A couple of recent conversations on Facebook have me rather puzzled. In each case, by making straightforward statements about what I think, I seem to have offended friends, or hurt their feelings.
John Lehmkuhl posted a link to a Soundcloud track that he likes. I listened, and didn’t care for it. More to the point, I wasn’t sure why anyone would care for it, as it lacked melody and phrase structure. I found it boring and pointless. I didn’t use those terms in my initial comment on the link, but I did ask why some composers find melody and phrase structure anathema. In a later comment, I tried to articulate what I was thinking in a more complete way.
In the end, John responded, “Fine, Jim. You don’t like it. I get it. Thanks for taking my sharing of music I love in the totally wrong direction….”
Here’s what I don’t get about that. What is “the totally wrong direction”? Is it his idea that the only comments one is allowed to make about shared music links are of the “ooh, wow, I loved it too, thanks for sharing” variety? I mean, aren’t we allowed to discuss the pros and cons of music in a posted link to a piece of music? (See below for a provisional answer to this question.)
In a more general sense, am I supposed to not think about things? Am I allowed to think about things, as long as I keep my thoughts secret? Or am I supposed to evaluate (somehow) the emotional fragility or robustness of people I have never actually met when considering what sort of response to post?
Francis Preve I’ve met only once, but I edited a book he wrote, and we’ve had extensive phone conversations over the years. Francis posted a line from pop guru Sheldon Kopp: “All of the significant battles are waged within the self.” I posted a response in which I pointed out that that simply isn’t true.
I mean, look — it isn’t. Kopp is saying, in so many words, that none of the battles fought between the Allies and the German army in World War II were significant. People died by the thousands, and in the end one side won and the other lost, with enormous consequences for the subsequent contours of history — but Kopp assures us us that those battles were not significant.
What is lost, in new age gobbledygook like this (and no, I didn’t call it “gobbledygook” in my responses to Francis, though I did use the phrase “navel-gazing”), is the requirement that writer and readers think rationally. If Kopp had simply said, “Significant battles are waged within the self,” that would have been absolutely true. While not a very striking observation, it might have given his readers a useful or provocative way of looking at their own internal conflicts.
But no — he had to tack on “All of the”. His intent, I’m sure, was to crank up the impact of his statement by aggrandizing the importance of the battles (already a cranked-up metaphor) that we all wage internally at one time or another. In the process, he torpedoed himself below the waterline. His insight sank like a stone.
I didn’t actually get around to mentioning World War II in the ensuing thread, though perhaps I should have. What I said, not to whitewash myself, was this: ” I wonder how old Sheldon would feel if he was living in Wisconsin right now and worked in the public sector. Or if he lived on the Gulf Coast and had made a living on a shrimp boat until the oil rig exploded. Or if he lived in Selma, Alabama, in 1959 and was unable to drink from certain drinking fountains or sit at the front of the bus. This kind of new age sentiment, while ultimately true in some philosophical sense, is simultaneously the sort of cluelessness often associated with rich white guys. Since I’m a rich white guy, I’m allowed to say so.”
Francis responded, “Well, if you want to again divert one of my quotes to your ongoing war against optimism…”. In point of fact, I’m not at war with optimism. I am, however, at war with misplaced optimism, and I won’t apologize for that. But that’s beside the point. The point is, here again, it’s pretty evident that I hurt Francis’s feelings. I did it by (a) using my brain to analyze what was presented to me and then (b) articulating my thoughts in what is, for want of a better term, a public forum.
Where in this am I at fault?
Here’s the deal, folks: I’m not always right, but I’ve been around for a while, and I’m pretty smart, and I pay attention and think about stuff when I notice it. If you want to disagree with me, please — go right ahead. Show me precisely where I have erred. Articulate your insights and beliefs in a convincing way. It’s a public forum. Discussing stuff is the whole point of a public forum.
If, on the other hand, you don’t want your ideas and observations to be open to discussion, you have a simple and effective expedient at your disposal: Don’t post them in a public forum.
What I think is really going on is this: I place a high personal value on intellectual acuity and intellectual integrity. For most other people, intellectual integrity runs a distant second behind giving and receiving emotional support among friends. My friends don’t, in other words, post ideas and observations in order to stimulate discussion — they post them strictly because they’ve found something that causes them to feel good. Their motivation in posting the quote or the link is quite simply to enable other people to feel the same good feelings they’re feeling.
(An hour later, John has deleted the entire discussion thread from his link, while leaving the link available, a fact that tends to lend support to this hypothesis.)
And then I come along, and how I get my good feelings is by saying, in effect, “Oh, look — Sheldon Kopp, who has sold hundreds of thousands of books, made a dumb intellectual mistake, and I’m smart enough to notice it.”
The next step in the process is, whoever made the initial post fails to respond to what I actually said. Instead, he takes my response as impugning his judgment. He feels attacked. But does he respond by defending his own intellectual integrity? No. That was never important to him in the first place. Instead, he switches to a different playing field. He makes a move in an emotional game — a game I was never playing. (Thank you for this metaphor, Eric Berne.) No wonder things get mixed up!
If I tiptoe away in silence rather than point out that old Sheldon has shit on his shoe, then I feel bad. I have not been true to myself. Out of consideration for others’ feelings, I have disrespected myself. We have a word for that; it’s called codependence. Denying oneself in order to take care of others’ feelings — a really bad life strategy.
But those are the alternatives, it appears. When I’m true to myself, I hurt people’s feelings. And if I’m not true to myself, then I have no way to participate in their community of mutual feel-goodness, because I have shut down. I’m not able to be present at all.
I’m entitled to have and uphold my own personal value system, and I’m entitled to speak my mind. That’s very clear. What’s not so clear is how I’m to be true to my own value system while not hurting my friends’ feelings.
Are they really so fragile?