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Beyond the Raging Darkness

Mar 09, 2011

"I once read a poem. It was wonderful."

-- Naru Al-Jidr, Soweto

"I don't like that guy, he's not my kind of guy"; "you will never convince me ... differently."

-- Jason Kay with A.J. Pitt, discussing Jean-Luc Seulon

"Few are the words that have the power to slice through the fog of insanity which clouds the mind ..."

-- Steve Gerber

As I've touched on in previous blogs, it's become morbidly apparent to me that the things I seek to discuss, topics like personal responsibility and politics, are nigh untouchable, because these topics stray beyond the arid funk of bargains, job titles, rising-tides-and-boats, and other modes of self-adulating darkness. With respect to these topics, confusion and rage come to the foreground when I claim: we must always work to investigate ideas, and try to understand the people who promulgate them. Ideas and people are of course intimately connected, and herein lies a demarcation problem.

This demarcation problem arises when questions peer beyond the margins of the standard script, and when those with margin-bound identities misinterpret non-standard questions for the ridicule of their person. Such misinterpretations are built in to the standard script, for popular sociopolitical practice prides itself not on investigation or humility, but on engendering popularity by pouring honeyed-speech blindly in all directions, at all times, in all situations. For this and no better reason, I often find I've run aground on the barren shores of popular consensus and conversational decorum, which dictate that all non-honeyed speech go to Gehenna; "the consensus is presumably shared, but any dialectic to test this assumption is in bad form."

Despite the dialectics of bad form and the dictates of cupiditas however, and irrespective of the consensus or how we define conversational etiquette: I aspire to remain willing and eager to talk, about any subject. I do my best to not stop a discussion, unless my interlocutor's ability to talk respectfully is so impaired they can naught but spout spiteful vagaries, whether calmly or otherwise. We all have limits. But still, even while approaching an absolute exchange of naught but spiteful vagaries, I seek to continue reasonable discussion so long as possible, while trying to find some way to ground the discussion in defensible ideas.

To this end, I believe one of the most significant things any person can achieve is to respectfully, seriously, and, dare I hope, enthusiastically consider the ideas of others. By the adjective "respectfully," I mean maintaining a state of circumspect dignity. By the adverb "seriously," I mean accepting the fact that unexplored ideas at a minimum help us refine our own claims, and at best present alternatives that surpass our own ideas in quality and explanatory ability; in either case, improving our connections to reality and each other. The upshot here is that while we each possess different levels of ability and learn in different ways, respect and seriousness are basic principles that apply in all cases.

If we care about anything, at all, it's necessary to reflect on such principles, while also reflecting on our approach to conversations and ideas, as regards both style and content; why do we say the things we do, in the way we do? None of us is properly equipped to be the best, or even a good judge of our own rhetorical or logical condition. But this is not the main point. What I'm concerned with in this blog is the fact that the things I seek to unpack and discuss -- for example religion, economics, ethics, responsibility, self-deception, institutional normalization, and the golden rule -- are often dismissed by others out of hand as being unimportant, uninteresting, already having been settled politically, or outright offensive. It is this phenomenon most generally, what I will refer to as "dismissive offence," that I'm interested in here.

In evaluating and revising my own conversational approach, I have yet to arrive at a suitable method to induce a universal sense of fallibility -- that is, a fallible sensibility concerning all beliefs, and not just some subset of beliefs, as seems to be the wont of our species. Interestingly, in an incredible and moist and menacing sort of way, the most prominent response I encounter is disgust-qua-questions, such as "why do you care?", or what I will call (for completely unscientific reasons of Triplespeak) the msiatric response; in some cases manifesting itself in its most extreme form, that of immediate and incoherent anger, or what I shall woefully refer to as the psiambic response.

The psiambic response is distinguished from the msiatric response in that psiambic responses angrily and entirely preclude all further conversation, where msiatric responses are characterized by pretentious evasiveness, and preclude the exchange of ideas but not the exchange of words. The msiatric category is much broader than the psiambic, ranging from those verging on overcoming dismissive offence, to those verging on the raging darkness of psiambic rage. Assigning these two responses their own special categories is useful because they are distinct, and because as a set I would guesstimate these two reactions capture some fifty-percent of all initial reactions to my social and political inquiries.

The (intermediate?) conclusion I've arrived at is that a great many people, regardless of social estate, have a biologically supported but socially constructed, now innate predisposition towards psiambic and msiatric dismissive offence, when encountering new ideas and concepts. It seems that just as our physical expansion abates, so does our mental, and thus our power to change gives way to pathology, some time around or after the age of majority.

"The power to change, the power to transform, is magical in some sense. We have it a lot as children. I mean, as children our power to change is extraordinary ... it's there in the growth process obviously, we're physically changing. But, its also ... in the way that we educate ourselves, or are educated ... we're quicksilver, mercurial as children.

As adults it seems like the process of changing slows. We become sluggish ... our ability to make ourselves over, to imagine ourselves different almost disappears; and, in fact, we become perversely proud of the fact that we don't change. It becomes part of being [an adult] that you have these attitudes, and you know these are the beliefs that I have, and, boy, that's the one I'm going to stick to."

By observing such sluggishness we may thereby assess the realities of dismissive offence, and begin working to remove that which blocks the doors of conception. To this end, let's look at the two categories of offence I've described above, beginning with the msiatric response.

"It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide -- plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions."

The archetypal msiatric instance, in this case being subjected to exactly the statement "why do you care?", occurred some years ago, while discussing the topics of religion and politics with a number of friends. We were set to begin discussing the God Delusion, when one friend peremptorily decreed "why do you care?" Peremptorily, because the statement was imposed over the comments of others; and decreed, because the statement was employed as a rhetorical rapier, effectively quelling the willingness of all others to discuss the book or religion, at all. The msiatric command "why do you care?" was thrust blindly and without care about the room, and my response, that the God Delusion and religious study were interesting for a number of reasons, was quickly dispatched with a dismissive flick of the wrist -- no questions asked. One question was however implied; "You think I don't know things that you don't know?"

Throughout the evening, my rapier wielding companion took to stabbing at the topic of religion, but fleeing before any response that might challenge their statements could be organized. Maintaining an easy aloofness, our msiatric Apostrophia brooked only conversation that denigrated the many misfortunes of starlet coiffures, or cursed unforgivable jodhpur and jersey combinations. Signor Pococurante, that noble Venetian, was hardly more hard-pressed by the baseness of others.

Here I make sure to express the paradoxically full-but-empty, Pococurantic tenor of that evening, to drive home the pathology inherent in my friend's norm-righteous misapplication of the phrase "why do you care?" Being msiatrically dismissive, the phrase "why do you care?" was not applied as a question, though it took the form of one. Instead, the phrase is better understood by way of reformulation; "I have no interest in testing my philosophy, and those who do are fools." This same friend, who operated -- and indeed, operates -- under a passionate pretense of dispassionate rationalism, later asked if they could borrow a religious book from me (which they did not follow up on). I inquired as to the origin of this interest, and they replied it was a long-standing, innate disposition that developed quite independently of other people. Importantly, with respect to dismissive offence in general, when I was able to catch this friend with a religious question that night, they responded with a decidedly visceral, but not quite psiambic dismissal of the topic.

In reflecting on rhetorical dismissals of this type, I've come to believe such msiatric assaults are not primarily the result of my tact or tactlessness, but rather, as a good man duly noted, I believe the problem is social; that in general, "it is impolite to" question the consensus or to "question a loose generalization made in small talk and say 'Prove it'." I suggest with this good man that regardless of context it should not be considered impolite to investigate beliefs and say "prove it," and I suggest with Bissette that such heated reactions are "not an expression of power," but in "fact, more often than not" they are "an expression of helplessness." For these reasons, the central issues here are: self-image; helplessness of a subjective variety; and, personal interpretations of social consensus, in particular with respect to personal conceptions of prestige and status.

These issues lead directly towards the most basic reaction I encounter when attempting to convince people to respectfully, seriously, and (dare I hope) enthusiastically consider the ideas of others: the psiambic response, being immediate and incoherent anger.

Here, I turn your attention to one of my opening quotations -- "I don't like that guy, he's not my kind of guy"; "you will never convince me ... differently" -- which is an expression of helplessness that took place right at the surface. These words were spoken by one set of adults, regarding another set of adults, where one of the speakers had never met the person they were denigrating. Note the personal irresponsibility and adamantine pathology here; "you will never convince me ... differently"; "never convince me"; "never." The other person quoted felt it necessary to leave the room and proclaim "I don't like that guy, he's not my kind," after the mere mention of a book (I don't recall what book), having exchanged nothing more than a simple hello, and having asked no questions at all of their new acquaintance. Here we observe flaming psiambic rage: a pathological necessity to feel superior at all times and at all costs, and an inability to seek or acknowledge traits in common with those who do not fall into immediately, physically perceptible categories that reinforce self-image, or that might challenge self-perceptions of status and prestige -- in this case, the nature of the non-external challenge being intellectual ability.

Is it possible to believe the speaker of the phrase "he's not my kind" was comfortable with themselves, or with their own abilities and ideas? How are we to interpret this vicious bile, and what does this madness indicate about the speaker's vision of reality?

"As long as he believes it's real -- it will be. And if we can't convince him otherwise, we're trapped forever. But -- How can we show him that madness isn't reality?"

Note that during the bilious interaction described above, the psiambic parties had not yet been exposed to new, let alone challenging ideas per se, apart from clothing choices and speech patterns, that were not entirely unfamiliar. Note also that their psiambic response could not have been based on expectations built on previous encounters. No, the problem was not the ideas of another, but the very idea of another. (That other being typically, I would argue, a well-liked person.)

Observing experiences like these, then if we hope to comprehend life beyond the arid funk of pantaloons and CNN, we must first apprehend the problem of dismissive offence, and be cognizant of our own potential to disgorge psiambic and msiatric responses. Much as one dog barks at another from across the street, declaiming from their hind legs "how that YOU be so near to ME," quite literally choking themselves in umbrage. Much as the msiatric elitist persists in declaring "why do you care?"; and, exactly as the ferine psiambics discharged "I don't like that guy, he's not my kind of guy"; "you will never convince me ... differently."

The lesson here is that we must work to support our positions with reasons and evidence, and recognize that evasions and rage accomplish nothing. While it's perfectly natural to become incensed by the statements of others, reality dictates that understanding arises from sedate reflection, not from states of annoyance and rage. We must avoid posturing like dogs and dismissing like elitists, and instead back our positions with reasoned and reasonable and researched argumentation, and fight the urge to flit about brandishing rhetorical rapiers.

Yet, as noted: in evaluating and revising my own conversational approach, I have yet to arrive at a suitable method to induce a universal sense of fallibility. Regardless of my approach, when questioning the unquestionable foundations of the consensus, I'm continuously greeted by meandering malice, and my questions are answered not on the basis of content, but are assaulted for their unpopular form. Still, I request; "prove it." But, why? Why do I question the unquestionable foundations of any consensus? Why do I care?

Because, disingenuous disgust-qua-questions, and immediate, incoherent anger are moistly and menacingly abundant. Because subjecting people to ideas, and subjecting ideas to people is of singular social importance. Because the msiatric response to new ideas offers little hope of any kind, and the psiambic response offers no hope at all. Because to know the abyss we must first see it, and have the strength to keep looking as the abyss gazes also. Because there's all the difference in the universe between stating "why do you care?" while presuming every response is inapt, and asking "why do you care?" then trying to understand the answer. Because they who ordained "you will never convince me ... differently" were adults who manifestly did not care, and because they should. Because "I'm really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid paper." Because before we can respectfully consider the ideas of others, we must seriously consider ourselves, and accept that dismissive offence is a very real, very prehistoric, and very unsatisfactory response.

Because: even while a discussion approaches naught but spiteful vagaries, even then we must still attempt to rescue msiatric vagarists from falling backwards over the precipice of psiambic folly, and prevent them from dragging others into the raging darkness within.

Part of the series: Cerularius