Game of Thrones character Ned Stark once said something interesting. He was being held captive by the Lannisters in a dungeon below the Red Keep. One of his former advisers came to him and pleaded with him to confess crimes of which he was accused, but didn’t commit, so that he might be spared the king’s justice — beheading. But Ned Stark is GoT‘s embodiment of honor and stoicity, so the fallen king replied, “You think my life is such a precious thing to me, that I would trade my honor for a few more years… of what?”
This isn’t a post about Game of Thrones. The character’s quote was interesting, though, because thinking like that doesn’t happen in the Western world (anymore?). You think my life is such a precious thing to me. Distilled, it’s There exist things greater than me.
Theoretically, everyone’s supposed to believe this. Our parents told us that the world doesn’t revolve around us. If you act like a selfish asshole, people will agree that your premises are incorrect. The idea behind your behavior is not right. Your preference is not the only preference that exists. This is what we say when we watch someone compelled by a certain amount of self-interest.
But I think most people don’t really believe it. Because it’s easier said than done. It’s easier to say that you believe in world peace than it is to start a non-profit dedicated to that. It’s easier to say that racism is wrong than it is to become a political activist. It’s easier to say that you believe in equality than it is to get a degree in gender studies. It’s easier to say that something is extremely important than it is to dedicate your life to it.
I don’t want to deny that you can believe in something without dedicating your life to it. But, what’s the value of a belief that’s mostly theoretical? What’s the concrete value? What are the physical implications of a theoretical belief? One implication that comes to mind is your choice of votes. Another is your behavior as a consumer. Another, the positions you take in conversation. But it seems to me that these mostly-theoretical beliefs have their greatest function in maintaining one’s identity. That is, you convince yourself that you believe in something because it helps you believe you are your ideal self, who by default you aren’t. It’s ironic that whether you do something about that belief can tend to be less important. I think most people are delusional this way. I am delusional this way.
There’s an episode of South Park that’s about when Fox censored Family Guy from depicting Muhammad because that would have violated Islamic law. I can’t remember which character said it, but he articulated what I’m trying to articulate. The character said something like “It’s easy to believe in (/defend) free speech when nothing threatens it. It’s much harder to believe in (/defend) free speech when faced with the threat of violence. But this is exactly when it should be defended most. If you don’t defend free speech when it’s most immediately threatened, then you don’t actually believe in it.”
When I generalize our generation, I sort of fault it for not having convictions about anything. For saying it believes in something and evidencing that belief by pointing out the comments it made that day on a blog (which is bullshit). I feel like we’re really apathetic about our beliefs. I struggle with apathy about my beliefs. But I know that convincing myself I have them makes me feel like the person I want to be — they seem to function as pillars of my identity, rather than driving forces of my behavior. It’s a fucked up delusion that I’m certain isn’t contributing to my well-being.
Is anyone relating to this? Does anyone, when it comes down to the moment when you must act on a belief, lack conviction and ultimately choose the comfort of distance, of inaction? Does anyone find themselves repeatedly excusing inaction on personal beliefs for some reason or another (BTW I think all these reasons are basically the same). Is this a generational thing? If so, when did identity become so important? When and why did Ned Stark’s perspective — that there are things worth more than his life — become so rare? To what degree — and how — would you act on your strongest conviction? Would you die? And where does doubt in your beliefs come into this — the belief that truth is relative? How does that affect your actions?