Just three dumb guy thoughts I had, plus a dumb guy idea for a novel
Person, choice, value
I was spending time once with a friend who’d just come out of a relationship with a woman who self-harmed manipulatively and abusively. He mentioned he’d talked to his psychologist about this relationship, and that, among other things, his psychologist had talked about the importance of separating the person and the behavior.
I was thinking about this during our conversation when two things occurred to me, viz:
This distinction is, in a sense, nonsensical. We are what we do. This is especially true in this case- the kind of behaviors that my friend suffered through are expressions of very deep psychological complexes which tend to be permanent unless treated. The idea that they can be separated from the doer makes no sense. I could understand it if the behavior were the result of brief or transient factors, but it isn’t. None of this is to deny that what happened is a genuine reflection of illness, but in mental illness there is no uncomplicated distinction between the person and the illness.
Nonetheless, the capacity to make this separation, to treat persons as distinct from their choices, might be one of the most important myths we have.
People are a mixed-up jumble of good and evil, but the capacity to pretend that, on a deep level, there is a “true self” that wants what is right, may well be necessary to get through this world-storm and still be a caring person. This is because while some people might have the capacity to see both enormous good and evil in the same person, but a lot of us don’t- we can’t cope with the dissonance. There is always the temptation to see like Melisandre from A Song of Ice and Fire:
“If half an onion is black with rot, it is a rotten onion”
Try it out. “She’s generally a good person who raped someone once”, “He’s generally a good person, but he was pretty abusive to his kids”, “He’s generally a good person, but he abandoned his parents when they need him most”…
It’s very difficult to think in these terms. But most people have done at least one terrible thing in their lives, or would if the circumstances were right (wrong). We start to see things in Melisandre’s way.
To avoid falling into this way of seeing things, which ends in loneliness and despair, pretending that there is a person, and this is a distinct thing from their wrongdoing may be necessary for many of us- including myself- to stay sane and loving. Or at least we can see this way of thinking as like a set of training wheels, till we reach the level of maturity where we can face one of the mysteries of the soul- almost all people contain vast good and vast evil, and all of it is really them.
Value and sacrifice
I was reading a sourcebook for Mage, The Awakening once, a pen and paper RPG. in that book there was a villainous character. His flaw was that, in his mind, to love someone was to be willing to make sacrifices for them.
This passage caught my attention because I thought it was wrong in an interesting way. The villain was simply correct, to love a person, a cause, a creature, is to be willing to make sacrifices for it- or at least this is a necessary condition for love. Loving requires valuing. Value is always, in a sense, relative. You value A more than B if you would be willing to give up A for B. As Jesus said, “Greater love no man knows than this, to lay down his life for another”. To do this is to love maximally because it is to value the other more than everything you have.
Maybe that sounds like a harsh and sterile view of love, a kind of economism about affection reducing it to a revealed preference price, but I don’t think so. In fact I think it’s an ultimately life-affirming way of seeing things, and some of the popular alternative ways of looking at things can be unhealthy. Let me illustrate.
In my book Live More Lives than One I discuss punishment in the first essay. I defend the view that while it may be necessary, punishment is always a dreadful thing.
One reader responded that to him it felt like this chapter was defending a kind of nihilism, a rejection of all value, and so he hated it.
At first, I was confused by this, but then I came to understand what he meant, and why I disagreed with it. For him, what it meant to really value something was to draw a line and harshly defend it against anyone who tried to cross that line. You see this sometimes in people who try to show the depth of their passion and commitment to something- a nation, a lover, their children, a religion- by threatening violence against any who would disrespect that thing. By admitting reluctance to punish anything, he thought I was conceding I didn’t love anything.
But this is a facile understanding of love. One can very easily do violence on behalf of something whilst not truly loving it. Many people have abused their partners and children despite their insistence they would do violence to protect them. Many crusaders have undermined the holiest tenants of their religions while claiming to stand for them. Many politicians corruptly undermined their nations whilst enacting violence on enemies, real or perceived.
What shows that you really, truly, value life is not how harshly you punish those who take it, but how much you are willing to give up to preserve it.
Or to put it differently, if we are to say that real love is a threat, then it is a threat against ourselves alone. Love is terrifying not just because it necessitates the permanent possibility of loss, but also because it requires the permanent possibility of sacrifice.
The writerly bias
I've been thinking about the following issue, viz:
Only important intellectuals and artists write or create works on the human condition that are well remembered, but most people are neither important artists or intellectuals, thus we should expect cultural understandings of the human condition to be jaundiced with the perspective of artists and intellectuals.
I call this the writerly bias- the literature is, unavoidably, stacked towards writers, but we understand ourselves through this tradition, ergo, their is an inescapable flaw in the way we see ourselves.
Now I've been trying to think of examples of how this might manifest, and I have one possible example, which I call epiphanism, viz:
Artists and intellectuals, compared to most people, are unusually likely to have epiphanies or sudden realizations that affect the course of their lives. Thus we should expect sudden life changing epiphanies to be more prominent in cultural understandings of what it is to be human than in fact they are in reality.
Incidentally, feeling this way about epiphanies can actually be dangerous as this XKCD comic rightly points out
But I'm wondering, do people have other examples of the writerly fallacy in action? Or speculation as to forms it takes?
I see the writerly bias as linked to other biases. For example, the narrative bias:
Our understanding of what it is like to be human, and how lives generally unfold, will be stacked towards forms of experience that can be placed into coherent narratives, because this is what is mostly to get written (and even spoken!) about.
[This also ties into epiphanism, because epiphanies make great narratives]
Anyone who has ever caught themselves analyzing their own life in terms of literary tropes, even for a moment, or feels surprised that something which felt like foreshadowing never eventuates, knows what narrative bias is like.
Something a more lighthearted- an idea for a magical realist novel
Every now and then I have ideas for a novel, and while I haven’t got time to write them, I like to share them.
Jason, a charming, affable politician with Hollywood looks is elected governor of an unnamed state in a landslide. We never find out which state, but millions of people live there. The process of his election is never described, but we are often told it is the most unusual election on record.
Every (legally of age) resident of the state has an unusual secret. They had a brief torrid affair with the now governor a few years ago. Even the straight men and gay women. Even the clergy. Gradually this starts to come out.
Some brand the governor a home wrecker (many couples are broken up when it is revealed he slept with both partners). Others suggest the governor’s experience will enable him to better relate to the whole population. The protagonist meanwhile is the only person who seems to realize that there’ something logistically strange about one person having slept with everyone. She continues to investigate the matter, but her investigation continues to turn up nothing strange. It really seems like, in some direct and literal sense, he has slept with everyone in the state, including, of course, her.
Then his love children start coming forward, and it gets weirder.