Moron Clarity

I recently discovered a new YouTube video format. It consists of people called sovereign citizens getting into trouble with police officers and judges. Much like the flat-earthers (another guilty pleasure), these people seem to live in a reality of their own. They seem to think they can hold all the rights and none of the obligations of US citizens. That’s probably the only way you can be “sovereign” and “a citizen” at the same time. Some of this stuff goes over my head because I’m not that familiar with US legislation. Mike the Cop tells me that these sovereign citizens sometimes cite the Articles of Confederation as a legal document to argue their case — the problem here is that the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution in 1789. Mostly, however, these people just spew a bunch of irrelevant loopy legalese.

What really fascinates me about the videos is that these people are absolutely convinced that their cause is true. As a result, they make a routine traffic stop a major issue, get arrested and get into a lot of trouble. At first I thought this was the effect of the Internet. These sovereign citizens sound very much like trolls or the kind of people who argue endlessly about everything on online forums. Sometimes things get really serious, as with the guy who marched into a police station wearing a hood with a semi-automatic rifle and a sidearm to “make a complaint”. Some of these people are clearly nuts, but what makes those who are not completely insane so sure of their reasoning? And why is it so pleasurable to see the theories forged in their social media bubble crumble when they try to apply them to real life?

Frank Guan of the New York Times pointed me to the term “moral clarity”. The term gives us the answer to the my first question. Guan writes that “we hear about moral clarity any time there is impatience with equivocation, delay, conciliation and confusion — whenever people long for rapid action based on truths they hold to be self-evident.” His longer definition and added comment are enlightening as well:

Moral clarity is long defined by usage as a capacity to make firm, unflinching distinctions between evil and good, and to take action based on those distinctions. These are fighting words: They mean knowing the enemy, which is the first step to taking up arms against the enemy. But they’re potentially applicable to any side of a fight. What adrenaline does for the body, moral clarity does for semantics: It generates a surge of willpower, serving as a prelude to — and maybe a pretext for — combat.

Guan talks a lot about politics, where moral clarity is a kind of rhetorical flourish reserved for occasions where the state has to wield its power. But the brilliant analogy between adrenaline and moral clarity links rhetoric and psychology in a way we can all recognize. When arguing with someone who has moral clarity, you quickly discover that they are not interested in resolving an issue or learning from the debate. They are in it for the fight. Meaning matters less and a wonderful pointlessness covers the conflict like freshly fallen snow. It’s a deadlock and something outside the debate must resolve the deadlock. Sometimes that something is a baton or a taser.

So why is it fun or funny to watch people applying moral clarity in cases where it serves little purpose? Moral clarity is great if there is an enemy coming at you in the battlefield and you have to stand your ground no matter what. Or so I would imagine. Verbal arguments are not very useful in actual combat, I’m told, so moral clarity has to be installed before you put people in that situation. That’s what military training is for: you learn not to think too much in certain situations so you can act quickly and decisively. But regular everyday life is not a battlefield for those of us who are lucky enough to live outside actual war zones. Seeing someone apply a warrior mentality to a speeding ticket is incongruous, and incongruity breeds comedy.

When you watch people in everyday situations harass the police or a judge with empty rhetoric, usually the police and judges — who deal with this stuff on a daily basis — quickly find them out. Why this happens is something Guan is very eloquent about:

In politics, as in all things, it should be possible to match decisive action with intelligent consideration. Clarity achieves only the first of those two; left to its own devices, taken as a virtue in itself, it tends to generate more problems than it solves.

Guan writes beautifully, but what he basically says here is that if there is no wisdom behind moral clarity, it can get pretty dumb. If moral clarity is all you have, the disparity between your ethics and actions grows as your moral clarity grows. In simple terms, you will eventually go full retard. And you should never go full retard, no matter how much moral clarity you may think you have.

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