Friday, April 18, 2014

Clarity Is Threatening

"He's the one who likes all our pretty songs and he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun but he don't know what it means when I say yeah"
Nirvana - In Bloom

Humans are not rational individuals. They are social mammals and their principal modes of interaction revolve not around honesty and fair-mindedness but manipulation and power struggles. Truth is detrimental to powermongering. Why would a woman state "I'd like you to declare monogamy so that I can control you through your sexual frustration and the feelings of inadequacy as a mate I intend to instill in you" when she can cuddle up to you giving a dramatic sigh and bat of her eyelashes and purr "baby, don't you love me, don't you want to get married?"

Individuals are minds, but humans think individually only to small extents and for short periods of time. We live most of our lives as social apes, trapping each other in the constantly shifting webs of opportunistic social power games, reflexively shifting allegiances to put ourselves up and those around us down. Sentient, well-informed, willing association is not conducive to control of another, so in its place we fabricate the myriad sub-rational, instinctive, emotional claims over each other: loyalty, love, friendship, respect (which always translates to fear) instead of fairness, admiration, esteem or appreciation.
What do the second set of qualifiers have that the first, more popular, do not? A certain degree of objectivity. You get an uncomfortable inkling that you should be able to state what it is you admire or esteem in another, whereas love and friendship can be used to anchor another to you and be discarded when socially convenient.

This tendency is perhaps best exemplified by jargon. If language in general is meant to convey ideas, jargon is the exact opposite. It is meant to obfuscate meanings in order to separate in-groups from out-groups, those in the know from those not. It allows us to protect ourselves form outsiders who may be more fit or deserving or apt than ourselves by excluding them from the conversation, by declaring them outsiders. There is no fundamental difference here between the average street thug glancing at you sideways because you said "of course" instead of "fo shizzle" or some leet-kiddie in an online game calling you a "carebear" or "noob" or a scientist who scoffs at your (correct) layman's interpretation of his field of study because you expressed it too directly, avoiding the technical language which would mark you as qualified to interact with those priests in white lab coats.
And of course the most damaging incarnation of obfuscating jargon is legalese, specifically designed to prevent individuals from stating their own case, institutionalizing the sinecures of lawyers of every more or less virulent strain. Ayn Rand, in between her nonsensical jabbering about angelic industrialists, noted the functional role of legal ambiguity quite clearly:

"There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt."
Ayn Rand - Atlas Shrugged

But ambiguity is more pervasive than that. Indoctrinated in love and loyalty from an early age, most humans find themselves incapable of shaking off the mentality of playing on uncertain definitions for personal gain, even when faced with very certain definitions... like a price tag.
Staying in webcomic land for a minute while on the topic of haggling, I like the author's commentary below this strip. Leftover Soup is largely about rebalancing folkways / mores and it can be quite refreshing to read Tailsteak's thoughts, but I think he's missing a crucial point here. Yes, haggling is irrational and damaging... by design! It is meant to be unfair, unpleasant and dishonest - to the other person, regardless if it's a friend or not. Friendships for most humans are not egalitarian. They are animalistic alliances of convenience to be exploited to the fullest. Friends are social props, links to new friends situated higher on the social ladder, or straw men to make oneself feel superior. Not only is haggling for favors (not necessarily literally monetary) a common element of human friendships, but so are begging and potlatching and every other aspect of social backbiting. If you know where you stand you can't take advantage of the other, so ambiguity is again crucial to leaving enough wiggle room for exploitation.

Lastly you have to wonder what happens when someone refuses to play that game, to make some concession to irrationality in order to score brownie points, in order to pull social strings. What happens when someone says the emperor has no clothes? No comment here, just listen to this clip.

I will say this though. I was admonished recently by another player in an online game that "you know Werwolfe you've gained a sort of reputation within the community of being someone who always complains - that's not good."
The issue is not whether I'm right or wrong, of course. How silly of me to even dream that. There is no truth, there is no right or wrong, just opinions.
Do they like me? Can I sell myself as their friend to get them to do me favors and pretend that I'm right? Have I molded and massaged and obfuscated my thoughts enough to lathe off any sharp points which might edge through their complacency?
Am I ambiguous enough to allow them that all-important wiggle room within which to cheat and trade favors and play their simian power-games?
It's only human...

No comments:

Post a Comment