Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ten Beliefs That Help Me Be Happy

     This past month I've written on several holiday themes including admiring Scrooge's iconic grumpiness and the rhetorical acrobatics of explaining Santa to a child. Just as an indoor cat will sneak up on a Christmas tree ornament, the end of the year now encroaches on our festive dispositions. Thinking about the year ahead creeps into the back of our heads upon stealthy feline paws that threatens to pounce on the serenity we allow ourselves once everything is unwrapped and we finally let go of the folderol that makes this particular holiday so fraught with the opportunities for disappointment. Once the true tranquility settles in on Christmas morning, it's easy to get nervous in that peaceful silence that follows if we start to wonder, “Okay, now what?”
     As a dose of prevention in keeping myself from getting wound back up just as the holidays are getting wound down, I thought I might take stock of the spiritual beliefs that help keep me centered when it feels as though the rest of the world is tilting and spinning, and the pull of inertia on my moral compass makes me question the location of all that is right and good. Below is a list of 10 of my core beliefs, and a brief explanation of why I believe them. If instead of internalizing my beliefs, you might take some time before the New Year to list out a few of your own core beliefs, you may find that having a list similar to this to be the salubrious tonic that will get you through the cold winter months ahead.

Ten Core Beliefs

1. Everyday life screws with our ability to apply our abstract principles of right and wrong. While discussing hypothetical situations, it is a lot easier to recognize how we want to react to moral dilemmas. But, everyday life isn't hypothetical. Real life is complicated. Real life has an amazing ability to come up with a bazillion intervening factors that have a sincere impact upon our ability to judge what's right and what's wrong. Every time we encounter a difficult moral decision, circumstance matters. There just is no easy way to fit the geography of real life onto the flat template of “never do this” or “we should always do that.” In theory, the shortest distance between two places is a straight line, but in real life, the shortest distance is sometimes to go around the mountain rather than to try to climb up it.

2. Some difficult ideas cannot be reduced to simple platitudes. Not everything in life can be reduced to a simple formula or a basic rule of thumb. It takes real intelligence, for example, to recognize a distinction between “what is real” and “what we know about it.” What is real is a question of existence; what we know about it is a question of interpretation. When people conflate their interpretations with their reality, problems arise in that they think what they know is real instead of mere belief. Most of humanity's self-inflicted tragedies have come from people who have hurt others while suffering from a madness that has convinced them their dangerous delusions carry the authority of an inescapable actuality.

3. If an idea can be misinterpreted, there will be people who will misinterpret it. This core belief is almost a correlate to Murphy's Law which says “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.” The human brain is a pattern making machine; we see faces in electrical outlets merely because the three slots line up with two eyes and a mouth. Because our brains are able to make inferences and draw conclusions, then it is inevitable that from time to time, we will make the wrong inference or draw the wrong conclusion. As far as I can tell, there are some people who seem to have a knack for drawing the wrong conclusion from whatever evidence presents itself. There are few things in life more annoying that someone who will argue until they are blue in the face that their interpretation is “the correct one” when any variety of alternative interpretations can be considered just as probable.

4. In general, it is better to be kind than correct. How often in life have we found ourselves arguing with someone over something of little importance but somehow the argument itself takes on its own importance? While we may gain a brief jolt of self-satisfaction when we “win” those arguments, let's consider what we lose when we've forced another person into conceding. What we lose is our higher nature. Every time we bully someone into admitting they are wrong, we have taken another step in the direction of caring more about an ideal than someone else's feelings. Whenever we damage a relationship with someone out of some allegiance to an abstract principle, we've done nothing but demonstrated that an ideal is somehow more important than an actual human being. In the long run, what people will remember about you is how your “ideals” were reflected in how you've treated them, not in your stubborn dogmatism regarding some abstract principle.

5. Something is wrong whenever we value “stuff” over people. Everyone likes their stuff, and most of us would like more stuff. But, really, how much stuff do we need to survive? Everyone should have a warm, safe place to sleep; a decently-filled belly, and a place to take a shower. After that, stuff just gets piled on stuff, but many people are actually willing to hurt or kill others to keep them from taking the stuff they don't actually need to survive. The Bible says, “the love of money is the root of all evil” and that's because money is just a way of keeping track of how much stuff we can get without recognizing how much stuff we don't really need.

6. Anger and Fear can prevent us from thinking straight. Whether you believe in evolution or not, there's a reptilian part of your brains that is completely devoted to “getting ready to run or getting ready to rumble.” Whenever our lower emotions (anger and fear are just a couple of them; hatred and jealously are also on the list) take over the management of our consciousness, we become prisoners of our darker passions. There's something chemical in our brains that prevents us from reasoning well while we are in the midst of panicking. While there is nothing wrong with being passionate about our beliefs, we need to recognize whenever our temper or frustration has moved us from rational beings to snarling animals. It's best to stop in the midst of a heated argument to see if you can regain control of the thinking part of your brain rather than it is to keep charging ahead like a bull who can only focus on the red flag.

7. Whether life is getting better or getting worse is a matter of perspective. You want evidence that life is getting worse, it's there in abundance. Gravity and entropy are never going to go away. It takes no effort to focus on either what's wrong or what's missing if you want life to be different from that way it is. And, at the same time, if you want verification that things are getting better, all you have to do is look for justification because it is all around you. Good things are happening; hard work and dedication is paying off. Now, which perspective is going to make you a better person? Since neither perspective is necessarily incompatible with the other, how much of one are you willing to allow to either support or destroy the other outlook? It's not really about either being pessimistic or optimistic; it's about be aware that either perspective is a choice, and all choices have both their liabilities and their benefits.

8. The best religion is the one you follow, not the one you preach to others. If there is an Ultimate Truth out there, and you've found it, then do me a solid favor and show me the way rather than try to drag me to it. If there is a path to salvation, it must point in the direction of personal responsibility. How can anyone become responsible if they don't have the agency of finding the truth out for themselves?

9. You don't need to understand what someone was thinking in order to forgive them. Forgiveness means letting go of something you hold against someone else. You don't have to forget what has happened, you only need to allow it to be. If you think you need to wait to understand someone else's motivations for what they have done before you can let go of it, then you may end up holding on to those feelings forever. How often do we understanding why anyone else does anything? How many times in our own lives have we done something that we can't even explain to ourselves why we did it?
The secret to forgiveness is the acknowledgement that forgiveness lives within our own control and other people do not. We cannot change what other people have done in the past or will do in the future; we can only change how we decide to feel about it.

10. Forgives of others is a gift we give ourselves. The terrible truth about resentment is that it is an acid that burns from within; typically when we hold on to grudges and bitterness, those harsh feelings harm only ourselves. Sometimes people stay angry for years at what someone else has said or done, and they end up prolonging and exacerbating their own emotional damage because of it. Letting go of resentment is a gift we give ourselves because we victimize ourselves when hold on to anger, sadness, and frustration that may affect the other person not at all. When we learn to weed the garden of our hearts of old animosities, we make room to grow the fruits of our own contentment. If you are unconvinced that forgiveness can improve your life, then I offer this simple experiment: try it for a day. Plan on forgiving someone for 24 hours and see how it feels. You can always pack the anger back into your heart if really need it, but I suspect that once without it, you'll want to remain free of its burden.

     As always, I invite readers to respond in the comment section of this blog (below). I'm probably going to take next week off so I'll see you next year. Until then, keep thinking rhetorically.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Time and Tragedy

“Time is on my side. Space is around my belly.” – Woody Herb
“Time is different on a roller coaster than it is for the folks waiting in line at the DMV.” – Arlo Lizzard
“There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them.” – Jim Croce.
“Time heals all wounds and wounds all heals.” – Anonymous

     It's no secret that this blog is a rehearsal for a book I'm planning on working on next summer after I retire from teaching public school. If I should live that long, that is; after all – the world is supposed to end this coming weekend. Some of what shows up in these posts from week to week will reappear in the book; most of it will certainly disappear into the bleak dystopia of The Great Digital Purgatory. The Great Digital Purgatory is a vast wasteland where ideas – some good, some not so good – go to sit out eternity waiting to be found and reconsidered in some mythical future where truth matters more than lies and kindness motivates us to finally take care of one another.
     Years from now when I'm no longer withdrawing air from my breath account and I've not only ceased writing, but my body has ceased even in the act of decomposing, I expect that everything I've ever posted to the internet will in some sense still exist – that is to say, it will still be recorded within numerous redundant storage drives – but will be forgotten and lost, buried in the vast landfill of The Great Digital Purgatory. C'est la vie. It's not going to stop me from cranking this drivel out.
If I'm remembered at all, if any of my words pop up randomly in some galactic search engine of the future, I hope it's for saying that I loved every last one of you who ever gave me a spare moment of your attention. Only love is eternal. I think I can really die happy if the love I've expressed into the universe holds the potential for popping up, randomly and at unexpected times, on someone's screen in the far distant future. If you are reading this a thousand years from now, and you have no idea who I am, don't be surprised to find out that I love you. I always have.
     I expect very little from this particular post will make it into the book that is to come because this week I want to write about a national tragedy that occurred a few days ago, and by the time I get around to compiling the book, this tragedy – for the vast majority of Americans who are not personally invested in the lives of its victims – will have been replaced by the latest tragedy. By the time I get around to writing and publishing the book, whether it's next summer or a year from now, this week's particular tragedy in which some tragically mad young adult quickly and brutally ended the lives of 20 elementary schoolchildren and a half dozen of their teachers will have been mostly forgotten. In a few short months, this particular tragedy will be nothing more than a footnote because as tragic as this mass murder was, the shooter failed to achieve the all-important body count that would move him to #1 in the standings; the real horror of this weeks atrocity is that this particular abomination only comes in at #2 in total victims served (for school shootings that is) and as such will not be worthy of further reflection because, hey, who's going to want to remember #2? No, by the time my book on the intersection of rhetoric, politics, superstition, and reality comes to print, the national consciousness – as driven by the national news media – will have long forgotten what a terrible week this was in the light of the next terrible week that is to come.
     While we may be running out of fossil fuels and other natural resources, our supply of national tragedies flows from a source of never ending sorrows; we will never run out of tragically crazy people who want nothing more than to die with a brief acknowledge from the national media that they did indeed exist. If the price of their admission to the national consciousness is the cost of more innocent lives, more brutally slain schoolchildren, then that is the expense they are willing to pay because as far as they are concerned the price of the suffering they inflict upon others costs them nothing extra.          
     Tragically crazy people who kill others for the sake of notoriety are already so miserable that they are willing to die for their brief mention in the national media; the concept that the misery they can cause others through their victims' deaths or permanent injuries can somehow increase their own personally misery does not compute. When someone is at the very brink of despair and is looking for their own annihilation to put an end to whatever personal misery is motivating their self-destruction, the idea that anything – even the lives of babies – can increase their misery is meaningless because in those deep, dark caverns of despair, the concept that life holds any value has been lost to them. People who have lost the ability to recognize the value of their own existence are incapable of appreciating the value of the lives of others.
     By the time someone has crossed the bridge into the mental/spiritual/emotion landscape where their own personal existence has no meaning, the meaning of the existence of others is nothing more than a high score in a video game. I'm not suggesting, by the way, that video games (or violent lyrics or slasher movies or any other pop culture scapegoats that typically take the blame for causing people to go tragically mad) have anything to do with inspiring these people to take up weapons against their unsuspecting and vulnerable victims; I am arguing, however, that their final body count does matter to them in the same way that making it into Guinness World Book of Records matters to someone who in May of 1973 jumped 14,325 times on a pogo stick. Since 1973, it's never mattered whenever someone has jumped less than 14, 325 times on a pogo stick. The only time it's ever going to matter again is when someone jumps 14, 326 times.
     Earlier this week, before someone went into a elementary school and began their quest to die and get their name and pictured splashed on Fox News, someone else on the other side of America went into a shopping mall in Oregon (at Christmas time, it's Christmas time, remember?) and began shooting at random strangers. That person only managed two kill two people, a hospice nurse and a youth-soccer coach, before being assisted by the police in his suicide by notoriety. While the mall shoppers of Oregon's continue to seek out bargains to the increasingly creepiness of Silent Night playing in the background, the death of that particular shooter is quickly sinking into becoming a footnote of a footnote; his identity, which will not pop here, will only be linked to infamy by his chronological association with the bigger massacre that happened a few days later. What a loser; he only took out the lives of two very good people who were deeply loved by the others in their lives. He only destroyed the hearts of a handful of people whose lives were forever touched by the kindness of a hospice nurse and a fellow who gave his time to coach soccer.
     When you go into a doctor's office and the physician wants to test your reflexes, you get a small smack on the knee with a tiny rubber hammer. If all is well, your knee responds by flying upwards without any conscious thought of your brain. Every time someone in this country goes tragically mad and seeks out to end his life by attempting to set the new world's record for most innocent lives lost, the national knee is hit with the rubber hammer of awareness that perhaps, just perhaps, having more guns than human beings in this country may not be a good thing. Oddly, the knee jerk reaction doesn't come from the people who want to ban guns, but from the people who expect that others will want to ban their guns. This week the only people I've read who've said anything about gun control has come as a response to the people who immediately feel the need to defend their own possession of deadly weapons.
     I guess it's time now for my “rhetorical term of the week”; this week the term is “tautology.” A “tautology” is a statement of so blindly truth that it's utterance adds nothing to a debate. To the gun control debate that inevitably emerges whenever blameless, innocent babies are slaughtered while learning to read their ABCs or add whole numbers, I want to point out (once and for all) that the statement that “only criminals use guns to kill people” is tautological because, yep, once you kill someone with a gun, you're a criminal. The two people who went tragically mad this week, both the one in the shopping mall and the other in the elementary school, were both law abiding citizens right up until the moment they put their first bullet into someone. This is just as true for everyone else walking around with a gun right now.
     To those who carry around the means to causally end the lives of others, even my own, you have my love. Go ahead and shoot me; I won't like you, but I won't stop loving you. For whatever it's worth, if there is some box score that might reflect how my life is to be accounted for, I want to be held accountable for the number of people of whom I loved, not the number of people I have threatened. On this, I agree entirely with Gandhi, who died at the bullet of a stranger, who said there was lots of causes he was willing to die for, but not a single one he was willing to kill for.
     Merry Christmas; keep thinking rhetorically; and I may or may not be back next week (depending on that whole “end of the world” thingy).

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Rhetoric and Psychology of Grumpiness

"Before I draw nearer to that stone, tell me! Are these the shadows of things that must be, or are they the shadows of things that MIGHT be?" -- Ebenezer Scrooge
     Nietzsche famously said, “What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger.” Well, syphilis killed Nietzsche; it didn't make him stronger. This weekend I'm suffering from a head and chest cold; it's not killing me, but it also isn't making me any stronger. It's making me grumpy.
     Although there seems to be some kind of strength in grumpiness, it's all bravado and exterior. Whenever we find ourselves pushing others away with grumpiness on the outside, on the inside is the frightened, whiny voice of the inner child who is experiencing the dilemma of both wanting to be comforted while needing to be left alone. Grumpiness is the hard outer coating we use to disguise from others the empty fragility we are experiencing within.
     Grumpiness works in the short term to wall out minor, exterior, psychic nuisances while we focus on coping with some pressing inner turmoil. Thus, as a temporary method of isolating ourselves while we aim our awareness at some particular emotional concern, grumpiness is an effective tactic to block the outside world for a little bit so we can tend to an insistent, inner conflict. Grumpiness in the long term, however, will trap us in our own mental fortifications and make us prisoners of our own selfishness. While a shot of grumpiness can give us a brief resolve to keep moving onward, grumpiness, like whiskey, offers only a temporary jolt of willfulness and its chronic use leads to a miserable addiction to loneliness. Just as alcoholism destroys the body by hardening the liver, habitual grumpiness calcifies the soul.
     Nietzsche said what doesn't kill us makes us stronger; I say what feels good in the short term will eventually wipe us out. This is because unhappiness is a bus and cheerfulness is a bicycle. It is so easy to get on the unhappy bus and let life take us wherever it wants as long as we can just sit there passively, as passengers, and let the wheels go round and round. Looking out the window on the unhappy bus, we are not likely to admire the scenery, but we can still tell ourselves, “Hey, we're only passing through these blighted neighborhoods, we don't have to live here.” But no bus ride last forever; eventually, we are going to have to climb out of Jonah's whale and deal with the realities of our ultimate destinations. Fortunately, bus terminals are only terminal when we can think of no other place to go.
     Bicycles, especially bicycles of cheerfulness, will get us where we want to go, but we always have some hard peddling ahead of us to get them to take us there. Furthermore, when the hills of life are too steep, we have to get off and push. I don't know about you, but I always feel embarrassed and vulnerable whenever I'm riding a bike and I have to give up on a big hill and start walking the bike the rest of the way to the top. I'm embarrassed because I didn't have the stamina to keep working the machine, and anyone who drives by is clearly going to witness that I didn't have what it takes to make it up that particular hill without giving up first. I'm no telepath, but cries of “loser” echo in my head whenever cars pass silently drive by. Walking a bike up a hill feels vulnerable as well because someone who hasn't the strength to keep a bicycle rolling may not have the strength to defend himself. Cheerfulness is a breeze when we feel the pull of gravity on our side; on the other hand, a causal smile can turn into a disturbing grin when we feel ourselves being forced to be nicer than want to be whenever our stamina gives out on life's upslopes.
     Why is it, then, that short-term pleasures are so bad for us in the long run, and long-term benefits only come from ongoing struggles? That's the whole question of existence, isn't it? Why can't we just be grumpy and be happy in our grumpiness?
     The answer, of course, is our basic human anatomy and our essential spiritual core pulls us in two opposing directions. Our physical bodies require certain resources to survive and thrive while our spirits need entirely different resources. As long as we are stranded here within several dozen pounds of flesh, our bodies are going to want things that make it feel good. While our stomaches can be sated with a big meal, the sensation of satisfaction is never complete. No matter how much we eat, we will eventually get hungry again. Thus, what satisfies the body – frees it from desires of hunger, lust, sleep, and comfort – will always diminish over time. The soul hungers for completion as well, but finds its satisfaction in making connections outside itself. It is the purpose of the soul to reach out and connect; it is its reason for existence. Lifelong contentment then requires building the souls capacity to connect with others and this requires the work of peddling cheerfulness. Happiness takes an effort; if you want to be unhappy, then just get on the bus.
     Just as the physical body is never finally satisfied and will always perpetually return to a state of want, the soul, too, will never saturate its need for more and greater connections to the universe as long as it dwells within its skin-covered container. I remain optimistic about this. Although different religions tell the story in various ways, I suspect that when the body dies and finds its completion in the ground, the soul exists as a channel within the universe and continues to make connections long after its previous body has returned to dust. I can't imagine, however, that the soul – as a channel for inspiring truth and grace – will in the afterlife require or desire the paraphernalia of identity anymore than it would want the face that once distinguished its body. In other words, I believe when the body dies, identity goes with it, but whatever was kind and cheerful continues to radiate through the spirit that continues onward in some alternative existence. If there's an afterlife, I can't imagine I'll care anymore about the name I once had than the weight I once had. If, after I've given up the habit of inhaling, it turns out not to be true, and death is as complete for the spirit as it is for the body, then don't bother me with the details of how you've come to know this. Because, right now, I'm grumpy, and I don't want to hear it. If you have cookies, however, I might be willing to listen.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Yes, Virginia, There is an Answer to Your Uncomfortable Question

     Francis Church and Virginia O'Hanion are two names that most contemporary Americans would not immediately recognize. In September of 1897, these two people had a brief conversation through their local newspaper that, at the time, went mostly unnoticed. But, not entirely unnoticed, since a few readers of the day found it worthy of saving, and they pasted it into their scrapbooks. Although the entirety of their conversation took up less than 500 words, and it's original location was buried on the newspaper's editorial page, crammed in the third of seven columns between a story about the value of new “chainless” bicycles and a story on how an independent candidate would serve the politics of Tammany Hall, over the next century this discussion would become the most reprinted newspaper article to ever run in any English language newspaper.
     Of course, while the names Francis Church and Virginia O'Hanion may not be generally recognized, their story – that of an 8-year-old girl writing the newspaper at the advice of her father to find out if there really is a Santa Claus – has become an annual fixture of American Christmas lore. In the years since it's initial publication, the story of a young girl's sincere letter to the editor and it's heartfelt response has undergone numerous transformation including a radio cantata, two animated TV specials, a made-for-television movie, and a broadway musical. After the original copy of the letter had been discovered in a scrapbook after being thought long lost by O'Hanion's descendents, one appraiser set the value of the authenticated artifact at somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000. While we are apparently able to set a price for a historical document with a meager 45 words written on it by a young girl who had been provoked by her friends to question the reality of the mythic supplier of her yule-time bounties, how do we put a price on the sentiment it evoked? Furthermore, how great a price do we place on “realistic” truth?
     Virginia O'Hanion's letter was short and to the point; she wrote, “DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.' Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” Rhetorically, O'Hanion's letter painted Francis Church (the newspaper's reporter who had been given the job of crafting their response) into the proverbial corner. The elementary schoolgirl had challenged the newspaper to give her the truth and had gambled the paper's reputation for trustworthiness on their response. On one hand, Church had the choice of affirming Santa's existence but risking the newspaper's reputation as a reliable source for factual information; some journalists consider publishing anything that cannot be verified through empirical observation as a violation of a nearly-sacred ethical obligation to print the truth. On the other hand, declaring that – based upon all available evidence – Santa Claus did not exist risked losing readership to people who felt newspapers have no right to decimate their children's cherished belief in a supernaturally jolly and generous gift-giver. The challenge Church faced was to craft a response that would satisfy both the journalists who would accuse Church of selling out to sentimentality if he wrote something he knew to be untrue and the intent of O'Hanion's letter which was to settle definitively the question of Santa's actual existence.
     Anyone with an interest in rhetoric can find much to admire in how Church met the challenge of answering the question of Santa's existence while keeping both his journalistic integrity and his compassion for a girl who demanded the truth but who was not, perhaps, entirely ready for it. What everyone seems to know is that Church responded, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”; what few people seem to know is this particular line is neither the title of the response nor even the articles' opening remark. In formulating his response, Church begins by saying that O'Hanion's friends were wrong about Santa's existence because they were victims of a pervasive skeptical mentality that had gripped contemporary society. This skepticism, Church argues, is unable to recognize the limitations of its own reality by ignoring the vast intelligence that lies beyond what small minds are capable of understanding. Church writes: “All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.”
     In considering his response, Church is well aware that his correspondence is not with a singular, particular child, but with a broad spectrum of readers including those who would want to know how a newspaper can deal with the truth of an innocent question posed in a cynical world. Church, rather than run away from the implications of asserting a mythical being does exist, embraces the ramifications of those who would argue that Santa doesn't exist. Church's first move in defending a belief that cannot be empirically verified is to impugn the intelligence of anyone who argues that all knowledge should be empirically verified. What Church argues in his opening remarks is that imposing the limitations of common, ordinary existence upon a supernatural reality does not disprove the existence of the alternative reality, it merely demonstrates a sad inability of the skeptic to see beyond his own little world. In other words, from the beginning of Church's reply, he sets up nonbelievers as victims of a socially-constructed reality that trains its inhabitants to disrespect anyone who attempts to see beyond their own self-imposed templates of what they believe can exist. Thus, by saying O'Hanion's friends are wrong because they are too small-brained to contemplate the possibilities beyond their own existence, Church is challenging anyone who would object to his argument to first admit that they might themselves be too stupid to see beyond their own little worlds. Instead of being painted into a corner by what could be an embarrassing question for a newspaper reporter to answer, Church begins by painting his readers into the corner of small-mindedness if they would disagree with him.
     Church goes on to argue that human life without the magic of romantic interpretations is doomed to the sad, unfriendliness of drab realism. Church writes, “Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.” As a rhetorical theorist, I am of two minds regarding Church's argument here. It's hard to disagree that life without the magic of romantic whimsy is tedious and worrisome. Still, I always find arguments based upon the idea that it's better to live with happy fantasies rather than hard truths a bit dangerous. How much reality do we need to ignore to be happy? How much fantasy can we accept before our optimism gets in the way of future self-interests?
     Perhaps, the best we can strive for is to find the middle ground, as Church does when he concludes by saying that we all need a little Santa in our lives. Church writes, “No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.” The trick in believing something that is otherwise unbelievable, then, is to recognize that when our brains demand dominance over our hearts, our hearts need to resist just enough to show the brains how little it actually knows about how to live.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Talking-Bear Zombie Apocalypse


     When I was a kid, Yogi Bear was a very popular cartoon character. As a child, I had no idea that the cartoon bear was named after the celebrated, Yankees baseball player, Yogi Berra. Even to this day, Hanna-Barbera (the animation studio that created Fred Flintstone, George Jetson, and Scooby Doo in addition to Jellystone's most notorious picnic basket swindler) vehemently denies they named their conniving brown bear after the baseball legend, but it's hard to believe that in 1958, when H-B studios introduced TV audiences to Ranger Smith's woodland nemesis, that Berra (by then a three-time American League MVP) was not what they had in mind when they choose to lop the “ah” off of Berra in naming their character. While it's easy to understand why Hanna-Barbera did not want to pay any royalties to an already wealthy sport hero, it's nearly impossible to accept that the phonetic similarity between the two names is mere coincidence. As Thoreau famously wrote in the fall of 1854 after some dairymen had been accused of watering down their product, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
     Throughout my elementary school days, Saturday mornings were magical: no school and, for a few sweet golden hours, cartoons. I guess you would have to be pretty close to my age to appreciate the magic of Saturday morning cartoons in those days. Today, people can watch cartoons at any time day or night by pulling up a YouTube video, popping in a DVD, or turning to a 24 hour cartoon cable channel. But in my childhood, we could only see cartoons on Saturday mornings or (if we were lucky enough to get to go to the movies) sometimes between the feature film and the coming attractions. The other thing that made cartoons magical while I was growing up in the 1960's is that the studios in those days were not under any governmental dictates to make their products “educational” for kids or “palatable” to parents. No one in those days needed to learn anything from the hijinks of Bugs Bunny, who regularly dabbled in cross-dressing, or Yogi, a bear who felt no need to consider the ethics of filling his stomach with the contents of some random stranger's "pic-a-nic basket." Today producers who make all the new cartoons have to consider their “educational value” because somehow in the past 50 years, American Society has been brainwashed into believing that every single moment of a kid's childhood needs to be “educational.” Do you want to know why American Society is so fascinated with the “zombie apocalypse”? It's because it's already happened, but instead of a virus that makes people stumbling morons that have an appetite for brains, it's a meme that says our kids are only as smart as their last test. In the movies, zombies hunger for brains; in our current “educational climate,” our students hunger for authentic learning.
     The reason I started this post off by talking about Yogi Bear is that his catch phrase was “I'm smarter than the average bear.” That fact that Yogi walked around in a hat and a necktie and he could talk was certainly a tip off that he was intellectually superior to the typical hibernating/honey-loving North American Ursidae, but let's remember that it was Yogi's own self-assessment; Yogi Bear never actually took a standardized test to demonstrate that his intelligence lie above the 50th percentile. Smokey the Bear also wears a hat and can talk so Yogi isn't unique in either his fashion or vocal abilities, but I think it would be pretty safe to predict that compared to most bears we would find in the woods, both Smokey and Yogi would completely skew the bell curve if they were ever tested. Notice, by the way, that while Smokey and Yogi both wear hats, neither wear long sleeve shirts; that's because the 2nd Amendment protects their rights to show off their arms.
     The point about Yogi being smarter than most bears is that even if it's true, in the grand scheme of things it does not really matter much, if at all. The average bear doesn't have the intellectual or verbal capacity to consider its ability to acquire and apply knowledge, and even if through some massive, immediate mutation, all bears gained the capacity to think about their relative intelligence compared to the other bears they know, bears would still be too concerned with surviving hunger and hunters to care. Even if bears are capable of learning to ride bicycles (as some circus bears do), that particular ability has little relevance to surviving in the woods (let's face it, there are plenty of redneck hunters who would love nothing more than to shoot a bear off a bicycle if they had the chance, but I digress).
     As far as humans are concerned, being smarter than the average bear doesn't mean squat. Even in his cartoon world, Yogi does not get any real respect for his verbal, fashion, and problem-solving abilities. He still has to steal from humans to stave off the unrelenting appetite of his bear anatomy. A bear needs around 20,000 calories a day to prepare for hibernation; that's a lot of picnic baskets to purloin especially if you've got a little sidekick to feed. Why Yogi keeps Boo-Boo around defies his supposedly superior bear-intelligence – the only thing Boo-Boo seems to offer is criticism for not buying into Ranger Smith's propaganda that talking bears need to abide by human law. No, Boo-Boo, no; bears should stick it to The Man. Bears have no representatives in human legislatures; bears need to be bears and have their own moral codes based upon their own obligations to each other. Yogi needs to tell Boo-Boo that following the Man's law will only get his head sent to a taxidermist and mounted above Ranger Smith's fireplace.
     So what do cartoon bears have to do with the current slow death of modern education? Just this: there is an important difference between education and propaganda. Education is a human right to knowledge and understanding that will help people both secure their economic prosperity and understand their social obligations to each other; propaganda is information designed to control the thinking of others to manipulate them into making decisions against their own best interests. Real education teaches people to think for themselves; propaganda teaches people not to question what they are being told and that if they end up crushed by a system run for the betterment of an elite few, then its their own fault for not learning to move their pegs quickly enough to the few holes allowed by the system.
     The educational system of the United States has been taken over by the corporate propagandists who both supply the standardized tests and then turn around and sell the remediation materials for the students who fail to achieve at their “acceptable” levels. State governments have been hypnotized by the money being offered by the testing corporations to believe that “the harder we make the tests, the more the students will learn.” I may be only slightly smarter than the average bear, but I have 30 years of classroom experience, and if there is a single thing I know about education, then it's that no one learns anything because it may or may not be on a test. People acquire knowledge because they become engaged in the material based on a wider variety of psychological motivations. Telling students that they will need to know something because it will show up on a test someday is not only the most disengaging method for providing content, it offers fear and anxiety as a reason to learn something. Fear and anxiety not only make for poor inducements to learning, but they suck the life out of children and turn them into zombies only capable of choosing the one right answer out of four on multiple choice questions. These zombies do not hunger for the brains of others; they hunger for understanding. Perhaps they hunger the most to know why they can't be allowed to grow up and learn at their own pace instead of being told how inferior they are for not learning at some mythical rate predicted by a chart with an up-sloping diagonal line.
     There is a simple solution to the madness that comes from “the harder the test, the more they will learn.” State governors and their legislators need to be required to take the tests they are now requiring for high school graduation, and their scores need to be reported on a government website (just as teachers evaluations based on their own students test scores are now being required). This would bring a great dose of sanity to the insanity of the corporate testing machine who increase their profits through requiring more frequent and more difficult exams that require schools and parents to shell out more for remedial materials. A testing corporation's hunger for money is analogous to a bear's hunger for calories – but that's the type of thinking governors, legislators, and departments of education need not worry about – no one is making them accountable to the new, harder tests that they are requiring. Here's another question they apparently do not need to answer: if a state's dropout rate is already more than a third of the student population, who is really being helped by making it more difficult to graduate? If you answered “C,” the corporations who believe that only money can do the real talking in American politics, then you were correct. Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Hyde We Keep Hidden

(Fredric March in the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)

A change had come over me. It was no longer the fear of the gallows, it was the horror of being Hyde that racked me. – Dr. Henry Jekyll (from Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

     How many people are you? When you get up in the morning and you're putting on your pants, how many people are with you as pull on your jeans one leg at a time? Sure, physically, there's just the one waist to button up; but, metaphysically, how many folks are you stuffing into those denims?
     Should we begin to count? First, there's the “Presently-Conscious You” that's only semi-aware of putting on those pants because Presently-Conscious You can put on the pants without wasting too many awareness-sucking brain cells on such a mundane task. If you are like most people – that is to say, most other people (I'm not yet including all the people you are going to turn out to be by the end of this essay because so far I've only listed the first) – Presently-Conscious You is spending those few moments it takes to get to the second leg of the trousers to commune with “Future You.” Future You is who Presently-Conscious You is worried about first thing in the morning because there's all those things that could happen to Future You if Future You forgets even one of all those things that needs to get done today, and Presently-Conscious You wants nothing more than to keep Future You out of trouble if Presently-Consciously You can help it.
     Just ten minutes or so before finding the pants to begin the day, both Future You and Presently-Conscious You were nowhere to be found because “Fast-Asleep You” was busily clearing out the memory space in your brain from all the “Dream Yous” that your mind spent being throughout the night. Of course, by the time you've moved past the pants to put your shirt on, Presently-Conscious You has no recollection of the Dream Yous that you were the night before; however, Presently-Conscious You may have a fleeting pang of disgruntlement for “Night-Before You” who stayed up too late (once again), and now Presently-Conscious You is tired and grumpy from not getting enough rest.
     For many people, Presently-Conscious You doesn't become “Entirely-Conscious You” until it's had time for a cup of coffee to drag it from “Wishing-You-Could-Stay-Home You” to “I-Guess-I'm-Leaving-For-Work-Now You.” Once out of the house, “Now-I-Have-To-Deal-With-Other-People You” begins quietly rehearsing the personas you will need to have on hand as you move across the spectrum from the “Gosh-You're-Nice-Why-Can't-More-People-Be-Like-You You” to the “Please-Go-Away-Before-Your-Annoying-Presence-Sucks-The-Soul-Out-Of-Me You.”
     Throughout the course of your day, the “You-At-The-Moment You” has much to do with the people you have to become in order to deal with the people you happen to be with. Get stuck in line at a store behind someone with little patience and less intelligence and you might become “I'm-Clearly-Not-With-This-Person You.” Get a chance to have lunch with a sympathetic friend and you might become “Glad-I-Can-Talk-With-Someone-About-My-Life You.” Get caught between two arguing co-workers and you might become either “I'm-Not-Taking-Sides-On-This-One You” or “I-Need-You-Two-To-Get-Along You.” Get a phone call from a family member, and you will need to become “Somebody's (Spouse, Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter, Cousin, Aunt, Uncle, Nephew, Niece, etc.) You.” Who are you when you get the house to yourself because family/roommates/friends are all occupied elsewhere? “I-Get-To-(Watch, Read, or Play)-Whatever-I-Want You.”
     How many is that so far? Furthermore, you are not just those people you become as a reaction to others or circumstance, you are also the “Person-Who-Used-To-(Drink, Smoke, Chew, Swear, Gamble, Overeat) You” and the “Person-Who-Needs-To-(Exercise More, Eat Right, Catch Up on the Bills, Mow the Grass, Finish Homework, or Feed the Cat) You.” You are also both the “I-Survived-My-Childhood You” and the “I-Fear-Getting-Older You.” You are both the “I'm-Tired-Of-The-Same-Routine You” and the “Change-Makes-Me-Nervous You.” You are both the “I-Need-To-Watch-What-I-Eat You” and the “I'm-Going-To-Regret-It-Later-But-Bring-Me-The-Cheesecake-Anyway You.” Of course, you understand why both the “I-Need-To-Diet” and “Bring-It-Anyway” Yous can sit side by side at the same table, right? It's because the “I-Need-To-Get-On-The-Scales You” doesn't have a doctor's appointment for another three months and won't manifest with it's conjoined twin “What's-My-Excuse-This-Time You” until they are trapped in the doctor's waiting room.
     Now, put all those people you are aside for moment, and imagine there's only two of you. Who are you now? Who is the other person? When Robert Louis Stevenson first published Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, the book was an immediate and spectacular hit with its Victorian Age audience. A massive bestseller in both England and the US, the novel sold more than a quarter million copies by the turn of the 20th century, and within a year of its initial publication, the story had been adapted by more than a dozen theatrical groups for performance on the stage. Many early readers recognized the tale as a metaphor for their contemporary society's desire for the prurient struggling to emerge from a stifling sense of social propriety.
     In the decades since, the frightening story of a virtuous and respectable doctor who transforms himself into a vile and murderous misanthrope through the miracles of modern chemistry has become a perennial cultural icon. The story has resurfaced in more than 120 film versions so far; the first was released in 1908 while movie production was still in its infancy. In 1931, the version featuring Fredric March became the first horror film to receive an Academy Award. Over the years, cinematic adaptions have included versions featuring Tom and Jerry, Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis, and Eddie Murphy. The stylistic range of the filmed versions has stretched from the bright simplicity of Japanese Anime to the gritty shadows of B-grade American horror to the flamboyant extravagance of Indian Bollywood musicals.
     What is it about this story of one person who can become an entirely different person that resonates so deeply within the universal human psyche? Is it the fear of becoming someone we're not or the inevitable recognition that time holds the potential to do to us what Jekyll's potion does to him? If you imagine who you were ten years ago, how have you changed? When you imagine yourself ten years from now, who will you become? What, we may ask “ourselves” in the presence of inevitable change, can we keep essential and inert as we move from one age to the next or even, perhaps, as we move from one room to the next? Before trying to answer the question who we want to be ten years from now, we might want to decide who we want to be later this afternoon.
     What may be the most morally intriguing mystery of Stevenson's story is the question of why someone would make the conscious choice to become someone vile or sinister. If we could choose to be someone else, why wouldn't we choose to be someone better than who we are now? In the original story, this was precisely Jekyll's intention. At first, the experiments Jekyll makes with his personality-splitting potion are an attempt to expel the evil within him; unfortunately, after feeling the dark freedom of Hyde's inhibitions, the good doctor eventually loses his ability to return to the person he wants to be and finds the temptation to become a monster overwhelming. Eventually, Jekyll ends his transformations once and for all by killing them both.
     The implications of all of this, in regards to our ability to communicate with others and, perhaps, to negotiate with ourselves, is that time and place has great deal of influence on who we are and how we need to express ourselves. An awareness of who we need to be at any particular time can help guide us in how we talk to others; this awareness not only can be fruitful in helping others understanding us, but can also produce benefits in how we understand ourselves. Perhaps you can get “I'm-Trying-To-Fall-Asleep-Now You” to ruminate over this later tonight as you are drifting off to become all those other strange people in your dreams.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and one of the cast of all the people I am will be back next week.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Alien Visitation: Smells Like Roswell

      Before we set out to answer the question, “Is there intelligent life in outer space?”, we should first try to determine if there's any legitimate supply here on earth. The vastness of space can overwhelm our human imagination with it's nearly infinite enormity, and yet, the dark reaches of outer space's staggering depth is nonetheless paralleled inch by inch with the nearly endless length of human gullibility.
     Although there's no documented evidence that Lincoln actually said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time,” the truth of the aphorism shoots through the human experience like a particle beam. I used to work with another schoolteacher who liked to say, “No Lower Limit,” any time other teachers shared their stories of astonishingly stupid student behavior. By this expression my fellow teacher meant that while human genius must certainly have its upper limits, the well of human stupidity is bottomless; as soon as you think you've scratched the bottom after hearing the dumbest response ever fallen from the lips of a student, you can only establish a personal benchmark because tomorrow (or as soon as five minutes from now) some other student is going to say something even more inane.
     Of course, you do not have to be a schoolteacher to know the truth of this axiom; anyone whose job requires them to deal with the general public witnesses the accuracy of “No Lower Limit” on a daily basis. I suspect if there is intelligent life in outer space, aliens with foreheads the size of dinner plates have designed advanced technology to harness the endless supply of human stupidity to power their spaceships. The energy from a single season of “The Jersey Shore” could propel an entire fleet of spacecraft more than twice the length of the Milky Way.
     Have “Beings from Other Planets” ever really visited our planet? An astrophysicist could perhaps offer a quantitative estimate of the odds of alien visitation based upon calculating the number of likely inhabitable planets divided by current approximations of the likelihood of surpassing the physical barriers to traveling faster than light speed. As a rhetorical theorist, however, I would rather offer my qualitative opinion based on the likelihood of ever getting a straight answer from anyone who might actually know anything definitive one way or the other. Thus, my rhetorical assessment of the E.T. visitation question is that the truth, at this point, is unknowable.
     In the more than six decades that have passed since July 8, 1947, – when Walter Haut, the public information officer for the 509th Atomic Bomb Group at Roswell Army Air Field, issued a press release claiming the army had recovered a crashed “flying saucer” from the desert – so much bad information has entered the public sphere that sorting out the ontological truth of alien visitation is no longer feasible. If we take the events of Roswell as a shining example of how much can go bad in building a historical record of a supposed paranormal event, then we can understand why both the adamant skeptic and die-hard true believer are both sinking in the mud of unreliable information.
     Here's what we do know: In the summer of 1947, something made a mess on a ranch about 30 north of Roswell, New Mexico. The foreman at the ranch had no idea what made the mess, and he collected some of the debris to show his family. The debris was strange enough to make him wonder what it was. Later, after the ranch foreman confided in the local sherif and then shared his story with the local newspaper, the army grew interested in the odd debris, and they sent some folks out to investigate. On the morning of July 8, Colonel William Blanchard, after examining fragments of the debris, directed his public information officer, 1st Lt. Walter Haut, to issue a press release stating that the United States Army Air Force had recovered a crashed "flying disc." Later, the very same day, after both national and international news agencies began reporting the story, the US army hastily issued a retraction claiming the debris did not come from a flying saucer but rather from a weather balloon. In the following few days, some newspapers ridiculed Haut for his initial press release, and by the end of July, 1947, the incident had pretty much left the public consciousness.
     For next 31 years, no one gave much thought about the story of “the flying saucer that turned out to be a weather balloon.” Then, in 1980, two writers by the name of Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore published a book about the wreckage found in the desert, and they claimed that one of the men sent to investigate the debris, Army Major Jesse Marcel, quckly recognized the material as extra-terrestrial and then conspired with his superior officers to construct an elaborate coverup of the incident. Berlitz and Moore, who claimed to having interviewed more than 90 witnesses in researching their book, alleged that more than mere spaceship rubble had been recovered, but actual alien corpses had been recovered as well.
     Since the first publication of Berlitz and Moore's book, The Roswell Incident, several other authors (notably Kevin D. Randle, Donald R. Schmit, Stanton Friedman, and Don Berliner) have written books reporting “what actually happened” at Roswell after interviewing hundreds of supposed eyewitnesses. In the decades that have followed the publication of Bertliz and Moore's first book on the subject, the awareness of the mythos of the downed alien ship collided with the public imagination, and the city of Roswell learned to both live with and capitalize upon this awareness by becoming the Mecca for tourists interested in UFOlogy. Travelers today to Roswell can discover street lights shaped like alien heads and a wide variety of t-shirt shops, knick-knack stores, and diners that cater to people who seemly cannot get enough kitschy, plastic souvenirs.
     Since the 1990's, the official account of the US government is that there actually was a cover-up of what happened at Roswell, but that the Army was not covering up the recovery of an alien spacecraft, but rather the wreckage of Project Mogul, a top-secret weather balloon device that was being developed to spy on Russian nuclear weapon development.
     Regardless of whether you choose to believe the government's latest version of what actually happened in the desert outside of Roswell or some hybrid story of the more than half dozen authors who have produced contradictory book-length explanations for what happened, the point I would like to make is this: with so many inconsistent and conflicting stories, how can we believe anyone's account of what happened? The first book that researched the incident came from interviews conducted nearly three decades after it happened. Out of the hundreds of people who subsequently have made claims to having some first-hand experience with the crash debris, how many of those people are either flat out lying or have mentally relived other people's stories so often in their minds that it became their own stories as well? Even if some people are sincere in their beliefs that they experienced something “not of this earth” in handling the debris, how many of those people could actually distinguish alien material from mundane human produced rubble?
     Before leaving Roswell behind this week, there are two additional points I would like to make. First, regardless of whatever credibility issues Walter Haut may have suffered later in life (years after Haut survived the national ridicule of his initial press release he went on to open a UFO museum for tourists in Roswell), Haut was a bona fide war hero who deserves our deepest respect for flying 35 missions as a bombardier during World War II. 
     And second, regardless of any evidence anyone might produce to show that the debris from the Roswell crash site was (or was not) extra-terrestrial, it seems extremely improbable to me that a sufficiently advanced alien race that has developed the technology capable of traversing the far regions of outer space would struggle with the concept of “brakes.” Imagine this, an alien spaceship is hurling in our direction at near light speed when a mechanical engineer announces to the ship's captain that somehow they have lost their ability to stop or slow down. “See that class-m planet over there?” the captain says to his navigator. “It's three fourths covered with water. Aim directly for one of its deserts.” Perhaps, on other planets, there is also “no lower limit.”
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll see you folks again next week.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Truth about Reading

     Before I jump into the topic of this week's blog, it gives me great pleasure to acknowledge a reader who pointed out a wonderfully comic blunder in my last week's post. A reader from Reddit (an online social discussion website that is divided into distinct communities dedicated to talking over practically every subject you can imagine) pointed out that the basic premise of last week's essay on The Wizard of Oz was centered around the meaning of something that never actually happened. In last week's essay, I humorously tried to explain the rhetorical motivations The Wicked Witch of The West may have had in asking Dorothy if she were a good witch or a bad witch; TheThinkologist (the Reddit reader's username) rightly observed that in the movie, The Wicked Witch never asked this question – it was Glinda (The Good) who asked this question. So thank you, TheThinkologist! I guess the next time I base a post on a single line from a film, I should take the time to rewatch the movie. And now, as they say in The Biz, on with the show . . .

     In 1941, a hunter by the name of Georges de Mestral came home from a good days hunting with his dog in the Swiss Alps. De Mestral, who happened to also be an engineer, wondered what caused those annoying and awful burrs to stick to his pants as he traipsed through the woods. After looking at the burrs under a microscope and seeing thousands of tiny hooks on the burrs, de Mestral had an epiphany. It then took the Swiss engineer ten years to perfect a manufacturing process that could replicate the way burrs stick to clothing. He called his invention “Velcro” as a combination of the two French words for “velvet” and “crochet hook.” His invention made De Mestral millions, and he died in 1990 leaving the world a little better off than he had found it. De Mestral once gave his executives at Velcro some good advice; he told them, “If any of your employees ask for a two-week holiday to go hunting, say yes.”
     Just as burrs stick to the pants of hunters, meanings stick to words. I like this metaphor because the impression I want to suggest is that meanings are not irrevocably cemented to words; they hang to words like velcro. They can easily be pulled apart, and other meanings can attach themselves as well. Because of this, reading is as much a creative act as writing. As a writer, I connect ideas in my head to words, and as a reader, you pull them loose and stick them to the ideas that are already floating around in your head. Meanings stick differently in the minds of different readers depending upon the ideas that are already there for the messages to attach themselves to. This is why two people can read the same text and derive entirely different meanings. The sentence “I never said she took my money,” for instance, can be interpreted in at least seven different ways depending on which word your internal narrator emphasizes as you read it.
     Unlike the random burrs that stick to our clothes when we wander through the weeds, however, there's a bit of Darwin in the way alternative meanings must compete with each other to find space in our consciousness. Whenever you are reading a text, competing notions of “the right” meaning vie for dominance in the mental space of your mind.   Imagine “good” interpretations of what you have read slugging it out with “bad” interpretations. For the philosopher and the rhetorician, competing ideas concerning the relationship between truth and meaning enter this psychic arena from two distinct and separate entrances. Of course, there are far more than two portals in to The Psychic Arena of Truth (theologians and politicians, for example, also manage their own doors), but for now, let us stick to observing the individual and interesting openings provided by philosophers and rhetoricians.
     For the philosopher's entrance (such as constructed by Plato who dedicated himself to peering beyond the illusions of this life to seeing into a higher, perfect, and eternal reality ), the concept of “Being” marks the way for meaning to move into consciousness and find its rightful place according to a preexisting Cosmic organization. Thus, from the philosopher's entranceway, the meanings we derive from readings are true only to the extent that they correspond to the place where Nature (with a capital N – which may or may not have a mind of its own) has reserved for them to go. This is to say, that from the philosopher's entrance, what is “right” connects with what is “true” at a location that exists in Being regardless of human interference. If the human race were collectively all to draw one final breath and die in some universal apocalypse, Truth in the ontological space of Being would continue to float unobserved (perhaps grateful to at last be left in peace from the voyeuristic gawking of mortals).
     Diametrically across from the philosopher’s doorway, “The Portal of Context” labels the rhetorician's entrance for Meaning in your mind's Area of Truth. For the rhetorician, this doorway for meaning was first constructed in Ancient Greece by a collective group of itinerant teachers of public speaking who were known collectively as “The Sophists.” A key insight of the sophists was that given the enormity of Truth and the finite capacity for human intelligence to comprehend it, every declaration of Truth should come with an asterisk that goes to a footnote that cautions readers that “since knowing everything is impossible, all understanding should be regarded as incomplete.” From the rhetorician's “Portal of Context”, whenever you read something, Meaning comes into the Arena of Truth, looks around to see who else is watching, takes note of what time it is and what day of the week it is, considers what it had for breakfast and if it needs a snack, and then proceeds to bump some other Competing Notions out of their chairs on its way to finding some place to sit down. For the rhetorician, Meaning is never entirely satisfied with its seat and is always hoping some other Idea will get up to go to the restroom in order to snag a chair that is better than the truth it is already sitting in.
     Reading, then, is a creative act of interpretation. Whether you believe that Meaning has a spot reserved for it through the philosopher's Door of Being or that Meaning has to elbow its way to find a place to stay in your understanding through the rhetorician's Portal of Context, it is important to recognize that the Psychic Arena of Truth in the mind of the writer is not an identical duplicate to the Arena in the mind of the reader. The best writers are those who remain well aware that the Meanings in their heads will never appear as indistinguishable clones in the minds of their readers and, thus, labor to create detailed explanations for the environments in which their Meanings exist so to give their Meanings the best chance of finding a good home in the headspace of others. The best readers are those who are well-practiced in imagining the circumstances the writer originally intended for her Meanings. There have been long and ongoing arguments among literary theorists regarding whether writers have a better claim to the Meanings in their texts or whether readers have a better claim for their own Meanings whenever interpreting a text. Some theorists would argue that once the text leaves its author, it is like a child leaving home to live on its own, and the author should give up telling a text how to live.
     For teachers, the ramifications of the understanding that readers do not find identical meanings to each other in texts (let alone their original “intended” meanings as sent forth by the writer) is huge. Ideally, students should be encouraged to pursue their own interpretation of texts and then challenged to explain the validity of their interpretations. Unfortunately, political policies are driving teachers to abandon this type of instruction. More and more, teachers are being judged by their students ability to perform on standardized tests; in Ohio, for example, state law now decrees that at least half of every teacher's evaluation be based on an interpretation of the data generated through their students' test scores. The standardized test industry in this country represents one of the most affluent and powerful lobbies, and money continues to hypnotize legislators into believing that testing companies have the wherewithal to create tests that can write questions that students can only legitimately answer one way. In other words, the ability to teach students to think critically is being sacrificed at the Alter of The One Right Answer. 
      For many teachers, then, offering instruction to students in the critical ability to read and interpret texts in alternative ways is both a subversive and dangerous act of rebellion that will ultimately get them fired. In our increasingly complex world in which we should be honoring a wide variety of diverse thinking, the cement of money is proving to be a stronger adhesive to the comprehension of legislators than the velcro of academic legitimacy. Let's not worry that in the meantime, literally millions of school children are having their financial futures destroyed because they are incapable of predicting how state-sanctioned testing companies want their questions interpreted.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?

Wicked Witch of The West:  “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
Dorothy:  “I’m not a witch at all.  I’m from Kansas.”  -- The Wizard of Oz

            Just for the fun of it, let’s look at some of the rhetorical presumptions embedded in these two lines of dialogue from the classic 1939 movie.

1) This memorable scene from the film never happened in the original novel and is actually a major departure from the way Frank L. Baum describes Dorothy’s first few minutes in Oz.  In the original story, Dorothy never met up with the Wicked Witch of the West until late in the story when she finally arrived (via flying monkey) at the evil witch’ s castle.  The screenwriters must have felt that the structure of a movie musical demanded an early confrontation between Dorothy (the protagonist) and The Wicked Witch (the antagonist), and they wanted to establish a clear motive for the animosity the witch has for the little girl. Thus, the movie-version of Dorothy is quickly confronted by the evil, green-skinned witch who wanted to know who killed her sister (The Wicked Witch of the East) and who stole her magical shoes (in the original story, the shoes were silver, not ruby red).  Apparently, just being generally prejudiced against pretty, fair-complected, corn-fed farm girls was not enough of an incentive in the imaginations of the screenwriters for the witch to hate her; Dorothy had taken the magical shoes, and that made it personal. 

Although we are not typically inclined to side with folks who are so upfront about their villainous natures (after all, even the Witch referred to herself as “wicked”), I think the Wicked Witch had a legitimate claim to the shoes.  I think Judge Judy would have come down hard on Dorothy for keeping them, let alone parading around in them in front of the victim’s recently deceased sister. (Judge Judy: “Look at me, young lady, when I’m talking to you.  Do you have any idea how wrong it is to steal from dead people?  Ah, ah, don’t interrupt me; I’m talking now, and I’m the judge.  Verdict for the plaintiff; Give that woman her sister’s shoes and never let me see you back here again.  What you did, little girl, was despicable.  Do you hear me? Despicable.  Now leave my courtroom and go get a job.)

The only legal argument I can devise for Dorothy’s ownership might be if she claimed the shoes were some type of “spoils of war,” but that seems to be a pretty flimsy excuse for not handing over the shoes to their rightful owner when the Wicked Witch asked for them.  According to the Kansas maiden’s own account, she had no control over the house crashing and crunching it’s singular victim.  Thus, if the shoes were some form of bounty for killing the witch, then she would have needed a stronger argument than merely being nearby when an “act of God” (as our insurance companies like to refer to natural disasters) dispatched the shoes pervious owner.  While it may be true, the shoes could be agued as a gift to Dorothy by the Munchkins – who may have had some legitimate expectations for reparations for the years of involuntary servitude they spent servicing the evil witch – she wasn’t justified in keeping them afterwards.  In the book, the Munchkins snag the shoes off the rapidly decomposing corpse of the evil witch, but in the film, the shoes just show up on Dorothy’s feet as the previous owner’s feet curl up and disappear.

The film version of Dorothy might have argued that she needed the magical slippers to protect herself from the Wicked Witch, but had she given over the shoes when she was first asked for them, perhaps she wouldn’t have needed protection.  Maybe, the surviving Wicked Witch would have been so happy to get her rightful property that she may have taken one look at the angry mob of munchkins (not to mention the “good witch” who was standing passively at the scene) and decided to leave with her windfall.  Since Dorothy had no idea how to operate the magic shoes, the argument that she needed them for her own defense seems rather implausible.  In the original Baum version, by the way, Dorothy did not need the magic shoes for protection because the “Good Witch” who arrived on the scene to witness first hand the destruction of her own personal rival had kissed the girl on the forehead as a blessing of protection.  According to Baum’s original story, the “Good Witch” in Munchkinland was not Glinda, but another “good witch”; Glinda did not show up in the original novel until after Dorothy had melted the Wicked Witch of the West with a bucket of water.

2) When, in the film, the Wicked Witch asked Dorothy if she were a good witch or a bad witch, the information she was probably seeking was to whether or not Dorothy affiliated herself with the “side of good” or the “side of evil.”  After all, the custom in Oz seemed to proclaim one’s moral proclivities in a title (“Wicked Witch of the East,” “Glinda the Good,” and  “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”).  However, since the Wicked Witch believed at that point in the movie that Dorothy had just intentionally dropped a house on her sister as a unique, but visually impressive, form of assassination, the question of Dorothy’s cosmic alignment with “good” and “evil” seems gratuitous.  You might expect that willfully dropping a farmhouse on someone for the express purpose of exterminating another person pretty much sets the standard for determining that person’s “goodness” or “badness.”  However, the social norms of Oz seem more reliant upon titles than behavior in reckoning moral allegiances.  Apparently, if you are “good,” you can drop a house on someone who is “bad” (or in this particular case “wicked”) and retain one’s virtue because according to Ozian logic, it’s okay for the good to kill the bad because killing the bad is a good thing.  This form of logic is not exclusive to Oz, by the way.

By posing the question, then, the Wicked Witch, unfamiliar with the moral ambiguity of Kansas farmgirls in referring to themselves, expected to hear that Dorothy considered herself either a “good witch” or a “bad witch.”  Had Dorothy answered that she was a “bad witch” then perhaps the Wicked Witch would have expected some professional courtesy in dealing with the stolen shoes transaction (“Look,” she may have said to Dorothy if she had affirmed that she was indeed a bad witch, “I don’t want to call the union in here on this, but clearly those shoes belong to me according the Evil Witch’s Code of Malignant Noninterference.”)  On the other hand, had the Wicked Witch suspected that Dorothy was a “good witch” and was merely asking as confirmation, then the Wicked Witch would have known that she couldn’t expect to be treated fairly in this transaction. (“I’m telling ya, “ she may have later said drunkenly to a flying monkey, “Those ‘good witches’ think they can do anything they want because of their stinking reputations.  I should have known I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of getting those shoes back as soon I saw the blue and white gingham she had on.)

3) An alternative explanation for the question, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch,” however, could have been that the Wicked Witch was not asking to confirm her suspicions as to which moral team Dorothy was playing for, but rather instead asking Dorothy if she were will willing to share her own estimation of her abilities as a sorceress. The Wicked Witch may have been wanting to know to what degree Dorothy could control her magic powers.  The question, then, “are you a good witch” could have been asking Dorothy to rank or evaluate her magical abilities.  This information, too, would have been pertinent to the subsequent negotiations for the return of the magic slippers.  “Oh, you say you’re a good witch, do you?  Then what do you need my dead sister’s shoes for?  If you’re as good as you say you are, then you won’t mind giving me back those shoes” or (if the answer had come in the negative) “You don’t need those shoes, kid; if you’re not very good at it yet, you’re only going to end up hurting yourself with enchantments you don’t understand.  How about I trade you for something you could use like a training wand or whoopee cushion? ”

 If the question “Are you a good witch or a bad witch” were a question of Dorothy’s ability, then rhetorically, we might say the Wicked Witch’s question is epistemological because it deals with the degree to which Dorothy is knowledgeable about witchcraft (epistemology is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature of knowledge) .  If the question is one of moral allegiance, I would suggest that the question is doxastic since it refers to the common social beliefs in Oz that people are either ontologically “good” or “evil,” a presumption based not on behavior but on their socially-constructed assumptions that witches are either “good-natured” or “predisposed to evil” regardless of how they behave.  Doxa is the rhetorical term for the traditional assumptions that communities accept without questioning their rationale, and ontology is the branch of philosophy that considers the nature of reality beyond human interpretation.

“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”  Tell them you are not a witch at all.  Tell them, you are from Kansas.  Wichita, Kansas.   Keep thinking rhetorically, and I’ll be back next week.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Unicorn Theory and Dudding's Conundrum

     This fall the political bombast between candidates has grown loud, aggressive, and personal. Candidates are no longer satisfied with slinging mud on their rivals in campaign ads; they are using televised debates to call each other “liar” to their faces. As a rhetorical theorist, the first thing I would like to point out this week is that there is an important difference between a) scoring political points with an audience because one has belittled an opponent with a personal attack and b) scoring political points with an audience because one has offered a substantive claim to dispute what the other has said.
Rhetoricians use the word “fallacy” to refer to any bad argument that scores points with uncritical audience members. Merely calling someone a name doesn't prove anything, and we refer to the “fallacy of name calling” by its latin name “ad hominem.” While personal attacks may offer the impression that candidates are willing to stand up to others for what they believe in, they also demonstrate that candidates are willing to employ irrational and unethical methods to achieve whatever political results they hope to gain.
     It is certainly difficult to maintain a civil and reasonable discourse when someone is standing on a platform a few feet away and making personal attacks rather than asking for the reasoning behind policies. This type of testosterone-fueled political bullying is nothing new of course. Back in 1912, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt were both vying for the nomination to be the Republican candidate in that year’s presidential election, and the dispute between the two former friends grew heated and personal. At one point, in a live debate in a Chicago convention hall, the increasing animosity between the two led both candidates to resort to gutter-level, no-class, gob-in-the- spittoon name-calling. Crossing the line from political discourse into personal attack, Roosevelt called Taft a “puzzlewit.” Taft responded by calling Roosevelt a “honeyfugler.” A puzzlewit, by the way, is person who is puzzled by life, which is to say, a stupid person. A honeyfugler is basically a swindling liar who gets what he wants by duping people into believing his frauds. So there you go; it's a hundred years later and the voters are still trying to decide whether to vote for the puzzlewit or the honeyfugler. Personally, I will vote for an honest puzzlewit over an astute honeyfugler every time, but you have to make up your own mind when you draw the curtain to the voting booth.
     Ad hominem is almost always the first attack of bullies. When their victims respond to their name calling, bullies use their victims' response as justification for whatever violence (threatened or concrete) they introduce afterwards. As a child, I was often the victim of bullying, and that is why as an adult I am so passionate about the ideals of rhetoric. Authentic rhetoric respects the agency of others and expects relevant truth to be in and of itself persuasive; authentic rhetorical debate is antithetical to violence. Authentic rhetoric maintains that honest persuasion must be free of coercion. If there is a single principle that informs my thinking as a rhetorical theorist it is this: While a threat may provide us with a good motivation to act, a threat never offers a good reason to believe.
     When I was a kid on the playground in elementary school, bullies used to knock down smaller children (such as myself), sit on the their chests, and smack them in the face until their victims said something to satisfy the bullies' need to have their dominance acknowledged. “Say 'I'm great' if you want me to let you up,” the bullies would say while smacking me in the face. “Okay, you're great,” I would tell them, “Now get off of me.” This is without question the single most important lesson I learned in elementary school: Just because a bully can force you to say he's great while he's smacking you in the face, it doesn't mean the bully is really a great person. Decades later, as an adult, I can now vocalize what I only understood then: Coercion does not offer any reason for belief. Violence can only offer a motivation to act; violence cannot offer a reason to believe.
     Imagine you are attacked by a mugger who points a gun at you and says, “Give me your money or I will shoot you.” The threat of being shot offers a legitimate motivation to give the mugger your money (because obviously your money is not worth much if you are too dead to spend it). Now imagine the same mugger with the gun saying this instead, “Believe that I deserve the money in your wallet more than you do or I will shoot you.” Clearly, just because he can shoot you, the mugger has not offered you any relevant reason to believe he deserves your money. Even if the mugger says, “I need you to say that I deserve your money more than you do or I will shoot you,” the mugger has merely given you a good motive to say what he wants to hear, but he has not given you a relevant reason to believe he deserves your money. The threat of physical violence can compel people to act, but clearly, a threat of physical violence is only relevant to the belief in the threat. If the mugger says, “See this gun? Then believe me when I tell you that I will shoot you if you do not give me your money.” In this instance, the threat of being shot is relevant to the belief in getting shot, but notice how absurd it is to believe the mugger if he decides to start tacking things on to his threat, “Believe that I will shoot you and that I'm also a decent human being.” The gun not only does not support his additional claim that he is a decent person, but it entirely negates it.
     The idea that people should not base their beliefs upon threats (or rewards for that matter) is what I call “Unicorn Theory.” It simply goes like this: if you neighbor claims he saw a unicorn, you wouldn't believe him merely because he threatened to shoot you if said you disbelieved him. While the threat of being shot is a good motive to tell your neighbor you believe in his unicorn, it is not a relevant reason to believe he actually saw a unicorn. If he offers you a suitcase of money to say you believe in his unicorn, he has again given you a good motive to say you believe in his unicorn, but a good motive to say something is simply not the same as a good reason to believe something.
     This leads me to another of my rhetorical theories that I will now present to you, the reader, in the form of a puzzle. I call this “Dudding's Conundrum.” If you have an answer for my puzzle, I would love to hear it. I could not be more sincere in saying that this mystery has been my life's challenge; it is my own personal “Holy Grail.” Thinking about this is where my brain goes when it has nothing else to think about. I don't know if this puzzle has an answer (or at least an answer that I can comprehend) but if you think you have an answer, I will make a genuine effort to consider what you have to say. 
      So here goes: I am an agnostic. Now the word agnostic is used in a lot different ways by many different people so what I mean by agnostic is that I think God is unknowable or, at least, incomprehensible. I'm not sure what I know about God, but what I know about me is that my brain does not function in a way that makes religion comprehensible. I am a religious dyslexic. What apparently makes sense to other people about God simply does not make sense to me. In light of that, Dudding's Conundrum is this: “Would a moral and rational God authorize agents to speak on His behalf and then allow them to use immoral or irrational arguments?”
     Here's my argument as an analogy. (Do whatever you can to pull it part, but remember, you'll score no points by merely calling me names.) Suppose you are working as a cashier at a cash register, and part of your job is to make sure all the transactions you handle in the course of a day are legitimate. Now imagine that someone has come in and wants to make a large purchase using a corporate credit card. For whatever reason, you begin to wonder if the person holding the card is really authorized to use it. “Are you authorized to use this card?” you might ask the purchaser.
     “There's unlimited funds tied to that card,” the purchaser responds.
     “Yes,” you say, “I ran the card and there is no limit on the funds available, but how is that relevant to your authorization to use the card?”
     “Look,” the cardholder says, “you make commissions on your sales, right? Then wouldn't it be to your advantage to just believe I can use the card? This sale would mean a huge windfall to you.”
     “Yes, if it's a legitimate transaction then I stand to gain a lot here, but a financial bribe is not a good reason to believe that you have authority to use the card.”
     “What if I offered to buy you anything you want in this store with this card if you are just willing to accept that I am an authorized user?”
     “Then, I would say that the bribe makes it much less likely that you are an authorized user of the corporate card. I can't imagine that this corporation would authorize users who offer bribes. Bribes are unethical.”
     “What if I said I was going to use the funds on this card to hire some thugs to beat you up in the parking lot after you get off work?”
     “I would say that the threat of violence also makes your claim to be a legitimate authorized user more dubious because I can't imagine an ethical company giving authorization to people to use their credit if they are the type of people to issue irrelevant threats.”
     So, what has this to do with religion? Everything. The basic argument of "revealed religion" is that God has authorized spokesmen (call them prophets) to speak on His behalf, and they all use the threats of hell or the bribe of heaven as an induce to believe they are indeed God's agent on earth. Hence, Dudding's Conundrum: “Would a moral and rational God authorize agents to speak on His behalf and allow them to use immoral or irrational arguments?”
     I sincerely look forward to rational responses to this post. Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.