Wednesday, February 02, 2011

the party line

I just realized a huge change I went through, starting sometime in my late 20s/early 30s. It's a little hard to explain.

When I was a child and teenager, it was often the case that I hadn't made up my mind about some issue. Or I didn't have a strong aesthetic sense about whether some movie or book or actor was good or bad.

But I felt it was important that I have -- or seem to have -- a strong opinion. I decided that "grown ups" were always sure about things, and I wanted to be grown up.

So, instead of honestly reporting my confusion or undecidedness, I pretended to have a stance. Sometimes it was a stance I copied from someone else -- someone I liked who seemed sure of himself, at least about whatever issues I was currently thinking or talking about.

Okay, I suspect that what I've described so far is pretty common. What may or may not be common is that I somehow felt that my stance was a kind of truth.

Someone would ask me if I liked Shakespeare or not. My true feeling, at my core, might have been something like, "I don't know. I haven't read much Shakespeare. And what little I have read was hard for me to understand, and I didn't like that, because it made me feel stupid. At the same time, I did understand parts of it, and I liked those parts..."

But, having decided that Smart People Like Shakespeare, I'd take that stance and say, "Yes, I like Shakespeare very much." On a simplistic level, we'd call that a lie.

But, of course, like everyone else, I sometimes told lies, and I knew what it felt like to tell a lie. This felt a bit different. It felt like the option I was working towards. Like an almost surely true prediction of what my option one day would be.

If I could have somehow have put my this into worlds, I might have said something like, "Well, I haven't quite gotten there yet, but I'm pretty sure I'm the kind of person who will one day like Shakespeare, so let's just simplify things by putting me in the likes-Shakespeare camp. And, even if I don't actually have both feet in that camp, I promise to act like I do. I'll go see Shakespeare plays. I'll read his works. Etc. So, in terms of behavior, there will be no difference between me and a true Shakespeare fan. To say I'm not a one is just quibbling."

It was as if I had an official spokesperson, and his brief was to handle public relations. And he also made sure that, regardless of my private feelings, I always acted according to the party line. Which made the party line true -- or true-ish.

(If I told one friend that I liked Shakespeare but admitted to another that I didn't, this DIDN'T feel like truth. For it to feel like truth, I had to steadfastly ALWAYS tell the same story.)

Once I got my official-spokesperson stance set, I could utter it in confidence, without shame, and it never felt like a lie. As-far-as my internal state was concerned, it wasn't a lie.

Sometimes, my deep-down confusion would quickly come in line with the party line (and I really would like Shakespeare). I guess that's what they mean by "fake it until you make it." At other times, this process took years.

For instance, as a kid, I spent YEARS claiming to love school, when in fact I hated it. But, again, "I love school" didn't feel at all like a lie. It felt like the official party line. And, in fact, admitting to myself that I hated it was hard, because the spokesperson was screaming at me, "No you don't!"

Sometimes, all that existed was the party line. In other words, I got bored with the actual issue and stopped thinking about it. So whatever truth there was about my stand on it was JUST the stance.

(My dad is very opinionated about music. He used to play a lot of Sondheim, but he HATED the sound "Liaisons" from "A Little Night's Music." When that track would start, he's run to the turntable and skip over it, proclaiming the song's worthlessness. I aped his opinion. It became my stance. And, eventually, though the stance was really powerful and seemed true, there was nothing underneath it. TWENTY YEARS after I adopted the stance, I realized I loved that song and always had.)

In my late 20s, my spokesperson went away. I'm not sure why? It may have had something to do with my immersion in psychology and neurology books. I may have had something to do with my worsening Asperger's symptoms.

I'm not saying I never lie. I'm sure I lie at least as much as anyone. But I KNOW it's a lie. And I always know if I like carrots, hate carrots or are confused about whether I like them or not. So it's not that there's no ambiguity in my soul. There's plenty of it. It's just that I'm comfortable with it. I don't need a spokesperson to pretend I know something that I don't know. If I don't know, I don't know.

Well, that last paragraph sounds like I always have perfect self-knowledge. I don't. Truthfully, I am capable of discovering that I don't really like something that I thought I did. But that's different from having an actual truth and a spokesperson truth in my head at the same time.

When I talk to other people, I sometimes feel like I'm talking to the a spokesperson. And, again, that's not my way of saying I feel like the person is lying to me. It's more complicated than that. I feel like I'm getting a sanitized party line, and that the person I'm talking to believes that line is a kind of truth. That he feels none of the guilt or shame that he'd normally feel if he was lying.

One example is sexuality. If you're a man who is only attracted to women, you're straight. If you're attracted exclusively to other men, you're gay. If you're attracted to both sexes, you're bisexual. It's really simple.

But there are a lot of people you "identify" as gay or whatever. What does this mean? Does it mean, "I am fully aware that I am attracted to both men and women, even though I'm more often attracted to men. I am aware that the TRUTH is that I'm bisexual. But since I don't act on my occasional attraction to women, I'm just going to call myself gay, because that makes things simpler in conversation -- and it makes my life easier in a world that's harsh on bisexuals"?

Or does it mean, "THE PARTY LINE IS THAT I'M GAY and as that IS the party line, it's as true as anything else. They fact that I'm sometimes attracted to women is a non-issue. It's not my official stance. (And maybe my attraction to women will even cease if I hold to the party line with enough conviction.) In any case, the part of me that's attracted to women doesn't count. Because I SAY so!"

In other words, does the bi person who identifies as gay actually feel like that identity is more meaningful than an arbitrary category BECAUSE it's his party line?

I think my lack of a spokesperson gets me into trouble sometimes. For instance, my friends are generally not racists. That means two things: (1) it means that, in general, they treat people of all races fairly and don't discriminate on the basis of skin color and (2) they CLASSIFY themselves as non-racists.

Now, most of us -- I think -- do have the occasional racist thought or feeling. It's not terribly important, as long as we realize it's wrong, etc. What's interesting is it IS part of who we are, but it's NOT part of how we classify ourselves. In other words, we're "bi" when it comes to being racist, leaning heavily towards not.

That is the LITERAL truth. So the LITERALLY TRUE answer, for me, if you ask me whether or not I'm racist, is "Almost never, but very occasionally I have a racist feeling."

While it's almost impossible for me to believe this isn't the case for nearly all "non racists," I've noticed almost no one says this (except for those people who have taken the stance that "we're all racist"). When you're asked if you're racist, you're supposed to go with the party-line answer. Your'e supposed to let the spokesperson talk. And, of course, the literal truth and the spokesperson truth are pretty close.

But, generally, if I admit to the literal truth, people get upset. They say, "You ADMIT you're sometimes racist and you don't do anything about it? That's horrible!"

But I KNOW I'm not alone in my once-in-a-blue-moon racism." I'm just alone in dropping the spokesperson.

This is SO hard to describe. I feel like someone could read this and say, "So you're just saying people are hypocrites?" No, that's not what I'm saying. If someone has an internal spokesperson, and that's really a part of them, and that spokesperson has a strong opinion, then that opinion is true -- or it FEELS true... or it's true-ish.

Without a spokesperson, you (or at least I) wind up living in a much murkier world, in which things aren't cut-and-dry and opinions are apt to shift.

Here's one last example: most of us say things like, "'The Wizard of Oz' is my favorite movie." (If you don't happen to like that movie, imagine some other movie that you do like.)

That becomes the party line, and it IS true most of the time. But sometimes you don't feel like watching it. You're not in the mood to watch your "favorite movie." If someone forced you to watch it right then, you'd have a lousy time. Why? Because THAT MOVIE would be irritating you. A movie you "love" would be irritating you.

I'm not sure what the phrase "my favorite movie" actually means. I guess it's some sort of averaging. It's the movie that most often gives you pleasure. It's a statement that's 100% stance. "Favorite movie" doesn't feel like anything. "I'm enjoying this movie right now" means something, as does "I remember having enjoyed it lots of times in the past, and when I think about it, those thoughts tend to give me pleasure." As does "I'm not enjoying it right now."

The only feelings that exist are the ones you're having right now.

The literal truth is that sometimes you have a good time watching (or thinking about) the movie and sometimes you don't. Your experience skews way more towards "good time" than "bad time." But the bad-time experiences are certainly real. You're "bi" when it comes to "The Wizard of Oz," chocolate cake (which you hate when you have an upset stomach) and the rest of your "favorite things."

But "'The Wizard of Oz' is my favorite movie" FEELS like truth to me. It's the official party line. What's fascinating is that I can say it, with great conviction, without actually feeling anything (other than conviction). It may not be literally true in this moment (I'm not even watching the movie right now), but if you focus on this moment, you're quibbling.

Oops. I claimed not to have a spokesperson. I guess sometimes I do. Especially when I'm tired. He can take over when it's too much work to dredge up my actual feelings. Or when someone forces me to state my feelings about something I don't have any feelings about.

But though he's still around, my spokesperson seems semi-retired. He was so active in my youth. Now he just pokes his head in to say hi once in a while. And he often takes naps, during which time my true feelings (or lack of them) are obvious to me.

We sometimes simplify our internal states in order to be able to think about them and talk about them. Those simplifications can have the emotional force of truth.


Summar said...

I really like your post, but this post isn't really about your post. Thank you for allowing me to post.

I was confused as a kid and teenager as to what made up strong opinions, and I thought the people who had them were hardy researchers into the world and their interests. I had really strong preferences, but because of being a bad communicator and lack of sympathy from other people (because of the undiagnosed autism, I suppose) I was always impressed that my opinions were wholly subjective, and that other people's opinions--which everyone seemed to understand so much more readily than mine--were something to follow. I didn't, but I also didn't try to communicate personally with people. I suppose what makes strong opinions is a willingness to be a faction, even if it's of one.

It's difficult because a lot of what I feel about things are muddy--and why shouldn't they be when asked a questions like, "Do you like school?" Did they mean absolutely? Did they mean did I like anything whatever about it, like the windows I stared out of? Or do they mean a general indictment or support for the schooling system? To find out, I need to ask, but perhaps I'm tired, and everything's confused me already. Or maybe I should know already, based on the context of the conversation, and if I answer in too much detail--or too particularlistically--it will be major dissonance.

I mean it's difficult to even formulate my opinions, perhaps partly because the other person likely isn't of my party, so there's lack of support if I can't communicate my opinions that day--or that I'm worn out, and so I stop myself from even thinking about the school problem above, and say: I don't have an opinion now. And people normally find this laughable, they think I'm lying. But confusion doesn't seem allowed in talk, you're supposed to do your part in the fisher's cabal by throwing a line out there.

I do know when I truly am not made up about a topic, and know when I'm clouding any opinions to protect myself (even if it includes to myself), and that I sometimes go in pretty deep in the cloud cover; and that sometimes I'm too tired to organize my opinions or responses for other people. I understand what you wrote about the spokesman, and I felt moved to write when you wrote about the worsening aspergers symptoms making it leave.

I agree with what you wrote about identity politics and about the favorites discussion. There are poets and books I absolutely loved, but I don't feel so strongly about them now--and may not feel like even reading them--but does that mean my love was false necessarily? Can't I keep it without being absolutist? Can't I remember some parts, even if I can't revisit the whole? I want to fight to keep my fragmentary loves, because those make up the majority of my loves at any moment--one week it may be this entire poem by a poet, but for several it may be a phrase from Twelfth Night, the little jump "Build me a willow cabin outside thy gate", or from Bishop, "The grandmother sings to the marvel stove,/and the child draws another inscrutable house", or the sun when the sick drunkard in Le Feu Follet handles the curtain and says in a throaty voice, "You can touch it."

I'm sorry I wrote so much, but if I had more time or energy I would shorten it. I'm curious what you feel about the organizing prowess of the spokesperson, and whether he still has gone away for you, and how you live without him.

Swaroop said...

i can identify with the 'spokesperson'; have been trying to figure out where he came from.

somehow i always thought that the spokesperson was stronger in collectivist cultures like India (where i hail from) but here i read a post from a person from a culture which is highly individualistic.
So, where there is society, there is an official spokesperson.

i am really interested in the psychology books u read. Could u please name a few?

Marcus said...

Summar, thanks for your fascinating comment. I'm sorry life has been hard for you at times. I can relate.

Your confusion when you encounter fuzzy language reminds me of something I've been meaning to write about. (Or maybe I already have written about it. I've had this blog for so long, now, I'm starting to forget what thoughts I've dumped onto it.)

Particularly at work, I've noticed I ask way more questions than most people.

A typical conversation will go like this:

COWORKER REQUESTING I DO SOMETHING: Hi. When you get it done, can you put it in the box?

ME: Hi. Sorry: what project do you mean?

REQUESTER: That project you're doing for me.

ME: Sorry to be so dense, but I'm doing two projects for you. Which one are you referring to?

REQUESTER: The one for our website.

ME: Okay. Got it. And you say you want me to put it in the box. Which box?

REQUESTER: The one near the receptionist's desk.

ME: There are three boxes there. Sorry for all the questions. This is the last one: which of the three boxes are you talking about?

REQUESTER: The middle one.

ME: Thanks! I'll get right on it.

Okay, now what's interesting here is that the original request -- "When you get it done, can you put it in the box?" -- would be just as opaque to anyone else as it would be to me. And yet I ask more questions up front than most of my coworkers. Why?

To some extent it's because most people are better at reading-between-the-lines than I am: they are less literal-minded. But that's not the whole story. Regardless at how savvy you are at reading subtext, there's no way you can know which of three boxes someone means if he says "put it in THE box."

What I've noticed is that the "normal" way of dealing with "When you get it done, can you put it in the box?" is to just take a stab at it without asking question.

OTHER EMPLOYEE: Okay, I did what you asked.

REQUESTER: You did? I don't see it in the box.

OTHER EMPLOYEE: Really? I put it in there.

REQUESTER: Which box did you put it in?

OTHER EMPLOYEE: The left one.

REQUESTER: I meant the middle one.

OTHER EMPLOYEE: Oh, sorry. I'll go move it.


--- later ---

REQUESTER: Hey, you put the print project in the box. I was looking for the web project.

OTHER EMPLOYEE: Oh. Sorry. I didn't realize that. I'll work on it now and it will be in the box by 3pm today.


So most people seem to hear a vague request, take a stab at, and then refine it -- with the help of the requester -- over multiple iterations. This leads to a lot of time wasted, but neither the requestor nor the person doing the project seems to mind. It's natural for them to muddle their way towards a unified understanding, rather than to work out all the details beforehand. (Of course I realize that not all details CAN be worked out in advance, but I'm talking about the ones that can. The requestor knows exactly what he means by "the box," and a simple question would clear things up then-and-there.)

I often wonder what their thought process is. Is OTHER EMPLOYEE aware that the request is fuzzy, but he doesn't want to bother REQUESTER with questions, so he figures he'll just take a risk and do what he guesses REQUESTER wants (and if he guesses wrong, no big deal -- he can correct any mistakes later)? Or when he hears things like "put it in the box," does he get a very clear idea in his head of what "it" and "the box" refer to, not realizing that they may refer to multiple things?

In other words, do most people's minds flip to an answer, regardless of whether they have enough information or not?

I am not claiming my way is better. Sometimes people get really irritated if you ask them too many questions. But I tend to ask until I'm sure I understand. Otherwise, I have trouble starting.

Marcus said...

Your comment about people getting irritated if you don't have an opinion resonated with me, too. I've often found that to be the case.

OTHER PERSON: Who do you think will win the election.

ME: I have no idea.

OTHER PERSON: I realize you don't know, but can you take a guess?

ME: I don't know what the basis would be for my guess. I haven't been following what the candidates have been saying. I really don't know anything about them.

OTHER PERSON: Okay. Fine. I know you can't see the future. I'm just asking who you THINK will win?

ME: I don't know.

OTHER PERSON: Arg! Never mind.

As you've said, I've noticed that people often think I'm lying when I don't have an answer. They seem to think "you MUST know, but for some reason you're unwilling to tell me." But I really don't know.

I've also noticed that most people will try to give directions to a lost stranger, even if they literally have no idea and will probably make things worse. Many times, I've heard this sort of thing:

"Elm Street? Wow. I've never heard of that street before. I've only lived here for a month. Maybe it's downtown. Of course, it could be uptown. I bet if you turn left and walk down that street, you'll get to it eventually."

Whereas I'd just say, "Sorry. I don't know."

There is a price to giving up statements like "'The Great Gatsby' is my favorite book." Even if that's not literally true all the time -- even if you haven't really had any strong feelings about the novel since you decided it was "your favorite" -- it identifies you. It's something to hang a conversation on: "Oh, really? It's my favorite book, too!"

But there's also something really liberating about giving it up. If you never call something "your favorite book" and just describe your feelings -- right now -- about books you've read, you can feel really in touch with yourself.

OTHER PERSON: You said "The Great Gatsby" is your favorite book, right?

ME: Hm. I may have said that a couple of years ago. I loved it when I read it. And I can still recall feeling that it was brilliantly written. But right now I can't muster up much of a feeling about it, because I just finished "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and the feeling I have from it is so overwhelming. I'm in love with that novel.

OTHER PERSON: So it's better than "The Great Gatsby"?

ME: I don't know. I'm not reading them both at once. I can't really compare them. I could compare the experience of just having finished "One Hundred Years of Solitude" with the memory of "The Great Gatsby," but that's sort of apples and oranges. All I can tell you is that, right now, I'm really jazzed about "One Hundred Years of Solitude!"

What's interesting is that if you have a stable "favorite book" (and "favorite movie and "favorite band" and "favorite political party"), you can define yourself in terms of a collection of facts -- you can categorize yourself in a way that may genuinely feel like you've answered the riddle of "who am I"? And you will get support from other people, because defining yourself that way is a generally accepted way of doing things. Facebook asks you about your favorite books, movies, etc.

On the other hand, if you define yourself what you love and hate RIGHT NOW -- if you're really in touch with that and not just posing or saying what you think people want to hear -- then that's another kind of self-knowledge. It's one based on sensation rather than fact.

I am a bundle of sensations.


I am a collection of facts.

Marcus said...

I am presenting it in a very binary way. It needn't be one or the other. I am sensations and facts. But I think, generally, sensations aren't valued in our culture as much as facts or categories. And yet the sensations have to be more "who we are" because we all live in the present.

By the way, immediate sensations can include "being unsure", "not knowing", and "blankness."

OTHER PERSON: What book do you love most right now?

ME: I don't know.

That can be a 100% honest part of who I am right now: someone who doesn't know what book he loves best.

Here's a great quote from "My Dinner With Andre," in which Andre Gregory talks about really living in the moment -- really defining who you are as the you who exists RIGHT NOW. Though he seems in favor of it, to me, he perfectly describes what's wonderful and terrifying -- and terrible -- about it.

"But you know, if you live with somebody for a long time, people are constantly saying: 'Well! Of course it's not as great as it used to be, but that's only natural, the first blush of a romance goes, now that's the way it has to be.' Now, I totally disagree with that. But I do think that you have to constantly ask yourself the question with total frankness: Is your marriage still a marriage? Is the sacramental element there? Just as you have to ask about the sacramental element in your work: is it still there? I mean, it's a very frightening thing, Wally, to have to suddenly realize that my God! I thought I was living my life, but in fact I haven't been a human being! I've been a performer! I haven't been living, I've been acting! I've acted the role of a father, I've acted the role of the husband, I've acted the role of the friend, I've acted the role of the writer, director, what have you. I've lived in the same room with this person but I haven't really seen them. I haven't really heard them. I haven't really been with them.

"...Well, you know, I could imagine a life, Wally, in which each day would become an incredible monumental creative task. And we're not necessarily up to it. I mean, if you felt like walking out on the person you live with, you'd walk out. Then if you felt like it, you'd come back, but meanwhile the other person would have reacted to your walking out. It would be a life of such feeling. I mean, what was amazing in the workshops I led was how quickly people seem to fall into enthusiasm, celebration, joy, wonder, abandon, wildness, tenderness! Could we stand to live like that?"

Marcus said...

Swaroop, I have focused on two types of books: psychology (e.g. psychotherapy) and neurology.

I think a lot of psychology -- of the Freudian or Jungian type -- is bullshit if you take it as a literal description of what goes on in a human brain. And some of it is bullshit on any level.

But sometimes such books can give you interesting frameworks to think about (and relate to) people and what makes them tick.

My favorite books of this type are by Eric Berne, the inventor of Transactional Analysis. Pick up a copy of "Games People Play." You'll find it fascinating, whether you agree with him or not.

I think of his framework as a "toy psychology." It's a model that explains why people act the way they do, and the model is internally consistent, even if it doesn't completely map onto reality. It sort of reminds me of Newtonian Physics. It gives you a way of understanding the universe that isn't, strictly speaking, accurate, but it is still useful and thought-provoking.

Along these same lines, I recommend "You Just Don't Understand" by Deborah Tannon and, surprisingly, "A Practical Handbook for the Actor." That latter book is exactly what the title says it is. But modern acting theory is really a psychological theory -- about what motivates characters in plays. Again, it's a toy (but workable) psychology. And "A Practical Handbook" is a succinct explanation of a system many actors use to understand their roles.

Nowadays, I am more into neurology: check out V.S. Ramachandran's new book, "The Tell-Tale Brain." Also check out books by Stephen Pinker, Antonio Damasio, Oliver Sacks, Daniel Gilbert and Dan Ariely.

Swaroop said...

Thank you for the list of books, Marcus.
By the way, i am reading Eric Berne's
"Games People Play" (what a coincidence!). It's interesting because i found myself playing a game mentioned in the book; just that i could only figure it out in hind sight.
Besides i enjoyed reading Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational.

Summar said...

I loved that moment in Dinner with Andre; I rewatched the movie for the first time since high school after you mentioned it on the blog and it was liberating. The set up of Wally as the uncomfortable, jaded force isn't followed through--nor broken down exactly. The confrontation turns into a conversation because Wally initiates it by being a detective, and that transformation is a piece of theatrical magic. I've been reading this book about 5 people--including the author--with autism called Send in the Idiots and he talks about conversation as performance. That there's a lift when an argument becomes a conversation, a shift into an attempt to entertain one another and this creates the space for spontaneity and discovering things you didn't know was in you.
Thank you for your posts. It made my day when I read your posts--in fact, I almost read it wrong because in my e-mail it looked like: "Summar, thanks for your fascinating comment. I'm sorry life has been hard for you at times" followed your comment to Swoop. Isn't it funny how that changes the temperature of your reply?
Take care.

naomi said...

I love this post and can relate to a lot of it, including the automatically feeling negatively about something simply because a parent was so strongly against it. It took me a long time to realize examples of this in my life, and when I did, I felt ashamed for being so marshmallowy-yet I also felt like I was a traitor to the parent. Insane! I think a lot of my "spokesperson" statements were tied to worrying about what other people would think and trying to fit in, even though inside, I always felt more like the little kid pointing out the naked Emperor (the difference being that I was too afraid to point). I don't say things to fit in anymore, and it does make me "not as interesting" to some (not gossiping with other moms at games or school events, for instance). I also don't have a favorite color, and that disappoints people (hmmm-yes-all of the three times it's come up in the last 20 years). I used to always say "green" because when I was a baby, my mom said I would only scribble with a green crayon, so that was assumed to be my favorite color and the answer I gave. Years later, I faced the fact that although I like green, I couldn't say it's my favorite. I like all the colors but at different times, depending on what the item is. I'm a major over-thinker and surprised I haven't had obsessive-compulsive self-debate to figure out one favorite color. Maybe I will--would be a welcome change over the anxiety-type topics I've been covering lately. Your dialog about the work assignment and "which box" questions is also fabulous, and I'll be sharing this with a friend who wonders why her appropriate questions seem to surprise or annoy people. She is also extremely annoyed by people who are so vague in the first place and create confusion and extra work--and yet no one else seems to notice or care. I used to be in a work setting where my boss/upper management appreciated unforeseen intricacies pointed out, and dullards and followers were not tolerated or promoted. That all changed with the company being sold several times, and new owners and management were guided by "trendy" and self-serving motives, so they wanted followers who did not question. The company is now in its second bankruptcy and everyone blames it on general print industry woes. Sometimes I wish I could just stop looking in between the lines with everything. I have learned to be more accepting of people who "follow along" because it's everywhere, and who am I to judge, but I have plenty of weak moments where I feel like an outcast because I'm not "for" one idea or political party. The judging of people really gets to me--yet I end up judging people automatically and don't realize this until after the fact. Anyway, I'm going to (try to) stop assuming so many people are judging or following when I don't know this for sure. Plus, I'm a "follower" of "The Walking Dead," and the main characters are okay with a herd of zombies stumbling around in the distance--it's just the ones that get too close that really have to be dealt with. Makes it all seem more manageable.