The Cycle of Ethical Poverty; or, A Nation Short on Spoons

What do we do when we’ve created a culture whose members cannot afford to be good people?

I have to admit, to my embarrassment, that I completely missed spoon theory. It’s not just that it’s an incredibly useful conceptual framework; it’s that I think “spoon” is an inherently funny word, so why wasn’t I paying attention? But I digress.

Spoon Theory, for those not in the know, is a way of illustrating the way chronic illness creates limitations. It was invented by Christine Miserandino, who suffers from lupus and needed a way to explain what it’s like to be hampered by the disease. It’s a pretty simple idea: the spoons represent how much energy you have, and the more you need to do, the more you need to ration your efforts. Most able-bodied humans, Miserandino explained, have essentially infinite spoons, and can get through the day without becoming too tired; she, in comparison, has a limited amount of spoons, and needs to be very specific about what she does and why she does it.

It’s not only valuable in demonstrating how chronic illness holds you back, it’s also a good conceptual tool: spoon costs are not universal. Steph Curry doesn’t have to expend too much energy to look good on a basketball court; I, in comparison, would die in under 30 seconds if I tried to keep up. Likewise, I can sing for seven hours straight before my voice feels tired (or at least I could in college — I’m probably down to about six hours today), which Steph Curry might have trouble with. We’re better at different things, is all. And note how neither of us is (to my knowledge) living with a chronic illness. Spoon Theory is still a helpful conceptual framework.

It also ties into our understanding of finance. We often wonder why dollar stores seem to be so proliferate: why would you buy something there, cheap and shoddy and sure to break, if you could go get something more expensive? The answer, one we typically choose to ignore because it makes us uncomfortable, is that you can’t afford to get something more expensive. I mean, if you’re just getting a big spoon to stir some spaghetti sauce, that’s one thing… But if we’re talking something that gets a lot of use, like underwear or shoes or a child’s favorite toy, then you’re in a dilemma. “Do I save up, and just go without shoes for… (Let’s see, I’m making minimum wage and able to save about $25 a week. So that would amount to…) — 4 weeks? Like, actually without shoes, because that was the one pair I owned? Or… Do I bite the bullet and buy the $25 pair now?” Which might not just be a convenience issue: do you work at one of those “No shirt, no shoes, no service” places? And that’s even before we get into the temper tantrums your kid is throwing because their favorite toy is broken and not being replaced.

But even more than that: we should discuss the fact that some things require different kinds of spoons. If someone yells at you and you have to keep yourself from punching them, is that a physical spoon? A mental spoon? An ethical spoon? Miserandino did not add this elaboration to her original description, and I think she was absolutely right to keep it simple — if for no other reason than the fact that she didn’t really need to; the theory is applicable to a large number of situations. And one of them is in making choices.

And that’s where I want to make my next segue… which will take us to an ensorceled castle in Scotland.

The book is always better than the film, they say. And oftentimes, that’s true. But the Harry Potter films, on very rare occasions, managed to beat the books they were based on.

One of those moments is at the end of the fourth movie. Harry has just seen You-Know-Who, the main villain, the man who made Harry an orphan, He Who Must Not Be Named — all right, Voldemort — return; and has managed, through skill, luck and pure nerve and outstanding courage, to escape with his life. Even more than that, he’s saved the body of his schoolmate, an innocent bystander whom Voldemort slew out of convenience. This scene, in the book, is saddening; in the movie, it’s horrifying, as Harry crash-lands in the middle of a victory celebration being held in his honor, which bursts into cheers when he arrives and then unravels as they see Cedric Diggory’s corpse, until the only sounds are the anguished sobs of both Harry and Cedric’s father. It takes advantage of its medium — film — to elaborate on the original scene, adding visual and auditory flourishes that hammer home the enormity of what has transpired. It’s one of only two scene in the entire film series that surpasses the book… but, in fairness, this scene blows the book out of the water. When you read the novels now, you don’t see what Rowling wrote; you see what Mike Newell filmed.

The other is during the coda of the same film. The Hogwarts headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, paraphrases the book. The line, as Rowling originally wrote it, was: “Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good and kind and brave because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort” (referring to Diggory). But screenwriter Steve Kloves changed the emphasis: “Soon, we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” It’s almost a completely different sentiment, to the point that I had to go back and re-read the book and find out how it had mutated. It is also one of the most pithy sentences in the history of the English language.

And, in the context of spoon theory, it suddenly explains everything.

Innuendo Studios released an in-depth study of the alt-right playbook entitled “How to Radicalize a Normie,” which explained a lot of things I had never heard before and echoed a few things I’ve said here before. One of those things was a very simple explanation of how the alt-right flourishes: it is, fundamentally, a feel-good ideology. Their entire recruiting strategy revolves around going up to cishet white males and telling them, “being a cishet white male makes you superior.” And, given that people typically like having their egos stroked, this works.

And so now the normie is being targeted. He has people who are coming to him with this comforting message of bigotry, one that promises to make him feel better about his life. And, like all of us, he is being faced with a choice. He can do what is right, and reject this ideology of hatred; or he can do what is easy, and let them stroke his ego some more.

What determines his reaction?

Up until now, the discussion has mostly involved a lot of grandmotherly fluttering and generalities. “Well, some people simply have it in them.” And that may be true, but it still doesn’t help explain anything. It’s a fundamentally deterministic worldview: some men are fated to be good people and others Trump supporters. And — and this is the most important part — there is nothing we can do to change it. Fate, genetics, whatever: the decision was made, and that’s all there is to it.

Now, here’s a secret: my approach to ethics is borrowed from that of Robert Heinlein. In Starship Troopers, he posits a society that has refined a mathematical model of ethics, allowing them to calculate the morally correct course in any situation. That’s a bunch of bullshit, but I do believe that we can establish general, non-mathematical guidelines for why people make the ethical choices they do. And spoon theory is useful to that effort because it makes decisions not only qualifiable but quantifiable.

In particular, it lets us explain why some people are seduced by the lies of the alt-right while others can resist. Spoon theory is this magic advancement that actually lets us explain the fundamental difference between good people and bad people. And the answer is actually really simple:

Let’s take a really simple example. Let’s say you’re at the local grocery store. You have a chance to steal a candy bar. Do you take this opportunity? And what are the costs of each possible decision?

In a vacuum, what is right and what is easy should probably cost the same number of spoons, and maybe they even do. But none of us live in an ethical vacuum. Ethics is the study of how we treat each other, after all; its very existence implies a context. In other words, we are less concerned with the physical difficulty of performing the action — grabbing a candy bar and sticking it in our pocket while no one is looking — and more the greater consequences that come with it.

In general, virtuous behavior is associated with selflessness. It’s true that we want the candy bar; and, if we’re at some giant corporate grocery store that makes billions of dollars in profit a year, the money they lose from one stolen candy bar is so insignificant that the crime is almost victimless. But it’s still the wrong thing to do. And so we practice self-control and self-denial, and don’t steal the candy bar. We use up a spoon deciding to do the right thing, and another exercising abnegation.

Or we steal the candy bar, and someone else pays the cost. For, just as the vast majority of virtues are associated with selflessness, vices revolve around selfishness. Vices are about being able to wash your hands and say, “This is my fault, but not my problem.” And so you spend a spoon making the decision… but the whole point of choosing what is easy is that the choice involves stealing a spoon from somebody else.

Who? Not sure. In the giant faceless hierarchy of a grocery chain, who suffers in the end? The manager of the store, who has to account for the stock discrepancy? The employee stocking the shelf? The employee working the point-of-sale? Almost certainly not the CEO. But whatever the case, somebody pays the price for the stolen candy bar. They have to clean up your mess. They have to spend a spoon dealing with the problem you caused. It wasn’t your spoon to spend, but you spent it from them. You stole a candy bar, and you stole a spoon. You spent, overall, less spoons on the easy choice than on the right one. Because that’s what an unethical choice is: cheaper.

And now we get back to the title of this whole convoluted essay: the cycle of ethical poverty. And by that I don’t mean, “Remaining moral while having no money,” I mean, “Having insufficient ethics. …Or, more accurately, having insufficient spoons for ethical choices.”

We’ve established that the cycle of poverty exists. Being poor is expensive, and it’s hard to lever yourself out because it just takes so much good luck and so many things not going wrong, even though you’re surrounded by things that are shoddy and break easily. Sometimes, you get in there and you simply can’t afford to get out.

What if the thing you run out of is your ethical spoons?

What if you’re in a situation where you can see what is right and what is easy, and you want to choose what is right, but you can’t afford to? Because you don’t have the spoons to spare. Because not stealing the candy bar means not having anything good happen to you today (failed a test) (significant other dumped you) (bully stole your lunch) (tripped halfway across the quad because these goddamn ultra-cheap shoes are fucking falling apart and you can actually see the heel flap loose of the cloth part, and everyone laughed at you), and you used up all your spoons turning the other cheek to these things, over and over and over, and now the spoon buffer stopping you from perpetrating a school shooting is alarmingly thin. Because you need something good to happen. For once. Like getting a candy bar.

Except, it doesn’t last. Tomorrow, the exact same things happen to you. You’ve lost so many spoons dealing with the crap that rains down on you every day, and you’re not regaining them fast enough. And someone sees you sticking the candy bar in your pocket and is like, “You know, what you’re doing is wrong,” and you’re like, MY WHOLE LIFE IS WRONG, everything that is happening to me is wrong, and now you expect me to just make something out of nothing? You expect that if people feed me shit every day, I’m going to magically turn it into gold?

Because here’s the thing: we’ve all been there. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been at the bottom, where nothing’s going right, and it’s unreasonable to think anything will go right any time soon. We’ve all been in the pit, staring out at the sunlight, wondering if we can ever feel it on our faces again. We’ve all been depressed. We’ve all been hopeless. We’ve all been the person who can’t do what’s right, as opposed to what’s easy, because it’s just too hard.

And, once again, spoon theory gives us the vocabulary to even discuss it.

But even more than that, it gives us the vocabulary to understand what the alt-right is trying to do: take spoons away from everyone. Reduce the nation to a place where nobody has enough spoons, where everyone has to choose what’s easy instead of what’s right. Create a nation where everyone is trapped into doing today what they did yesterday, because it’s too expensive to change. Because, in such a place, any ideology — Christianity, capitalism, incel theory, MAGAism — thrives.

And we now know the fundamental, tangible, quantifiable difference between a person who chooses what is right and a person who chooses what is easy: the person who takes the easy way out has less spoons.

And, even more than that, we know what we need to do if we want to create a society where more people choose to do what is right: we need more spoons.

In my previous article about tolerance, I touched on the feel-good message of the alt-right — how, as previously mentioned, they believe that being a cishet white male makes you superior. I’m not trying to claim not the progressive left needs to agree. I am trying to claim that the progressive left needs to take a more moderate stance: cishet white males may not be superior, but they are, at least, sufficient. We need to take a truly intersectional attitude where we embrace everyone and prop up everyone, regardless of how much privilege they’re already bringing into the conversation. We need to give everyone more spoons.

If not, we might as well be fascists. And I’m not saying that as some sort of hyperbole. Authoritarians, totalitarian, fascists: they oppress people because oppression allows them to flourish. Oppression is their oxygen. And if we take the stance that feels justified in light of the centuries of oppression they created — “cishet white men are inferior” — then we have, in fact, become just like them, because we are perpetrating the system they worked so hard to create. We changed the victim, sure, but we didn’t change the system of victimization. Whether we like it or not, this is a situation where justice will not actually make things better. And so we have to choose whether we want justice or progress. We can’t have both. At least, not at the same time.

And — just to make things clear — we’ve been trying the path of justice, and it doesn’t seem to be working. In case anyone was having trouble deciding which of the two to choose.

The idea of advocating for a society which hands out more ethical and emotional spoons — a society that isn’t so hell-bent on tearing down our self-esteem because depressed people are easier to sell products to — is all well and good. But it doesn’t help people right now. The fundamental problem a lot of these bigots face is that they feel they have no worth to our society — mostly because they’ve been told over and over again that they have no worth to our society, even if they aren’t bigots. “I didn’t start out an incel, I was driven to it because that’s how women treated me in the first place. If everyone’s going to call me a bigot and a chauvinist regardless of whether I am one… Well, Let me be evil, to quote Shakespeare.” What do we do if we are required to function despite this deficits? How do you win at a game that is rigged against you?

The answer is the most obvious one: don’t play. But it’s also one of the hardest answers, emotionally. America likes to play this game of treating men as though they are lone wolves with no need of companionship — men who can survive on a minimum of emotional spoons. And it’s just not true. A lot of single men are lonely. Loneliness is an undeniable undercurrent in incel theory and everything that revolves around it; it’s also a motivating factor in a great deal of gun violence. And if the answer to your loneliness is to not resolve it, then that’s all well and good, but then how the hell do you stop being lonely?

The answer, believe it or not, lies in a number of other platitudes. And here’s where we’re going to start the self-help section of the article, one which I hope will bring some guidance and enlightenment to the people out there.

First off: there’s that weird thing about how a person who is in a successful and happy relationship gets asked out more frequently than someone who is single. If we treat this wildly illogical tenet as being true — which we should, because it is — then we immediately have to answer the question of how it could possibly make sense. Does getting into a relationship somehow cause you to mutate in a way that results in physical attractiveness? How could that even be so?, given how standards of physical attractiveness vary from person to person. No, it’s probably not physiological. Is it somehow spiritual?

And the answer is, Yes. A person who is in a relationship is more spiritually attractive because they have learned to let go.

Let’s be honest: when you’re single, you don’t want to be. We spend a lot of time, effort, money and brain power on the question of finding someone to be double with. It’s like you’re rushing the wrong way through a crowd, trying desperately to get to where you want to be — going against the flow of life, a boat against the current. Or, another analogy is, the music has started, and everyone is dancing, but your partner is all the way across the room, and you gotta get there fast. When you’re in a relationship, you’re not doing this. You’re in your partner’s arms, you found the place you want to be, you’ve arrived. There is a place for you in the great dance of life, and you are in it. You are no longer trying to shape the world to your will — at least, not in this particular way — and now are just… Existing.

Different religions have different names for this state: peace, Nirvana, enlightenment, Zen. But almost every religion wants you to achieve it. And the truth is… It’s attractive. We see people who have achieved it and we say to ourselves, “I want that in my life. I need them to teach me. I want to be what they are.” And they’re also attractive, because they feel good about being themselves, and so you ask them out. Which, of course, doesn’t go anywhere, because they are already dating someone. But hey, you tried.

So. If this kind of contentment is the best way to be attractive to the desired gender, then obviously you should try to achieve it. But it can’t be done if you’re not in a relationship? Where does that leave us?

The answer is that it can be done outside a relationship. You don’t have to be dating someone to achieve this state of contentment. It’s easier, sure, but not impossible. You can be at peace with yourself and with the world even if you are single.

You know all those people who tell you that you’ll never be loved unless you learn to love yourself? They are wrong — or, more accurately, they are misrepresenting the case. You don’t need to love yourself, but it is much easier if you are content with yourself. (Which, on the surface, looks like loving yourself, so I suppose we can forgive these people for not understanding what they’re seeing.)

So how do we become content with ourselves? We let go.

First off, you get out of the dating market. It’s not that you have consigned yourself to a life of misery and loneliness; rather, you have accepted that being in the meat market is simply not the best use of your time and efforts right now. You could keep beating your head against this wall or you could work on some other low-hanging fruit. It’s a pretty easy choice, wouldn’t you say?

The simple fact is that people can tell when you’re lonely and desperate. It’s not good optics, but it’s also a look we can’t escape… Because we don’t have the spoons for it. But when you’re lonely and desperate and still looking for a relationship, other people interpret this — correctly, I might add — as an attempt to solve your problems by stealing spoons from other people. This causes those people to avoid you, for what I hope are obvious reasons. And so, if you are such a person, trying to get more spoons through a relationship probably won’t work. You have to find them elsewhere. So let’s find them elsewhere.

Second, take time for you. Stop putting off all those things you’ve always wanted to do. Want to learn a new hobby? It’s time. I want to change jobs? No reason not to. Maybe it’s time to hit the gym. Are your old friends holding you back? Well, you could make new ones. This is especially true if that new hobby of yours lets you socialize with a bunch of strangers — a book club, a dodgeball league, a martial art, a musical ensemble. Do things for you. You only get one life, so you might as well spend it on things you enjoy, right?

And third and most importantly, keep busy. Do enough of these things that you aren’t really thinking about being single anymore. You don’t have time! Besides, who cares? You could be wasting your money and nights On A procession of boring people whose primary interest is either your purse or your pussy… Or you could be doing these cool things that you actually care about. You could be looking for happiness in someone else or you could be finding it inside yourself. The choice is obvious, isn’t it?

And then you spend enough time doing this not one day you wake up and look at yourself in the mirror and realize… “You know what? I’m pretty freaking cool. I mean, sure, I have flaws, but I also have some strengths too. I have a great job where people respect and appreciate me, I have these neat new hobbies, I have some friends I want to stick by, and I’m doing well for myself. And sure, I’m lonely, but it doesn’t matter as much anymore. I want to find a partner, but I don’t need to find a partner. Because I… Well, I love myself. Or, at least, I’m content with myself. I’ve embraced my strengths and made peace with my flaws. I am happy to be me.”

And that’s where we get to the last of those old platitudes: the one that says, “The easiest way to find love is to stop looking and let it find you.”

And it’s all because you have enough spoons. Not just enough spoons: an abundance of spoons. Enough to handle whatever comes your way, with some leftover for the additional crisis. You’re thriving in the place where you are. And that’s attractive. And when you meet the right person, he or she will also have an abundance of spoons, and the two of you together can take on anything.

But all of this starts with self-awareness. All of this starts with an understanding: “I’m not ready to date. Perhaps more accurately, I’m not ready to be dated. And it doesn’t matter how lonely or desperate I feel. Because sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.” (Screw Uncle Ben, Aunt May was the true oracle of our age.) There’s nothing wrong with not being ready. But if you aren’t ready, there is something wrong with denying it.

And the truth is that a lot of American men aren’t ready. The starvation diet of emotional spoons encouraged by our culture is antithetical to anything like a healthy relationship. Part of becoming a man who is ready to date is stepping back from American lies about how a real man shows no emotion at all except anger when he’s killing people with his gun. Part of being ready to date is accepting that Western culture is wrong about what it even means to be a real man. In Western culture, real men are scared: of women, of feminists, of foreigners, of robbers, of murderers, of drugs, of video games, of progress, of discomfort. And is that really how we want to live? Do we really want to be scared of everything when instead we could be… Brave?

Because if fear is your choice, incels are just over there.

We don’t have the right to live in a world that satisfies our moral sensibilities. We DO, however, get to CREATE one. Here’s how we do it.