I’ve felt particularly frustrated lately, as I’ve already said before. The campaign season has put me in a bad mood. It’s not because of the political games, as I’m used to that kind of bullshit. But seeing the responses of my fellow Americans, specifically my fellow liberals, has shaken my confidence in humanity.
Humans are less rational than I’d like to believe, not that I’ve ever been naive about such things. It’s just that I find it depressing how little rationality matters, even among the intelligent and well educated. Blaming the ignorant masses doesn’t solve the problem when those who should know better act so severely ignorant, some might say willfully ignorant (would it be better if they were passively, submissively, or apathetically ignorant?). Knowledge, even damning knowledge, seems to make so little difference.
Despite my love of knowledge, preferably that which goes beyond mere damning, I can’t claim to have a secret insight about why knowledge matters or how it should be made to matter. If I was an expert in knowledge application, my personal life wouldn’t be such a mess. I’m just another typical specimen of the human species.
I’ve long had the understanding that knowledge is slow to be gained and often even slower to spread. But that I wanted to believe that knowledge, once gained and spread, can be powerful. What I underestimated is the even more powerful resistance people have to new knowledge, specifically that which is inconvenient and uncomfortable. There is some kind of disconnect that we appear to be incapable of bridging.
Our choices and behavior, rationalized as they are, ultimately are results more than causes. The irrationality and ignorance that plagues our society is an effect of deeper propensities of the human mind. It’s not only liberals, despite all my recent griping about them. In recent years, I’ve noticed related problems with those further outside the standard mindset of the liberal class.
An example of this is a left-winger I knew for years online and regularly interacted with, until an incident that led me to block him. He is a nice guy who, as far as I can tell, genuinely cares about the world. For certain, like the abovementioned liberals, he is intelligent, well educated, and well read. I’ve learned much from him and had some great discussions with him. But something changed on that day I blocked him.
As I said, I’ve been in a bad mood for a while now. I don’t know that he was necessarily in a bad mood at the time, although I got the sense that he also deals with depression. Plus, he has experienced some physical maladies in recent years. There was more to the conflict between us than our respective states of mind and being. There was an undertone to our interactions. It wasn’t entirely new. He always had a guarded way about him, not as open as I tend to be.
I only knew a little about his personal life. He grew up in the Deep South. And, before becoming a left-winger, he had been a right-winger. I know the Deep South from having lived there for years of my young adulthood. To be a right-winger in the Deep South is to be pretty damn far right. Still, that was when he was younger and I wasn’t going to hold it against him. As he explained, his views had changed with life experience and much thought.
Nonetheless, I always wondered if there was a bit of that old right-winger left in him. It is hard for me to imagine that it would entirely disappear. He gave hints to this in sharing his interest in human biodiversity, even as he was also critical. His guardedness maybe always put me a bit on guard when trying to understand him, my sensing that there was more to him than he shared and maybe wanted to be known.
My suspicions seem to have finally been proven correct in my last interaction with him. It was on Facebook. We had dialogued on blogs for years before that. For some reason earlier this year, he decided to friend me on Facebook and that could have been a mistake. Maybe Facebook creates a different kind of dynamic. In that final discussion, he was acting aggressive and I wasn’t in the mood. I might even have told him I wasn’t in the mood. He isn’t normally an aggressive person, in my experience, for if he had been normally aggressive to that degree our online friendship wouldn’t have lasted so long.
We were arguing about race. I don’t recall the exact context, not that it’s important. What does matter is that, in speaking about Africans, he basically stated that they all look alike. That is a stereotypically racist way of stereotyping others, that they all look alike. I was genuinely shocked to hear someone like him say something like that.
I pointed out that Africans have more genetic diversity than all non-African humans combined. One can also find entire websites dedicated to showing how drastically different are the physical appearances of Africans from various regions and ethnicities. He tried to defend himself by explaining that he had visited Africa and that his anecdotal evidence of seeing a few African people in one small part of the vast continent of Africa should trump all counter-arguments. Once he had made the claim, he probably felt forced to defend it for his only other option was to retract it and admit he was wrong, an extremely difficult thing for anyone to do.
My mind was blown, as I took his words at face value and assumed that he was expressing something he actually believed (I had no reason to interpret his words otherwise). In irritation, I immediately blocked him and that was the end of it. That was earlier this year, maybe around springtime. It’s been bothering me ever since. It was so unexpected. I really liked the guy and respected him, until he said that. I couldn’t shake the negative feeling it gave me.
His statement contradicted the person he had presented himself as. It demonstrates how people can hide from you the contents of their psyche for long periods of time, sometimes hiding those contents from their own conscious mind. He never gave any indication of that kind of racialist attitude. It seemed to have come out of nowhere. But obviously it was something already present that managed to slip out when his guard was down. If he had thought more carefully before speaking, he would have recognized how it would be perceived and he wouldn’t have said it.
I guess that is what social media can do to people, because of the short quick responses the format encourages. I’ve had other situations where social media led me to learn something about a friend that I wouldn’t have otherwise found out. People’s ability to censor themselves has a way of getting shut down on social media, maybe having to do with how easily a thought in one’s head slips into words on the screen, in a way that wouldn’t happen when in the physical presence of others.
That one statement by this guy doesn’t fundamentally change what is good about him. He remains knowledgeable and insightful about many topics. I still think his writings can be worthy reading. But I must admit that I felt a kind of relief when I blocked him, as it made me aware of an antagonistic edge that had always existed between us. His guardedness (or rather my perception of it) made me feel guarded, which is a feeling I don’t like.
Anyway, thinking about the incident makes me tired. I don’t want to have to look for signs of hidden attitudes and beliefs. No more than I want to deal with endless irrationality and all the rest. But I’m starting to think that it isn’t just that people aren’t always straight with one another. Maybe it’s not in people to be that way. We are too divided in our psyches. We don’t know enough about ourselves to be psychologically honest with others, not fully at least.
I don’t exclude myself from this accusation. The only thing that might differentiate me is how much it bothers me to recognize this in myself as in others. I’m obsessively aware of and hyper-sensitive about these kinds of divisions, disconnections, and dissociations. We humans too often seem like mindless creatures, prodded this way and that by a world beyond our ken. I’m unable to blind myself to this human reality, even as I remain as clueless as anyone else.
I use the above statement as an example because it shows something that is far from unusual. We all do similar things. The racism or racialism he gave voice to in that moment is the kind of ugliness that always lies hidden in the psyche. He only failed in making sure it stayed hidden. Maybe he was shocked as I when he saw what he had written, not exactly the kind of thing one wants to admit about oneself.
Being civilized, in terms of social norms, doesn’t mean never having irrational biases and morally wrong prejudices. Mostly it means not expressing them or adjusting and wording them carefully before speaking, hopefully making us more self-aware in the process and allowing for self-improvement. That is more or less what is meant by being ‘civilized’, not entirely unlike professional politicians (as civil servants of civilization) when they speak to a particular audience arguing for the public good they will do.
We try to shape who we become by how we present ourselves, but in the process we can simply end up deceiving ourselves. We are all politicians, in this respect, and much of our lives are spent in front of one audience or another. We convince ourselves by seeking to convince others. That is why many churches send young adults to do missionary work, often requiring them to use the rhetoric and persuasion of apologetics (e.g., Mormons) and of course requiring moral arguments about their own motivations.
Even politicians want to believe the stories they tell, as that is what all humans want. And most of the time the audience wants to believe them as well, which is how we go on deceiving and being deceived. One might say that we want to be deceived. A story being compelling is more important than it being true or, to put it less cynically, we judge a story true by how compelling it is. But what is compelling inevitably is what confirms our biases and no biases are more powerful than those that are grounded in identity, shared identity most of all. Such is the social and political nature of humans.
Everyone, besides a sociopath, wants to be liked and accepted. We want to be thought of as good people and most people genuine do have good intentions. Hidden ugliness within our psyches doesn’t make us bad people. Still, it does make for a problematic society, as that hidden ugliness effects us and what we do, even when or especially when unconscious. Yet this is normal state of humanity.
I watch how we people act. The absurdity of it all is mind-boggling. Of course, there no doubt is much in myself that I can’t see. I’m part of the absurdity. We are all part of the absurdity because that absurdity exists within us. Or to put it a nicer way, we are a mystery to ourselves. Even with the best of intentions, we do and say bad things that lead to bad results. And in the end, we almost always find a way to rationalize it all. We seem incapable of taking responsibility for what is within us, much less the world around us.
I’m not sure what to do with this insight. A small flickering flame is little comfort in the darkness. Considering our difficulties in seeing clearly, as Bob Arctor says in A Scanner Darkly, we are “cursed and cursed again”. Those words were spoken as Arctor’s mind slowly disintegrated, oddly allowing him to see more clearly what the more well-adjusted around him could not. What he saw, however imperfectly, was that such internal divisions cut across all of society. In this, he came as close to self-honesty as was possible under such near impossible conditions.