This sounds at odds, I know, with my usual reflections on Colin13 through Colin18, who I would normally have you believe possessed a certain fire of will that Colin25 lacks. But I feel as if whatever I've lost in abstract "passion" has been recouped in sangfroid. I don't get many compliments about qualities other than my passable radio voice or my lack of clothing stains, but when I do, they invariably praise my total and utter equanimity. A few SAT words clunkily dropped in there, but you get my meaning, and besides, I couldn't summon anything smoother. The bleak fact is that, when you're not an athlete, nor a viola virtuoso, nor a chessmaster, nor Bill Clinton, nor a decent student, you lean pretty damn hard on what you've got and play the hand your dealt, even if that hand is something as unspecific as "composure."
I didn't always have this; it's more deliberately cultivated than innate. Even though everything may ultimately be genetic in origin, I'd bet my last dollar that this isn't proximately genetic in the sense we think of traits like hair color as "genetic." (Though, come to think of it, I'm not sure where that came from either.) Whatever its provenance, it seems to have leveled up in recent years. What was once confined exclusively to my demeanor has seeped into my very thoughts and judgments. Or perhaps "lack of judgments" is more appropriate. (Or "lack of thoughts," if you like.)
My previous iterations held strong opinions on a host of struggles as eternal as vinyl v. CD v. MP3, song v. album, capitalism v. socialism or yes Kevin Smith v. no Kevin Smith. My longtime opt-out of Israel v. Palestine continues, though I reserve the right to maintain my iron line re: Saving Private Ryan v. The Thin Red Line. But on the whole, I seem to have taken to heart the old adage of opinions' likeness to anuses in both their ubiquity and their stinkiness. Have I thus become an unmoored relativist? Nah. I still have ideas and observations about vinyl, CDs and MP3s, songs and albums, capitalism and socialism, Kevin Smith and the absence thereof. I still think about these issues, but it no longer feels quite so critically important that I stake out a position.
I'm reminded of a years-ago conversation with Chris, the Livejournalist Formerly Known as cobalt999 , where we discussed two models of intellectual development. One is where you adopt whichever position seems most plausible and then iterate from there: young communist becomes adolescent socialist becomes adult social democrat, young anarchist becomes adolescent Objectivist libertarian becomes adult somewhat less Objectivist libertarian. In other words, garbage in, garbage out. The other model is where you adopt positions in direct proportion to your certainty about them. So if you're five percent sure of the teachings of the Buddha, you're five percent a Buddhist. This latter has always been, and is now more than ever, my model of choice, but I've ceased to believe that the "ism" bits matter — I'll spare you the Ferris Bueller quote about isms, in his opinion, not being good — and that holds for everyone else as well as for myself.
I recently interviewed economist Steven Landsburg on The Marketplace of Ideas about his new book on the applicability of quantitative reasoning to broad philosophical problems. He has an unusual perception of religion: it seems to him that, despite how much people talk about god, very, very few people actually believe in god. Where on Earth, and especially in a country with healthily operating megachurches and Jesus camps, does he get that? The lens is surprisingly simple, one used by many an economist trying to figure the world out: look to actions, not to testimony.
If you're trying to gauge a population's belief in god by asking them, you're actually gauging that population's willingness to profess belief in god. This isn't unique to religion; polling a group as to whether they prefer broccoflower or BaconatorsTM fails to capture the desired data for the same reason. The question to ask is this: how many people act as if they believe that an omniscient, omnipotent deity is really and truly looking out for them? Vanishingly few.
By the same token, how many people live — not talk, but live — by their stated convictions about truth, ideology, politics, culture and what have you? How many act in real accordance with their claims that, say, "peace is the highest good," "Kubrick's films are worthless," "things would be great if I could form a line marriage" or "if election x produces outcome a, I'm moving to Canada"? These may be somewhat fascinating lines to entertain and consider, but to accept, internalize, assert and defend? I dunno, man.
This is why it's stopped mattering to me how others position themselves on the usual spectra. So you're a "nihilist" "anarcho-syndicalist" who listens to "Daft Punk", eh? Great. What are those, checkboxes on your Facebook profile? Increasingly, my reactions to what I read, see and hear have either evolved or devolved away from the likes of "Yay!" and "Boo!" — for what are our reactions but heaps of signaling layered upon those two monosyllables? — and toward "Hmm..." Whether I agree or disagree isn't nothing, exactly, but it's nothing compared to whether I find it interesting. And if I don't find it interesting, it's in large part my own fault.
It's plausible that my immersion in interviewing has fostered this attitude. I find that in the most enjoyable interviews, the interviewers don't waste breath vigorously expressing assent with or dissent from their guests' points. Good interviews have questions (doi), propositions, speculations, hypotheses and prompts for specification. They don't have a lot of booing and yaying. (Notice which you hear more in those three-minute press junket abominations.) Yet they still have to be conversations, not one-sided facilitated speeches. Striking this balance, I have come to realize, is the essential trick of interviewing.
Even if you put audience entertainment to one side, you, as an interviewer, will never learn anything from your guests if you burden your limited mental bandwidth with the task of thump-upping or thumb-downing everything your interlocutor says. You become a judge instead of a receptor. As a very recent guest, told me, "My main opinion on politics is 'I don't know.'" He's also a man known to read most human behavior as social signaling and status-jockeying, which I would submit bears extreme relevance to this particular topic.
Though I didn't pick it up directly from him, my main opinion on politics, and on a heap of other big subjects besides, has also become "I don't know." Because how could I know? How could anyone know the answers to these broad, amorphous issues on which they pronounce with such vehemence? Please don't mistake this, however, for an abdication of my responsibility to be interested in politics, a move I would consider as ill-advised as adopting positions on all issues with absolute certainty.
Because, see, I feel that we, as humans, have not specifically a responsibility to be interested in politics but a responsibility to be interested, period. Do I have any evidence for this? Nah. But dare you refute my claim that, to the extent that I'm not interested in something, I fail at humanity? Everything is interesting — politics, sure, but also, economics, physics, bus route scheduling, fabric darning, etc., etc. — if approached from the correct angle. The instructor of a documentary class I'm taking stressed this on day one with a writing exercise: no matter where you are, no matter who you're talking to, no matter what you're looking at, there is something there by which to be fascinated, a worthwhile observation to make, an engaging story to tell.
Apropos both documentary and interviewing — on several levels — I see this weltanschauung, or a form of it, exemplified in the mind of nonfiction filmmaker, blogger (and icon) Errol Morris. This is a man who's crafted acclaimed film and television documentaries based on marathon, many-hour interviews with pet cemetery operators, turkey hunters, incoherent retirees, convicted murderers, unconvicted murders, falsely convicted non-murderers, cops, military police, astrophysicists, mole-rat researchers, topiary sculptors, nanobot engineers, lion tamers, execution device engineers, Holocaust deniers, former secretaries of defense, animal communicators, serial killer groupies, cryonics proponents, the stalked, squid chasers, medical oddity curators, Unabomber pen pals, crusaders against credit card firms, crime scene cleaners, masters of disguise, internet entrepreneur, television addicts, genius bar bouncers, mob lawyers, professional high school students, homicide aficionados and successful crash-landers of DC-10s.
I aspire to that. Not just in film, not just in media, but in life. This is the ultimate curiosity, the caliber that render's one's mind a permanently interesting place to be. Morris recognizes the existence of objective truth — in fact, he takes many and great pains to state and restate his recognition of objective truth — but his interest in the fictional worlds people build and occupy in their own minds remains unquenchable. imomus put well with this resonant observation:
I don't mind that something is propaganda, in other words is an obvious lie. It can still serve my purposes, for instance embody a kind of plot in which cynicism and negativity has been completely, consciously excluded. It matters less whether something is true or false than whether it takes me somewhere.Note that Morris, despite his yen for documentation of his own trips into the small, fantastical psychological capsules of individuals, doesn't consider himself any less intellectually imprisoned than his subjects. Small concession to make, you might say, not exempting himself from the human condition. But isn't it all too rare for public thinkers not to declare or imply themselves cured of the malady with which they diagnose the rest of the world?
This is most visible by its unsubtlety in politics, especially political punditry. If you'll indulge moment of ideological asymmetry here, I find it even more pervasive on the left than on the right. Think of the endlessly multiplying theorists who, ostensibly defending the interests of the downtrodden common man, operate on the premise that everyone has been hoodwinked by corporations, crooked politicians and the military-industrial complex — everyone but them. But even outside this realm, certain types of claims set off my brain's automatic find/replace:
- "The Bush Regime plays the American public like a fiddle" = "I have psychic powers (to recognize and avoid the techniques of said fiddling)"
- "That work of art is pretentious" = "I have psychic powers (to know the artist's intention)"
- "Most people are lazy" = "I have psychic powers (to know others' willingness to work)"