PSA: Don’t be a dick

I was In Sydney when the UK riots broke out, and I didn’t hear about it until it had become an international story which showed Britain in the worst possible light. Much hay will be made about this over the coming months, but I thought I’d add my tuppence worth.

Firstly, there can be no justification whatsoever for this behaviour, regardless of your background or surroundings. But it is a good idea to try to understand it, because locking people up after the fact only goes so far. None of what I raise here excuses what we saw on Britain’s city streets, but it does provide a context.

Society is based on the concept that most people will be law-abiding, because it is in their collective interest to be so. It’s one of the defining characteristics of being human that we have the self-control to defer our own short-term gratification in order to achieve longer term objectives, particularly shared objectives. What is happening with increasing frequency is that some people are no longer willing or able to do that – and they’re not all wearing hoodies.

Now, it’s quite easy to point at an obvious example of self-absorbed gratification from the last week, such as someone looting expensive electronic goods from their neighbourhood store. But on a more subtle level, this lack of willingness to defer gratification is something that increasingly pervades our modern society, just at a less visceral level. Our consumer society has for years encouraged people to buy things they can’t afford through the high availability of credit – don’t save up, have it now! Even worse, at every level of society now there is a general attitude that what matters isn’t “what’s right”, it’s “what you can get away with”.

There are myriad examples of this. Politicians scamming their expenses system because it wasn’t strictly disallowed, even though anyone with an ounce of sense should have known it was immoral. Bankers risking all to get rich in the good times, knowing that in the bad times someone else will pick up the tab. Patent trolls gaming a broken legal system to make money from doing nothing at all, by taking it from those that do. Basically, the message at all levels is: if you think you can get away with it, go for it. Even if common sense would tell you that you’re being a dick, it doesn’t matter – law of the jungle and all that.

What we’re really seeing on Britain’s streets is the very ugliest incarnation of this, but it’s rooted in exactly the same attitude, and we can’t pretend they’re separate things. The political or white-collar side of amoral behaviour doesn’t result in houses burning down and people dying, so we don’t notice as much until it goes really badly wrong (like in the credit crunch), but it’s ultimately the same thought process – I know this is wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway, because either I think I won’t get caught, or there’s some clever legal wrangling that lets me off the hook even if I do.

Some might cite the demise of religion as a cause of the lack of moral fiber, but that’s not it at all (the Catholic church is one of the worst perpetrators after all). No, it’s really very simple – more people need to stand up for a singular and easily communicated principle: “don’t be a dick”. And stop pretending that you don’t know when you’re being a dick, or that you have some kind of justification for it. We need to stop looking for technicalities to excuse behaviour we know is wrong, and for ways to avoid getting caught. Laws are there as a distillation of this concept (sometimes they get it wrong too), but the original form is much simpler to understand – you really don’t need a lawyer to tell you when you’re being a dick. All the people involved in the subprime mortgage crash knew they were doing something dodgy, but they carried on anyway. Take this same attitude and put it in the mind of an ill-educated thug with a brick in his hand, and what do you think is going to happen?

If you want to live in a pleasant society, live by example, whether you wear a hoodie or an Armani suit. You really don’t want to live in a society where everyone just does what they think they can get away with. Maybe it took thugs in the street burning and looting to demonstrate the eventual trajectory of this to you, but that’s just the tip of a particularly dirty iceberg that every one of us has a part to play in cleaning up.

  • Jason

    I completely agree with everything you said here, though I feel that you kind of glossed over the solution of “don’t be a dick”:

    People need a *reason* to not be a dick.

    It’s one thing to tell people to not be dicks, but it’s another thing to convince people that this is the right way to live, and this is where the religion / worldview part of the discussion really comes in. If you’re an Ayn Rand Objectivist, you’re entire worldview is based on being a selfish, concreted, dick, then what’s going on in society today is good and right. If you can’t protect and take care of yourself then you deserve to get looted / scammed / etc.

    At the same time, even if a person has never read Ayn Rand, but also has never been introduced to any religion, or given any reason to treat others with respect, why should he/she do so? What’s the benefit of living in a society where one sacrifices for others? This thought process of course ties into your instant-gratification argument, which is completely right. In the long term, a respecting, caring civilization will grow, but these people (particularly in America from my experience) are incapable of thinking past the current day. It basically turns into a catch-22.

    Most religions give people this extra meaning to life, this reason to treat others with respect. If it’s Christianity (of which I’m a part of), Mormonism, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, or whatever, almost every religion out there teaches civil living, respecting and serving others over yourself.

    So with this, I would argue that yes, this is the result of a lessening adherence to religious principles, but at a deeper core, this is the natural progression of behavior. As a Christian I believe that people are fundamentally evil, and this selfishness and now-ness is simply what an evil populous naturally gravitates toward when there’s no other direction in their lives.

  • Josh Simmons

    I don’t think people need to be bribed in order to not be dicks. That’s just making excuses and treating people as if they’re 4, neither of these things are helpful. There are two steps required in my naive opinion.

    1. Don’t tolerate people being dicks, don’t be a dick about it. But don’t just let it pass.
    2. Listen to other people, especially when they politely note that you seem to be acting like a bit of a dick.

    I really don’t like the idea that people need to be led by some ridiculous, childish and overall condescending rule, no matter whether it comes from godly or secular grounding.

  • Josh Simmons

    “As a Christian I believe that people are fundamentally evil”

    That must be a sad way to live.

    I also note reading over my own post that I disagree with the labeling of ‘people’ as a collective like I have just done, as if we’re discussing some trivial matter affecting those somehow below us. Seemingly implying we’re shepherds leading the lowly plebeians to water, for the greater good. That’s obviously not the basis here of course, but it’s a seemingly natural simplification when dealing with things outside our scope.

    So what I’m really getting at is that I do my best to not be a dick, it doesn’t always work out but hopefully people let me know when that happens. That’s what I believe in.

  • Lino

    @Jason: “Oh, I really want to be not a dick – but I need a good reason!”. That’s a bad excuse. The reason is simple: Do you want to live in a world full of dicks? I don’t. So I guess it’s a good start with removing one dick at a time. Starting with myself. And after that: Tell people, when they are dicks. Try to avoid doing business with dicks (it’s sometimes possible). Don’t let people get away with being a dick. Call ’em out for it.

    I don’t need God to tell me that a world full of dicks sucks.

    P.S.: Men are not evil, man invented evil. And they invented evil because by definition it’s what they know they shouldn’t do. And now there a two sides of the story: Firstly they have an urge to commit evil (they wouldn’t need to think about those things otherwise) but secondly they have a moral/social impulse not to follow that urge. So, if men would be evil (in “pure evil”) they would not care about any moral arguments. Logically there’s only one answer: They are both good and evil and socialisation plays a big part in what side has the upper hand (without others – no evil).

  • Steve

    You don’t need religion to tell you why you shouldn’t be a dick – at least if you have some level of intelligence. Perhaps some people are so utterly moronic that fairy tales and threats are the only way you’re going to get them to look beyond their own selfish needs, but I’d like to think that real-world demonstrations of positivity are far more effective. Historically, religion was always a good way of scaring the masses into toeing the line without requiring consistently good behaviour from those in charge of it, of course. I happen to think that’s not a sustainable solution. The problem is that short-termism is increasingly considered the norm, despite all evidence that it doesn’t help anyone in the longer term, even those that consider themselves ‘on top’.

    About Ayn Rand, ignoring her narcissism and extreme mental instability for the moment, even someone who follows her broken line of thinking should conclude that it is in their own interests to have a healthy and functioning society. After all, you can only build your gated communities with walls so high, and you have to go out eventually.

  • Jason

    I have wondered for a while why people think man is inherently good, given all the evil we see in the world today. When you come at the problem from the opposite direction, that man is at its core evil, life make a lot more sense. Ironically a number of statements made in the comments above help prove this point.

    So starting from the beginning, what does “evil” even mean? For someone to be evil means they’ve decided to act in a way that is contrary to a commonly accepted moral code. Following the code is good, not following the code is evil. Not killing someone is good, [deliberately] killing someone is evil. I believe we can all agree on this definition, if not please let me know where you object.

    Following from that, there’s another way to define “evil”. If there’s evil in a place, that necessarily means that “good” (following the moral code) isn’t there, so evil is then the absence of good. Actions cannot be good AND evil at the same time. For my views, killing someone is *always* evil, and thus it can never be good. As a correlary, good means that there is no evil. Thus, if someone does even one evil thing in their lifetime, and the rest good, there is evil in that person and thus that person is evil.

    @Lino: I ask you, how can man create evil but not be evil himself? How can something be spawned of another that wasn’t a part of the parent in the first place?

    @Josh: From your last line, you admit that it’s a life long struggle to not be a dick. Thus, you admit that being a dick is a part of you that needs to be controlled, and that you fail to control it at times. If being a dick is choosing the “evil” path, how does this not show you are at your core, evil?

    Don’t get me wrong though Josh, I completely agree with your statement and will say the same thing about myself. I too struggle to not be a dick, but sometimes it just happens. I deal with the consequences and move on, trying to learn how to better control it. I know I’m an evil person, but I also know I have the strength, and help, to control this, and forgiveness when I my self control fails.

    As an aside: yes there are plenty of what can be called “grey areas” in this world we live in. For this discussion though I’m focusing on pure good and pure evil; you are following this implied moral code, or you aren’t.

    So from that and getting back to this discussion I’ll be clearer about what I mean when I say man is inherently evil: that man is inherently selfish and self-centered, and from that, focuses solely on what will benefit him/herself at the expense of anyone who happens to be in the way. Selfishness doesn’t care about anyone else, and only cares about the future insomuch as the effort expended and patience will pay off in self-fullfillment. If a person is completely evil, *they don’t know* that they are being dicks, and in most cases wouldn’t accept the accusation if it was told to the to their face. The person is simply living to his or her worldview of self, and that’s all that matters. Telling one of the London looters that they are being a dick will get you a response of “no I’m not” or “so what? What are you going to do about it?”

    For this to change, *something* needs to intervene and say “Hey! Stop that, there are better ways to live!”, and that something has to be, by definition, “good”. But if man is evil, where does the “good” come from? It thus can’t come from man, because as I’ve defined above, evil is the absence of good.

    @Steve I know what you’re saying and you’ve said things along these lines before, but I’d like to note that there’s a difference between “religion” and “man practicing religion”. If man is evil, then when man practices religion, he’s going to get it wrong. And at times, this wrong is very, very wrong (and we all know of plenty of examples of that). Religion is not evil, man is, and I do admit that this can make religions very hard to take seriously.

    And that’s what I mean by “man is inherently evil”, and why it fully explains what we’re seeing in the world today.

  • Josh Simmons

    Being a dick isn’t because I’m inherently evil, it’s just that it’s easier to dismiss other people than to actually think about their perspective. This applies through all levels of being a dick, short of real mental instability anyway.

    I don’t think anything positive has been achieved by jumping in and telling people what to do so I disagree strongly with the idea that something or someone has to intervene. It seems to suggest that there’s a disconnect between what people think of others and what people think of themselves. Why jump to the conclusion that others are somehow different from oneself and that they need helping in order to commit to basic decency. It’s funny too that most of the people we surround ourselves with seem not to be dicks either, it just seems odd to assume that those outside that small set are.

    And I don’t suggest for a minute that we go around telling everyone that they’re dicks.

  • Kieran

    @Jason: whilst I wouldn’t usually do this I do think it’s worth pointing out that you’re misinterpreting scripture there. The bible has never, ever said that people are fundamentally evil. You’re talking about Matthew 15:19 which I’ve heard to be misquoted before. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” this doesn’t indicate *people* are evil, it’s just pointing out what we’re capable of, and where this evil comes from. Basically, anyone, no matter how good are bad they are, are capable of evil.

    Furthermore, Jesus devoted his time to seeing the good in people everywhere he went, forgiving them of their evil deeds, despite being a man who hated sin. Hate the sin, not the sinner. We can’t call ourselves Christians if we see people as evil as that would be going against how Jesus lived, and against what the bible *actually* teaches.

    Also, the bible teaches that despite God sees *everything* (and I mean *everything*!) he still makes the choice not to see a persons sin. Let me throw in some scripture here:

    * “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” – Isaiah 43:25
    * “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” – Jeremiah 31:38
    * “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” – Hebrews 8:12

    So you’re saying, that despite Jesus choosing to forgive people’s sins, and seeing the good in them, congregating with sinners, breaking bread and drinking wine with them, laughing with them, and treating them like brothers and sisters, that you still see people as evil. And despite the bible stating that God *chooses* not to see people’s sin any more, that you still see people as evil? So if you haven’t got the same perspective as Jesus and God, then whose perspective do you have?

    Anyway, back on topic otherwise I’ll end up on some kind of weird religious debate! – Steve, Britain (this includes the C.I.) are disparate from a community-perspective. The very strands of society aren’t woven together and so there is no collective good. We’ve not been a community that builds for a long time, instead it’s very much a community of “each to their own”. I’ve dwelled on this for years and found it difficult to come to a conclusion, but ultimately I feel that if we treat those in our immediate circles – that is friends, family, people we meet in the street – with the utmost respect, and if everyone did this, then the world would be a better place. We can’t expect to overhaul a nation before making a difference within our vicinity. I’m no shining example whatsoever. I remember seeing a movie about some kid who said if one person helped three people, and those three people helped three people each and that went on and on, before you knew it tens of thousands would be helped.

    Personally I found the whole thing baffling beyond belief, it didn’t seem to make any sense as to what they were rebelling about. It was as if it were pent up aggression on a wide scale. I have heard of studies pointing out that the moral fabric of places such as Britain are behind those of other countries. Either way, I think it’s taught us all an important lesson about our society.

  • Steve

    What I’ve seen in my almost 40 years on this planet is that most people are decent, and it has no correlation whatsoever with being religious – it’s always a reflection of their life experiences. In fact, my experience has been that the more strongly religious a person is, the more intolerant and less empathetic they are to people who aren’t of the same beliefs. And because I think every instance of being a dick eventually comes down to a lack of empathy for others, I don’t believe religion is in a particularly good place to address that (maybe it was in the homogenous cultures of old, but not now in our multicultural interconnected society). I think it can potentially set some decent basic ground rules if not taken too literally, but that it also comes with plenty of negative baggage of its own which can easily outweigh any positives.

    Essentially, not being a dick is about empathy, education, awareness of self and of others and the interaction between all of those things. Any closing down of your worldview to exclude things which don’t ‘fit’ with your beliefs inherently makes this more difficult. Empathy and compromise, the things that make a society function effectively, are often not very compatible with unshakeable and often conflicting principles on which religions are grounded.

    My golden rule is to always try to avoid doing things that negatively affect others, to contribute more to the system than I extract, and to let people live by their own rules so long as they’re not hurting anyone else. If what you’re doing isn’t something that I’d personally do, but that you’re not hurting anyone else (directly or indirectly), then I have no issue with that. Tolerance is vital.

    I come at it from a perspective of ‘enlightened self interest’ – I’ve seen first hand how a good turn tends to spawn others & reflect positively back on you, while negative attitudes just breed more of the same. We humans are great at feedback loops, and it’s about realising that everyone has the ability to make the world better or worse, and that by making it better it helps us too. Maybe some people haven’t figured that out yet, because of their upbringing and background, and maybe they never will – I don’t think that’s because they’re ‘evil’ (if there even is such a thing), it’s more likely that it’s a reflection of their negative experiences. That’s why it’s so important for every person to try to put positivity out there, and not to make excuses for being a dick, because it’ll eventually come back to bite them anyway, even if they can’t see the transient connection.

  • Petar

    “We need to stop looking for technicalities to excuse behaviour we know is wrong”

    nicely said ! 🙂

    if only more people were following on this convention and conviction 🙂

  • Jason

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to come across that I was trying to excuse this behavior, I was just trying to explain, with what I’ve experienced and what I believe, why it’s so hard to *not* be a dick and why some people seem to only live that way. Good definitely exists, there’s no denying that. Most societies these days are rather civil and in general people respect each other, though I would argue that things like rioting, looting, and trashing AirBnB homes aren’t done more often due to the legal consequences of said actions more than a fundamental desire to be a good person.

    @Kieran: I didn’t want to go into Christian specifics for this discussion, as I wanted to more discuss my views, which yes are influence by my religion, but discuss them more on logic than scripture.

    The tl;dr of Christianity: God created man. Gave man free will. Man disobeys God, becomes evil, and condemns self to hell. God loves man, even through this evil (a father loves his son, no matter what he does). God sends Jesus to Earth to be the perfect man, to be killed by man, to break the hold evil has on man, so man can go to heaven. The entire faith is based on the idea that man is fundamentally evil, by his own choice. Without this core, Jesus would never had to come to save man from itself, and from that Christianity wouldn’t exist. The Bible is pretty clear about this.

    @Steve If more people lived like you do, religious or not, this world would be a much better place.

  • Ashkan

    You said “@Lino: I ask you, how can man create evil but not be evil himself? How can something be spawned of another that wasn?t a part of the parent in the first place?”
    So God indirectly instantiated Evil and couldn’t not be evil? Don’t you eman this, do you?

    I think the question of how to try to don’t be adick is a hard question to answer even for oneself, to make others more sical persons is crazily complex. For oneself what steve said can be followed and some interpretations of religions (not all of them) can help much but again it depends on you. The world is created with Logic and rules and if those rules found and followed you’ll have a better one. As Einstain describes from his views on having a none personal God you can learn that causal coralation in the world exists and getting back to the world more than what you extract and helping others to don’t be dicks is the answer. You know, you can not tell people to do what and to don’t do what but you can help them in places which they will not act well if don’t get help and in time they might learn from you and for those religious persons “the loard may merci”. You’ll have a better world. You are paying from your time and properties for others but for a greater good. that notion of one which helps 3 and … if followed can make the world better but you should be the one who starts this and no one else.

    made a game for globalgamejam 2012 called “personal trap” which was all about this.