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)
¯\(ツ)

2 Comments

  1. I have a few thoughts that I wanted to share, and since I lack your gift for laying them out in an ideally coherent way, I decided to just throw a bunch of them your way and see what sticks. (Hopefully none in craw.)

    The assertion that anger always enables abuse gave me pause right off the bat, for a couple reasons. First off, anger is inevitable and natural – and while this doesn’t in itself mean it doesn’t enable abuse (which in a broad sense is also naturally-occurring), it suggests that our attempts to interpret, value, and control it can easily miss the mark and be misguided. Which is my second point. Attempts to control “anger” – or to subsume any number of things under that heading, as has sometimes been done with “the passions” generally – very easily warrants abuse of a more systemic, less “angry” kind. Which nevertheless attracts, enables, and protects its share of psychopaths and sadists, who have lofty-sounding rationales for their anger, and inflict no end of trauma on their trusting victims. So maybe it’s just that we have different ways of understanding or expressing the concept of “anger”, but I view it as more of an asset than a liability. But it is a responsibility.

    What do I mean by that? What does that responsibility entail? For one thing, I often find myself in one of two states nowadays (and sometimes both): 1) angry, and 2) bewildered, frustrated, and saddened that so many intelligent, aware, and sensitive people aren’t angry at the same things as I am. And I won’t beat around the bush when I say I think that’s because they have been well-trained to sublimate their anger – which inevitably makes it come out in nasty, counter-productive ways.

    They’ll inevitably 1) consider themselves non-angry (rational, objective, impartial), and 2) chastise me and others for being too angry (or angry at all, as if this is a character flaw), and really what this amounts to is the assumption that expressed anger is bad. That’s exactly what I take issue with. There are good and bad expressions of anger. And regarding it as toxic leads to alienation from a whole spectrum of natural human expression and interaction.

    I very much want the world to be a less angry place, but my preferred approach to making it a less angry place is solving problems that cause legitimate anger in the first place. And yes, perhaps the primary one is misunderstanding / ignorance. But that shouldn’t be conflated with anger. People who aren’t reckoning in a mature way with the things they complain about aren’t necessarily part of the problem. That’s because maturity is subjective, so pretending it’s objective as a problem-solving approach would be both immature and premature.

    I am also allowing a lot of leeway here because my own experience as an open-minded, tolerant, both-sides-listener has more often than not revealed that those who seem angry are often just using benign rhetoric and posturing – which can certainly be stupid and toxic, but, well I guess that’s the rub. What’s just stupid, and what’s toxic? Toxic means subject to reasonable sanction. Stupid just means tending to exclude one from serious discussion. And both of these are, shall we say, subjective. (But the difference is real.) Unfortunately, we can’t account for all the ways those powerful opportunists among us will exploit or enlist the innocent self-expression of others. (And we can thank the mainstream media for throwing gasoline on the occasional campfire.)

    We need to be able to place blame where it belongs. It regularly blows my mind that people who are good at blaming others in highly public contexts are terrible at admitting fault and accepting blame themselves in those contexts, where doing so is arguably most important. This is a lack of integrity, and just plain hypocrisy, and it is escalating. The reasonable reaction to it, particularly when it reinforces the loyalty of those with whom they are aligned, is anger. But let us not confuse expressions of anger and condemnation in these instances with toxic tribalism. That would be a strawman on a slippery slope.

    You’re certainly right that righteous or vitriolic anger has an intoxicating quality for some, that can lead them down a dark path. These tend to be young men – who are probably already the cohort prone to manifesting the most “angry” qualities, and certainly in the most overtly destructive ways. This is analogous to the topic of so-called “toxic masculinity”. Such toxic behaviour, however defined, should never be confused with – and perhaps should be easily distinguishable from – non-toxic (beneficial) masculinity. The critics are quick to condemn, but don’t bother defining what they approve of, or tolerate, and why. It might be pushing it to say that they are hateful, spiteful, or angry, but the laziness with which they throw around these judgements can be quite destructive. Some measure of forceful expression, which may include anger, may be called for.

    The word of caution, you would doubtless agree (because you’ve said it), is that one may discredit himself in the eyes of others if his expressions are overly strident or vehement or angry (these things being often conflated). But if he allows such a possibility to limit his expression – not catharsis per se, but expression – then he is self-censoring and it can’t be denied that there is a slippery slope here, to a more all-encompassing chilling of dissent (or, deference to the norms of the status quo).

    The lowest common denominator (and “law of averages”) is one of the banes of argument and rhetoric. Precisely because it often fits with anger in such an immediately gratifying, and yet unwittingly destructive way. I don’t have much familiarity with social psychology, but some of this is probably addressed by that discipline.

    People are stupid. Indeed, that may be our common denominator. But that’s a reason to be careful about deeming anyone’s expression toxic. Moreover, it should go without saying that making thoughts or emotions crimes is giving way too much power to government, bureaucrats, and moral puritans. (It should go without saying, but refer to the first sentence of this paragraph.)

    But it’s very true that we have devised whole institutions devoted solely to extracting wealth out of such specious economic modeling. People internalize much of this, and participate in it, in pursuit of their share of the wealth. Willingly adopting the LCD to get by easily and be considered valuable and valued contributors to society. They don’t see how such self-debasement undermines the value (dignity) of others who can’t, or won’t compete.

    I hope this angle of criticism isn’t too theoretical or abstract. I hope I don’t take for granted a level of introspection that many lack. (Am I assuming this on the basis of a lowest common denominator?)

    Breaking down the putative “toxicity” of anger, we may say anger is bad because
    1) it’s counterproductive
    2) it’s alienating of others generally
    3) it’s merely cathartic (short-term “good” for the individual or in-group, but long-term bad, because of 1 and 2.)

    These are relevant and important considerations, but only in the right combination would they qualify as toxic. And by toxic I mean not only excluding from rational dialogue, but warranting sanction (such as ostracism, shaming, “canceling” etc.). So it is interesting to consider two questions. 1) When are you sure that someone has “missed the point”, isn’t serious, duly respectful, or worthy of broaching subjects of high importance (i.e. when communication goes beyond the merely instrumental treatment of another, and includes more sentiment)? And 2), What sort of “hate speech” legislation might you be in favor of, and why? Such legislation must clearly distinguish between offense – which can be unintentional or intentional, and may or may not be a by-product of the aforementioned instrumentalization – and a much more fundamental harm that on any reasonable assessment presents a direct threat to the safety of innocent people.

    The conundrum, as I see it, is that while everyone dislikes “hate” in the most basic sense, it is frankly ludicrous to try to criminalize an emotion – or even the expression of an emotion. And doing so threatens the safety of innocents in myriad other ways, not least because it reinforces people’s illusions of innocence, and the state’s legitimate power.

    Anyway, I might have just run with a misinterpretation of your piece – or be responding to fragments of previous pieces that have accumulated in a disordered mind over time. Feedback is appreciated in any case, and in any format! Cheers.

    • My friend, I love you – but you didn’t quite understand my point. (which you know, is not ever meant to re-walk any overly trodden ground).

      Your do make sense in several places in your notes, (and you very nicely pick up my point about buried hostility in prideful hypocrites popping up elsewhere in disguised and thoroughly denied form, which I made in some earlier posts). But you missed my main idea. I’m not talking about abstract general anger, nor (the admittedly highly problematic) institutional use of politeness codes as a tool of corrupt power and class bullying (and the many popular social bullying games clustered thereabouts) – only about proud anger not balanced with compassion. The corrosive explosive dangerous version that starts wars (how did we ever compound ‘civil’ with ‘war’, anyhow?) ;o)

      But since you give me an excuse for further clarity, please pardon me if it comes off a bit rude in places (demonstrative not remonstrative, I swear). ;o)

      Anyone can do logical operations on constructions of words – this isn’t listening or debate, more like a fun logic game we all play rather a lot of now. And though I’m not a footnote battler by inclination, if you had read with an eye to understanding my argument you would have noticed I actually did later more clearly specify that I was talking about:

      • 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.

      And roughly summarized my central point as:

      • 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).

      John Brunner wound up his brilliant dystopian masterpiece “The Sheep Look Up” with one character noting that the only thing that might save the planet earth from environmental catastrophe is if the most destructive third of a million humans on earth ceased to exist – which of course would be all of us – proudly outraged individualist North American tantrum throwers (and as morally horrifying as that assertion is, in economic and thermodynamic terms, even a half century later it remains very hard to conclusively dispute it).

      In physical/environmental terms, we simply don’t make ANY good guys here (and for pure victims we have only the indigenous first nations, who alone have maintained connection to a fundamentally different approach). Modern westerners, both retrograde and cosmopolitain, are an identical species with variegated plumage. Both in-common are animals which defend the right to foul their own nest – to the death – an adaptation which is both unsustainable and inevitably self-correcting over the mid-term.

      SO – we have no moral high ground tribes (more like honest nest-foulers vs. dissembling ones), and we need to get over that idea right now. Those who feel they do have one are fooling themselves, instead of getting serious about clear perception of reality (not you Ian, I mean anyone – and yes, here I am in part sharing your outrage about why the heck isn’t everyone outraged?). What we individualist psycho brats in lock-step do have (collectively, at least, despite very lumpy distribution) are the surplus resources, economic and cultural, to try to work out some new ways of doing stuff that works better.

      But that isn’t what most of us are doing with our options. Most people now think that simply being angry at a right wing person makes them a leftist, or being angry at a left wing person makes them a right winger – total nonsense.

      What makes us something more than an ungrateful psycho brat is what we will get over ourselves for – NOTHING ELSE. And yes, I do understand that by this definition we’re running about eight-seven percent psychopath in all teams and factions nowadays – but I swear we all even know this to be true, deep down. Otherwise why would zombies have so thoroughly displaced vampires (odious one-percenters, surely) in popular culture?

      The most objectively toxic part of privilege is the way we are so deeply in love with our own anger. I said read history, because we’re being stupid like many have been lethally stupid before us – in this exact ignorant and vicious way.
      We think our hating is a good thing and we are WRONG WRONG WRONG. It is actually a “death to the foreign poor” excusing thing in every single damn case, and we should smarten the hell up (like, a half a century ago already).

      Of course humans are frequently angry about real things, and frequently have to do something with that anger. When they do stupid stuff with it, they create more anger and make a lousier planet for everyone. WHEN THEY GET OVER THEMSELVES FOR SOMETHING THAT ACTUALLY MATTERS (and to be clear EGO does not EVER – that is the root of self-deception, avarice, hatred and rationalized abuse) THEY MIGHT HELP (and even then, we humans are weird, so might is the best we can do).

      As I pointed out in my piece about the Panthers awhile ago, as a gun rights group they succeeded in provoking the California legislature to reduce general rights, simply to constrain them. But when they evolved past their pure anger formation and began running breakfast programs, free classes at strange hours for working class people who can study no other way, and all sort of other community outreach support programs – THEN, they were a serious threat. They weren’t offering pretexts to blowhards anymore, they were proving that they cared more about the children and other members of their community than their own (still completely justified) anger.

      Our slacker social justice ‘peak’ by contrast destroyed a chance to elect an actual leftist, and then destroyed the chance to do a socially important thing and repudiate Trump with a very clear and resounding margin (should have been twenty points) by scaring a whole bunch of people in the middle, who don’t like things burning, or seeing all the talking heads spouting dishonest corporatist tripe in unison. Way into Orwell-creepy land (I wish I had the original source for Robert Anton Wilson’s assertion that people become more paranoid when they are being lied to – even if they can’t prove it – feels intuitively true as can be, but it’s always great to have some numbers to go with).

      Lastly – and I really don’t mean this as a personal slight, but it has to be said. You aren’t quite there yet (what I’m talking about above). I believe very firmly that you will ultimately get there and know it as a new strength once you do, precisely because you haven’t given up trying – you are still daring enough to ask questions, and your heart is still alive and caring – these are the things that move our feet down the path, but we’re all walking in a desert of interpersonal withdrawal these days (the bigger theme I mentioned, and am coming back to soon).

      You are completely wrong about maturity being subjective. And yes I was trying to offer a simple standard, and suggesting we recognize it. It is just so incredibly rare and undervalued a thing nowadays, that there is no common way for us to respect and gather ’round it. It has become our new “Struggle for enlightenment” (weird but super true).
      It is also a solid foundation for argumentation which is fundamentally different from the logic puzzle/adversarial mode – which I think we can probably agree has got us (as a society) into a lot more trouble lately than it has overcome.

      On a more individual level – You really weren’t given as much as you should have been, and I have a similar experience of having been forced to get through a screwy childhood without a full set of emotional tools, making what I could with whatever I could find to substitute. Victims of deprivation and abuse pretty much always carry anger around lifelong (part of what I meant when I said the damage doesn’t ever end). This isn’t fault or sin on our part, just one part of our own personal overcoming challenge. (and we both know others who had more physically comfortable rides, which messed them up no less). ;o)

      The only reason I am where I am on this arc is my incredible fortune in finding Catherine while still a young man, and enjoying years of the nourishing challenge of building love together. That she read the “Please look after this bear” tag on my coat and decided she would bring scruffy-me home and spruce me up, has made every positive difference in my experience of life and my own recognition of the absolutely crucial place of gratitude.

      Some can of course reasonably argue – “I have less experience of happiness, I have not met my dyad/completor and have thus been robbed by life, etc etc.” But to conclude from this (or any similar list) that there is no reason for gratitude is again flat wrong. Not morally – but functionally, and in terms of understanding.

      Everything good comes with a burden also. This doesn’t make the good thing any less good, or less necessary for our potential for growth, it just means that as we take on more caring and duty in our perspective, we grow new muscles we never needed before, so we can properly bear that load – and when this growth really ‘takes’, this new strength then changes how we see everything else in the world, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.

      Which is to say again,the anger and resentment so many feel – while understandable, is a big part of what makes it hard for them to connect. Gratitude does not come only after we have reason for it, gratitude and reason are as indissolubly linked as love and duty. Rejecting one, we reject both, and stay frustrated unfulfilled brats – often willfully and proudly, thanks to our misunderstandings and popular idiocies.. (Again, really really not you personally – just the meta point about our present societal level of maturity). ;o)

      Cheers man. And yes by all means stay angry – but please stay MORE loving – just as I have always in all these many years known you to be.
      Your strong fist is nothing compared to your truly beautiful heart.

      Paul
      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      PS – Now all of a sudden I’m thinking there’s a billion potential dollars in a false idol ‘Adulting Ashram’ (or perhaps a chain of Duty Dojos?) ;o)
      Interesting times indeed.

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