Do You Talk to Your Car? part 2

Certainly, it’s good practice to treat your dog as person-like – as having beliefs and desires entitled to a certain degree of concern and respect. It may be the case that your dog's person-like-ness is another pretend belief -- that dogs don't really have the feelings we attribute to them. But keep in mind that you and I might also not REALLY have the feelings we attribute to each other and to ourselves. It remains unclear how much of a distinction to draw between human and canine emotional lives.

Psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are mostly socially constructed. There are, she says, two biological continua that are "real." There's the pleasant to unpleasant continuum, and there's the the high arousal to low arousal continuum.
For low arousal and pleasant, think of blissful calm.
For high arousal and pleasant, think of something really fun and exciting.
For high arousal and unpleasant, think of being very scared or anxious.
For low arousal and unpleasant, think of being bored or lethargic.

As far as what's "real" in our emotional lives, that's it. That's all there is: just the pleasant-unpleasant continuum and the high-low arousal continuum. Everything else emotional -- joy, love, anger, fear, sadness, shame, ennui, schadenfreude, and on and on -- is socially constructed interpretation.

We have to learn how to read each other's feelings, and our own, just as we learn to read marks on a page as words of our language. (Indeed, you have to learn a French word before you can read ennui in others or yourself, and a German word before you can perceive the indications of schadenfreude.)

In her chapter, “Is a Growling Dog Angry?” Dr. Barrett says that the growling dog isn’t angry in the sense of the dog itself constructing “anger” from its experience. Anger is an interpretation, and dogs don't interpret that way. That is: to be angry requires speaking English or some other language with a word that translates as "angry." Since dogs don't speak such a language, then, in that sense, the growling dog isn't angry. On the other hand, we humans do interpret ourselves and others with the concept, "anger" -- and it's reasonable that we should interpret dogs that way, too. In THAT sense, yes, the growling dog IS angry. We include dogs in our social reality when it comes to some emotions.

"Reality," said Phillip K. Dick, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” Expanding on that a bit: Physical reality is that which doesn't go away even if everybody stops believing in it; social reality is that which doesn't go away if you, alone and by yourself, stop believing in it but does go away if everybody stops believing in it. Anger -- in dogs or in humans -- isn't physically real. If no one believed in it, it wouldn’t exist. Money, for that matter, isn't physically real either. If no one believed in it, it wouldn't exist. So, at that level, anger and money are pretend beliefs. But anger and money are both socially real. If you alone, by yourself, were somehow able to stop believing in anger or in money, it would not go away. So, at that level, believing in it isn’t merely a pretend belief.

We do like to pretend. Board games and video games invite us into a pretend story. In a board game like chess, the story of battle and politics is thin and abstract and the focus is on the raw logic of strategy. In Monopoly the story is about buying, developing, and renting out real estate. Entering into that story is the appeal of the game. Then there are games with higher levels of role-playing: Dungeons and Dragons is the best known. These games are entirely about the story, and all strategic choices are in service to the story. These games are attractive because we like to pretend.

I remember as a teenager spending a rather thrilling afternoon with friends pouring over Beatles lyrics and album covers looking for clues that Paul was dead. According to the theory, Paul McCartney died in a car crash in November 1966 and was secretly replaced by a look-alike. Clue-hunting proved infectious, and became an international phenomenon. It was kind of exciting to see a clue. "Oh, look, in this picture from the Magical Mystery Tour album. They’re all in white tuxedos, with roses on the lapels. The other three have red roses, but Paul’s rose is black. Ah!" And: "Doesn’t the cover of the Abbey Road album, with them walking across the street, look like a funeral procession?" It was fun how weird it was.

There’s a basic rule for this sort of game that is better known as a rule for improvisational theatre: never argue against what another character makes up. Accept whatever they say and build on it. It’s the “Yes, and…” rule. Never say, “no” – say “yes, and…” The rule makes improv comedy more fun – and it also makes conspiracy-theory building more fun.

Without ever saying out loud or acknowledging the “Yes, and…” rule, that’s exactly the rule I was following that afternoon I got all caught up in the “Paul is Dead” game. If someone were to say, "See, Paul is barefoot in this picture, and that's a sign of mourning," I would never have been such a killjoy as to reply, "Yes, in Judaism, mourners take off their shoes when they're indoors. But the Beatles aren't Jewish; in this picture, they are outdoors; and, anyway, wouldn't it be the other three Beatles who would be mourning?" Caught up in the game, I couldn't even have imagined such a reply.

Nevertheless, even in the midst of it, some part of me knew it was a game – just as improv actors know they’re just acting even as they are totally caught up in the scene. For some people, though, the fun pretend belief starts to blur over into real belief. It stops being a game. I imagine that’s how the QAnon conspiracies work. It’s fun to join in with others in cooking up wacky interpretations of “clues.” It’s a way to connect with others, to be creative and collaborative together – following the rule of, “Accept whatever the other players add, and build on it further.”

In the case of the Paul is Dead rumor, the whole thing mostly served to spur album sales, though it became a little annoying for Paul and the other Beatles. In the case of QAnon, it’s doing more harm.

Even with QAnon, some amount of the belief in it is people pretending to believe it rather than really believing it. As Steven Pinker writes in his book, Rationality:
“Though millions of people endorsed the rumor that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, virtually none took steps commensurate with such an atrocity, such as calling the police. The righteous response of one of them was to leave a one-star review on Google. It’s hardly the response most of us would have if we literally thought that children were being raped in the basement.” (Rationality 299)
One person, Edgar Welch, took the belief seriously and burst into the pizzeria with his gun blazing. He apparently really thought he was rescuing children. “The millions of others," Pinker concludes, "must have believed the rumor in a very different sense of ‘believe.’”
"[Hugo] Mercier also points out that impassioned believers in vast nefarious conspiracies, like the 9/11 Truthers and the chemtrail theorists (who hold that the water-vapor contrails left by jetliners are chemicals dispensed in a secret government program to drug the population), publish their manifestos and hold their meetings in the open, despite their belief in a brutally effective plot by an omnipotent regime to suppress brave truth-tellers like them. It’s not a strategy you see from dissidents in undeniably repressive regimes like North Korea or Saudi Arabia.” (299)
Many of these people are very seriously pretending to believe the conspiracy – still, for all their seriousness, pretending.

Pinker says there’s a zone of the physical objects around us, and the people we deal with face to face. There’s a set of rules and norms that governs these interactions.
“The other zone is the world beyond immediate experience: the distant past, the unknowable future, faraway peoples and places, remote corridors of power, the microscopic, the cosmic, the counter-factual, the metaphysical. People may entertain notions about what happens in these zones, but they have no way of finding out, and anyway it makes no discernible difference to their lives. Beliefs in these zones are narrative, which may be entertaining or inspiring or morally edifying. Whether they are literally ‘true’ or ‘false’ is the wrong question. The function of these beliefs is to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and gives it a moral purpose.” (300)
The conspiracy theory behind anti-semitism has been growing and morphing and poisoning minds for centuries. It’s hard to imagine it was ever any fun, but the way it evolves suggests the application of the “Yes, and…” rule to bizarre interpretations of fabricated “clues.” Such conspiracy theorizing does function “to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and give it a moral purpose.”

Evil doesn’t start as evil. It starts in a very human, necessary function. We need to make sense of our world – to have a story to participate in that lends meaning to our lives. Sometimes the stories turn toxic.

What can be done about this? Of course, the obvious: stand up for the truth. Be willing to violate the rule of improv, and say “no” rather than accepting and building on the other person’s craziness. Adhere to good standards of credibility. Don’t leap to conclusions beyond what the evidence supports. Cite your sources and ask others to cite theirs. Be skeptical. Be ready to change your mind. We need a lot more observance of all those guidelines.

I have one other suggestion that wouldn’t have seemed so obvious. Take an improv class. Encourage the teaching of improv in our schools. I suggest this because improv actors know that they are acting, and we need to get better as a society at drawing the distinction between when we’re really believing and when we’re pretending to believe. We don't need to stop all pretend-believing -- as if we could. We don't need to stop playing board games with story lines or talking to our cars and pets -- or "Brother Sun" or lampposts. Much of that is good for us and good practice. We just need to be able to step back sometimes and recognize that we are, in fact, playing make-believe.

Also: improv is hugely fun, and we could all use more fun. We need to have fun with this weird thing we’re all saddled with called being human. May it be so. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment