Saturday, October 1, 2016

Ramblings on language and unreality

I believe I've always been more sensitive to words than most.  I believe I've always taken them more seriously than others.  I believe I always felt an intimate connection between timbre, cadence, vocabulary, expression, phrasing, idioms and thought whereas others seem sensitive only to volume.

In exploring the dou, it is crucial to appreciate the power of words not only for how it changes others but also how it changes ourselves.  Terminology and language taken for granted, simply and at face value, can change the colour of the universe.  It can send us down paths of thinking and conceptualization that tacks in a complete different direction than reality.  It becomes the barnacles on a ship slowing us down from realizing which direction in which the truth lies.

Four examples spring to mind right off the bat.  'Fight fire with fire'?  People just nod their heads. There are so few ways in which that expression makes sense. It literally sounds like something that someone said when they were angry and other angry people listening got fired up and the expression stuck ever since.  But more importantly, and chillingly, the expression 'Fight fire with water', which is both sensible and true, really isn't as catchy or interesting from a linguistic standpoint.  So, mentally and spiritually, our first inclination is continually to fight fire with fire when so much evidence suggests that this only leads to bigger fires.

Next is ‘identity politics’.  There is a danger that I'm completely misunderstanding what people mean when they disparage the politics of identity.  But to my mind, politics is the absence of influence through violence.  Influence over others without violence requires compromise and persuasion.  Compromise and persuasion are only possible when you identify with what someone is saying or with the person that they claim to be.  Whenever someone identifies with you, you now have a shared 'identity' ('we' are Blue Jays fans or 'we' are university students) that differentiates you from others who aren't those things who have interests that potentially run counter to the interest of others who identify with you.  What form of politics is not the politics of identity – the politics of uniting through common ground with people that you identify with, against those who do not represent ‘us’ – those who constitute ‘them’ – the ‘other’ that is not self?  Politics without resorting to identity would be politics without opposition.  Which isn’t politics at all.  Is identity politics just a catchword for using race and xenophobia as the foundational basis of all other forms of identity?  If so, then why not just say race-based politics or ethnic politics or tribalism?  Because not much, not even most, identity politics is bad or done for irrational reasons.  Most of the politics of identity exists because its the only way to create enough support to accomplish anything.

Then there's ‘non-combatant.  Implicit in that word is ‘hey, some crazy, non-socialized, barbaric fucks are coming to your country to tear shit up.  But don’t you worry, you just hang back and don’t get involved, nothing bad will happen to you – we have rules in war, don’t you know?”  Heh.  That’s small comfort when a smart bomb dumbly detonates on your home because you happen to live next to a terrorist safehouse.  The Americans chose their side.  The ‘terrorists’ chose theirs.  It couldn't matter less whether one side or another was actually waging some kind of 'just' war - whatever that means.  The rightness or wrongness of the battle is an afterthought.  Peace no longer exists.  There is no such thing as sporadic peace.  It is either peacetime or it is wartime.  You can either appeal to a court to remedy a crime against you, or there are no crimes, or laws and you have to choose a side.  This idea that in a context where peace is clearly under siege, that you can know someone that is a combatant is living next to you and then complain afterwards that their fight spilled onto you.  Here’s an idea: fight for peace.  Involve yourself in the battle in some meaningful capacity to lessen the chance the fight comes to your doorstep.  Bystanders on a battlefield?  That’s encouraging complacency, at a time when you should be most involved.  Peace doesn’t come out of nowhere.  Peace only comes when the vast majority of people who would rather be ‘non-combatants’ universally decide that we will be non-combative, and enforce that stance on people quicker to take up arms.  ‘Non-combatant’ is a word that means to place responsibility for your safety upon others.  Others should take care not to harm you.  That would be nice but that is not reality.  Reality is we all have to take steps to responsibly protect ourselves.

And then finally ‘unreliable narrator’.  Where to begin?  Go on and tell me about that reliable narrator.  Tell me his/her story.  Tell me how Wikipedia or ABC news or Al Jazeera, or Woody Allen, or Thucycides, or Fox News or your friend, Donnie or that girl Mary that he may or may not have raped or any other person, organization or record is a reliable narrator.  Tell me how their story is not just another form of storytelling.  Tell me how the stories they tell are completely non-fiction.

I’m committing this to paper, right here and now, and you can cite me for future reference – 90% of humanity’s ills stem from the notion, held even for the briefest nanosecond, that what you heard or said came from a reliable narrator.  That what you heard or said was something that could or should be considered unvarnished truth.  We lie without even knowing.  Is the lie of omission a lie?  How perfect is human memory?  Is the well-intentioned lie a lie?  How many humans have good intentions?  Everything that you ever read, everything that you ever heard or learned in any way absent direct experience of a thing, in a double blind study, was filtered through another person.  A person that needed to eat, so they boosted the importance of what they were saying.  Or diminished the importance of what someone else said.  Or ignored something that they shouldn’t.  Or recognized something they should have ignored.  Humans with agendas, driven by motivations, biological, material, psychological, that most of the time they don’t even understand.  And through all that, somehow, you’re supposed to just take something, anything you absorb from somewhere else at face value?

To be over the age of…I’m gonna say, 12…and still think that the answer is in the Bible, or Gray’s anatomy, or the New York Times or a billboard for Guess Jeans – this is the most depressing thing that I can think of about humanity.  We all grow old – we don’t all grow up.  No, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, or the Pope, or Donald Trump, none of them have the answer.  What they all have in common, along with the Quran and Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ and Gordon Gecko, and Mark Zuckerberg, is that they are trying to sell you on something.  They are happy to reinforce the beliefs of people who already believe and happy to call them 'enemy' those who refuse to believe. They are trying to get you to buy in but short of that they'll settle for a dependable audience.  They want your assent, your consent, your acknowledgement, your attention and your appreciation.  They want you to think that they are ‘cool’, that they have the answer and others are wrong, that they are ‘in the know’ and that you are now ‘in the know’ by following what they have to say, by doing the things they want you to do.  They want a powerbase...and your investment in their ideas and personality is the source of their power – and the root of mankind’s folly.  They don’t want what is best for you.  They want what’s best for themselves – and selling you on atheism, or Catholicism, or Guess Jeans, or Trump University, or Islam or Evolution or Greed or the merits of turning the noun ‘friend’ into a verb – is unambiguously good for them and only sometimes good for the rest of the world.

Here’s the uncomfortable reality: truth is a construct.  Truth is something we fashion.  It couldn’t possibly be something out there in the world, waiting to be uncovered.  It is something that we build over time (hopefully) and rest upon until the burdens and assumptions we ask it to support causes it to crumble. Then (hopefully) we build it again and test our conception of it again, in hopes that it will stand firm.  But then something we didn't think of or couldn't even imagine comes along and the 'truth' - our truth - fall apart again.

Because it isn't 'out there' (sorry Mulder...), no one can give it to you.  It's something that you are building inside.  All we can do is build an approximation of reality and then (hopefully) test that construct under uncontrolled conditions - namely, life.  Like any built thing, if you build with crappy materials, what you build will collapse under the smallest stress.  Many people build their truths out of garbage – opinions of stupid, short-sighted people; partial recollections; hearsay; nonsense, superstition.  Some people build their truth out of material that seems sturdy but is pretty hollow: scientific inquiry and discovery without introspection is about as valuable as being able to measure the vibration in a string without being able to appreciate the pitch of a note.  And then some people build their truth piece by piece, slowly and surely, spending way more time throwing crap out than keeping things that give that sense of unreliability.  They seem half-hearted and perhaps a little peculiar to others, almost as if they can’t make up their mind.  On the contrary, they actually know how few things in life are actually sturdy enough to lean on. 

If you aren’t seeking out the best materials with which to build truth, vigorously, with your own hands and eyes and ears, if you are just passively absorbing what others are shovelling your way, you will build your truth out of dung.  And that’s okay.  It’s okay to swallow what others feed you – babies do it all the time.  But babies learn. Learning is all they really do.   It’s okay to build a house badly and then build it again after it collapses.  The problem comes when you keep building with dung & manure, time and time again, and your truth seems to be filled with lies and contradictions and hypocrisy, and then act surprised that it comes tumbling down.  That you’re an evangelical and your kid is gay or pregnant and you can’t tell your friends.  That you hated your father for stepping out on your mother and then you proceeded to step out on your wife. That things don’t go your way or you aren’t truly happy, or any of the rest of the blah, blah, blah, existential horse manure that we made up the term ‘mid-life crisis’ for.  Just, be an adult and don’t be surprised.  Be a grown up and say ‘I didn’t really think that through and now I’m doing it again.’  But don’t be surprised…for the love of God, don’t be surprised.  And don't think for a second that what you took from it, and the story that you tell yourself about it, is the only lesson, or a 'true' story.  That's not the only lesson. That isn't the true story.  That's just what you took from it.  That's just the story you tell yourself.

Get real.  You’re depressing the hell out of the rest of us.  You’re making humanity look bad.

There are expressions like those above that are so loaded that they reinforce un-reality, seemingly without anyone noticing.  People nod their heads and think that their being clever, when in fact their being a little dotish.  

PS: on an opposite note...“swindler”…what a great word…"Horatio Bottomley was an English financier, journalist, editor, newspaper proprietor, SWINDLER, and Member of Parliament"