Æsop—the Greek fabulist, not the skincare company—once upon a time penned the tale of “The Fox and The Lion”. It goes something like this: “A very young Fox, who had never before seen a Lion, happened to meet one in the forest. A single look was enough to send the Fox off at top speed for the nearest hiding place. The second time the Fox saw the Lion he stopped behind a tree to look at him a moment before slinking away. But the third time, the Fox went boldly up to the Lion and, without turning a hair, said, ‘Hello, there, old top.’” The fable has many interpretations, of course. But two primary ‘morals’ are consistently spoken of:
Familiarity breeds contempt.
Acquaintance with evil blinds us to its dangers.
It’s been very difficult to write to you; to even make sense of my own thoughts in the unfurling wake of what has been a demoralising series of events. I’ve been oscillating between bitter disappointment, sadness, horror, confusion and despair. And then sometimes I try larp as an obligate sociopath—just to cope and perhaps be more commercially effective—but that rarely holds for more than a few minutes.
As an inner-city Melbourne hipster-dilettante who spends most of their time hunting transcontextual nuance and canelé—I am constantly surprised by how disappointed I am when the rest of this country isn’t as progressive as I might hope. Since my last post on disinformation, the majority of Australians voting against the wishes of the majority of Indigenous Australians (something “so mean-spirited it would remain ‘unbelievable and appalling’ for decades”).
The lions are back
It seems the lions are well and truly back—as sociologist Vilfredo Pareto describes it in the “circulation of elites” (published over a century ago).
In this theory, the lions 🦁 are the bold, conservative and ‘reliable’ leaders who rule with the sword; “might is right”. The foxes 🦊 are the clever, progressive and cunning leaders who rule with the quill.
Naturally, I prefer fox-like governance. But whilst we might believe “the pen is mightier than the sword”—this is likely not true in a duel. Or a war.
For the pen to be mightier than the sword—the conditions need to allow for it. These conditions include strong democracies and healthy sense-making environments of an informed populace and civic discourse.
But as the left continues to cannibalise itself whilst we look to the right-wing populism sweeping across countries in the wake of brexit and trump and the disenfranchisements caused by weakened democratic systems, diminished civic participation and exacerbated inequality amidst our late-stage neoliberal capitalism in a distraction economy rife with fear and weaponised disinformation*—it seems the conditions are ripe for the lions to flourish.
* I’ve just begun reading Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Deception, Disinformation and Social Media by Associate Professor Marc Owen Jones. Hat tips to Jules Yim and her recent briefing in The Contrapuntal for the recommendation.
But it is, in theory, a cycle. An oscillation, if you will.
The elite of lions will have to accept foxes from the crowd to make up for their lack of inventiveness and cunning essential to retain their power. Foxes gradually saturate the whole elite, changing its nature. However, foxes cannot take strong, decisive action, which is sometimes necessary to hold onto power. The elite of foxes is overthrown by a well-organized minority of lions determined to restore powerful rule. (source)
This is all armchair sociological speculation, of course. But it does carry a whiff of truth to it. I don’t believe the left/right dichotomy is actually all that helpful—and hasn’t been for some time. We are past due to sublimate. But in the meantime: the lions are here. What are we foxes to do?
Familiarity breeds contempt
Back to Aesop’s fable—I’ve been thinking of this moral in relation to what I see that garners traction in our knowledge commons: “obvious” content that is safe, familiar and affirming. The simplistic and saccharine.
As one who traverses the noösphere daily, and who speaks at perhaps too many leadership, innovation and ‘future-of’ themed events—I have become overly familiar with the predictable pantomime of recycled charismatic concepts promulgated time and time again. I know the script to most leadership, motivation and innovation so well as to harbour a quiet kind of withering contempt.
I don’t want to feel this contempt, of course. I want to be a pure magnanimous being, brimming with epistemological humility and good will. Or at least to be a fellow mercenary who can appreciate a quality grift. But I’m just so bored of the pantomime. But I chide myself whenever I detect any contempt—reminding myself that I, too, was once there. Damn this curse of knowledge.
But whilst I crave and live for genuine thought leadership—that which confounds, baffles and delights, serving to move us towards complexity and wisdom—I begrudgingly note the potency of ‘obvious and affirming content’ for the tired and distracted minds in this lion-dominated landscape.
The authors of Snow Leopard—a book I am finally skimming, after many recommendations—are very much onto this.
Non-Obvious Connectors are writers, creators, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders who change the world with their thinking. The unfortunate part, however, is that data shows us most people don’t want their thinking changed. They just want to be moved forward in some incremental way, and to be told things that validate (or remind them) of their current beliefs—which is why the top Non-Obvious Connectors universally sell far less copies, and receive far less attention on social media than Obvious Connectors.
The authors make the point that “stupidity scales”: if you want to make fast money in today’s distraction economy—stick to what is obvious and known.
This strategy caters to lazy, button-smashing consumers. When these people scroll through their social media feeds, they are (usually) not looking to be challenged. Instead, they are in a state of searching for confirmation bias. “It takes every single person in the organization to achieve what you want to achieve.” Duh. Yes. Like. “Authenticity is crucial to creating content that resonates.” For sure. Got it. Comment. “If you want to change the world, you have to change yourself.” Totally. I’m a world-changer too. Share. Which is why the most viral content caters to lowest common denominator emotions: rage, joy, wonder, sadness, shock, surprise, desire, and so on.
But maybe there’s something to be said about the moral from Aesop’s fable.
Allow familiarity to breed some [benevolent, warm-hearted and encouraging not-quite-but-almost] contempt for that which is blatantly obvious and generic? Okay well, maybe not contempt—but perhaps a subtle disdain? Maybe?
Nothing that shames any individual, of course. We’re all doing the best we can with the resources we’ve got. Individuals aren’t the issue; our behaviours are the symptom of the issue.
But we ought do something to remain en garde to the workings of Shoggoth. Something to protect ourselves from undead narratives and weaponised disinformation. With a dash of disdain for the utterly banal and familiar, we become less readily duped by AI-generated content—which I suspect will come to dominate our social media feeds (as its ability to become algorithmically-optimised will surpass any mortal).
In doing this, we develop acuity, humility, perspective and taste. We cultivate the sensibilities needed to make sense of a world that otherwise has us hoodwinked. “This, now, is mostly an era of spell-making,” Dr. Martin Shaw writes. “Of tacit enchantment, of stultified imaginations and loins inflamed by so much factory-fodder lust, our relationships malfunction in their millions.”
As to the second interpreted ‘moral’ from Aesop’s fable...
Acquaintance with evil blinds us to its dangers
Firstly: as someone who is essentially an non-essentialist*—I don’t believe in ‘evil’.
* Whilst I might sometimes adopt essentialism out of laziness and/or a need for expedience or the poetic, the philosopher and complexity practitioner in me doesn’t believe in “ultimate essences”—such as matter, consciousess, goodness, evil, masculinity, femininity or the like—but rather that “all these things are contextual and interpretations made from relations and comparisons” (to quote Hanzi Frienacht).
But I do believe that—within the spectrum of responses available to us at any given moment—there exist dispositions that are either orientated towards:
- collectivism and planetary mutualism, striving to ‘walk the path of least unnecessary suffering’ towards ‘planetary mutualism’ and ‘omni-win’ scenarios for all-of-life (not just human) with infinite game dynamics—in other words, an orientation towards wisdom and complexity;
- individualism and planetary entropy, striving to optimise towards narrow goals (no matter the harm or suffering caused to others) with zero-sum finite game dynamics, privileging humans of particular affiliations over all other life forms—in other words, an orientation away from wisdom and complexity; or
- a secret third thing.
It’s natural for us to oscillate between these three directions. But one would hope that our overall orientation is towards wisdom, complexity, and the flourishing of all life.
├┬┴┬┴This section was originally much larger, and I delved into many myriad woes afflicting our world right now. But then I deleted it—too heavy. The nutshell was that I have witnessed folks casually justify warcrimes that suit their perspectives, whilst denouncing those that don’t. This, I would suggest, is pretty damn close to an ‘acquaintance with evil’. All warcrimes ought be universally abhorred; never justifiable. Ecocide, too. Bah! ┬┴┬┴┤
So: what are we foxes to do?
Firstly, I doubt that many of the lion-like disposition read these musings. Too many words; the insights (if any) aren’t obvious or affirming. No clear enemy or way to ‘win’.
But for the rest of us—what are we to do?
I’m not feeling at my most chipper at the moment, but here are three approaches we might take:
- “LARP your best life™️” – this is actually very much what My Next Book is about. Or will be about—if I spend less time writing museletters and more time writing that.
I’ll be writing more on this. My main suggestion (for myself, and you) is to become more attuned to the myriad roles we play in life. It is through playing these roles that we show up within—and shape—the unfurling stories of others. It’s also how we contribute to the greater community we live within. So much meaning, satisfaction and fulfilment comes from a such a sense of contribution. Even on a local scale.
- “Move quietly and plant things” – I wrote of this a while back, then deleted it hoho. But here’s a version that survived. In a time where we are being collectively gaslit into fearing the ‘other’, where our sense of emptiness and lack is manufactured within us so that we can shop and spend more—there are subtle things we can do to resist. Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing: resisting the attention economy” is an impactful read.
If the weight of the woes of the world is sapping your sense of agency and “hope”—it can make sense to oscillate into a locus of concern you can nurture and influence. I am personally (trying!) to initiate “screen-free Sundays” (it hasn’t worked yet). And Kim and I are trying to live more intentionally within our bodies and local communities. Sounds super naff, I know. But it’s nice.
- “Attend to your own unfurling” – I am ready to return to The Ritual of Becoming. This is a ritual—of reflection, introspection, and projection—that I had cultivated and maintained each year for over a decade... until I turned it into a program and cursed it for myself.
Now—nearly four years later—I feel ready to rekindle it. This time: wiser.
I’m not sure the exact form it will take yet, but it will be undergoing its own metamorphosis. And, with my track record, it may not be ready for you by the end of the year. But the beautiful thing is: you can undertake The Ritual of Becoming any time.
I found myself offering gentle concern to a quite successful younger person who was admitting that his marketing for his ‘bot trading software’ did, in fact, make very exaggerated claims and was “a bit cringe”—but “that’s just how marketing works”. Yet this feeling of cringe suggests that a value you hold is being violated, I said. It points to something.
You may have a niggling sense that something is ‘not quite right’ with your own trajectory. If your path does not seem to be leading you closer to congruence (a sense where your external behaviours are consistent with your inner feelings, values and beliefs) or coherence (how your unfurling narrative of ‘who you are’ ‘makes sense’)—perhaps it is time to intentionally attend to your own unfurling?
Aiyoo. I’m exhausted. I’ve been imbibing too many horrors of the world, thanks to the internet. I don’t want to look away and just pretend everything is a-okay—but at the same time, I need to restore some equanimity and aplomb in face of it all.
I found myself momentarily triggered the other day when someone around my age said—in a conversation about the atrocities of the world—“but you know who gives me hope? The youth! Young people are so creative, and they really seem to care.”
I think she was referring to Generation Fucked.*
* Which—at a recent event I held—someone gave me a book called Gen F’d by Alison Pennington. I was in the blur of the event beginning and didn’t track who gave me the book. Whomever you are, please let me know!
Bah! I thought to the person. It ought not be we who look to the youth for hope—it really ought be the other way around. We should be the ones giving them hope.
And then I caught myself and realised: wait. What am I doing that creates hope in younger folk? Other than writing long musings about how we should be depressed, it made me realise... I could be doing better than lamenting and using the museletter as a perverted public journal in which I process through my own entangled thoughts.
It’s left me wondering—much more intentionally—as to the role I ought play in the imminent next decade of my life. What ought this Elder-Millennial Wizard-Philosopher-Bard and Sometimes Rogue Scholar do? I’ve a few things in mind—perhaps I will share them with you in my next musing.
In the meantime: be well, be kind. Beware neat narratives that incite prejudice. The children and people of other countries and cultures are really not that different to those you call family and friends, despite what the media will have you believe. Don’t allow folks to justify warcrimes. Just don’t.
As ever, your comments and shares are appreciated. Thank you for subscribing. I do worry sometimes that these museletters are becoming increasingly deranged. Folks new to the world of foxwizard—fresh from having seen me in my daylight persona deliver a keynote or host a leadership event—may be wondering what they signed up to. But I take solace in the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s words: It's no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. It is, admittedly, a crappy kind of solace but, it’ll do!
Okay, three things I swear for my next museletter:*
- It will be 750 words or less (¬‿¬)
- It will be “good vibes only” ᕕ(ᐛ)ᕗ
- It will contain at least one “top tip” that some might even suggest is “immediately practicable” ಥ_ಥ
* Note: this is only for the next museletter.
Meanwhile: come hang with the dangerlam and I at Purpose Conference. The program has just been released! I am very much looking forward to speaking at this event, and to hang with the bright-minded and warm-hearted folk it always attracts. It’s not too late to get yourself a ticket (the code “JASONFOX” will get you a $100 discount, I believe). I am particularly looking forward to the plenary session on “The Disinformation Age” (and the fireside that follows with Dr. Tyson Yunkaporta—whose new book Right Story, Wrong Story is my current read).