Toughness Trained Through Harder and Harder Contests

Our Predicament

We are forever holding back. We are always backing down. Every day we stand aside, give in, crumple up, let fall. Has panic settled in? This is meekness. Look around you and you will find it–so dour, so damp, so commonplace–almost everywhere.

The Desirability of Toughness

Suppose, like me, you say, ‘Enough is enough.’ Then you would want to know not how to be free of fear but rather able to cheerfully do the right thing, time and again, under pressure.

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Endowment Effect and Wrenching Toughness

In behavioral economics, the ‘endowment effect’ states that individuals ascribe higher value to the objects they possess than to the objects they could secure. If this is true, then we are ‘loss averse’ creatures that prefer to keep what we have and are more disheartened by the loss of our possessions than by the gain of some other, perhaps more valuable item.

In the eyes of the philosopher, the assumption underlying the endowment effect is that fear of loss trumps the pursuit of the Good. This, as I argued in my last post, is why we need to have contests in which

  • our fears of losing what we value highly (or, depending on the stakes, most highly) is pitted against a defensible conception of the Good, i.e., what we reasonably take to be most worth securing, defending, honoring, realizing, or upholding.

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The Limits of ‘Creating Safe Spaces’: Contests of Toughness for Our Time

The Limits of ‘Creating Safe Spaces’

There is a great deal of talk going around about ‘creating safe spaces’ to ‘foster communication,’ ‘open dialogue,’ and ‘facilitate exchanges.’ Discomfort is to be removed, managed, or adjusted. Being uncomfortable is ruled out or encouraged it means being ‘at the edge of one’s comfort zone.’ Ground rules are set, based on non-violent forms of communication, and facilitators ‘check in’ to ensure that these ground rules are applied.

It is one thing to facilitate conversations in post-Apartheid South Africa, where it is entirely appropriate to create safety in lieu of violence, animosity, and rage. Yet it is quite another to believe that ‘creating safe spaces’ is a worthwhile endeavor or a reasonable point of departure in political societies where those particular human beings in the room have, by and large, grown up and benefitted from adequate security and protection during their formative years and beyond.

The mistake is to believe that a particular concept (‘safe spaces’) can so easily be generalized beyond the particular conditions in which it made sense to apply it. This is rarely so, especially in the case at hand, and the result has been a cultural celebration of weakness, ‘compassionistas’ (as I call them) being produced in droves and fallaciously lauded.

Therefore, it seems to me time to ask: ‘Can we create some well-articulated, well-specified arenas where safety is not at issue and where fear is precisely at the heart of the encounter?’

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Contests, Modes of Toughness, and the Spirit of Our Times

Not everything in life is a contest but surely some things are. In a contest, I struggle, I risk something, I stake myself. I can avoid contests but only at the cost of avoiding becoming a more excellent human being.

I doubt whether we can continue to avoid the contests we face in the coming years. Some contests will be easy while others will be hard.

Consider the hard contests in life. What I have in previous posts been calling ‘toughness’ would be a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for excelling in a hard contest.

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How to Learn to Stand Up for Yourself

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that one mode of physico-ethical toughness is standing up… (e.g., standing up for oneself, standing up for what one believes, standing up to oppression) as opposed to backing down (e.g., backing down from one’s opponent). So, there would be situations in which the right thing to do would be to stand up for oneself in lieu of backing down from the enemy. Happily, standing up for oneself can occur just as much in physical scenarios as in one’s mental life, as when one stands up in lieu of backing down in the face of something about oneself that one fears.

How, then, would one learn to stand up…? Intuitively, I think the first thing would be to pay mind to what it is you fear, observing how the object of fear seems to be pushing you to back down. What is it that it pushing you to back down? How is this fear to be described?

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