Tuesday, April 17, 2012


In college type papers, the introductory part of an essay is where you define your terms so that when you go dropping dat literacy like turds in a bowl, people know exactly the smell of yo shit, which is a heavy-handed similie/metaphor that both describes the functionality of term definition (its purpose) and implies that collegiate writing is shit. 

Anyway anyway, defining terms is pretty important because as you learn partly through life and partly through a liberal arts education, everyone defines everything differently. What I say when I say “good” is an entirely different concept than what, say, a catholic priest says when they say “good.” This is because we come from completely different socio-cultural backgrounds and our experiences, which shape the opinions we have, are entirely different. I find this concept to be shockingly obvious, but that’s because my socio-cultural background encouraged “out-of-the-box” thinking and lead to a sort of reflection that many people do not have the opportunity to. It’s a dangerous and sort of insidious arrogance to assume that those around you are operating with a similar background as you, but it happens all the time anyway. We make it even worse by supporting things like “idiocracy” and political cartoons and the sorts of thinking that says that people who think differently than you are dumb, ignorant, intellectually inferior, incapable of making rational decision, crazy, deluded, brainwashed, possessed by demons, or whatever. When we do that, we’re saying “my way is the only way to think.”

Everyone does this. We do it especially to our friends and lovers, who we assume to be of similar mental capacity and opinions to us, and in a lot of ways, they are. People habitually make friends with other people they assume to have similar socio-cultural backgrounds to them, both consciously by group association and unconsciously simply by having similar interests or places they visit. Our world, whether this is our intent or not, becomes pretty homogenized because of it. Even our attempts at broadening our friend base have a tendency to fail, as those you may be attempting to make friends with are either not looking for friends outside of their socio-cultural standard or they’re basically similar to you in that they are also looking for friends outside of their socio-cultural background.

It’s a toughie, but nothing to worry overmuch about. The attitude that “broadening your horizons” is a good thing is itself a construct of a certain socio-cultural set of morals that define the ideal person as being open-minded and broad as possible. If that were true, however, there’d be no real differences between anyone to be broad and open-minded about. We would all exist as part of an amorphous mod-hippie blob of, like, peace and love, man. What I’m telling you here is that people are all different because of their set of experiences and that set is what makes them have the opinions they have. No one is “wrong,” we just have different perspectives on each situation. This is the core of individualism as I’m defining it here. The generation and culmination of unique perspectives through years of experience in varied socio-cultural backgrounds. To be individualized is to become or express that individual perspective.

Individualism is valuable. There are potential problems with individualism, such as entitled behavior (or in broader terms, solipsistic thought) and libertarianism, but on the whole it’s important to recognize how absurdly miraculous emergent behavior can be. Did any of you guys read Watchmen? It was pretty big a while back. There’s a line by hyper-rational god-dong Dr. Manhattan where he talks about recognizing the sheer miracularity that humans exist at all, that the swirling eddies (it’s a bunch of tough looking biker dudes spinning around in place) of time would lead to the creation of this human and not that human and indeed a human at all. It’s so commonplace today to be really blasé about it, or to be blasé about all things (the less you care, the cooler you are) so it’s hard to keep this kind of attitude on the forefront of your thoughts (Manhattan’s problem). But we absolutely should and must and have to.

Dualism is the idea that things exist in opposition to each other. Not as detailed an explanation as individualism, but then it’s not as detailed a concept. Dualism is another way to describe black and white thinking, binary thinking, dichotomous thinking, and etcetera. There’s a lot of words for it because we as people have identified it as a problem many times over. Every so often someone comes up with a new way to describe it for a renewed audience so it can be railed against once more. “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who employ binary thinking and those who do not.” The critical thought portion of that quote (I’m hoping you’re paying attention, but I won’t hold it against you if you’re not) is that railing against binary thinking as a clear and definite problem is itself a form of binary thinking. It is immoral to think in black and white terms. It is moral to think in shades of grey. There is no middle ground.

Moral statements are all like this. You’re either good or you’re not. There’s no “kinda good” or “sorta bad” only the idea that you’re going to hell or heaven, aligned with satan or god, fallen before the eyes of allah or pure and upright, a slut or chaste, democrat or republican, conservative or liberal, gay or straight, man or woman, us or them, human or animal, land or sea, day or night, dead or alive, god or man, so on ad infinitum. It’s a part of how we arrange the world around us, how we describe differences. There’s no escaping it. We can’t just decide that from now on everything is going to be plotted on a scatter graph. We’re not installing analog logic gates into our computers so they can measure exact charges and theoretically store an infinitely large number in one bit depending on how sensitive our detectors are. Binary thinking is just how we do. There are a number of potential reasons for this, but they’re neither here nor there (but instead inhabiting an invisible grey area that we can’t see or describe).

Daoism is on the surface dualist. It’s actually very heavily so, with an idea of yin and yang as forever in contention with each other. Later mysticism added the eight trigrams as describing the eight basic energies that comprise all situations and things on earth. They’re actually little sets of three bits each, capable of expressing a value from 0 to 7. It’s the very definition of binary thinking. But that’s mysticism and the attempt to turn Daoism to practical uses, such as Feng Shui and divination via the I Jing. The core idea of the Taijitu ([) is that we have all of this energy in us. We embody all of the principles that embody the entire universe. We’re capable of expressing ourselves in all of the myriad ways the universe can express itself. Even yin possesses some part of yang within it, and vice versa. That’s what the little dots inside each side of the Taijitu represent.

What do the two have to do with each other? Well, “individualism” and “dualism” are the same word plus or minus (but not neither) “indivi,” for one. But what I’m really here for is the interaction of the two ideas. Individuals experience life differently from one another by virtue of their social situations. Those situations are absolutely not binary in any capacity, except that you could possibly describe them using a large enough list of yes/no questions (this is how computers work, by the way) but the amount of data generated by describing their perspective through binary means is prohibitively large and possibly approaching infinity, especially as time elapses (this is why computer simulations will never be perfect, by the way).
(Sorry, that was a bit of an intellectual integrity break and beside the point. I just get anxious if there’s a significant problem with a broad statement I’m making like “life experiences are not binary” and I don’t point it out. In my head lives a little curmudgeonly forum shitposter who comments on all of my thoughts in the most negative/unkind interpretation possible. The dude’s a total douche, seriously.)

Anyway, experiences are not binary and thus individuals are not binary, yet we as people use dualism to describe the world around us. The world around us includes other individuals. It’s incredibly easy and common to reduce someone into “that kind of person” or a group to “those kinds of people.” We habitually make statements that we know are logically impossible, like “republicans hate women” or “religious people are all crazy brainwashers” and when we’re called out on it, we don’t abandon the statements entirely, we just dial it down a bit until we’ve used enough binary descriptors to feel comfortable with our statements. “Extremist misogynist male conservative republicans hate women” or “fundamentalist Christians of specifically evangelist sects are crazy brainwashers.”
Both of those statements describe people, but neither describes individuals. People aren’t a series of labels accrued over time and political change, people are people. We’re all different, even the people we don’t like and the people will never be able to make a connection with. Reducing people to a series of labels with our own individual definition for each of those labels is folly of the highest order. It’s going to happen anyway, but you must absolutely be aware that you’re doing it. You must be aware how you’re doing it. You must be aware why you’re doing it. You’re alive in a world filled with nigh-infinite (at least so many that it may as well be infinite) other perspectives. To throw all of that away just to live within yourself and your perspective is to waste what precious time you have on Earth.
I’m not asking you to broaden your horizons (though it’s not a bad thing) or make new friends or stop being racist (though that’s probably a good idea too), I’m asking you to pay attention to your surroundings. Pay attention to your thought processes. Ask questions. Ask all the questions. Ask why you’re asking questions. Spend some time in a quiet place with just you, yourself, maybe a notebook and a pen and just think. Think about why you did what you did yesterday. Think about why you chose to eat what you ate. Don’t let yourself be satisfied with an answer like “I was hungry. Pizza tastes good.” Why does pizza taste good? Why were you hungry? Were you hungrier than you are at other times? When was the last time you ate pizza? What brand of pizza do you like? Did marketing affect your choice of brand? What specific flavors of pizza do you enjoy? Is your taste in flavor a regional phenomenon? What flavor did your parents enjoy? Were other flavors available or did you learn to enjoy what you had? Why haven’t you tried a new flavor? Are you afraid of change in habit or simply eating for the comfort of eating something you know you’ll like?
There are so many ways to interpret and appreciate every event. Living life only planning ahead for the next dopamine hit is (honestly a perfectly valid living strategy) to consign yourself to being just another individual, a sort of non-player-character in your own life. Develop passion. Develop inquisitiveness. Learn to be obsessive and detached and emotional and spontaneous and strange and ruthless and empathetic all at once. We’re not yin or yang, we’re yin and yang.

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