Saturday, October 23, 2010

Be Quiet

In my post of August 19, 2010 entitled “True Believers” I wrote about serial changers of belief who with each change insist loudly that their newly-born-again self has found the one real truth. And, of course, they are proclaiming this to us because they want us to recognize their sincerity and, most of all, to join them in their new belief.

A recent article at Miller-Mccune ( reports on findings by researchers David Gal and Derek Rucker. While they didn’t set out to study those I call “serial believers,” their conclusions are perhaps even more relevant to those multiple “born-againers.” In a paper entitled “When in Doubt, Shout!” they conclude that “advocacy on behalf of one’s beliefs helps banish any uncomfortable lack of certainty’”; those participants in the study who were most in doubt “expressed a greater likelihood to attempt to persuade other people of their beliefs.” As the Miller-Mccune article puts it:

“Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence,” [Gal and Rucker] write in the journal Psychological Science, “the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.”

The Miller-Mccune article notes that “In a logic-driven world, [one would think] the shattering of long-held assumptions . . . would lead to a thoughtful period of reflection and re-evaluation.” However, just the opposite happens: “In our world, it leads one to actively advocate one’s pre-existing beliefs all the more passionately.”

While it might seem that the serial “True Believers” might be the exceptions that prove the rule, in fact, by their strong advocacy of their latest belief they demonstrate that their desire to have others join them is a need for confirmation of the validity of their new (and shaky) faith.

How unlike Hamlet and Nora Helmer (discussed in another of my blog posts, “The Act of Living,” September 14, 2010), who, having had their “long-held assumptions” shattered, face the new existential void in their lives without either blanking out the reality in front of them and retreating deeper into their shaky previous beliefs or turning to a new pre-packaged belief system and, proclaiming their sincerity in their new doubtful faith, attempt to induce others to join them.


I recall an article I read many years ago in the N
ew York Times Magazine, which told of a paper left behind by an African diplomat after having given a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. At one place in the margin of this paper was written: “Weak Point. Raise Voice.”

As I concluded in the “True Believers” post, I ask those shouters of their beliefs:

"Why should I believe what you believe today, which you didn't believe yesterday--and will not believe tomorrow?"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Crystal Balls

I am not a channel surfer. I’m what I might call a “program destinationer.” That is, when I turn on the television I head directly to a particular channel to see a particular show. If the show is not on by some chance (think of pre-emption by a PBS begathon), I don’t go looking for something else to watch. Thus, my knowledge of the world of television programming is distinctly limited. It is only when I am unfortunately cornered in a waiting room, say, or the Laundromat that—like a passenger being subjected to a wayward journey by a clueless cabbie—I get to view things that exist outside my everyday world.

It so happened the other day that I was facing a television set tuned to the History Channel. The program was one of those future-disaster shows—much beloved by the Weather Channel—that informed its audience, through interviews with scientists and engineers, that because of deteriorating infrastructure (the roads, the dams, the bridges, the electrical grid) our country faces calamitous events and a return to Nineteenth-century living conditions. Among other possible disasters, Nashville might end up under twenty feet of water, Southern California might have its fresh water supply cut off, and we might all be subjected—if not to blackouts—to regular electrical brownouts. The scary case the program made for the need for immediate funding for repairs to our deteriorating infrastructure would, it seemed to me, make even the stingiest “small government” politician demand that Uncle Sam get out his checkbook immediately.

When the program ended, I took a deep breath and kept my wallet in my pocket through a long line of commercials, while I awaited the next presentation. Which turned out to be a program on Nostradamus and other alleged prognosticators of future events. We were told of supposed foretellings of the deaths of Popes and emperors and of natural and man-made disasters. The scientists and engineers of the previous show were replaced by astrologers and their ilk. The voiceover announced portentously that “experts believe . . .” without telling us who these “experts” are or what they are expert in. The show was a pandering to mindless loonies and credulous ninnies. As soon as the other person in the room left, I grabbed the remote and switched to the noon news. (Speaking of being confronted by “mindless loonies and credulous ninnies.”)

So this is America in the Twenty-first century: Presented as equally valid, scientific and engineering investigation and bozo prognostication. Something like Fox News plus science.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

You Don't Gotta Have Friends

While we’re on the subject . . .


What was more natural for a recently-retired English professor than to wish to further foster reason, logic, and rationality by volunteering to help the Friends of the local library? Thus, I sped off a check to the Friends, becoming for my fifty-dollar donation a member at the “High Exalted Benefactor” level (or whatever it was called) and received, in return, something magnetic and a copy of the Friends' newsletter.

After sticking the magnetic thingy on the fridge, I opened the newsletter only to discover that the Friends’ next lecture would be a presentation by a personage who helps one discover who one was in one’s past life.

I immediately became un-Friendly.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Chance of a Ghost; Ghost of a Chance

I read a lot of detective fiction and mysteries. And, as I imagine most fans of the genre do, I follow my favorite authors and their detectives from book to book. However, over the years I have from time to time waved farewell to authors and their detectives, abandoning series, not caring a hoot about what new mischief may be afoot in subsequent books. There were several reasons why I gave up on them, but I wish to discuss only one.

Last year I bid farewell to two police procedural series—both featuring detectives in contemporary England. In the last book I read of each series, the author wanted the reader to accept supernatural occurrences—ESP, stigmata, spirit channeling—as real events. Because the mystery genre demands reason and logic, and thus cannot countenance superstition and obscurantism, I could not tolerate such nonsense—and so ditched the authors and their works. Twenty-first-century rationalism was not to be flouted.

But why, if I am unable to accept ghosts and such in modern-era detective fiction, am I tolerant of the ghosts, for example, of Hamlet’s father and Banquo? The reason is the same as that for my acceptance of the intervention of the god Herakles in Sophocles’ Philoctetes or of the oracles whose prophecies cause so much trouble for Oedipus, Laius, and Jocasta. I accept, for Shakespeare, his work in the context of the belief system of Elizabethan/Jacobean England, and for Sophocles, his work in the context of the belief system of 5th-century B.C. Greece. In context, our “supernatural” was their “natural,” and part of the warp and woof of their belief systems. However, what is most important isn’t their intellectual, philosophical, religious differences from us, but the similarity of their concerns about the conundrums of human existence: chance, evil, honor, greed, love, lust, etc.

So, I am willing to allow an Elizabethan ghost to walk the battlements of Elsinore and move his son to revenge or a Greek god at the last moment to reconcile the irreconcilable.

But if Herakles appears in the mystery I am now reading and solves the detective’s case, that book is straight for the dumpster.