Culture to Condos – not the change they wanted (top photo)
Discussion is one of those things that pretty much everyone can do. Then again, everyone with a voice can sing – but a far smaller set can do so in a way which pleases, moves or entertains others. Skill, study, practise and natural talent all apply.
Catherine first called me ‘Mister Curious’ back in the early eighties, and I consider myself very lucky that I am no less curious and enthusiastic about human effort, wisdom, technique and knowledge now, than I was as a confused but excited young man. It not only makes life itself more fun and interesting, but when curiosity is combined with respect, making new friends becomes much easier. You don’t have to fake an interest to seem cool, if you really are genuinely interested.
Funny thing though, I’m sure you’ve noticed it yourself. Excellence and expertise aren’t what they used to be – not in any field I know of. As an essayist and thinker I am a generalist, which means I try really hard to learn enough about a lot of things, to be able to sketch out some of the relationships between fields and the contexts in which their particular ideas exist, in a way which is not always evident to those who are extremely specialized, or to those too busy to ask such (often weird) questions.
Being any sort of halfway decent generalist comes with a very special condition – I know that at the end of any link I draw, are experts who can go much deeper in describing the anchors across which my link is stretched.
That is – I absolutely must begin with humility, and by conditioning any answer I offer with some ideas about context and about the derivation of my own proposed insight. I also have some fair expertise as a technician (useless though those skills have been rendered by time), so I have also had the experience of being the consulted expert myself, many thousands of times over a period of decades.
But I have to say, as ‘Mister Curious’ I have been repeatedly struck by how often experts I am talking to (in any field), do exactly what I try to do as a generalist – and even did by honourable professional habit as a technician. “Before I answer you, here’s what I don’t know and here’s what I can’t yet tell you.” When you acknowledge the limits to your understanding, you are at least suggesting that you have tested it against reality repeatedly, and taken note of the often humbling results.
The places where the trickiest questions lie, are where we outright need our experts. The question could be “Why won’t my phone hold a charge?” or “What is that lump?” If we actually knew the answer with useful certainty, we’d just stay home and fix it ourselves and save the time and money.
A doctor knows they have to base any firm diagnosis on freshly gathered relevant evidence, which then fits into a greater scientific paradigm, which suggests the results of many oft-repeated techniques as options from which they then must do their best to select the most appropriate, for that one case.
It is now quite common to observe great historical errors made in medicine, as if that somehow calls the entire science of medicine into question. But it is a very different thing to say “They don’t know everything” (which every doctor I know, freely admits), than it is to suggest “This particular technique has been misunderstood, and new and better experimental investigation would invalidate it.”
One is about how we feel, and one is about overcoming very normal human habits like group-think or profit-seeking, to be sure that the scientific method is being applied so as to overcome our anticipated human failings effectively.
Discussions of feelings are very different, aren’t they?
Right off the bat, the first thing we notice is that they aren’t limited. We don’t say, it seems to me, or I feel as if. We say THIS is a THAT! And often, we even believe it. And by THIS and THAT I mean the standard tribal game. THIS thing our enemies like, is precisely the same (in our imagination) as THAT hateful thing that all righteous good thinkers (of our tribe) must conform and abhor. Sinners, witches, heretics – all through history, humans have always loved to hang or a burn a non-conformist. Some might even argue that the celebration of shared cruelty is our most natural kind of festival.
We also start using all sorts of personal slights and cheap shots to insult those who say true things we really don’t want to hear. This is getting especially bad recently, and doing damage to everyone’s picture of reality. Sadly, “La la la, I can’t hear you” still has not been shown to have any measurable thermodynamic effect.
It does indeed limit the useful inputs contributing to the big hopper between our ears – but it can not ever change reality. Not ever. The long ago phrase “greasy kid’s stuff” comes to mind.
But the thing which I find most telling about these discussions, is that when you ask the person who is so very passionate and actively hateful about anyone who would dare oppose their super important ultra-correct position (on whatever), why it is that they feel so strongly about that position in particular, you realize they don’t actually have a working knowledge of the subject at all. No years of deep interest, no hours of challenging discussion and learning from wiser minds. They wouldn’t even know the expert vocabulary they are deploying (repetitively, in word-perfect order) if it wasn’t for the fact that an authority they happen to like ‘told them so.’ Which means, other than a demonstration of obedience to authority, all they really have to offer with their statements is strong personal emotion.
Now let me stop and qualify THIS argument, just for a second.
I’m not saying discussing our feelings about things is invalid, and I’m REALLY not saying that everyone should be like me (I hate that arrogant position more than almost any other I read – and I wouldn’t wish my crazy brain on anyone, anyhow). ;o)
PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT. Sorry, but they just are folks. Any attempt to judge individual human beings by broad categories is a way to make ourselves more stupid and to reject useful growthful and restorative human connection, for absolutely no benefit whatsoever. As someone who loves human beings and human knowledge, I can’t help thinking aggressively defended ignorant lonely unhappiness is pretty close to the worst result a way of thinking can give us. Sadly also popular.
Trust me, long before we get anywhere near to peace – no compassion, no justice.
This applies absolutely everywhere, to absolutely all of the both-sides-stupid arguments we keep wasting all of our supposedly political energy on. Some kids need more discipline and structure to thrive, some kids know exactly what to do with way more freedom. GET OVER IT. A rule that ignores this variance in favour of one idea only, is always very unfair to some.
This is about who the kid actually is – not what ANY adult around them thinks. They aren’t blank canvasses, theories, political footballs, or pets to pose with on insta. They are individual people who need our awareness and our help, to realize their potential. And this isn’t a political position either, I’m just talking evolution. We’re one of those species whose young stay in learning mode for an extended period. The more good stuff we can feed our children and youth, the more they’ll have to share with all of us in later years. No investment has ever been more direct, or more often misunderstood.
Likewise – the vast majority of the people around us just want to have a decent life, enjoy some nice time with friends and be remembered well. The idea that anyone who isn’t an active revolutionary (on whatever side you favour) is instead an evil zombie slave of ‘the hateful machine’ is so cold as to be very nearly genocidal. Definitely deeply paranoid, anti-humane (and probably objectively insane).
THE MATRIX WAS A (silly) MOVIE, folks. Meth-mind and political theory do not mix.
(Honestly, didn’t we already suffer enough damage from three full generations of the wildly paranoid influence of BF Skinner, John Nash and RAND-think in general?)
Here is the tricky bit, the one that we either get right as a society, or else gets carved on our (civilizational) tombstone. Discussions about how to keep us all alive have to be the rational kind, and not the emotional. We need robust solutions. And we need to be smart enough to recognize and then demand to be able to vote for reality.
The split now, where leaders consider their populations so ignorant that they must be manipulated by distortions “For Their Own Good” is doing incredible damage to the fabric of our democracies. The leadership class we so long trusted for simple technocratic competence are proving that they have not even that to offer us anymore, but would nevertheless rather burn it all down, than cede power back to the populace itself by reversing the centralizing and authoritarian trends which have been rising for almost a quarter of a century, in what was once far more unironically the ‘free’ west.
Food, energy, safety, and yes, economic performance, are all things which can (and as we are now observing do) go catastrophically wrong, if we leave people in charge who feel things, without understanding or acknowledging the basic realities of their field.
Those strange critters who do know better but lie smoothly, we usually call politicians
Or at least, professional politicians. We also have quite a few in that role now who are very adept at the performance side, but have very little of the necessary knowledge. That is, they lie smoothly without knowing the truth at all, or even being appropriately ashamed that they don’t.
I know a lot of people still like how he feels about a lot of things, and I can still sympathize with that on some level, but many other Canadians are, like me, becoming rather horrified at how grotesquely unqualified, our relentlessly patronizing dynastic amateur boxer/bouncer/school teacher prime minister has proven to be.
It is now quite obvious that he does not understand his most important job as senior statesman is to represent the interests character and voters of the whole country at once. Worse, he is shameless in his sneering Central Urban arrogance, which means his ignorance does double damage to already greatly strained national unity (which was damaged by that same arrogance, at our very formation). Such a waste.
He staked his claim out of the gate on improving relations with our first nations people, but five years later, right on the heels of announcing tens (almost surely really hundreds) of billions in charitable donations to American arms manufacturers for defective novelties, he says clean drinking water for Canada’s first peoples will have to wait five MORE years. We’re not moving on to plans for advanced economic development and a native managed health system, to displace centuries of patronizing western intervention calling itself care, even while it comes at the end of a bayonet of state force – which horror still continues unabated in new forms (thousands still taken into state care every year). Nope – we’re still stuck all the way back at freakin’ drinking water. A competent leader would have done better. Priorities are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.
I’m sure he’s a charmer at a dinner party, but it is obvious that he is missing several thousand hours of history reading, and a deep interest in ethics. I’d have him start on Barbara Tuchman, then do all of Shirer. Everything by Orwell and Malraux as well – and that’s just for a start. Ignatieff could lend him some useful stuff from his library and his own pen also, were (the neither right, nor honourable) Justin sensible enough to seek further growth in the sort of wisdom needed to guide a society.
But of course – he would have to really want to know that sort of stuff – he’d need a genuine natural enthusiasm for statesmanship. He would need to be his own kind of mister curious for that cluster of subjects. Or else, just like any of us when outside of our interests, any crucial functional knowledge which was offered to him would probably just bounce off, mostly unheeded. Because there is no deep and well-nourished mental structure there, for him to plug it into.
Without pointing any fingers, I think my friends in many other countries will recognize their own shallow performers of this type (oddly many of whom have noteworthy hairstyles, for easy branding). ;o)
Which brings me to my last point. I have not yet read José Ortega y Gasset, and so far I have only read comparatively short pieces by Martin Gurri, but it seems increasingly clear that both of them identified something very strange about the direction of our increasingly atomized and conflicted modern take on democracy (particularly with advertising and mass media ascendant). Gurri, in a way which is right up to date with our latest political tempests.
More and more often, on left and right, from middle upper and working class, we hear casual sneering disdain for expertise and mastery.
Social media has a lot to do with this. We LOVE to tune-in to people who feel like we do, and can express powerful rationalizations for those feelings. In fact, we would much rather be lied-to by someone we like, than we would be challenged helpfully by someone whose beliefs we hold in disdain.
The thing is, a real scientist is someone who holds reality as the highest possible value. Their opinions are infinitely more informed than those of us outside their expertise, even their casual insights are often on a level of sophistication we would not know to notice. But still they recognize that a theory must FUNCTION when it is confronted by reality, or they must learn more and do better.
I used to describe this as the difference between a farmer and someone with a hobby garden. The farmer needs to keep the farm solvent and feed people – they can’t afford to try wild experiments with the main fields, or get too distracted to plant and harvest on time.
A whole lot more people can grow a pretty flower, than feed a town. And let’s face it – a whole lot of us struggle even to keep a potted plant going more than a season or two.
Fascinating as the world is, and curious as we may be, we can’t know everything. Some people are just fine without any expertise at all. Kindness and honour do not require it. Some have limited areas of deep knowledge. Some are broad and shallow.
But one thing all of us can do is step back and remember the difference between I feel and I know. From there, we can make an effort to understand that difference in others around us. Before letting your emotions get caught up, try asking yourself – who knows what they are talking about, and who is just really great at trash talking? They are not usually the same people. Mister drama cheers one, mister curious adores the other.
Now here’s another important qualifier. There is nothing wrong with sparring, trash-talking, and competition. That’s why we have sports, fashion, video games, talent shows and a million new kinds of adventuring and experience seeking. Humans need plenty of things which don’t seem strictly rational. Play is good for us! Helps us mark a day as ours.
But when we let the sport-emoting and the trash-talking silence the practical discussions we require to operate the complex systems we rely upon to survive, we all end up suffering (and also enable more damage to be done to others in our name). Not just because we have as citizens, taken our hand off the tiller, but also because even when we deny it, we register a deep inner shame – since we know full well that there are always creeps and weirdos waiting to gather and use our power for their own nasty purposes. The minute we stop paying responsible attention, we let them do that.
Now one more qualifier, in a somewhat more harsh direction. There is no coasting in any natural process – there is growth and there is decay.
I’m not talking about economic growth or growth of consumption – anyhow, it is now well established that past a surprisingly low point, more money does not bring us more happiness. I’m talking about the growth of each one of us as people and of our whole civilization, toward something which we both feel and know would be better to live in. A society in which we can be happier, freer, fairer, more reasonable, and not incidentally survive, long-term. We can’t be happy or sane if we aren’t even trying for it.
I mean the thing that used to be known as hope, a big goal, a forward vision. We cannot get from here to there by wishing, by hating, by tribal games, or by scorn. This is not a moral idea, I mean only that there are no cases in history where smashing magically became the same thing as building.
The only proven way we humans ever do truly do something much better than before, is by finding an aspirational reason we can share, and then learning and cooperating to get there. Simple as. (tee hee)
Growth takes effort, it means being a citizen instead of a consumer. And yes it means accepting the responsibility we all have, whether or not we would rather pretend away our own share, as someone else’s fault, force or fiat. We all must do, to add more of what we are sure there should be more of.
But growth also means never ending possibility for new connection, engagement, deep purpose and worthwhile work to do. All of which are infinitely closer to genuine functional happiness than stewing and fuming indefinitely, as a passive aggressive protest (tantrum). This isn’t a sneering diss, either, I saw this experiment run by many great but broken hearts, in my own generation X – they were very simply steamrollered. Muck on the tracks, a hundred miles back.
Decay? That’s what we’re doing now. Complain more about others we don’t understand, watch more TV and internet, consume more crap for which the poor are exploited overseas, self-medicate.
Elites and manipulators really do abound and they most definitely threaten all of us. But make no mistake, deep knowledge isn’t snobbery or power games, it is life-giving sap.
As for our uncountable popular forms of negative narcissistic obsession with hatred pain and sadness, instead of practical positive forward-looking solution-building?
They are not justice, and they are not greatness past or present, they are flame.
And we my dear friends are drought-stricken tinder (in both infinitely tragic senses)
Here are a few remarkable things to read.
This is an especially interesting article about the relevance of Ortega y Gasset’s thought to modern social problems by the brilliant music critic (and investment analyst) Ted Gioia, who revisited his theme more recently in his superb substack (limited exerpt, I’m afraid, but a must-bookmark writer).
I’m pretty sure that Matt Taibbi is the most consistently funny writer about serious topics alive, and well worth reading just for that. The fact that substack makes him more fearless than ever just makes him better, and also puts him in a good position to say more than many corporate-shackled reporters are allowed to.
This article by Gurri, about how once hard news media has been destroyed by commerce and social media is extraordinary. “The Times it is a’ changing” (sadly).
And here is his new series. I can’t help thinking of that amusing commercial. “I don’t always listen to the perspectives of openly declared retired CIA analysts, but when I do, I reach for a Gurri”
And be clear about this folks – no matter what media source you like, you’re definitely reading spies.