Quote for Discussion: The Evil Pleasure

We feel a deep pleasure from realizing that we believe something in common with our friends, and different from most people.  We feel an even deeper pleasure letting everyone know of this fact.  This feeling is EVIL.  Learn to see it in yourself, and then learn to be horrified by how thoroughly it can poison your mind.  Yes evidence may at times force you to disagree with a majority, and your friends may have correlated exposure to that evidence, but take no pleasure when you and your associates disagree with others; that is the road to rationality ruin. 

~Robin Hanson

This is perhaps my favorite quote for discussion I’ve ever posted, not least because this is one of the sins I most overindulge in.  It also couldn’t be more timely, if I may dare say so.

One of the strangest things about the world in the few days since Barack Obama was elected is that none of the Obama buttons and t-shirts have disappeared.  Indeed, if anything, they have become more omnipresent (at least in Manhattan – I see little, most of the time, of the outside world).  Which leads to an interesting question: what is their purpose?

Ordinarily, we see political buttons, shirts, bumper stickers and lawn signs as a form of advertisement.  Look at all these people who support Obama!  If all these other people like him, then he must be good!

But we all know better, don’t we?  We know it isn’t about that.  We know that when people wear t-shirts with the Nike swoosh on them, or Tommy Hilfiger or Juicy Courture, it is about something else.

It is commonly considered to be fair for a team to celebrate a victory, and “bad sportsmanship” to gloat.  Victory is earned satisfaction; gloating and gratiutious demeaning of the loser is evidence of something ugly.  But why?  

Hanson amends the post to add that he unintentionally used terms which seem to limit the applicability of this statement to small groups.  Indeed, you could (and probably should) substitute “associates” for “friends”.  What does this mean?

After Obama’s historic win, many commentors, including Chris Mathews and Chris Wallace, expressed that such a thing could happen “Only in America“.  This expression was repeated in numerous editorials and columns such as this and this.  This is a perversion.  What is taking place is that a rational and deserved pleasure in accomplishing something historic and worthy is grafted into an irrational pleasure in the quality of our nation.

The accomplishment itself is the reward.  A formulation that began with “We did something good” becomes twisted into: “We did something good that other people can’t do,” and finally into: “We are better than other people.”  The pleasure in doing something good is substituted for the pleasure of being part of a group of people who do better things than other groups.

It seems like a minor example of transference.  What difference does it make, after all, if you are getting your pleasure from being part of a group which does the best things, rather than simply from doing the best things?  The best things still get done, right?

Probably not.  Because you have surrendered your ability to discern what is actually good and what it is that your group does.  Your primary drive is no longer to do good and derive pleasure from that; your drive is to ensure that your group remains the “best” – and you are likely to make irrational evaluations of what constitutes “good” in order to ensure that your group status is retained.

Too often, we confuse the pleasure in being right with the pleasure in being right while others are wrong.


Skip to comment form

    • Jay Elias on November 8, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    …I hope it makes for a profitable discussion.

    • kj on November 8, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    RUKind’s comment re: change/status quo in Kitty’s essay from last night relates to this essay. maybe.  stasis v continuous movement?  don’t know.

  1. and you might indeed be right.

    But I’m wonder if the Obama paraphernalia might be about the stunning thing that just happened on Tuesday, how long and hard people worked for it, and an attempt to extend the feeling of joy.

    I was struck thinking about how many people who voted for Obama were barred from voting just 45 years ago. Within their lifetime, something that so many people worked and died for had an amazing result. I also think about what Whoopi Golberg said about finally feeling like she could put her suitcase down.

    When something really bad happens, we allow grief to take it’s course over time. And a few days of celebration might just be called for here.

    • Edger on November 8, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    A feeling that “it’s finally over” is something I keep seeing crop up.

    It isn’t over.

  2. I don’t really have a group I strongly identify with. In fact that has always been a problem with me. I am not much of a joiner and I am not sure why. Oh back in Canuckistan I voted and was an active party member but who am I supposed to identify with: middle aged chicks with a cynical attitude?

    I don’t ever see where I fit even though I am no mucho radical.

  3. Did you ever get a dog?

  4. … by the notion of “only in America” could this have happened.  I think on its face it’s incorrect as throughout history these kinds of victories have occurred.

    I think that feeds into the “American exceptionalism” theme, which is dangerous — and it also gives cover to those who don’t want to confront the extreme damage we have caused around the world these past 8 years specifically, and past decades generally.

    But I also agree with NL that those who wear the buttons, etc. aren’t necessarily buying into the “we’re better” meme but are just so happy and grateful that their hard work paid off, and in many cases are celebrating our own victory, that so many regular citizens got involved and made this such a successful campaign/election.  In that sense, I hope that feeling continues, as we have a lot of work to do and the grassroots needs that kind of morale/energy to do it.

  5. My law sign is still out, and now, before I go retrieve it, I want to think about whether it has any meaning that it’s still there beyond that I’ve been too busy to walk down the road and get it.

    I think the buttons and stuff are, as others have commented, trying to extend the good feeling of a long struggle and its historical conclusion. It’s a way of saying, “I was there.  I helped out.  I voted for this.  I’m happy at the outcome.”  That, of course, has a short shelf life.

    I’m sure that we (whoever the “we” might be) are already on to the next thing.  Shortly, those buttons are gonna look as weird as photos from the ’90’s with people wearing baseball caps backwards.

  6. The people we disagree with believe in and have supported a political position that includes senseless war, torture, racism, homophobia, ruinous economic and energy policies, etc.  I have compassion for the people themselves but I have no compassion for these positions or the mindset that supports them, and I am not willing to give any space for this mindset to draw breath.

    We have often been accused of not being willing to take a moral stand, well this is where we draw the line of morality. Those who have claimed the moral high ground all these years have no moral center, and their time is over.  

  7. …i have to take exception to the idea that small group identification is evil, though.

    I mean…people are wired to groupthink.  But a liberal education is presumably and hopefully the work of learning to reality check our biases and tendencies, to be aware of our own irrationality and knowing that comes part and parcel with our humanity: not forgiving it, but being aware of it.  There are any number of things people do that lead to a surrender of rationality and clarity.  These things are not evil, I think they are necessary to us, as naked house monkeys, to be modestly sane.  But when we look up and out to others, when we try to think things through, we should seek out the contrary, the different, the counterintuitive.  Reason doesn’t come from perfect conditions, it comes from being aware, and constantly questioning oneself, and I think these things can be learned.

    Evil in the sense referenced here, to me, comes from never learning to think beyond one’s emotional predilections —  

  8. is one of the reasons this country took this nasty turn to the right. What your talking about seems to be exceptionalism. Only in America, being an example of this. I  think this election was a healthy start at rejection of the ‘better then other people’. Perhaps the purpose of leaving the paraphernalia around is because for the last decade we’ve been under the thumb of a massive group think that did horrible things and called them good. Maybe people as a group need to feel that their collective will from diverse groups broke the spell of what constitutes a Real American. Intimidation, fear and actual persecution has been used for the last decade.

    Obama’s inclusiveness stressed common ground. It gave lots of people the necessary group approval to come in from the cold with no shame. My sister in law was afraid to put a Howard Dean bumper sticker on her car for fear of being rejected by her neighbors. I have friends who are afraid to blog, they fear reprisal.

    Don’t worry we will soon enough retreat into our subgroups and regional culture wars. The media is keeping the coals fanned and as all group think does we will find that one America is really just the same old America. Take the prop 8 vote, how was this possible? Perhaps the change we need will occur but it won’t as long it’s all about your wrong I’m right. Maybe we can get to a point where democracy makes up coalitions who can accept were all wrong and right, after all that’s what balance of power is supposed to do. Permote the general welfare not the side we deem good.      

  9. You cannot achieve societal or political change without becoming part of a group….and given human nature (which we have talked of many times) a group is going to behave as groups behave>

    So do you NOT participate in a group to avoid the pitfall you cite? Or do you do your best to keep your self balanced between being part of a (necessary) group and still keep your individuality and integrity? The latter of course is the ideal.

    But we know how ideals work out.

    If you take it down to bare bones, I want to be in a group that accomplishes what I can’t accomplish on my own. But I want that group to balance itself. This, like everything re human nature, is an ideal to strive for.

    Sure, it would be nice to not repeat the horrors of repub groupthink, but realistically there WILL be groupthink, there IS groupthink. But at least it is group think AWAY from hate, torture and war.

    I’ll settle for that for now after the last eight years. But consider your cautionary tale absorbed.

    • pfiore8 on November 10, 2008 at 8:32 am

    as Ria would say. where to start with this.

    We feel a deep pleasure from realizing that we believe something in common with our friends. . .

    and different from most people.  

    We feel an even deeper pleasure letting everyone know of this fact.

    This feeling is EVIL.  Learn to see it in yourself, and then learn to be horrified by how thoroughly it can poison your mind.  Yes evidence may at times force you to disagree with a majority, and your friends may have correlated exposure to that evidence,

    but take no pleasure when you and your associates disagree with others; that is the road to rationality ruin.


    We feel a deep pleasure from realizing that we believe something in common with our friends. . .

    . . . but take no pleasure when you and your associates disagree with others; that is the road to rationality ruin.


    so is it both bad to agree and disagree. which is it? or is it okay to disagree, but one shouldn’t take pleasure in it?

    what exactly ruins rationality? not thinking like others? disagreeing with others? finding agreement within a group, regardless of size.

    i’m not sure i get the purpose of this statement. or if it even makes sense. i think the words “pleasure” and “evil” skew it for me.

    there’s an agenda here. that’s my sense of it.

Comments have been disabled.