Category Archives: conformity

Nobody Knows It But Me

classroomLong ago, I was an English teacher at a private high school in central California. It was a good, if demanding, job and unlike many of my colleagues, I seemed to manage occasional moments of non-misery in the workplace. In fact, the two years I spent working there taught me more about human nature than two decades of university teaching, freelance writing, and working abroad ever did.

Without a doubt, teaching over 100 adolescents each semester schooled me not only in how people will behave when going through some of the worst years of their lives but the extent to which many parents are feverishly inadequate when it comes to raising kids. With respect to family, no one wants to admit they have no clue what they’re doing. Everyone must pretend things are running smoothly and they’re in complete control.

I found this pretense interesting, particularly during parent-teacher conferences when ashamed, bewildered parents would whisper, “What do you think I should do?” as if my ability to manage large groups of adolescents somehow qualified me to give them advice. At first, I would explain that my two degrees in English plus minor gifts in speaking in front of people and writing did not mean I had a solution to why Jimmy couldn’t sit still or why Leticia cried through every class and felt compelled to layer everything around her in Purell, or why Leo circulated pictures of his girlfriend’s vagina. Over time, I developed a less draining response: “I do not know.” All Quiet on the Western Front may prepare us to think about the meaning of war, but it will not prepare us for Leo’s girlfriend’s vagina.

I suspected then, as I still do, that confronting such situations is not within the job description of a high school English teacher. But maybe, in the hundreds of outrageous situations in which I found myself in that job, I could have done more. The questions I ask myself now are the questions many parents asked me then: what should I have done? Was there anything to be done at all? There must be an expert somewhere, a veteran administrator or someone with a PhD in education theory, who can speak to this. Maybe a prison psychologist.

I wish I could believe that. In spite of my lingering questions, I think I’ve come to believe the opposite: there actually are no rules—not just for teaching or parenting, but for any area of human experience. A friend once said to me when we were going through our own high school torment: “This is the meaning of life: we all suck and we’re nothing.” I don’t think he fully appreciated how profound that statement was when he said it. 27 years later, I’m still seeing it prove out.

We all suck: no one—and I mean this in the broadest, most inclusive, most general sense—actually knows what they’re doing to the extent that assumptions and judgment calls are unnecessary. Perfect human understanding does not exist and human error is ubiquitous. Even our attempts at artificial intelligence are subject to our limited assumptions about what intelligence actually is (or can be). What can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt? The truth is: nothing, unfortunately.

Surely an engineer will feel confident that, say, as energy is transformed or transferred, an increasing amount of it is wasted. Surely something as dependable and consistent as a physical law (in this case, the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is immutable, absolute, not a matter for interpretation. But even something as ironclad as a law of physics is not without its exceptions. Some things are givens within the parameters of a particular knowledge paradigm, but those givens are always relative to and dependent upon the parameters themselves.

For example, within the agreed-upon bounds of thermodynamic theory, basic laws obtain as a reliable set of rules for the behavior of energy, entropy, and temperature at thermal equilibrium. But we also know that even within that theoretical framework, an empirical finding like the Second Law is subject to exceptions. In 2002, researchers at the Australian National University, in a paper entitled, “Experimental Demonstration of Violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics for Small Systems and Short Time Scales,” found that “systems can undergo fleeting energy increases that seem to violate the venerable law.” And while this is only one small example, it is by no means isolated or anomalous to the extent that we could dismiss all such exceptions out of hand.

In fact, our entire narrative of scientific progress is predicated on discoveries which alter existing assumptions about how the world works. As Thomas Kuhn observes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.” The scientific narrative changes. Because it was always a narrative, never an unassailable, omniscient catalogue.

Nothing is beyond interpretation, not even the bedrock assumptions of our most materialistic sciences. Rather, ways of knowing amount to best possible premises always subject to discourse and development over time (to say nothing of the complexities of the information technology we rely on to document and transmit that discourse). We do the best we can. We develop and codify optimal principles for a given field. And then we work with those principles until we encounter a paradigm-disruptive discovery that forces us to revise our theories.

But we’re nothing: Even the most qualified and intellectually responsible claims are part of a conversation (discourse) which is grounded in work that came before and which will be superseded by discoveries and realizations that follow. In many cases, an individual contribution to any field is no greater than a minuscule inch forward with vastly disproportionate implications.

Still, there are careers to develop and Cessnas to purchase and grants to chase and colleagues to slander and books to write and mistresses to support and students to convince. In Polishing the Mirror, the guru Ram Dass—then a social psychology professor named Richard Alpert—describes what he felt was a hollowness at the center of western academia:

In 1961, I was thirty and at the height of my academic career. I had a PhD from Stanford University, and I was a professor of social relations at Harvard. I had arrived at a pinnacle of life as I thought it should be, professionally, socially, and economically. But inside there remained an emptiness—a feeling that, with all I had, something was still missing. Here I was at Harvard, the mecca of the intellect. But when I looked into the eyes of my peers, wondering “Do you know?” I saw in their eyes that what I was looking for was nowhere to be found. In a social or family setting, people looked up to me and hung on my every word because I was a Harvard professor, and they clearly assumed that I knew. But to me, the nature of life remained a mystery.

In Ram Dass’ use of the term, we “do not know” much about the world in any absolute sense. We cannot know because our intellectual tools are as finite as the time we have in which to use them. This is not to argue that we should be content with ignorance. But it is a way to foreground a simple suggestion: speculation is absolutely necessary when it comes to developing knowledge.

Assumptions are necessary. Ultimately, belief is necessary. Kuhn, at least, seems to agree: “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” This seems reasonable not just in science but in any field of human activity.

So what remains to be done if we can never fully know our world and ourselves? Everything! Our inability to attain perfect understanding is no reason to abandon the pursuit of outer and inner knowledge. Rather, it leads us to an acceptance of our limitations as individuals and as a species and, in that acceptance, a very personal yet very real sense of freedom.

Maybe the right answer to those parents who wanted advice should have been: you already know how to raise your kids because what you think is best will be the best you can possibly do. Maybe, as my high school friend seemed to imply back in 1989, we are not static, monolithic, isolate objects. We are no thing.

Instead, we are dynamic, dialectic, fluid collaborations—living syntheses of what was known in the past and what will be discovered in the future. Maybe “discourse” is the most accurate metaphor for human experience. If so, all we can do is try to engage in life’s conversation as robustly as possible. Maybe there are no rules beyond that.

“Baby,” I said, “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.” 
― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

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Happiness is a Warm Gun

She was my first real girlfriend and she terrified me. More precisely, the possibility of her getting bored with me terrified me. And she was always at great pains to remind me that boredom would have dire consequences. Boredom was the end.

I had no idea who she really was and neither did she; though, I had developed some ideas over the months we’d been dating. I’d projected and imagined. Meanwhile, she thought I was Ross from Friends. She’d say it all the time: “You’re just like Ross. Oh my god.” Sometimes, she’d say, “You’re just like my brother,” but, mostly, it was Ross.

Between her brother and his collection of hot mustards and Ross, there was a very narrow margin for keeping Christina entertained. Still, I tried like a motherfucker. I was 18 years old and fully believed she was The One.

She broke up with me while we were sitting in a theater before a movie. I don’t remember what movie it was, but I do recall that it was a Sunday afternoon and it was extremely hot outside. She told me she needed to feel safe and protected. And she didn’t think I could do that. She needed someone who would fight for her. We stared at the blank screen and listened to the Muzak. Then she said she hoped we could stay friends.

For the next two hours, Christina rested her head on my shoulder while I contemplated the infinite tunnel of grief and abandonment I had just entered. I suspected the real reason she was breaking up with me was that she’d gotten bored. And I hated myself for letting it happen when I’d known ahead of time THAT WAS THE ONE THING THAT COULD NOT BE TOLERATED. 25 years later, I still remember her saying, “You don’t even own a gun.”

To my credit, I did not run to the corner gun shop and buy a nine. I’ve always felt that having a gun around would make it too easy for me to permanently check out. But I thought about what she said for a long time and eventually the reality of who Christina was blossomed in my mind. She was, for all intents and purposes, an idiot. But then, as the wise man once said, stupid is as stupid does. Her point about me not owning a gun would prove to be the set-up for a 25-year-long joke, the punchline of which was delivered only last week . . .

 

My 9x19mm Parabellum Romance

At the end of Games People Play, transactional psychiatrist Eric Berne suggests, not unlike Orwell in 1984, that most people are concerned primarily with reproducing and distracting themselves while they wait for death. However, Berne notes that exceptional individuals can transcend the default monotony of an unexamined life:

THE somber picture presented in Parts I and II of this book, in which human life is mainly a process of filling in time until the arrival of death, or Santa Claus, with very little choice, if any, of what kind of business one is going to transact during the long wait, is a commonplace but not the final answer. For certain fortunate people there is something which transcends all classifications of behavior, and that is awareness; something which rises above the programming of the past, and that is spontaneity; and something that is more rewarding than games, and that is intimacy. But all three of these may be frightening and even perilous to the unprepared. Perhaps they are better off as they are, seeking their solutions in popular techniques of social action, such as “togetherness.” This may mean that there is no hope for the human race, but there is hope for individual members of it. (81)

I’ve entertained this idea for a long time. In fact, it has bothered me enough over the years that I’ve structured a large part of my life trying to be an individual who isn’t caught up in mindless self-distraction and reactivity. But sometimes I feel incredibly afraid of this binary. I’m never sure if I’ve succeeded in avoiding groupthink or if success is even possible.

It’s not Berne’s “fright of the unprepared”; rather, I think I get afraid because I worry that the binary itself is oversimple and therefore misleading and impossible. Can I honestly believe that individuality is directly and cleanly opposed to conformity and that these are the available options in my life? I sometimes wonder whether I’ve fallen prey to false assumptions in this respect. Frankly, the thought leaves me cold.

For example, I think, I’m going to avoid going to that melodramatic tear-jerking romance. How boring. Looks like Titanic in space. Having seen over a hundred similar formula-bound period pieces, I feel on some level that I must be right. But then I have to wonder how many people out there are thinking the exact same thing. How many people, by selecting out of the Mindy Project-Titanic-Atonement-A Walk in the Clouds-Bridget Jones demographic, have opted into the anti-Mindy Project-Titanic-Atonement-A Walk in the Clouds-Bridget Jones demographic? How many of these “non-conformists” are straight men within a certain age group? How many of their life choices could be predicted based on the Facebook groups they follow and don’t follow? Should I then run out to buy a TEC-9 to impress my empty-headed girlfriend? What sort of man would make her feel safe and protected? Who decides for me if I don’t? Who decided for her?

 

Your Brain in its Vat will be Tangy and Scrumptious

There appears to be a marketing angle for everyone as soon as we learn that someone has written a mass-market manual, entitled The Art of Non-Conformity. But isn’t this about more than just marketing and consumerism? Isn’t it really about whether we’re sleepwalking through our lives? How does one lead, in Berne’s terms, an aware, spontaneous, and intimate life? Do any of us know what these things mean such that we could define this sort of life in a sentence? Or is such an existence necessarily so idiosyncratic that it resists generalization?

Orwell wrote that the proles “went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds.” That sounds a lot like most people. But it’s certainly not the picture of an aware, spontaneous, and intimate life—is it? How can we tell?

If, like Orwell, we assume that there is a persistent objective universe that could be mediated at all times by the political ideology of a state apparatus (or a Cartesian brain-in-a-vat AI), then we can’t be individuals unless we assure ourselves that we know and can act meaningfully on what is objective. We can’t lead authentic lives unless we have both knowledge and agency grounded in an objectively persistent material world.

Moreover, as philosophically complex as this becomes, I have to wonder whether it is even possible to determine whether an objectively persistent material world even exists—back to Descartes and the problem of the Cogito. In the end, there are no definitive answers and it would be naive to expect them. There is only the eternal interplay between narratives and questions. What do we prefer to believe?

 

My Killing Joke

The punchline came when a mutual friend of ours tagged her on Facebook and the hand of the past reached out to tweak my nose. There she was in the same town, SUV, kids, cop husband. Over the last 25 years, she got exactly what she wanted. I avoided all that, which is exactly what I wanted and I still don’t own a gun. Have either of us changed? Or are we both still playing the hands we’ve been dealt, telling ourselves we’re special and authentic and clever? There’s no way to know. We can believe what we like.

In the end, it seems, the joke is on us. No matter who we decide we are—no matter if I’m actually Ross or Christina’s actually a rocket scientist—there’s no central authority to tell us what’s objectively real and what isn’t. This is not Oceania and there’s no dominant newspeak (yet). Instead, we’re forced to carry the burden of meaning as individuals: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Frankl 131).

The most responsible thing might be to keep spinning narratives and keep asking questions. If nothing else, we can be consistent in that.

 

 

Works Referenced:

Berne, Eric. The Games People Play: the Psychology of Human Relationships. Ballentine, 1996.

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon P, 2006.

Guillebeau, Chris. The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World. TarcherPedigree, 2010.

Hickey, Lance. “The Brain in a Vat Argument.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/brainvat/. Accessed 26 September 2016.

Orwell, George. 1984. U of Adelaide, Feb. 2016, https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79n/index.html. Accessed 26 September 2016.

Skirry, Justin. “René Descartes (1596—1650).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/descarte/#SH4a. Accessed 26 September 2016.


The Housemates on Krypton

There is a definite upside to living in a creaky old house next to a canal with a doctor and four housemates: you’re alive. The downside is only slightly less obvious than that: you and the housemates have to get along with a degree of functional civility, which in Oxford generally means avoiding each other in the hall.

This seems perfect. I’m an introvert by nature and I don’t actually like the company of other human beings for extended periods of time. Someone told me that this almost makes me English, but I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that the culture of Oxford is a very accurate representation of English culture in general. And I don’t believe reclusiveness and introversion necessarily characterize all of Oxford all of the time. Only some of Oxford part of the time. The part involving beer.

I’m not talking about pubs. I’m talking about survival. Beer is essential to cohabitating in Oxford. If you drink wine, you’re out of luck. Get your own place where you can listen to Brigadoon and sing to your cat while making courgette hummus for your dinner guests. I’m talking about something far more exacting and necessary, something essential: the redemptive power of beer to make everything okay when you have to get along with people completely terrified by the prospect of disclosing anything about themselves.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s necessary or even desirable to drink beer with your housemates. On the contrary, you will often drink beer because of your housemates. And the world of difference between these simple and compound prepositions is the world in which you will take 4 cans of the Fursty Ferret up to your room, lock your door, and watch old Trapper John, M.D. episodes as you sip your way toward a better tomorrow.

You will do this because the alternative is staring at the ceiling—listening to your neighbor give sexual dictation to his girlfriend or a meth-head talking to an owl down by the water—while thinking about the psycho-spiritual train wreck that passes for personal relationships in this town. And I say that with nothing but love in my heart for Oxford, its children, and its ales.

Of these particular housemates, though, there isn’t much to say. I think, if we were shipwrecked together on an island in the North China Sea, we would probably converse from time to time. Maybe if we were interned together in a work camp. But, even then, it’s possible that few words would be spoken. As a writer, I have a tendency to catalogue and amplify the personal eccentricities of the people around me. And, in that way, I come to appreciate them. But there is a certain type of person who sends me straight to Trapper John.

This is not without some theoretical precedent. In a creative writing workshop, when someone has written a supporting character who is a two-dimensional rat-bastard, who is such a complete bastard that he never evolves beyond a state of fundamental, luminous bastardy, we call that character “plot furniture.” In other words, he exists as a prop. But if we’re talking about a central character, maybe the main character, the writer has more work to do. Instead of dismissing this character as furniture, we tell the writer, “Look, you have to give the character something.” This means you have to round the character out. He can’t just be a prop; he can’t just be a bastard. You have to give him something that shows another psychological dimension. Because no one is ever just one thing in life. Uncle Wiggily might be an “engaging, elderly rabbit who suffers from rheumatism.” But he only really gets interesting when you learn that he performs a Satanic black mass every Thursday in the bobcat’s basement. Like that.

So when I write these therapeutic blog posts, I try to give something to the people I write about. I was trained to do this in the sadomasochistic hellworld of MFA writing workshops. And the fact that I’m mostly writing creative non-fiction* here never gets in the way. Giving your characters something is the “creative” part when you’re writing about people who exist in real life. But the type of person who short-circuits this, the writer’s kryptonite, is someone who can’t be given anything without you having to completely make it up.

In other words, there is a type of person who has pushed his libido down so far, who has conformed so perfectly to a kind of fastidious, highly curated, social acceptability, that the most compelling thing about him is his sweater. Sure, we can say that he’s interesting in that he tries so hard not to be interesting. We can give him that. And we know he probably has dark squirmy things crawling around in the sub-basement of his soul, but getting down there, drilling down through all the conformist blast-shielding and cautious evasiveness is tedious at best. At worst, it’s exhausting.

Of course, there’s money in being boring. It pays to be socially careful, even if it does inspire a certain degree of contempt in those of us who never could fit in. Sometimes I wonder, when such people lie awake at night beside a partner just as meticulously uninteresting, if they can hear those squirmy little devils scraping their proboscises on the other side of the blast doors—the ghost sound that torments people through their long dull miserable lives into late middle-age depression and a pension they don’t know what to do with. Then they buy a camper, I guess. Masturbate less or more. Eat a lot of soft-serve ice-cream.

It may be that I don’t have enough material on the housemates to even write a very substantial piece on them or their calculated sweaters. But, while deciding whether to write it, I remembered something Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman:

Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

In a perfect world, we’d be able to stave down the horror of having a full conversation with each other. We’d actually step out into the hall.  But a terrible thing is happening, has been, I think, for as long as social pressure has rewarded people for not standing out in any way and avoiding human contact as a rule.  Krypton is a boring utopia.  And every utopia is a dystopia.

So beer. Instead of speaking to the housemates, everyone listens behind the door until the hall is empty, until it’s quiet in the house, and it’s possible to creep down the stairs and over to Sainsbury’s where four cans of the Fursty Ferret will run you £4.30. A small price to pay for equanimity, I guess. And I guess this post is the lagniappe.


* I publish two types of writing on this blog: creative non-fiction and short stories I’ve already published in magazines.