Governor Abbott is a Jerk.
TLDR; Human beings matter
Photo Credit: Zeeshaan Shabbir via Pexels.com
We’ve all heard that famous quote “in order to make an omelete, you have to break some eggs.” It’s usually attributed to someone like Mao or Stalin and it has a long history of being used to justify body counts after violent conflict.
…real life isn’t a culinary activity and human beings aren’t eggs.
Breaking eggs to make omeletes makes perfect sense when you’re actually talking about eggs and not real life human beings. But real life isn’t a culinary activity and human beings aren’t eggs.
The quote about eggs and omeletes originated, not from Mao or Stalin (though Stalin’s right-hand man Comrade Lazar Kaganovitch did, apparently, use it), but from the Royalist François de Charette during the French Revolution, whose counter-revolt led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. I won’t defend either the Revolutionaries or the Royalists in this case, but the use of the phrase in this context is particularly interesting, as is why we often attribute it to various other kinds of ideologies.
Justifying the Unjustifiable
François de Charette was a Royalist, committed to defending the status quo, and Comrade Kaganovitch was, presumably, a revolutionary, committed to changing the status quo. What both share in common was a belief, carried out in their actions, that ideology mattered more than actual human lives.
And while one could argue that both were commenting with a war-time mentality, where normal moral norms and values fly out the window, the particular kinds of wars both were engaged in tell a different story.
Ideological wars, unlike wars based on self-defense or existential resource scarcity, are choices. We don’t end up in an ideological war because all other options have been exhausted, but because we believe our way of organizing society is better than other people’s and we’re willing to kill people to do show it. You choose to make an omelete; it’s not a circumstance you’re forced into.
The human costs, as we all know, are pretty horrifying: estimates range from between 600,000-1.3 million deaths during the French Revolution and following Empire and anywhere from 6 million on upward for Stalin. The winner of the ideological body count is, of course, Mao, whose policies resulted in anywhere from 40-80 million human deaths, mostly via famine.
Reform vs. Revolution
This is not to say that one should not resist oppressive systems. And this isn’t an argument against justified revolution. But it seems to be a pattern in human nature that ideological resistance tends to become very much like the people being resisted, at least as far as moral insensitivity to human suffering goes. This is as true of the the wars of religion in Europe as it is of the ideological wars of the 20th century. In both cases, people believed that ideas and/or political power mattered more than human lives and happiness.
Adam Smith had a great metaphor for this problem, which I’ve probably used on the blog before because it’s so great. He argues against what he call “the man of system,” because the man of system
“seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess–board.”
Charette and Stalin and Mao all share in common - despite their different ideological viewpoints - the belief that they can simply force other people to do their bidding, resulting in some ideal world (according to their definition of ideal).
The problem is the same. Humans are neither eggs nor chess-pieces.
Part of this, of course, relates back to our occupation of a 4D moral and political world. We’re not engaged in a game of chess at all. In fact, humans have pluralistic goals and values, idiosyncratic ways of life, goals and lives that change over time, and a strong impulse to resist being told what to do by people they don’t like. Those traits, among others, mean that when we want to change things we have to be very aware of the kinds of people we’re working with, the kinds of lives they lead, and what kinds of principles of motion they have on their own. And we need to be extremely aware that they are in fact all human beings with moral worth whose individual lives are more important than some abstract vision of a better world.
.…when we want to change things we have to be very aware of the kinds of people we’re working with, the kinds of lives they lead, and what kinds of principles of motion they have on their own.
This doesn’t mean that a better world isn’t worth dying for or that people don’t make these kinds of sacrifices all the time, but that should be their choice, not yours. And it’s also the case that typically when people are forced into the situation of dying for their beliefs it’s because someone else has pushed the situation to that breaking point. People (usually) don’t need to die for their beliefs if everyone around them is behaving in a reasonably moderate way. Even the case of Waco, which seemed to be a one-sided case of crazy people unnecessarily dying for crazy beliefs is more complicated than media reports or the government accounts would suggest.
Humans Matter in Real Life
Ok, you say. I get that genocide and government-created famine is bad, but what about in our current world, where at least in large swathes of the developed world we don’t live in these kinds of violent situations? How does this apply to us in our current political moment?
First, that most of us don’t face violent ideological conflict every day in itself is great news. After a century of unimaginable human loss, we’re finally learning! (Maybe?) But that doesn’t meant that we don’t make the mistake of thinking humans matter less than our own ideals in our everyday life.
I picked on Texas Governor Abbott in the title because he’s just the latest in a long string of polarized and politicized thinkers who place gaining political and ideological points over human wellbeing. The most awful example was his bussing of over a hundred migrants to Washington DC on Christmas Eve in freezing weather, to drop them at Vice President Harris’s home.
His rationale for sending the migrants to VP Harris’s residence is telling:
“She’s the border czar, and we felt that if she won’t come down to see the border, if President [Joe] Biden will not come down and see the border, we will make sure they see it firsthand.”
Abbott makes the same mistake that Charette and Kaganovitch make, though on a smaller scale. These humans were not the border. They aren’t pieces in a chess game where Abbott and Harris face off. They are humans occupying an unimaginably difficult moral and political landscape, whose lives have been uprooted and destroyed by political selfishness and dysfunction, whose hope of asylum was met with ideological contempt and partisan-inspired cruelty. Is Abbott just like Mao? Of course not. But it’s this kind of thinking - and the willingness to use other humans as political pawns - that leads us to think that other people can and should be sacrificed on the altars of our values. And whatever your ideological beliefs, that’s both false and wrong.
A Radically Moderate Inoculation Against Ideological Thinking
I can’t guarantee I never slip into this kind of thinking and I can’t guarantee anyone else won’t after reading this post, but it’s a good reminder in general to everyone from urban planners to employers to federal politicians that our primary responsibility is to be aware of the harm to real human beings that our ideological commitments can lead to. There may be no way to inoculate ourselves completely from thinking of other people as chess pieces or eggs in some contexts, but we can at least practice reorienting our thinking toward human beings through practice.
How to start:
Ask “at what human cost?” Your solution to some moral or political problem might be elegant, but remember the humans involved. Chances are good that elegant solutions will entail a lot of human suffering, particularly if they’re far removed from the status quo.
Get over judgment. It’s tempting to judge other people according to our own yardstick of ideological virtue or political purity. But people lead very different lives, have very different values, and a lot of time people are really struggling; adding to those burdens with judgment is neither compassionate nor necessary. And it’s very unlikely to change anyone’s mind.
Be curious. When we are tempted to judge someone for being ignorant or just a jerk, ask curious questions and try to learn more. Lincoln has a wonderful quote precisely on this point (at least the internet claims it was Lincoln): “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Most of the time, not all of the time, we like people better - or at the very least we understand them better - when we get to know a bit more about why they behave the way they do.
Assume good faith. It’s also helpful to assume that other people are acting in good faith (most of the time), even when they have very different political and moral views. You need appropriate boundaries of course (no one is claiming you should befriend Ted Bundy), but at least start with the presumption of good faith and let them prove you wrong. Often they won’t.
That’s it for now! More on this topic later, but if you have additions or quibbles or just want to connect, you know what to do…