On Common Nonsense

This orig­i­nally appeared on mis​ter​agye​man​.blogspot​.com on November 17, 2015.

You better hope you’re falling
When you look up and see brown…

That’s the first two lines of a song that almost came to me on Saturday. I have no idea what it means. I have a vague idea, but it involves excre­ment. So I hope it isn’t that.

It’s prob­a­bly that.

The world seems to make less sense every day. On Saturday I woke up to the news from Paris. On Sunday I woke up to the back­lash on Facebook. Yesterday I found myself on Snopes​.com restor­ing my sanity, and then today we’re watch­ing US states choos­ing to fight fear with fear. And because the world isn’t a TV show, other events don’t pause while we deal with this one. After a while, if you’re lucky enough to be removed from the mess, it becomes very easy to wring your hands a couple of times, shake your head at all the sad­ness and just let it go for your own sanity. Within sec­onds of seeing images of destruc­tion and mayhem, you can be laugh­ing at a delight­ful GIF of a Minion. Che sarà, sarà; a toss of the head, con­tessa, and life can go on.

It does, more’s the pity.

Our world is a rel­a­tive one. Even our most per­fect laws don’t quite dove­tail together, because our expe­ri­ence is so lim­ited. We try to cover it up with bigger and bigger Band-Aids, until we trust the state more than we do our­selves. In such a world, where ‘ide­al­ist’ is a deroga­tory term, it’s often pleas­ant to settle. If you don’t, you’re just a wet blan­ket. After all, you’re not making it better by point­ing it out. Still, I do. Because I don’t like the me who is com­fort­able in this mess. If Life gets stupid, I’m not going with it.

I recently dis­cov­ered ‘The Fallacy Ref’, and was sur­prised at how useful I found his memes. So let’s shake the ridicu­lous pil­lars of exis­tence, just as a thought exercise.

1. One of our best weapons against dis­ease is dis­ease. Doctors call it immu­niza­tion. Mountain climbers call it acclima­ti­za­tion. It’s basi­cally the same thing as teach­ing a victim of abuse to roll with the punches. We carry over this ratio­nale into edu­ca­tion and secu­rity and every­thing impor­tant in life. ‘This thing sucks’, we say, ‘so learn to take it until it does­n’t suck quite as hard’. It makes us feel less guilty when we give in to some­thing„ because we say that it’s better to walk into the mess than to get dragged. That dis­tracts from the fact that the mess is still a mess. We know it, though, deep inside. Which is why when some­body tries to defeat the prob­lem from the roots, we put so much thought and energy into our dis­cour­ag­ing advice.

2. The action inspires the reac­tion. It’s so true that they say that in the olden days of the roman­tic pitched battle, nine times out of ten the first party to attack gets defeated. We’ve become excel­lent at deal­ing with things as they crop up, making the best of our impris­on­ment in time. Our reflex memory pro­tects us, but makes us vul­ner­a­ble. As a kid I found it unbear­able that prac­ti­cal jokers could make me flinch by faking a punch. In much the same way, evil people take small steps that trig­ger big reac­tions from us. They’ve learned to push our but­tons, to force us to speak their language.

3. We are who we are. The finite nature of life is its great­est curse. We only under­stand things from our point of view. We grow, but that only means that we are con­demned to know that we were dumb yes­ter­day, though we still fail to under­stand that we are dumb today. Because we are, you know.

We are all quite stupid.

It’s okay to be offended by that. Just don’t get too offended, because that sug­gests that you are sat­is­fied with your cur­rent self. Don’t be; do your­self a favour and drop the self-esteem line. We wallow in ignorance.

The path to so-called enlight­en­ment often looks like this, in my expe­ri­ence: first you start won­der­ing if things make sense. Then you decide that people don’t make sense. Then the bar­rier comes: how to take the log­i­cal step and real­ize that you are a person, and part of the prob­lem. That you are, and there­fore you do not think.

Source: xkcd

I started read­ing about the phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­ogy of human­ity as a kid. Not the big boys like Kant and Socrates; that would make me a genius. No, the baby eBooks aimed at people look­ing to climb the cor­po­rate ladder. I wanted to learn enough to win friends and influ­ence people. What did I actu­ally get from all that? I dis­cov­ered last week that I clasp my hands behind my back when I feel inse­cure in public. (Which is basi­cally all the time.) I learned that from one of those books — pow­er­ful people, like roy­alty, create a bubble of per­sonal space by with­draw­ing con­tact. It both insu­lates you and dis­ori­ents others. And I picked this up, and used it to per­pet­u­ate my social ineptitude.

That’s what stu­pid­ity does to us. It holds us back. We want to be nice, thought­ful people, but that silly thought tells us that this person isn’t worthy of our nice­ness or empa­thy. Here’s a good rule I learned from deal­ing with chil­dren: wrap every neg­a­tive sit­u­a­tion in a little bubble, and deal with it in there. If you suc­ceed — I rarely do — you’ll find you get much better results, with chil­dren and common humans alike. When an igno­rant person says some­thing useful, don’t chafe against it. If a mean person holds you in a debt of grat­i­tude, give them the sat­is­fac­tion. You’ll get yours back as well. Don’t use peo­ple’s weak­nesses against them; if some­one acts wrongly because of you, you should be ashamed. Never con­vince your­self that it is okay to do some­thing dumb ‘for a good cause’. Snopes is full of people doing this, and it always makes you feel unclean. This feel­ing often makes people rebel against good causes because of its bad pro­po­nents or ben­e­fi­cia­ries. Don’t do that either.

On the path to enlight­en­ment we invari­ably reach a point where we learn to parrot ‘there is never one right answer’. It’s a lie. It’s a useful lie that we use to remind our­selves that we’re all stupid. But there usu­ally is a right answer, even when our world is too com­pli­cated for it to show itself. Believe in the right.

Don’t be stupid.