Mistaken about Machiavelli; what people get wrong about Il Principe

In 1513, the former Chancellor and Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, now disgraced and deposed, published what would become one of the most famous, and most reviled, political texts of the European Renaissance – The Prince. Over the centuries, thanks to this work, the man’s name has become synonymous with the kind of manipulative, underhanded, and utterly ruthless mentality personified by Frank and Claire Underwood in House of Cards; primarily because most people consider The Prince to be encouraging such amoral behaviour in politicians and leaders. Thus the adjective “Machiavellian”.

They’re wrong.

If I had to put my finger on a specific phrase most at fault for this error, it would be a tie between two lines. The first is the line “it is better to be feared than loved”. The second is the line “the ends justify the means”. Both lines encapsulate “Machiavellian” attitudes, and neither actually appears in the text.

Be warned; this post will quote The Prince at length, because truncating the work is what landed us in this mess in the first place. There are also spoilers for House of Cards.

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He’s a Straight White Dude? So Fucking What?

I had a curious experience this week; in a discussion about who should be invited to be on a particular panel discussion, it was suggested that we try to avoid having “old white men” on there. The particulars of the discussion aren’t relevant – it’s the bit about not having people on the panel due to what they are.

This is something I’ve seen a lot over the last few years, especially among those who claim to be progressive of some flavour. You can see it if you follow Richard Dawkins on twitter, where barely a week goes past without him being attacked for having an opinion while being white and male (his age seems to escape for the time being).

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane. We’ve two places to visit; the first is a high school in a small town some years ago (give me a moment to suppress my instinctive urge to flee screaming). Back then I was a skinny bespectacled nerd who didn’t talk back to the teachers and didn’t keep pace with the growth spurts of my peers until I hit 16. Back then I still laboured under the delusion of heterosexuality – and I was alone in that delusion; my friends today assure me that they knew from the moment I walked into the room; apparently with some people “you can just tell, you know?” It was not a pleasant time (in fact, I can recall more than one instance when jack-knifing off a bridge sounded fantastic), and the recovery was a long and hard road.

I recall being silenced, mocked, ostracised, and vilified for things I couldn’t help. Being slight. Being gay. Wearing glasses to read. An aversion to sports (caused by said eyesight; can’t kick a ball you can’t see properly). What can I say? Kids can be really cruel.

My default response was to try and let it just slide past, to passively ignore it – if you didn’t respond, they got bored and let you be. It wasn’t easy; my natural inclination was to retaliate, but when you’re 15, under five foot, and so skinny you don’t cast a shadow when you turn sideways, self-preservation trips you up.

But the thing is I remember how that made me feel; how painful it was to be excluded, not on the basis of anything I’d done, but for what I was. The worst part was internalising it; one of my biggest fears as a teen was that if they were right and I actually was gay, then what else were they right about when they said those horrible things?

The second place is a little further back. When I was around six or seven, I had the misfortune of nearly faceplanting onto a barbeque hotplate – instead, one of my hands made contact and saved me from something far less pleasant. I can still remember the sound and the smell and the ache. Give me a pen and I will be able to trace exactly where the blisters were on my hand. The burn healed in a month, and I was lucky that there was no severe scarring or loss of dexterity.

I’m all grown up now, and that all is in the past (which is another country), but the memory of the pain persists; but even now I still suppress a shudder when I’m near one of those hotplates. Sometimes the fingers of that hand curl into a fist before I’m aware I’ve done it.

Likewise, I still remember the isolation, how it felt to be belittled and mocked and ridiculed and ignored based on what I was. Isolation and exclusion and silencing based on attributes that are innate; things that weren’t caused by anything I did, and that could never, ever, change.

This pain is like that of the burn; a ghost that can’t hurt me now, but that will be forever etched into my memory.

Now, in the name of “progress” I’m seeing the same thing being inflicted on others; people being shamed and hated and ridiculed not for what they say or do, but for what they are. This is usually tied up in notions of “privilege”, which can be a useful concept when used to encourage people to think about how lucky they have it and how that may affect their views, but is more and more being used as a cudgel to silence people.

Indeed, from my experiences and observations of the past few years, I can even list the kinds of “privilege” used in that way, the personal attributes used to silence people on the grounds of what they are:

  1. Male;
  2. White;
  3. Heterosexual; and
  4. Cisgendered (your gender identity and your biological sex match).

I have seen them all used in lieu of conversation to shut down a discussion – not on the basis of the merits of an argument, but on the basis that one or more of those personal attributes applies to the participant being silenced. They are employed in varying combinations; a ladder of “privilege” if you will, although the order of the rungs changes.

These four things are innate. Your ethnicity, your sexuality, your gender identity, and your sex; baby, you were born that way.

Occasionally the tactic will be employed against people who are not disabled or if they are not fat, but this is only something I’ve seen a few times or heard second-hand. It is those four innate characteristics that are, in my observations, the go-to cudgels.

More and more I’m seeing them used to silence people, to shut them down, to dismiss their arguments, or deny them the chance to speak. In extreme cases it becomes ostracism and isolation on the basis of those characteristics; even in the most moderate cases it’s done with sneering derision. And it’s done regardless of the merits of the argument itself.

Chillingly, this is not just directed at people who are making the conservative case in an argument or hold conservative beliefs or views. It is directed, as noted above, against Professor Dawkins when he notes the indisputable fact that Islam is not a race. It is directed at those who vary from a hardline progressive stance, like Dr Christina Hoff Sommers. It is directed against artists who use their works to promote causes commonly thought of as progressive. It is directed against politicians who are, frankly, the best hope for addressing the concerns of the silencers. It is directed against anyone who is considered to have committed the sin of saying something about social issues in public (and currently it seems as though anything can count for that) while being at least one of those things; may the Flying Spaghetti Monster help you if you have all four.

This cudgelling is used against such people without regard for their views, their actions, their philosophies, or their arguments. The only thing that matters is what you are.

In the main, I do not think that the individuals being so dismissed are, individually, hated by their detractors (outside of a few big names such as Professor Dawkins). From what I can see, the people dismissed are instead dismissed as being in a group based on having one or more of the four traits. When you are dismissed on the basis of what you are, not who you are or what you’ve done, it’s the act of someone who despises you. This is not merely the “intense dislike” of hate, it is contempt as well, based on what you are.

A contemptuous dismissal, an attempt to ostracise and exclude someone, an utter contempt, on the basis of an innate trait? Why is that familiar?

I remember what it felt like to be on the receiving end of that; now perhaps this makes me a traitor to the Left (pretending for a moment that it’s a single monolithic entity), especially given what I wrote some years ago, but there is no way I am OK with this.

No-one should have that sort of contemptuous exclusion inflicted on them for what they are. And I would hope that those of us who have suffered this in the past would remember what it felt like, and stay our hands before we inflict it on another human being.

I am thankful that I have not turned into one of the people who hated and dismissed me for what I am. Do you want to be like them?


If what I’ve written above doesn’t sway you, then consider this; dismissing, excluding, or otherwise discounting someone simply because they happen to be straight, white, male, or not transgender (or any combination thereof) is attacking a person’s character or personal traits instead of their argument. There is a term for that.

A person’s sex, sexuality, gender identity, or ethnicity and whatever advantages those confer, do not and should not matter to the merits of their argument. Such things are irrelevant. Dismissing that person simply because they have “privilege” on one or more of those grounds is playing the man, not the ball, and is a sure sign that you can’t play the game at the adult level.

If you do this, and make it your default stance, then you have abandoned logic and reason, and there is no need for a rational person to take you seriously.

So don’t be surprised if you are dismissed out of hand by others.


As an aside; conspicuous by its absence from the list of “privileges” is the privilege of economic class.

I have a dark suspicion as to why that is.

You Need Your Cat To Catch Mice

The best bit of advice I ever received with regards to advocacy came when I was in my teens, from a magazine called MacAddict. That was in the time when people got Very Serious about their platforms – my god, we were a bunch of nerds – and this piece was all about how the Mac faithful could convince windows users to join our Holy Mother Church.

That was a time when Apple was circling the drain, when the irreverent and enthusiastic tone of MacAddict appealed to the younger part of the userbase, when we did have to defend our choice of platform in the face of hordes of naysayers.

The times have changed, but the advice that has continued to resonate with me through the years is this:

If you take on every fight as if it were a hill to die on, you’ll find that hill sooner than you think

It was part of an article called “Five Do’s and Don’t’s of Advocacy” by David Reynolds, and, thanks to someone on the MacNN forums in 2002 transcribing it, we still have the entire piece:

Five Solid Advocacy Tactics

  1. Be Polite

Please, thank you, you’re welcome, simple bits of polite discourse go a long way when you debate others about your platform of choice.

  1. Be Generous

Don’t jump on bad happenings in the Wintel world. A perfect example is the I Love You virus that slammed Wintel users, leaving smoking hard drives in its wake. Copping a snotty attitude about how the worm didn’t hurt Mac Users isn’t going to help make your case. Instead, offering sympathy (whether genuine or well acted) dispels defensiveness. Besides, we all know the real truth.

  1. Pick Your Fights Carefully

If you take on every fight as if it were a hill to die on, you’ll find that hill sooner than you think, leaving you exhausted when the truly important fights come along. Exercise good judgement before picking up the gauntlet.

  1. Check Your Facts

Before you state facts (such as ‘The Mac is better because it dispenses soft-serve ice cream’), make sure they’re true. Nothing damages your credibility like an outrageous or inflammatory claim. If you do make a mistake, correct it honestly and openly.

  1. Give Ground to Get Ground

Conceding some ground is a great way to build good will. In return, you may find that others will come around and embrace certain portions of your point of view. Remember: unconditional surrender worked only in World War II.


 

Five Advocacy Tactics to Avoid

  1. Don’t Troll for Flames

Don’t troll Usenet groups, mailing lists, bulletin boards, or chat areas for defensive people with whom you can pick a platform fight. While it may be fun to whip someone into a slavering fury, it’s not constructive.

  1. Don’t Attack Indiscriminately

If you must go on the offensive, keep your attack focused. Flailing at anything that moves (figuratively speaking) is just sad, especially when it comes to arguing platform niceties and processor speeds.

  1. Don’t Go Beyond the Subject at Hand

Don’t move the discussion from Pentium III versus G4 to how fat someone’s mother is. While it may be funny (or true), it also is not constructive.

  1. Don’t Turn Pit Bull

Know when to give up an argument. Pit bulls have locking jaws for a reason, and it’s certainly not to hold on to a discussion that has degenerated well beyond recognition.

  1. Don’t Insist on Changing Someone’s Mind

While you want to bring people around to your point of view, you can’t control whether someone actually does start to see things your way. Witness the Flat Earth Society.

When I look at a lot of self-styled activists, especially the keyboard variety, I see people who took the above list, and did the precise opposite. They’re rude, snotty, treat every battle as THE great fight of our time, play fast and loose with the facts, and demand unconditional surrender. Compounding the error, they pick fights where no fight needed to be had, they argue with all the focus of a claymore mine (frequently shifting the goalposts in the process), won’t stop until their opponent is ready to sacrifice a child in penance, and will not do the mature thing of agreeing to disagree.

Further compounding this is a tendency to adopt a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality.

And then they’re surprised when all they achieve is animosity.

That bit up the top, which comes from the point about carefully picking your fights, is the one that really stuck with me through the years. Fighting every battle as though it’s a hill to die on doesn’t win your war. It gives others the impression that you’re a hair-trigger lunatic, and turns them away from your cause. But every single thing on that list is important. There are two things I would add to the list. This one is to the “do’s”:

6. Do educate your audience

If you want to assume the power of the advocate, the representative of the cause, you have a duty to provide information. You cannot expect to convince people by volume alone. The onus is on you to explain why your cause is worthy of support. Do not expect people to know what you’re talking about. And you absolutely must be honest; remember point 4. If you’re caught in a lie, your credibility will be shot to hell.

And this one is for the “don’t’s”:

6. Don’t attack a neutral party

Not everyone will support you. Learn to live with it. But some of them will not support you because they just do not care; they have other things to worry about, or have considered their stance and decided not to support either side, but mostly they simply haven’t made up their minds yet. They’re not going to actively oppose you, but they’re not going to side with your opponents, unless you attack them. They’re the people you want to convince. So try, but if they won’t be convinced, then leave them alone; they’re not your enemies, but if you treat them as such, they most certainly will be.

There is a certain kind of firebrand who will no doubt take issue with this if they ever saw it, not least because it’s come from the hand of someone who dares to be male and have white skin at the same time, as if that’s relevant.

Consider then, the words of Deng Xiaoping:

It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.

The list of advocacy do’s and don’t’s has the benefit of working; by following the original ten points (twelve if you decide to include my additions), you will achieve the primary aim of advocacy; convincing others of your stance through your arguments. You may not like it – hurling outraged invective is so much more satisfying after all, even though it doesn’t work.

I’ve been on the receiving end, more than once, of people who inverted the list – and have been told that it’s not the advocate’s job to educate me, that I should just listen and believe. I’ve also been savaged simply for being present, on account of things like skin colour, gender, and presumed sexual orientation. Not once has any of it made me want to support the “activist” – in fact it’s usually made me turn away from their cause in utter disgust.

This is especially true if I find out I’ve been lied to; I continue to maintain that if you have to deceive me to get me to support your cause, it’s not worth supporting.

Or, to put it another way; ignore the attributes of the person telling you this, and don’t mind that it originally came from a tech magazine a decade and a half ago. The list of advocacy do’s and don’t’s is how you train an excellent mouser. Ignore it, and you’ll have a serious rodent problem.


 

Sources:

  • Hung Li, China’s Political Situation and the Power Struggle in Peking (Lung Men Press, 1977)
  • Reynolds, David, “Five Do’s And Don’t’s of Advocacy”, in MacAddict Magazine (Imagine Publishing: September 2000)

Did I Really Get Called That? Thoughts on being called a racist, and why I’m done for this year

2016 update: It has been about two and a half years since I wrote this, and there’s a serious addendum that needs to be made. I now know what it is I encountered.

An authoritarian progressive. Also known as the authoritarian left, the regressive left, or the tomato left. This was my first time being burned by one of these people on twitter. Sadly it was not the last.

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