Do appearances trump substance?

Thus Spake Zarathustra
Thus Spake Zarathustra

One morning Zarathustra was after his usual fashion preaching in the village square when he was disturbed by a voice from a heckler from the back of the crowd announcing that they had a question. The prophet was always in two minds when this happened. It irked him considerably that such people disrupted his flow and prevented him from communicating his wisdom to the assembled hordes of thirsty pilgrims for whom he had so much love. But on the other hand the temptation of the opportunity to demonstrate the hypocrisy, false consciousness and downright bigotedness of those who sought to resist the onward march of his moral crusade was always difficult to resist. “What is your question?” was his reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Master,” the voice came back, “concerning living well and doing the right thing, is it your teaching that appearances trump substance?” Fortunately for the prophet, he had faced this line of questioning before and was therefore ready with his reply: “Your premise is invalid, sir, because an act of righteousness will always be seen to be such by righteous people.” At this point he could have picked up his sermon to the masses where he left off, but he could not resist the temptation to make an example of this impertinent individual showing so demonstrably unrighteous an attitude in front of so many righteous people who looked up to him, Zarathustra, for moral guidance.

“Of course,” he went on, “many there are who labour under a false consciousness of righteousness based on their upholding of bigoted conservative opinions and engaging in religious zealotry. But when they give public expression to their poisonous views they are invariably judged harshly in the court of public opinion.” To this the reply came back: “Indeed master, I know many such at the church in the next village who set out their stall on Sunday morning offering hot soup to the destitute, then pronouncing ‘God bless’ and inviting them to come to their worship service after with the further offer of tea and biscuits. Such people are surely tarantulas?”

The conversation at this point was not going in quite the direction the prophet had expected and he was suddenly stuck by a certain unease at the prospect that he was not as much in control of the situation as he had thought. He avoided answering the evidently rhetorical question at the end. This however turned out to be a mistake as it gave the opportunity for the person standing next to the original heckler to come in: “In my country, the court of public opinion would certainly judge such people harshly. They would surely all be rounded up and chased out of town, and not before a good beating had been administered.”

At this point a murmur went up among those in the crowd standing near to the second speaker and others started turning round to look. As Zarathustra gazed out across the crowd, he was surprised to see that the person attracting the attention was clothed entirely in black robes and wearing a burka. Not that the wearing of burkas was a problem for him as he was of course a great believer in the importance of diversity; rather his surprise was that the wearer of the burka spoke with a deep baritone voice.

“This fellow is an impostor” insisted one member of the crowd in a loud voice. “He is engaging in cultural appropriation in an attempt to discredit Islam and give expression to his Islamophobic prejudices.” At this, he looked to make his point by removing the burka and demonstrating that the wearer was indeed male. But he was prevented by the crowds and in the lull which ensued the burka wearer reprimanded him for his precipitate behaviour. “How dare you insult me in such terms, suggesting that transgender women are impostors engaging in cultural appropriation!”

At this juncture a real consternation broke out among the crowd, who were more divided than ever, some who had previously condemned now coming to the support of the burka wearer, while others remained sceptical. “A transgender Muslim? Is that even a thing?” asked one. Well that enraged the sympathisers considerably, who now accused their antagonists of hate speech and deliberate misgendering by classifying transgender people as “things”.

The discomfited Zarathustra looked on in dismay. His attempt to demonstrate the consistency and clarity of his moral critique of the reactionary defenders of privilege and bigotry had resulted in quite the opposite of what he had intended. And his assertion that acts of righteousness would be seen as such by righteous people had had the result that half of his audience now stood condemned as unrighteous and, what was worse, he could not himself decide which half. At this point he decided to make the best of a bad situation and slipped off to the pub for an early lunch.

Disclaimer: references to Zarathustra in the above are an allusion to the eponymous protagonist of Friedrich Nietzche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and not to the Iranian religious reformer and prophet, traditionally regarded as the founder of Zoroastrianism.

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By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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