Wednesday, October 28, 2009

that's interesting

A lot of the world around me is aggressively trying to assimilate me. Often people discuss whether the world is made up by evil-willed people that desire the worst for them. I've been giving this some thought and as far as I can tell that's a intellectually bankrupt simplification. Some people might desire bad things, there's also a lot of ambivalence by parties that do not know if they have any use for me yet and certainly there's those that desire good for me. But the overwhelming sense I get is that once I enter someone's consciousness, once I'm part of their external world, they need to find also an internal space for me and to explain me away and to put me in a use that complements their belief system. That use might lead to my good or bad, but it's on their terms. This leads to their feeling of safety. When I'm no longer an unaccountable quality, there's a function I serve and my actions make sense. People converge to like-minded groups for support and they oppose other-minded groups for want of a dialectic purpose, hand in hand one is beating and the other is caressing.

I've got my own support group of like-minded people around me, certainly. It seems that when I'm discussing with them and I don't pepper my replies with occasional variations of agreement, I am betraying the underlying spirit of our relationship, sometimes. Also, I feel there is a silent encouragement to disagree if only that this might lead, through clarification, to eventual agreement. Making sense of the world and being useful. The problem is that as I grow older I'm second-guessing my impulses to agree or disagree with stuff simply because I'm realizing more and more how little I actually understand what I'm being told in the first place.

For the last couple of years I've been catching myself shying away from idle agreement as means to encourage a conversation, instead I find myself saying "that's interesting" a lot instead. It's also vaguely encouraging ("you're not boring me, please go on") and regrettably a bit clinical and patronising, but I haven't found something better yet. I gave some thought to why I'm doing that and I've come to realize that I don't want the conversation to be ruled by that binary of approval and disapproval. In fact, what was once flattering is now worrying: I get supicious when my conversation partner seems to rush to agreements with what I'm saying. It makes me think that they're not really understanding, they're just hearing vaguely similar thoughts to their own played back to them, and they're essentially agreeing with themselves through a sock puppet. How can I agree with a superficial thought someone is presenting when it comes with a complex web of interconnectioned ideas that they haven't yet even touched upon? Two people agreeing doesn't mean they understand what either of them is saying, or for that matter what they themselves are saying and it certainly doesn't make what they're agreeing on any more of an enduring truth. It reinforces personal bonds and normalcy but it also dulls the spirit and it makes a thinker complacent.

Nor are people who rush to disagree with me any better. It's actually pretty sad, when I present an opinion (towards which my faith is most often limited) and somebody rushes to tell me that they disagree with me and that's that. As if their disagreement is some sort of major event. The implication is that since I'm upsetting their safety with my contrarian view, I should apologize and make amends.

So basically I don't want people I talk with to either agree or disagree with me. I want to exchange views and experiences and for words to lead to other words until we've gathered enough and we can take that with us and tend on it and whatever is useful can find a fluid place in our personal lexicon, one that doesn't deal with certainties and categorizations and cliches. Furthermore, I don't want to be pacified and put to a use. It is, I think, a matter of survival. I have to claim this ambiguous space where various qualifiers people stick on me do not overshadow my fundamental unpredictability, my humanity. It must be a shock to be alive, a constant barrage of strikes. A violence that cannot be rationalized and put to use.

I'm not doing a great job of it, but I'm going to try more to converse in a way that encourages honesty and risk. So I write it down here and I can remember the next time someone says something blindingly infuriating to me and I rush with my "I disagree and here's why"s or someone says something fascinatingly close to a thought I once had and I rush to congratulate them for being like me.


JJ Naas said...

For me, being in agreement about big, important issues is boring, and disagreeing is a challenge that I'm unable to pass (I NEED to win the argument). Agreeing about small, irrelevant, trivial things that I never thought anyone else would bother their minds with is most exciting and stimulating, whereas disagreeing about small, irrelevant things with people is empty babble on my part and on their part.

setuzuvar said...

Hm.. But isn't avoiding agreement and disagreement generally a little constrained? Doesn't it make conversation and understanding each other more difficult? After all if someone agrees with you he is giving you a feedback, an information. If he had to avoid this, then he would have to communicate less than he wants to, which is maybe a bad thing.

I understand your uncomfortable feeling with fast agreement. Often I feel uncomfortable if someone agrees or disagrees with me before I finished explaining my thought. But my strategy in these situations is to ask questions. If the dialogue partner can't answer my questions about the topic then his agreement was just meritless. Or maybe he gives answers opposing my own view and then I know what he's really thinking. By asking each other about the aspects of the topic each one considers relevant, one can clarify in all detail where the differences in each's opinions lie and this gives fruitful basis for further thought on the topic.

The binary of approval and disapproval also disappears that way because you're collecting a set of small approvals and a set of small disapprovals leading to a state of grey between the white of equalling opinions and the black of total disagreement.

Also I feel instant agreement/disagreement is often just an expression of someones emotions and should be surely permissible since it's often something that happens unconsciously and can't be controlled.

This is my first comment here but I read your blog for quite some weeks now and love it. Not only because of the comics which are very inspiring and touching to me but also because you are a very interesting person and I like your way of explaing things in depth and not being content with just the superficial basic thought. Although I do not know much about making comics, art and philosophy are the central subjects in my life and I plan to comment from time to time if that's ok with you.

Best regards from Dresden, Germany

Helm said...

setuzvar, I'm glad to have read your comment and I hope you'll post more whenever you feel you must, know that they're welcomed.

That's what I generally do also, I ask more questions, I prod and I try to get my conversation partner to show me something more than usual shallow agreement or disagreement allows for. And from your reply I guess I should make it clear that I don't infuriatedly drop conversations whenever someone agrees or disagrees with me, as you say their stance even on that level says a lot about where they're standing emotionally, but I've also noticed I do have my limits to my patience and I'm not a psychologist so sometimes a LOT of agreement / disagreement is a warning bell that in my limited time and means I won't be getting anywhere in this case. In a perfect world I'd treat every person I come in contact with as the only person I've ever met, though. This is something else I think about a lot, how we're all biased no matter how open-minded we try to appear, how pre-conceptions are to ingrained because they were once - and in select real life situations may still be - life-saving.

Keep reading, keep talking.