Monday, September 16, 2019

Thinking harder: "Indulgence, not abstinence"

I’ve been thinking for some time that LaVey’s first Satanic Statement, “Satan represents indulgence, not abstinence!”, if interpreted in a nuanced and constructive way, can be used to articulate a more complex and fruitful image of how to live one’s life than LaVey’s own writings by themselves may make evident to many people. 

And since fairly-recently I’ve run across a few instances on social media where it sounds like someone got turned off LaVeyan Satanism because of being under the impression that indulgence meant something that was not nuanced and constructive in this way, now seems as good a time as ever to write an entry on this subject.

There are three major points I’d want to make in this entry about my own understanding of the First Satanic Statement:
  1. The Statement does not only mean “animalistic” pleasures when it talks about “indulgence.”

  2. Inasmuch as the Statement can be construed in terms of “this is what makes life better for everyone, and therefore society would be better if we set things up to best foster it for everyone,” it arguably can lead to consequences irritating to folks on the right who want small government and no social programs.

  3. Inasmuch as the Statement can be construed in terms of “it’s better to address a problem by adding something constructive to the situation than by taking something away,” it arguably can lead to consequences irritating to the censorious “no art should be allowed to exist that doesn’t reflect my politics” folks on the far-left.

As usual, I’ll elaborate on each of these points below – the third one at much greater length than the other two, as to say it has been a bit of a pet peeve of mine for the last few years would be an understatement.  An implied thesis behind all of this though is that it’s possible to interpret the First Satanic Statement of LaVeyan Satanism in such a way that it implicitly leads to much that is in the Seven Tenets of the Satanic Temple, re: compassion for others, seeking justice, inviolability of the body and freedom including the freedom to offend. 

I will grant that whether most LaVeyans take the First Satanic Statement in the way I am describing is a separate question. Similarly, I have no problem professing that from a “what is the better face-forward for a group of Satanists living in and trying to constructively influence society at large,” Satanic Temple’s formulation is obviously better.  It is thus primarily the assumption of some that the LaVeyan formulation cannot be constructive that I am arguing against in this entry.

* * *


I think that a casual read of the Satanic Bible does tend to produce the impression that when LaVey argues in favor of indulgence, he is largely giving people permission to engage in physically- and/or emotionally-gratifying worldly acts, e.g. acquire wealth and use it to pamper oneself, enjoy one’s food, have whatever kind of sex one wants to so long as it is consensual, etc.  At the same time, since in addition to what he says about “indulgence, not abstinence,” he also says “indulgence, not compulsion,” it should be noted that LaVey himself says that people should be masters of their own desire, not mastered by desire.  It then follows that one ought to indulge in a wise, controlled manner (“Satan represents undefiled wisdom,” to quote the third Satanic Statement), not just give full rein to one’s “lowest” impulses for the sake of instant gratification.  Nonetheless, I do see how someone reading the Satanic Bible might get the impression that said “lower” impulses seem to be LaVey’s primary interest re: “indulgence.”

This said, it seems to me that a more careful, thorough read of the Satanic Bible also produces two additional refinements of LaVey’s take on “indulgence”: i) “higher” pleasures are in fact also included, particularly the pleasure produced by using one’s imagination and the contemplation of artistic works, and ii) inasmuch as the human being is a social animal, we are wired such that we take pleasure from the flourishing not just of ourselves but also of our loved ones. 

The former point is significant inasmuch as it then opens the door to other kinds of more “refined” pleasure counting as forms of indulgence, e.g. presumably intellectual activity also counts, especially since elsewhere in the Satanic Bible, LaVey writes as if seeking out truth is an inherently valuable activity.  And the latter point is significant inasmuch as it grounds the assertion that, while LaVeyan Satanism does make both descriptive and normative claims about humans being self-centered in their desires and motivations, this is not the same thing as saying that they are or should be completely self-absorbed.

The philosopher J. S. Mill famously talked about how it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied – i.e. a truly worthwhile human life includes more than the merely animal level of indulgence (I’m massively abbreviating the quotation, but that is the gist of it).  LaVey does often overemphasize the animal level, but I think this is an understandable approach when he feels that you are not allowed to be the animal that you in fact are is one of the biggest problems with how religion impacts people.  To me at least, then, his overemphasis of that level does not rule out the appreciation of indulgence on other, “higher” levels.  Given what I know too of LaVey’s own passion for music in particular, I would not expect my assertion here to be particularly controversial to more orthodox LaVeyans than myself.

* * *


The typical pattern among the Satanic denominations is that the Satanic Temple leans toward the left politically, while all others lean toward the right.  The latter situation comes about inasmuch as, despite Satanism of all kinds being super obviously opposed to the repressively-traditional lifestyle demands often associated with the right (e.g. religious conformity, sexual conformity, conformity of acceptable family arrangements, etc.), many Satanic denominations embrace some degree of social Darwinism.  The “the strong dominate the weak and that’s just how it is” aspect of social Darwinism then typically results in libertarian political consequences, such as support for the free market, preference for small government, lack of support for welfare programs, etc.

The problem with this way of thinking, as I see it – and I condemn my younger-self for this very fallacy – is the assumption that when people “go under” in a society such as ours, this “must” be because of “weakness,” when a view both more compassionate and more realistic would suggest that just as often or more so, people “go under” due to a combination of bad luck, the frailty of the human organism (American healthcare, I’m looking at you here), getting fucked over by other peoples’ incompetence, and so forth.  I find that often, when younger people who embrace “the strong rule the weak” –type libertarianism get more life experience, they realize this and then become more centrist or even left-leaning re: yeah, maybe society should have healthcare and unemployment insurance and welfare so forth, because you or people you care about may one day need them. 

Failure to admit this is comparable to those cases where you have this rabid pro-life person who sneaks their pregnant daughter into the back door of the abortion clinic while yelling at everyone else in the waiting room for being sluts, unlike their poor, precious, undeserving princess who just had an “accident.”  That is pathetic hypocritical behavior, and to me, if a person goes around being all “well, me and my circle are unemployed because we are down on our luck, which is totally different than all those lazy minorities over there” or etc., it is the self-same issue re: why do you go around so persistently assuming that whatever “understandable” factors got you into your predicament couldn’t possibly also be “understandable” factors in the predicaments of people who are not you?  It seems to me that people who act this way are invested in some kind of just universe fallacy, which though ostensibly secular, is no less a form of fleeing-from-the-dark-truth-of-the-world than religious beliefs about a loving God or karma or etc. – contra all of these spiritual-pipe-dream-type ideas, the world, in fact, is not fair.

How is all of this then relevant to my interpretation of “indulgence, not abstinence”?  It seems to me that if “indulgence, not abstinence” is taken as a statement about what makes for human flourishing in general, and one combines this with some honest insight into human beings as interdependent rather than entirely independent, it could follow that a “Satanic” society actually should not be purely libertarian.  Rather, it should perhaps have some “minimal decency” measures in place so that people are not deprived of all prospects of “indulgence” due to old age, sickness, ill fortune and other such factors that no one, even the most self-reliant person in the seemingly-best of circumstances, can perfectly control against or evade forever. 

I suppose from a Satanic Temple standpoint, this seems like a rather long and needlessly complicated way of arriving at what several of their tenets get at much more directly.  Nonetheless, my sense that one can get there via LaVey, even if it takes a bit of legwork, is part of the reason why I have not felt the need to formally switch denominations in accord with my politics shifting left over time. 

In my view, the “LaVeyans lean right” thing is often not so much the fault of what’s in the Satanic Bible as it is the fault of bringing a problematic understanding of the human condition to the Satanic Bible.  Fix that problematic understanding, by admitting that the world isn’t some magically “just” place in which the strong always prosper and weakness is the only excuse for failure, and I really don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to get from LaVeyan ideals like “indulgence, not abstinence” to… well, Canada. :)

* * *


Alright, so, now that I’ve made it clear to any reasonable person that I’m politically-left-leaning, it is time to make the unreasonably-far-left people scream nonsense about how I must be alt-right just because my embrace of far-left values does not extend to an embrace of any-and-all current far-left methods.

First, the embrace in terms of values: In my interpretation, there’s an obvious compatibility between the “indulgence, not abstinence” principle and certain understandings of diversity + ways of promoting it.  This compatibility stems from the to-me-plausible notions that:
  • People derive enjoyment from consuming media that speaks to their personal experiences.
  • Curiosity is a natural drive inasmuch as it is evolutionarily-selected-for in apex predators (i.e. organisms so-placed in the food chain that bold investigation of the unknown is more likely to reap rewards than life-ending threats – compare, for example, cats to rabbits) including humans, and hence often enjoyable to indulge.  

It follows from these two notions that a greater variety of stories and other artistic works being in the world ought to be an enjoyable state of affairs both for:
  • Those who would thus find their life experiences validated, in a way that a narrow selection of stories & artistic works would fail to do.
  • Those already-well-catered-to who may be curious about what life is like for others.

So far, so good, but now about the issue of methods: my take here is that there is a fair bit of good coming out of some parts of the far left as far as promoting diverse stories/art/etc. go, but that other parts are actually detracting from this via misplaced efforts.  

Moreover, the “good” and the “not so great” here divide according to whether they are indulgence-based or abstinence-based efforts – appealing to indulgence is what gets people on-board, vs. appealing to abstinence tends to alienate those not already on-board (and some people who were on board as well, i.e. me). 

Indulgence-oriented ways of promoting diverse media – which I thus myself support – may thus include:
  • Writing stories or producing art that reflects previously-underrepresented aspects of the human experience.  While this may be re: such elements as gender, race, sexuality, etc., I am also thinking just more generally in terms of stories “untold” for whatever reason.
  • Supporting those engaged in the above endeavor by publishing/showing their work and/or increasing the visibility of such works via promotion, awards, etc., i.e. I personally think those “here are twenty new books that showcase protagonists of demographic X” –type lists are a good thing, as they help make such works known to people who are interested, while in-and-of-themselves taking nothing away from people who may not be interested. 
  • Engaging constructively with past works that may seem inadequate on the diversity front, toward the end of generating ideas for future works that may address these lacks – e.g. articles whose gist is something like “we see how this work was trying to do something positive in A, B, C ways, but issues X, Y, Z interfere with that – FYI, something for future authors/artists wanting to address this topic to think about.”

All of the above of course assume that artistic merit is present in the works in question and that one does not just force the issue for the sake of filling a quota.  Quota-filling is a bad thing because it leaves those filling it in doubt about whether they are being awarded for artistic merit or just given a boost out of pity, with many people finding it condescending to be treated in the latter fashion.  At the same time though, I think the right often vastly overestimates the amount of quota-filling actually going on with the left – i.e. gee, maybe there are just lots of great female and minority writers/artists/etc. out there if you actually look, vs. if you assume their sudden visibility means quota-filling, you appear to have already made up your mind that that the efforts of women/minorities are typically inferior?  Better, I think, to give the benefit of the doubt, especially if you have no real basis to judge in light of never having actually read/seen/etc. the work in question yourself.

To move on now though, from what I do support, to what I don’tnot on the basis of disagreeing with the end sought, but because I do not think these are effective methods of attaining that end – some initiatives that I would classify as abstinence-based include:

Making people afraid of writing stories or producing art that reflects previously-underrepresented aspects of human experience, by putting too much emphasis on ways of doing it wrong, to the point that people find it less stressful to just avoid those topics completely.

A.k.a. that thing where, if you don’t include a particular demographic in your work, that is “exclusionary,” but if you do include them and you don’t put what others consider an adequate effort in, that is “tokenism,” but if you put in more specific cultural details to avoid that pitfall, that is “cultural appropriation.”

I think many people faced with that kind of dilemma wind up rationally calculating that inclusion is the more pitfall-ridden option, vs. if you just don’t include the demographic at all, maybe the folks in question will perceive that they are not the intended audience of the story and not hassle you – the end result of such calculating then being works that are less diverse in order to “play it safe.” 
This issue is aggravated in part by far-left media writing articles that speak as if, if a work has any one thing wrong with it diversity-cause-wise, one is not allowed to say anything positive about it at all, either re: other things it maybe gets right, or re: aspects of the work that may be praiseworthy separately from politics.  This turns the matter into an all-or-nothing game and thereby further discourages people from wanting to play said game.

Some may dismiss this point as tone-policing.  Let me then be clear: I definitely think there are contexts in which “tone-policing is bullshit” is a valid complaint, as I myself had an experience once where I wrote an article containing very mild feminist criticism of something – e.g. “if you are a feminist, this might bother you, but if not, it’s probably fine” – and got some asshole writing in to complain about how I was being abrasive and unreasonable and “making everything about feminism.” I’ve thus seen with my own eyes how tone complaints can be used to shut down anything even slightly left-leaning, and can understand why people may then be inclined to ignore critique-of-the-left when it takes this approach.

That said though, I really think that “could we maybe try to be less confrontational and negative?” should not be dismissed as mere tone-policing when the suggestion is being made by someone who themselves supports the goals of the left and is making alternate suggestions of how to arrive at the same points, i.e. is then clearly not just seeking to shut the whole thing down.  It seems to me that when people respond to that with the accusation of “tone-policing is bullshit!”, what they wind up implying is something along the lines of “being an ‘activist’ means I have a right to have my feelings turned up to a deafening volume at all times, and should not ever have to put any thought into whether that actually wins people over or alienates them.”  This, to me, is counterproductive, childish and sad, inasmuch as my experience leads me to believe that such people are left to feel like they are “winning” when they go unopposed, but in fact there are droves of people just deciding to avoid them and talking behind their backs about how toxic they are.

Perhaps it also sounds hypocritical to suggest dialing it back in an entry in which I am defending “indulgence,” but as I said above, indulgence is in fact not approved-of in LaVeyan Satanism if it is compulsive, is unwise in the consequences it leads to, or etc.  Hence my assertion here that making the primary emphasis a spotlight on what is being done well, rather than a scolding about what is being done poorly, would be for the best.  

Talking as if, if you are of a demographic whose interests are currently over-represented in media, you should either not produce work or other people should not publish it, because you are “taking up space” that some marginalized person could be occupying.
I might have slightly more sympathy for this argument in an environment in which publishing was extremely monopolized by an elite few.  But even in that situation, I dislike this way of thinking for two reasons:
  • Making art is hard enough without an “on the basis of your demographic, we’ve decided that your voice is bad for the world going-forward, so please just don’t talk” –type guilt trip.  Would you feel like shit if someone came up to you and gave you that talk in response to your art?  Yes?  Then don't fucking do it to other people.
  • I think research is more decisive than what demographic you belong to re: producing good work, and while being of a particular demographic can provide obviously-relevant life experience that trumps the research efforts of someone not of that demographic, it would be better to judge works’ quality on this front on a case-by-case basis than to assume quality or lack thereof can be determined a priori by demographic considerations alone.   
On top of those considerations though, this just strikes me as a weird argument in an era in which numerous people have self-published successfully.  The metaphor of finite-space-being-hogged then seems like it might be a byproduct of an “everything that isn’t Hollywood or one of the top five biggest publishers doesn’t matter” mindset.  Against which one might then raise the rejoinder: instead of, say, complaining that The Big Awards Show isn’t adequately showcasing works that support your ideology, why don’t you just conclude that Big Awards Shows are boring, irrelevant bullshit for old people, and empower yourself by building your own creative-artistic empire elsewhere?

Like, sure it’s nice to be acknowledged by the heart of the culture sometimes, but is it healthy and positive for you to need The Herd’s attention-and-approval so badly that not being in their spotlight is “oppression”?  The whole issue here dovetails, one could argue, with what I said in the cultural appropriation entry about how an attitude of “I must be included in the eyes of the straight white mainstream” perversely winds up inflating the importance of the straight white mainstream.

Subcultures are instructive here, I would argue, inasmuch as they seem to be capable of flourishing without having their artists on the biggest labels/publishers/etc. and without having those artists’ efforts awarded Grammies, Oscars and whatnot.  Or if one really thinks some kind of curation-of-renown is necessary, I wish every other medium would use something like Steam’s curation model for video games, i.e. have a variety of taste-makers with different standards and people can just follow and get recommendations from whoever they’re compatible with, without any overarching attempt to define what “the best” in that entire medium is.

In light of such possibilities and the rise of the Internet in general, I thus think worrying about “space” is outmoded when it comes to the issue at hand: there is actually lots of space everywhere if you would just stop eyeballing only the exact space that a previous elite defined as most-desirable. 

Harassing writers/artists/publishers because they failed to give voice to your personal laundry-list of political talking points exactly.
Neil Gaiman wrote a thing awhile back about how “the author is not your bitch.”  And back while I was on Twitter, I found it interesting / darkly funny how there seemed to be hordes of far-left creative people out there who felt very strongly about Gaiman’s point, until it came to politics, at which point things seemingly turned into “but the author is totally your bitch in terms of them being obligated to pump out propaganda solely in accord with your worldview.” 
The only context in which I find backlash-against-an-author/artist for this kind of thing even remotely sympathizable-with is if someone went out of their way to present themselves as trying to create art in accord with far-left ideology and then fell far short, thereby causing an audience whom they’d previously built up to feel betrayed.  I think though that there are many cases in which authors/artists are not making said attempt, and it’s then weird to hold them to that standard and harass them to change their work or harass critics and publishers into not supporting them over their supposed transgressions.  More disturbing yet is when someone does make the attempt in good faith, yet people on “their side” seem to take more delight in crucifying them on social media for falling short rather than in offering constructive suggestions for how to fix the problem (some controversies seem to have been handled much better than others on this front though, I’ll admit). 
I will clarify at this juncture – although I think this is implicitly obvious and should not need to be clarified – that my point is not “giving a work a negative review because it has problematic political implications is never valid.”  In a few past instances, I have gotten quite upset when someone construes my position that way, because it feels to me like they are accusing me to the effect of “well, you clearly aren’t cut out to actually make it as a writer/artists since you apparently couldn’t handle bad reviews.”  I think, to the contrary, that it’s obvious that bad reviews of all kinds, whether well or poorly motivated, are a fact of creative life.

My assertion, though, is that things should stop at bad reviews, instead of escalating into i) mobs making a giant public noise about how some author/artist is the worst person ever because of some detail of their work that the mob didn’t like, toward the apparent end of getting everyone to shun that author/artist; and/or ii) mobs petitioning publishers to unpublish supposedly-problematic books or curators to take down supposedly-problematic works of art; and/or iii) anything else that involves intimidation-by-mob. 
The prospect of being disliked and of love-and-labour-lost on a project that doesn’t work out are standard risks of artistic endeavor that I think any serious writer/artist needs to accept.  But I do not feel it is reasonable to add on top of this, “oh, and also, if your work doesn’t check all the boxes of this-political-group-that-you-yourself-may-not-even-belong-to-or-care-about, you deserve to have thousands of people attacking you, lose all future chances in the industry, lose all your friends and possibly also have your family threatened.”

Moreover, I am pretty sure a healthy majority of people out there agree with me on this.

To then sum up my position on the topic at hand: I do think “diversity matters,” but believe that cause could be promoted way more effectively with more “hey, look at this new cool thing A and this new cool thing B and this new cool thing C and etc.!” (indulgence) and less “hey, you shouldn’t do X and you also shouldn’t do Y and you also shouldn’t do Z and etc.!” (abstinence).  

I have seen some evidence that some quadrants of the online culture have realized this and are on-board.  Nonetheless, it bothers me to witness far-left people tossing out breezy, patronizing snark to the effect of remarks like “boys, nobody is trying to take titties away from you,” while at the same time putting their most visible activist efforts into trying to get already-existing things either changed-beyond-recognition or removed – i.e. taking things away.  

That, to me, comes across as overt hypocrisy, because rather than the “let’s add our cool thing to the mix, for a greater total variety of things” movement that the term diversity ideally suggests to me, it seems like the real message is “your thing is poisoning the world by existing and should therefore be eliminated to make more room for our thing.” 

I am then reminded of that thing in the 1990’s when the right were the ones who were all “video games and metal and etc. are poisoning the world and should be gotten rid of,” and find myself being disappointed to discover a left now seemingly possessed of equal ideological insecurity.  I say insecurity because, if your ideas are so great, why can you not promote them just by promoting them, instead of needing to shut others down as a condition of your success?  Moreover, if you think this is what you need to do in order to achieve your goals, is this not a tacit admission that your ideas are unpopular? 

This is not a good look for the far-left inasmuch as in my view, diversity is a good idea that has no reason to be unpopular.  It is failing to achieve the popularity it should though, I would argue, because the far-left winds up playing the role of nagging mom / hectoring priest when it could instead be playing the role of that cool friend who’s into all this cool stuff that they are totally excited to be sharing with the world.  

I am well-aware that for people who have had positive experiences with the far-left, it already is exactly like that, and that is great for those people.  Many people I have crossed paths with have not had such positive experiences though - you really, really do not have to look that hard on the Internet to find examples of negative experiences - and it is in that context that I suggest that taking a page from the playbook of LaVeyan Satanism re: indulgence, not abstinence might be something worth considering.