HCH 21 / March 2018
Why We Should All Be More Selfish, by Tussah Heera
A few months ago, I was taking an evening stroll on the path in the woods next to where I live. It had been a harsh, dry summer’s day, and the flora and fauna seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief as the sun went down. Further along my way came the local playground, from which the mirthful (but mildly annoying) caterwauling of children emanated. I walked onwards, hoping to return once again to the tranquility of nature, only to suddenly hear a female voice hiss loudly, cutting through the cacophony.
“Don’t be selfish.”
A mother knelt on the ground to face her young son, wagging her finger in front of him. Just a few minutes prior, the boy had snatched a toy spade from a girl who was playing in the sandbox with him, all while repeatedly yelling, “Mine!” – an act that provoked a loud tantrum from the girl. Both their mothers had swiftly arrived at the scene like bouncers at a nightclub.
“Say sorry and give it back, or we’re never coming here again.”
The boy scrunched up his nose and folded his arms, likely still in disbelief that he’d done anything wrong. Eventually, he begrudgingly muttered the required word: “Sorry.”
The fakery of the entire scenario could not have been more apparent. Neither child knew the meaning behind the word “sorry” – the boy certainly didn’t feel sorry, and the girl didn’t understand its significance when it was uttered to her. It all seemed like a poorly rehearsed play, with unwilling, untalented actors jadedly delivering their lines while a frustrated director egged them on.
Though this is a commonplace incident, there’s something major to take from it (besides understanding the importance of birth control). Parents everywhere irrationally worry about their kids turning out to be selfish. In order to prevent this, they make their kids rehearse the mundane mantras of courtesy, starting at an age when they can’t even understand the true meaning or context of what they’re saying.
“Say thank you!”
“What’s the magic word?”
“What do you say?”
The fear of selfishness is rooted in the fear of disrupting order, and in a way, a fear of our base impulses and our authentic selves. The reason that parents are so keen on instilling politeness in children is that it’s a lubricant for social interaction and a way of maintaining predictability, which is a source of comfort for many. As a result, politeness has become a multi-million dollar industry. Children’s TV shows, books, movies, and other media sermonize endlessly about the virtues of being a Good Person™. This is by no means unique to our time – there are countless ancient fables, parables, and metaphors that revolve around about “being nice” or “sharing and caring” (who hasn’t heard of Aesop or Mother Goose?). Additionally, these morals and messages often come wrapped in a threat of some sort. Among cretinous, close-minded religionists, the threat is of an invisible sky wizard who would hurl kids into a huge fire pit after they die if they haven’t been nice during their lives. In other families, it’s the threat that a certain fat man who lives in the North Pole will leave naughty kids coal instead of showering them with material goods in December (actually, I’m assuming Santa has noticed the glaciers melting around him and has opted to send the ungrateful little shits of the world reindeer droppings instead of a fossil fuel).
In the adult world, these tenets of politeness take an eerie Orwellian turn, with calls for political correctness and respect for ideas instead of individuals. The threats delivered to maintain these norms are no longer imaginary but real – among them guilt-tripping, revulsion, and ostracism. Bad ideas are not tackled head-on with better ones, but are instead suppressed until they rear their ugly heads in the worst ways imaginable. Fakery is prized more than truthfulness, and lies are what keep the gears of the world turning. Everyone goes around pretending to be who they’re not. All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare so candidly put it, and all the men and women merely players.
What a lot of people fail to realize is that politeness and political correctness have nothing to do with true compassion. Politeness is nothing more than a litany of superficialities which usually require biting down your innermost thoughts and feelings in favor of maintaining good camaraderie. Politeness is just a mask with the ability to conceal the true nature of a person, whether it be as good as gold or rotten to the core. Many cruel despots were probably polite; Hitler likely said “please” and “thank you” and opened doors for the people walking behind him. But none of that, as we know, managed to keep that psychopathic old chap from gassing millions of innocent people to death, and I’m pretty sure that even if he were moved enough to utter the word “sorry” sometime before he blew his brains out in an underground bunker, it wouldn’t have miraculously reversed all the damage he caused. So much for “sorry” being a magic word.
So what exactly is compassion? Compassion is genuine empathy for other living beings one shares the planet with. It isn’t cultivated by coercion, but by life experience and open-mindedness. Compassion rests not on ritualistic courtesy, but on perceptiveness – the ability to look at a fellow sentient being, whatever he, she, or it may look like, and see that it faces the same trials and tribulations and wants the same things as you. And the most important part? In order to be truly compassionate, you must be selfish.
Yes, you read that right. Unashamed selfishness is what separates the nice from the compassionate and the shallow from the deep. You are the person that you know best, and without doing the best for yourself, you can’t possibly see what might be best for anyone else. This is best exemplified by the safety announcement on airplanes: please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Similarly, the goal of life is to become the most powerful individual you can be, and then use your power to help others.
Improper conceptualization of compassion can have dire consequences. I’ve seen people very dear to me suffer these consequences – getting trapped in horrible relationships, giving up on their dreams, and making countless poor decisions, all in the name of being altruistic. I’ve seen fundamentalist control-freaks try to exploit the overwhelming tolerance and kindness of these pure but misguided souls, often manipulating them into neglecting their mental and physical health under the delusion that they’re doing “the right thing” for everyone involved (except, sadly, themselves). They become so plagued by the fear of being considered selfish that they convince themselves to bear their less-than-ideal situations with very destructive rationalizations, such as “My in-laws don’t respect me, but to keep peace with my husband, I will not confront them”, or “I really want to accept this promotion, but I can’t because my family says I’m being self-centered by doing so”, or “Maybe I can change him/her.”
Contrary to what many moralizing milksops might tell you, there is nothing bad about pursuing money, health, power, independence, and accomplishment. If those pursuits cost you the approval of fake people, it’s all for the better. In fact, your life is for you to shape the way you – and only you – want to. If you want to travel the world, apply yourself to be able to do so. If you want to poop in a golden toilet every day, do whatever you have you do to get one (besides crashing the Guggenheim). The ability to own yourself is one of the greatest pleasures of living.
Embracing our true nature
One fact that many people struggle to come to terms with is that we are all biologically wired to be selfish. As Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.” Altruism, on the other hand, is a completely learned behavior, and even the reason behind its cultivation is selfish – to ensure not only the survival of ourselves as individuals, but also of our species as a whole. This fundamental code for self-preservation, practically written into our DNA, makes us far likelier to become greedy, destructive scumbags than cooperative and compassionate beings, and the sheer amount of evil in the world is proof of that.
Of course, nobody likes hearing this, largely due to a widespread belief in human exceptionalism. “That’s not true,” the sniveling, self-righteous snowflakes screech, “Love is innate. It’s the environment that makes people go bad! Babies are born with love!” While it’s a fact that the environment we live in is primarily responsible for shaping us, we need to realize that this environment is largely made up of fellow flawed humans, who were influenced by other humans themselves, and now in turn influence us. Also, we aren’t technically born with any emotions; rather, we’re born with the necessary mechanisms to experience emotions, which develop as we make our way through our lives. Every baby alive today is a blank slate, capable of doing both good and bad when they grow up, but one must understand that because of their selfish genes, these babies are far more likely to add to the writhing mass of darkness in the world – an ominous (though humbling) realization that is enough to make Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal seem exceptionally modest, indeed.
So how should we deal with all of this? Yes, our innate selfishness has led to a lot of problems. But it’s actually the denial of our innate selfishness that has led to many more. In his book, Dawkins went on to suggest that we can only hope to make our world less horrible if we acknowledge our biological makeup: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.” In order to truly be altruistic, we must understand, embrace, and champion our selfishness. Only if we have unbridled confidence in ourselves and the unending will to reach our personal goals in life will we be able to help anyone else reach theirs. We need to steer our selfish impulses away from the path of destruction and towards the path of empowerment.
We are not hindered by our flaws as much as we are hindered by believing them to be flaws. It is not just selfishness, but also our other natural predispositions that have been the subject of much fear, scorn, and misunderstanding, leading to the widespread proliferation of collectivism and erasure of individual rights and liberties. Collectivistic ideologies are all based on the position that we need saving from ourselves – that it is too dangerous to trust our own knowledge, needs, and instincts. The authoritarians who espouse such ideologies make it their sole mission to control their frightened, brainwashed followers by policing their all-too-human proclivities, leaving them riddled with (sometimes lifelong) shame.
One need not look further than the world religions for examples of ideologies that promote such anti-individualistic masochism. Muslims deny themselves alcohol. Catholic priests deny themselves sex (altar boys don’t count, apparently). Hindu ascetics deny themselves food, shelter, and clothing, spending their lives running around in the woods wearing nothing but the ash on their foreheads. Deprivation is placed on a pedestal in almost all religions across the board. Torture your senses and negate your natural instincts as much as possible while you’re alive, pious pinheads preach, and you’ll be chosen to spend eternity in a numinous wet dream after you kick the bucket, complete with (literally) heavenly eats and orgies involving angels (or seventy-two virgins – whatever floats your delusional boat). Quite ironically, these beliefs only lead to less altruism and even more division and hatred, as they are built upon conformity and exclusivity.
Throughout history, people have erroneously tried to suppress their selfish impulses with guilt, which has only served to empower authoritarians. The 15th century Bonfire of the Vanities, held by the hook-nosed Italian zealot Girolamo Savonarola, is a prime example of this. Savonarola believed that any pleasures that money could buy were sins – whether it be wearing fine clothes and jewelry, appreciating beautiful art, or even cracking jokes. The large public fires he held consumed a variety of “sinful” items, including makeup, “indecent” books, luxurious fabrics, packs of cards, and paintings by Renaissance artists. His followers were so captivated by these ideas that they too began to believe that wearing bin liners instead of brocade would guarantee them a fast ticket to heaven, and willingly dumped all their bling into the flames.
Nowadays, this same spirit of self-flagellation has become secularized. Members of the bourgeoisie, contrite over their seemingly perfect, soul-crushingly materialistic lives, call 1-800-STP-HNGR and fling pennies at Ethiopia in hopes of quelling the starved screams of the big-bellied, stick-limbed ankle-biters who live there. In reality, most of these people couldn’t give an infinitesimal fuck about Ethiopia, and probably couldn’t even find it on a map if they tried. But like Savonarola’s guilt-ridden groupies, they believe that donating menial amounts of money will cleanse them of the grave sin of having a bit more cash to play with than everyone else.
In order to effectively help anybody, one must first become powerful, and upon doing so, feel proud about being powerful – whether it be in talent, intelligence, or money. Only empowered people empower people. Reluctantly-thrown pennies wouldn’t make much of a difference in the world, but leading by example certainly would.
Our Lady of Perpetual Victimization
Nietzsche said, “Truly, I have often laughed at the weaklings, who think themselves good because their claws are blunt!” In this day and age, when games of oppression Olympics reign supreme, many people buy into the narrative that the weaker and more disadvantaged a person is, the better a person he or she is. The idea of intersectionality, for instance, is built upon this mentality: the less “privileged” you are, according to the identities you hold and your economic situation, the worthier you are, just by existing. Not unlike religion, this way of seeing the world often leads to the demonization of self-confidence and the erasure of personal responsibility, giving rise to a veritable cornucopia of excuses. I can barely string a sentence together, but if you correct my grammar, you’re guilty of not checking your educational privilege. I live in a high-rise and have an awesome job, but I am automatically “oppressed” because I am a woman. I’m going to police your words to compensate for the insecurities I have about myself, my life, and my health.
I’m sorry (not really), but you don’t get to take pride in your willful stupidity when the totality of information known to mankind is available on the Internet, right at your fingertips. You don’t get to use your laziness as an excuse to belittle the abilities of ambitious and creative women and diminish the struggles of women who truly face oppression by equating the very state of being female with eternal subjugation and feebleness. Also, scrawling a whiny op-ed justifying censorship won’t make you any healthier or happier with yourself, unless you count losing brain cells as losing weight, and consider the six-packs developing on your thumbs from typing out such verbal crapola on your iPhone “getting ripped”.
What’s that? I’m being heartless? That’s probably because I used way too much Johnson & Johnson No More Tears shampoo when I was little. I haven’t felt anything since.
Freedom is not a commodity. You can’t ask other people to give you freedom, because it isn’t theirs to give. You must take it for yourself. In other words, nobody owes you shit, and you don’t owe anybody shit, either. Yes, it’s true that life is riddled with suffering; sometimes, it can genuinely be too much to deal with, and we all need support. However, there is no virtue in victimhood. Dare to put yourself first. Read a book. Go for a run. Speak your mind. Make art and share it with the world. Get out of that toxic relationship for good. Sharpen your claws, and fight whatever or whoever dares to hinder you.
Fostering true progressivism
Greek mythology tells the tale of Icarus, who was given wax wings made by his father Daedalus, the great Greek architect. Daedalus admonished his son not to fly too close to the sun so the wax doesn’t melt from the heat, and not to fly too close to the sea so the feathers don’t collapse from the humidity. However, Icarus was so taken by the joy of flying that he forgot his father’s words. He rose higher and higher towards the sun before perishing in the ocean below, leaving his helpless father heartbroken.
For the most part, Icarus’ story has served as a tragic warning: stay within your limits, and you will be safe. Psychologists even use the term “Icarus complex” to define megalomaniacal, selfish, and arrogant behavior that leads to disastrous consequences. But seen in another light, the story of Icarus conveys a radically different moral. Icarus, foolhardy as he was, dared to test the limits of how high those little wax wings could carry him. He was, allegorically, a true progressive who wanted to discover more about the world around him, and was fearless enough to put himself on the line. Icarus may have gambled and lost in the myth, but what if he had won? He would’ve perhaps provided his father with valuable data to create new and improved wings that would’ve advanced the human race, à la the Wright brothers. It is a fact that great things can’t be achieved without danger.
Of course, our efforts toward progress need to keep the interdependent nature of our existence in mind. Everything is ultimately related to everything else. The Wright brothers’ plane obviously took many natural resources to build, as well as the efforts of countless other people besides themselves. Respect, understanding, and care for the very planet we live on and all who live on it is paramount for progress to be informed, and ultimately, altruistic – beneficial to all the living beings we share the planet with and the generations of living beings to come.
But since risk is needed for progress, relentless selfishness in regard to other people’s opinions is needed to be able to take risks. Visionaries in every field have had to prioritize themselves to discover more about their surroundings or hone their crafts. Regressivism occurs when the biased moral judgments of others infringe on the curiosity, determination, and creative expression of an individual, as seen in the lives of Galileo, Darwin, Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde, Alan Ginsberg, and countless other scientists and artists who were persecuted by ideologues, yet never stopped believing in themselves. Their life stories, however dismal they may seem at times, serve to teach us two valuable lessons, 1. Enlightenment can only be pursued with self-confidence, and 2. Scientific facts and artistic achievements do not bend to the fickle feelings of sanctimonious fuckwits. Eppur si muove, bitches.
Above all, love yourself
Obviously, happiness is paramount to leading a fulfilled life. Striving for world domination is great and all, but what’s the point if you don’t have a smile on your face while you’re at it? One of the surest roads to becoming happy is to define yourself by your own talents, intelligence, and personality, instead of meaningless external factors like race, class, gender, religion, and culture. Realize that no group in the world has a monopoly over your existence, and that you’re unique – just like everyone else. You will soon see yourself as a worthy living being, capable of great things and deserving of the best that life has to offer.
Collectivists may care about the happiness of the masses, but how can there possibly be happy masses comprised of unhappy individuals? True happiness rests on unconditional self-love and understanding the freedom/compassion dichotomy. Finding freedom is having compassion for yourself, and giving compassion is respecting the freedoms of others. Have the utmost gratitude for those who genuinely care about you, and say goodbye to those who don’t. After finding your own freedom, your selfishness will transform into selflessness and you will be in a position to share the fruits of your efforts.
So the next time some self-loathing turdblossom in your life calls you ‘selfish’, smile and thank them for the compliment. The next time you’re shamed for putting yourself first, make it clear that going forward, you’ll be sure to put your detractors first… in front of a firing squad, that is. And whenever life gets thorny and chaotic like it inevitably does, remember this: I love you, but I love myself more.
Published on Tussah and the Wolf on January 28, 2018