Friday, March 25, 2011

Deception and Cosmic Irony

Every now and then, I trust someone I really shouldn't.

It happens to us all, I know.  I learned years ago to make my peace with it when, after beating myself up for being naive, a friend of mine commented, "Yeah... well, we all are sometimes.  Unfortunately, that seems to be the only way to become less so."

It's funny how, once you believe in someone, nothing will shake that belief.

Funny, and sad.  Sir Walter Scott wisely observed, "What tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive."

But I think that statement only looks at the problem from the weaver's (or deceiver's) perspective, and practice doesn't make perfect when it comes to deception.

Deceivers' webs are always pretty messy.  No self-respecting spider would be caught dead claiming credit for them.  And, as any fly can tell you, it's no fun finding yourself woven into a tangled web.

I've learned to watch out for certain red flags. At times, I make a mistake.  A big mistake.  Or two.  Or three.  Or twelve.

When I do, I have to go back and remind myself of the warning signs.

I'm sure I'll continue to overlook them, but here they are.  If anyone else out there is in a web of someone else's making, maybe this can help.

1) Watch out for people who tell you they're "honest."  They point it out about themselves, usually on a pretty regular basis.   They're quite proud of it.  And when necessary--and it always becomes necessary-- they will insist on it.

Here's what I've learned: honest people assume honesty is the norm.  They don't notice it or remark upon it, in themselves or in others, because they take it for granted.  It's the way they go through life.  End of story.

So if the person is constantly making a note of it, whether about themselves or about others, it's because honesty is something that stands out to them.  Something that's not the norm in their world.

It's like people who brag about what great friends they are.  Be forewarned: they're crappy friends.  They're also totally oblivious of other people's feelings, which is why they think they're such great friends in the first place.

2) Watch out for people who "play the line."  They're never overtly dishonest (which is why they lay claim to being "honest" all the time), but it always turns out that there's something not quite accurate or not quite right or not quite true about what they've told you. 

They leave stuff out.  Important stuff.  And if you confront them about their omissions, they'll say, "But I thought you knew."  No one likes to feel like they missed something or made a mistake.  They're playing on that, to make you think that it's your own fault if they haven't been completely forthright.  They meant to be, but since you didn't ask...

If you point out discrepancies between their words and the truth, there will always be a reason for the discrepancy, and that reason will generally involve your being "wrong" somehow.  Over time, you'll find that you're "wrong" quite a bit.

You're not wrong.  No one is wrong that often.

If they're on the line, it's because they know where the line is.  They know where the line is because they've been over it once or twice, and they've subsequently learned how to stay right on it.

As Benjamin Franklin said, "Half a truth is often a great lie."  Mark Twain commented, "A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies."  Both were variations on the Yiddish proverb, "A half truth is a whole lie."

3) Watch out for people who tend to tell you that you've "misunderstood."  There is no misunderstanding.  There never is.

See #2.  No one is mistaken all the time--or even all that often--about every little thing.

Think about it: if there's a misunderstanding between two reasonable, honest people, why hasn't it been cleared up?  How many well-intentioned, kind, wonderful people do you know who have some outstanding, unresolved conflict out there that they just can't seem to get straightened out, no matter what they say or do?

Yeah, exactly.

4)  Watch out for people who can't or won't look you in the eye.  Facebook and email and the internet make communication easier, but they also make it easier to deceive others.  If someone won't log off and face you instead of Facebook, they're up to no good.

If someone is telling me something I think may not be true, I stop whatever I'm doing and look right at them.  If the person can't look back, something's wrong. 

If you fail to heed the warning signs, as I have done, don't be too upset with yourself.  It doesn't diminish the cosmic value of trust, just because someone out there isn't trustworthy.

Personally, I want a world full of good-hearted, trusting people, and I'm pretty sure a lot of other people do too.  Trust wisely and carefully.  When you do, you'll find it's one of the best feelings around.

And if you make a mistake, remember: what goes around, comes around. 

In my case, the person who deceived me ended up getting sold out by his ("honest") friends.  If he hadn't insisted on the fact that I always misunderstood everyone and that he was always honest, I wouldn't have gone about trying to get things all cleared up.

Needless to say, it's clear now. 

When you're trapped in a tangled web, the only way to get out of it is to cut ties, even if the weaver rants and raves about the damage you're doing.

That's the irony of deception.  Even well-practiced weavers will weave themselves into a knot. 

In the end, honesty and integrity will just cut and run.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Naked and the Unfamiliar

I'm trying to read Naked LunchAgain.

I'm not sure at this point how many times I've tried.  Quite a few.  Each time, I start, determined to get through it and see how Burroughs is like Poe or Baudelaire or Blake. 

The visionary junkie.

Like I said, I'm trying.  Usually, I start the novel, think, "Why am I doing this?", set it aside for a little while, and then, months later, put it back on the bookshelf, determined to try again another day.

I've never done a drug in my life, so it's inevitable that I'm going to have trouble relating to Burroughs' lifestyle and vision. 

And I kinda think that's a good thing, actually.

So there's that initial level of resistance.  And I probably shouldn't have read about how he shot his wife in the head in a drunken game of "William Tell" and then fled Mexico to avoid prosecution. 

All of the critics point out how that event shaped Burroughs' life and clearly tormented him forever.  Not enough to do actual time in a Mexican prison for murdering a loved one, of course, but enough to keep on writing and drugging.  In New York.  And Palm Beach.  And Rome.  While living off his parents' money. 

Given that this is what he was doing before, I'm not sure I see how it was so very life-altering, but again, I'm biased.

I think the argument that writers use drugs to experience alternative states and unleash their imaginative powers is inherently limited.  Coleridge, Poe, DeQuincey--all of the famous writers who experimented with drugs eventually lost their art to the drugs. 

Is art about imaginative innovation or is it about human connection?  Are you trying to show me something new, or are you trying to show me something new about life itself? 

If I'm held hostage to a writer's own drug-induced visions, what can I learn or see or think?

I think of Hunter S. Thompson's prose: at its best, there is an intellectual engagement and a social critique at work.  When it becomes about the drugs and the guns and the porn, something is lost. 

I mourn the loss of that something, because I think it's the loss of an insightful mind and an incisive vision that articulates itself in words and images. 

For the benefit of all of the rest of us, who can only see what the artist sees when they show it to us.

If art is about intellectual and emotional engagement with others and with the world around us--if it is an actual craft that requires thought and patience and practice and mastery (and I think it is)--then pages produced in a drug-induced consciousness are not by default "art."  There has to be something else happening.

The literary critic Viktor Shklovsky argued that poets and artists make us see the familiar in an unfamiliar way.  He called it ostranenie (остранение). 

Obviously, Burroughs and Thompson can offer that, particularly to a reader like myself who has no familiarity with the world of drugs and all that accompanies it.  In "Art as Technique, Shklovsky argues,
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
It's going to be a long, unfamiliar weekend, reading Burroughs.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Being Patient

When I was taking care of my parents, I spent quite a bit of time as a reluctant viewer of daytime TV.  The stuff that's on after Katie Couric in the morning but before the soap operas in the afternoon.

One thing I quickly noticed is that, after a certain age, human beings (both male and female) are expected to become (in my opinion, inordinately) observant of the ins and outs of their various orifices.  And there are a wide range of products designed to assist them in these observations and ultimately reward their due diligence.

Personally, I made a mental note that if I find myself succumbing to this temptation I will either get a job bagging groceries or find a new hobby-- or both.

Reading Daniel Gardner's book, The Science of Fear gave me an entirely new perspective on this tendency, however (and I'm grateful for that).  Gardner notes that, in many ways, our keen observance of the rituals of health and the symptoms of potential illness is a by-product of aggressive, direct-to-consumer marketing on the part of the pharmaceutical industry.

Think about it.  Prior to 1997, if I had experienced sleeplessness, weight gain, mood swings and general dysphoria, I might have simply decided, "Well, it's January and it's dark and snowing all the time." 

But now, direct-to-consumer advertising informs me that I may in fact have any number of medical issues. 

But never fear, there's a pill for each and every one of them.  I should just ask my doctor.

My mom used to comment that the trade-off in side effects often seemed to outweigh the alleged problem itself.  After all, which would you rather experience: male pattern baldness or impotence?  A panic attack or erectile failure? (At least the latter would no longer be accompanied by the former, thanks to modern medicine.)

Gardner points out that the trend in the pharmaceutical industry goes beyond typical marketing and advertising: "It is about nothing less than shifting the line between healthy and diseased, both in consumers' perceptions and in medical practice itself" (132). 

Pharmaceutical marketing is all about getting us to ask about pills, and we probably won't do that unless we think we have a problem.

We're more likely to ask if we think it's a pretty common problem.  So the pharmaceutical industry tends to push numbers that make it sound more likely than not that we have what our neighbor has. 

For their part, advocates for direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals argue that it serves the public interest: it informs potential patients about their options, so that they can approach the medical establishment as informed consumers.

The problem is, which comes first, the patient or the consumer?  In order to be a consumer of pharmaceuticals, we must first be a patient.

So, the industry focuses its marketing efforts on making patients of us all, by offering vague descriptions and ambiguous definitions of a wide range of health conditions.

In countries where direct-to-consumer advertising is prohibited, doctors and medical professionals are the ones who make determinations about who is and is not a patient and what medications she or he might need.  Obviously, this can generate a degree of helplessness on the part of the consumer, who is limited by what his or her doctor determines and advocates.

At the same time, however, the numbers are disheartening.  Money spent on marketing is money not spent on research.  And a lot of money is spent on marketing.

Ultimately, Gardner argues that the pharmaceutical industry markets fear, not health.  Obviously, there are always some advantages to the medications being offered and many people who can benefit from them.  But as in any industry that seeks to earn a profit, it's not just about maintaining a client base, it's about expanding it.

At one point, after listening to the incessant ads promoting a safer, healthier world, my mom said, "I just wonder what people did years ago."  When I commented, "Well, illness was pretty rampant and a lot of people just died," my mom remarked:

"I don't mean in the 1800's.  I mean in, like, 1972."

Truth and Dare

I was reading Jacques Lacan this week for my theory class, and I came upon the following:
"One is never happy making way for a new truth, for it always means making our way into it: the truth demands that we bestir ourselves.  We cannot even manage to get used to the idea most of the time.  We get used to reality.  But the truth we repress." 
I found this really interesting: "the truth demands that we bestir ourselves."  We need to make our way into it, and typically, we don't want to.  Repression is easier. 

Even reality is easier than truth, apparently, because it's what we're used to.

So it's not truth or dare, really.  It's truth and dare.  The truth is a dare all its own.

Why?  How?

I think we tend to think of truth as an absolute that exists outside of ourselves; in particular, we don't want to think of truth as relative, since that seems to diminish its importance or even its respectability.

But maybe truth is contextual (which is something different from relativity, in my opinion).  We need to rethink the contexts in which we comprehend and perceive truths in order to make our way into them.

I think that this has implications for social activism: one of the assumptions of many social activists is that they advocate for a truth that is preferable to the falsehoods they see operating around them.

But if truth is contextual, then this would compel the active social activist to actively rethink the absolute singularity of his or her adopted truth.

In case you can't tell by now, I'm a big fan of Rogerian argument.  Whereas the format of traditional debate tends to polarize positions by establishing potentially adversarial positions that seek to assert themselves as "right," Carl Rogers advocated the effort to establish "common ground" in argumentation.

When I teach Rogerian argument, I think of what Joe South sang in 1969:
If I could be you and you could be me for just one hour
If we could find a way to get inside each other's mind
If you could see me through your eyes instead of your ego
I believe you'd be surprised to see that you'd been blind.
Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
And before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes.
Under the guise of conserving shoe-leather, we miss the opportunity to see truth through others' eyes: this is what I mean when I say that I think of truth as contextual.  If we make determinations based on our egos rather than our eyes or--better yet--our hearts and our feelings, we risk a particularly dangerous and particularly absolute form of blindness.

I've found that, when I'm angry and I speak or write to someone in anger, I try to take out the abuse, criticism and accusations, if I can. 

Sometimes I just can't.  What can I say?  I'm human.

But what I find is that, if I can and when I do, I may not lose the anger, but I force myself to rethink what it is fair to say to someone else, given the context of their own, very different experience of the situation I'm encountering.  If I'm abusing, accusing, or criticizing, I'm focusing more on the other person than I am on communicating what I may actually need to communicate--be it pain, anger, sadness, disappointment, or whatever.

So when I spend an hour trying to be you, I end up learning a lot about myself as well.  Perhaps that's truth's dare.