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Delightful Escapist Thing

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You are in this horrible world and for an hour and a half you duck into a dark room and it’s air-conditioned and the sun is not blinding you and you leave the terror of the universe behind and you are completely transported into an escapist situation. The women are beautiful, the men are witty and heroic, nobody has terrible problems and this is a delightful escapist thing, and you leave the theatre refreshed. It’s like drinking a cool lemonade and then after a while you get worn down again and you need it again. It seems to me that making escapist films might be a better service to people than making intellectual ones and making films that deal with issues. It might be better to just make escapist comedies that don’t touch on any issues.

Woody Allen, on the importance of humor


Written by Sister Y

May 8, 2010 at 11:02 pm

The Opposite of a Mine Disaster

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When you take your pill
it’s like a mine disaster.
I think of all the people
     lost inside of you.

Richard Brautigan, “The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster

The above is the title poem from The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, a book by the strange American poet and author Richard Brautigan. I find this poem oddly compelling; Brautigan is one of my favorite poets. It lodged itself into my mind upon first reading, back when I was an undergraduate. It is a strange poem, a weak poem in many ways, but it contains a kernel of something important.

Sentimentality and Possible People

The most salient way in which this is a weak poem is that it is sentimental. The poem pretends to emotional truth, but in fact it carefully subverts it. Anthromorphization is a common means of sentimental truth-evasion; here, Brautigan anthropomorphizes ova.

A more common tactic is to impute human characteristics to blastocysts, fetuses, and even former fetuses. A widely-read email chain letter often called “Dear Mommy” uses this literary device:

Dear Mommy,

I am in Heaven now, sitting on Jesus’ lap. He loves me and
cries with me; for my heart has been broken. I so wanted to be
your little girl….

One day you cried almost all of the day. I hurt for you. I
couldn’t imagine why you were so unhappy. That same day,
the most horrible thing happened. A very mean monster came
into that warm, comfortable place I was in. I was so scared, I
began screaming, but you never once tried to help me. Maybe
you never heard me. The monster got closer and closer as I
was screaming and screaming, “Mommy, Mommy, help me
please; Mommy, help me.”

Complete terror is all I felt. I screamed and screamed until I
thought I couldn’t anymore.Then the monster started ripping
my arm off. It hurt so bad; the pain I can never explain. It
didn’t stop. Oh, how I begged it to stop. I screamed in horror
as it ripped my leg off. Though I was in such complete pain, I
was dying. I knew I would never see your face or hear you
say how much you love me.

It is tempting to mock such literary efforts, but elitism does not help ordinary people get any closer to ethical truth. And such literary efforts are as influential as they are common.

What is the central untruth of the Brautigan poem and of the folk-literature letter? It is that suffering is falsely imputed to those who cannot experience it. And, in falsely imputing such suffering, the infliction of suffering on actual people is encouraged.[1]

Actually, the use of contraception in Brautigan’s situation, and the abortion described in the folk-literature letter, are calculated to avoid the infliction of suffering on sentient beings. No one is “lost inside of” Brautigan’s speaker’s lover. The fetus in “Dear Mommy” does not actually “want” to be anybody’s “little girl,” nor did she experience terror. Only people brought into existence can do that. Avoiding bringing people into existence avoids suffering.

Things That Are Actually Like a Mine Disaster

1. An Actual Mine Disaster

The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, beginning on April 5, 2010, killed 29 people. Eventually. It is not clear whether any of the miners actually wandered around “lost,” or if they died too quickly to perceive anything. The families of those who died, though, certainly suffered.

2. A Nursing Home

My grandmother is dying. About a year and a half ago, she contracted a nerve disease that leaves her in pain so constant and intense that she spends a large portion of each day crying. On two occasions, her pain has been so intense, and has been complicated by weight loss, falls, and other problems, that she has had to enter a nursing home temporarily. The first time I visited her in the nursing home, I accidentally went to the wrong wing. I asked for my grandmother; they didn’t recognize the name.

“Is she going to go home eventually?” a nurse asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“Then she’s in the other wing,” the nurse replied. I was in the wing where people stay for the rest of their lives.

I had already poked my head into a couple of the rooms looking for my grandmother. Some of them were awake. I was the only visitor.

3. A Megaslum

From BBC News, Africa: “Nairobi slum life: Kibera’s children,” by Andrew Harding:

It’s 0600 and 11-year-old Eric Omondi is waking up. He’s usually the first. Some of the others have sniffed solvent the night before, to try to take the edge off the cold. Eric doesn’t like the solvent – it makes his chest hurt.

There are four boys in all, huddled under their cardboard blankets on the edge of Africa’s largest slum.

. . .

The boys are laughing now – kicking a stone instead of their punctured football. And it makes me smile to think that these four dirty, hungry, lonely humans are still children at heart – still able to have fun.

Nairobi is full of street-kids who have lost that instinct. The dead-eyed zombies who patrol the roundabouts down town.

Ten-year-olds with plastic solvent bottles wedged between their teeth, brandishing balls of human excrement – ready to thrust them into an open car window – to force the driver to pay up.

A little later, Eric and his friends stop to pick up scraps of cardboard and coal sacks – tonight’s sleeping bags. Later, when it’s dark, they’ll return to their usual spot on the pavement.

1. Brautigan, in particular, should know better; he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head at the age of 49. Had his mother used hormones to prevent herself from ovulating, he would never have had to suffer whatever personal horrors made him pull the trigger. There would have been no one “lost inside of” his mother. There would have been no Richard Brautigan “lost inside of” the world, either. It would have been better. I love Brautigan’s novels and his poetry, but it is morally hideous, in my opinion, to imply that his suffering was “worth it” so that I could read A Confederate General from Big Sur.

We are not each other’s instruments to do with as we choose. Babies are not our instruments to do with as we choose. But when we bring them into the world, we treat them that way.

Written by Sister Y

April 30, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Concern for Truth

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Longevity-enthusiast Hopefully Anonymous proposes this definition of the “politically incorrect,” in a discussion thread on Entitled to an Opinion:

I think a useful, natural definition is where there are social mechanisms to reduce the expression of an idea for reasons other than its utility in creating the most accurate models of reality. It’s not that the idea is empirically incorrect, it’s that it’s politically incorrect.

That is, the reasons for the suppression of the “politically incorrect” statement, by various social mechanisms, are unrelated to the truth value of the statement.

The (implied) definition of the social mechanisms to reduce the expression of the “politically incorrect” idea is very close to Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit: bullshit is, says Frankfurt, not a lie, but a statement which, while outwardly protesting concern for truth, is actually utterly unconcerned with truth. The liar is at least conscious of the truth enough to formulate a lie; the bullshitter eschews even a conception of the truth.

But is the “politically incorrect” really so broad? Certainly, all objections to genuinely politically incorrect ideas on the basis of political correctness are bullshit, but certainly we can’t say that all bullshit objections are objections based on political correctness. As TGGP puts it,

So, could good etiquette, which often means avoiding frankness or expressing thoughts even if others suspect we have them, be considered a form of political correctness, even when it has no connection to policy?

A few years ago, I was riding in a car with a friend (actually my lover at the time) who has Asperger’s, and another friend who doesn’t have Asperger’s. The non-Aspie friend made a kind of offhand, lame joke, and I laughed. My Aspie friend asked why I had laughed, since the joke wasn’t funny. I explained that laughing at jokes is a socially polite thing to do – like saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, regardless of a belief in God. He seemed to understand and for the rest of the ride, he practiced “polite laughter” – it was a bit ghastly, really. Anyway, my laughing at the lame joke was certainly bullshit – a response unconnected with the truth, but engaged in for some other reason (politeness). It wasn’t a lie, because I laughed even before evaluating the merit of the joke. But I think few of us would classify my response as the “politically correct” response. Only a subset of bullshit is politically correct bullshit.

I, for one, often feel the need to liberally coat my politically incorrect beliefs in charming bullshit in order to make them more palatable. I think, in this case, the motive is politeness – and an eye to genuine communication – ideas can be more or less understandable depending on their presentation and context. But even ideas that are not politically incorrect may need to be ensconced in bullshit for maximum communicative value.

We can get closer to a phenomenological definition of the politically incorrect. Folklorist Linda Dégh might be regarded as an expert on the folkloric legend, as distinct from märchen, magic stories that we might refer to as “fairy tales.” The main difference is that the legend is a personal story that invites genuine disbelief (think “urban legend”), whereas märchen are impersonal stories that are clearly not intended to be believed. In discussing the definition of the legend, Dégh says that there are some stories that she excludes:

Arguing for the disputability factor as crucial, I excluded legend-like narratives that enforce belief and that deny the right of disbelief or doubt, narratives that express majority opinion and are safeguarded by moral taboos from negation and, what is more, from deviation. [“Tape-Recording Miracles for Everyday Living,” in American Folklore and the Mass Media, Indiana University Press, 1994. Emphasis mine.]

Dégh’s examples are “religious (Christian, hagiographic, or saint’s) legends,” and the “patriotic (heroic) legends dispensed through school education by governments, confirming citizens in civil religiosity.”

I propose the following: For an idea to be genuinely politically incorrect, (a) the idea must be in conflict with majority opinion, (b) there must be social mechanisms to reduce expression of the belief for reasons other than the idea’s truth value (i.e., bullshit is set against it), and (c) these social mechanisms must have the function of a moral taboo to protect an important cultural narrative from negation.

Interestingly, my requirement of being opposed to “majority opinion” would exclude from the “politically incorrect” cases where people speak out against the narratives promulgated by their government, if the narratives are not believed by a majority of the population, as with Chinese dissidents challenging Mao’s bullshit about the man-made famines of 1959-1961 and beyond, and opponents of the war in Iraq today.

Written by Sister Y

August 9, 2008 at 5:59 pm

Posted in ethics, folklore, politics, truth