Being a Good Reviewer

Before I started making games, I reviewed them. I see a lot of novice mistakes in reviews I read, and I made them too. Heck, sometimes I still do.

However, at a certain point people started evidently caring about my reviews, including to the point where I started not just getting regular reviews but actually wound up writing for publication from time to time.

At a certain point I hit burnout and stopped reviewing as frequently, and now I’ve got a conflict of interest for reviewing games (so I mostly just review the biggest names around or things I really like), but I still feel the reviewing itch from time to time.

I’m also testing the water for doing a whole series on this, so let me know if you have any feedback, concerns, or good thoughts. I’m going to outline a number of different things here

Professionalism

The first rule of reviewing is “Don’t be a jerk.”

As a reviewer, you are obligated to both the audience and the creator of anything you are reviewing.

Your first commitment is to your audience. You want to treat them with respect and dignity. Don’t inflate value to drive sales (ah, affiliate programs!), and make sure to respect their intelligence.

Some of this just comes down to writing good reviews. Be detailed but not manipulative. That’s basic stuff.

The part of professionalism that doesn’t come across as often is your obligation to the creator of anything you’re reviewing.

You can call out garbage, that’s one-hundred percent fine. One of my greatest regrets as a reviewer is not calling out a particular product enough on some of its flaws, in part because I wound up going a little too soft on it, and while my voice probably won’t change the universe, it’s worth noting that a person who shared my preferences and followed my reviews may not have realized my true feelings about the game.

However, you also want to respect the effort and time that a creator put into their work. If it’s fundamentally flawed or entirely schlocky, then that’s the sort of situation where you come down hard (the example I mention above was fundamentally flawed in execution), but a good reviewer is not an internet troll.

Can you be colorful?

Yes.

Should you be mean-spirited?

No.

The general rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t be okay with someone saying it about the product if you made it, don’t say it about something someone else made. Speak critically, but not rudely.

Communication

I struggle with clarity.

I’m a fan of long sentences and weasel words. I studied English in college.

As much as I used to make fun of communications majors, there is something to be said for the art of effective communication, especially in a review.

Make sure to format your review in such a way that you have clear points.

Always start with an introduction that talks about the product and makes clear which genre it’s in. I don’t suggest assigning a target audience (I occasionally see reviewers do this; it’s usually either unnecessary or patronizing). Give an initial first impression if doing so isn’t prejudicial to your later review content.

Wrap up with a clear conclusion. Make it clear whether you recommend the product, and if you have any concerns with it.

Remember that your most important part is the conclusion. If you whine about something for 80% of your review, then give a glowing conclusion, the people who skip to the end will see the glowing conclusion.

Though, generally, whining is not a good idea, which brings us to our next big topic…

Rapport

 You want to build a connection with your audience. Let people know what you think and how you feel; give them an insight into your judgments.

The big idea behind this is that you want to give your audience a feel for what you generally like or don’t like.

If I were to review a wargame of incredible complexity tomorrow, I’d have to be really clear about where I’m coming into my review from. Yeah, I work with games all the time, and I also have a decent interest in military history, but I won’t be describing anything for which I have a giant corpus of experience.

I always suggest drawing a lot of comparisons to other similar products to draw a line between what you like and how the product you’re reviewing either does it well or doesn’t. You want to be careful here (you are, after all, not reviewing every product simultaneously).

However, if you look at any major serious review (Consumer Reports stands out to me for this), you’ll see that a few references to other products slip through.

This is because the reviewer needs to build a rapport with their audience, and that’s including shared experiences. I’ve played more video games than I care to admit, so if I review a video game I share my experiences with seminal works that are similar to it (if possible), or otherwise draw comparisons to literature or film as I can.

You also need to be clear about what you like and don’t like. I’m not a huge fan of death spirals and complicated resource management that leads into death spirals. I’m the sort of guy who plays Forza Horizon with the rewind mechanic turned off to build up the challenge and I just restart a race if I’m doing poorly (in single-player, of course), to get practice in doing it right. That tells you a lot about my gaming preferences; I’m skill-driven, but I hate losing.

If I’m playing a survival game with really onerous resource mechanics, I need to make it clear in my review that a lot of my criticism comes from the fact that I don’t enjoy playing a game where eating becomes a concern every three minutes.

Qualification and Quantification

Qualification and quantification are two of the hardest parts in reviews, and I generally don’t like doing them unless I have to.

Qualification involves categorizing, tagging, and describing things, and it’s going to make up the majority of your review in a broad sense.

More particularly, however, the act of qualification in a review is boiling down whatever you’re reviewing into coherent units.

The big problem I see most people do with qualification is treating all products the same. If I took a roleplaying game like Rowan, Rook, and Decard’s Spire (link leads to my review) and compared it to GURPS Lite, I’d have a hard time qualifying them in the same way, even though they’re nominally in the same genre.

I like them both, but I am forced to confront the fact that different audiences will like each, and that I can’t do an apples-to-apples comparison with them.

In other terms, it would be like comparing Monopoly to Sim City. Yes, both offer play experiences, but they are very different experiences.

For this purpose, I suggest simply finding the four or five main “selling points” of the product and then trying to qualify them. For instance, in Spire I love the dice mechanics, the narrative-game interactions, the setting, the artwork and layout, and the prose. In GURPS Lite, I love the dice mechanics, characters, flexibility, speed, and robustness.

Quantification is something I have gotten much less fond of over the years. I used to try to do 1-5 scale ratings on multiple categories, now I do a 1-5 star scale overall if I’m required to do so.

Honestly, quantification is a bit dangerous. It can lead you into a lot of issues with practice; a 10/10 from one reviewer is meaningless, while a 7/10 may be high praise.

Notwithstanding all the controversies about games journalism, the problem with such a quantification is that it is entirely subjective in most cases, or too complex for the audience to appreciate in others.

Remember that reading a review is not a major investment. People are looking for guidance, not scientific dissertations on other things.

The one thing that I would even care to quantify is when that is an integral part of the experience. Cars have a lot of good quantifiable elements: how likely is it to break down in the first year, how much fuel does it consume, what is its resale value?

Games and literature, the two things I tend to review, have nothing like this. You can describe their general length, but that’s not necessarily going to reflect individuals’ experiences (or, for that matter, whether the time is well spent).

Cost can be mentioned, but I find this to be more important in tabletop roleplaying where pricing schemes are less standardized and value tends to be more wildly fluctuating than in video games, where costs are pretty standardized.

Even here, I tend to qualify. Does it offer more value than any other game?

Wrapping Up

I have more to say on each of these points if people are interested, but I think I’m beginning to go outside the bounds of a general overview.

Reviewing is a process of determining value, and estimating how the value you find applies to other people. I’m not a giant economics buff (though I am a bit of a dilettante and my interests have led me to that a little), but value assessment is one of the most important skills to have in daily life, to say nothing of difficulty.

A good reviewer is careful to make judgements, rather than emotional decisions. They can’t just follow a formula, but they need to make their ideas clear.



The End of Silence (and Roll20)

“We don’t need more white male teachers.”

That was the moment I lost six months of my life. Thousands of dollars. I began keeping a secret, hiding in shame.

I was a student teacher at a local school, the one I graduated from. My mentor teacher was a new teacher there, one I hadn’t known as a student, and over the course of three or four weeks everything fell apart. My memory of the incidents erodes; from the start of the weeks where I was cheerfully walking to and from the school, poorly-sung words pouring from my mouth to the end, where the only singing was in celebration of the end.

For three and a half years I had been studying to become a teacher.

In three and a half weeks, it was almost undone. When it ended, I was glad for it.

We don’t really need to delve into the details that got me back on track to become a teacher, or the experiences I went through when it all started to fall apart. I stopped sleeping except when crushed by fatigue, stopped eating except to keep up appearances, and stopped living until the storm had passed.

Not all of the troubles I experienced were unjustified; I had been poorly prepared by a program that hadn’t challenged me and hadn’t given me any hands-on exposure to my future trade until after I had “mastered” the theory; something which I have come to understand, on the basis of cognitive theory, does students no favors: the knowledge decays before it can be applied.

But the scariest part of the whole ordeal is the fact that the cataclysmic blow that shook me–the statement by a (white) teacher that we didn’t need people like me to be teachers (this amidst a massive shortage)–was met with a response that looked something like this:

“Well, yes, it would be ideal to have diverse teachers, but I’m the exception.”

The only reason I bring this up at all is that I see echoes of my experiences everywhere.

I’m not an extremist. I’m pretty politically moderate, and shy away from it.

But, at the same time, people don’t talk about this. When they do it meets two responses:

1. Changing the Subject

Polite laughter, minor discomfort. The victim of very real discrimination is written off as an extremist or as having a grudge:

This is what has kept me silent all these years, because simply saying “I experienced discrimination as a white straight male” is capable of serving as a death sentence for your career and your hopes.

I want to make it clear: I faced this discrimination, to my knowledge, exactly once.

The consequences, however, were no less real for me than the consequences of any discrimination against anyone. I was perhaps “privileged” in the fact that I was permitted to recover some of my standing and do the (supposedly) rare feat of acquiring a second student teaching position after leaving a first.

However, I was certainly not privileged by fair treatment and an ability to think of myself as just another person.

Prior to this incident, I had never thought of myself as white, at least not as my whiteness being a distinguishing factor setting me apart from anyone else.

2. Not “Real” Discrimination

The other response is simple:

“You’re not part of an oppressed class, so it’s not real discrimination.”

Where is the line drawn?

At what point is discrimination acceptable before it becomes a problem?

When can you condemn one person for another’s sins and not tarnish your own soul?

When can you take a class and judge an individual by it?

The nefarious element of all discrimination isn’t when it’s seen as awful and unacceptable. I’m glad that people are willing to stand up against people who discriminate; we need to do this.

We need to stand united on all fronts. We can’t just say “It’s never okay to discriminate” and have an unspoken clause of “unless it’s people we don’t feel need protection.”

Ending the Lie

This is what happens when white men don’t get what they want.

I had originally intended to include links to a variety of articles and examples of this statement on social media, but I don’t want to come off as attacking anyone. This is an exact quote that followed the Parkland shootings.

Traditionally, the argument that there can be no “racism against whites” is that there aren’t social hierarchies that oppose them.

However, there are so many memes floating around (in the Dawkins-esque sense) like the one above that they’re far from difficult to find.

I recall a time not too long ago when one of my relatives posted, in response to something political involving some sort of natural disaster or terror attack that she was “more afraid of young white men with guns” than whatever had caused the tragedy at hand.

Is it any surprise that young white men feel afraid when they are characterized in such a way? The only way to steer people away from violence is to show them an alternative. The act of feeding a narrative that white men are perceived more prone to violence is a self-fulfilling prophecy, much as similar narratives devastated minority communities.

What about Roll20?

Gaming is a passion for me.

I’ve been pretty negative so far in this essay, so I want to take a moment to affirm something positive that I believe:

Gaming is a tool to bring humans together. It transcends race, creed, gender, sexuality, and every other divisive category. Not everyone plays the same games, but play is a part of the human psyche.

Yesterday, I learned about something that moved me to end my silence.

I want to stress that the allegations that have been made are not necessarily verified. I have been through a similar experience, and it rings true to me. I haven’t seen a denial or a contradictory account, and several of the people involved have corroborated the same account.

Roll20 is an online service for playing roleplaying games. I’ve used them a lot in the past, though my use has dwindled because of having more personal obligations now that I’ve gotten more serious about making games.

It’s an okay service, though many people have gotten frustrated with the lack of meaningful changes in some areas of the platform (including, coincidentally, the user whose undeserved ban set off the whole incident). I definitely fall in that camp; I don’t feel Roll20 is as far ahead of some of the alternatives as it used to be, and I feel more and more like it’s outdated every time I use it.

The problem, however, isn’t the quality of the service, but allegations that have come to light about the treatment given to a group of content creators by one of its founders, Nolan T. Jones.

The story as I understand it goes along these lines: a number of roleplaying game content creators, among them Jim Davis and Cody Lewis, wanted to get together to do a show and asked Roll20 if they could get sponsored to do the show with them.

The response was that they wouldn’t, because Roll20 didn’t want to sponsor “five white men,” but Nolan was willing to go into detail about how the company would sponsor minorities (and bragged about a previous instance where doing so made a previously unknown talent famous).

Did Davis and Lewis deserve an endorsement and sponsorship? I don’t know. However, there are so many things wrong with Nolan’s actions, and by extension Roll20’s actions.

The problem lies in the question of why the decision was made. Roll20 can, theoretically, sponsor as many people as it likes, subject to budget concerns. However, the key decision making factor here, as Lewis states, is skin color and gender.

Part of me originally wanted to say that it’s okay in some contexts; Roll20 has the right to brand themselves as diverse, after all, but that argument doesn’t seem internally consistent.

  1. Their own policies don’t allow for people to recruit on those lines when setting up games on their platform, so there’s a hypocritical double standard.
  2. Would that argument hold up if tried with any other demographic and go without at least some condemnation? If they’d flipped the tables and said “Whites wouldn’t like a diverse broadcaster lineup”, wouldn’t they be seen at least as cowardly or bigoted in their justification of how potential talent would appeal (or not) to certain demographics?
  3. The whole issue goes against Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous admonition that people be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by their character”

Many of them prefer not to use the term discrimination to refer to the incident, but Cody Lewis of Taking20 has come forward with a statement involving what happened.

https://i.redd.it/obyrl2tzd2p11.png
Image courtesy of u/takingd20

I won’t be using Roll20 again. I’ve canceled my subscription, more because this incident reminded me that I don’t use it than any sense of offense.

At the same time, it would be nice to have a chance to get some clarification from Roll20. Unfortunately, they have not released any official statements, other than deciding to stop moderating the subreddit on which the allegations were revealed.

I don’t think they owed anyone anything, but if the accounts that I’ve heard were accurate, it sounds like Jones took glee in the revelation that he was willing to do business with some people but not others because they weren’t “different” from the mainstream roleplaying community.

Why It Matters

I’m a believer in the value of principle over expedience.

We want a future where everyone has a chance to participate on an equal playing field. That means moving beyond zero-sum game and identitarian ways of thinking, because these worldviews only lead to conflict.

One day, I will have kids of my own. They will be at least 50% white, and have an even chance of being male. They will have their own dreams, their own hopes.

I want them to live in King’s dream, a world where their character, and their choices, define them more than the color they may wind up being or the biology they may have.

The carte blanche denial that whites can be discriminated against fuels the very extremists that the denial is supposed to restrain. Left without validation for your experiences, it is very easy to walk the road of bitterness and hate. Only God saved me from bearing a grudge against a person who discarded my dreams, who took my hopes and tore them up because I didn’t fit the demographic that she desired to see.

You don’t have to go very far to create resentment. It starts with a drop, but it’s a bucket that fills quick because people only see their own experiences.

Unfortunately, it’s become expedient to blame a class rather than a person, to seek correlation rather than causation. We don’t want to confront the things that lead to evil, because they can be found in us.

The truth is that we should evaluate everyone on their merits. That means moving beyond simple explanations like “privilege” and “hierarchies”, and embracing individuals for who they are.

I think we can all agree on that.

China’s At It Again

It’s that time of year again when China’s doing its human rights violations.

For those who aren’t quite clear on what time of year that is, it’s all the time.

A couple weeks ago I talked about how China was establishing gulags, but now we have some more information coming out of the Xinjiang province about the persecution of the Muslim minorities in that country.

Now a list of potential reasons why you can get sent to a re-education camp in Xinjiang has emerged, and I’ll give you a hint:

Most of the time, it’s not for actual subversive activity.

At least, not something that would be considered subversive outside of China’s totalitarian regime.

They’re things that are pretty simple. Little things like owning a tent, abstaining from alcohol (Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol), going to a mosque, having a beard, arguing with an official, or owning extra food.

Evidently, if you do any of these things, you’re a hidden radical.

Meanwhile, China’s persecution of Christians continues unabated. Since Xi Jinping has secured his power, he has had no reason to avoid doing this, since he knows for a fact that the rest of the world will do nothing.

Why?

The Chinese are bullies, fond of pointing out the fact that they can exercise power. They know that there’s nowhere with the will to stand up to them, and they’ve managed to acquire debts from a lot of countries and continue to place cultural agents (e.g. the Confucius Institute) in many other countries, and they coerce tech giants into bending their knees in order to access a lucrative market.

So what can you do about it?

Simple. Avoid Chinese goods, let your government officials (ineffective though they may be) know that you have concerns with close affairs with them, and use your influence to spread the word. Do not remain silent. Do not permit this abuse to be swept under the rug.

God as Provider Against Fear

One of the things that has been a repeated source of God-centered conviction in my life is my own struggles with anxieties and fears of what lies in store for my future.

I have no doubt that many of these fears constitute a spiritual weakness of mine, a failure to appreciate what I have been given and a blindness to the charity of Providence. Although I deserve nothing, I fear that my comforts and worldly position will be lost, when in reality these are the least of my treasures.

Foremost among all fears is the fear of death. Other than fears of inadequacy and questions of our own identity, nothing can drive us more than the question of what will happen once we die.

God gives us eternal life because God provides the tools to resist any fears. We can overcome anything with the right help, and God will provide for our needs. It’s not that we should focus on the concept of eternal life because of what it offers us; having an eternity with God is pointless if you don’t have a now with God.

The role of eternal life is to give believers a reminder that we have a relationship with God through Christ that cannot be ended by any worldly force. It is only by choice, by the intentional rejection of God, that we can lose our salvation.

The degree to which one has to act in violation of godly principles to lose salvation is unclear. God is love and forgiveness, even when it is not deserved. Merely sinning is therefore likely insufficient to jeopardize salvation, but a lifestyle of depravity illustrates priorities that lie outside God’s kingdom, and it would be foolish to live in such a way that virtues extolled by God and the saints are lacking and expect to have one’s name in the Book of Life.

Paul’s famous musings on this matter in Romans come to mind:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”
*Romans 6:1, NASB*

One of the things that I’ve noticed in my faith walk is that many of my fellow believers worry about their salvation; this is not necessarily always wrong, but I think that it overlooks the main point of life.

God wants us to succeed, but to do so in accordance with His will.

We may not appreciate those successes, since they do not always follow the paths that we want to follow. However, this development leads us to improved character, and from there we find ourselves bettered by God’s plan, so long as we follow the direction of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When we are following God, we are earning our salvation; even though we will have moments of worldly weakness, we can strive to work toward our goals. An analogy for this is the notion of industry: not everyone can be successful, but people who strive for it are much more likely to do so.

Certainty can come in the form of an industrious pursuit of God.

If we do this, we will not automatically enjoy worldly success. This is a common heresy that has spread throughout the modern church, especially in America. However, as we follow faithfully we deepen our relationship with God, the loving Father, who will reward us with an eternal connection to Him. We also learn right principles of action from the virtues that come from that relationship with God, like self-control, being a good neighbor, and loyalty.

While these are not enough on their own to ensure worldly success, they are things that are important to have to avoid bringing destruction down upon oneself.

God’s support for us is found in both boldness and tranquility. We need fear nothing, for we are His children and servants. Through our service we can shine the light of the divine in the world, and while we may never have wealth or worldly success we can count on the auspices of God and trust that we will never be tested beyond what we can bear by the trials of the world. These difficulties do not come from God, and with the omnipotent Creator at our side not even death can take our hope.

Dream big and follow boldly.

Freedom through Responsibility

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Pearson’s personality archetypes, particularly the Sage, which is at odds with some of the other stuff I’m writing about and requires a different approach, so I can’t get these thoughts out without really going into this separately.

One of the interesting things about the Sage is that they’re often associated with a lot of somber, rules-oriented thoughts, but many of the heroic examples of the Sage are going to be characters that enjoy their lives quite a bit. They’re not Puritans–or at least not Arthur Miller’s unhappy, scheming Puritans–but rather they’ve discovered freedom that is deeper than mere anarchic desire.

To the wise Sage, true freedom comes through responsibility, through recognizing the path that leads away from evil (however one wants to define evil; I’m a big fan of the simplified “infliction of deliberate harm” method as a short-hand), and through following the rules required to do what is right.

In a sense, the Sage who isn’t a total flaming wreck recognizes that there are rules that they need to follow, but that these rules serve an end. With that knowledge in mind, they can do something that is more potent than just going after perfect adherence to the rules that govern them.

The reason why this is important is that a mature Sage discovers the freedom to do what they need to do without having it consume them. They know what costs actually reside beneath the surface of their actions, and they can take responsibility for them. They make informed decisions that provide them with a brighter outlook for tomorrow than what was had for today.

This is part of living a happy, fulfilled life, and it is only possible when one finds meaning, or purpose. Victor Frankl, the famous psychologist and Holocaust survivor, notes that many of his patients made a tremendous recovery from devastating depression or anxiety when they were able to find a sense of purpose.

The Sage can find that purpose, and they hunt for the way to fulfill the role they must take on.

When they do this, they are freed from doubt, uncertainty, and all matter of trivial privations. They face challenges that are worth overcoming, and never created by their own mistaken actions.

However, without that core, there is nothing to guide life, and no reason to do anything other than live in the moment. It is responsibility, to society, to others, even to ourselves, that gives us hope.

This responsibility can’t be handed down from above, like the disastrous totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century attempted to do. Like over-sweetened foods, the efforts of these ideologies to control their prisoners often revolved around the notion of purpose–that the individual’s responsibility lies in the collective.

But it is only a small fraction of people, if any, who can find purpose for themselves in the machinations of such a regime. Real purpose is found through introspection, exploration, learning.

Too often we see people living lives of chaos. Their goals are unset, their purpose unclear. Devoid of responsibility they embrace only oblivion. This may provide some momentary satisfaction, but it never compares to the products of finding and accepting a purpose.

Likewise, it is important to remember that purpose is about finding something outside of the self. While self-improvement can be a valid route to purpose (for instance, I find that my current attempts to lose weight have a high amount of meaning in my life), it is not enough in and of itself. My weight loss is meaningful to me because it gives me an ability to pursue my other sources of purpose–writing, God, teaching–rather than as an end of itself.

To bring us back to the topic of the Sage, we can consider this: if you have purpose, but no rules to live by, you will be no more likely to achieve your goals than someone with no rules. Small challenges can be overcome by instinct; otherwise our species would have died out a long time ago.

Meaningful challenges–the ones that give us a reason to exist–require us to embrace the wisdom that comes with accepting our limitations. That includes knowing when to subordinate our judgment about what is right and wrong, which can become corrupted by our desires, to established codes (I’m religious, so you can take a wild guess as to how I do this), and also acknowledging the limitations of our perceptions.

However, the Sage goes beyond this: you do not just embrace the limits, but also what they allow you to do. It’s about recognizing the merits of the rules, which also allows you to find whether or not the rule itself has value. It’s very easy to know the consequences of the rules, and what the rules present, but when you can point to a rule and say what it does for you, it will be more effective.

Power, Restraint, and Generosity

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be good.

There’s no particular impetus for this, but I’ve stumbled upon a few things that I think might be of interest to people, and help explain some of the things that I believe could make the world a better place.

Goodness is difficult to define, but it’s easy to define evil: doing intentional harm.

Goodness, then, as the opposite of evil, can be loosely defined as doing intentional benefit.

I’m not some epic sage for the ages (or at least I don’t have pretenses of being one), but that’s a sufficient starting point to move onto my next idea.

We live in a day and age where power is feared. Power corrupts, we are told, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

However, there are very few people who give up power to pursue goodness. There are some, admittedly, who like Tolstoy give up everything and go after a state of renewed innocence, but the ascetic route doesn’t work for most people.

I personally don’t even think it’s necessarily good: there are noble ideas behind it, but it’s disastrous in execution.

If we look at the story of Genesis, there’s a moment in creation where humans are little more than God’s perfect creations; made in His image, but not capable of defying Him.

It is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that grants this decision making quality, and it is quite often described as having the potential for both good and evil.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/18/William_Blake_-_The_Temptation_and_Fall_of_Eve_%28Illustration_to_Milton%27s_%22Paradise_Lost%22%29_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg/807px-William_Blake_-_The_Temptation_and_Fall_of_Eve_%28Illustration_to_Milton%27s_%22Paradise_Lost%22%29_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
“The Temptation and Fall of Eve”, by William Blake

This is a key point not just of the transformation of humanity in a practical sense (since evil now exists in the world, where it had not before), but also a metaphysical transformation.

Before the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was tasted, humans had only one job: to exist in companionship with God. It was innocence in its most perfect form.

Being powerless, especially by choice, is akin to this state of innocence. Orthodox Christian beliefs indicate that this state of innocence will happen after God returns to purify and save the world, and many utopian thinkers have drawn on a notion that they can achieve this sanctification of humanity on earth (this is not unique to Christianity; similar tenets exist in Eastern religions and in a variety of philosophies).

The problem lies in the fact that evil (defined, for reference, as intentionally caused harm) is a very real presence in the world. We can see its results, certainly, all around us; the decay and entropy of the world push people toward it, and the consequences both of action and inaction can be dramatic. Increasingly we have moved toward social schemes and political machines that attempt to remove the symptoms of evil from our world.

If you’re an optimist or a (little-r) romantic, you might preach that the power of good will always triumph over evil. If you’re a utopian, you might try to remove evil as a force entirely.  More dangerously, you might try to hide the outcomes of evil without doing anything to confront it.

I must confess that I am not an optimist. Evil is real, and it often “wins” from certain perspectives. The horrors of the 20th century, and the incredible displays of evil it contained, show that even though we might see some momentary waves of goodness, we’ll never fully eradicate evil, and we’re very prone to forgetting what it matters.

But I’m also not a utopian, and I don’t like hiding evil. There are millions–maybe even billions–of bodies that ought not to be buried. We move on, planning and scheming, trying to forget that humanity is capable of error.

However, we’re also capable of good, and I believe power is the only way to achieve goodness.

I don’t mean any one sort of power.

Power and Restraint

The pursuit of power has proven tragic more often than not, and people trying to be good without fully realizing what it means to be good can wind up committing evil acts and denying their nature, engaging in self-deception and becoming corrupt. This is especially likely when people focus on one type of power over all others (e.g. “I need to be President so I can fix X”) or view power as a zero-sum game and feel they need to take it from others. Making decisions for others on a large-scale is a great example of something that can cause “good” in the world, but also lead to a lot of damage in the long run, either because the decisions were faulty or the mechanisms of gaining power will later be abused (or, worse yet, both!).

Pursuing power must follow, not precede a pursuit of wisdom and discernment. Power must be checked by understanding, a realization that good intentions alone are not enough to protect from evil (and, for that matter, avoid doing actions that lead to or enable evil), and those who pursue power must take every care to ensure that their methods of doing so do not constitute evil themselves.

For instance, violence never leads to power without bringing evil. I am not trying to argue for pacifism, however: there may be times when those with power need to use force to stave off evil.

However, let us consider for a moment the implications of this. If I were to use force (and force and violence are intrinsically linked) to become the only provider of electricity because I provide clean power, and my opponents provide power that is dirty, I’m gaining my power through corrupt, evil means.

I place upon myself the responsibility for all of the consequences of my actions. If I am unable to supply enough power, people may die. This doesn’t even necessarily consider the people who lose things because of the force that I exert upon them (or convince someone else to exert upon them). Perhaps they recognize that their actions could be damaging the world, but they are doing everything in their power to redress these concerns, or have done a thorough analysis and found that the damage is not in excess of the benefits.

On the other hand, those who prepare themselves ahead of time and bring power into their possession through means that do not impose on others through independence, self-reliance, cooperation, and voluntary exchange have prepared themselves to be free to use their power in ways that directly confront evil.

Take, for instance, someone who uses a firearm to stop a mass shooter. It would be nothing short of an argument for society-scale suicide to say that their actions are evil. They are using threatened (if the shooter surrenders) or real violence to put an end to evil actions occurring around them.

The Christian faith teaches that the “meek shall inherit the earth”, and we hear that a lot when people talk about using force and power. After all, power reflects ambition and ambition can be a path to evil. This falls apart when one considers that in Greek, the word that is often translated as “meek” (πραεῖς [praeis]) refers to the notion of power under restraint.

Naturally, something can be said for imposing restraints on those who lack them, but this needs to be done with utmost care and caution. It must be a process of reaching a conclusion that unfitness has been demonstrated, not a lack of demonstrated fitness, as the restraint needed to responsibly exercise power is often an internal quality and not easily assessed by outsiders.

The absolute destruction of a person’s power (self-inflicted via ascetic lifestyle or not) is the destruction of any sort of meaningful self, and the destruction of praeis in the individual’s life. I believe strongly that everyone has value, and that people should not be restricted from earning power unless they demonstrate a clear intent to use it for evil. This is a consequence of the belief that freedom is required for any action to be “good”.

Consider the following scenario:

A child refuses to share with friends. The parent, mortified, forces his child to share. Ultimately, whatever should be shared is shared, but only by coercion and the child is embittered.

Nobody will argue that the child forced to share has done a great moral act. The force used may not be particularly harmful. In some cases, it could show that power is a means to get people to do what you want and encourage that behavior down the road, but I think the more likely lesson is that people use power to enforce behavioral norms.

However, this event doesn’t reflect an end of evil. There is no evil being done by the child. Not wanting to share is not intentionally harming others; there are times we deliberately do not share that have a benefit on society and the world (toothbrushes being a puerile example, and spouses being a more complex one).

Even if sharing wouldn’t cause any harm, however, the child is not brought to commit the good act of sharing to benefit others, or even to the awareness that selfishness can become (emphasis on can become, not necessarily is) a catalyst to evil acts.

It is restraint when seeking power, and restraint in using power, that enables goodness.

Generosity: When Power can be Good

I mentioned earlier that our definition of goodness as causing deliberate benefit is too simple to be useful.

Self-interest generally gets in the way of  goodness. This is why the wanton pursuit of power, especially when it is taken away from other people. Restraint involves knowing when it is acceptable to use power for self-interest (which is not inherently good), and when to use it to actively pursue good.

When power is used to acquire more power, it is the generosity and restraint of the individual acquiring the power that determines whether the outcome will turn out for good and for evil.

Generosity is not the only time power can be used for good. We want people who have demonstrated virtues to have the power at their disposal to protect us from evil (and to use our own power for the same purpose), and we wish to see power used to instill virtues and eradicate vices and the situations that cause people to commit evil out of necessity.

Generosity, however, is the act of giving power to promote power in those who need help. I’m a believer in the power of charity, the ability of an individual to invest in someone else for the sake of that person’s betterment. Hugo’s Les Miserables is a great example of the ways that this can play out.

Generosity is not blind giving, however. It is actually possible to create evil in this manner. There are many places where it is not economical to create goods and provide services because they are so heavily subsidized (as many third-world farmers can attest), simply because people who think that they are helping continue to send shipments of “free” goods and “charitable” services without any concern for the effect that has on development.

If so-called generosity impedes others gaining the power they need to achieve goodness, it’s nothing more than bondage. When executed competently, it’s little more than using force to fight against evil–a noble goal, but not one that is inherently good–and with incompetent execution is ignorant or, in some cases, malicious because it denies dignity and power to others. It is not a coincidence that the best charities stress training and equipping their beneficiaries, and may be selective in who they help, and that despite many government’s massive efforts to help people, which are often entirely well-intended, they rarely are considered a force for good in the world (try this at home: ask someone what the top five forces for good in the world are).

Generosity involves not just using power to help others, but making good decisions in how to do so. Virtue is learned by example, and generosity is a virtue.

Power and the Choice of Goodness

Power is a force for good when that power is used to deliberately benefit others. Removing power removes the ability of people to be generous.

More importantly, however, it ignores the reality of evil and goodness at its core. The complete abolition of power would lead to the entropy of the world taking over, and the monopolization of power in the hands of a trusted few is little better.

Instead, power linked to consciousness–knowing what a person is able to do and what good is–provides our only path to a better world, and is, perhaps, even a moral responsibility. Not only must an individual build their own power, but they should seek to empower others, not based on conditions but as a general course of action.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reader Response Theory

One thing that used to bother me as a writer is that I would always have a point I wanted to make, and not really know how to make it.

My attempts to be obvious were heavy-handed and artless, and when I was subtle I found that the stories I wanted to tell didn’t say what I wanted to say.

This was the cause of no mean frustration for me, since younger me wanted to make a point with everything, to the point of ultimately giving up and writing either stuff that I considered meaningless drivel or stuff that was so chock-full of symbolism and heavy-handed ideas that it lacked any real development or originality.

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The Importance of Reading

Since beginning a voyage of self-improvement in March, I’ve read 200 articles and at least 10 books just for the sake of reading more.

I spend at least one hour every day dedicated solely to reading, and I spend a fair amount of time reading stuff written by people who are wrong disagree with the beliefs that I hold.

And I’ve noticed a few positive trends in my life.

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Learning from Barbara Bush

This past week, First Lady Barbara Bush passed away. Her passing has left a major impact on the news cycle, but also in the hearts and minds of many Americans and even people overseas who have come to realize what a legacy one woman had on the nation and the world.

I’m not someone who writes about politics very often. I’m pretty apolitical, at least in public, so I don’t want this to stand as a striking endorsement or condemnation of any policy. In any case, I have no living memory of the Bush (senior) Administration. What I am writing about is based strictly on my reflections on the accounts of people who knew Barbara Bush during her life.

What I write is based on what I have heard her character described as, but the reports are so consistent and so broad that I have no doubt in their veracity.

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Principles: An Antidote to Deception

I was reading an article on Vox this morning about the  advent of realistic and easily accessible “fake” tools, which allow for the creation of altered video and images with relatively high rates of accuracy, relatively low resources required, and the vast expanse of the internet with which to spread them.

This is a very real concern as we head into the 21st century. Our lives have become controlled by society (whether we like it or not), and if society is controlled by deception, what chance do we have to really have to live our own lives in a good way?

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