The rest is silence

9 06 2013

Say nothing.

I am, as you may have guessed, a talker, someone who always has something to say and almost always knows how to say it. I can be quite obnoxious—always something to say—but also useful in social situations. And as a professor who glances at rather than reads her notes, the ability to float words into air comes in handy.

Like a lot of talkers, I can be unnerved by spaces without sounds. I almost always have the radio on, and in class I’ve had to force myself after tossing out a question to wait one, two, three or more beats for a student to grab it, rather than reeling it back in immediately. I’m a pushy broad who has to restrain herself not always to push so hard, to give time to the laconic to make themselves heard.

Yet whether despite or because of that need for words, I know the force of silence.

When I was an undergrad I went into therapy, briefly, with a psych resident, J. She was. . . fine, I guess, but I was pissed off and messed up and deeply, deeply ambivalent about therapy. I was abashed at my need to talk to someone, so—I could see this only in hindsight—cast about for any reason not to talk.

J. gave me that reason.

Not on purpose, of course. It’s just that she had this rule that she would follow no matter what: the client had to start the conversation. Well.

The first coupla’ sessions I’d wait a bit, and then start in. J. would follow up, but too often in that Interviewing-101 kind of way.

Me: I’m just, I’m always worried what people are thinking of me, like I’m doing something wrong.

J: So you’re feeling kind of judged, huh?

(I don’t know if that’s exactly what I said, but I do remember, for whatever memory is worth, her saying that exact phrase back to me.)

It got worse from there. There was a large plant next to the loveseat on which I sat, and while I could see J. concentrating the hell on me as she shifted from one attentive position to another in her office chair, I’d  lean back, finger the leaves of that plant. And say nothing. Five minutes. Ten minutes. By our later sessions, I was silent for 20, maybe even 30 minutes.

Did I mention that, because she was a resident under supervision, all of our sessions were taped?

I was an asshole, and while some of the jerk things I did while I was messed up were due to my being messed up, this wasn’t one of them. I knew I was being an asshole, knew that she’d have to go back to her supervisor with that half-blank tape—knew that by not talking I had power over her—and I enjoyed it. You gotta rule about who talks first? Yeah, well, here’s what you can do with that rule!

I did, finally, put an end to it all. I don’t remember if I thought, Okay, quit being a jerk or This ain’t working or some other mashup of decency and practicality, but I knew that this particular therapeutic relationship was stillborn.

The ambivalence over therapy remained, even throughout two good, if difficult, therapeutic relationships (as well as a number of abortive ones), but in those good relationships I tried not to be an asshole, tried (not always successfully) not to use silence as a weapon. I did more often use it as a shield, but in a decent therapeutic relationship you learn—well, I learned—that the person sitting attentively a few feet away from you might just want to help, and that the best way for that attentively-sitting person to help is to tell her how you need help.

And thus the ambivalence, all the way through: The need beyond desire to tell, and not tell, on myself. Was it revelation or betrayal? The urgency of that question faded, but never entirely went away.

All of this is a verrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry long prelude to my own disquiet with the social admonition to reveal oneself. Now that I’m no longer so neurotic that I worry much about what people think of me—mainly because I folks have better things to do than think of me—I wonder about the social pressure to display oneself, be it on Facebook or Foursquare or whatever. If you don’t know me, what should it matter that I’m not visible to you? (And if you do know me, well, there are other ways to get in contact with me.)

Most folks I know who are on Facebook like it because it’s a great way to connect with or keep up on friends, and thus don’t really get my unease with the platform. It’s just a. . . thing, nothing more.

I don’t see it that way, of course. Yes, on one level it is just a thing, just a handy tool to stay on top of relationships, but on other levels it’s a signal of your interest in others, a scripted performance of oneself, a marker of one’s willingness to go along with social expectations, and, of course, a vast database for a corporation to mine for profit. To choose not to participate is to set oneself apart as an object of suspicion.

Think that’s too much? I don’t want to hang too much on example, but. . . I’m going to hang a lot on this interchange between Farhad Manjoo & Emily Yoffe on Slate:

Farhad: . . .That question came up in the context of a debate about online dating. I said that if you’re going to set up a date with someone and you can’t find anything about them on Facebook… I’d extend that to other social networks. If you can’t find a photo of them and there’s no photo on the dating site either, then you should be suspicious. That person seems to be trying to hide something.

Emily: We’re all trying to hide something, Farhad.

Farhad: Well, the person might be married or have a girlfriend, or in some ways trying to hide their activities. I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk case. I don’t think that’s necessarily the situation, but I would be a little bit suspicious.

But to the letter writer’s question beyond dating, I think that it’s better to have a social networking profile for a couple reasons. You are taking control of your online life then.

[. . .]

And if you don’t have [an online presence], I think people will judge you based on that. . . .

I’ve looked at the numbers for Facebook. If you look at the demographics, it’s not like only young people have Facebook. It pretty much cuts across most demographic lines, and from what I can tell, also socioeconomic lines. They have a billion people around the world. Lots of people are on Facebook and I think you’re kind of judged now, for better or worse, if you don’t. [emph added]

Manjoo is a tech fanboy who is puzzled by any criticism of tech which is not about glitches or efficiency—he does not get the concept of social-techno-coercion—and thus ought not be considered a general representative of all social media users.

But he ain’t alone, either. Consider Senator Lindsay Graham’s response to concerns about the NSA’s vacuum-cleaner approach to electronic information: “I don’t have anything to worry about because I’m not talking to terrorists.”

And there it is: If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t be afraid to show—with the barely concealed implication, If you don’t show, you must have something to hide.

Do I have something to hide? Like Emily Yoffe, I’m of the belief that “We’re all trying to hide something”, that it’s normal to keep a few things to oneself and not something which has to be justified.

It’s also normal to want to share oneself, not to hide away everything. Even as I’m a non-Facebooker, I am a blogger, and I call and text friends and colleagues and regularly go out in public. I’m a private person in society, someone who believes one ought to be able to be both private and social as she sees fit.

 

To bring this back around, not all or even most of my political beliefs can be traced in any direct way to my personal experiences, but my views on privacy and sociality are most definitely jacked into something deep inside of me. Even as I write that “I’m a private person in society” I fret over the tension contained within that assertion, wonder if it is possible to be both without betraying either the private or social side of me.

In the end, I think I ought to be the one who decides whether to speak, or not. More than that, the conditions under which I choose to speak ought not unduly pressure me one way or the other. I get that there will always be some pressure, but there should be freedom, too.

And if not, well, I like to talk, but if you tell me I have to talk, I’ll enjoy your frustration as I lean back, and say nothing.

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We might as well try: You make the best of what’s still around

15 07 2012

We’re a mess.

You want to know why social scientists like models and abstractions and formalisms? It’s because we’re a mess, and it’s tough to know where and how to begin in a mess; impose order, and all of a sudden those messes reveal a clean kind of meaning, shorn of stray bits of paper and belly lint and someone suddenly slamming on the brakes for no apparent reason.

This isn’t a knock on modeling, and I’m a big fan of models precisely because they bring clarity, allow us to see patterns where, before, there was only mess. But when using models you can never forget that they are, in fact, models, a cleaned-up and edited version of reality, not reality itself.* Models are great for understanding a particular thing about a general phenomenon or a number of things about a particular phenomenon, but they can be both stretched out of shape trying to explain too much or so stingy in what they take in they explain nothing at all.**

Anyway, I don’t want to get too bogged down*** in measurement or even conscious interpretation, especially since I’m trying to figure out what comes before said measurement or conscious interpretation.

Which is to say, the mess.

If I don’t have a theory or a model for this mess, I do have a direction—find damned-near-indisputably necessary bits to human being.

Damned-near-indisputably-necessary bit 1: We are mortal beings.

We’re born, we live, we die. No one enters life without having been born****, and no one stays forever. Whether there is something before or after life is disputed, as is the significance of that extra-life existence, but, today, every yesterday, and for the foreseeable future, our mortality is sufficiently indisputable as to be called a fact.

D-n-i-n bit 2: We are biological beings.

This goes along with our mortality: as far as is known, everything biological is of necessity mortal. But this has a particular meaning beyond our mortality, since as biological beings we have particular needs required to keep that biology working. We need food and water and protection from both the elements and predators. We can become ill, get better; we break, we mend; we live as physical beings within a particular environment and if we are not able to meet our biological needs within that environment, we either move or die.

D-n-i-n bit 3: We are social beings.

Some people dispute this; those people should be ignored.

This is not about a kumbaya vision of cooperative harmony, but a recognition that we are all helpless at the beginning of life (and many at the end); if we are not cared for during that extended period of helplessness, we die.

Furthermore, given that that period is so extended—ten years, minimum—the process of said care results in the child learning the basics of species-being, that is, language, which in turn allows one to interact with others of our kind.

I want to say more about the centrality of language to human sociality, but that would take me into less-than-indisputably-necessary bits, and the point in this post, at least, is to try to nail down something about us which any model or theory has to take into account if it is worth considering at all.

Do you remember my bit on epistemology-ontology-the practical? Of course you do! Well, I’ve hopped over the epistemological and landed us in the ontological, or, er, the proto-ontological(?!): If I won’t rely on FOUNDATIONS, then I have to at least tack a few boards together before we swing out over the abyss or float down the river or whatever metaphor doesn’t give you vertigo or make you seasick.

Where was I? Yes, the basics: We’re mortal, we’re biological, we’re social.

We’re also other things—important other things, which I’ll tack on in later posts—but I wanted to reiterate those basics on which I not only build my interpretations and theories, but upon which all interpretations and theories about human being should be built. Other people will legitimately tack on other things (that mess gives us a LOT to choose from) and swing or float in different directions, but if they start with such nonsense as “assume a can opener”, well, then they’re engaging in social-science fiction.

I got nothin’ against science fiction—I’m a fan, actually—but if you want to claim you’re saying something “real” about the world, then you better damned well deal with the damned-near-indisputable realities of this world, and our being human in it.

________

*Well, okay, this gets epistemologically tricky, insofar as the view through which one views a phenomenon affects the phenomenon itself. Reality is never just “there”; it’s always and unavoidably worked on. But there is a distinction between unavoidable oft-unconscious interpretation and the conscious imposition of a schema, which is what I’m trying get at, here. The distinction itself matters, and deserves further investigation—but not in this post.

**This goes for theory, as well, although theory tends to err on the side of trying to do too much than too little; a theory which does too little tends to lose its status as ‘theory’.

***That’s why this stuff is in the notes rather than the body. I’m one of those who thinks you ought to be able to skip the footnotes without missing anything important—notes are for sources and elaborations on basic points, not the introduction of novel material—so imma gonna just drop the whole shebang for now.

****What if we ever manage to figure out how to hatch a person or otherwise build one in a lab? What if we figure out how to live forever? Well, then the conditions of existence would have changed and we’d have to figure out what those new conditions mean. But we ain’t there yet.