Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Protective Weaknesses

Protective Weaknesses- Too stupid to be a good liar

It's nice not to be given power beyond your maturity.

"I'm too stupid to be a good liar."

A friend of mine has a saying, which he delivers quite cheerfully: "I'm too stupid to be a good liar". It's not technically true[1], but it caught my attention. The way he said it expressed two ideas. First, that being a good liar required cunning, planning, and intelligence he did not possess.  And second, that he was grateful for the fact.

I've long accepted that there are many powers and abilities beyond my current maturity, but the idea of being thankful for not having something I'm unprepared for was interesting.

As a person who tends to Want All the Skills, I usually I look at talents others have with a wistful sigh. I wish I had a better memory, catchier comebacks, snazzier fashion sense (in addition to the standard list of more money, time, good looks, etc.). I wish I was more employable, a smarter person, a smoother talker, sweeter singer, could speed read, play the piano, and the list goes on and on. I do try to feel grateful for the good things I do have in life, but I don't often try to feel grateful for the good things I don't yet have.

That initial phrase sparked off the idea of protective weaknesses, that is to say, weaknesses in one area that immunize you against a greater problem.

It's an odd category to think up, but once you start looking for them, you see that protective weaknesses and fail-safes dot human-designed systems. For example, the U.S. government would be much more capable if we didn't split it into different branches that are often at cross-purposes, and insist that certain organizations within it not share information with other organizations. Take away those constraints, and the federal government would be much powerful and efficient. The only drawback would be the federal government would be much more  powerful and efficient.

It's possible to " cripple" your computer or smartphone with programs that block certain websites or internet access on certain times of day, to combat the temptation of technology. The programs occasionally prevent you from accessing useful sites, or turn off your devices at inconvenient times, but they also completely remove the temptation of Youtube, Facebook, and a myriad of internet time-wasters. And for many, the diminished functionality is well worth the chance to focus on work and not waste precious willpower resisting trivial distractions.

And going back to the personal weaknesses level, I've been saved from devouring junk food from the simple fact that I'm too lazy to go to the store when the craving hits. One friend told me being asthmatic makes smoking very unappealing. And I've met more than one person who said they've stayed out of drugs thanks in part to an intense needle phobia.

In these examples, what we're calling "protective weaknesses" function as fail safes  against our worse natures[2]. They impair functionality or power, but in a way that is ultimately protective against abuse or immaturity. Kind of like how we lower voltage of AC current when it gets to our house. Lowering voltage weakens the current, but won't kill you (as easily) if you accidentally get shocked. In this case and many others: weaker is safer, if there is chance of error.

In the Pluto's Republic, Glaucon questions whether any man could keep his virtue if he had a ring of invisibility. Good question. So if we take the inverse of Power Corrupts, do we get Weakness Purifies? I think that would be a bit of a stretch, but I do think that it's preferable to not have power you're unprepared for than to have power you aren't ready for[3].

If I were smart and smooth enough to be an incredibly good liar, lying would be a lot more tempting. I'm glad that I've never gotten good at lying or at cheating, theft etc. Once developed, it's hard to undevelop a skill. And using it, I'd be less responsible for my actions, less kind and upfront with my friends, and better at justifying and hiding my worse tendencies, rather than admitting and correcting them. Without a greater level of maturity than I now possess, I'd probably be worse off with superhuman cunning than without it.

So while I work on maturity I'll try to be more grateful for what I don't have. I've always been glad we don't  go around giving ten-year-olds the car keys; maybe now I can be glad I'm not an incredibly talented [insert profession] or independently wealthy. My weaknesses keep me humble, keep me friendly and empathetic, push me to strive harder, and maybe even teach me the wisdom I need to one day be ready for power I will one day have. I am a student, son, coworker. One day I will be a teacher, father, supervisor. It is almost inevitable that my power/social influence will increase in some areas at least. The only real question is will my maturity keep pace?

I like the idea that I don't have everything right now, and that's ok.

Work on your weakness, but in the right order. Know yourself, and don't forget that the flaws you complain about may not be the ones that are really holding you back.

[1] He's actually very smart. Does that make him a liar?

[2] Built-in weaknesses in crappy printers, trial programs, genetically sterilized hybrid seeds* fall under a different category. Their built-in faults are intended to produce a change of others' actions, rather than prevent a problem. Genetically sterilized hybrid dinosaurs, however...
*GMO crops are not actually modified to be sterile. Monsanto owns the patent on the technique to do so, but they've promised not to use it. Ian Malcolm would just tell everyone not to worry.

[3] Which makes one wonder if we are sufficiently mature to have nuclear weapons? Drones? The Internet? Or unprecedented leisure time and Netflix, for that matter?

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