We Need the Power of Irrationality

If you haven’t watched Paxman’s interview with Russell Brand yet, I suggest you do that, or read a transcript.

But I really want to discuss some of the ideas Brand brought up in his piece about revolution in the New Statesman, because they happen to tie in with some of the things I had been reading the past few days, specifically:

“How to Create a Viable Ideolog” by Ian Welsh (which is a follow up to “A New Ideology“)
“The One Option Left” and “Reinventing Square Wheels” at the Archdruid Report

There is a lot to process in these pieces (and I do not agree with everything claimed), but the thread I want to focus on is that, in order to save the world from imminent ecological collapse and deadly inequality, people are going to have to adopt a new (or at least different) irrational ideas, and possibly a new religion.

Let me take an example from my own life.

I think one of the most evil industries in the world is the global commercial fishing industry. The recent essay “The ocean is broken” should give you a clue why I think that way. I highly recommend that everybody does their own research on the current condition of worldwide marine ecosystems, and the impact the global fishing industry. My conclusion is that fishing for personal survival (as in, the fish one catches is only used to feed oneself or people one knows personally) is okay, but that the commercial sale of fish should be banned everywhere.

When I first realized just how evil the commercial fishing industry is, my first response was to try to become a responsible consumer of fish – to research where my seafood came from, to only eat fish from the less-ecocidal sources. In other words, I was trying to be rational – balance my moral outrage with my desire to eat fish.

First of all, doing all of that individual research is work, even with various ‘seafood-buying’ guides. Also, many stores do not offer good information about where their fish come from, and restaurants are even worse. And since I was still allowing myself to indulge in fish, it meant that sometimes I let my appetite override the ‘hassle’ of trying to do it in an ‘ethical’ way.

Well, eventually, I became a strict-vegetarian, which means eating no animal products, and then mostly-vegan (vegan = strict vegetarian + not using any products from animals unless absolutely necessary). And that completely took fish off my menu.

Strict-vegetarianism / veganism is an irrational philosophy. Accepting this ideology has made me do plenty of irrational things which I wouldn’t have done otherwise.

However, it has been way, way, way more effective in getting me to resist the global fishing industry (among other evil industries) than trying to do things rationally.

First of all, it’s a lot simpler – no fish period – which requires a lot less mental effort on my part. Less mental effort means that I am much more likely to stick to my principles.

It also makes me much more capable of changing other people’s minds. I think that, as a ‘rational’ and ‘ethical’ consumer of fish, I changed nobody else’s mind about anything. However, as a strict-vegetarian, I get a lot more people’s attention, and I get into a lot more debates with people because. That’s partially because the very irrationality of the philosophy gets people to engage with me (even if it’s in a hostile way), and it gives me the energy to enter the debate (when the rational thing to do would be to say nothing).

That doesn’t mean I go around starting debates about food. I generally don’t have time/energy for that. But any time I have to get food, and it’s not something which is obviously vegan (such as lovely persimmons), I have to ask questions, which often leads to other people asking me questions, and then a conversation happens.

Of course, you may ask – didn’t all of my questions about where the fish come from start conversations too?

Yes, it did, but the conversations were on a much more intellectual level. I was not questioning the right of the commercial fishing industry to exist, or whether people have the right to eat fish at all.

In fact, chances are, you are not a strict-vegetarian. So, my dear non-strict vegetarian who is reading this blog, what gets your brain fired up more – me saying that we should all be careful about how we source our fish, or me saying that buying and selling fish should is wrong? How about I say that, if your survival is not on the line (i.e. without this fish you’ll starve to death), then killing fish just so you can have the pleasure of eating it is morally abominable.

I can guess which statements get you more fired up.

If you can’t get people’s brains fired up, you’re not going to make any social change whatsoever.

So that is why we need irrationality if we’re going to protect the ecosystems we literally depend on for survival or take down the massive inequality in global society.

Now, here is another question – can that irrationality only come from religion, or can secular irrationality work as well? Both Russell Brand and John Michael Greer claim that religion is required. Ian Welsh makes no statement about this.

My veganism is entirely secular – and in Taiwan, that makes it much more radical than if it were religious. In Taiwan, they assume most vegetarians are doing it for religious reasons, and thus do not feel they are being challenged because their religion doesn’t require them to be vegetarian. When I say that I am vegetarian for moral, not religious reasons – which implies that I think it is wrong for others to eat meat – then things get more … interesting.

Yet I realize that something much bigger than vegan philosophy is needed to save ourselves.

Is religion the only sufficiently powerful irrational force? I’m still processing that question.


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5 thoughts on “We Need the Power of Irrationality

  1. I really like this post! “The power of irrationality” is a powerful idea.

    Irrationality has a bad reputation. How could anything irrational be good? Irrationality disqualifies things. People make rational arguments against religion.

    But that misses the point, doesn’t it?

    (Also, being a foreigner in Taiwan opened my eyes more to the “power of irrational thinking”. No doubt there’s plenty of irrationality back home, but it’s so noticeable to an outsider here. All the temples, the superstition, the cultural assumptions… My God, it’s full of quatsch! And yet that’s what makes (made?) things tick.)

    • You bring up a good point about how labelling something rational/irrational is used to mark something as good/bad or correct/incorrect. In a way it’s not much different from the way the word ‘crazy’ is used – it’s much easier to say that what someone said is ‘crazy’ or ‘irrational’ than to actually explain the flaws in their thinking.

  2. right, and the revelation for me is that it can actually be a _good_ thing for my argument or belief system to be irrational. So when someone calls you crazy, you can answer (in your mind), Yeah, crazy like a fox, or like the Pope, or like L. Ron Hubbard! (“You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.”)

    I was tempted to generalize that an argument is powerful _only_ if it is irrational, otherwise it’s just a triviality. But that’s probably going too far 🙂 A demonstration of a math theorem, or a cooking recipe are rational and non-trivial. So I have to give up my sudden glimpse of Irrational Utopia and leave it at: you need both. Duh.

    An analogy that might be a stretch: the first time you meet someone who will become a good friend, there are two scenarios: the person 1) instantly feels like a good match, could be from your family, etc. 2) rubs you the wrong way, who is that jerk. Both can be good foundations for lasting friendships.

  3. Pingback: Who would have thought that this blog would last four years… | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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