Cultural Traps, Part III

Observing your own culture with a detached eye helps one recognize the good, the bad, and the ridiculous. I’ve written about some of these traps before, those parts of American culture that we all take for granted but might not actually make sense.

In this third edition, I’m going to look at some things that might be emerging trends in America that are both really stupid and really dangerous, many culled from my own experiences and observations. 

Some of these might not be uniquely American. They may just be human nature. But when I see my countrymen and women (whatever the hell that means anymore) act like scary monsters, I can’t help but see these tendencies shaded in red, white, and blue. 

Opposing one thing automatically means liking the other.

Are you against the death penalty? Then you clearly want to open all the prisons and are super-soft on crime.  

…or maybe you’re just against the death penalty. 

Perhaps you oppose partial-birth abortion. You obviously want women at risk of death die from birth complications to die. 

…or maybe you’re just against partial-birth abortion. 

This might be more of a logical fallacy than a cognitive trap, but it is still (a) everywhere l, and (b) dumb.

Unintelligent people think like this, or liars. I’m sorry if that sounds mean, but it’s true. One is either incapable of seeing this trap, or is wielding it as a rhetorical club. 

If the former, you can learn. If the latter, its effective, sure, but it really doesn’t move the needle in any direction. It does something that could arguably be another entry on this list, which is assuming ill intent on the part of the other. Rhetorically, it’s a weapon. But it weakens your own position and makes you look silly. You risk losing credibility, which in a debate–akin to a trial–is the kiss of death.  

Disproportionality and overreaction, aka hysteria.

Debating is an art that requires practice and preparation. It also requires an understanding of the rules of a particular interaction, such as whether the relationship with your opponent will be ongoing, whether you’re trying to change the other’s mind, or whether you’re trying to illustrate a point to your observers. But either way, you want to make your points using reason, logic, and evidence.

Of course, what really changes hearts and minds is emotion. So use rhetoric where applicable. It’s very effective, and for some people, whether you call them midwits or IYIs (“intellectuals, yet idiots,” per Nassim Nicholas Taleb), that’s all they understand.

This trap dovetails nicely with the first, but it’s distinguished by what I call default nuclear. Continue reading “Cultural Traps, Part III”

There’s Nothing Wrong With “Idols”


Lots of talk against idols. 

Of course, if you’re a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, there are deeply serious prohibitions against idolatry (and no, neither iconography nor Jesus Christ are “idols,” so knock that argument off).

What about “secular” idols? Celebrities, politicians, atheletes, and other people who inspire is to do great things and whom some of us, gulp, seem to worship. 

Now, things get be “idols” too (Drugs? Money? Bloodlust?), which can obviously be problems. 

But let’s get back to people. Putting faith in human beings is bad, isn’t it? It’s harmful to be so obsessed; it’s common knowledge, after all. 

But you all know how I feel about the conventional wisdom. And I have a confession to make here:

You see, Frank Zappa helped me get through high school. 

Now I know what you’re thinking: Aren’t you a guy who routinely mocks celebrity and celebrity culture? 

Yes. Yes I am. But I’ll tell you what I dislike more than celebrities: A lack of balance. 

Back to Mr. Zappa.  Continue reading “There’s Nothing Wrong With “Idols””

Axiometry, Part I: “We Fear What We Don’t Understand”

There are sayings, quotes, and mantras that permeate our world, formulations that have become shibboleths, accepted as true because they have been around forever. They are, shall we say, the conventional wisdom.

You know how I feel about the conventional wisdom.

Like my series on what I call “cultural traps” I’d like to examine some of these sayings in-depth, testing whether they even make any sense. And given my love of portmanteaus (for example, the name of this blog), I call this series Axiometry:

Axiom: “A rule or principle that many people accept as true.”

-metry: “Art, process, or science of measuring.”

I want to measure these axioms to determine whether we should accept them as true.

Our first is that well-known old saw: “We fear what we don’t understand.”

Do we?

Is the unknown always frightening?

I have several problems with this statement. This is almost too easy an axiom to parse, but as it’s so commonly used and taken as “The Way Things Are,” I think it’s worth discussing.

I contend that the saying, “We fear what we don’t understand,” is feel-good shorthand for people who want to sound like THEY CARE to signal to other people the depth of their empathy.

Let’s perform some axiometry! Continue reading “Axiometry, Part I: “We Fear What We Don’t Understand””

So Divided. So What?: Why Division is a Good Thing

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We are supposedly more divided, politically, culturally, even over stupid things like music and sports, than at any time in history. And as Americans, we are constantly bombarded from all sides with the message that this polarization is one of the pressing problems of our time.

Wouldn’t it be better, goes the conventional wisdom, if we could all join hands and want, think, believe, and act the same way towards the same goals?

Well, for starters that would be kind of beige. Second, it would probably admit “disappearing” everybody who disagreed with the prevailing norm.

And third, you have to ask: Whose goals? Whose “normal”? Whose “unity”?

I never understood the lamenting of this division as a concept. People disagree vehemently over what to eat for lunch, and you’re shocked that we can’t agree on the big things?

Yes, the things that we should do in order to have a wonderful society are relatively easy to figure out–be decent to everybody, don’t murder, don’t steal, and so on. But if 10,000-plus years of human history have taught us anything, it’s that human beings don’t play fair. We haven’t figured it out in all of this time. What makes the current purveyors of moderation think they have the answer this time?

Let’s just talk about politics because it’s on everybody’s mind just now, especially the United States. How could there not be division? Is division even bad?

I get into it with people who say they wish there was a “moderate party,” whatever that means, in the United States. Now what in the hell would a moderate party actually accomplish?

I get answers like, “Oh they would do what’s best, or what’s sensible.” But again: “Sensible” and “best” are subjective terms. Who’s defining them? I’m sure my idea of “sensible” is far different than that of a communist or a Scandinavian (but I repeat myself). I’m sure what I think is “best” is very different from what an Islamist thinks. Why the absolute living hell should I be forced to do what they think is right, and vice versa? Just for the sake of “playing nice”?

Why? Why should I be forced to agree with people who hate me? Why should you? Continue reading “So Divided. So What?: Why Division is a Good Thing”

Cultural Traps, Part II

America is a great place. That said, there’s nothing wrong with critiquing it in the hopes that it can get better. As we are all products of the culture in which we live, it’s important to look yet again at some of the American cultural shibboleths that should be re-examined or even discarded as we form a more perfect union.

In Part I of this series, I defined a “cultural traps” as:

…[those] idioms, maxims, ethics, and ways of living that we except as normal, “the conventional wisdom.”

So with lot further ado, let’s take a look at a few more.

Everyone is rational. Western civilization loves this idea. Here in America, we still cling to this myth that everybody–ourselves, our neighbors, our leaders–are rational beings who act in a rational manner in furtherance of their own rational best interests. If you still believe this, then I’d like to talk to you about Amway…

The fact of the matter is, rationality is only something we can get to if we keep our emotions in check. And even then, there are other things that go into our decisionmaking, not just emotion but things like morality, instincts (whatever that means), and peer pressure.

What do I mean by “morality” is irrational? Here’s a scenario: Let’s say you are a rich, ruling-class elite. The rational, most efficient way to solve the problem of poverty, which would be in your own self-interest, would be to kill the poor. Morality, by stopping his, could be seen as irrational.

See?

We ignore these things at our own peril, because while you think everybody’s acting rationally, their actions will often make no sense. And don’t forget, you are not acting rationally either. Taking into account why you and others are making a choice can keep you from committing costly mistakes–or trusting others.  Continue reading “Cultural Traps, Part II”

Cultural Benefits

Conventional wisdom…the system…just “the way things are”… I call these things cultural traps, these “idioms, maxims, ethics, and ways of living that we accept as normal.”

I’ve already discussed how following these things unquestioningly, though benign in intention, can lead to unhappiness. 

But things are changing, and people are realizing it’s okay to challenge and defy these traps.

And of course there’s the flip side of these traps: There are great things about the American national character that help rather than harm. And so I’d like to close the loop on this discussion and talk about some of those “reverse cultural traps,” and how, in my opinion, they’ll end up saving us all.

Optimism. The classic American “can-do” attitude. This has taken a beating from cynics, SJWs, government, and recent events, but it’s still there. If there’s a problem, we’ve generally been brought up to believe that we will figure out the solution.

This explains why Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were such effective candidates and are perceived as successful, popular presidents: they knew and understood how powerful this cultural belief is. Controversially, I would argue that Donald Trump is tapping into this same vein. Bernie Sanders did to a degree as well. 


Americans like the thought that this is a country that accomplish do anything. Europeans think we’re naïve, but that’s something I can live with. 

We tend to have hope in a brighter tomorrow. And while it might be a delusion, oftentimes the delusions we create for ourselves end up causing us to turn them into reality.  Continue reading “Cultural Benefits”

Fatherhood and the Status Game: A Note on Father’s Day

One thing I am eternally thankful to my father for–and that I hope to pass on to my own son–is that he never got involved with the status game.

Status is an important part of human interactions, and it is especially important to men (see Brett McKay’s excellent series on men and status at The Art of Manliness here for more information). However, American consumer culture has created a focus on the wrong kind of status.

I’m talking, of course, about the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality so prevalent among many of us, especially those who are well-off. My father, for example, is a physician. He earns a nice living. Yet somehow he managed to avoid this cultural trap.


I grew up in a relatively affluent area, where lots of kids also had parents who were professionals. And as little kids are wont to do, I remember lots of them bragging about exotic vacations they took, new cars they bought, their swimming pools, their legion of Nintendo games, and so on.

At some point I remember asking my dad why we didn’t have the Mercedes or whatever. And I’ll never forget his answer:

“I make enough money to have three expensive cars, a swimming pool, a much bigger house, and take several vacations every year. But if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to have you or your siblings.” Continue reading “Fatherhood and the Status Game: A Note on Father’s Day”