Hi folks, I haven’t been sleeping well the last couple of weeks, so please pardon me if this one is a bit rough around the edges – promise it is part of a much larger theme which I will address more thoughtfully and thoroughly soon.
Aside from our personal stressors, like pretty much everyone I know, the state of the world is weighing heavily on me. But as far as I can tell I remain in the minority of ‘soapboxers’ in one weird way. I am deeply convinced that anger ALWAYS enables abuse – and the larger the scale of the anger, the more damage done along the way. So I am actively looking for ideas which are helpful and productive and far more likely to improve things than our recent steady diet of rationalizations, glowerings and tantrums. (I’m not asserting these don’t work, but rather assuming the evidence of that is now quite overwhelming to anyone looking with an open mind).
I have taken a few recent shots at our habits of sneering and disdain for huge groups of people about whom we are shockingly ignorant (to summarize: after spending this whole century slaughtering poor people around the world for cheap consumer loot and strategic dominance – HOW DARE WE!)
Sneering is of course really popular and fashionable stuff, and were I a person who liked money more than people and principles, I would have hopped on that gleefully psychotic bandwagon ages ago. But I’ve lived among the victims of proud angry righteous abusers my whole life, so I know the heartbreaking truth – such damage does not ever end. Which means that to join the haters and celebrate what I know to be their moral mistake, would be a betrayal of my duty to stand up for those at whom every form of collectivized hatred is far too easily directed (almost always someone both comparatively blameless and powerless – so the bully risks nothing and the victim stays down).
One cute phrase we often see in the writings of professional sneerers is “the lowest common denominator.” It is a lovely phrase because it sounds at once scientific and insulting. A put-down from on high most often applied to objects of popular favour. Most remember something vague about the math side of the idea from high-school, but more that it exists, than how it works.
You know who else absolutely adores this basic idea? Marketing people and the corporate masters they serve. It would be lovely if we could say that all the sneering about it is directed in opposition to such cynical culture manipulators – but they are much more in cahoots than it might at first seem.
For a super-quick refresher, when you are dealing with a whole bunch of mixed fractions, you have to figure out the lowest denominator which can be used to represent each of those fractions, and once you have that, you can do all sorts of perfectly simple and completely accurate math on all of those seemingly very different fractions in common. You can see why corporations like this sort of thinking – what is the precise least possible effort we can expend to win the greatest number of customers? We humans aren’t people anymore in that model, just a smeared blob on a probability table.
But when people get too gleeful in their sneering about popular culture, we make a very common mistake and pretend that all of those who like something we don’t personally enjoy, must therefore also endorse all of the worst stories which can be ascribed to any part of it.
Are all fans of Bing Crosby or James Brown misogynists? Absolutely not – those guys worked very hard to create art which was both wildly popular and important in the development of modern music. Not only that, but both of them left us a great deal of enduring uplift and exuberance, despite their personal turmoil – and these are precious resources indeed in a stressful time. We can editorialize about a life or a marketing play, but when we take the next step and sneer at anyone who just enjoys a great tune, we are being jerks (abusers, technically, but the word is so overused, I prefer the pithy definition here).
Anger without compassion ALWAYS takes humans to very dark places. I won’t digress here any further than to say PLEASE READ HISTORY, if you don’t already have a rock solid intellectual and emotional understanding of this. That isn’t an opinion, it is a tragedy we keep endlessly teaching each other.
The absolutely crucial balancers are love and gratitude, of course. Where these are entirely absent, we are dealing with a psychotic (no matter how appealing).
But it occurred to me that there was another concept in math which always went along with lowest common denominator (at least in my reading). This was the concept of the Highest Common Factor. This is when we are looking at a bunch of whole numbers of some size, and trying to figure out the largest number which can be multiplied to accurately make each of them – thus once again finding a commonality between many seemingly disparate values. But in this case looking for the GREATEST (most outstanding?) commonality, rather than the least/simplest.
Might just be my own crazy brain, but it strikes me that the highest common factor in terms of humane thinking (the bridge of fools, almost) is the question of whether or not we have found something which feels obviously bigger and more important than ourselves.
And no – before you get too excited – I do not mean a deity specifically. Some sincerely faithful people absolutely do get there, even if the presence of obvious hypocrites of the same faith makes it feel easy for others to lazily ignore that crucial difference and scorn them all. But I have known atheists who were no less completely devoted to the cause of our one great human family (and conversely, we have all seen some truly outstanding hypocrites from that team in recent years).
In a much less abstract or ideal way, humans have been transcending self for the sake of love, family friendship and community for many thousands of years (that’s on the record – and I have no doubt it goes back to the dawn of abstract thought).
We have all had the funny experience of meeting some people who seem physically grown up, but soon reveal themselves to actually be self-obsessed brats, where others though seemingly young, positively radiate a surplus of care for and awareness of others around them.
As far as I can tell there are nurturing paths that get you to that sort of selfless awareness, and also painful trials which, if metabolized carefully, can break many of us out of our early delusions, and thus give us another chance to try living with greater duty and more open hearts.
The point is that even the simple and still fairly common ability to put someone else ahead of self, gives such a person a whole range of social capability which is not present in those below this maturity threshold. This isn’t a question of insult or blame, this is a distinction of FUNCTION. I know all too well that many who sneer or celebrate the sneering of others were themselves wounded. (Why I can understand, but still think they should know better).
So – why do I pick this one particular part of human growth of character for my own idea of the Highest Common Factor? Because I really do believe there are many paths to excellent thinking and behaviour towards others – from the exalted and high principles, to the simple and yet infinite smile of a baby.
But though I reject all artificial divisions based on categories like faith, culture, race or social class (my technician head insists – each mode of thinking has only one part of the schematic), I cannot imagine a single person who lacks this common caring factor, who could be more reliably persuaded on the basis of compassion, than they could by celebratory hatred – which is always egotistical. A form of negative self-obsession in fact – which is why it so often enables tribalist harm directed toward innocent others.
Now this next part may sound like I am indulging in sneering myself – but again, I’m speaking from my technician head here. Along the lines of – Suppose we were actually trying to fix this thing? Rather than just standing around endlessly complaining that it doesn’t ever work right.
People who feel they are the centre of the universe aren’t actually trying to solve problems or gain greater understanding. They just enjoy performing, and since they consider life a movie, and themselves the star of everything, it might as well all be rather wild, over the top and dramatic, so they have plenty of chances to emote toward their admirers, movingly.
I suppose it might be helpful to remind them from time to time that there are other ways of thinking which make solutions seem more obvious, and the great problems in the world less irresistible and inevitable. But as for trying to make a serious moral/political/social argument to such a group? How would one even start? If you can’t even get agreement that care beats rage, and listening beats yelling, there is no part of a compassionate argument which will survive translation into their specialized lingo. You just end up looking clumsy and obsequious in the attempt – and make the idiots among them think you endorse their distractions and foolishness.
I still can’t ‘imagine Sisyphus happy’ as Camus rather dangerously advised, but I do find myself at a point where I think perhaps we must stipulate humane awareness, and focus arguments there only.
NO WAR and no cozying-up to longstanding war promoters, no matter your current pucker-factor. (OMG how has any of that become controversial?) Don’t slaughter, don’t hate, and don’t burn people’s lives up and then giggle and say you didn’t really, because you had your eyes closed tight at the time. Learn something real and difficult and then use it to make something in the world better. I swear this was all widely agreed upon across all tribal lines, until very recently.
And insofar as recognizing humanity in other humans is now rocket science, study rocket science! (that is – make a REAL friend, eh?)
Love to all. And now – nap time! (fingers crossed)