Armour is essential in life; nobody walks outside the door without armour—and some people never take their armour off, even in the home. Since we must wear armour, a question that confronts us is how to construct that armour; and, for many people, their armour is constructed without any conscious thought—arguably it is less armour in the martial sense and more callouses or scabs from repeated blows to the psyche. In the end, a person’s character can be a monument to every place they have been hit; and perhaps by their life’s end they are left with a few micromillimetres that are soft and tender and can still feel.
A South African girl told me how her mother and stepfather went back home for a visit, only to be robbed in their hotel. The thieves tied them up and one took his knife and moved it between the mother’s legs; it never broke skin, but the implication—that he might rape her to death with the knife—was clear. As to armour, South Africa is a country where a person requires not just the psychic armour that everyone carries but, in all likelihood, literal body armour—perhaps a few firearms and a panic room as well. And it is this society that produced Oscar Pistorius.
Pistorius was initially known as a character of the sort found in rainy Sunday sentimental movies about brave little boys who overcome grave disadvantages to become winners. He was born without legs—being left mere stumps at about knee height—and yet, thanks to extraordinary diligence and persistence, he managed to become a remarkable athlete. Dubbed “the blade runner” thanks to his ski-like prosthetic legs, Pistorius dominated meet after meet on the disabled athletics circuit—so complete was his performance that eventually he demanded to be allowed to compete in the normal leagues. He was the type that people generally tend to give an affirmative nod towards and say, “His achievement is an inspiration to us all.”
Yet today Pistorius is best-known for murder; he murdered his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp—trapped her in a bathroom and then fired shot after shot into the door (being South Africa, he was diligently armed). His defence was that he thought there were burglars in the house; in the confusion, after he grabbed his gun, he shot Steenkamp by mistake—he assumed, so he claimed, that an intruder had locked themselves in the bathroom. The whole incident—save the trial outcome, Pistorius was found guilty—recalls OJ Simpson; the two men were both, as people used to say, “role models” whose success was meant to demonstrate that their respective societies had transcended certain divisions about the human body, and yet both men managed to somehow blot all they achieved out in domestic murder.
The ancients and medievals held that the deformed had been cursed—possibly for some abominable act committed by their ancestors or parents. In the old story about the 300 Spartans at the “Hot Gates” betrayal comes from the lone deformed soldier among them; there is an intimation that 300 whole men could have faced down the hordes of Persia indefinitely—if they were not betrayed by one deformed man. “But this is a shocking, shocking thing to say. Frightfully illiberal!” Indeed; such a view disturbs the Hallmark moment where the little moppet overcomes the deformities he was born with and goes on to live happily ever after with his blonde princess. In the ancient Greek version, an old soothsayer wanders up to the parents and say, “It is an abomination. If there is to be harmony in the polis—and to appease the ancestors—it must be destroyed.” And, indeed, the Spartan way was to leave all babes in the wood soon after birth; nature would see that only the robust survived.
The Pistorius story also has a certain relation to the question over whether transsexual athletes should be permitted to compete against their adopted sex. As with Pistorius, they have been technologically altered to allow them to compete in ways that were impossible before; and, as with Pistorius and his blades, there is some question as to whether this technology gives them an unfair advantage. The story is the same: I was born with this disability—born in the wrong body; born without legs—and I have used determination and technology to overcome that difficulty; now I must be classed with everyone else. The same applies to OJ; with him the question was racial—could he overcome the colour bar in American sports and transcend stereotypes about black men?
At present, you hear two recommendations as to how people should live their lives: the dominant narrative—somewhat associated with the liberal progressives, yet not intrinsically so—says that the way to navigate life is to “just be yourself” and “accept yourself” (perhaps practice “self-care”, too). The other, somewhat more marginal, voice—a voice that could be called “conservative” in the broadest sense—says that life is a struggle and that you must constantly push to improve yourself. I think the dichotomy is somewhat false; and Pistorius shows why this is so, for Pistorius was certainly a man who strove to build himself up—to set challenges and overcome them—and yet it in his effort to “be all he could be” and “push himself” he ended in a bloody mess on a bathroom floor; and, indeed, I think his ugliness—his refusal to accept responsibility and tendency towards crocodile tears in interviews—relates to the way his competitive armour was built up.
Broadly, as is fairly usual in political discussions, the first option—to “accept yourself”—maps on to the metaphysically feminine. Women struggle to accept themselves because women have a very weak sense of self; they look to others to provide that stability. Really, they look to a husband or father to be, as the old saying goes, “their rock” to give them a point to which to orientate themselves. Without the pole star, they tend to need bland affirmations to “accept yourself” or “just be yourself”; these affirmations help to keep female anxiety under control. In its perverse aspect, propaganda slogans about “just being yourself” slide into “you do you” or “you only live once” (“YOLO, honey”); and in these cases the admonition is to give into every desire or fancy—usually to buy an experience on credit.
Hence conservatives, playing the masculine part, express disdain for these slogans. “What you need, young man, is a challenge and suffering and struggle. A real man doesn’t think about himself; he thinks about his family and his duties. This isn’t about you. No pain, no gain. You have to build yourself up.” Women are valued for their body, when it comes down to it; they just have to “be”. Men are valued for their contribution, not for their existence—sperm is cheap and eggs are expensive, as they say. So these clichés have a basic truth to them; and yet Oscar Pistorius—a man who did everything “right” by conservative standards—turned out to be a fairly vile specimen. Indeed, I suspect that his perversity springs, in part, from the view I have just characterised as “conservative”.
Now, as already mentioned, what is perverse in Pistorius may stem from his wider deformity. Mutation often influences more than just the physical body; it can warp the mind as well—perhaps the forces that deformed his legs also gave him a hair-trigger temper, of the sort that leads to murder. After all, Stalin had webbed feet; he was smarter than his impoverished father, but whatever curious twists in the genome that made him smarter than his ancestors also made him a mutant—a spiteful mutant, as Edward Dutton would have it—in other ways besides. Taken all this as a given, Pistorius still cultivated a particular armour in line with conservative expectations; he did what I have described elsewhere: he built the armour inwards towards the centre, rather than from the centre outwards; and this accounts for his narcissistic position—his narcissistic rages.
The wet liberal who talks about “just being yourself” or “accepting yourself” often uses this as a tactic to escape responsibility or to introduce perversity into a system through chaotic novelty. “No, no, don’t listen to your parents, just be yourself.” I am pretty sure, as I have observed before, that the formulation “just be yourself” is bastardised Nietzsche; it is “become what you are”—and do what it takes to do so whatever society says; it is very close to the old Delphic injunction, “Know yourself”. Nietzsche is as much an inspiration for the left as for the right, particularly in his aspect as a destroyer. “You can’t just go around being yourself; you’ve got to get on and conform!” “No, I am a law unto myself; I am my own law—you are all deluded by mass madness.” In practical terms, older people like to say “just be yourself” because it allows them to wash their hands if something goes wrong. Concrete advice to a young person—“A legal career is what you need.”—could backfire if it all goes wrong, whereas “just be yourself” is vague enough that the advice-giver cannot be blamed if everything goes wrong. Generally, it is a bad idea to give advice, but some people—especially young people—will ask for it, so it is always useful to have bland pleasantries to hand.
The problem with the opposite approach is that it is entirely outer-directed: it is concerned, in conservative fashion, with what other people think. “Your value as a man is judged by your position in a hierarchy; you must form yourself into a certain to shape to climb that hierarchy—and this means you cannot be yourself. This will involve sacrifices. If men are unhappy it is because they have not climbed the hierarchy sufficiently.” The problem with this view is that, taken alone, it is a recipe for narcissism, because it tells a person to value themselves purely with regards to how society sees them; and it tells them to use effort and hard work to form an armour that the society will admire and endorse.
The first responsibility a person has is to themselves, not society; and especially not to society today, since, in large part, what we call society is either perverted or in dissolution—with disagreement as to even very basic commonly held norms. Margaret Thatcher once claimed that there is no such thing as society, just individuals and families. I would not go that far, but in the contemporary world it is more true than not; certainly, at root the word “society” derives from a group of people who follow a common leader (probably a king or tribal elder)—and in that sense there are no societies in the West; or, arguably, there are many small societies with very local leaders that do not agree with each other as to what is the norm.
In the worst case scenario, the notion that a person should climb a hierarchy to make themselves feel valued creates a man like Pistorius. In no way can you fault his determination to win, his discipline, nor his ambition; yet he was, at the same time, a thin-skinned person who was ultimately liable to fly into a rage and kill his girlfriend (in fact, he had attacked a few other people before this incident). Paradoxically, the masculine path where men are exhorted to discipline, duty, and sacrifice can turn into, in a perverted form, a very feminine condition—narcissism. It devolves into “keeping up with the Joneses”; and this can lead to fairly acute emptiness, since what we think other people think is respectable is actually very fungible and uncertain—especially in the contemporary West. Personally, I frequently find that ideas or expectations that I held to be general or common are non-existent, even among people very like me. What I assumed to be a norm is nothing to them at all; and this is a great risk when someone pins themselves to what amounts to conformity—not to mention the fact that it places the locus of control outside a person, with society and not with the individual.
Pistorius refuses to take responsibility for his actions because he thinks he can work harder—work with more discipline—through his troubles; hence he gives ridiculous interviews where he transparently lies, even though nobody believes him. “Push through, more effort! It’s good to suffer!” Yet it would have been far more rational to immediately confess to his crime; doubtless it would feel better than to continue the façade that it was all a hideous accident—and in purely rational terms it would have shortened his sentence, not to mention have been more merciful to Steenkamp’s family. Instead, we get more effort, more armour, and more “try” from Pistorius; he even likes to play on his stumps, on the idea he felt terribly afraid when he supposedly thought he had been burglarised and so shot through terror. If he had confessed from the first it might then have been acceptable to use his stumps in mitigation; as the situation currently stands it is very unmanly.
When the hippies said, “This society is soulless, man. You’re all automatons and robots!” they were actually right; except that most were not sincere and just wanted an excuse to engage in robotic and phoney behaviour in another mode—and this really was the decadence the contemporary conservatives castigated them for. What Jung called the Self (the soul), the inner observer that takes in our perceived reality, is actually the first thing we should be responsible to; it is only in this way that we can achieve integrity—a condition that Pistorius, for all his effort and discipline, sorely lacks. Ultimately, he has even worked against himself; he washed all his achievements away in blood and still cannot drop his pride and his armoured veneer enough to admit he is a murderer—even though to do so would rationally increase his chance at freedom.
But this is not about reason; it is about what is prior to reason but is not irrational—as many hippies and Rousseau fans thought. It is not, “I rather fancy chocolate ice cream seven days a week.” This is the great confusion; for conservatives sneer at this “irrational” and sentimental talk about souls or inner observers—or actually purposively twist “Self” meant as “soul” to mean “selfish”. “Oh, so you’re advocating selfishness are you?” Reasonably, they suspect that it is a pretext for something else; and I think sometimes it is, as in the case of the hippies—and that sometimes it is misunderstood by the people who talk about it.
However, the Self is not contrary to the idea that people should work hard or climb hierarchies; it is instead the first step from which to direct that work—in other words, it is to work with integrity. It is not, for example, to work in a very hard and disciplined manner to demonstrate to a notional outside observer that, despite being without your legs, you are basically “normal” and can achieve. When I look at men like Pistorius I cannot but think there may have been a point where he thought, “I have no interest in this, it isn’t for me,” and then pushed on, an act many would congratulate him for; and yet he would have damaged himself and others less if he had adhered to a genuine path that did not create an armour—the armour of success—that ultimately could not satisfy, hence the narcissistic rage in which he killed his girlfriend.
Now, if you work outward in the way you create your armour then it is almost inevitable—especially if you live in a perverted system—that you will come into conflict with what seems sensible to many people; indeed, you may well be driven to the margins. You may work hard for very little reward—again this is somewhat a cliché—and yet there is a sense in which the work is not effort, not in the sense it is when you push yourself to it for rational reasons. Ultimately, if you follow the rational path you may well create an armour that is detached from reality as you perceive it; and so in many cases today people are very rational but not very perceptive. Pistorius certainly has a rational story he has worked out, though it would not fool a perceptive ten-year-old for a moment; and he thinks that he is going to impose his narrative on reality with discipline and reason, but this will fail: reality transcends reason.
The only way to achieve a healthy hierarchy and society is to have it peopled with men who have integrity. Discipline, hard work, duty, and hierarchy will all be for nothing—or will ultimately be in tension with reality—if the focal point is not integrity, if it is not loyalty to perceived reality; perceived reality is not rational—contemporary conservatives are obsessed with “reason” versus “postmodernism”—nor is it irrational; it just is. It is possible to be contradictory yet still have integrity, for your loyalty is to what you perceive; since what you perceive is dynamic, you must allow yourself to move with it. Nihilism is true: belief is a trap; it is the effort to make reality conform to a particular narrative that leads to delusion—even if it is underpinned with excellent reasons and evidence. I mean here philosophical nihilism, not the common usage that suggests pointless destruction and the wearing of black leather jackets and a generally melancholy disposition.
In this sense, people should “be themselves” and if they encounter other people who do not perceive reality as they do and the perception is irreconcilable then they should disengage with them and find other people who perceive reality the way they do; if their perception is skewed one or other party will sooner or later be killed, or forced to give way to the denied aspect of reality their perception has finally encountered. The therapist—often mocked by rightists who cultivate a “masculine” persona—who says, “That’s your perception of reality,” is precisely on point. Various people—from psychiatrists to teachers to bosses—who say, “Oh, I don’t think it’s like that,” when you express your observations are usually playing you; and that is because they live by lies, justifications, and moralisations themselves. Integrity precedes morality and is superior to it; and this is what makes integrity awesome and terrifying—the most integral men being those who make no compromises with what they perceive.
In the end, all you have to rely on is the inner light of consciousness and you should be loyal to that against parents, patrolmen, and the state—anyone you encounter. Obviously, you may well be punished for that, but this is not the disastrous fate that awaits men like Oscar Pistorius who sit in their cells and try to work out how they can get their “story straight”, how to enforce their narrative on reality with reason and justifications.