Death by a Thousand Lectures


Why we cannot have a coherent debate about that woke Gillette ad.


There’s a certain group of men on Twitter—let’s call them the Millennial Gurus—who love to give advice. It’s the guy who sells an online course that teaches you how to sell online courses. It’s the guy who quotes Seneca with his @Socrates_Aurelius handle. It’s the guy who offers a hodgepodge of red-pill advice, but it’s clear the one he’s trying to give advice to is himself.

And every single one of them loves to utter the phrase—and by “utter” I mean “type”—“death by a thousand cuts.” This Qing Dynasty torture reference means that we damage our focus, and so our ultimate purpose on earth, not through one big distraction, but rather through a lot of tiny distractions. We check Twitter here, update Facebook there, then download yet another app everywhere. No one distraction is that big of deal, perhaps, but it all adds up to death. It’s like the “Itchy and Scratchy” episode in which Itchy pokes a bunch of tiny holes in Scratchy—so many holes that he bleeds to death. Or it’s like how the Qing Dynasty would actually torture criminals this way… ahem.

Though this may seem to belie my ridicule, these MGs are correct about a lot—but only on the surface, and that’s exactly the problem. Their correctness is never going to help anybody because they commit something called the lecture fallacy.

The lecture fallacy occurs when we think declarative knowledge is a sufficient cause of procedural knowledge—that is, knowing is the same as doing—that is, if a man is committing an error, the reason must be that he simply lacks proper advice. This issue Socrates struggled with but never resolved doesn’t seem to be of consequence for the MGs.

An example of these lectures is: “men should follow and women should lead.” The implication is any man who lets his woman lead him must not know that he’s supposed to lead. What other reason could there be?

Then there’s, “if a friend is wasting your time, cut him off.” The implication is that anybody who’s being pushed around by others must simply not know any better.

And let’s not forget the classic from every Twitter account with a Cicero quotation in the profile, “it’s important to be responsible for yourself.” The implication is that anyone who isn’t responsible for themselves must think it’s better to not be responsible.

It would be nice, wouldn’t it? That if all was needed to correct a behavior was to merely increase information. Such knowledge acquisition falls in line with our “serious young man” fantasy. But it exposes an ignorant view of psychology. Such lectures, are good for teaching chemistry but when it comes to communicating subtle psychological states, they rarely, if ever, are helpful. And often, these lectures hurt, even if they’re correct. Since information fails to address someone’s psychological issue, when a serious young man takes this advice and fails, he necessarily thinks the problem is with him as opposed to something he’s doing incorrectly, which would explain the proliferation of @Diogenes_Plotinus handles out there. Nothing engenders a persona like failing to live up to your own standards.

What is the fundamental issue behind letting a woman lead all the time? Or getting pushed around? Or abdicating responsibility? Poor emotional management. We ultimately act in maladaptive ways to gratify the unconscious demands of anxiety. But young men don’t even know what anxiety is, let alone how to manage it.

What MG Twitter does, therefore, when it focuses on the symptom instead of the cause, is much more damaging than merely not helping. It unwittingly cuts off young men from their emotions, the same emotions they must manage in order to evolve and naturally assimilate the wisdom.

The lecture alone is insidious precisely because it may work in the short-term. We may be able to convince a serious young man to lead his girlfriend, and he may pass that test, but why would he be doing it? Only because he’s supposed to, not because he wants to—not because he has calibrated his emotions, which renders self-direction an effortless extension of who he is. The challenge to lead isn’t a call for him to learn what he’s supposed to do, it’s a call for him to handle his abandonment issues. So what happens when there’s a more important decision than Fuddrucker’s or Red Robin? Where to live? What business to start? How to be supportive when her mom dies? The lecture only cuts so deep. And each “successful” piece of advice makes it much less likely he will develop emotional fluency to make a more difficult decision on his own.

It’s a fragile existence—or anti-antifragile, to contrast it with a high-order Good in the MG belief structure. Every success stresses out this serious young man, but since he’s illiterate with emotions, he may not even be able to identify it as stress, let alone where it comes from. Instead of handing the stress, using it to make life better, using it to engage in an ever increasing expansion of awareness, he engages in an ever increasing expansion of tune-out. Life gets more confusing as he gets older, in addition to getting more difficult (and it always gets more difficult). But he’s been listening to lectures all his life, and it was good information, so he’s unable to see where we went wrong. What went wrong is he’s playing a four dimensional game while thinking it was three dimensions. This saddles him with now even more anxiety, in addition with the anxiety of his abandonment issues that kept him from picking where to go to dinner. As a result, he will, at best, bury himself in fantasy football and Youtube conspiracies.

By sticking to a piece of information, he sabotaged the process through which he was going to arrive at that piece of information eventually. This begets a lifetime of inner conflict that doesn’t get resolved through repetition. It’s resolved only when the initial anxiety is managed. As this avoidance makes men more anti-antifragile, women read it as fragile—which is correct—but since they don’t understand why it’s fragile, they proclaim masculinity to be toxic. @Socrates_Aurelius responds to this as an attack on him. He’s triggered because of his latent emotions, which perpetuates the conflict. Nobody can speak to the issue because nobody knows what the issue even is. Hence the current discourse on sexual politics.

It’s death by a thousand lectures, not because the lectures are wrong, but because they’re lectures. The only way to lead women is to first relate with women, which we can only do when we relate with ourselves.