This theme of the ugliness of beauty has been on my mind for a few
decades. In my present half-dotage I recently thought to myself,
Where is it?, Haven't I already written this down?, which seems
sufficient cause to write it down, now, finally, and share it with
Perhaps the young may be more shocked than the old, perhaps people who have experienced tragedy and loss will be less shocked than those who naïvely affirm that some should be at the top of the world and probably that that should be them whether they have done anything to deserve it or not, or at least they have a chance and while they still do they are doing their best to believe in and support, which is part of climbing, their particular hierarchy. But here's what it looks like to someone who aggressively climbed all available dominance hierarchies, after plenty of success and getting really sick and tired of that game. Some will hate this perspective, and me for holding it, but that's fine by me. If it's just maturity, then they'll come around later.
BeautySo, What is beauty?
Beauty is the quality of an object that induces inner surrender in the perceiver.
For more on this theme, see http://tomveatch.com/innersurrender.php.
Nature, art, music is beautiful insofar as it brings inner peace to the perceiver: the non-operation of the inner judge. Ahhhh, one says, melting into the experience. The critical faculty of comparing and considering this aspect or that to be analyseably better or worse than another, the critical, separated, intellectualizing witness attitude, the emotionally judgemental person, perhaps by a checklist of measureable values or an intellectual sense that one sufficiently knows the observed, that the observed holds no surprises, these things when present induce emotional judgement, the sense that you know how to feel and so you feel appropriately, and they repel the experience of inner surrender which is constituted by the non-operation of the inner emotional judgement system. When that system stops operating, emotional down-regulation stops, flow starts, bliss and serenity are possible, the irrational emotions which are always present underlyingly but are, for most, crushed under the structure of self-belief and ego-attribution, emerge effortlessly as they are the default state of the emotional system, since it takes work to downregulate one's emotions, and that work is not done when the inner judgement system stops operating.
Similarly the beauty of another human being is that quality which makes you experience inner surrender. It is subjective, though people can be subjectively similar. It can lead to interpersonal submission, upgrade of the status of the other and downgrade of one's own status though neither necessarily or wisely.
Socialized Beauty PerceptionThe features of prestige and attractiveness are learned and socially acquired, develop historically and spread across social networks not unlike changing language features spreading through geographical and social space.
When I landed in New Delhi in 1985 the taxi from the airport went past a milk advertising sign, with a young woman displayed proudly, and my thought was, Ugh, look at those arms, those cheeks, that waist, she's a bit fat and not at all attractive, are their advertisers competent? Then after a year in school there, on the way back to the same airport in a different taxi we went by the same sign, and I thought, hey baby, look at that ad, she's HOT. Same ad, same arms, same cheeks, same waist, different experience of a year being socialized with a different crowd of people. It's socialization.
Did you experience as I did that immediately after Obama's election, African American women were suddenly way better looking? Attractive, hot! Socialization. And Thank you Barack!
Did you experience on turning 50 years old as I did that my in-group had changed from being folks under 50 to certainly including folks over 50, and suddenly I noticed that there was this whole world of very hot gray haired ladies all around, did you notice that? It's not just socialization but a constructed affiliation with self.
There's a controversy over sexual attraction, whether it is chosen or genetic. Born gay, is the claim, or on the opposite side, let's deprogram you out of your ungodly choice to be attracted to same-sex partners.
I say it is not chosen, since my attraction-o-meter is quite automatic and having done its work unconsciously presents to my conscious awareness its assertions that this one is attractive and that one is not. I have no sense of volitional control over it, rather it is a visceral perception.
But I also say it is not genetic either, since it can be learned, is socialized, and can change.
Is it the practice in your family to adore and celebrate your young ones as it is in mine? My great uncle, saying with feeling, You are so gorgeous, to his granddaughter, despite her unoperated harelip: I just couldn't see past a deformity, but he obviously was sincere. Constructed affiliation with self.
Male perception of beauty in females is so socialized, groups of perceivers learning in parallel, just as sharing laughter socializes people into shared morality when people share and watch each others' responses, that standards become limited and non-individualized, and the form that produces Beauty Perception ("BP") becomes somewhat standardized culturally. Through the slippery skill of self-conscious, emotional response downregulation, in which it seems anything representable cortically, that is, anything, can be retold or re-envisioned from its immediate and wholly impactful direct experience into the systematicity that one can impose on it, and thereby made to fit within one's story of a manageable predictable controllable world, that is, reconstituted in an emotionally regulated, and downregulated, vision. It's not even beauty any more. The more you experience, the less impactful it is. The more you think about it, comparing it with others, the less your emotions are allowed to feel. Downregulation. The more it becomes a socialized experience where a group tells the same story, views it the same way, the more it becomes susceptible to formula, to repetition, to manufacture, to manipulation for other ends. Ugly ends.
From dominance hierarchies to admiration hierarchies.As Jordan Peterson is famous for remarking, the seratonin-mediated social dominance hierarchy system has been structuring the shared living arrangements of larger groups of animals as far back on the evolutionary tree as lobsters. One speculates, Could even plants use some similiarly effective communication mechanism to mediate group survival, since population spread even of plants seems to require some shared negotiation of resource sharing and what tree might have to die in order to let the other reach the sun. My essay, Populating, wonders if an old growth forest of well-spaced mature trees had to arise from what looks like a negotiation, or at least a mutual adaptation, of that type. That is, there certainly exist population pressures within the species, and mechanisms at various levels have evolved, and successful evolved species must successfully have established, ways of surviving with those pressures. If competition to the death detracts from the success even of the winner, then a species would benefit by losers stepping down a little sooner. Suicide of a smaller tree in the shadow of a larger tree for the benefit of the forest, like apoptosis, the programmed cell death of a much simpler cell in an environment of its fellows which collectively benefit from its death, seems like an evolutionary strategy about equal to the intelligence of cells or perhaps of trees, rooted immoveably in their surrounding environment. Even the pruning of neural interconnections at a subcellular level, and mutual inhibition among neurons at polycellular level, as well as apoptosis or programmed cell death, all have this logic where better group functioning results if sacrifices are made of individual members. So we see that death is certainly an option, to manage group success for the benefit, somehow, of at least some survivors.
In whole animal species on the other hand, we see a solution that is more sophisticated: the dominance hierarchy. The dominance hierarchy says, Let's fight, and the winner will be the dominant one, perhaps because I'm bigger, or perhaps I'm just more willing to put it on the line, as Hegel himself in 1807 wrote in Phänomenologie des Geistes, the Phenomenology of the Spirit, a popular vision of history based on the Master and the Slave, long before the discovery of serotonin. Now that I'm dominant, you can hunch over and walk around subordinate, and I'll stand up taller and walk around dominant, but I won't kill you even though, as our fight just proved, I could.
Dogs at play provide a fountain of examples: once dominance is established, and the non-dominant submits whether by feet in air, or presenting a neck which could be bitten, or as with puppies piddling on the floor, the dominant dog typically immediately ceases serious attacks. The purpose of domination supercedes and obviates killing.
Yes, the basic point of the dominance hierarchy is actually to provide us a way to live and let live. If I don't have to kill you, or you, the smaller "tree" in our species community, don't have to die, nor kill yourself, then we can both live, and then probably our community will have more offspring who are more survivable even in environments of population pressure, even if we are more mobile than trees or cells or dendrites and we can spread across the landscape far and wide, because eventually we will overpopulate our island or continent or ecosystem and be forced to face each other and then again through the serotonin mediated system which governs humans and lobsters quite analogously, we will be saved from murder or suicide by the dominance hierarchy system.
An advantage that might upholster the bare dominance hierarchy, for a species which performs better when happier, might be if its non-dominant members held admiration for the higher-ups. It's not just that they beat me up and beat me down, but that they are admirable in some sense, so that I can admire them and construct an affiliation of my self with them, that even if I'm not as good as they are, still I share their values, their valuation of the metric on this particular hierarchy, we both affiliate self with the skill, the characteristic, the ability, the quality, the metric of being higher on this particular hierarchy. Sharing values, plus admiration, lets losers not just survive but live happily. We can honor the big bully, tell stories about how big and how much a great bully he is, wish we might grow up to be equally big and to equally successfully bully, or if we're old now we can remember how big was our bullying when we were young and strong enough and smart enough to bully others. (I've always wanted to read The Courtier by Castiglione, which was on my Western Civ reading list but I never cracked open.)
What's perhaps most surprising about this self-deceptive, self-detrimental game is how people seem to actually sign up for it and engage in it seriously. It's not really pretty, exactly, but it does let us all survive, which is the point. In a species where even the non-dominant members can contribute to the survival of others, the let-live aspect of dominance hierarchy structured society is optimal.
Even the mere fact of being admired, itself, would seem to dramatically reduce the bloodthirstiness of the dominant. Doesn't your anxiety level fall a lot when you find out you are admired? There are two correlated behaviors, the submission of the non-dominant, and the mercy of the dominant. Are both the result of serotonin? I think so.
Considering all this, that the alternative to dominance hierarchy is death for the losers individually, and at the species level a population of isolates, that is, members that exert no population pressure on one another, maybe we should be glad for dominance hierarchies.
Humans of course have lots of dominance hierarchies. We are capable of a wide range of skills and achievements, and of admiring an even wider range. Perhaps this is due to raw intelligence, or perhaps to its application as social intelligence.
I read recently that Neanderthal groups supposedly maxed out at 50, while human groups maxed out at 150 in early-human evolutionary times. A proliferation of dominance hierarchies is one way to allow more conspecifics to live together without killing each other. Not that we are far from killing each other; recall the result of the Mutiny on the Bounty, where the 16 mutineers sailed first to Tahiti for wives, then to Pitcairn Island to live out their idyllic tropical island lives, with the result that when the survivors were finally discovered 24 years later, there was only one single man left alive. The dominance hierarchy system had failed, except in preserving the women and children, and the men had all killed one another until only hardly any were left. This is our species in the wild. We are beastlier than beasts.
But if we have a society that can at least get off the island to reduce the social pressures a bit, then we can also develop a variety of skills that we can all appreciate. The best of warriors can appreciate the best of swordsmiths, for example, and both survive in a more complex society together. Although combat is surely the prototypical, primary, the Ur dominance hierarchy, even prior to (if correlated with) hunting, the multiplicity of things humans do has itself spawned a multiplicity of things humans can do better and worse, and thus a multiplicity of hierarchies.
My theory on the larger human groups has wavered. The argument above suggests that greater social intelligence with greater variety of metrics of value on which to base dominance or admiration hierarchies, allows and supports larger groups.
My recent, simpler view was quite different, that the stupidity and passivity of the crowd leads to the success of larger groups. If everyone falls into line beneath the biggest bully, then the group can be bigger.
I'm sorry I lost my photo of a traffic sign that I took three or four years ago on the 405 passing Kirkland heading toward Bellevue, Seattle, and Redmond, which are incidentally among the centers of innovation in the world, in which three lanes of tightly packed and nearly parked vehicles on the freeway stared unresponsively (unblinkingly? unmovingly) at a great blinking sign saying "Accident in right lanes, use the carpool/toll lanes for free", and I was the only one I could see moving to the left.
Anyone that thinks social change is possible will have to come to grips with this fact and the principle it exemplifies: We are blind stupid followers, moles in our holes, unable to look around and find an obviously superior alternative path, unable to not follow the herd, unable to think or be awake or open at all. Good luck thinking otherwise. Most people who want to make changes therefore disguise their innovation in the guise of tradition. Thus strict constructionism as a legal theory, fundamentalist literalism as an approach to interpretation of selected scriptures, et cetera.
So maybe the theory of stupid masses makes for larger human communities, but I'd still like to believe that multiplicity of value hierarchies leads to specialization into skill hierarchies and thereby into high functioning larger communities. But probably the truth includes both, so that we do get a blacksmith and a carpenter, a monk, some stonemasons and a traveling merchant amongst our masses of farmers and herders, but everyone keeping their heads down and otherwise sucking up to the murderous, truly frightening, killer-dominant, local nobility. Our submissiveness is perhaps not less a mass-survival instinct than our (correlated) variation in temperament, skills, and values.
Hierarchy GeometryWhat do hierarchies look like?
Apparently chicken groups sort into dominance hierarchies, the "pecking order", which break up when there are more than 30 chickens, because the sorting is so finely graded and chickens will keep fighting their near-equals. Since farmers want all the chickens to survive they can't tolerate groups with any unsortable pair, so they should keep the groups under 30, is the principle I infer. That would be called a full sort. And if you need a full sort, that leads to smaller groups than if dominance just needs to keep the weak, stupid, or passive down, and they being down at shared levels won't themselves kill each other.
If you just need to sort into definite levels, then instead of an ordering you get a branching or tree structure, where the branching factor can be greater than one (an ordering is a degenerate tree, with branching factor one). The dominant one at a higher level can dominate that branching factor number of less-dominant ones at the next level down.
Genghis Khan's armies were organized on the decimal system: each military command unit included ten of the next smaller down level of units. Britain dominated India for generations with an enormous branching factor, what was it? Tens of thousands versus hundreds of millions?
The branching factor, and the number of levels, are parameters of a society. I coach a lot of pingpong, and I tell people who come in, Don't worry that you just got hammered by the oldest creakiest old man or the thimble-sized little girl over there, even though you thought you're the best player you yourself ever met in your life. Pingpong is a highly highly stratified sport. We have a rating system borrowed from the chess rating system, where everyone gets some rating or other, the average of club players is suppposed to be 1500, and if you beat someone your level you both get your rating adjusted by 8 points, and if you're 200 points apart and it's an upset, you get a 50 point adjustment, or 2 points change is it's not an upset, and over time this results in players spreading out across the rating scale system and after not many years it turns out there are players legitimately rated maybe as low as 300, and others above 3300, after Ma Lin and the Chinese, and Joo Se Hyuk and the Koreans, came to the US Open and blew the top off our highest recorded levels. The thing is, if you make a graph of upsets by rating difference, obviously the upsets get fewer if the rating difference gets bigger. Let me report a result from a graph I once made with this data: it showed that at 100 points rating difference, the histogram showed a 12.5% frequency of upset. That's 1/8. If you're 100 points apart, you'll have an upset only once in eight times. I'm willing to call that a distinct level: you can play someone 100 points higher and they'll beat you seven out of eight times, yeah, they're a different level.
And yes, outcomes are highly predictable, surprises are few, even with everybody doing their best. But it's worse than that. Consider, if the levels were independent, what 3 levels might mean: (1/8) * (1/8) * (1/8) = 1/512. This relates to the fact that most people coming into the pingpong club are 800 or below, and most people in the pingpong club are 1100 or above, 300 points apart. That suggests the probability of an upset, when the newby comes in and wins might be (1/8)^3 = 1/512. You see what I mean. And yes, quite often people do come in, get hammered, even though they, being about 800 in rating, are 200 points above their sister or their Mom or the next best player they ever encountered at home or at school or ever in their life and they never met anyone close to their level, and they STILL have 1/512 chance of winning at the pingpong club against the worst player in the house. It's quite a shock, and a lot of people can't get over it; they walk out a bit quickly, trying to forget, or thinking, this sport is definitely not for me. Unless there's a friendly encouraging voice near the door watching for the disoriented bully boys saying, No, it's just that we have 30 levels! So calm down and enjoy the process of learning, you will be able to do it, eventually. That was my job. And even the modern brittle kids who in their own minds have to be Olympic caliber already or they'll cry or leave, even these kids immediately orient positively with emotional admiration and close mental attention toward the skill of the teacher when you serve a few right past them or demonstrate by pointing some direction and give them a spin that they can't help by hit in the indicated direction. They immediately discover they WANT to learn this and you HAVE something to teach them and they suddenly transform into eager students. Skill immediately grabs everyone and ranks them in the hierarchy, immediately makes them accept their position in it, immediately gives them a high degree of admiration for people higher in the hierarchy, that admiration is constituted by a desire to emulate, a high degree of attentive focus on the behavior of the model, and a commitment to carrying out emulating behaviors. See? Metrics of value organize society, organize effort, organize emotion, organize, organize. Everyone falls enthusiastically right in line, puts their shoulders to the same wheel, does their best, feels great or terrible about their progress or lack thereof and praises and blames others for their progress or lack thereof, and it becomes a little social universe of its own, and this is the kind of universe humans specialize in. Maybe this paragraph should have been written in the previous section. It could have been written by Jordan Peterson, no doubt, except for the pingpong part.
Back to geometry, okay, the point of that is that pingpong players may have 30 levels just like chickens, and actually the analogy goes farther than we might like because we actually prefer to fight others that are about at our level (so perhaps humans are more socially functional than chickens). But we don't have to make a complete sort in order for the social hierarchy to apply, to provide an orientation towards value or merit, to give us positive emotion to fitting in somewhere and climbing up the skill hierarchy over time. Humans find learning meaningful, particularly if it is learning a skill that is the sorting metric on a dominance hierarchy. Self-identification plays its role, we all share that valuation metric in valuing others, we also accept that valuation metric in valuing ourselves, and we accept our own position in the hierarchy as measured by that metric. Dopaminergic pleasure comes with climbing up the hierarchy. Yes. Peterson's logic certainly applies.
Both the branching factor, and the number of levels, are parameters of a hierarchically organized society. Levels?
So one of Genghis Khan's armies of 100,000 had 5 levels of management. The US Army has seven nominal levels: general, colonel, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, corporal, private, but each of those has its own various sub-levels. The Catholic Church with pope, cardinal, archbishop, bishop, priest, deacon, layperson seems to have about seven levels.
Small geometric descriptions handle plenty of social complexity. A branching factor of only ten, with a number of levels equal to only 10, specifies a hierarchical system more than big enough to encompass our entire world population of less than 10^10 = 10 Billion humans, assuming it is tree structured, that is, Genghis Khan style, without overlapping subordinates. On the other hand a lattice structure like the US pingpong rating system, where each level might dominate or be dominated by levels with something like the same number of players, and with free association within and across levels unlike a command hierarchy, can still have the complexity of 30 levels, way more than the Catholic church and Genghis Khan's army stacked on top of each other, even within the tiny population of pingpong lovers that go to tournaments. For that matter, 30 chickens which you might order delivered in a box in the springtime, already might comprise such a lattice.
Emotional significanceWell that was fun: the geometry of social hierarchy.
But it's not just a matter of geometry, branch counts and depths of trees and lattices, it's a matter of how dominance hierachies impact our emotions, our goals in life, our social relationships, our survival, of course survival itself is obviously at the root of it, but also how we feel about everything. It ties into the emotional self-management system I cracked open in Humor Theory and elaborated explicitly in Bliss Theory: I claim that what we identify as "ours" is what we use to regulate our feelings. Self-attribution, cognitively, equates to regulated feelings, emotionally. If you have the thought that this is me, whether it's a role in a story over time or a static property or quality, and there is a feeling associated with that quality in your semi-rational emotional mapping system, then your commitment to the thought is equal to your entanglement by the feeling. If you believe it, then you're stuck with that feeling.
How else?, might you ask, O seeker. Well obviously you don't have to believe it, or at least be busy believing it. Do you need to look at the stands while you're still running the race? Obviously people are up there cheering for you, or your competitors. Does it help you run the race to spend your limited mental capacity on reviewing and elaborating the knowledge of your and their fans whether they are actually there or not? Obviously not. They may be there, but you don't have to be thinking about it. Similarly you may be a loser in a particular fight but you don't have to spend your mental energy reviewing that and hunching over as the dominated one. The emotional consequences of factual understanding are as strict as your grip on those facts when that grip includes the assertion "this is me". Did I make no sense at all?
Here's my model: each person has at least two computers in them. Not actually a computer, because what a bit is within a human or even biological system is very much unlike what a bit is in transister logic. But still I don't mind saying we have something a bit like a computer in us (two of them), it collects and processes information somehow, communicates with others somehow, and controls its attached external actuators, somehow. One of these two looks at what's going on in the world, and seems to be conscious; the other looks at the first one, and decides how to feel about things, and thereby makes itself known indirectly but isn't exactly conscious. The second computer has a limited form of rationality whereby it decides how to feel about things based on something like a memorized library of learned experiences which it used in the past to know how to feel about things, and its job is to figure out which of those things in the past is closest to what's going on now. Then the first computer looks at some circumstances, and the second computer figures out how to feel about it essentially by analogy with past feeling-generating experiences. Both computers are making assertions about the way things are. The first one is making assertions about matters of fact, and the second one is making assertions about how to feel, and actually implementing those feelings by focussing the mind of the first one on certain things, and pumping the adrenaline or whatever suitable hormones are needed to actually feel the feeling it decides is appropriate. The second one is faster in general and also often smarter if things are in its wheelhouse, but it's not so thoughtful and conscious and flexible and capable of planning and verbalization, so the first one can potentially make a positive contribution, if it's not making a negative one.
Now if the facts being considered are facts about their container, about the very person itself, then the assertions about how to feel made by computer number 2 are much more compelling and powerful than if the facts pertain only to someone else. A bad thing happens to someone else's property, it's not as big a deal as if the same bad thing happens to your property, or to you, those being three levels of degree in how much the same bad thing might pertain to you. Same for good things. You get to feel a lot less controlled by the bad and good things that are happening if they are happening to someone else, but as soon as you believe they are happening to you, then the full on feeling applies in its complete rich and full-flavored form to you. ATTRIBUTION TO SELF ties the emotional consequences to yourself, and the tighter the attribution, the tighter the emotional binding. If you don't actually identify with it, then the facts can be good or bad but you remain relatively indifferent, or perhaps involved like a more or less detached and bored spectator of a drama rather than a participant with skin in the same. In the case of humor perception, a bad thing happening to someone else might be remote enough that you recognize it as a subjective moral violation, but you can still view the situation as benign or normal at the same time. Stories that don't actually apply to you are so much less catastrophic and more fun.
In this way, the assertion, "this is me", is like salt on beans, it makes the flavors richer and more intense. Some might think that's why we do it, to enjoy the drama of life more intensely. As the Shiva Sutras (not the linguistics Shiva Sutras but the Kashmir Shaivism enlightenment tradition Shiva Sutras) say, Shiva (or consciousness itself) is a dancer, an actor on its own stage. Nice to think it's only a role we put on and play voluntarily, because then we could turn it off too.
But the curious mixture of memory and knowledge, of conscious and unconscious, makes it so that we remember our role having some emotional valence and when we think 'this is me' along with the assertion that we KNOW it, then suddenly it changes from a chosen dramatic role to an emotional prison which offers no choice and no escape. In this we encounter its pathological aspect, whereby we are captured by our story, and cannot break free to have any relief at all. As a society we send people to prison for many years: Why? to emotionally capture them in the story of their guilt-worthy behavior, so they will spend years contemplating their sinful nature, possibly to aim higher next time. In the same way humans generally are in the prison of their own self-conception. So am I, so are you.
Yet this inner prison has no lock on the door, we can leave any time we want. How to escape? Just don't carry out that activity of saying This is me, and you're free from the feelings that are tied to that story or that quality of a person. As I said, the emotional consequences of factual understanding are as strict as your grip on those facts, when those asserted facts include the conviction that they apply to you, yourself. So I hope by now I made a little more sense.
Dominance or valuation hierarchiesCan we get back to beauty and other dominance hierarchies? Is beauty a dominance hierarchy? (1) It seems NOT, since evaluating one's position in a dominance hierarchy, measured using the valuation metric of that hierarchy, is clearly a subjective moral judgement containing a self-attribution, which by Veatch's Razor removes one immediately from the possibility of transcendent emotion. (2) It seems SO, since beauty produces inner surrender in the perceiver, and inner surrender can be socially interpreted or manipulated into interpersonal surrender and interpersonal surrender can be interpreted as self-placement within a hierarchy. What's going on here with this, let's call it a, valuation hierarchy?
They seem to be associated in a mobile society with geographical locations, with institutions. Stanford, Cambridge, Madison Avenue, Washington DC, Silicon Valley, all these have their own internal self-sucking-up hierarchy of how so-and-so did something so fabulous on our shared measure of value and aren't we therefore higher in the world being associated with that pinnacle of value, and most unforgiveably and yet somehow rationally unpreventably, how valueless and small all those many, many others are, who are lower on this branching and inclusive hierarchy, how indeed even geographical location, location on our almost perfectly spherical world where most fundamentally no place has any intrinsic value above any other, locations are divided into those places where goodness and desireability resides using our socialized metric of value and every valueless other place else. What a pathetic stupidity, how ugly such a view, how unpleasant to be around, how arrogant, how unattractive. This rational valuation trap is one of the ugliest things about humanity (though the Penis Theory competes in its ugliness).
Because the primary use across society of these valuation hierarchies is to devalue almost everybody.
Examples: I knew some folks from Cambridge University, who thought they were superior to others. Really, you think that's attractive? You think your supposed superiority in some narrow measure is worth something in the balance against your arrogance and ugly dismissal of all others? Go ahead be ugly but don't expect others to come after you. You can go be ugly alone.
Or... I spent many years in the Stanford University subculture. The dialog was always, well, I just can't tell you how often it was, about how so-and-so, associated with Stanford, had done some virtuous or brilliant or enviable thing, and by implication how we as members of the community therefore were associated with that shining light, how we bask in it by implication, by having been of the chosen few, however randomly, irrationally, racistly, or even manipulatedly by the well-funded enrichment recipients of feeder private schools. So Sandra Day O'Connor got appointed to the Supreme Court, do I share her achievement? Et cetera. There were indeed quite a few super smart folks one could learn something from and have a great conversation with, but there was also a general, wide, underlying culture that was frankly anti-intellectual, siloed to avoid interesting or challenging or technical conversations except within subspecialties, where all acted casual, said they were fine, appeared unruffled and had not much to say offering any challenge or real personal growth. The point of a Stanford is to produce a predictable crop of bureaucrat functionaries well socialized to their bureaucrat functionary roles of the future, not to cultivate genius or bring out the thinking that might significantly change the world. The latter might occur there but rather incidentally.
The result: people can't imagine moving to the hinterlands. (What a sneer implicit in that self-circumscription. What ugliness.)
It's like the prestige of academia, you can't imagine not giving everything to get a research faculty position at a prestigious university on the tenure track. Anything less is simply failure. Everyone who achieves less is simply not to be emulated, does not quite count in your world of values.
Similarly suppose you live in Manhattan instead of a subway ride away in Brooklyn, there is a world of difference in prestige. It's like a disgust reaction for a person well entrenched in their position in a hierarchy, to imagine themself descending so far to be out in those boonies. It's like a loss of identity.
But when you get to the peak of one of these hierarchies, the fact is that suddenly your universe has shrunk down to a tiny circle, the power zone of your valuation hierarchy, might be on one block on Wall Street, or one city in the Western Hemisphere, or in one office building. You trade your self-valuation on your dominance hierarchy for the world itself. Really, that's the goal?
Elon Musk dreams of Mars; escape there is his avowed motivation in life. But if you concentrate your target of value on so tiny and remote a target, you really have lost the world. You put all this engineering energy toward escape, toward an imagined dream, while the reality, the Earth itself, rots behind you? Worse yet, then you topple off your imaginary ladder to the sky back into the rot, to rot yourself. What if we did win Mars? With half the sunlight and 1% the atmosphere you'll have minimal argiculture, minimal life support. Life underground is the goal? You can have that here, troglodyte! For such a dream for 10 or 10,000 people, Earth itself may well take its eye off the ball of saving itself, of improving the actual world for billions. Oh but we don't care, we're going to Mars! You might well be disgusted with life, sure; I read a lot of science fiction to escape from my adolescent emotional hell too. But your disgust with this world we live in leads toward a disgusting result. Rot on rot, instead of cleanup and a realistic and inclusive happy future. The Earth itself, this unfiltered recycling aquarium we breathe in, is what we need to value: the whole Earth. Do what you want, but this is certainly a clear and definite example of a motivational hierarchy, when you devalue everything in the world to chase after your red dot in the sky.
Back to academia, where actually the winners lose. Who gets their tenure track job, who publishes enough not to perish, who finally gets their tenure, is such a workaholic killjoy without any human qualities including compassion for self or others, such a person has nothing enviable except the fancy name or title of their position. That's why people work the prestige angle so much, there is so much less else to celebrate. Everyone loses in the academic hierarchy, including the winners.
The same is true when your interest tends toward political power. You see your state capital as where it's at, and if your ambition is higher, simpler, even more naïve, in Washington DC. That's where you aim to go for an internship to learn the ways of power. That's the pinnacle, and those who don't orient towards it are just not part of your value hierarchy, who needs them, let's not even consider them, they are disregardable.
The same is true in any kind of cult. In Linguistics, it's Go to MIT to be at the feet of the master Chomsky. Thank God he has retired. Among the Hindus, it's Go sit at the feet of your Guru, every other place is a dry desert.
The emotions are strong, far deeper than superciliousness. I myself have experienced it as a palpable energy perception, coming in and out of the door of the ashram. I can't prevent myself from feeling the vibrations of peace and love on the inside, yet I do believe it is a terrible and unjust thing to experience the outer world as like a dry desert. Worse, because I grew up in, I love, actual dry desert and we all know that a saints find their goal in the desert. So I think I will only have achieved my own goal when I feel inside and outside are the same.Among the David Koreshes and Jonestown and Aum Shinrikyo and fundamentalist Christian and Muslim and Jewish and Hindu groups and every other religious cult, there is a strong, shared, cultivated, indeed enforced, uniform belief that being "in" is super important and that those who are not "in" are missing out on the essence at least and more often pawns of the devil. One must constantly demonstrate one's allegiance to the values of the cult, and one's value as a person is accepted as being measured by adherence to and closeness to the center of the cult.
The whole business is frankly ugly. It's the use of some arbitrary measure of value to distort the true value of the world, which is bliss and serenity, mirth and delight, every where and in every one. We get a glimpse of the emotional unregulated state of bliss when we climb to the top of our wall of value and peek over it into a place which is finally good enough and where the trade of counting and marking value finally is exchanged for a moment of lightness of being. But that perfection is everywhere, and it is our state of, how can I express it, of sin, perhaps, that we cover it with self-attributions, with moral judgements of self and others, that regulate our emotions, that box us into limited and inflexible emotional states whose only value may be some minimum bare level of tolerability.
Beauty as a dominance hierarchyBeauty perception is actually opposite to hierarchy. Hierarchy is measureable quality using a metric of value. The experience of beauty is the experience of the abandonment of measure. Consciousness related:
Instead, experience inner surrender at every excuse, or no excuse at all. You could say, stop devaluing everything because it isn't at your cruel and ugly pinnacle ideal. You could also say, Experience beauty in all things.
Footnote: Health educator Emily Nagoski discusses Kate Manne, Down Girl, The Logic of Misogyny, Human Giver Syndrome: pretty happy calm generous and attentive to the needs of others. Check it out.