Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fair Warning

I find myself constantly in the felgercarb these days for speaking my mind.

People want the old complacent, quiet me back, I suppose. They'd welcome a return to the old moderate, not-too-showily-liberal, not-too-openly-gay me. What is it about you that makes people uncomfortable? I can tell you in exquisite detail what it is about myself that seems to make some folks uncomfortable.

Well, fair warning: Life's too short to do anything but live it to the hilt. I've had too many recent brushes with mortality to feel like editing my statements just to make others happy, or to conform to their ideas of keeping the peace.

This attitude is indeed a change on my behalf; I acknowledge that.

What's new and different about me is that I no longer care to edit myself just to make you happy.

Several long-time interlocutors and correspondents seem to be having a problem with that. Well, they just need to get over it. Life is way too short.

There's an element to this, too, of a renewed activism on my part: an anti-bullying activism. It's amazing how subtle it can be. The great philosopher Max Headroom once opined: Asking is only polite demanding. While that was said for humor's sake, there's an element of truth in it. Many people choose to frame their demands in the politest of terms—thus is born diplomacy. While no professional diplomat would rise to the bait in a burst of outrage, in fact the art of diplomacy is designed to phrase such ardor in mainly non-confrontational terms. But the ardor is not absent; it's just subsumed. Diplomacy is polite, verbal sparring that is meant to deflect actual, physical sparring.

My renewed activism against bullying is based not only in tragic, ongoing, exemplary recent events—such tragedies are always ongoing, but the media don't report on them until horrid situations reach a certain critical mass—but on long-contemplated thoughts about my own history of having been bullied. I've written extensive, controversial essays about that, and posted them here. (Just click on the label "bullying" after this post.) Some—"commentators" is too tame a word for their vitriol—have gone so far as to claim that the truth of my experience was fiction, that I was lying. How sad for them to discover, eventually, that they are wrong.

One tactic bullies use, of course, is to deny that they are bullying anyone. So they must vehemently deny the truth of anyone's experience who in fact was bullied.

You see this form of negative attack in the media reports about bullying, too: the deniers who insist it all meant nothing; that there was no connection between political hate speech and political violence; that bullying a kid for being gay, or merely being assumed to be gay, had no connection to their poor self-esteem and/or suicide attempts. Some of which eventually succeed. These deniers demonstrate their prejudice by their disconnected illogic: their alternate narratives rarely stand up to the philosophical test of simplest explanation generally being the true one (Occam's Razor).

I've taken on a lot of philosophical and literary bullies lately, mostly with the result that I've gotten banned from supping at their tables. Which I find fascinating: Anyone who would ban you for disagreeing with them, and being able to back it up, is basically banning you because on some level they know their own arguments can't hold water, and they don't really want an open discussion about their topic. An actual, open discussion about their topic could shockingly prove them wrong.

How did I take on those bullies? Simply by speaking my truth, i.e. the truth of my experience and knowledge acquired by experience and research—which happened to be different than theirs. My sin was quite unintentional. I just spoke what I knew to be the truth of my own experience—which was different from theirs. Substantially, demonstrably different. That's enough to get you demonized, in some circles.

One of the most pernicious arguments that intellectual bullies will try to perpetrate on you is that there is no difference between X and Y when in fact the difference between X and Y is precisely what drives dissent. It's like the old folktale about the Devil trying to convince you that he doesn't exist—and bullies don't actually bully anybody. Uh huh.

How did I learn what things I say that make people uncomfortable? You acquire that data by walking quite unintentionally into the minefields that you didn't know were there. If you pay attention, it's not hard to notice when peoples' buttons are getting pushed, whether you intended to or not. Most people don't live their lives consciously—they don't even know their own minds very well, nor their own prejudices. Count yourself blessed, and far ahead of the pack, if you do.

How can you spot such prejudices? It's very simple: They don't hold up to even basic logic or reason.

Not that reason is the end of all arguments—the mind can't do a thing to help the soul, in the end, when the soul is in trouble. And you can't think your way out of a problem you got into by using the same thinking that got you into the problem in the first place.

But the illogic used in covert prejudice, especially by those who would deny they harbor any such prejudices, is usually glaring. It's not even self-consistent. The mark of emotion overruling logic is that logic, simply, fails.

This is, again, not to valorize logic over emotion; it is merely to point out that we are innately emotional creatures, and that logic is a learned discipline that requires immense self-awareness to maintain.

Actually I have no problem with honest prejudice. if somebody honestly, openly tells me what they like and don't like, I'm fine with that. We might disagree, but I respect their integrity for being honest with me. It's fine, for example, if you don't like my poetry and music, and never will. But don't make the illogical leap to say something like, my poetry is bad, simply because you don't like it. Your taste is no more infallible than mine. (Although mine might be more flexible than yours, although I'm willing to be convinced otherwise. Again, that's just experience talking.)

Those who claim objectivity are, in my experience, often those with the most deeply-buried, unaware prejudices.

Those literary critics who like to make Grand Pronouncements about literary matters (Harold Bloom, Yvor Winters, James Woods, etc.) are often the most unwilling to admit to their own biases—yet those biases are transparent to any close reader who pays attention to both what is being said and what is being dismissed out-of-hand. While it's perfectly possible to say "this is bad writing, clumsy and artificial and poorly executed," it's not possible to say much more than that. Critics who dismiss the entire body of work of certain writers, merely because they were "genre" writers, have their heads up their fundaments. Yet that is precisely what those same Critics who like to make Grand Pronouncements often do.

How sad for them to discover, eventually, that they are wrong.

Of course, like bullies, they can never admit to being wrong. Which is also sad.

Here's the logic of evolution: In order to evolve, you have to admit to past errors. You have to have the backbone to say: Oops, I blew it! I was wrong! You have to be comfortable with being uncertain and imperfect. You have to be willing to disarm your weapons, put them away, and live with the truth that you were wrong.

This is something bullies are usually unable to do. Admitting you're wrong is like admitting you're a bad person: the self-worth is conflated with the error. So it becomes impossible to admit you were wrong because if you do you're also saying you're a bad person. You see how emotion trumps logic? There is no logical reason why people should ever not make mistakes: we're limited, we're imperfect, and we don't know everything. Logically, self-esteem and being factually wrong in word or action have no connection. But they get tangled up, and emotion trumps logic again. Oops!

I'll tell you why I believe book reviewers are usually better than those Great Book Critics at doing their jobs: They give you an honest response, which you're free to disagree with, but which might help you to decide if you want to read the book in question, or not. Most reviewers keep ann open mind, and don't have an ideological axe to grind. The mark of a dishonest critic is that the do have an ideological axe to grind, and try to convince you that they do not. I have never had anything but distaste for such dishonesty; what's new and different about me, now, is that I'm not stopping myself from saying so.

I'm using literary criticism here as an example of a pattern one can identify in many arena of discourse. In fact, literary criticism is no worse or better, in its prejudices, than any other arena of discourse. It does tend to be more verbally vicious than some, however—perhaps because after all it is an arena built of words; or perhaps because there is in the end very little at stake, compared to other arena of discourse. (For example, diplomacy.)

The basic point I'm making here is that I no longer subscribe to the idea that words have no power to harm or hurt. Of course they do. They always did. Life's too short, I've discovered, to pretend otherwise.

On another level of reality, of course, words have no power whatsoever—at least that's the usual opinion in our own culture, where, unlike in some other cultures, we don't throw poets in jail for political dissent. At least those dictatorships that jail poets for dissent demonstrate that they actually do believe in the power of words to change the world. In our culture, we are far more insidious in our distaste for free speech: we treat dissent with indifference. We treat poets as useless. We label the arts as unnecessary to the wellbeing of individuals. We have chosen a far more damaging path: we have decided that words have no power, that they are beside the point. And since, in the world made of words, what you say is what becomes true (belief creates reality), therefore it is so: words have no power.

But that's not true.

The bullies and the deniers will tell you that words have no power to change the world. The political commentators who are invested in the nastiest forms of verbal abuse and hate speech disguised as everyday discourse will tell you that their commentaries don't influence the actions of those who commit hate crimes. The people who ban you from their table for dissenting with their opinions, who know deep inside that their opinions are baseless, will tell you that they are themselves free speech advocates.

How sad for them to discover, eventually, that they are wrong.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

What one person call the ‘truth’ another calls their ‘opinion’. I find that people who hold truths want to proselytise. People with mere opinions are usually content to live and let live. I always try to be honest when I talk about your work. I think that’s more important than whether I like it or not. As we are both acutely aware we come from very different backgrounds and it would be asking just too much for either of us to love or even just get what the other is on about. But I think what both of us appreciate is our honesty. Honesty is not always what people need and on those occasions where I don’t think telling you what I think will help I stay quiet. Here’s an example: your recent post about Garbarek. I’d never heard of him – which is nothing unusual with you and I – and so, while I was working on other things, I listened to a few tracks c/o YouTube and just did not connect with it which I could have said but then you’d either sigh and shake your head or get offended or try and convert me. He’s your thing and it’s great that he works for you. Now had you introduced me to him and I’d loved what I’d heard then I would have thanked you wholeheartedly for the intro.

When I was younger I would have argued differently. I remember a trainee pressing every single Whitesnake album she owned on me insisting that I needed this music which I did not – Deep Purple were the rock gods I worshipped at the time – but I knew where she was coming from and I dutifully took the LPs home and listened to them all. And then discussed them with her. But even then I didn’t feel the need to make her listen to all my Deep Purple CDs and bully her into appreciating them. She was happy. I was happy. Neither of us really got how the other could settle for the groups we liked but life is too short.

Words have power but we don’t have to shoot our mouths off. We can keep our opinions holstered because seriously what fun is there is turning our verbal abilities on other people? Winning is not everything nor is proving you’re right. Bullies want you to react. The best way to deal with them is to ignore them because what you need to do to get one over on them really isn’t worth it; it reduces you to their level.

6:27 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

All well said, especially about honesty and proselytizing.

Mostly this was a rant responding to events in other venues. This is my venue, and I can say whatever I want to, whenever I want to, and there's no problem. People either like it or they don't. I don't require people to like everything I like, or for the same reasons.

Yet in other venues there have been instances of the bullies chasing one down, like the girl with the records, to try and bully one into converting one's thinking to their own. Mostly those venues don't attract me back to them. Mostly I ignore them and move on. Sometimes such venues mutate from welcoming into problematic for no apparent reason, too.

But there are times when life is too short to keep your mouth shut in the face of something so ridiculously misguided and stupid that it has the potential to destroy the social fabric. Sometimes you have to speak out, simply because no one else has, and because it just has to be said. On those occasions, the results are not always avoidable simply by keeping one's trap shut.

9:44 AM  

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