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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Oh, You're Just Against Everything!

21st Century Schizoid Man
Image snatched from Andy in Oman

Why dissent?

This may seem a silly question to many people (particularly to those of you who wander here,) but I am querying the psychological roots of contrariness. Additionally, there is a great deal of evidence that many - if not most - of us are content to "go along to get along" as long as some basic needs are met.

What is up with those of us who aren't willing to let the machine run the way it's running? It's easy to see how people who are suffering the consequences of an unjust social system might revolt against it, but what of those of us who would do just fine if we would simply sat down and shut up? Indeed, those of us who create negative experiences for ourselves by speaking out or acting against the status quo?

Certainly the hubris of Ego can be a part of the answer. That's what S. thought.

I do not pledge allegiance. Without going too deeply into the reasons for this, I'll just say that the thing you pledge allegiance to can shape-shift, and you can find yourself on the wrong side of things in a hurry. I prefer to keep my options open. As regards pledging allegiance "to the flag" - to me, a flag is a military banner, a brand on a tribe, provocative and divisive. If I'm to feel any reverence for "my" country, it will only be located in its Constitution. In any case, is it hubris that motivates a ten-year-old to refuse to place his hand on his heart and cite the pledge - all the while feeling his face flush with embarrassment for his impudence? It didn't feel like it.

I have a deep fondness for S. - though she is too young and too beautiful for this to be more than a musing - and I was taken aback one evening when she was on the other side of the bar with me and blurted, "I was really mad at you once."

The incident had taken place a couple of years earlier, on September 11th, a few years after the attacks. A patron had taken it upon herself to distribute votive candles to all of us, and had the lights turned off for a "moment of silence."

I am not to be tricked into groupthink or mob acquiescence, and I resent the hubris of self-appointed ministers of social propriety, so I blew my candle out. The absurdity of arbitrarily observing a moment of silence in the evening, so many hours after the actual anniversary of the event (how do you know I wasn't on my knees at 8:46 am or 9:03?)

"You had to make it about you," S. said. This made me a little sad, but I could not fault her for her interpretation. It can look like hubris. Maybe she was a little bit right.

But there is a strong downside to, and disincentive for, being "against" things. The main thing is that it flies in the face of our deep nature as social animals. To invite, in a vacuum, the disapprobation of the people around you is counter to our very strong bonding impulses.

Remember, I am not talking about a man railing against his chains - I'm talking about someone who is quite comfortable and happy in hologram America (h/t the late Joe Bageant). And I have always, as far back as I can remember, considered the ramifications of any cooperation I might give, and have done, as often as not, the contrary thing.

Gandhi's dictum - which lit up so many threads during #Occupy (and, in the hypercompression of cultural trending that the Internet enables, so quickly became trite and "passé"):
First they ignore you,
Then they laugh at you,
Then they fight you,
Then you win.
Well. Winning is not a certainty, but I can tell you that there is no escaping the marginalization, the mockery, and the persecution that comes with sustained and deeply held dissidence.

Why does an Edward Snowden walk away from his Hawaiian paradise, in a snit and a tizzy over a wrong? He was certainly in a position to innoculate himself from being personally harmed by the surveillance state. It would have been much easier - indeed, some would say saner - to "go along to get along." Clearly, many tens of thousands of contractor employees are doing just that. And he is indeed suffering the Gandhian gamut (he may not "win," by some standards, but he is certainly "winning" in his own eyes. The conversation he has forced our government to participate in must be deeply satisfying for him.)

I do not know why. Maybe some of us are deeply sensitive to those things that might make one toss and turn at night, make one sit straight up in bed at some dark hour and just feel that something is wrong, that one has said or done something wrong. That is no answer, that is a deeper regression into the mystery - why does a comfortable person even care about "wrong," as long as one is OK? What is this conscience thing anyway?

While one can hold one's tongue, for the most part, at a dinner party or social event to be cordial (and "sane"), one cannot do it for long, and for too many times in a row. One is very conscious and self-aware of the danger and hubris of thinking that the world is hanging on for one's every opinion and response to make sure that one gets it right, but that only temporarily quiets. Eventually, that thing in there, that conscience, tells one that it's time to forget the excuses, and to speak the truth.

I am not a believer in an anthropomorphized God, or any creator force that gives personal attention to the often pathetic antics of human beings (indeed, I have a problem with the concept of an inviolable "self" that would define a human being, but that's a whole different essay.) So I do not find an answer there (and it would still be a regression of the question, just one that conveniently obviates further query.)

Perhaps it is a function of having an awareness of long-term vs. short-term gratification. Short-term would be to seek and have the approval of the people right here, right now - long term would be... increasing the pool of happy people and that would more effectively ensure one's happiness?

I do not know, but that seems close. I suppose it is enough to be grateful that some will take the slings and arrows that come with saying "No!"


  1. Excellent Mke, I think I got 96 percent of it in the first read.

  2. With great respect, Michael:

    because I think you are very sane.


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