Saturday, October 19, 2013

To be Right, or to be Happy?

Or is that a wrong question?

There are arguments about facts, and there are arguments about opinions.

I consider that in an argument about a fact, to be right is important.  If a friend or a family member gets upset at discovering that he or she was wrong about a fact, then they need to grow up.  You don't need to be placate them by saying that they are right, but calling them an ignorant fool might also not be a great idea.  A little subtlety or diplomacy or offering some face-saving shows that while you care about the fact, you also care about how they feel.  Nobody likes to be proven wrong, and this simple realization can help those who are better informed become better informers.

However, if it is a matter of opinion, then the situation is far more complex.

The best course in my opinion, if you care about the other person, is to find out the reasons for their opinion.  Once the factors leading to that opinion are exposed, it is easier to admit that the opinion was a force majeure.  That is to say, that the person had no other choice but to hold that opinion.  Of course the involuntari-ness of the opinion was true in any case.  After all, the other person is, indisputably, holding an opinion because of some factors.   But because one holds a particular opinion, it is hard to even admit the validity or existence of a conflicting one.

Unless the other person is a habitual devil's advocate, their opinions are involuntary.  They don't really have a choice about it.

And once a conflicting opinion is understood to be involuntary, what's the point in raging against it?

In some cases, an almost universally acclaimed phenomenon (say, sunrise, or a super-hit film) can be disliked by someone who does not understand it, or who is impervious to its appeal, or whose level of aesthetic evolution is much above or below the average.  In such cases as well, trying to convince the other about the appeal of the phenomenon will not work.  Opinions, for the vast majority of humankind, are based on feelings.  And as most of us know, feelings cannot be easily transformed by argument.

No opinion is unfounded or comes out of a vacuum.  It is usually shaped by someone's experience, tastes, preferences or their mood at the time.  To disagree with the opinion might therefore be taken as an affront.  While a mature person will be able to take a difference of opinion in one's stride, an insecure one will consider any dissent as an insult.  A mature person will understand that levels of appreciation can differ, while an immature person will want to force others to conform to his/her own aesthetic opinions.

In many new-age communication paradigms, such as General Semantics or Nonviolent Communication, it is advised that one convey one's opinions to be subjective.

For example:

Instead of saying "What a lovely film", say, "I find it such a lovely film."
Instead of saying "This policy will never work,", say "I am afraid this policy will never work."
Instead of saying "She is horrible", say "I find it horrible to interact with her."
Instead of claiming "He is a good friend", say "I find him to be a good friend."

The point of these alternative ways of  voicing an opinion is that then one is not proclaiming that one's opinion is the only opinion possible.  One is not stating an opinion disguised as an objective fact.  By using subjective phrases, one makes it clear that this is how it seems to oneself and it is alright if the others' experiences differ.  It is to give the other space in a conversation.  By saying something objectively ("What a horrible person."), we invite a harsh argument if the other person's experience differs from us.  However, by saying "The way she has interacted with me has left a bad taste in my mouth" we are not proclaiming a universal truth about how "she" is with everybody else.

The paradigms go much further and advise one to be subjective even about facts such as color or shape of things (for example, instead of saying "That is a red box", "That box appears red to me, at present, from this angle, in this lighting.  And it appears to be a box to me, by the way."), but I consider that taking things too far.

Though to be fair, I have seen ladies in a department store argue over whether a dress is pink or red.  They liked the dress, they just disagreed which color it was.  So maybe one ought to put in subjective disclaimers in every sentence and only then everybody will be right.


But a good starting point is to claim subjectivity about one's aesthetic opinions.  Not only does it sound less threatening to a Scorsese-fan to hear "I didn't really like Taxi Driver, maybe I need to see it again to understand what the hype is all about," it might even be true.  One might discover on a re-view that there were things that one didn't appreciate at first.  Sometimes, reading about a work of art can help in its appreciation.  Especially in modern art, context is everything.  Without knowing the context of a toilet bowl placed in the middle of a museum room, it will just seem like a stunt.  (Again to be fair, sometimes modern art exhibits are stunts.)  Moreover, some things, like black coffee or milk tea, might just be acquired tastes.

As they say, Mulla Nasrudin came home drunk one night and as usual, his wife started screaming at him for spending all his money on drink.  He took out the half-empty bottle from his coat pocket and offered a sip to his wife.  She strongly resisted but he asked her to just taste it.  "It tastes horrible", she said.  Nasrudin exclaimed in glee: "See now? And you think I have fun getting drunk."

Jokes aside, it is possible to point out a factual wrong, to have different opinions, and still to have happiness and harmony in one's relationships.  A little sensitivity goes a long way, and while there may be bigger joys, the joy of being understood and affirmed is no small one.  We are all vulnerable, to varying degrees, about our opinions and knowledge.  When we are assured that the other person cares about our vulnerability as well as the matter under discussion, the relationships will become stronger, maturer and ... better-informed.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Philosopher's Life

There will always be people who can run faster than is necessary to survive, who can lift weights heavier than what daily life requires, who are prodigies, who are geniuses, who possess a skill or a feature far beyond what existence demands.

Dexterity or skill in a particular domain does not, in general, lead to harmful consequences.  However, I claim that a vastly superior intellectual capacity poses risks of existential crises which a normal intellect does not.

As Peter Zapffe wrote in his iconic essay "The Last Messiah"
But as he stands before imminent death, he grasps its nature also, and the cosmic import of the step to come. His creative imagination constructs new, fearful prospects behind the curtain of death, and he sees that even there is no sanctuary found. And now he can discern the outline of his biologicocosmic terms: He is the universe’s helpless captive, kept to fall into nameless possibilities.
From this moment on, he is in a state of relentless panic.
Such a ‘feeling of cosmic panic’ is pivotal to every human mind. Indeed, the race appears destined to perish in so far as any effective preservation and continuation of life is ruled out when all of the individual’s attention and energy goes to endure, or relay, the catastrophic high tension within.
The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by overevolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment.
In depressive states, the mind may be seen in the image of such an antler, in all its fantastic splendour pinning its bearer to the ground.
As soon as the human mind develops the capacity to think beyond a few years - and that capacity has been there in humanity for many thousands of years now, if not more - the mind needs a narrative to endure the daily ennui, tedium and tension. This narrative must win over the mind for it to be effective. It shouldn't just be a belief, or even a passion. It has to go much deeper, and become a part of one's being. It must be the very air one breathes, the very marrow of one's bone, the very core of one's gut.

Narratives of family, of honor, of tribe, of religion, of tradition, of serving, of patriotism, were enough at a time when exposure to counter-narratives was limited. The narratives were easy to imbibe because there was little in the environment to thwart or question them.  And there was little leisure to indulge in idle intellection anyway.

Not any more.

Today, any individual with an above-average intellect will not find it overly hard to laugh at these narratives. It is easy, fashionable, and quite correct, to see religion or nationalism or chivalry as of appeal only to conservative, limited, ignorant minds. The world has moved on, we say, and we ridicule those who persist in living in the past.

But if the ignorant and their faith are ridiculed, the laughter of the wise is not devoid of its own kind of punishment. Cynicism and self-absorption, which increasingly are the default positions of a modern intellectual, may offer sarcastic and witty entertainment at a gathering, but offers no nourishment to one's being.

The modern intellectual is an individual starved from the inside. He has the ability to impress, but his inner hollowness scares him more than he would care to admit.

Because the intellectual can think farther than a mere brute or a village idiot, he therefore needs a stronger narrative to sustain his being. But where are those narratives? If he is to create his own narrative, that only lasts so long. He will inevitably deconstruct and shred his own beliefs and senses of meaning. He cannot help but analyze. And given enough leisure and access to counter viewpoints, nothing survives the glare.

The intellectual understands that ignorance is bliss, but he lives a false life if he remains content with ignorance. His being yearns for intellection, cannot live without it, and can thereby be called ... suicidal.

A true philosopher, like Sisyphus, must grapple with life and suicide every day.

Philosophers must of necessity be depressed. Otherwise, they are still believers.

It is not impossible to live a depressed life till one dies of natural causes, but the sooner a philosopher understands the implications of his chosen vocation, the easier it is to endure. 

A philosopher's life offers many pleasures: one can laugh at miseries which others would find soul-shattering, one can understand the vagaries of love and longing, one can unveil mysteries of human nature that confuse lesser minds, one can refuse to be swayed and exploited by appeals to instinct or emotion, ...

But what it does not offer is immersion in a narrative. And that is something worth reflecting on.

Friday, October 04, 2013

The "Image"

Advertising creates dissatisfaction.  If one can afford what is being advertised, then one will want to spend some money and experience the joy that the advertisement is promising.  If not, there will be resentment that there is a kind of joy in the world which one is unable to experience.

Similarly, watching mass-market entertainment is a kind of brainwashing which makes us want to imitate what is being shown on the screen.  We see how certain characters are liked and loved, what they do, how they dress, how they talk.  Since we want to be liked and loved too, we want to imitate them.

Media is a way for us to be bombarded with fake images and crafted stories.  The stories are crafted skilfully, that we trust the narrative completely.  It is not easy for a normal person to enjoy a TV show or a movie and at the same time, know that it is all fiction and to defend oneself against the various subtle cues and influences.

Mass-market entertainment and advertising is to show us an alternate reality in which we are happy and loved and are powerful.  Since for most people, the reality is that they are always feeling somewhat less than happy, somewhat unloved, and somewhat helpless, the TV and movies show them that it is indeed possible to change the situation, only if they:

a) Have a good car, or a great gadget
b) Have a relationship with an attractive person
c) Dress fashionably
d) Talk in a constantly witty and sarcastic way
e) Have an athletic body which looks good “on the beach”
f) Have a chic house
g) Travel to nice resorts
h) Eat or drink something specific
i) ...

You get the idea.

All of these changes are about spending money, consumption, or impressing others.

Looking at ads and movies as a way of cultural education is dangerous.  It hardens the idea that “image” is all important.  That one must “brand” oneself, and that validation from others for superficial features (the car, the jacket, the hair color) is what brings real joy.

I am not denying that external validation is pleasurable.  I am arguing against an environment in which validation depends on “image” rather than on substance.

Manipulating how others perceive oneself is what life then becomes.  It is no wonder that such a life feels empty.

If one wins someone's love based on a calculated and cultivated image of oneself, then I claim that this love will feel fake.  A manipulated emotion can never replace a sincere one.  Moreover, there will be a tension between keeping the love alive through the image-projection, and wanting the "real" love which is directed at the real "me".  The lover will be hated for being vulnerable to manipulation even though it was oneself who subjected the lover to this manipulation.

We want love.  We trust the mass media to tell us how to become lovable.  We follow the instructions.  But neither do we achieve the love that our being needs, nor do we know why.  We try to follow the instructions more precisely, ever frantic to catch the nuance of what the TV show is telling us about relationships.

Never once suspecting that we've been played.  So badly played, in fact, that it is perhaps not possible to recover in a lifetime.

The Individual and the Society, part 1

One way of defining adolescence is the age when one does not understand the social contract.

The social sphere grades people with “reputation”.  In adolescence, one cares little for reputation.  Perhaps because one’s journey in life thus far, having been under the shelter of one’s parents, has been mostly independent of social judgment.  One hasn’t had to take up a job, one hasn’t had to take a large loan, one hasn’t had to negotiate a business agreement or a partnership, one hasn’t had to look for a spouse, and so on.

Life during adolescence, for most of the demographic which is reading this blog article, is happy-go-lucky.

It would be a grave error, and a grotesque prolonging of one’s adolescence, if one continues to regard with disdain the concept of “reputation” when one is expected to act as an adult.  One will not detect the consequences before it is too late.  Reputation is not something that can be rebuilt easily.

A man or a woman who behaves as if social morality and taboos are hogwash will be treated as hogs by the society.

Social morality sometimes is out of date, and cultural evolution certainly claims its martyrs.  My point is not that social morality must be upheld at all costs, but that to disregard it as of no concern will usually lead to consequences.  An adult rebel will consider the prevailing morality, and choose his actions carefully, evaluating the consequences.  An adult rebel will be cognizant of, and reconciled with, the fact that he/she may lose his reputation.

An adolescent, on the other hand, is merely oblivious to society.  An adolescent exists in a narcissistic bubble in which the adults and the society are either seen as villains who repress one’s freedom and autonomy, or as beings of no concern.

In a traditional society, reputation matters much more than in a modern one.  In a modern setting, morality is generally assumed to be a private matter, except when the society decides that it isn’t (ref the concept of a “sex offender registry” in many first world countries).  It is inconceivable that a woman in New York city would be refused a rental apartment because she has been married four times.

In a modern setting, people might think that reputation matters little because the society, in day to day life, does not exist anymore.  There is anonymity between apartment neighbors.  Nobody cares about you as long as you mind your own business.

But as soon as you expect others to trust you as a person, reputation in various forms enters the picture.  In the first world, one’s entire financial/credit history is immediately available.  A prospective employer looks at one’s job history and asks for references.  A prospective spouse would be curious about one’s past relationships and how they began and ended.  A bank would look at one’s finances before extending a loan.  And there is of course Google.

It is true that one can no longer count on neighborhood gossip to find out more about a person.  But since the need to have a basis of trust remains, other ways and institutions have now replaced the “word-of-mouth” narratives that exist in traditional societies.

There are many reasons why someone will proffer the advice of “F*&^ society, do your own thing”.  Almost always, the reasons will be found to be rooted in some psychopathology which blames the society for something wrong in one’s life and very rarely for doing something creative and constructive.  A disdain towards society is usually symptomatic of being bitter.

Think of someone who is popular (as opposed to being merely famous or a celebrity) and liked by other people, versus someone who is generally held as a bad example.  It will be usually found that the popular person did do many things right (and not just in a conformist way), and that the unpopular person did hurt other people (and not just as a constructive rebel).

There do exist examples of social boycotts, and worse, targeting people who expressed a heretical idea or chose to live in a way which challenged a despotic authority.  I think the reasons for a rebellion are important to consider if one is to stand in opposition to a society.  And that a rebellion must first comprehend the reasons for the prevailing norm.

Social approval opens doors to opportunities and lasting change, while a bad reputation and living-as-an-island makes other people apprehensive of one’s association.  To disregard this simple fact represents, to me, a defect in one’s journey to adulthood.