Monday, December 03, 2018

This Is Not New

The conservative press has daily examples of some-or-another ridiculous contention that some professor  has dreamed up and his or her students believe.  They find racism, or sexism, homophobia, or other problematic undercurrents in the most amazing places. It is a competition to find these evils where others did not, proving one's own wisdom and sensitivity. Only a true princess can detect a pea through so many layers of mattresses, don't you know.

I can attest that professors were believing ridiculous things as far back as the 1960s, because I saw it with my own eyes.  Students also believed ridiculous things then, though we were more likely to find sexual symbolism everywhere than anything else. Psychology, particularly psychoanalysis, did seem to attract people who wanted to find an excuse to talk about sex all the time while still looking smarter than anyone else. This extended to other fields as well - I was a serial offender on this in my Medieval English Literature studies. We also found references to tyranny everywhere, equating Nixon with Hitler and believing that the dystopias such as 1984 were right around the corner. We knew. We were alert, our ears were pricked. Tyranny was a distant second, however.  Third, perhaps, was believing that Madison Avenue was successfully manipulating all those other stupid people in the world, causing them to buy hamburgers they didn't want and cars they didn't need. They were helpless, really.  We were saved from being taken in by our constant vigilance.*

I read The Pooh Perplex in the early 70s and was quite sure it was serious at first. It did seem a bit extreme, enough so that I started keeping track of which of the essays I thought might be successfully refuted.  I was proud that I, a mere undergraduate who wasn't even majoring in literature was able to accomplish this. My girlfriend at the time gently mentioned - her tone was tentative, as if she feared to embarrass me - that she believed the whole thing was satire. Oh.  Well, then. Yes, perhaps you're right.  Whatever was I thinking?

Still, it did come awfully close. 

GK Chesterton stated that when a man ceased to believe in God, he didn't then believe in nothing, but believe in anything.  PJ O'Rourke describes himself similarly in his book Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut. "What I believed in the Sixties.  Everything.  You name it." We believed in the Oedipus Complex. We believed the Kinsey Report. We believed in the Luscher Color Test, and that the Earl of Oxford put coded messages in Shakespeare. We thought there might be something to Von Daniken, and Nostradamus, or tarot cards. But not the Bible stories. Except maybe that Samson was actually a sun god, his hair representing solar rays. That sort of thing. We'd believe anything about Nixon.  Or banks. Or the US military.

What is different now? In those years we kept those things a bit secret.  We didn't want just anyone to know them, we wanted to be among the special few who knew.  Much of postmodern vocabulary is designed not to inform, but as an insider's jargon, a demonstration that one knows the passwords. There is less of that now, I think.  These days we are not kept from knowing these things but forced to know them, and acknowledge their truth. Young Sonia lifts a stone from the muck and not only insists it is a pearl, she insists that we acknowledge it as a pearl.  Her evidence? She thinks so, and because she has heard that sometimes people have denied True Pearls, no contrary point-of-view need be attended to.

Lest one think I am exaggerating, I encountered this with multiple people on Quora today. I was happier when my email filter falsely identified all those communications as spam.

*We got suckered into other things, and half my generation seems not to have recovered. Different advertising, by different manipulators.


Christopher B said...

This is the premise of Dilbert - management by buzzword, a phenomenon well known to anybody who has worked in a technology field for more than a couple decades. I do detect more of a willingness to point and laugh now but the younger and more impressionable (i.e. the people manning Google, and Twitter, and FaceBook) don't understand that the cycle has played out many times in the past, and will again.

David Foster said...

"We were saved from being taken in by our constant vigilance"

Reminds me of the Parable of the Poodle:


Once, there was a black poodle who was very intelligent--and knew it. (I am confident that this was a standard poodle, although this fact is not specified in the story.)

One evening, the poodle was returning from the public library, where he had been reading fables by Aesop. He was not happy with the way Aesop presented dogs, and and was particularly irritated by the story in which a dog drops a real bone in order to get its larger-looking reflection in the water. "No dog is that stupid," the poodle said to himself, and he resolved that he, for one, would certainly never do such a silly thing.

On the way home--carrying a small bone in his mouth for dinner--he crossed a bridge and noticed a large and delicious-looking bone in the water beneath. "Well, I'm certainly not as stupid as Aesop imagined," he thought as he hurried on, congratulating himself on his astuteness. The bone in the water--an excellent one, dropped that very afternoon by the grocer's deliveryman--remained where it was.


(from the late Gerald Weinberg, who collected many other examples of fallacious thinking)