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Culling books

The arrival of new appliances later this week mean that I have to move the bookshelves on the stairs. Roused to long-overdue action I’ve been using the necessity to cull books, mostly from historical and children’s fiction. My goal is to eliminate all double rows of bookson the shelves, but I’m finding it harder to condemn books than I thought.

The historical fiction will survive with only minor culls; it’s full of books by Gillian Bradshaw, Bernard Cornwell, Robert Graves,. Rosemary Sutcliff, and Henry Trease, and Patrick O’Brian. However, I won’t be keeping the Dudley Popes, which are no more than adequately written, and the odd library remainder with a wretched-looking cover. Admittedly, I haven’t read any of the twenty or so Georgette Heyers, but I figure that anything Trish liked so well should be worth a read some time; perhaps after I’ve read them all, I’ll keep the best half dozen.

Most of my culls are from the children’s section. I’m keeping the Arthur Ransom series, figuring I’ll read them some day. However, I’ve decided that I can live without most of the Doctor DoLittles, the Green Gables, and the Mary Poppins books.

However, it’s a wrench to cull any books, and harder still to cull Trish’s book and the odd volume we bought anticipating having children. But I tell myself that keeping a book I’m not going to re-read is hoarding, and denying others a chance to read is simply wrong. All the same, there’s such a clear history of my life on the shelves that I half-believe I could commit a series of murders more easily than I can discard even books I’m not going to read.

I am a devil’s advocate by profession. Some articles I sell ask hard questions. Many anticipate the responses to the opinions they express so I can answer them and strengthen the opinion. So when I hear people banning devil’s advocacy, I find their attitude short-sighted and have to struggle not to be offended personally.

The concept of devil’s advocate originates in the canonization process of the Catholic church.  In the debates about whether someone should be recognized as a saint, the devil’s advocate was tasked with asking the hard questions. Is the candidate’s behavior always of the highest? Did the miracles claimed for the candidate really occur? In the struggle to answer such questions, the decision was improved, and the final verdict could be given more confidently.

Never mind that, from my agnostic’s position, the fact that the process involved accepting miracles suggests that it was not applied strictly enough. The decisions were undoubtedly less credulous because a skeptical position was considered and answered. It seems no accident that, when Pope John Paul II wanted to create hundreds of modern saints, he weakened the role of the devil’s advocate so he could hurry the process.

I like to think that the position of devil’s advocate contains a sense of justice, implying that even the devil deserves representation in an inquiry into the truth. Playing devil’s advocate is such a useful exercise that I practice it as regularly in my personal life, as in my profession, deliberately imagining the worst that could be said or happen before making major decisions. From experience, I know that, by challenging my opinions, I round them out, modify them, and, in the end, hold them more thoughtfully and with more confidence because I have freely entertained doubts. I rarely finish playing my own devil’s advocate without being convinced that my opinion is the better for the exercise, and I can only conclude that those who would outlaw it have values very different from mine.

At the very least, those who make the ban appear to value self-esteem over intellectual rigor. Perhaps they believe they already have the truth, so an investigation into it is unnecessary. At the very least, they appear to value personal comfort over truth – which is understandable, because even when devil’s advocacy is an internal debate in someone’s mind, it can be disturbing and unpleasant.

Admittedly, some people have been known to claim they are playing devil’s advocate as an excuse for expressing unpopular opinions. When their opinions are questioned, they retreat by saying they are playing devil’s advocate. In this way, they evade responsibility for their opinions while sniping at other people’s. Still others claim to be playing devil’s advocate when what they really want is to have an argument, and care nothing for the topic. Both these behaviors are disgusting bits of dishonesty which only make me impatient.

However, banning devil’s advocacy because the concept is sometimes abused makes no more sense than banning cars because some drivers have accidents in them. Almost any claim of intellectual effort is open to abuse. An argument, which should be based on logic, can be debased by a couple of dozen fallacies, including appeals to authority, either-or propositions, non sequiturs, and post hoc arguments. A claim to logic can also be a way to avoid examining personal biases and prejudices, especially when made by someone in a position of power. Yet very few would suggest throwing out logic altogether. After all, much of the technology that shapes our lives is based on the application of logic – and part of that application of logic is the consideration and rejection of alternatives such as the ones that devil’s advocacy is designed to eliminate.

Frankly, I am shocked and saddened that anyone would discard devil’s advocacy so lightly. It is such a useful way of arriving at a better approximation of the truth that I am unable to view its outlawing as anything less than anti-intellectualism of the most distorted sort. The fact that idea can be entertained by people whom might otherwise be considered intellectuals only makes it even more tragic.

Online dating sites often advertise themselves as scientific. They ask you to answer hundreds of questions, and encourage you to take endless tests, all in the hopes of finding someone to love. In my experience, the results are about as accurate as a horoscope, and another example of how science is evoked to justify flimflam and phony services. Still, I have to admit that some of the questions do tell you a thing or two about the people who answer them – just not always what the question intended.

The best example of such questions are those that ask you how sexually confident you are,  or how strong your sex drive is. I realize that social media has long ago conditioned most of us to answer any question put to us in a web browser, but these questions are an open invitation to lie.

Think about it: statistically, the only truthful answer for the majority is the choice that identifies them as average. If nothing else, very few of us have the experience to have a statistically meaningful idea about how we compare to others of our gender and age. However, nobody wants to admit they are average. Average is boring, and nobody on a dating site wants to appear boring, which may explain why I have never seen such an answer to those questions.

Still less is anyone going to identify themselves as below average in confidence or sex drive – unless, perhaps, they are under twenty and unusually repressed or inexperienced. I mean, who wants to nurse someone along in order to have a relationship? Not even the unusually repressed or inexperienced, really.

That usually leaves labeling yourself as above average or far above average. Even  if you secretly consider yourself a sexual athlete of world cup standards, you’d have to have the intelligence of a bed of kelp to admit that in public. Not only does it sound like boasting, but it sets an impossibly high standard for your eventual performance.

In the end, the only answer – and the one most people usually give – is that they are above average. However, since the other answers aren’t useful, nobody knows whether the answer is truthful. More likely, identifying yourself as above average only says that you are modest and have given the question of how to game the system some thought.

In other words, the supposedly scientific system cannot be trusted. In fact, for some questions, it encourages users to lie – and we all know how important lies are for building a lasting and mature relationship.

Susan Faludi is famous for Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, a detailed description of the hostile reaction to feminism during the 1980s. She is less well-known for Stiffed: The Betrayal of American Men,  her equally in-depth description of male gender roles in the mid-1990s. The reason for this discrepancy? She wrote Backlash as a mainstream feminist for whom the existence of male privilege was an unexamined given. By contrast, by the time she finished writing Stiffed she was an unorthodox feminist critical of the conventional view of male privilege.

In modern feminism,  male privilege is a major explanatory principle. Just as you might explain why objects fall to the ground by invoking gravity, so many feminists evoke male privilege for an explanation of almost anything that men do. For example, a man who makes a sexist remark is demonstrating their position of power over women. So is a catcaller or a rapist. In all these cases, evoking male privilege is all the explanation that is needed. There is no need to go deeper in male psychology, because referring to male privilege says all that is believed necessary.

By contrast, while researching and writing Stiffed, Faludi concluded from her observation that male privilege was only a partial explanation. As she interviewed men across the United States – particularly working class men – she noticed that, far from feeling powerful, many men had been feeling a lack of power since the end of World War Two, and lacked positive role models. Their sole exercise of privilege was their assumption that they could take out their uncertainty and frustration on women, whom they often blamed for their feeling of being trapped.

Faludi’s conclusions have distinct advantages over the conventional analysis of male privilege. For one thing, they are based on observation, not theory, so they carry more conviction. For another, they cast men as fellow victims of gender roles, a view that tends to break down the view of men as Other.

However, the most important aspect of Faludi’s conclusions is that, because they go deeper into the causes of sexism and misogyny, they suggest more productive ways of handling these behaviors.
This advantage became clear to me the other day at a Psychology Dinner meetup on the subject of modern feminism. A woman described how a young man, probably at a night club for the first time, was groping every woman he could reach, including her.

A conventional response would be to shout at him, or call for a bouncer; he was a man with an assumption of privilege. However, while such a response would get him to stop his immediate behavior, it would leave him resentful and more likely to continue his unacceptable behavior in a gesture of defiance.

However, instead of just shouting at him  – although she did that, too – the woman took him aside. Assuming his behavior was due to immaturity, she took it on herself to explain why it was unacceptable. She never saw him again, so she never knew how he responded in the long term, but, by seeing him as human and inexperienced rather that an exerciser of privilege, she at least open the way for him to learn something and modify his behavior. The woman had never read Faludi, but her assessment of the situation was very much like what she might have had if Faludi had inspired her.

Yet despite these advantages, Faludi’s perspective has been rejected and generally dismissed in many feminist circles. It is unorthodox, and it denies the self-righteousness and sense of superiority that evoking male privilege encourages. It is also more humane,  and therefore more difficult to maintain.

In a word, Faludi’s view is too new. It requires a rethinking that many feminists are reluctant to undertake. Instead, they reject it as being soft on sexism and misogyny, and stop thinking of it. Praising Faludi and accepting “backlash” into their vocabulary is one thing when her analysis is conventional, but being asked to critique their core analytical tools is another thing altogether, and completely unacceptable, regardless of the evidence.

Faludi’s response to this reception is that there are many types of feminism, and that questioning orthodoxy does not make her less of a feminist. But to me, the painful part is that mainstream feminism has rejected insights that might have deepened its members’ understanding, and made their analyses of society more detailed and effective. Faludi has been an important influence on my thinking about feminism,  and I regret that her second book was not as welcome as her first one among those who could make best use of her insights.

Runaway

Lately, I’ve been disturbed by an unexpected event. The event was trivial in itself, but every now and then it nags me like a piece of tin foil trapped between my teeth, raising questions about the everyday interactions of men and women.

The event was a brief encounter with a woman who had been a colleague of sorts several years ago. I had questioned her approach to collaboration, coming to believe she had used me when I was vulnerable as a recent widower. She responded condescendingly. It was not my proudest moment, but I became unspeakably angry. For a couple of years I publicly criticized her several times when doing so seemed relevant.

Learning that we would be at the same conference, I tried to make a gesture of apology. It was rebuffed with unnecessary rudeness, but I had become embarrassed by my past behavior, so instead of growing angry again, I simply decided that I would ignore her at the conference. In fact, twice, I dodged her in the hallway to avoid conflict.

I was at a talk of mutual interest, sitting midway in the audience, on an aisle seat. A few minutes into the talk, I noticed that the woman in question was sitting in the back, near the far wall, with half the audience separating us.

For the first twenty minutes, I kept my face mostly to the front. However, when the panel asked for questions, members of the audience spoke from a microphone just behind me, and I turned to face them.

The woman took a couple of moments to notice me, but when she did, she rose hurriedly and left. She did not exactly run because of the crowd at the door, but she looked as though she would have liked to.

I would prefer to think that she was rushing to another talk, but the next sessions were at least twenty minutes from happening. Her departure might have nothing to do with me, except that she looked panicked, even scared — even though being either seems out of all proportion to the event.

Her reaction gave me no satisfaction and no sense of power. Instead, it made me feel both small and imposed upon. I felt like I had been silently condemned as a bully or worse, yet I could not tax myself with anything worse than anger and the occasional sniping. My criticism was never as severe as it could have been, and I had said far less than I might have– as little as the woman is likely to believe that. Even here, I am leaving out details that might identify her.

Nothing was ever said in so many words, but I suspect that I have been press-ganged into her private psycho-drama, playing in her mind a stereotypical man disappointed that I could not have a relationship with her. Nothing to justify that view had ever happened or been said – so soon after my partner’s death, I had had no wish for any new relationship – but my impression was that the woman was reacting to images in her mind and past experiences, and hardly at all to anything I had said and done. So far as she was responding to me, she was slotting my words and behavior into pre-defined categories rather than viewing them independently. Given my views on the typical man, the idea leaves me even more insulted.

Ordinarily, my first instinct in such a situation would be to talk to the woman. However, after seeing her apparent flight, I am reluctant to increase her panic or fear now that I am aware of them as a possibility.

Anyway, I suspect an intervention would never work. It would simply reinforce her interpretation. As much as my reflex is to help, her view of me has such a limited connection to any reality that it is clearly something she has to work out for myself. All I can do is hope that she becomes indifferent to me as quickly as possible; at this point, I can hardly expect her to start viewing me as human.

Meanwhile, in what world is such behavior reasonable? I am left wondering: are relationships between women and men so toxic that other women would react the same way to such a minor series of interactions? I remind myself that the woman has run from at least one female antagonist, so I would like to believe that other women – if not most women – would react differently. But I am left wondering if male-female relationships could generally be as tangled as this, and whether my belief in the possibility of friendship or mutual respect between the sexes is naivety on my part.

Unfortunately, though, I have only fragmented answers. All I have is an uneasy guilt at having unintentionally hurt someone I have sometimes respected, mingled with a sense of being insulted and unfairly accused, and the frustrated conviction that the only action I can take is no action at all. It is a situation that has no effect whatsoever on a daily basis, but it annoys me because it seems so baffling.

I once knew a man who mentioned that he was in Mensa as soon as he was introduced. He died a couple of years later while hiking alone. Apparently, he ignored the signs warning to stay on the path, and fell over a cliff, the victim of his conviction that he was always right.

He was only the most extreme example of something I’ve observed dozens of times: people so pleased with their own intelligence that they make trouble for themselves. Usually, the trouble falls into at least one of these seven fallacies:

Thinking themselves the smartest person in the room

Intelligent people often receive so much praise in childhood that they grow used to under-estimating others. They become confident that their opinions are the most accurate, and perhaps even that they can manipulate those around them. The trouble with this outlook, as a psychologist friend remarked, there’s always another room – and another, and another. Sooner or later the intelligent will meet someone smarter, or at least with greater expertise. However, with this attitude, they often fail to notice, which often leads to results that are embarrassing at best and disastrous at worst.

Thinking themselves superior to other people

The Duke of Wellington could get away with his conceit because he was born an aristocrat at a time when that social status meant something. An intelligent person today of any class has no such support for their assumptions of superiority. Unless they outgrow their assumptions or learn to conceal them, they make needless enemies. They leave a trail of resentment that can blow up like a powder train.

Thinking can make you stupid

Early computer programmers used the expression “GIGO” (Garbage In, Garbage Out”), meaning that a solution is only as good as the information it is based on. The same is true of human thought. Intellectual pride encourages leaping to conclusions, the overlooking of data, relying on incomplete data, and worse. Your intelligence doesn’t matter if you use it to think about faulty information.

Thinking they can do what they like

Remember eugenics? That was the pseudo-science that wanted to breed humanity to weed out the unfit. Until Hitler’s Germany showed where eugenics could lead, it was a popular idea among intellectuals across the political spectrum. Strangely, however, no one ever considered themselves unfit, nor questioned their right to make decisions for those who were supposed to be. Today, intellectuals may not go so far, but they still fall into the trap of thinking they can make decisions for others without consultation or permission. Then they’re surprised when they receive anger instead of gratitude.

Thinking they can ignore advice

The logic is obvious: if you’re the most intelligent person in the room, why bother with other opinions? The answer, of course, is that even without other skills, another perspective is often valuable. That’s why science is peer-reviewed, and even the most acclaimed writers often credit a discerning editor as a major reason for their success.

Thinking intelligence makes them experts outside their expertise

Some types of intelligence include the ability to learn quickly and to ask intelligent questions. However, even these types do not make you an instant expert. You need to know the limits of your competence, and to respect the fact that some people will be competent in ways that you are not. Otherwise, over-reaching becomes inevitable.

Thinking intelligence is the most important trait

Any time that you become too proud of your smarts, consider Marilyn vos Savant. Vos Savant has the highest recorded I.Q. of 228. However, all she has done with her intelligence is to write a newspaper column – a worthy enough accomplishment, but a modest one, compared with what you might expect from her intelligence. Hundreds of people have done far more with less intelligence but plenty of imagination, determination, observation, and charisma in various combinations.

Conclusion

 Over the years, I have been lucky enough to meet a number of artists and computer programmers who have gained world wide recognition for their accomplishments. Most have struck me as intelligent, but almost all of them also show what can only be called humbleness or a sense of their limits. They have learned what my Mensa acquaintance never lived long enough to learn: Yes, intelligent matters, but it is rarely enough in itself.

Discovering a young artist near the start of their career is always exciting. Jaimie Katerina Nole came to my attention when Haisla carver John Wilson directed me to her Facebook page and “The Pregnant Frog Woman” one recent Saturday afternoon, and I knew at once that I wanted a copy. In fact, I wanted one so strongly that I settled for an ordinary limited edition – all that was left — even though I almost never buy anything except originals, artist’s proofs, or remarques.

I have only met Nole once for about five minutes, but she struck me as a young woman of determination. If I have her story straight, she was enrolled in the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art a few years ago, but withdrew when she became pregnant. She is apparently planning to return to the school this autumn, but, in the meanwhile, “The Pregnant Frog Woman” seems proof that she is making the most of her situation. When she posted the print, she quickly received over 3,800 Likes on Facebook, and decided to make a print of it.

“The Pregnant Frog Woman” is a striking piece for at least two reasons. For one thing, human forms remain uncommon in the modern revival of Northwest Coast art, female forms even rarer, and pregnant forms almost unheard of. So, although the kneeling posture is a conventional one, Nole quickly makes it her own simply by her choice of subject matter. The use of green and black is much less unusual, but enough to reinforce the impression of originality.

However, what is most striking about the print is Nole’s skill with the traditional forms. The use of ovoids for the shoulder, elbow, hip and knee joints is traditional enough, but those in the print are a variety of shapes, their contents echoing and contrasting with each other. The curve of the knee and breast parallel each other as well, and so does the knee and the buttock. Within the breast, the u-shapes also mimic the overall shape, suggesting the successive swelling of the breast during pregnancy.

Several other features of the design also emphasize the signs of pregancy. For instance, thick, black formlines frame the green uterus and fetus above and below it. Even more interestingly, the formline – which varies far more than usual in beginner’s work – is at its thickest around the breast and the bottom of the hip joint, between which the newborn will eventually pass. Not only is pregnancy the subject, but the design continually calls attentions to the symptoms of pregnancy in subtle ways.

A trace of eeriness is added by the signs of a supernatural creature, such as the long slender fingers and the hand with three digits, all differing little except in size from the visible foot. Since the head is barely sketched in, the focus is on the mysticism of pregnancy – the feeling, you can easily imagine, that the figure herself is feeling as she holds her hand over swelling stomach, perhaps to feel signs of movement.

Nole tells me that she is planning a series of prints of different aspects of motherhood, and, despite being a childless widower, at some point in the series, I would like an original. If “The Pregnant Frog Woman” is any indication, Nole not only understands the tradition in which she works, but has the unusual power of embedding emotion within its strict conventions. If her subsequent designs can match this one, Nole is an artist who seems likely to make her mark.

Jaimie-Nole

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