- Catharsis vs anti-catharsis
- Self-understanding and unpacking the meaning of music
- Whether music is “just a sensation”
- How sensationalism in music is like pragmatism in philosophy
- Self-Referential/Self-Conscious Expression
- Stupid-making music
- The honesty of children
- Humor is disarming
- Self-Aware Expression and Parody
- Bootleg Romanticism
- Music as a utility versus a metaphysical statement
- How to deal with bad music that you like
- The effect of noise in music
- Bohemian Rhapsody
- Coen brothers movies
- Crime and Punishment
- “This is Spinal Tap”
- Pictures at an Exhibition
- Ayn Rand and Metaphysics of Man
- Emo vs Screamo
- Metallica “One,” “The Outlaw Torn”
- Metalocolypse & Deathclock
- Cole Porter “Anything Goes”
- Rage Against the Machine
Here's a new video conversation between me and metal fan and math-man James Ellias about Heavy Metal music and "anti-catharsis." Over the summer, in connection with my new book, we had gotten to talking about "what's going on" for people with hardcore taste in music. Because our conversation was so wide-ranging and generated a lot of insights, I thought it would be worth continuing on youtube, so that you could hear it too. James is totally blunt and fearless, but also willing to be challenged and to find new truth, so it was productive. Here are some of the topics we touch on:
Good, honest people have an Achilles heel: they tend to assume that other people are motivated by the same straightforward sincerity that motivates them. But not every statement a person makes is a genuine expression of what he thinks. There is an opposite kind of purpose, which gives the statement an opposite kind of status: a manipulative purpose.
In fact, manipulative people will (like a Trojan Horse) utilize a good person's credulity, his tendency to focus on reality and whether the words are true. The truth-orientation is what the good man does in his own mind when thoughts occur to him. But that is not the mindset of a manipulator. The manipulator seeks to use his victim's honesty against him.
A manipulator may wish to distract you. If an accountant who is cooking the books sees your eye moving toward the table of figures which evidences his sleight of hand, and then suddenly points at the model ship on the windowsill, talking about the painstaking work put into constructing it—the exchange is not about the ship. To “take the statement at face value” is something like autism. If you don't grasp this kind of misdirection, you need to study more literature.
A manipulator may simply wish to hurt your feelings. When a vindictive woman says to her ex, “You are terrible in bed,” she is not saying it as a sincere, carefully exact statement of what she thinks is true. She is saying it for an emotional purpose: to hurt the man, to attack his masculinity, to make him doubt his prior confidence and question whether his feeling of success with the woman was a sham. To impartially consider whether the statement is true or not is context-dropping. It should not even be considered in terms of truth analysis. It is not within the field of knowledge statements; it is in the field of manipulative statements.
There are many possible manipulative purposes, many reasons that a person might say something which are not plain assertions of truth: establishing social dominance, self-flattery, controlling you or gaining power over you, hurting your feelings, distracting you, disarming you or getting your guard down, winning you over toward some person or course of action.
Consider this exchange from the movie Star Trek: First Contact.
"BORG QUEEN: We, too, are on a quest to better ourselves, evolving toward a state of perfection.
DATA: Forgive me; the Borg do not evolve. They conquer.
BORG QUEEN: By assimilating other beings into our collective, we are bringing them closer to perfection.
DATA: Somehow, I question your motives."
The same statement (“we are on a quest to better ourselves”)—exactly the same words—have an opposite status depending on whether they are presented as a straightforward communication, or for a manipulative purpose. Here, the Queen does not speak with the purpose of sincerely communicating something she thinks is true. Her words have an opposite status: they are deceptive. She seeks to present herself as a noble idealist, hiding her evil motives; this is for her own self-deception, and by extension for the deception of others in order to control them.
In the case of outright lies, the difference between truth-communication and manipulation becomes apparent even to the credulous. For example, it is obvious from its content that the “Patriot” Act is the opposite of patriotic; it is clear that the title is a plain lie, made for a deceptive and manipulative purpose.
But every effective and cunning liar knows that he can only make his lie convincing by mixing it with some truth, thus giving the idea traction in the mind of the gullible honest man. This is where truth-seekers need to up their game. It is not proper to “take the statement at face value” and test it against reality, as though it is within the sphere of sincere thought, when the statement has nothing to do with what is true or false, and everything to do with steering your emotions and mindset.
How do you know that a statement is made for a manipulative purpose rather than plain, uncomplicated communication of thought?
You ask: “Why is this person making this particular statement at this time?”
Notice that truth-status is timeless and universal. “2+2=4” considered from the point of view of truth, is an eternal fact which holds for everyone. But that doesn't mean that every time someone says “2+2=4” he is expressing the truth; he may be trying to lend credibility to a load of BS, he may be distracting you, or deliberately toying with your perception of reality, etc.
An analysis of the truth of a statement does not itself take into account whether the purpose of the speaker was to communicate truth. But the purpose and intention and motivation of the speaker is part of the context of the statement. Analyzing this—which is particular to this speaker speaking to you at this time in this particular situation—is essential to understanding what is going on.
“Somehow, I question your motives”—that is the proper motto of a thinker who lives not a world of purely abstract, Platonic truths, but in the real world of embodied human communication. It does not mean that there is no such thing as the truth. It means that part of the truth, part of reality, is the speaker's motivation. Nor does this mean that you must be paranoid. You should be realistically skeptical and critical, as a continuous mental setting.
This is not cynicism or expecting evil. It is approaching reality without prior preconception about a speaker's motives, and without projecting your own motivation onto them. And then, the speaker's motives are judged for being whatever they are, whatever they reveal themselves to be.
You often get your first clue about manipulative purposes from your gut. Something feels off—which is an inkling or impression of some elements which don't fit. If you reflect on them later, you can sort out what was going on. But remember that the manipulator knows that in time your logic will sort it out. Therefore he controls the pacing and course of interaction to avoid letting your process of logical analysis operate. He will distract you, make you feel good by flattering you, etc. This is why the skill of analyzing motivation in real-time is crucial to sanity and success in real life.
It is not improper to take into account the speaker's motive, as a fundamental matter of the epistemological status of the statement. This is a process of getting more information, a larger and more comprehensive data set. Motive is not an “illogical” or “irrelevant” consideration. To dismiss motivation in this way is an autistic, fractured, narrow-minded and biased way of thinking. It will make you think that people are unintelligible, when in fact they are quite intelligible, even when they are being irrational and deceptive. Because you can identify their motive. The speaker's motive is the causal explanation of the statement.
Even good people must be cognizant of Machiavellian purposes. Because good people live in a world that is as messy as everyone else. But good people have the capacity to make sense of it.
Today we live in an age in which people deeply accept metaphysical Subjectivism—the idea that reality is not an objective absolute, but a fluid and arbitrary construct of mind. On this premise, people think reality is either personally unique—you live inside your own self-created reality—or socially constructed—society somehow congeals its version of reality, which holds for only the members of that society.
People are drawn to this assumption of "Subjective Reality" because it enables them to make excuses for whatever irrationality they want to get away with.
One manifestation is what I call “subjectivist distancing”--a tactic for avoiding engagement with particular facts and arguments by dismissing them as “merely based on personal experience” and therefore irrelevant to anyone other than the speaker.
This is the pattern of "subjectivist distancing": A reality-oriented person offers facts and logical arguments. The subjectivist instinctively dislikes the absolutism and the challenge of that substance—and he seeks to distance himself from it by finding some way in which the reality-oriented person “just had a bad personal experience.” The subjectivist wants to avoid grappling with the specific facts and logical arguments offered, and he does so by ignoring them and implying that his opponent's judgment must be clouded and biased by his own subjectively constructed perception.
Here are some examples of Subjectivist Distancing from my own personal experience.
Each school year, I have a conversation with my graduating students—who will be going off to college the next year--about the nature and dangers of academia. We discuss the origins of academia in Plato's philosophy, embodied in his Academy, which was then re-created in the medieval Christian monasteries, which were eventually opened up to the public to become Universities. I warn the students about the dangers of living in a bubble cut off from the realities of life, without productive work to make a living, with all the concrete details of grocery shopping and paying bills managed by the great Parent which is the university—all riding on money that comes from commerce and industry, whether via private donors, government subsidies or grants, parental payments, or from debt which will be repaid by the student's own future work. I warn of the brainwashing indoctrination that students are subjected to, and explain in detail which ideas a pushed and how they are pushed. I warn about the dangers of false prestige, and the way “school pride” fuses your sense of self, your identity, with the institution and its doctrines.
One student, whose parents are piled high with academic credentials, and who was proud of being accepted to the prestigious Princeton University, found my message especially uncomfortable and fought me on it steadily. She particularly wanted to find out if I had had a bad experience in college—she half-heartedly acknowledged the facts I cited, but insistently pressed me about whether I had just had “a bad college experience.” When I told her that, yes, I did have a bad college experience, she was finally satisfied; she concluded—as she wanted to--that everything I said pertained only to me, was only relevant to me, that she did not have to deal with it or answer it, because my viewpoint was tainted by “personal experience.”
Another example: Several of my recent blog posts have condemned the Landmark Forum as a deadly and evil cult. I got a number of objections to those posts from people who had “completed” the Landmark Forum and wanted to shoot down what I said and reassert that they had “gotten value” from it and “suffered no ill harm” from it. Their objections were (quoting from one Landmark supporter): 1) “have you completed the Landmark Forum yourself, or is everything you have posted on the subject second or third-hand?” and admonishing me to “disclose that you never completed the program you are posting about and have no actual first-hand knowledge of it.” And 2) “You've not offered any sort of evidence except your perception/opinion of what is going on.”
Notice the double standard: if you do not have direct “personal experience” with the thing you are discussing, then your viewpoint is dismissed as not based on first-hand observation; but if you do have “personal experience” with it, then your judgment must be clouded and tainted by your own false private reality. There is no square inch of the human brain which is not destroyed by the premise of metaphysical Subjectivism.
My third example is about religion and worldview. I had a conversation with a Catholic friend—a very intelligent person with wide knowledge of science and the arts, but who was rigidly committed to the Catholic faith. I explained that I couldn't accept religion because it doesn't make any sense. We had fairly extensive conversations in which I pointed out the fallacies in the concept of God as an omniscient and omnipotent being, in which I pointed out the horrific implications of such things as original sin and the Ten Commandments (self-abnegation being the main theme). I was defending Ayn Rand's philosophy on the grounds of logic and facts.
But the final note of the conversation, pressed by my friend, was her assertion that I seemed to have had a difficult childhood, and therefore I needed a philosophy like Objectivism—whereas she had had a fairly good childhood, so she didn't have that need. She brushed aside the question of truth and rational validity to reassert the Subjectivist metaphysics: your reality is one thing, just for you, and my reality is another thing, untouchable by any of your observations or arguments.
This is how Subjectivism attempts to insulate irrational beliefs from challenge--to keep them impervious to reality. The subjectivist keeps threatening facts at arm's length from himself using, guarding against the thing he fears: objective reality.
"Americans do not believe in evil," Ayn Rand once observed. This is a great insight about America. Our gullibility and vulnerability comes from our naïveté. It is a combination of American benevolence and good will, with biased and distorted perception of reality.
Ayn Rand grew up in Russia, where evil is both acknowledged to exist, and thought to be important and powerful--all as one mixed package of tragic fatalism. And yet she herself had the wisdom to sort morality more finely. She held as a truth a different idea: that evil is unimportant and impotent--that 1) what matters is the good, and the evil should be attended to only as long as it is necessary to fight it; and 2) evil means destruction, not creative power, so its only power is parasitic on constructive creativity. But notice this is very different from believing that evil does not or cannot exist, denying that evil can be real.
This lesson--the American fallacy of disbelief in the reality of evil--has become especially apparent to me in a few recent concretes. First, I recently blogged about the Landmark Forum as an evil cult which destroys people, explaining in detail what is evil and destructive about it. I got a number of responses from readers saying "Can it really be that bad?" or "But I think it works for some people." People wanted to challenge whether I "just had a bad personal experience" which couldn't be generalized to apply to everyone. An undercurrent here is: people read such an analysis of evil not just with skepticism, but with a rigid assumption that something that bad cannot be real, it must be some sort of exaggeration or hot-headed personal vendetta. There is a strange, distinct note of prudish disapproval in an American's typical response to a denunciation of evil--as though it is "oversimplified," inappropriate, even sinful, to use harsh words naming evil for what it is.
Among typical Americans, there is no comprehension of the reality of an actually evil motivation--which is what makes Americans, as I said, so gullibly vulnerable to it.
The second recent example on this topic was people's responses the issue of potential terrorists coming to America (Europe, etc) masquerading as refugees. Many people have a primary concern to protect the innocence of refugees and muslims in general (which is taken as self-evident and axiomatic), and to denounce anyone who might be concerned about terrorist deception. There is again, no comprehension that a person might actually, in reality, be deceptive and malicious. And it is this unwillingness to accept the reality of evil that (again) makes Americans vulnerable to it, unprepared for it, and unconcerned with fighting it.
As a third example, which drives home the lesson in a powerfully emotional way--take the movie "Lone Survivor," which I just watched. It is about American soldiers in Afghanistan, who let 3 prisoners go free on the premise of following the "rules of engagement" and avoiding allegations of military crimes--and on the root premise: these guys must be innocent, realistically they just couldn't be evil, they must have a motivation as wholesome as our own and we just haven't seen it yet.
Americans have a tendency to distort the premise "innocent until proven guilty" to become "innocent, even after proven guilty--innocent regardless of proof."
This bias of "evil can't be real" in addition to being flatly false, is in total disregard of the safety of Americans, and of the actual risks in the real world. It is a fantasy premise that bad guys just need to be persuaded and treated nicely, and they will stop having malicious intent, which they never really wanted to feel anyhow.
"Lone Survivor" is a great dramatization of the consequences of this false and naive assumption.