Going Analog part 8: So you’ve got yourself an opinion. Now what?

This is a follow-up to my older post on dealing with belligerent incredulity, seeing as how I’ve run into more since then. This time it has been from online talking heads, so this has given me a better look at how the psychological machine works, what without the usual mediating influence of good social etiquette getting in the way. In other words, people feel safer running their mouths online than in person, and it’s easier to build a model about how the other side works when you have better access to their thoughts.

The first thing I noticed is that most of the vitriol came from people who were constructing very obvious strawmen – you know, the kind that results from projecting your own anxieties and prejudices on others, not unlike what gay-bashing politicians do before they’re discovered to be cheating on their wives with cute college boys – and then smugly tearing them apart.

The primary form this argument takes closely resembles Just World thinking: that, at the end of the day, all of my problems with technology, and all of my problems with people who have problems with my problems with technology, are self-inflicted due to some character flaw. Usually that flaw is that I have self-control issues and “need to work on those”, or am a “jerk” and therefore prompting others into being jerks to me, respectively. I mean, barring the fact that I haven’t had bread or sugar in 3 weeks (while working in a bakery where I can technically stuff my face full of delicious organic bread and cookies all I want), I don’t overdraw my bank account, and have been in a long-distance marriage for going on 6 years now, I clearly have self-control issues. Or, barring the fact that everyone at my job likes me, that I have friends who will bend over backwards for me because I have done the same for them, or that I’m an otherwise pretty chill, mostly selfless, and extremely private person, I clearly must be a jerk.

It’s a ridiculous assumption to make about somebody you’ve never actually interacted with. But that ridiculousness is the whole point: it’s impossible to disprove without over-arguing your point, and probably proving your accuser right in the meantime. Well, almost impossible. I gave it my best a few weeks ago on the blog here after getting quite tired of such cookie-cutter response (one of which was even posted to the blog’s comment section):

There are a lot of things wrong with this assumption, and frankly it serves as a very tidy little thoughtstopper.

A thoughtstopper, as defined by John Michael Greer, is:

…exactly what the term suggests: a word, phrase, or short sentence that keeps people from thinking. A good thoughtstopper is brief, crisp, memorable, and packed with strong emotion. It’s also either absurd, self-contradictory, or irrelevant to the subject to which it’s meant to apply, so that any attempt you might make to reason about it will land you in perplexity. The perplexity won’t do the trick by itself, and neither will the strong emotion; it’s the combination of the two that lets a thoughtstopper throw a monkey wrench in the works of the user’s mind.

What you are essentially asserting, even though you don’t know anything about who I am, who I know, and what my life experiences have been, is that because I am frustrated here, in this blog post written for a specific audience with a specific goal in mind, is that I must clearly convey frustration in all of my interactions with everyone I meet, and therefore deserve the hostility I’m recounting.

That’s an incredibly lazy leap of logic, and I’m sad that I have to actually explain to you why.

First off, you don’t have much of a leg to stand on unless you’ve never spoken disparagingly of anyone in your life. Have you ever vented frustration about someone when not in their company? You have, just like everyone else on the planet? OK, then you know that such conversations have their place, that they’re perfectly normal, and moreover, they help to keep us sane when direct confrontation with the individual isn’t possible or worth anyone’s while.

Secondly, policing tone on a blog post about dealing with the recurrent rudeness of others doesn’t really make any sense. Moreover, you’re taking this post, which is only the latest installment of a multi-post series, and extrapolating an entire (false) narrative about how I’ve thus far conducted myself with people who aren’t you. I mean, I could write you an entire memoir’s worth of stories about all the bizarrely hostile encounters I’ve had with folks who had absolutely no reason to be hostile, and I could list off the names of everyone I know who genuinely find me to be good company, but seeing as how you will not take me at face value here, I doubt that you will take those accounts at face value either, and will be altogether a waste of both of our time. So like any good conspiracy theorist, you’ve made an accusation that is almost impossible to disprove. Not sure what tone policing is as defined by somebody other than tumblr? Here you go, courtesy of the RationalWiki:

The tone argument (also tone policing) is a logical fallacy that occurs when an argument is dismissed or accepted on its presentation: typically perceived crassness, hysteria or anger. Tone arguments are generally used by tone trolls (esp. concern trolls) as a method of positioning oneself as a Very Serious Person.

The fallacy relies on style over substance. It is an ad hominem attack, and thus an informal fallacy. […]

At best, it may be a way to point out rhetorical dishonesty in a formal debate, but at worst it is simply awarding victory to whoever is affected the least by what is being discussed.

Thirdly, you haven’t criticized or accepted any concrete foundation of the argument I’ve made here (nor have I see any other defender of smartphone technology do similarly either, interestingly enough), which makes this comment especially meaningless. Surely you’ve encountered rude, belligerent, and unreasonably hostile people before, ever? If so, how have you dealt with them repeatedly attacking you for the same thing? If you have, I’m all ears as to your input. Unfortunately, your gripe, again, seems to be with nothing more than the presentation of my ultimate goal with this individual blog post: how to deal with others being unduly threatened by you doing you. Irregardless of your belief and your own experiences (which is what the entire fallacy of Personal Incredulity is about, and is partly what this entire blog post is meant to address; talk about meta) these things have happened to me, and they have happened to others.

Now, with that in mind, do you have anything useful to say, or will you continue to be offended that some shmuck on the internet hates smartphones?

As far as I’m concerned, that’s that.

The problem goes deeper, though, and to no one’s surprise. It goes back, even, to that pesky Just World Hypothesis and the associated frame of mind where we assign moral values to things that maybe shouldn’t have any. It’s very easy to blame people for their own problems, I should note. It protects you from having to deal with the repercussions of accepting that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, among other tragic consequences of chance. That’s not to say that everyone is always powerless in the face of everything – this is hardly true either – but quite often we do not make our own lots in the grand scheme of things. Still, one person’s crippling debt may be a personal failure just as much as the next person’s was completely beyond their control.

In the current, progress-addicted world we live in, technology is Good. Good in the way that charity and humility and patience and honesty are Good. No decent human being would ever argue against values like those, and so it has followed that questioning the march of technology is just as appalling a notion as questioning the very idea of, say, peace on earth and good will toward men.

To this unspoken ideology, the difficulty experienced by people who refuse to adopt the latest-and-greatest, or have chosen to downgrade after the novelty of such wore off, almost approaches a kind of moralistic karmic retribution: ‘you did it to yourself’, or ‘what’d you expect?’. (Note that karma in its un-Westernized form is simply another word for good ol’ Cause and Effect, not some cosmic force of punishment and reward.)

I remember my husband and I getting into a very unnecessarily antagonistic discussion about mattresses of all things at a family xmas party one year: cousins extolled on the wondrous virtues of memory foam, talking about how they couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly sleep on anything lesser. I shrugged and chuckled: “I actually like sleeping on my $100, 3 inch thick foam pad on the floor. I get the best sleep of my life.” I’d uttered something that made no sense to them. They balked, wondered if I’d ever even tried a memory foam bed, to which I replied “yes, and it was terrible”. This was unacceptable, and my husband and I looked on with fascination as they continued to escalate the discussion in such a way that made my opinion on the matter irrelevant. I made a passing evolutionary argument: that humans had been sleeping on hard or firm surfaces since we came down from the trees, and that you’d think millions of years of bad sleep would have wiped us out long ago. (You can’t exactly hunt mammoths with hundreds of accumulated hours of sleep debt, after all.) They responded with a hand-waved, Just World-type thoughtstopper: “Yeah, and cavemen had a life expectancy of 30.”

Ignore the fact that life expectancy figures often include infant mortality (which is the largest contributor to numbers like that) and average adult life-expectancy was considerably older; ignore the fact that such a rebuttal comes from a place of valuing quantity over quality (which is another tenet of this wide-spread, unspoken ideology); ignore the sheer irrelevance to the discussion in general and my comment in particular.

This is but one of many such experiences I’ve had, and they all have one thing in common: arguing from the implicit assumption that more and more complex is, like any storied triumph of Good over Evil, righteous and inevitable. If you walk away from that dichotomy, you simply become part of the temporary adversity that the believers will surely overcome in the end.

The problem with the Just World Hypothesis, though, is that it’s not true. Murderers get away with murder. Abusers die peacefully in their sleep, surrounded by loved ones. Wall Street kleptomaniacs get bailed out with public tax money. Children die. Wives get battered. Men, women, and children alike get cancer and slowly wither away as drugs and chemo fail to stop the spread of metastases.

Likewise, the Just World Hypothesis’ technological-determinist cousin is just as untrue. Social media use is just a likely to connect you to friends and family just as much as it’s linked to skyrocketing rates of loneliness among young people. Modern medicines are just as likely to manage your symptoms as they are to kill, cripple, or give you other complications that require further medicating. Firearms are just as likely to kill innocents as they are assailants or game.

It is, as philosopher and historian Paul Virilio had once said, that “the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck”.

What I discovered was that I had an opinion about the whole thing. People don’t like opinions, even though everyone is up to their eyeballs in them and have no qualms about throwing theirs all over the place. It’s your opinion they just don’t care for. But I discovered that I wasn’t doing this just for frugality’s sake, or just for minimalism’s sake, or just for my sanity’s sake. I was doing this thing because I felt a deep moral obligation to opt-out, in any way I could, of what ‘gifts’ the modern world was trying to force me into receiving. I do my best not to convey that in casual discussion, but I do got out of my way as often as possible to make space and answer questions and support people who want to do what I did. Which is also a no-no, because to have two sides means having a debate, not a lecture. So unless I have negative things to say, unless downgrading ruined my life and proves the techno-optimists right, my experience doesn’t matter. It’s a court of public opinion where the verdict is decided before the trial even begins.

There’s really no way to win, is the bottom line. If it were a mere matter of weighing the pros and the cons, or looking at the numbers, or getting the facts straight, then these reactions wouldn’t happen nearly as often. There’s such virulent hostility because it is a moral issue, because there are sides, because there is loyalty, and because existential crises and entire social structures of self-identity are at stake when we talk about smartphone and modern technology in general. The importance of having the internet at our fingertips, 24/7/365, has approached levels of saturation, zealotry, and emotional dependence that the world religions only wish they had.

All you can do is keep doing what’s right for you, and others will come into it or they won’t. If you’re thinking about it, don’t get the opinions of your peers – it would be about as useful as asking your Southern Baptist preacher their opinions on leaving the church to practice Shinto. Would they weigh the pros and the cons, look at the numbers, and get their facts straight in regards to your needs as a person of faith?

No, they’d tell you to have fun burning in hell.

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