That cutesy, perfectly circular image of yin and yang teardrop-ing into each other might actually be quite wrong, at local scales. It’s not a static equilibrium, or even a dynamic equilibrium, as the pictograph subtly implies. And the inherent “fairness” and “balance” that we ascribe to the pictograph needs time (sometimes lots of time) to emerge.

In fact, “fairness” looks a lot like a long-range, emergent property of fairly unfair dynamical systems.

Ideologies and value systems almost by definition have a shelf life to their material forms (not to mention an applicable scope / domain of scenarios that is almost always smaller than folks like to admit).

Something occurred to me yesterday:

When you construct a value system, sing its praises from the rooftops, and then succeed in imposing it on others through motley protocols, symbols, rites and laws (or even when others gleefully and willingly adopt these values), it creates… a world. And then you must all inhabit it.

It may be a “world” that is porous or impermeable based on intensity of belief. It may be a world where people come and go with ease and anyone is free to leave, or it may be a world where everyone inside it is screaming silently. Regardless: sooner or later, you, the originator(s) and guardians of this world’s edicts, will find yourselves trapped there, for one reason or another… and none of its rules (your rules, remember?) will allow any cobbling together of life-rafts, or any hatching of viable escape plans. It’s almost as if a world and its value systems are the antithesis of whatever constitutes an escape from the same.

But this inevitable entrapment, when it comes, seems needless: all you should have to do is publicly renounce your prior beliefs, right? (or at least the infrastructures built to support some or most of those prior beliefs). Yes: renounce, and in so doing, demolish your standing and maybe even your own ego, before the world. (You also risk being paraded through the streets before being ritually slaughtered, figuratively or literally, for such flip-flopping. Depends what kind of world it is, that you’ve participated in building)…

It turns out that humans are not generally good at this type of 11th-hour pivot and ritual seppuku. Not when they’ve made it it their life’s work to preach the very things that they must now abandon in part or in whole. And if humans are not good at it, then their institutions too, can be counted on to suffer from the same inability to pivot away from quickly-atrophying “wisdoms”.

I wrote, a while back, about absurcracies. I’d wager this is one of the mechanisms by which they arise and (crucially) persist.

Because it seems obvious that this effect (this inability to publicly rescind earlier edicts) is a very handed one: it favours world-builders whose value systems don’t actively include such things as scruples, honesty, integrity, fairness etc (at least not un-lopsided versions of such things). So at the eleventh hour, way past the safe operating limits of whatever rules got you here in the first place, you can still “get out of jail” if breaking the rules to get out of jail IS LITERALLY PART OF YOUR RULE-BOOK. It’s a self-referential out that Nature itself has placed at the feet of people over here, and considerably out of reach of people over there.

Nature is even more handed than that. I suspect a correlation between scrupulousness and a sort of agnosis about the range and domain of actual scruples. In other words, “good” people (or specifically, people preoccupied or occupied with the performance of goodness) might not even know when to switch tactics and strategies to other things (doing good, for example, which might not always be the same thing at all as being good, or doing and being “bad”… bad by self-affirmed definitions of “bad”). “Bad” people might have the parallel problem, but my base-less wager is that the effect is either non-existent or greatly mitigated by the very nature of being “bad”, which has a lot to do with being unconstrained. Somewhere in the middle, there’s an unsavoury “sweet spot” where people know (or at least think they know) when to be “good”, and when to be “bad”, by their own definitions, while also maximising whatever utility functions hold sway in the “worlds” they participate in. These folks in the middle come in at least 3 flavors: be-gooders, do-gooders, and Machiavellian pretend-to-be-good-ers. (You can swap the labels and build an axis of ‘bad’-ness instead: the categorizations still work). Even here, my final and equally base-less wager is that the 3rd camp might do rather well (at least they will, if they’ve read Il Principe, and Nature is as patient as I’m postulating it is).

I suppose the potentially devastating short-term effects of such handedness is abated by the fact that most people are, on the whole, “good”. Or at the very least are not “good” all the time or “bad” all the time.

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