Redeeming appreciation

Has that indisputable realisation of fooling yourself ever crushed you? Feynman famously put that in plain view: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

This time, a painful awakening struck me while reading How to win friends and influence people – I’ll post a book review in a few weeks and try to explain what got me to that worrisomely titled book, and why a philosophy student would ever dare to read pop and self-help genre. There is a need to justify my readings in a way, even though I consider the act of choosing them to be wildly personal.

So, the chapter dealt with how precious the act of sincere appreciation is for the development of relationships. You know, those kind of plain truths abhorred by deviant intellectuals. I was not reading with voracity, neither was I calmly absorbed by Carnegie’s anecdotes – I was judging with subtle contempt. Since I deem curiosity towards one’s feelings to be one of the most fruitful sources of self-understanding, I drilled down to find its possible source. Reminiscent of the days of Vedantic digestions, here came the argument, clear and daunting at the same time, against being kind:

I won’t make any compliment to you, because I don’t want to inflate your ego. You know, people change, and if you get attached to the nice things I tell about you, you will suffer when they’ll end. Therefore, I won’t be responsible for that bubble burst.

“Oh well, listen to this yogic-like, patently misanthropic, line of reasoning!”, I told myself. Where did that come from?

In those circumstances, one looks for reasons to reshape his narrative. That is both a creative and a discovering practice, I believe, for on one hand he engages in a kind of self-reeducation to refine his habitus, while at the same time he looks for reasons that he still holds and may need revision. Honing one’s thinking passes through the recognition that we believe our logic to be ultimately sound and noble; it is as though the perception of what’s good changes while we operate on that aleatory stuff – Aristophanic clouds – named thoughts.

The creative act came into play with a recognition that sounds fearsome for those who aim at influencing others: I don’t have any control over what other people decide to do with my words. Sure, I can and should strive to present them in a way that would most likely elicit the response I’d like to be causing; ultimately though, acts of speech or writing aren’t unilaterally powerful, they are rather made so by people who listen and act on them. But then, what about compliments? How are they going to inflate someone’s ego? The only way I can make sense out of this nowadays connects with being responsible, i.e. that making insincere praises may in fact contribute to overstate the self-perception of the recipient, with following (possible) delusion. That is not entirely straightforward either: if adopted as a Kantian maxim, I may avoid to incite a young boy from even trying to do karate, because I don’t see a potential Bruce Lee within him – and that is bad. The thing is, we know so little about each other at first sight that we would not dare to speak for years before we would be able to utter anything of profound honesty, and the fact that we eventually get to know each other proceeds from those very approximate conversations. The whole idea of knowing how to back up every word with justifications (something that Schopenhauer would have considered absurd and false, being rationality a mere consequence of will) sounds as a mere pretension, and brutally ignores the open nature of conversations – if they are deemed to be called so.

Furthermore, that projection on outside egos may well be a bitter reverse-engeneering: we may avoid praise not to lower our perception of self, as if appreciation was a scarce resource to keep for oneself, ignoring how it actually creates value only through sharing.

 

Then comes the discovering part. When I tell anyone something nice, I create a small, little bond: what would I do with it? Responsibility violently represents itself, entering from the backdoor. After I praised my neighbour’s raincoat (what a colorful, cut to fit raincoat you have!), I don’t have any obligations toward him. Fears of obligations turn out to be far-reaching projections, that short-sighted distancing from the present moment which has been so well described by many: it is as though one is preparing himself for the eventuality of that relationship to turn bitter, to catch oneself wishing of never having admired that raincoat. Mental acrobatics on display.

There was some meat to the bone, in the end – I felt right away that I had to ruminate on a last remark:

by complimenting someone, you are picking her out of the crowd.

The attentive reader has noticed that I switched to the feminine pronoun, but anyone really can use the sex to which he (she/they/them) is predominantly attracted to. I feel that appreciation toward someone I like is somewhat more complex and muddled, and being someone who hates gaffes (working on that), I find myself overthinking about the next sentence. Needless to say, spontaneity goes to the drain. You look like you’re lying, when in fact you are nervous. Being truthful is an ability that needs to be trained… by acting truthfully: as Aristotle rightly put in his Nicomachean Ethics, there is no virtue without virtuous action. In fact, in linking praises with truthfulness I assume that the best sketch of sincerity saves us right from the start, by placing ourselves among people who positively respond to who we are, rather than to who we want them perceive us to be. There is a sophistic objection here which sounds somewhat like this: how do you pull allegedly true and secondary selves apart? Leaving philosophical responses aside, each of us usually has a grip on what “true self” means to her, or at least has observed how behaviour has changed in response to those words; I deem that ordinary meaning to be clear enough to cut through the objection, for this little excursus at least.

We act in the world and produce consequences – willing or not, polarising people around us. If you care enough, let them decide on impressions of a strivingly sincere individual, so that you won’t take part in dynamics to which you don’t belong. This is the best I would wish for everyone.

 

I probably have skipped dozens of opportunities to show genuine appreciation and feel happy about that, not to mention those who missed that act of kindness at the receiving end. But that’s not the end of it. As those of you who know my nerdy side may have understood, I try to help myself with technology as well. Just set up a new journal entry – “showed sincere appreciation” – on the habit tracker Way of Life, yes, now on my way to bring a thin slice of additional kindness to the world around me.

Diversity: the ultimate collective edge

Become such as you are, having learned what that is. (Pindar)

 

One can hardly deny to himself the need of saying something. On one hand, one probably cares more about what he says than what he doesn’t. Presumably, the energy he puts into uttering those very words should be of some importance to his survivorship.

On the other hand, we all know very well how much we don’t say in order to make our lives better or easier. We refrain from judging people too harshly, because we want them to stick around. We may avoid to tell our friend how his breath smells bad, because we don’t want to hurt him. In most cases, though, we know that we will have to speak up, at some point – so why delaying every word to the future?

 

If you are intellectually honest enough, you know that what you say is going to resonate just with a few, not with everybody. This recognition makes philosophers’ work all the more challenging. The philosopher is, in the end, after some kind of universal truth. And yet philosophical practice involves constant debating and reasoning, so that none of your fellow speakers would think as you do.

Some philosophers embrace a relativistic stance, and are happy to elaborate less-than-universal claims. Socrates was held by Plato to be the humblest man who has ever lived, the man who knows to know nothing. In spite of Plato’s portrait, Aristophanes and Nietzsche have called Socrates out as profoundly dogmatic.

It really seems that in order to make a difference, you need to talk to someone, and this is not loose business-talk. Aiming at communicating with everyone usually ends up to talking to no one. Even those leaders whose success builds upon appealing to what is common in every of us – think of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama, who championed the principles of humanity, rationality and compassion – don’t get along without enemies. In fact, it almost seems that the foe’s harshness is proportional to the hero’s success.

Bacoli, 2012

 

What you say influences what you will do afterwards. You’d be either reliable, either controversial; some will respect you as being trustworthy, and enemies would build up any controversies to attack your integrity. Some will praise your controversy, and judge it as a firm trait of character. Obama gained his respect while conspiracy theorists questioned his birth certificate. Trump obtained the presidency by being coherently ruthless.

There are two ways in which you would deal with the critic: either you care about her opinion, either you don’t. Academics won’t be concerned about what the layman thinks; they sink into peer-reviews and journals, with a kind of partisanship which supports their point, no matter what the opponent is going to argue. Yet people will question exactly that predisposition: the distance from the intellectual and the layman inflates a bubble that bursts every now and then, with visible consequences. Take the democratic blindness to social tension in the last U.S. Presidentials. Take economists who rely on models that disrupt entire industries.

people won’t be able to work productively without that kind of narrowed attention. If a stranger drops a nasty comment on your recent book page or article, you probably don’t want to care about him. You want to keep in mind who your recipient is, and leave out all the rest. Yet we all, little pieces of the world, need to fit together. Somehow. We share common needs: a shelter to chill out, a market to shop at, a dear one to hug. Your book and my blog article and Alex Jones’s broadcast speak to different people, while sharing common language and internet access. Biologists celebrate and protect biodiversity as the main ecosystem’s productivity boost:1)http://www.globalissues.org/article/170/why-is-biodiversity-important-who-cares at a superficial glance, you may like the idea of avoiding fights between lions and gazzelle by removing bit cats. Undeniably, though, one species wouldn’t be there without the other. Humans too have a biodiversity of their own. History has shown that every attempt at reducing it – mass-murders, indian reservations, you name it – has made us complexively poorer.

We all need to feel right, most of the time. Overwhelmed by cognitive dissonance, we wouldn’t go much far. It feels like I could be wrong just little by little, even though I may make up my mind ten times in a lifetime. And at least in some points of the reasoning chain, I would look for additional reasons to support what I’ve meditated upon. To be right, in the end. But this kind of cynical, skeptical talk of rational reasoning shouldn’t dismiss one from trying his best in pursuing his truth of expression. Being aware to try on different beliefs with biased tendencies will ultimately make our thinking less partial.

We want to own our stories, so that they ultimately make sense. We want them to be as coherent as they can be. And if you are the kind of person who doesn’t trust much her guts – who feels insicure and undervalues her worth – then you may take refuge in psychology, revert to the Dunning-Krueger effect2)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect and reclaim your smartness.

 

Don’t you think gems cannot be found in business TV series as well. As Bobby tells to Taylor in Billions,

Sometimes you catch yourself watching all the people like they are another species.

So you retreat behind your aquarium walls, watching.

But you don’t realise, Taylor, that glass, it’s not a barrier, it’s a lens.

It’s an asset. It is what makes you good.

You see things differently. That’s an edge.3)http://www.sho.com/billions/season/2/episode/2/dead-cat-bounce

 

We all have a little bit of a Taylor within ourselves. We see things differently.

And that’s an edge, for everybody.

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