Monday, March 27, 2017

blotted visions

To repeatedly insist that a popular belief is inaccurate is to invite an obvious follow-up question: then why is it popular at all? And this question turns out to have an abundance of answers as widely varied as the believers themselves and the effects the belief has in their lives. One answer that has grabbed my attention recently is that a belief can serve a function like an inkblot test. People can use it as raw material for representing and processing their thoughts. It evokes strong reactions, which they observe and analyze. It verbalizes and conceptualizes common features of being a typical human.

The strategy is like dropping iron filings near a magnet to distinguish the magnetic field. Thereafter, they may feel dependent on the belief playing this illuminating role for them. It becomes their ongoing lens. The well-known example is morality. Given that their own conscience has always been seen through their belief, they unimaginatively assume that the lack of the belief-lens in someone else implies a lack of conscience too. Their symbols are "powerful" influences on them because the symbols' power comes from them and their mental associations. From then on, invoking the symbols is a means of self-regulating—or of others in society manipulating them, of course. A few chants or a few bars of a familiar song can deftly adjust moods...

I'm reluctant to indulge this idea too far in the Jungian direction. Picturing these inkblot beliefs as sharply defined entities in a collective unconscious doesn't feel correct to me. I don't consider the primal brain that sophisticated. I'd rather say that some long-lived beliefs have a time-tested flair for recruiting and orchestrating inborn instincts. The beliefs can give a framework for interpreting the instincts and providing particular channels (again, I hesitate to presume too much by calling the channels "sublimation").

It hardly needs to be said that the potent narrative pushed by a belief frequently distracts from its degree of accuracy. The relevant joke among non-fiction writers is "Don't let the facts spoil a good story". Captivating tales will spread rapidly regardless of the tales' (dis)honesty. Worse, stories confined by the bounds of rigorous honesty are at a disadvantage compared to the ones that aren't. Details tend to be imprecise, complex, and dispassionate, so stories with verified details tend to be more challenging and off-putting. As condescending as it sounds, for a lot of careless people in history and right now, an uncluttered story that rouses a profound interest in them is more effective at ensnaring their loyalty than a tangled story that's authentic. And the boost in effectiveness is virtually guaranteed if corresponding interest was intentionally cultivated in them over and over by people they trust. It's worth noting that the interest might not be baldly self-gratifying; it might be interest in having a simplistic, conquerable scapegoat.

Clearly, the outcome may be positive or negative when a belief is able to stimulate people's drives and/or reflections like a carefully-constructed inkblot. Nor is the basic technique unique to one category of belief. In physics, "thought experiments" exercise analytical understanding. In philosophy, an insightful intellectual has referred to similar contrivances as "intuition pumps". Numerous mythologies and fables are expressly repeated not to convey historical accounts but to render an earnest lesson as vividly and memorably as possible. But creations that aren't as lesson-focused still could be written with the goal of kindling intriguing discussions. Creators choose to employ certain words and images which they expect to act as subtle yet meaningful shorthand.

The depth of impact ensures that subjects remain susceptible to analogous inkblots long after they discard the belief. It doesn't take much for a newer instance to be reminiscent of the old. I experienced this myself when I went to Logan a little while back (were you thinking that I'd mention Arrival instead for this topic?). In this movie, Wolverine is a protective superhuman who voluntarily undergoes bloody torture to the point of death, for the sake of people who cannot save themselves. He presents himself to be pierced in place of them. He's very old. He's emotionally remote (to say the least), but once his commitment is made it's ferocious in its determination and it doesn't expire. He's closely acquainted with pain. His body doesn't deflect bullets and sharp objects like some superheroes'. After sustaining wounds that would normally kill, he just has the power to rise up again—er, almost always. Eventually he's a substitute father figure who advises against being monstrous toward others.

Nevertheless, he's someone who knows his dangerous character faults and his many mistakes...and also someone who, after some convincing by a respected authority, seeks to do what he can to redeem himself, mitigate consequences of his existence, and repay the kindnesses he's received. He has the hope of reducing the chance that someone else will endure a life like his. He's in a battle—and the movie makes it extremely literal—against the frightening aspects of himself. He may not be "reborn as a new man", but he's prodded into behaving in changed, productive ways. He transforms from isolation and despair to a renewed mission of improving the parts of the world he decides he must.

I was surprised by the intensity of my spontaneous responses to these inkblots, like the gushing of water flowing through a rut. Temporary appearances by these latent sentiments weren't sufficient to overturn my established judgments. But I was forcefully reminded that the beliefs I dropped, despite having critical flaws of all shapes and sizes, had exploited a striking capacity to "worm in" to my sensibilities. Although I snapped myself out of it years ago, on occasion I can recognize the unabashed appeal of impulsively clinging to something that "speaks to you" and appears to be embodying "truths too deep for words"...albeit only with the precision of an inkblot.

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