Wise as Serpents
I have been getting positive feedback on my five-part series on "terrible communities," with people privately thanking me for clarifying problematic characters in their communities and we-space practitioners telling me they are changing their curriculums to avoid the failure modes the series outlined.1
Emerge released a piece summarizing the series, focusing on my two suggestions to respond to terrible communities, the first being cultivating power literacy, referring to Christ's words on acquiring such a skill.
‘Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.’ - Matthew 10:16
I have always had an innate sensitivity to power literacy with a calling to learn more about it. I went through a silly will-to-power phase after reading Nietzsche when I was 18, but I was more interested in cultivating power literacy as self-defense rather than using it on the offense.2 I read my share of books on politics—the exercise of power. Many were from a leftist ideological perspective, some from the right, and both did not help gain a power literacy; they were often counterproductive toward its development. Ideological books on the left smuggle in rose-colored views of humanity untethered from reality3, and those on the right over-index on their confidence in knowing humanity through the "reality principle,"4 with both having undertones of defeatism.
One cannot exercise power wisely if they do not even understand how power works in their everyday “social fields,” the internal social dynamics corresponding to external ones. Books on interpersonal dynamics are far superior to cultivating power literacy. One has to read widely, avoiding most pop psychology junk, focusing instead on books on chimp politics, improv, interrogation, sales/marketing techniques, pick-up artistry, and PsyOps. I have also read some strange and exoteric stuff related to power dynamics; some were ethically dubious. I also sought hard-to-get materials, like the Scientology social skill manual, which teaches one to be aggressively charismatic like Tom Cruise.
All these books help develop a “sociopath talent stack,” which helps spot immoral power games in play. I define sociopath broadly here, “a person whose primary relational approach is to use others for personal gain.” I divide learning “social skills” into two categories, using philosopher-theologian Martin Buber’s I-It and I-Thou relational distinction. "I-It" sees others as objects, driven by utility and detachment, the primary focus of sociopaths. "I-Thou" involves genuine connection, recognizing the inherent value of others, and fostering a sense of unity.
I have gained greater sophistication with I-Thou skills through psychotherapy, embodiment, and we-space practices, going through phases where I was a junkie in each. My criticism of people who focus heavily on these practices is that they largely ignore the importance of having I-It skills, leaving them vulnerable to hidden power dynamics within their social fields, making them easy prey for malignant forces outside of it.
My working hypothesis is this: I-Thou relationships are the future of humanity, and people must develop capacities and create conditions to bring them about. These conditions are delicate and highly sensitive, needing great attunement to one’s internal system and the social systems they are embedded in. Yet, during our “time between worlds,” aka the collective transition we are in, we need people who are wise as serpents, hence have I-It skills, as protective agents against those who naturally disrupt I-Thou ways of relating. I see the project as threefold:
Develop the capacity and orientation to be engaged in I-Thou ways of relating,
Create the social container that has the conditions for I-Thou ways of relating to emerge,
Have wise serpents serving as “spiritual bouncers,” protecting the perimeters of social fields that attempt I-Thou ways of relating, allowing only those with the proper capacity and orientation into the field.
Everyone who desires a collective state shift may need to develop a sociopath talent stack and become spiritual bouncers, or perhaps only a certain amount within social fields needs to. It is a difficult task; one needs the capacity to ontologically code-switch between I-It and I-Thou ways of relating while being argus-eyed toward the darkness in others without losing sight of their light.
The "Stoic," a term I do not identify with but view as an aspirational archetype living in the imaginal realm,5 has such capacity. However, Stoics do not develop this capacity alone. The second response to terrible communities that the Emerge piece referenced is cultivating friendships of virtue. While Stoics have friendships of virtue, sociopaths have assets. A friend of virtue sharpens one's character within a relationship, with a mutual orientation toward the good, hence operating in "good faith." The social archetype of a sociopath does not care about this; they have a relational goal, and depending on the severity of sociopathy, it will either be conscious or unconscious, which has an asymmetry of benefit. The sociopath does not have a mutual orientation toward the good, hence operating in "bad faith."
Suppose one wants to protect themselves and others against those who weaponize their sociopathic talent stack, disrupting I-Thou relating. In that case, one must be aware of the modus operandi of a sociopath. I wrote about their general M.O. in “A Less Foolish Power Literacy”:
The modus operandi of an archetypal malevolent sociopath is “hook, then squeeze.” Hooking, a form of limbic warfare, puts fear in another’s body through various techniques. It creates emotional dysregulation in a person, disorienting them by eliciting one of the four trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
Once a person’s disoriented, the hook is in, and they are more easily manipulated. If the person is unhookable, the sociopath will leverage their social power to “squeeze” them, putting external pressure on their resources or relationships. If the sociopath has no social power to do this, they will leave. An internal exercise of power first, then an external exercise of power second.
To prevent becoming an asset, becoming unhookable is needed. It is good to know where the hook gets in to become unhookable. We can turn to the literature from intelligence agencies when recruiting spies. They want to recruit spies-as-assets who ideally do not become double agents, so their hook needs to be deep. The acronym “MICE” is used for screening, standing for money, ideology, compromise, and ego—each having a very internally hookable place.
Money. Focusing on the source of someone’s livelihood, inciting someone with an attractive number, not only invokes the vice of greed but gives the sense that all their life problems associated with money's lack can be removed.
Ideology: An ideology is someone’s deeply held philosophy, unmovable through philosophical inquiry, making their actions predictable once their propositional coordinates of their “is” and “ought” are known, aka what they think the world is and how it ought to be. An ideology offers the person the illusion of seeing the whole of the world through propositions when, in reality, it is only a slice of the whole at best. Once the contours of someone’s ideology are mapped, there are many ways to parasitize it, leveraging their reality blindspots and converting them into “useful idiots.”6
Compromise. This hook is having some form of blackmail, knowing someone's "skeleton in the closet," aka something that would bring incredible fear to a person if it were to be publicly exposed, and then finding a way to have evidence to reveal it. If there are no skeletons, one creates a scenario where skeletons arise. "Honey trapping" is the classic example, which uses romantic enticement to gather information and have photographic evidence for future blackmail.
Ego. This hook is finding a way to leverage a person's addiction to experiencing the “special-feeling,”7 offering ways for them to bask in it, often through providing a chance to redeem themselves when feeling the opposite, aka their underlying sense of worthlessness.
The leading internal hook for each is greed, arrogance, fear, and one's addiction to the special-feeling or their escape from a sense of worthlessness. The aspirational Stoic has a response for each of these:
Money. Have "your number," aka the cash flow needed to provide a beautiful life "for those you live for." The FIRE movement has good formulas for this. Without this number, one is vulnerable to the vice of greed, resulting in becoming a Mammonite, aka the cancerous chase for money for its own sake. In addition to having a number, having moral principles for making money is essential. If a person's moral principles are transgressed, which usually is the case if someone is dangling money to make a person their asset, then saying no to that opportunity is the less foolish response.
Ideology. Instead of having the arrogance to think one has an accurate map of reality, which is often the case with ideologues, adopt a “minimum viable philosophy,” one where “doing philosophy” is baked in with “having a philosophy.”8 This way, a person will be impossible to predict because they themselves do not know where they are going.
Compromise. One trick here is engaging in a proactive "negative visualization:" one imagines everything "bad" they have done. This badness is not an objective assessment but a subjective and intersubjective one, aka what personally feels bad or has a sense that others will feel it to be bad. This badness could be something relatively innocent, such as saying something controversial in a private conversation, email, or text message, or perhaps looking at some weird porn online. Then, imagine that this was somehow documented and went viral on social media. If visualized truthfully, embarrassment and shame will coarse through the body. Accept the intensity of such emotions, integrate their wisdom, accept the new reality of this public awareness, and operate morally from it. If this is too difficult for someone to visualize, they are compromisable and probably already someone's asset.9
Ego. The main moves here are simple to express in theory yet hard to do in practice: get into a good relationship with the “parts” of worthlessness and specialness. If one has a leakiness with either of these two parts, they are easy to manipulate.
The throughline: orientate toward virtue, aka moral excellence. Morality is one’s sense of good and bad. Hone this sense with such potency that the body is attuned to it when the “scent” of goodness is lost. One will lose the scent when greed, arrogance, fear, and special-feeling addictions or worthlessness escapism emerge without less foolish responses. The art of being a friend of virtue is to help your friends plug each of these hookable areas, keeping their virtuous scent readily discernible.
Friends of virtue must be wise serpents, keeping the foolish and evil serpents at bay and allowing I-Thou relationships to blossom and flourish. Stoics are social agents said to "live according to nature/God." They need friendships of virtue to help with this. This reason is why friendships of virtue will be nature's intelligence agency.
To see the surprising top three books I recommend to cultivate power literacy, I shared them with paid subscribers behind the paywall.
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