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Archive for December, 2011

Make up your mind

I was just loading the dishwasher when I suddenly noticed one of the basic contradictions of modern thought. That’s the kind of thing you’re usually doing when you have these insights, which is generally annoying to others, but that’s how our brains work.

Lately I’ve been trying to come to terms with the fact that I my resilience has sharply decreased. Which is not surprising; both in emotional terms of too many trips around the same block and physical terms of the changing neurochemistry of someone in early middle age, it would be very strange if I were still as resilient as I was ten years ago.

But I have to avoid mentioning this to my friends, because most of them are positive thinkers who want to insist that humans can recover from anything and be rompingly happy and so on, and if they don’t it’s only because they believe that they can’t, etc. It’s actually pretty appalling how thoroughly the self-help philosophy has infiltrated the zeitgeist. I’m not sufficiently free of it that I wasn’t hard on myself when I started to realize that some things in my head are just not going to get better in this lifetime, not at this point. It’s like something I’ve said before: whatever does not kill you does not necessarily make you stronger, more likely it will just soften you up so that whatever comes along next does kill you.

So we’ve got this whole culture that is in denial about the reality of psychological damage (except when we’re suing each other over it). I’ve discussed before and will doubtless discuss again the way modern society has done away with most of the safeguards that used to protect us from such damage. For instance, the path to marriage was clearly delineated. Of course it wasn’t always happy, but it also wasn’t nearly as brutal as today’s system of locking horny teenagers up together all day every day and expecting them to remain chaste, then casting them adrift on the world to try to forge a connection with no social or legal support for doing so successfully. We have set up a system which guarantees that everyone will have their heart broken at least once. Why the hell did we do that?

There are other examples, but I have to wrap this up so I can get to the grocery store. (Ah, the glamourous world of the blogger.) So, we have used all that positive thinking babble to convince ourselves that there is no such thing as actual damage to the psyche, just a refusal to get over things. Never mind that we know know about the genuine physical changes to the brain that occur with traumatic events or the loss (for whatever reason) of a loved one, we’ll just ignore all that science stuff when it doesn’t suit our received wisdom. What’s important is, there is no reason for families or societies to protect their members from trauma because the traumatized can just shake it off with a little effort and if they don’t, it’s because they don’t want to. (This is the philosophical descendant of the Puritan belief that if your life isn’t going well, that’s a sign that God hasn’t predestined you for salvation.)

But at the same time, damaging programs such as affirmative action and sex discrimination lawsuits are based on the premise that people are so incredibly weak that having people doubt them, however subtly, is so permanently damaging that generations of special privileges are necessary to recover. (For a rebuttal of this, see: Jews.)

So, if you spent your formative years being battered and your “education” consisted of borderline retarded pedophiles reveling in the raw unbridled domination involved in saying nasty things to children, and then spent years devoting your heart and your life to one person after another in the hope of finding one who hadn’t accepted the indoctrination that hopping from one partner to another is normal, you have no business not grinning ear to ear in ecstatic joy all the time and definitely no right to be even slightly un-optimistic about future efforts.

However, if society in general did not constantly tell you that your future excellence was an assured thing, then clearly you are far too damaged to be expected to even refrain from committing violent crimes without tons of help.

As usual, the modern world has it completely backwards.

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A few days ago I came across a blog post (which I can’t find now) criticizing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The post said that the theories in it were outdated, and went on to explain that the imaginary discipline of “psychohistory”, which the sage Hari Seldon used to predict how civilization would decline and what would be the results of his plan to ease the fall and rebuilding, had now been debunked by Chaos theory, also known as Complexity.

The blogger was probably right. I always dismissed the “psychohistory” as a sort of narrative convenience, like FTL space travel, used to make the story move along, not as something remotely likely to work in real life. Now I realize that this was probably my assumption, based on my certain knowledge that the behavior of civilizations is just not that predictable. Oh, some things are – that socialism will lead to disaster, or that democracy will eventually corrupt itself when politicians create new pools of voters for their own use – but there are many different paths that declines and rises can take, and many factors in what determines which one will happen in a particular case. So I took it for granted that of course what Hari Seldon was doing wasn’t possible in real life, and didn’t really realize that some people might think that it was, despite reading of examples.

So, Chaos theory, according to Wikipedia, states that “[s]mall differences in initial conditions…) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.”

While it is true that the modern incarnation of the theory started in the 60’s and became widely known in the 90’s, the above is of course a basic premise of conservative philosophy, going back at least as far as Edmund Burke, probably further. So, science guys, nice to see that you’ve finally caught up to us fuddy-duddies smoking cigars and sipping brandy in our gentlemen’s clubs, writing indignant letters to the Times.

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