Fragile

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?

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10 Responses to Fragile

  1. Ron Greenman says:

    I really want to comment but I’m afraid I may hurt your feelings. Let’s see: I like your point and your examples actually support your argument. I’m put off by your tone quite often but I’ll attribute that to YOU being YOU, so I can muddle through MY feelings to get to YOUR meaning. That’s because what YOU have to say may (though maybe not) be more valuable to ME than how my fragile ego may respond emotionally to your delivery style. Note throughout, and I believe this is the meaning I get from you, that nothing that has to do with the message is offensive or off-putting, that’s just the intellect operating, agree or disagree, or even the substantiating arguments, it’s the medium, how it was it said, that offends. If someone else is the target, “…tomorrow I will be sober, but you will still be ugly.” that’s witty. If my idea (not really me, just no pronoun for all that works here) is challenged then I’m offended, probably because a weakness of some sort that I had thought was deeply hidden behind a mask of intellect (your example of the absolute statement, though in error, having more impact than the more precise, though limited, comment that could have been made) has been exposed. Or even more likely that an idea that I use as a foundation stone of my being, though without real conviction because I know in my heart, even if I’ve fooled my head, that it’s really a piling embedded in mud, has been exposed for what it really is and I’m pissed at you for shaking my edifice. (Damn, I managed to keep my metaphors together throughout that entire Wolfeian sentence.) So know that I’ve agreed with you and stroked your ego post something I can spar with you.

  2. Ken Hughes says:

    I have had similar experiences in Facebookland. My take on it is that on FB, each person has his or her own broadcast media network where they get to decide the programming. Usually it’s made up of things each individual finds funny, annoying, or inspiring. Some people use FB to post self-deprecating humor, others use it only to share everything that lines up with their political or religious viewpoint. Still others use it as sort of a micro-blog of daily musings. These posts are incredibly personal, even if the subject matter doesn’t seem to be. Disagreement of any kind is often met with indignance, and disagreement that attempts to argue for an opposite view is often seen as a personal attack. Disagreement that argues against and, further, attempts to point out the error of the poster’s view is somehow particularly offensive. I don’t say that it’s right or wrong, it just seems to be that way. I’m not convinced that this is a positive evolution of personal interactions. We’re becoming quite proprietary about our views and their “correctness” or “immutable truth.”

    That said, it is entirely possible to – inadvertently – establish a pattern that is misread by some as chronic negativity. I believe you may have done so. My uncle does this. He spars with me, often being deliberately contrary to make me really think about my views, and my reaction is often to feel attacked or even mocked. There may be some presumption of stepping into my departed father’s role (which I never asked for, adding annoyance) operating there too. Point being, it’s all too easy to feel that my person has been attacked when all he’s done is question my views. Somehow our views have become too closely associated with our selves, I think. This may be the pitfall you’ve encountered. What one person views as stimulating discussion (and I know you well enough to feel comfortable positing that that’s your aim) is easily viewed by others as argumentative rhetoric, intended to denigrate or establish yourself higher up in the intellectual pecking order. Since so much of human communication depends on nonverbal cues like tone of voice, facial expression, and gesture, electronic forum posts of any kind are fraught with potential for misunderstanding. I think people on both sides of unhappy communications forget that too easily. And it’s far less socially costly to issue a tart reply, returning the perceived attack, in pixelated print than in person or even on the telephone. It’s just as easy to issue an “e-fuck off” and un-friend someone, even when it would violate the “victim’s” own integrity to take the equivalent action in a face-to-face interaction.

    This seems to be the new social economy and/or the new method of social discourse and I have to count myself among the people who struggle with it. I’m grateful for what FB has made possible, but like anything good it comes with a price.

  3. midiguru says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I especially appreciate your observations about questioning people’s views, Ken. I had an awkward encounter, over a year ago now, in which one of the participants was a young Mormon woman (a convert to that faith) and her father, who took it upon himself to defend her by shouting at me — very much to my surprise, as we had been having what I thought was a rational discussion.

    The difficulty, of course, is that it’s not possible to have a rational discussion on matters of faith, because the faithful have no hope of emerging from such a discussion unscathed. Whatever we may think of faith, perhaps we can agree that it’s not rationally based. Because I am rational, those who have a faith would be well advised not to try to defend it in rational terms when I’m around. They’re almost bound to end up feeling attacked.

  4. Terry Cox says:

    You raise an interesting question. My Grandmother was fond of saying “if you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.” In some circumstances, that turns out to be good advice. But when you see (or hear) something that is deficient or defective, do you have a duty or moral obligation to act?

    Clearly there is a distinction between legal duty and a moral obligation. Failure to carry out a legal duty can result in a civil claim. Failure to fulfill a moral obligation can only make the negligent party feel bad, but only if that party recognizes a moral duty existed.

    The distinctions may surprise many. For example, colleges have no legal duty to intervene even if the college knows students are at risk on property next to the campus. Similarly, the police have no general duty to protect individuals. Failures to act in these cases are very likely to cause real and serious damage. And society simply says, “too bad.”

    But if a Cop sees you in trouble and walks away, or the college turns its back on a dangerous off-campus situation, shame on them! There certainly was a moral obligation.

    Clearly, you have no legal duty to point out intellectual or factual shortcomings. But the more interesting question is do you have a moral duty to keep folks from running amok in “the erroneous zone”?

    You have been blessed with intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and through the years you have accumulated a distinct body of knowledge and experience. These together make you a valuable asset to society. On the social network, it is easy for disinformation, erroneous information, and sloppy opinions taken as fact, to run wild. If you spot this kind of information and intellectual abuse (and it is non-trivial) then I assert that you have a moral obligation to act. Others who do not have your advantages may not be able to see or detect the misinformation or sloppy thinking.

    If some don’t appreciate your acting as an Environmental Protection Agent on the social networks, don’t be surprised. They hardly see the big picture.

    • Kelly Parker says:

      I think your grandmother may be right, and you’re right to recognize “in some circumstances”. In the current venue, and on the Facebook thing, YOUR input is valued and appreciated even if it makes some people feel a little uncomfortable.

      I agree totally with Jim’s comment on “new age-ism”, or what I like to call newage sewage… Pseudo-intellectuals spouting greeting card contents and t-shirt slogans.

      Now let’s all go hug each other…

      KP

  5. georgek says:

    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.

    One thing that often stands out for me in the posts here, especially those discussing religious faith, is a very hard line drawn between rationalism and faith, intellect and emotion. It’s become sharper lately as I’ve been reading a book (on Chess of all things) that discusses the emotional component of intellect/reason.

    I think what really bothers those who are faced with a reason-based argument is that they understand, consciously or not, that the ‘rational’ person is expressing emotion just as they are, but the rational side rarely admits it and often implicitly denies it by stating their argument is ‘based on reason’.

    So the question becomes, what emotion is the rational argument expressing, and how do you determine it? I can’t really answer this to my own satisfaction, but my guess is that without evidence to the contrary, people are going to pile up their own hang-ups and insecurities here on the rational argument, and it doesn’t end well. At the same time, I think the rational is disingenuous when it doesn’t articulate the emotional component of its argument.

  6. Jonathan Kopp says:

    Has it occurred to you that wars and and transformative social movements are all the result, among other things, of the internal struggle of the catalytic protagonists of those events? Each French citizen who joined the Resistance, did so after weighing their participation against the safety of themselves and their families. Likewise everyone committing civil disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement. Nazi leaders and the police and politicians who prosecuted the other sides of those conflicts did so after searching to identify the causes of their perceived deprivation, discomfort and feeling threatened.

  7. Jonathan Kopp says:

    No response? I really would be interested in your reaction to my question.

    • midiguru says:

      Oh, I figured I’d just let you speak your piece. I think you’re right, to an extent, in that external realities are always filtered through our internal emotional states. But I think you may be overemphasizing rationality when you say, “…after weighing their participation against the safety of themselves and their families.” Quite often, people’s emotional responses to crises quite overwhelm their ability to weigh things like safety in rational terms.

      A group mentality is also an important dynamic. Individual leaders within the Nazi Party did not necessarily search to identify the causes of their discomfort. They found it emotionally satisfying to march in lock-step with others, and quite likely did not trouble themselves seriously with such questions.

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