"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Mercy! Taking Umbrage, Ruffled Feathers, And Thin Skin–What Is Our Problem?

A Washington lawyer, based on his many years in the courtroom, had formulated ideas about human behavior.  How people behaved in the courtroom was not a pretty sight, and he was certain that what he had seen over and over again – the covetousness, contentiousness, nasty and unforgiving claims, and the sheer biliousness of the exchanges was not restricted to the courtroom but was rooted in some hardwired human behavior.  After his retirement he began an avocation of extensive research and development of his ideas, and found that his ideas were consistent with settled science.   There could be no longer any doubt that his observational theories were in fact well-grounded.  He thought it would be interesting to share his ideas with others, and decided to open a dialogue to include those who shared his views and those who still challenged them.  He felt that such engagement was necessary in an increasingly contentious political environment, and that by opening discourse to both partisans and opponents, he would be doing a service for the community at large. 

Image result for images human nature

Since the issue was not about hard science but scientific application to human behavior – how much was hardwired, how much could be inferred, and how much was open to interpretation – both sides of the debate would be welcome, all encouraged to participate, and no hard feelings in response to critical comments.  The former lawyer was convinced enough about the correctness of his own views and the unshakeable record of scientific inquiry – brain physiology and chemistry, genetics, and behavioral psychology – that the ‘dialogue’ would be an excellent forum for the proposition of his ideas, the easy defense of them, and for their widespread adoption.

He was very surprised to find that not only were there thoughtful legions who disagreed with his interpretation of the facts but who found his positions – despite their consistency with scientific theory – ignorant and indefensible.  He soon found that there was no such thing as settled anything.  The problem with opening a dialogue based on a priori assumptions is that not only might one’s argument be shaken but even  and especially one’s more basic beliefs.,  The issue of hardwired human nature was not a simple scientific conclusion, but one of political philosophy.  A hardwired human race always at the beck and call of an aggressive, territorial, self-defensive, and acquisitive nature could never possibly progress beyond caveman brutality.  A more flexible, adaptable race whose intelligence, logic, and ability to form moral and ethical principles could.

At first he shook off the harsher criticisms, noting the opposing position of the commenter but also his education, background, and intellectual credentials.  Comments made by those he considered less able and less informed were tolerated, responded to, and ignored.  Comments made by those of his caliber were dealt with in kind, but often resulted in a bitchy New York Review of Books catfight.  He realized after a time that the interchange was less of a dialogue and more like the famous Mary McCarthy-Lillian Hellman spiteful display a few decades earlier.  He was shocked as much by his own response as he was to the comments themselves.  Not only had his settled science been stirred and shaken but his belief in his calm reasonableness as well.

Image result for images mary mccarthy lillian hellman

Perhaps there was no such thing as a completely objective, passionless, expository debate.   Perhaps ideas, personality, self-image, and indeed self-worth are part of a human constellation of fierce subjectivity.  And perhaps it was better to do one’s work subjectively, happily, and gratefully.  Peer review was bad enough, but as an amateur thinker, why subject oneself to unnecessary abuse?

Unwittingly the lawyer discovered a more fundamental principle of human behavior – no one likes to be told they are wrong; and to insulate themselves against naysayers and uninformed critics, form righteous enclaves of those who know they are unequivocally and incontestably right.   Early 21st century America is a perfect example of this phenomenon.  Whether to fight global warming, racism, monopoly, Wall Street, the glass ceiling, or misogyny,  members are united in both philosophical and personal solidarity.  It is far easier to come to a facile conclusion and join others who have done the same then to open oneself up to the inevitable flagellation of opposing opinion.

Free speech has come under attack – better to cloture debate and let groups handle their own versions of diversity than to join a free-for-all which does nothing to shore up failing confidence or self-image.  Progressively and seemingly inevitably we have become a thin-skinned nation, afraid of our own shadows, and better at invective and hostility than reasonable self-defense and intelligent posture.

There is no such thing as settled science nor even anything smacking of majority opinion.  In fact everything majority – white majority, middle-class values, traditional morality, universal standards of right behavior – is questioned.  Minority rights and opinions must always prevail; but since many of them would have a tough time facing up to rational, critical appraisal, the lessons of history, and simple clear thinking, it is not surprising that those who believe in them form hermetic groups who believe common wisdom, not derived wisdom.

The the lawyer’s credit, once he realized that he was no more than a member of an intellectual minority and definitely not a majority, he did not seek comfort and solace from any group of like-minded thinkers.  He simply pulled in his horns, no longer advocated for his particular moral order but simply presented it; and by so doing did his little bit to stanch the bloodletting on social media.

This was the sanist thing he could have done although the point of no return may have long been passed.  The social media are more venues for abominators than thinkers and not surprisingly so.  It is now easy to join homogeneous groups and even easier to post zingers and personal attacks anonymously.

What is even more telling is that even reasonable people want to protect their site, their posts, and their image.  The same lawyer was told to stop replying to a ‘friend’ whose Facebook page was consistently progressive.  He respected the lawyer’s opinion, but it had no place on his site.  Without explicitly saying so, the friend was more interested in internal consistency and in the integrity of a common philosophy than in sowing doubts among his followers.

In Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, the Broadway 50s musical based on Romeo and Juliet, a boy and girl from two opposing gangs, one white and the other Puerto Rican, fall in love. Anita, a friend of Maria, warns her against getting involved with someone from a different community.  She sings:

A boy like that
Who'd kill your brother
Forget that boy
And find another
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind
A boy like that
Will give you sorrow
You'll meet another boy tomorrow
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind


“Stick to your own kind” had a different meaning then than it does now.  Tony and Maria were growing up and living in a hostile world, and sticking together was the only way to survive – a primitive but still essential and universal.\ principle.  Those who stick together today are more likely to attack others for no other reason than diversity.  In an age of minority politics, sticking together means a solidarity of righteousness and license to attack those who are different.

Why have we lost the confidence to stand for our own beliefs but be willing to be challenged?  How have we become so intellectually insular?  Why to we so easily take umbrage, get prickly and nasty, and harbor resentment for weeks? Why has protecting self-image become so important, and where has the perspective of a short life gone?

Eventually the retired lawyer decided on the Barcalounger and beach chair and gave up his provocative blogs and online debates.  It was enough that he had come to reasonable conclusions which he knew had more to do with his own character, personality, and outlook than they did with anything more objective and settled.  That was the purpose of rational inquiry after all, wasn’t it?

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