Monday, August 01, 2005

big cheezmo

there is a falseness that pervades our culture and our lives today. it manifests as a disconnect between what we feel and what we express. it pushes itself upon us through consumerism and competition. it separates us from each other and taps into our reptilian, instinctive, fearful natures.

for much of my life i have felt like i was faking it. from my early social experiences well into adulthood, there has been the tendency for me to nod and smile knowingly, feigning understanding. the shame of ignorance was branded upon my psyche early on from peers and authority figures alike.

the ridicule i felt from other kids at school over not knowing about the latest movies or what "gay" meant bred insecurity. i had an algebra teacher that complained that "no one asks any questions" at one point and later, after a question, "how can you not know that yet?" such paradoxical posturing only served to increase the confusion and fear. i didn't want anyone to know that i didn't know.

it wasn't all pain and humiliation. by challenging myself, i was able to learn what teachers were looking for and to give it to them. when i applied myself, i was able to grasp the material. this extended into social situations as well. adaptation was the measure of my acceptance; and acceptance was my reason for being.

yet what sort of acceptance can come from a complete compromise of self? certainly not one that involves mutual respect. respect is often based on fear; and if it goes both ways, then there is no sense of security for either party.

throughout my life i have found that there are those who seek to expose every weakness, however carefully hidden. like schoolyard bullies, they take pleasure in tearing others down. the compare and compete model used in the classroom only encouraged this type of behavior. the tendency of the instructor to call on those who do not volunteer uses humiliation and intimidation to encourage participation. standardized testing weeds out the weak and rewards the strong; that is, those that fit into the system. an unhealthy emphasis on grades undermines the cultivation of knowledge and learning and serves only to prepare students for the job market.

in the struggle to fit into this darwinian system there are those who will endeavor to find an advantage in any way they can. i found plagiarism to be my coping mechanism for the inadequacies i felt. rather than copy directly, i would take the ideas from encyclopedias and other texts and rephrase them, passing them off as my own insights.

there is a kind of intellectual cowardice involved in taking other people's word for things. seeking acceptance from acknowledged authorities led me to discount my own thinking and creativity. the irony is that the sense of worth that results from such deference is completely false. it was just like when i would back down from a statement or idea because someone poured derision upon it.

conformity precludes communication. there can be no exchange of ideas if they only flow in one direction. yet within the system, there is considerable room for pushing back.

in the sphere of career, colleagues are competitors. under the guise of professionalism, there is a vicious power struggle for jobs, promotions, and grants. to climb the corporate ladder, it is understood that you have to step on people. it's not personal, it's just business. to advance your own career, you have to discount the work of your peers. in the din of the crossfire, valid criticism becomes indistinguishable from petty squabbles.

consequently, the discourse is less about substance and more about style. image and ego dictate the terms. the context is not as important as how forcefully and confidently one makes their point. impressiveness supplants logic and cogency. charisma and sheer chutzpah can be more decisive than intelligence. such superficial concerns undermine any sense of dialogue. whoever speaks loudest and longest is the one that people hear.

such intellectual machismo brings personal politics into play. it is a regression to beating one's chest, or over another's head, to make your point. utilizing fear to repress challenging ideas is the essence of control. domination requires submission.

rationalism and logic are wielded by intellectuals in much the same way as physical strength is used by more earthy types to intimidate and compete for dominance. identifying with the aggressor, the physical underdog finds way to be superior in the mental realm.

the schoolchildren that would taunt me for not knowing what "gay" was don't seem any different to me than the adults that use hyper-inflated language to embarass and insult those who don't understand. of course, knowledge is power; yet what value does talking over the heads of the majority of people have except to gain access to an exclusive club of 'those in the know'. what purpose can it serve except to imbue a sense of superiority?

sometimes our narcissism already gets us there; but too often we need to put others down to feel better about ourselves. other times, we may just want to protect ourselves from the prying eyes of our social competitors. our social masks are like fortress walls. i found it easier to be alone than to swim in the sharktank. embracing the eclectic and obscure can validate the sense of lonliness.

surely, there is much to be said for the ability to communicate; however, with increased elaboration, there is decreased clarity. beautiful words make for flowery speech; but if no one understands what you are talking about then no one understands what you are talking about. the gratification derived from an exhibition of highfalutin' phraseology becomes masturbatory. the more impressive the vocabulary, the closer you get to soliloquy.

the purpose of language is to communicate an idea. once you name something, you have limited it; so with every additional adjective and syllable, the more confined the message becomes. more says less; and, as the words continue to pour forth, the meaning gets lost in the flow. what is the balance? at what point does the usefulness of lexicon alienate rather than communicate? words refer to other words. context gets slippery with definitions ironically widening the palate. sometimes words have two meanings. as with any art, the interpretation relies heavily upon the intention. (for instance, why am i writing this? is it to impress you, the reader, with my acumen? or am i trying to exorcise my personal demons? "is this me baby, or just a brilliant disguise?")

too often the goal is not to engage in dialogue, but rather to browbeat and humiliate. language becomes a weapon with which to obfuscate. the complexity of the chinese language was conceived as a deliberate conspiracy to maintain a clear separation between the ignorant masses and the educated elite.

communication implies common ground within which there is an understanding; yet, there is an interest in subverting this within an established authority structure.

this is no different from the aggressiveness exemplified by the physical intimidator. dominance and control are practical substitutes for the more time-consuming labor that brings understanding. fresh perspectives and opinions are a threat to any established authority. dismissal and debasement are desperate acts of violence intended to maintain or establish such authority by keeping others down.

if confusion doesn't work, then ridicule is always another option. to make someone look or feel silly can be very effective. in any clique, there are snide comments that keep members in line. it is not the words themselves that offend; but rather the contemptuous tone with which they are said that wounds.

because of my insecurity, i was paranoid about mockery and disparagement. often, but less often than i imagined, i was the butt of the jokes. i would play the fool in anticipation of the jibes; as if to minimize the sting of the cruel words. it was another coping mechanism.

my sensitive temperment and small frame made me an easy target when i was very young. at school i gravitated to the smarter kids, hoping that it might rub off on me or at least that i would be perceived as smarter by those who didn't know better. i struggled through the advanced classes with open ears, always listening for the "right" answers, and often making plain my ineptness when i was put on the spot.

other people's ideas were somehow more valid than my own. i sought shortcuts. i wanted the cliff's notes to my life. i was paraphrasing what i perceived to be the right answer. there was always something that someone else wanted to hear; and i wanted to say it.

i wanted to be the one that people respected and recognized. i wanted to be in the club. yet i did not want to do the work. i sold myself short with my lazyness and procrastination. with sophomoric impatience, i sought to attain a place of prestige; not realising that there is always more to learn.

somewhere between the formation of a healthy sense of self esteem and an exaggerated sense of self importance lies the essence of a human dilemma: can we rise above our baser instincts and relate to one another as equals?

what we think is as important or valid as what someone else may think. homogenization of opinion leads to desertification. there is as much value in diversity of beliefs and ideas as there is in a multifarious ecosystem. compassion and openness and collaboration can yield richer rewards than the futility of ideologies clashing.

every perspective is valid. with another way of looking at things comes greater context and understanding. we can foster a more profound appreciation of life with a simple attitudinal shift from pride to humility, from the argumentative to the understanding, from the hurtful to the caring. if we can be more supportive of each other then we can evolve beyond our darwinian dead end.

the value of competition is limited at best. it leaves each of us pitted against each other, seeking any advantage by any means. there is healthy competition that can fuel growth and development; but it can also drive down wages and living standards. at what point does progress become more than we can take? there are consequences for our advancements. miracles of science always have a dark side. sometimes it seems we become more efficient at killing ourselves.

the natural selection that has taken place for millenia is not the best we can hope for. it is merely our instinctual starting point. our competitive natures will only give us more of the same struggle for survival. it is a struggle that goes beyond business and pervades our social interactions as well. the corner office and the trophy wife are just pawns in the never ending game of keeping up with the joneses.

no one wants to be vulnerable. it's a frightening proposition; however, extinction may be the alternative. we cannot wait for the other guy to do it first; we have to be willing to make the connection. if we can let down our guard and be real with each other, perhaps we can make this world a better place, one relationship at a time.