Sep 02

Lessons in confidence and individualism with Conor McMoneyweather

you are what everybody says you are

 

On August 26, 2017, an aged Floyd Mayweather beat MMA lightweight champion Conor McGregor via TKO in round 10 (in a boxing match, need I say). Both fighters have their fans, and both are unlikable shitbags: one is a serial batterer of women, the other a bully and a dick.

There was little to suggest the universe needed the two of them to box each other, but box they did, and it was interesting, in ways. The fight itself, only slightly. The reactions of people– fans, journalists, other boxers and MMA fighters, etc—more so. Finally, there are things to be learned from the event itself, the fight game and its’ practitioners, and our societies’ embrace of such spectacles. Bread and circuses, as they say.

From round 4 on, Mayweather came at Mcgregor like he had no respect at all for his power or ability. The MMA “community” by and large seemed to think Conor did their sport proud, but that’s just wishful thinking and a lack of understanding of the other sport. Even I could tell that after the first round Floyd wasn’t taking his opponent seriously, loading up on his punches and trying to make a point instead of boxing as he would an equal. Conor was embarrassed by a 40 year old, much diminished fighter, perhaps 20 pounds lighter on fight day, who didn’t even spar in preparation for the fight.

In the past, much was made of McGregor’s visualization of his goals or whatever it is he does, as in the book The Secret. This outing clearly showed that no amount of visualizing will make up a gulf as wide as that between Mcgregor’s and Mayweather’s respective boxing skills. Did anyone think that all you had to do to succeed was visualize desired outcomes? Conor did not sit on his living room couch for the duration of his training camp deep in meditation, visualizing—he trained his ass off. But the visualization addresses one aspect of the ingredients necessary to win: confidence.

Both Conor and Floyd are positively brimming with confidence. I think it’s fair to say Mcgregor has more consciously incorporated confidence into his arsenal as a fighter, though Floyd surely has an equal amount. Their confidence comes from different sources (aside from the confidence they both get from the evidence their past bouts provide of their sporting excellence). Conor believes in the power of visualizing desired outcomes. Floyd believes in the “0” on the right side of his win/loss record. This alone allows him to claim “The Best Ever” status, although most boxing insiders place him nowhere near the truly great boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson, Roberto Duran, or Muhammad Ali.

The concept of visualizing yourself succeeding, a la The Secret, is one way in which some have tried to take control of their confidence. The idea is to brainwash yourself into erasing all doubt from your mind. Having not read the book, I’m not sure whether the author emphasizes the point that this technique only works (to the extent that it works at all) in conjunction with rigorous training, or work, or effort towards the desired goal. I sort of doubt it, since doing so invites the question why one would need to practice self-hypnosis if one already did everything humanly possible to make one’s goals a reality.

This is a whole can of worms. The truth is, we are none of us anymore completely safe from self doubt because the society we live is in many ways a self-doubt inducing mechanism. Busting our confidence is what modern western society does best. I talk at length about why I think this to be the case elsewhere, but understanding how our society induces self-doubt is pretty straight-forward. Insecurity goes hand-in-hand with capitalism; confusion is the flip side of “democracy,” at least the kind we practice. In a capitalist society, one is never attractive, successful, or rich enough. In a democracy, one only has him or herself to blame for their miseries. Hypothetically, “the people” are the “highest power in the land,” a funny thing to think about while wasting one’s best years slaving at some job or stuck in traffic with all the other members of this awesomely powerful group.

Perhaps more importantly, capitalism operates by destroying human communities wherever they occur.

Closely-knit families and communities are the only true source of confidence.

I know, this is a shocking reversal of that tired truism: Believe in yourself! Pay no mind to what others think of you, you’ve only got to please yourself! These sayings are the western equivalent of the Soviet “All power to the workers!” and “Proletarians of all nations, unite!” You didn’t think the we have propaganda in the free world? Tsk tsk. More, by far, than the commies ever did– it’s just not as gaudy.

So, the idea that you are to be complete unto yourself is the opposite of how humans actually work. We call someone who takes their cues for what is appropriate behavior solely from themselves a sociopath or a nut; it is no secret that mental illness and sociopathy are on a steep rise in America of late. We get not only much of our confidence from our communities and kin, but our very identities and meaning in general. Without others, we have no frame of reference for who we are and what we are supposed to be doing.

Capitalism takes over these functions from our communities and kin once they have been broken up and destroyed. The difference is, our families and friends care about us and want to see us succeed, while capitalism is just trying to sell us things. Not to mention, being a part of a human community is fulfilling; being a part of a capitalist society is inherently demoralizing since your only role is that of consumer.

How does Floyd Mayweather know who he is? How does anybody know who he or she is?

I’m not Floyd’s biographer, so please forgive me if I get a detail or two wrong. I also don’t know what Floyd is like in private, save for the incidents that became widely known because they involved beating women and such things—and just to be clear, I am not saying that women-beating is somehow a cultural trait. But the person Floyd Mayweather is, as a whole, is a product of the specific cultural, geographic, socio-economic, etc. milieu that he was born and raised in. Floyd Mayweather wasn’t born into a family of Vietnamese immigrants. If he was, he might be a Vietnamese boxer with all attendant details that involves: for one, he probably wouldn’t sport the infamous “Money” persona everyone loves to hate, and he certainly wouldn’t be a worldwide celebrity. The persona Floyd possesses today is the product of specific cultural, etc. conditions. This much is obvious, but somehow no one ever squares this banal truth with the bullshit self-affirmation mantras we all so casually proffer.

Conversely, if Floyd was really, exclusively self-directed—if anyone was really self-directed—taking his cues for who to be, what to believe, how to behave, from no one but himself, he would not possess any culturally specific traits, the signifiers by which we recognize and understand one another. Such a thing is an impossibility—we have no other way to be, to understand ourselves, or to present ourselves to others, except through what we pick up from the people around us. We re-arrange the elements given to us to make them uniquely our own, but not all that much. When we’re done customizing our “unique” identities, they end up pretty much just like everyone else’s in our peer group. And that’s a good thing. Or, at least, it is an essential thing: it is how each one of us knows who to be, what to do, what to believe. It is also essential to the function of society as a whole.

We all tend to exaggerate the extent to which we are unique individuals, just as we tend to exaggerate the extent to which our successes are of our own making while our failures are the results of fate. These are not altogether separate tendencies—it seems to me a similar mechanism is at work in both. This self-delusion, too, is essential for individual and social well-being.

Camus describes this paradox best in the story of Sisyphus. For fighting the gods, Sisyphus’ punishment was to roll a huge boulder up a mountain side, only to see it roll back down again when he reached the top, over and over, forever. But Camus thinks that we must imagine that Sisyphus is happy in his meaningless, tedious task. By accepting responsibility for his fate, Sisyphus is as free as anyone living out their eternity in leisure and comfort. The act of taking responsibility for our own being allows each of us to live as though we have free will, when in fact we (mostly) do not.

For our present purposes, it doesn’t matter whether we actually have free will or not. Each of us is compelled to go through life as though we are in control, when in reality all but the most mundane choices are already made for us. Who we are, what culture we are born into, what our demeanor and external attributes are (and therefore, to a large extent, how we are going to be perceived by others), whether we are to spend our lives working or playing–the most important things are decided for us.

Existentialists believed that the universe is cold and uncaring, devoid of all meaning. This means that there is no logical reason good things should happen to good people and vice versa; it certainly also means no amount of visualizing is going to induce the ether to help you reach your goals.   In plain English, the universe doesn’t give a shit about you.

The world being indifferent, the highest virtue for existentialists is “authenticity,” which is taking responsibility for your fate even though we are to live out our short lives in an uncaring, meaningless world. But most of us don’t fight against the meaninglessness of the universe as Kierkegaard did. Some people go through an intense searching phase in adolescence, and most probably don’t even experience that.

I believe this is because most people don’t look for meaning in an abstract sense.  For the vast majority of us, the meaning of life is clear: it is to thrive as an individual living among his or her group. What greater challenges does one need? This is plenty hard enough, but at the same time, it is not unattainable. Finally, this is a kind of meaning that everyone naturally understands. The quest for success in the eyes of our peers is the most basic narrative there is.

So, the idea that we are all individuals and should look no further than ourselves for self-affirmation is quite contradictory to our basic instincts. We get it, this isn’t a new idea; but the relentlessness with which it is currently hammered into everyone’s head is. It is perhaps inevitable, for any number of reasons. It is in line with our normal tendency to imagine ourselves as more in control of our lives than we actually are. It is also essential to the functioning of modern capitalism, since lonely “individuals” are infinitely better workers and consumers than people who are focused on their communities.

But it’s impossible for us not to pay attention to what other people think—of us, of themselves, of everything, because that’s basically what being human is about. We are social animals first and foremost. Believing we are mostly self-guided is just as delusional as it is natural, though most people seem to have no problem doing so while continuing to check with everyone else for what is considered acceptable and what isn’t. Still, there’s a staggering number of lonely people today, and I’m pretty sure this heavy emphasis on self-affirmation is part of the reason why.

It’s no solution to suggest that we need to give up our belief that we are best off without others’ opinions. We need to believe we are in control, so we can face life as sentient creatures. And we need to actually be almost entirely the product of social consensus, because we are social to a fault and lose our human identities if cut off even briefly from our conspecifics—as the cases of “wild” children attest. But as Camus’ story suggests, we can still be happy with this arrangement. So long as the balance isn’t thrown too far off.