Sunday, June 19, 2022

To Know Them Is to Distrust Them

Recently I was listening to Mayim Bialiks’ Breakdown and I had a thought.  Now, if you’re not familiar with the podcast (also available in video form on YouTube), it’s generally speaking a mental health podcast, but it ranges around from interviews with celebrities about their mental health struggles, to very hard science guests to talk about it from a neurological or psychological perspective, to talking to people who approach it from a more spiritual or even New Age perspective.  The interesting thing about that is that Mayim, known originally for Blossom and more recently for The Big Bang Theory, is often criticized for “pushing pseudoscience” and for being a “vaccine denier,” and yet, if you actually listen to the podcast, it’s her partner Jonathan Cohen who most embraces the New-Age-y stuff, while Mayim demands more rigorous evidence.  (I actually find it fascinating how Mayim’s statement that she chose not to vaccinate her children as babies gets twisted into her not believing in vaccines—she’s actually gone on record saying that she and her children got vaccinated for COVID as soon as possible, which absolutely makes sense, because they’re not babies any more.  But it just goes to show you that pigeonholing someone’s beliefs is so much easier—and gets more clicks, I suppose—than taking a nuanced view of them.  Or maybe it just goes to do show that people require absolute statements to live by ... I’ve often said that “vaccines are good” is just as idiotic a statement as “drugs are bad,” and for exactly the same reasons.*)

In any event, that’s a bit of a tangent.  The point that struck me was while listening to Mayim and Jonathan’s interview with Michael Singer.  Now, you may not know who Singer is (I certainly didn’t, before listening to the show), and really you don’t need to for this discussion.  Suffice it to say that he had a spiritual awakening and then wrote a bunch of books about it and many folks consider him to be a sort of guru.  Personally, I felt the same way about his thoughts that I do about nearly all New-Age-y type folks: some of what he had to say was interesting, and actually made sense if you can reframe it from the touchy-feely / airy-fairy language that these types of folks tend to use;** and a lot of what he had to say was just crap.  I do think it’s important to note that it’s perfectly fine to believe some of the things people have to say, even when other things they say are ridiculous.  But, again, that isn’t the interesting part.

Jonathan, of course, was a big fan of Singer: at several points, he jumped in and said the exact same things that Singer was saying, using slightly different words, and Singer would give him some approval in that “yeah, you get it” sort of way.  It was obvious that Jonathan was a student of Singer’s philosophy and really did get it.  It was even more obvious, from the back-and-forth between Jonathan and Mayim, that he had been trying to convince her of all these things for a while now—maybe even for years.  And she wasn’t having it.  From him.

But—and this is the fascinating part—she was convinced by Singer.  At the end of the interview, she said this:

There’s so many things about the way—not just that you think and the things you’ve experienced—but, again, the way that you communicate them, that just really ... it pierced something, it really broke something open for me ...

Now, should she have been so receptive?  I don’t know, maybe not—I did feel that she wasn’t as critical as she often is, and I think that Singer may have used some language that really snuck past her skeptic’s defenses—but that’s not the point.  It wasn’t fascinating at all that Singer convinced her of something ... what was fascinating, truly thought-provoking to me, was that Singer only said the exact same things as Jonathan—who is, remember, not just her podcast hosting partner, but her life partner—things that this man who she loves has been saying to hear for years.  When he said it, nothing.  Some “expert” comes along, and bam! enlightenment.  And, again, I really want to stress that Singer absolutely did not, in my opinion, say it better.  I honestly thought Jonathan stated it more clearly and logically, although I do give Singer the edge in having a lot of real-life stories that illuminated the philosophy.  So this is the part that caught my attention: why do we discount the words of the people we love the most, and then happily accept those same words when they come from strangers?

Now, I am not a psychologist, so I don’t know for sure, but I found it a very interesting thought experiment to ponder, and I eventually came up with a theory.  Bear with me as I follow this thread logically and try to bring you along.

We are all human ... I think we can agree on that.  And no human is perfect: again, hopefully not too controversial.  Sometimes we have moments of brilliance, but we also all have moments of sheer stupidity.  And who is around to see all the dumb things we do?  Well, us, first and foremost, which is why so many of us struggle with self-esteem—it’s a bit hard to think of yourself as smart and good when you know perfectly well how dumb and bad you can be sometimes.  But hopefully we struggle through that.

But you know who else is there to see all our dumbest moments?  Our family.  Our partner.  Our best friends.  And I think they may also have a bit of trouble seeing us for the intelligent, articulate people that we are (or want to be, at any rate), when they know perfectly well that we’re too forgetful to remember where we left our keys, or that we make the worst puns, or that we’ve proven that we can’t understand what’s going on half the times by asking them really moronic questions that demonstrate our complete lack of understanding.  And, sadly, we think the same things about them.  It is perhaps inevitable—some fundamental trait of humanity—but I think we would all benefit from recognizing it, and maybe even working towards overcoming it.

Because, to circle back to something I said earlier, a person can say a dumb thing without being incapable of saying a smart thing.  This Michael Singer fellow said some things that absolutely made me roll my eyes and say to myself, oh, come on.  But that doesn’t mean that everything he says is silly.  It’s possible for him to say some things which are profound and to say some things which are just pretentious twaddle.  Likewise, it’s possible for Jonathan to say some stupid things, and for Mayim to recognize that and know that he’s not as smart as he likes to think he is, and yet still be right sometimes.  And Mayim probably ought to think about that whenever she’s dismissing what he says out of hand.

And your partner, or your parent, or your child, or your BFF, they ought to think about that when they’re dismissing what you have to say out of hand.  But you can’t really control that.  What you can control, though, is that you need to think about it when you’re dismissing what your loved ones are saying.  Sure, your immediate reaction may be to snort and say “dude, you’re not even smart enough to remember to zip up your pants before you leave the house!” But, if you consider it logically, this is a form of ad hominem fallacy: you can’t prove someone’s statement is false by proving that they’re a horrible person, and you can’t prove that someone’s current statement is not smart just because you know they’ve said dumb things in the past.  Statements have to be evaluated on their own merits, and our emotional reaction to the people we love mustn’t lead us to discount what they have to say.

Of course, the opposite is true as well: we can’t let our love for someone blind us to the fact that they might be saying something spectacularly stupid right now.  But I think that becomes less and less likely the more maturity we achieve.  I think we’re more likely to be critical than to blindly trust.  Which is kind of depressing, if you think about it.  Think of how you feel when your partner or friend dismisses what you have to say on the grounds that “that’s just so you!” or “you’re just being you again.” I’m sure you find it frustrating.  Now, if you can manage to remember that when they’re saying something that is just so them ... then maybe we’re making progress.


* This also ties in to my discussion of grammar proscriptions; while the topic is different, the principles are the same.

** And which is the actual cause of many people’s dismissal, I think.  I have a blog post brewing about how often we as humans just reject ideas which actually have a lot of merit strictly based on the words used to present them.  Hopefully I’ll post that soon.

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