The Reactionary Mindset

“Reactionary” is one of those words that leads towards a certain amount of political heat. This article discusses it in a larger and more elemental context. I use “reactionary” here to describe thoughts and actions that are emotionally – perhaps reflexively – opposed to an initiating event.

In the political realm this can be a long process with a great deal of words and thought. In the day-to-day realms of the road and the office it can be brief or even unconscious. Whatever scale it occurs in, it is a response to the trampling of sacred ground, something tied to one’s space, self, or belonging.

It feels good. Boy does it feel good. Finally whipping ahead of that jerk in the fast lane, giving voice to that perfect comeback when they complain (again) about the coffee, or taking back that little piece of Europe that really belonged to you the whole time, being reactionary feels so very very good. It feeds those lizards and monkeys the psychologists say are lurking just out of sight in the back of our minds.

But it comes at a price.

The Price of Being Reactionary

Being reactive means that one’s self is defined by external factors. If he jumps, I duck. If he moves left, I move right. While the mind perceives this as fighting the good fight, this is an illusion; in reality I become a flailing accessory to the real actor, my opponent.

In the end I will be nothing more than a shadow complement to all the things I react against.

The natural human instinct to band together against opponents results in strong lines of communication between the members of the group that results. This results in feedback loops that reinforce certain ideas while drowning out others. The ideas that resonate will be ones that touch on strong emotions – anger, fear, superiority, schadenfreude – and are easy to transmit; in short, memes. Ideas that resonate less will be less transmitted and will fail to become central to the group consciousness.

Simple but meme-y ideas will have an advantage over fact-based but less resonant ones. This feeds the in-group social economy while drawing attention away from long-term real-world benefits.

Whether one reacts as an individual or as a member of a group, reactions become habitual and therefore thoughtless. When you find a reaction that gives you enough of an anger hit you will tend to return to it day after day.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having reactions to events. Used correctly and in their proper place they are helpful, even essential. If we had to think deeply about every event that ever happened we would all have been eaten a long time ago.

There are relatively few situations that always call for only one reaction. If we always react the same way, sooner or later it will be a mistake. It is difficult and rare enough for a man to scratch his head and evaluate himself. If he is part of a group that culturally reinforces the same set of reactions, how much more rarely will he step out and change when a new situation calls for it?

The man who spends his life responding to events with the same set of reactions will never strengthen the mental skills necessary for higher work. His reactions will be all he knows and the little culture to which he belongs will uphold that as a fine thing. He will vigorously defend himself against mental growth and reward himself for succeeding.

With the affirmation of his peers and the heady rush of his own success, how likely is he to grow beyond such low thinking? The borders in his mind will not be the result of thoughtful choice and deep reflection; they will be little more than the fault lines of whatever conflicts and dichotomies happen to surround him and he will wave his self-limitations as a triumph.

Treating Reactionary Thinking

There is a difference between having a response to a situation and being defined by that response.

The man who has a response is larger than the situation. The man who is defined by his response is smaller.

Neither man chooses to be large or small; it is simply who he is. Each believes himself justified in his position and actions. What a man becomes is determined largely by the choices he makes, and those choices are not independent of the values, beliefs, and perceptions he already has when he makes them.

None-the-less we can choose between differing paths of development as they are presented to us, and knowledge of final consequences can inform those choices. Of two men with the same character and values, the one seeing far and thinking deeply will often come to different conclusions than the one who plunges ahead with bold ignorance.

The difference is reflection.

Question: Do I derive value from engaging in conflict itself, or do I engage in it only when it is a necessary chore in the service of a larger goal?

Both victory and the comradeship of conflict provide reinforcing pleasure. If you serve no higher motive than that is all you are.

Question: Do I take meaningful time to sincerely learn on my own and to derive conclusions?

Peer groups do not only provide company, they provide input and reinforcement. The information and beliefs transmitted by your peer group will always be biased towards the social and emotional energy flows that hold the group together. Acquiring outside data is more difficult and often confusing.

Question: Am a willing to step away from the social structures that support me?

It is easy to say ‘yes,’ but if you have not yet done this you do not truly know who is in charge of your life.

The man who makes space and time for his deeper self will find it easier to avoid the reactive mindset because he trains himself to be regularly introspective and independent.

The man who inspects and prunes his relationships has better control over his life than the man who does not. A relationship is an open gate in the wall of your mind. Be careful who gets the keys and don’t be afraid to confiscate them based on bad behavior.