew up in small town America myself. I now live in Europe because in part it reminds me of the nice life I experienced there -- focus on family and community rather than the atomistic, anonymized individual of the big city. Europeans support families (and in particular raising kids) better than Americans do.

I sometimes talk with Americans about the problem of urban privilege, and the fact that urban Americans a) can't usually understand where rural Americans are coming from and b) see themselves as superior. Every point you can make about white privilege applies to the urbanites and the urban/rural split as well. I have lived in Sweden, which reminds me very much of rural Utah culturally, and in Germany which strikes me more like where I lived in rural Washington State.

I love how this guy seems to have made it across this divide both ways, and come to understand the quiet strength, admirable characteristics, dignity, and community that lies behind rural life and to understand the fact that this urban privilege can be seen through (as he calls back-row rather than front-row).

Having recently finished "Hillbilly Elegy," this interview reminded me of similar themes. America doesn't really have a meaningful discourse on class I suspect because the Soviet machine dominated it for so long it became a kind of third-rail topic.

If you are from a working class background, or find yourself navigating it, what you notice about people who have left it is they leave behind that very "dignity," (or honour) that defines working people. They become placeless, "political," "from anywhere," as opposed to "from somewhere."[1] It's because an elite education broadens your perspective so that the symbols and things you previously thought were meaningful and powerful don't figure in with the same significance when you see the bigger picture of possibilities. What working people treat as a localized cultural dignity can seem like superstition when viewed against much greater power in a global context and perspective. This dignity is still important, but higher education "pops," you out of that view.

The side effect (or cause of problems) of this is that today, even the most elite institutions do not create enough cultural distance between working people and the new administrators, and so you have this insecure burgher class in America who define themselves with displays of contempt for "white trash," "rednecks," etc, because even their advanced education and high paying jobs (or cultural capital) do not provide them with enough distance and certainty that they are in fact sufficiently different, that working people wouldn't even register as a threat to their identity.

The reason a "noble," person can treat people equally is because there is absolutely no danger of the association harming their identity and position. It's also why country people can seem extra egalitarian, because they just don't have a stake in the affectations of city class navigation.

You can also see how the most militant critics of working class values and of the underclasses' dignity systems and honour codes are the people who most closely resemble them, or perceive they are only a few paychecks away from them: "artists," with middling if any higher education, unionized workers, city dwellers with precarious culture and media jobs. The lower middle who need to distinguish themselves and work harder so they don't lose, "everything," and be reduced to those people they are trying so hard to separate themselves from. On the upper end, there is a kind of haughty mystification at why anyone would actually fear wearing red or blue in certain neighbourhoods, but when they say they don't understand, what they mean is they don't need to.

This negative cycle of downward class anxiety and neuroticism from the new middle just provokes entrenchment of working tribe values and reactionary views, and you get the culture wars of today. America's new elite is not exceptionally elite by historical standards, and it knows it, and their impostor syndrome is expressed mainly as contempt for an underclass and the scapegoating of working class people.

The solutions are more complex, but the problem seems stark as day.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/22/the-road-to-so...

Very insightful reply.

I think there is a specific problem in the discussion of how class is discussed in the US today, which is that Americans think of class in quantitative terms, i.e. it is about how much money you make. But these theories start with Adam Smith who saw the primary division as being between working class (labor), landlord, and employer classes. To Smith, you have two different rentier classes and a working class, and the difference is qualitative. (Now, assuming Picketty is right that returns on capital are greater than economic growth, qualitative differences lead to quantitative differences, but one is cart and one is horse.)

Until we start recognizing that we as software developers are working class too at least until we cash in enough options to own real assets, we can't have this discussion.

I feel compelled to say thank you for this especially insightful comment. As one who escaped Appalachia and moved from blue collar work to a white collar career, everything you've said here rings true. You've captured the underlying reasoning in the social classes, the underlying insecurity and fear that makes us turn against one-another, and the cynical way that's utilized by a wannabe elite/ruling class, as I've experienced and observed it.

In much the same topic, I recommend this one too:


This points at "Nickel & Dimes" by Barbara Ehrenreich

/your friendly amazon link deofuscator

Yep, though actually "Nickel & Dimed" (the book's title. The Amazon page is mistitled).

One day in the future I hope we can take classism as seriously as other forms of bigotry like racism and sexism.

Explicitly racial segregation is over, but capitalist class society segregates people by socio-economic class implicitly (it's explicit in only certain places like airplane cabins).

Of course, class is a great way to continue to run a racist society: Just cram the underclass with most of the minorities!

The only solution is to replace the class system with something that provides unconditional dignity for all.

I have this pet theory that much racism is actually wrongly interpreted classism. In many countries, big ethnic minorities (eg African Americans and Latinos in the US, or the Turkish & Maroccan Dutch where I live) are much poorer, on average, than the national average.

I suppose that many people might think that poorer people are more likely to break into their homes, rob them on the street, sell drugs etc than richer people. So they prefer to avoid poor people if they can. I mean, that's classism in a nutshell right?

If you're black in the US or Turkish in NL, it's like having an "I'm poor" sign on your forehead. Especially if you don't dress overly businesslike.

That doesn't explain the racism against Jews, or Asians.

I think the explanation is more biological. You're hardwired to feel that people who look and talk like you are the easiest to ally with. Sometimes it even becomes a self-reinforcing loop - if blue people have a slight preference to ally with other blue people, then green people will find it easier to ally with greens than with blues, which will be noticed by the blues and so on.

> That doesn't explain the racism against Jews, or Asians.

True, but it does explain some of why white people in a super white neighborhood call the cops when a black guy is walking down the sidewalk. It's totally ridiculously bigoted but I think there's a big "this guy looks poor, is he going to break in somewhere?" component to it. And that's classism, not racism.

I'm not saying classism is any better btw. I am saying that trying to solve classism-disguised-as-racism by talking about skin color or culture is missing the mark. The narrative "most black people don't $negative_stereotype" is common, but I hardly see any "most poor people don't $negative_stereotype" messages out there.

> The only solution is to replace the class system with something that provides unconditional dignity for all.

I am really afraid of comments that state that there is only one solution for a social problem. Speaks a lot about the mindset of the commenter. Please, do not be that person.

Baselessly prejudiced discrimination is obviously bad, but whites in the west had a head start of hundreds of years of amassing wealth and power. That's how the game mostly works.

We're born, we do the work and we die. We're not entitled to anything.

>The only solution is to replace the class system with something that provides unconditional dignity for all.

Basic income, let's go!?

Your comment amounts to "whites rule, deal with it", aka blatant white supremacy.

It's a perfect example of the racism-through-classism that I'm talking about.

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