Widgets Magazine


Deweaponize reality

Philosophers have long grappled with how to derive an ought from an is. Given knowledge of how the universe is, can we conclude how it ought to be different? But behind the backs of the philosophers, something far more sinister, far more questionable has been going on. We have been deriving is from ought.

Exhibit one is a 2010 paper in Psychological Science that I suspect many of you might recognize. Titled “Ego Depletion — Is it All in Your Head?” it proposes that willpower (“ego”) is only a limited resource for those who believe it is a limited resource. That is, those who hadn’t read the previous literature about ego depletion would be able to resist temptations indefinitely. I say you might recognize it because Stanford students tend to be Exceptionally Successful People who are interested in this sort of thing — productivity tips, life hacks or (dare I say it?) self-help.

Exhibit two is a Rolling Stone interview with Ava DuVernay, director of the 2014 film “Selma.” Also recognizable, perhaps, but to a different crowd on campus. Responding to criticism of the film for misrepresenting and falsifying the relationship between Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and Martin Luther King Jr., DuVernay explains:

“I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma… This is a dramatization of the events. But what’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero.”

The ego depletion paper naturally fits into a canon of self-help literature about the power of mindset in changing our approach to things. The “Selma” interview fits, perhaps more interestingly, into the weaponized approach to history espoused by historian Howard Zinn.

Zinn tries to tell history in a way that provides resources of hope: If one accepts what Zinn calls the “inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history,” a constructed past that provides inspiration for revolutionary social change is just as valid as any other. Although Zinn works on the level of society and the mindseteers work on the level of the individual, they are united in their conviction that belief is an action, that the way we perceive the world determines what we can and cannot achieve, and that the truth is a means to an end.

It’s true that the way we view the past has profound implications for the way we view the future. But if weaponized history works along the same lines as self-help, we also need to recognize that it might share self-help’s greatest pitfall.

Theodor Adorno remarked during a painstaking analysis of the Los Angeles Times astrology section that its self-help elements were “nothing but messages from the social status quo… The overall rule of the column is to enforce the requirements society makes on the individual so that it might ‘function.’”

To some extent, this still holds true today: the goal that many self-help books work toward is “success”: an implicit and nebulous combination of climbing corporate ladders, impressing friends and buying expensive things. Implicit in every work of self-help is a value system that the work helps the self to realize. This system cannot be questioned or even mentioned explicitly within the text; to doubt the goal is contrary to the goal, and to mention the goal is to expose it to doubt.

The same problem occurs in the “People’s History.” Zinn’s goal is to place society on a more equal footing, to abolish structures of oppression by opposing authority and elites at every turn. It benefits this goal, therefore, to present history in his book as if change has always come from below, and as if the American government only existed to protect the interests of the ruling class.

However, the text can only convince the reader that this goal is noble if the reader forgets this intention, that is, if the reader interprets the text as if it were an objective representation of reality. While Zinn does not claim to be objective,  the authoritative style of his writing suggests otherwise.

In the end, the “People’s History” was a monumental work because it coherently challenged conventional readings of history, not because it buttressed Zinn’s plan of action.

But what about “Selma”? Its goal of racial equality seems unimpeachable, but as political scientist Adolph Reed pointed out, the fetishization of agency and efficacy, along with the unconditional rejection of “white-saviorism,” also prevents engagement oppression’s roots in wider society. This kind of objection is impossible once we have adjusted the facts in the name of agency.

We value opinions that are based on facts. We expect an ought to clothe itself in the is. But when we weaponize the truth, when the is itself is colored by the ought, we are locked in a dangerous, circular mode of reasoning. The self-help mentality might be harmless when it comes to study skills or motivation, but when we encounter self-help for entire societies, we should be wary: If our foundations of truth can be changed at a whim, we may soon find ourselves with nothing to stand on.


Contact Eric Wang at ejwang ‘at’ stanford.edu.