Friday, May 01, 2009

Big Guns Do Not Always Win Out

Vesall maðr ok illa skapi hlær at hvívetna; hittki hann veit, er hann vita þyrfti (Havamal 22), "A man who laughs at everything is wretched and ill-disposed; but he doesn't know, that which it is necessary to know."

I have become troubled by the "Big Guns Win Out" climate of debunking, whereby the most cynical and reductive of arguments is always given benefit of the doubt and even favor. The effect of this is the biggest cynic with the biggest guns only need engage in the display-behavior (and let's call it what it is) of slamming something, and the rest of the pack follows suit with this would-be alpha behavior.

Of course we should always exercise critical, and even rigorously critical thinking and examination, but we risk intellectual machismo if we confuse that with mere assault and combat.

It's very, very easy to tear down. It is not so easy to build and create. Modern minds seem to take delight in demolition, and reduction down to cinders. In earlier ages, this might have been considered the feelings of those degenerated by the Kali Yuga.

Objectivity would have us suspend both belief and disbelief, not presume all things guilty until proven innocent.

The pendulum has swung far too far in this direction. I have observed for several years now people taking wolfish delight in tearing apart cherished beliefs of others, and getting applauded by their little chimpanzee-pack for how intelligent they are.

The problem is, in a lot of these arenas, I've read more and I know more than these would-be-wolf chimpanzees beating their chests so fiercely, and in many cases, I've come to the affirmation of those positions they are tearing down precisely because of my intensive, critical thinking and exhaustive research. In other words, the "B" students are trying to beat up the "C" students, and this here "A" student is coming around to tell the "B" students they ain't as smart as they think they are, and that in fact, a lot of the "C" students had it right, because they were using their intuition all along, and weren't so interested in looking hip-cynical to the rest of the crowd and gathering attention by asserting that "such and such has been debunked" and "that's been discredited" and "that's been disproven", when they don't know -- let's pull the stoppers out here -- what the fuck they're talking about.

It's not that simple! You can't just read a couple books by some university professor with some big intellectual gat and a lot of academic bling cruising down the idea-highway in his Benzo, and rollin' out his scholastic homies, who together, for whatever agenda you've unpenetratingly left unexamined have "disproven" this or that and the other, and think you've got the whole picture. Reality is not that simple.

Much of reality is very complex, and to really examine a phenomena adequately requires a great deal of attention both to detail and to patterns, to various levels and strata, and it is rarely as simple as either "it's totally true" or "it's totally false". This is black-and-white thinking, and it's not critical thinking.

Because phenomena can be difficult to describe, and patterns may sometimes take sophisticated techniques to fully identify and bring to the surface in good resolution --- hey, but none of that is very "flashy", is it, and if your entire intent is to engage in a little display-behavior with your homies, not so interesting --- certain phenomena may require fairly involved and nuanced apparati to lock down, and it is always very easy to knock down someone else's scaffolding if your entire intent is to knock down.

So it's very easy to get up on your pedestal and shout, "This Goddess never existed!" or "This phenomena never happened historically!", and you may get accolades from your little gang now, but history may not be so kind, because reality takes subtle and not-so-subtle sifting across generations to refine things, and the latest generation of scholars may not be the best generation of scholars, and often aren't. You've got to take a more longitudinal view.

Don't get me wrong. There are many blatant errors that need forthright correction. But these are relatively few compared to other matters that are not so cut and dried but which are still subject to probabilities. When someone declares that anything without close to 100% probability is "false" or "disproven" and so forth, in my opinion, they merely expose themselves as a fool in a very large and complex world. Much of the time we argue over probabilities, and even debate over plausibility. There are many things in this world that are very, very plausible that we may never be able to fully prove and yet which are still reliable enough to be counted on. If we had to prove everything 100% before we proceeded to take any action, we'd never get beyond even tying our shoes.

Havamal (literally, "The Formal Proclamations of the Heavenly (Father)", ie. Odin) has some things to say to fools who bluster out their oh-so-clever theories in the larger hall of life, before they've taken any time to listen to what the many wise people have to say on the topic, and it at times has an almost 'Mr. T' tone : "Shut up, fool, and listen. Listen good." Wake up and grow out of your spastic adolescent display-tactics masquerading as any kind of careful, attuned, empathic, imaginative scholarship. Stop focusing so much on tearing down and start focusing on building and creating.

If you're caught up in debunking, congratulations! You've come into the "terrible two's" of critical thinking, where you've just learned that you have the ability to say "no" to anything and everything you want in the world. Congratulations! But just remember, while you're in this phase, don't be surprised if some of us treat you for exactly the intellectual age you're demonstrating. Because critical thinking involves a lot more than simply the ability to say "no". You've got the "critical" part down, but you've left out the "thinking" part, which involves deep contemplation, rigorous intellectual engagement of one's intuition and pattern-recognition skills, and the ability to revisit topics again and again regardless of their level of "proof" or "disproof", because many, many times, important nuances, partial truths, and sometimes even whole truths, are left by the wayside to fall in the cracks in the midst of debates which are less respectful mutual inquiry and dialogue about differences than polemics.

It's fun to have a big gun, I understand. You get to take your aim at someone big and high up, and shoot them down. Really gives you a feeling of power, doesn't it? I mean, you don't believe in anything Frazer wrote, because someone you thought had big honcho intellectual credo told you he'd been "discredited", but man, you still instinctively love the idea of bringing down the old king so you can resurrect as the new one! But forgive us if some of us don't consider sociobiology to be legitimate intellectual discourse. The mind works on different principles than primate politics, so don't think you're going to achieve any credibility by quoting some bigwig you think is an authority and thinking you're going to win the battle hands down without first of all, showing some respect and demonstrating some courtesy (something adolescent-style big-gun debunkers rarely do), and secondly, showing that you have the ability to engage the material with some real thinking that has a fidelity to phenomena and not just a desire to shoot down.

Real research takes real work, time, struggle, arguing things back and forth, rethinking, and trying on for size new viewpoints. With all this in mind, let's take a look at what the Havamal has to say about these things, beginning with the quote that prefaced this discussion.

Vesall maðr ok illa skapi hlær at hvívetna; hittki hann veit, er hann vita þyrfti (Havamal 22), "A man who laughs at everything is wretched and ill-disposed; but he doesn't know, that which it is necessary to know." Vesall, he's impoverished, he demonstrates his lack of knowledge, his utter destitution of sophistication. Illa skapi, he's of a wicked bent, a cruel temper, an abusive mind. He tears down everything, but forgets the most important thing : at hann er-a vamma vanr, "that he is not without blemishes". The poem uses the term "blemishes" or "spots" (vamma) instead of simply "faults" to draw attention to the embarassment that is obvious yet completely missing from the mocker's awareness. Odin is here alluding to the rægjandi, the slanderer, calumner, strife-bringer, discord-lover, which is one of Loki's bynames.

Ósnotr maðr hyggr sér alla vera viðhlæjendr vini; þá þat finnr er at þingi kemr, at hann á formælendr fáa (Havamal 25), "The unsophisticated man thinks that all who laugh with him are friends ; then he finds when he comes to the law-court that few will plead on his behalf." The mocker may find some people who chuckle along with his fun-and-games slagging, but when it comes time to get down to serious business, he may find that things have taken a turn for the worse, because people will remember someone who only knows how to mock, and what it says about their character. The þingi, the law-assembly, the jury-summons, was serious business. People's fates and fortunes were at hand. Serving on a jury requires serious and not flippant thinking. The jury is where people decide what really happened, about things that really matter. Sometimes they have to take their best guess, but they realize the gravity of the situation, and the necessity of carefully weighing the rights and liberties of all parties involved, using both their mind and their heart, their critical thinking and their empathy, their intellect and their intuition. It takes a little bit more than getting people to laugh with you to win genuine friends. It takes proving your trustworthiness and demonstrating your ability to engage in mutual aid, ie. proving you can be of benefit when difficult projects present themselves. It means demonstrating that you are a person of worth who is able to moderate his or her temper and show appropriate courtesy.

There is another level to this quote, which is deeper and speaks to more perilous possibilities. The above-ground meaning is the regular mortal law-assembly, but since Odin holds court every day beneath the ground by the Well of Wyrd, there is a warning for those who ever follow the rægjandi, and that is that while they may gain a few friends in the course of their life who'll laugh it up with them, they may discover a different story when the time comes to tally up their true worth in that court which determines their final fair fame. It's common sense, really. If you spend all your time scorning others, who's going to speak up for you when the time comes? That doesn't mean that no one will, and it by no means indicates you will lose your case, but it could mean sweating it through when you could have breezed by with the help of a community that would gladly speak up for someone who has proven to be good-willed and constructive. This shouldn't be read in a fire-and-brimstone way, and it by no means implies that debunkers need fear their final fate, but it does advise caution for those whose entire modus operandi or way-of-being-in-the-world is tearing down. Here Odin is merely echoing what President Obama has said, "To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you." Be a builder, and others will join you in true friendship.

Þagalt ok hugalt skyldi þjóðans barn (Havamal 15), "Silent and thoughtful shall a prince's son be". A prince's son, the leader of a theod, a tribe. In other words, these are guidelines on how to be noble. But if you want to continue just being rabble, of no account, be however you wish.

Inn vari gestr er til verðar kemr þunnu hljóði þegir, eyrum hlýðir, en augum skoðar; svá nýsisk fróðra hverr fyrir (Havamal 7). "The cautious guest when he comes to a meal keeps silence while keenly listening, his ears hearing, his eyes examining ; so every wise one peers ahead." Take some time to really listen and examine things closely before you open your mouth. There will be many voices with things to say, and you'll speak the most wisely after you've digested them all. Note the close connection of the meal with the discourse. The suggestion is we take some time to digest ideas before we speak about them.

Fróðr sá þykkisk, er fregna kann ok segja it sama (Havamal 28), "He is reckoned as a wise man who knows how to ask as well as how to proclaim." When you ask questions, you demonstrate curiosity and a willingness to go deeper. Wisdom is not solely about proclaiming what you know. It's also an ability to admit that you don't know everything and thus engage in genuine inquiry. An acceptable translation of the same verse would read, "He is esteemed as a wise man who can inquire and appropriately profess." Profess as is befitting, inquire as is necessary.

This point is important enough that Odin repeats it in a similar form. Fregna ok segja skal fróðra hverr, sá er vill heitinn horskr (Havamal 63), "Inquiry and exposition shall every wise man engage in, he who wishes to be named as wise."

At kveldi skal dag leyfa (Havamal 81), "At evening shall the day be praised." In other words, when the day is young, hold back your conclusions and see how things develop. Let phenomena and discourse ripen before you make your declarations. Note that in both Havamal 28 and 63, Odinn puts inquiry, curiosity, and questions before proclamations and exposition. You declare your conclusions after your inquiry has fully ripened.

ef hann vill margfróðr vera ... Oft skal góðs geta (Havamal 103), "If he wishes to be a very wise man ... often shall he speak of good things." The phrase has more than one meaning. It can mean to "speak" of good things, but it can also mean to "understand" good things, to "appreciate" good things, to "get" good things. There is both appreciation of and speaking about blessings, and there is also a connotation here that the very wise man both inquires and speaks "with good will", in a kind and friendly way. Speak with courtesy and kindness, and speak often of good things, with good will, building, and growing, and not just tearing down.

þrimr orðum senna skal-at-tu þér við verra mann; oft inn betri bilar, þá er inn verri vegr (Havamal 125), "Thou shalt not bandy three quarreling words with a worse man ; often the better gives way when the worse attacks." There's really very little point in arguing with someone whose only purpose is to attack and tear down. In so doing, they prove themselves to be the lesser man, the worse in worth. It's useless to get into a debate with such people because they have no interest in mutual inquiry, only in shooting down, and when you get into a wrangle with a lesser man, he will only drag you down to his level. Forget it. If the worse man wants to inquire and discourse with wise men, let him raise himself up and góðs geta, speak appreciatively of good things.

For those who would tear down good things demonstrate only öfundar, destructive envy, one of the many ills that plague those people whom Heið seið ... hugleikin (Voluspa 22), "bewitched with her mind-tricks, her spoiling of courage, her setting of hearts in competition and strife". orðum skipta þú skalt aldregi við ósvinna apa (Havamal 122), "Thou shalt never exchange words with an unreasonable fool", because it is never productive.

Those who carry big guns may lack it where it counts, you know what I mean?

all translations copyright 2009 by Siegfried Goodfellow


Blogger Morning Angel said...

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

8:20 AM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Thanks, Morning Angel, I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

6:57 PM  
Blogger Morning Angel said...

To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day.--Winston Churchill

5:57 AM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Great quote! Thank you! It is perfectly appropriate.

6:15 PM  

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