On the bus, or off the bus

According to Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Ken Kesey once said:

There are going to be times when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.

Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters had its inner circle, and the qualifications for membership were a deliberate mystery—making many of those outside the ring all the more desperate to find a way in.

Alan Jacobs just posted The Righteous Mind and the Inner Ring on his blog, which makes some disturbing points about the thinking that binds communities, and the extent to which we adjust our thinking in order to maintain community—or, worse, to gain entrance to the Inner Ring of a community.

Jacobs mentions a recent book by Jonathan Haidt about “righteous thinking”, our tendency to judge people and things by what we consider to be self-evident truths but are in fact moral intuitions that haven’t been proved but simply rationalized. And then he asks:

How do we acquire these initial moral intuitions? — Or maybe not the initial ones, but the ones that prove decisive for our moral lives? I make that distinction because, as we all know, people often end up dissenting, sometimes in the strongest possible terms, from the moral frameworks within which they were raised.

So the question is: What triggers the formation of a “moral matrix” that becomes for a given person the narrative according to which everything and everyone else is judged?

Jacobs goes on to say that C.S. Lewis answered that question in his essay The Inner Ring, where he notes the existence in any social group of an inner circle, the draw of being part of that circle, and the fear of being left outside it. He then writes:

This, I think, is how our “moral matrices,” as Haidt calls them, are formed: we respond to the irresistible draw of belonging to a group of people whom we happen to encounter and happen to find immensely attractive. The element of sheer contingency here is, or ought to be, terrifying: had we encountered a group of equally attractive and interesting people who held very different views, then we too would hold very different views.

And, once we’re part of the Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with thosepost hoc rationalizations that confirm our group identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those who are Outside, who are Not Us. And it’s worth noting, as Avery Pennarun has recently noted, that one of the things that makes smart people smart is their skill at such rationalization: “Smart people have a problem, especially (although not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.”

This is the pernicious tendency I mention in my recent post about vested interests:

There are many reasons we can want something to be true. Sometimes the “benefit” doesn’t fall neatly into the class of things we consider benefits, and sometimes the true nature of the vested interest can be obscured by the existence of other benefits. When questioning a pastor or Christian teacher or missionary or evangelist about whether their work is mandated or simply discretionary, it’s good to understand that you are not merely questioning their livelihood, but their calling. To even pose such questions is to ask them to put some fundamental assumptions back under the microscope. It’s too much to ask.

Still, I think it’s helpful to regularly re-examine your own assumptions, to root out those reasoned conclusions which are actually informed guesses you made in the absence of knowledge, even wisdom, you may have since gained. Or, worse, well-reasoned conclusions that have gradually expanded to encompass areas where you haven’t done the necessary homework. Or, worst, bits and pieces of received wisdom, eagerly offered to you by those in authority, eagerly accepted by you in a show of trust—or as an expedient for avoiding the hard work of thinking things through yourself.

Helpful, maybe, but nothing you can count on a smart person with vested interests to do. Which is why I think the correct response to such a person when they are wrong is not to beat them about the head and shoulders with your own truth, but simply to be wary.

it’s a sad thing that the folks who are most knowledgeable about church matters tend to be those who have a vested interest in those matters, and can’t be expected to give others a balanced presentation of the issues. Well, maybe not sad. Maybe I’m just moaning about a lost opportunity to be lazy. Better to study but not rely on what those with vested interests have to say, keeping their interests in mind, and continuing to work out my own conclusions with fear and trembling.


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