Monday, November 28, 2016

Speaking Meaningfully and Interpreting Generously

In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger discusses different modes of being.  One mode he discusses is called the "they-self."  This is the self that gets lost in the crowd, gives his individuality over to the group and forgets all the unpleasantness of life.  This is the self that happens when you go out on Friday and drink too much and laugh too loud.  There's nothing wrong with this self - that's important.  Heidegger's talking ontology, not ethics. This self makes what Heidegger calls "Idle-Talk" but what I want to call "chatter."  These are the conversations you get in where you talk about sports and weather, current events and how much your job sucks.  This talk is "idle" because it's not meant to go anywhere.  In fact most of us don't want to have serious conversations during these settings - it would ruin the experience.

The other half of the "they-self" is when people are being "authentic" and doing the hard work of turning one's life into a project, an art-work if you're absolutely successful.  In this mode, it is very common, necessary even to ask those big uncomfortable questions - "Am I living a meaningful life?" "How can I live joyfully in a world that can often feel bleak."  This is also the self where you talk meaningfully with others.  You don't have idle talk and you don't just chatter away - you try to really say something.

So here's what I'm getting at - in today's post-everything, media-saturated malaise, it's hard to separate the chatter from the talk that is meaningful.  Think - but not for too long - about election season.  It didn't "feel" like a reality television show.  It was a reality television show.  And the commentators often were unqualified to have opinions about anything bigger in scope than mayonnaise (they would probably give "Miracle Whip" equal time because that's democracy).   So what happens is all this chatter gets filtered through to the population and most of us start talking like the television or about the issues on the television.  Remember when we were all told we had to decide whether a gorilla being shot in a zoo was an ethical act?  And what did we do?  We started asking our friends or co-workers what they thought or how could they possibly believe that?  Then after about two weeks the gorilla was forgotten because we've been given new issues to care about.

What totally fucking sucks about all of this is that it's hard to say anything and have it heard outside of these pre-established frameworks of right and left, of identity politics, and of the sort of cultural issues of the day. Often I'm trying to say something outside of these frameworks because I don't like the rigidity of frames, someone will interpret what I'm saying in terms of the exact frames I'm trying to avoid. So If I say, I think the democratic candidate is bad, it's hard not to hear that as a tacit support for the other candidate.  Or if I say that thinking about the gorilla was a meaningless distraction, someone will assume I don't believe animals have rights. And of course there's always the chance that people take something personally when what's being discussed is systematic.  Remember, none of us invented these frames of thinking. There's no good reason we have to accept them.  Find better ways to view the world.  Find new categories and concepts. Try to stop all the chatter and say something.

But of course we all have to become better listeners as well - to not have a pre-established framework with which to interpret everything.  If we don't, we'll never be able to really "hear" any new idea because we will immediately take it and suck it up under our old framework.  If something is really new, it should sound confusing, strange, alien.  So the other part of this process is to try to actually listen to what someone is saying.  Actually hear their words.  Assume they are saying something meaningful until you are proven otherwise - that's interpretative generosity.  So many times we want to dismiss any idea that's not already contained in our "acceptable idea box."  All of this makes it impossible to have "authentic" communication in a time where it is so important.


  1. I found this article to be extremely interesting. It may not be directly related to this post, but it is another way to see how easy it is we get stuck into these predefined and rigid frameworks of thought. The core of these frameworks may be our feeble, fragile and insecure drive for survival. Seen this way, the 'fitness' model trumps (no pun intended) other ways of seeing and speaking about our immediate and ever-personal perceived little worlds.

  2. I think my problem with that article is there is an assumption there is this "reality" out there that nobody experiences or sees. This invokes all the metaphysical separations between appearance and reality - mind and body - that I don't find useful. I think he's describing another reality - not "the" reality. The fact of the matter is that there is no perspective that trumps all other perspectives.

  3. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger discusses different modes of being. One mode he discusses is called the "they-self." This is the self that gets lost in the crowd, gives his individuality over to the group and forgets all the unpleasantness of Pharmacist Recommended Supplements .