Telling the difference: the mindset for change

Frogs may be croaky orators, but there’s wisdom to be gleaned from observing their habits. When a frog unfurls its tongue to catch a passing fly, it does so by way of a reflex that instantiates a rule: any time a small patch of shadow traverses the retina, unfurl the tongue. The rule is highly effective yet, like all rules of action, not perfectly discriminating: the reflex can be triggered equally by flies and tasty-looking imposters. If you were inclined to aim small projectiles, you could keep a frog alive with nutritious pellets, poison a frog with Trojan pellets, or do something in between (while admittedly keeping a frog busy) with inert pellets.

The modern economy aims a marvellous array of products at us, and we unfurl our wallets, often without much discrimination. Some products nourish us literally; others nourish our souls by making us happy. But many products mislead us; they are, in effect, inert, or, worse, harmful. We ingest additive-ridden foods that provide scant nutrition or slowly kill us. We seek, but don’t find, happiness through television, computer games, social media and other narcotic stimuli, including actual drugs. We succumb to the cajoling of marketers who cast onto our retinas images of trendy clothes, flashy cars and other trophy possessions, and we still feel unfulfilled. Meanwhile, we forgo genuine but non-commercial sources of physical and psychological nourishment, including exercise, the great outdoors, community engagement, artistic pursuits, practical skills, hobbies, family life, job satisfaction, moral values and charitable giving.

In our present condition, it’s no surprise that the ladder of inequality has become so stretched it can hardly be climbed, with the most gullible consumers at the bottom, engorged yet hungry and wretched, their commercial overlords – nigh-on drug pushers – at the top, engorged yet hungry and spoiled, and government executors somewhere in the middle, maintaining the status quo, for better or worse. Moreover, with a chronically unsatisfied population constantly wanting more and wanting it now, it’s no surprise that unchecked consumerism is ransacking the environment.

Fortunately, there is a crucial difference between humans and animals. Whereas animals generally have to wait for natural selection to sharpen up their discriminatory capacities, humans are excellent at working things out for themselves. Even better, humans can teach each other, by sharing good ideas. Thanks to the Enlightenment, and the efforts of numerous moral entrepreneurs since, much of humanity has learned to override its instincts of prejudice and violence. To keep us enlightened, we need today’s intellectuals to help us override our morally degenerative tendency to consume indiscriminately and self-destructively.

Alas, intellectuals who have the wrong ideas cannot, by definition, provide the positive influence we desperately need. Among today’s humanities scholars an undisguised contempt for reality prevails. Whether such contempt takes the form of nihilistic scepticism, cultural relativism, or a fixation on God or some other spiritual progenitor, the effect is to undermine the distinction between what is perceived and what is real, such that subjectivity becomes the only reality. Just as a frog is unable to tell the difference between a fly and a pellet, many humanities scholars are unable to tell the difference between a genuine source of physical or psychological nourishment and a phoney one.

I don’t doubt that these scholars know the difference; they just can’t tell anyone the difference, because they are professionally obliged to disseminate bizarre abstract theories rather than their own common sense. Today’s intelligentsia is, in essence, a cartel run by philosophical hypochondriacs, who are hiding from reality, and from their responsibilities, behind a veil of pretend, and pretentious, uncertainty.

Consequently, the public receives little guidance on how to live well, and the recommendations intellectuals do make are often so lacking in realism they are at best ineffective, at worst exacerbating. For example, welfarism – the standard recourse for people who claim to care about others but are too preoccupied to help – is not only ill-equipped to teach citizens how to live better, it is often actively supportive of undiscerning bad decisions.

To help its citizens discern what is and isn’t good for them, a society needs intellectuals who can tell the difference, in both senses: intellectuals who have recovered from their hypochondriacal aversion to reality; whose abstract theories are imbued with common sense; and who stop delegating all problem-solving to the government and instead make a personal effort to enrich their communities with wisdom.

Continue the conversation at our conference Change:How? on November 30th

Ben Irvine ( is editor of the Journal of Modern Wisdom ( and Cycle Lifestyle magazine ( He is author of Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling: Achieving Balance in the Modern World.

2 thoughts on “Telling the difference: the mindset for change

  1. Enriching communities with wisdom needs more than just the personal effort of intellectuals.. It needs the collective effort of a mass movement encompassing people from all walks of life united by a common purpose. Saving the planet can provide that purpose. Building a society based on our all round wellbeing rather than on planet destroying economic growth can be the means of achieving this goal.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Stan. Any democractically electable government must, to a very large extent, pander to the preferences of the public. So until intellectuals, off their own backs, try to influence the public positively, they will continue to suffer the kind of governance that they claim to dislike, while rhetoric about such things as mass movements and common purpose will remain… rhetoric, and therefore ineffectual. Or perhaps by ‘common purpose’ you have in mind an undemocratic form of governance. That eventuality, I’m afraid, would be much more harmful than global warming.

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