Opting Out

I’ve recently started opting out of airport full body scans, and it’s pretty satisfying.

More generally, I think opting out itself is something that we all ought to make a regular practice.

To understand why, let’s talk about Aristotle for a sec.

Yep, it’s time to dust off my ol’ Philosophy degree and put that expensive B.A. to work.

Note, I’m not going to be citing anything in this post. If you think I’m badly wrong, I’ll try to dig up some passages for you. Feel free to correct me or call out my ramblings for shaky academic integrity by sending me an email.

In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle considers what a well lived life consists in. His conclusion roughly stated is that it will be one in which a person consistently exercises their rational capacities in accordance with virtue (aka excellence).

I know what you may be thinking: Why that rather than a life maximally saturated with chocolate? Well, reason is what makes us distinctly human–it separates us from the cattle. A good life, therefore, could not just be all about ice cream and sexy parties. (Some of you are disappointed at this. Sometimes I am too. Not least because I have rather little of both of those things…)

Among those virtues are character virtues: the disposition to act in the proper way in a given circumstance. These dispositions are intermediate points between two extremes, like cowardice and foolhardiness.

But these virtues require repeated practice, only truly acquired once they’ve become habit. (A brave man is one who has had to face danger many times.)

Aristotle’s account is somewhat different from what the common understanding seems to be, and I think it’s better.

Imagine one night you go to a nice restaurant. After you’re seated a basket of bread is placed on your table–a sliced baguette, still warm from the oven. But you’re all paleo this week so you’re not eating grains. But man…that bread. It’s tempting, you want the bread, but you decline.

I think the proverbial man on the street would say that such self control is virtuous–good on you, paleo guy!

Aristotle would give you a B- in the virtue department. Sorry, you’re only ‘continent’ (keeping your virtue shit together), not virtuous. The truly virtuous person, having decided that bread was out for the week, would not feel the craving in the first place.

How that person feels in the moment is subordinated to her rational faculties. The virtuous person feels a desire for the bread when she has decided it’s OK to eat the bread.

It’s important to note that one becomes virtuous over time by repeatedly declining the bread (or making similar such decisions) despite one’s feelings. Restraint itself is not a virtue per se, but a skill needed for acquiring virtue.

OK, so far so philosophical. What’s that got to do with the TSA?

Well, insofar as virtue (excellence) is a determinant in a life well lived, we should probably start practicing.

Society has a tilt to it–it’s warped–and I think it bends away from virtue and genuine happiness. It says to do whatever you want as long as you’re satisfying your authentic self’s desires, while in other cases it sets before you completely silly and arbitrary rules. (E.g. wait one day before calling or texting a romantic interest for the first time. That’s stupid. Be keen!) Sometimes those desires or rules are bad for you or those around you.

Opting out makes you more aware of what those cases are. Taking an opportunity to opt out helps you be comfortable with the discomfort that attends going against the current. It becomes more natural to stand up for something. Maybe it’s the courage to confront corruption, small or large. Or pursue a healthy diet without manic periods of binging and austerity. Or the willingness, even the eagerness, to put off Saturday morning brunch to work at a soup kitchen. Maybe it’s leaving your friends’/co-workers’ lunch table to go talk to that kinda weird guy who probably needs a buddy.

Maybe it’s staying in one Friday night to finally write that blog post you were thinking about.

In sum: justice, innovation, friendship, and all that other good stuff takes a measure of resistance to bullshit. And that takes practice.

There are certainly pragmatic reasons to opt out of TSA body scans: (i) they may be unhealthy, (ii) they’re not terribly effective, (iii) they’re an affront to the liberty and dignity of a free people (iv) pat-downs are basically free massages.

But they are also a great way to make sure you’re able to say ‘no’ to something when the world is looking at you sideways.


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