Thursday, July 06, 2017

Unintentionally Making Others Feel Stupid

This is an odd subject to write about, so I want to begin by taking a couple of steps backward to explain why it has captured my attention.  At a personal level, I've had a few different threads in Facebook recently with some of my friends from high school.  I was a math nerd then and still have some of that in me now.  In order to show my bona fides, I posted a scan of some scribbling I had done a while back to provide a geometric derivation for the formula that gives the sine of the sum of two angles. After that, there were several witty comments by my friends that ensued.  Then one posted - "I have no idea what you are talking about."  This was from a very bright woman, who also is quite direct in what she posts.  I didn't think a mea culpa was the right response from me there, though it might have been, so instead I posted a link to an animated version of Tom Lehrer's New Math.  It has the tag line - "it's so easy, so very simple, that only a child can do it." 

I have also been devoting considerable thought to the question, how can we repair things nationally, after we get past the current moment?  Until the last few weeks I thought the answer was for everyone to embrace a sense of social responsibility, as the way to make the system work again.  This had two parts for me.  One was to treat people unlike ourselves with respect and to refrain from the recrimination and vitriol that seems to have invaded our discourse.  The other, particularly directed at upscale voters, was to pay substantially more in taxes, in other words, to embrace the need for government programs directed at working-class people and for the upscale voters to have the willingness to forego the myopic benefit from having higher after-tax incomes in order to enable this broader social justice as outcome. I have written several posts that argue these things.  Yet while I still feel they are necessary, I've come to realize they are insufficient.  We need something else as well.

That something else is to repair ourselves emotionally.  People feel hurt, angry, and frustrated.  They act based on these feelings rather than based on a cool and collected rationality.  There have been many pieces written in the last several weeks that explain these things.  In a nutshell, Liberals are smug or perceived of as such.  Trump voters are bothered by the smugness, so much so that they are willing to support Trump, even if that means voting against their narrow economic interest.  Supporting Trump is a way to metaphorically give the finger to the smug Liberals.  The visceral satisfaction from giving the finger trumps (pun intended) a more rational calculus. If we are to repair ourselves nationally, we need to find a way to get past this.

In the above paragraph, I deliberately tried to distinguish actuality from a different possibility, this in reference to Liberal smugness.  The other possibility emerges as some of the media repeatedly depict Liberals in this light, regardless of the true situation, so the perception takes hold for this reason.  Having taken hold, it will then be very hard to change the perception.  I want to recognize that here but otherwise not address it in this post.  At the very end I will write a few sentences about my wishful thinking with regard to the media.  If only wishing would make it so.   My mental model in this post is to envision direct conversation between Trump voters and Liberals, conversation that is unmediated.  Could such conversation end where the parties are at peace with one another?  What would it take to achieve that outcome?

My plan for the rest of this piece is to first look at some lines from popular movies that talk about emotional hurt. The movies themselves were popular because they touched us in some ways, and they are safer to talk about than real experience.  Further, we can then look at emotional hurt outside of the political context, more as a one off, and ask what should be done about it in each situation.  At the least, this exercise is meant to raise our awareness.  Then I will return to some of my experiences.  I have been the stupid one on occasion.  In other situations, I have been able to make a contentious point without seemingly rattling anyone's cage.  What does it take to do that?  Can we move in that direction?

I also want to take up the question of whether we should feel responsible for somebody else's emotional hurt when we were somehow causal in that response but where we had no intent ahead of time to create such a response.  This is a tough question and I don't think it has an easy answer.  I will use one of my movie quotes that provides an answer in a specific context.  How much that context generalizes, I will leave to the reader.

But I also want to connect this to something else.  If we could look at ourselves from a distance, in some cases our behavior would be readily seen as demeaning to others.  We don't have this perspective, so don't see it.  We are therefore unable to parse the truly inadvertent cause that we can't do anything about from the demeaning behavior that we should rightly rein in.  This too is meant as something of an awareness raising exercise.

* * * * *

The first scene is from Rocky.   The title character is a tough guy.  On the side he works as a "leg breaker" for a loan shark.  But his main job is boxer.  He's a heavyweight.  He has taken a lot of punches in the ring.  He's able to throw a good punch too, "he can really swat."  The toughness notwithstanding, Rocky has his sensitive side.

Rocky: Hey... you know how I said that stuff on TV didn't bother me none?

Adrian: Yeah? 

Rocky: It did.

This next scene is from Good Will Hunting.  The title character is a genius at math, a latter day Ramanujan.  Yet he also suffered as a child from living in a broken home,  he experienced child abuse, and he spent much of his childhood growing up in an orphanage. He had many scars, some physical, others emotional.

Sean: [sitting on a bench in in front of a pond in park] Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me... fell into a deep peaceful sleep, and haven't thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me? 

Will: No. 

Sean: You're just a kid, you don't have the faintest idea what you're talkin' about. 

Will: Why thank you. 

Sean: It's all right. You've never been out of Boston. 

Will: Nope. 

Sean: So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you'd probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can't tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You're a tough kid. And I'd ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, "once more unto the breach dear friends." But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I'd ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn't know what it's like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn't know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms "visiting hours" don't apply to you. You don't know about real loss, 'cause it only occurs when you've loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you've ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you... I don't see an intelligent, confident man... I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you're a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You're an orphan right?
[Will nods

Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally... I don't give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can't learn anything from you, I can't read in some fuckin' book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I'm fascinated. I'm in. But you don't want to do that do you sport? You're terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.

On the one hand, these stories are wildly different.  Rocky is not intellectual at all and doesn't display the type of intelligence valued in schools.  Will is off the charts.  But they both have experienced emotional hurt and they are both deeply reluctant to expose themselves to situations where that hurt might come out again.  As a result, they are slow to trust other people.  They don't open up much at all.  And the people they are prone to trust need to demonstrate some evident vulnerability ahead of time as a way to earn that trust.  Somebody with a hard veneer that seems impenetrable, that person needs to be shattered rather than be trusted.

These two movies are dramas.  The third movie is a comedy; light farce with a highly implausible story that nonetheless works and amuses at the same time.  It is Eddie, about a female limo driver in New York who is a diehard Knicks fan.  She comes out of the stands to become the head coach of the team.  The Knicks have been floundering.  Eddie doesn't know what to do about it.  After she flails a while as coach she has a heart to heart talk with Nate, a veteran big man with bad knees.  Nate explains that each of the players is also a human being and each has personal issues that are limiting the player's performance.  Eddie begins to address several of the players' issues outside the basketball arena.  By doing so she turns the Knicks into a cohesive unit.

One of those players who is struggling is Terry.  He is having troubles with his wife over marital infidelity.  Eddie counsels Terry to apologize.  Then apologize again.  She tells him to keep on apologizing.  (Sorry, I couldn't find the text quote of this scene online.)  Eventually, Terry reconciles with his wife and there is a very funny scene in a hotel room where Eddie is hiding under the bed and Terry and his wife are in romantic embrace on top of the bed, only to discover Eddie's presence from below.  Even though Eddie shouldn't have been there as this was an invasion of privacy, she indirectly demonstrated that she cared about Terry.  She cared very much.  That ultimately carried the day.

The scene makes you wonder.   What does repeated apology actually accomplish.  Why isn't a single confession of guilt sufficient?  Can people move on from that or not?

* * * * *

I want to recount a few of my own experiences, where I got the short end of the stick about feeling stupid.  The first of these is at sleep away camp, when I was twelve.  I was in bunk 18 in the group called Seniors, which had bunks 18 - 21.  So I was one of the youngest kids in the group.  I was also the biggest and in basketball would play center.  The group was divided into three teams for must of the summer.  These teams would compete with each other in sports.  Softball and basketball were the two primary sports.  We also played volleyball and football on occasion.

One of the other teams had a kid, Bobby, who had a mean streak in him.  He guarded me in basketball.  His strategy was to provoke me.  With the counselors seemingly not looking at us - because the ball was elsewhere - Bobby would through an elbow.  Then he would run down court. I got angered by this.  But Bobby was faster than I was so I wasn't able to retaliate, even though I tried and wanted to do so.  Either that or when I did catch up to Bobby, then the counselors saw my getting back at him and blamed me.  It was terribly unfair.  I think there is a kind of prejudice against big kids, to the effect that they should be able to take care of themselves, so don't require adult intervention.  As a result, in the situation with Bobby, I felt trapped.

This next one is more academic and represents the first time I can recall being in a situation with kids my own age where some of the other kids were much smarter than I was.  That happened at an NSF sponsored summer program for kids good in math that I attended after my junior year in high school, 1971.  It was held at Hampshire college.  The program continues to this day, though I believe now without the NSF sponsorship.  Back in 2010 I got a solicitation from the program director, who was interested in learning about the impact the program had on my further development.  I wrote a very long letter in response.  This is the most relevant paragraph.

My take aways from that at this point are first some factoids - a linkage between Mersenne Primes and Perfect Numbers, though I'd have to look it up to recall the exact relation - 945 is the smallest odd abundant number - and some stuff about Cosets. The larger lessons were two. There were students who were much brighter than I was or much further along than I was at approximately the same age, a very useful thing to discover early on in life. In addition to Paul, Marcia and Henry were in this category. One day I recall Henry doing a proof of his own result in the front of the room. I had no clue what he was talking about. (Along with the intelligence there was the ego part of this and Hampshire was my first experience of ego battles by bright students showing off.) The other lesson was that things could get hard and that I needed some mechanism of ratcheting up my own thinking to manage that. I didn't have it at Hampshire. I developed something of that sort as a junior in College, but not completely then. More of that happened in grad school. In Marty's group I believe the first two weeks or so went reasonably well for me but then I sort of hit a wall and I didn't know what to do about it. I floundered in his group after that.

I experienced the same sort of floundering during the first semester of the sophomore year at MIT, after which I transferred to Cornell.  The floundering was coupled with a depression that was familiar to me because I had similar feelings during 10th grade in high school.  This second episode of depression triggered with me an urgent need that I recognized from going through the prior experience.  I had to get out of that setting and into a different environment that wouldn't pull me down.  The causes for those feelings were many and varied.  But one of those was taking two hard math classes, abstract algebra and analysis, and not knowing how to penetrate those courses then (I was able to do that later) while other students seemed capable of making those leaps of imagination at the time.

From these experiences I draw the following conclusions.  Feeling stupid only in the moment is no big deal.  We all go through that.  We get over it.  Each of us has some resiliency to overcome the temporary setback.  Feeling stupid as an ongoing situation is debilitating.  It breaks the resiliency.  You feel helpless and want the situation to end but don't have the sense of agency about how to resolve the situation by yourself.  It is the helplessness which we should reckon with.  But then what, exactly, should we do about it?

School is full of experiences that for some stroke the ego while for others brutalize it.  The vast majority of my experiences were of the first sort.  In seventh grade, for the first time I became aware that I made some of my classmates uncomfortable, simply by raising my hand and answering the question that the teacher posed.  One my classmates told me as much by writing that in my autograph book.  Should I have not raised my hand so much so she wouldn't have felt so uncomfortable?

I was unnerved by this but did not adjust my behavior in the classroom.  By high school I found a partial accommodation by having different types of friends to hang out with, playing basketball with one group, going to the movies with others, and then hanging out with still others based on academic affinity.

I think others made different adjustments.  My high school had many academically talented kids.  Among the boys there was a group of nerds who hung out together and that enabled their mutual self-expression.  It was definitely harder for the girls then because admitting to be a nerd was socially stigmatizing for a girl.  It may still be that way now.  Putting it crassly, a girl who wanted to have a good social life but who was academically inclined had to repress some of the latter to achieve the former.  I believe the same thing is true for academically gifted minority students, although I have less direct experience with this.  They suppress their academic talents, at least in settings with their peers, as a way to gain social acceptance.  A question is whether this type of suppression of the personality is necessary when seguing from school into adulthood and thereafter, or if there are other things that can be done that are more balanced and make the situation manageable.

Here's what I have in mind.  There is an academic form of bullying of the type that Henry practiced when I was at Hampshire College, which is a kind of showing off academically, aimed at establishing self-importance by intimidating others.  When it is nerds doing this to other nerds, it can be a form of play, young bucks butting heads if you will.  While I only watched this show for a few episodes at the beginning of the series, The Big Bang Theory features this sort of behavior as the basis for much of the humor in the show, even if otherwise the show is much like many other sitcoms.   When it is nerds conversing with others who are not nerds, however, the showing off part needs to be tabled.  It has no useful purpose.

But conversation can continue if the tone is right and the method of discussion is proper.  Learning to have the right tone is a critical life skill.  Too many people embrace - I'm right and you're not, take it or leave it.  That tone doesn't work.  It raises the hackles in others.  A better tone is more inquiring.  It considers possibility instead of arguing for the one right answer.  Then it provides reasons for why that possibility might be true, so raising such reasons is not itself off putting.  But this must be accompanied by a willingness to admit that the possibility still might not be true.  This tone is far more collegial and far less imperial.  It gives space to the others in the conversation, so they can offer up their own opinion.  By doing that it encourages them to be open.  The discussion is more engaging and far less threatening.  It takes a longer time for the discussion to reach a conclusion, if it ever does.  It may be there are too many opposing factors to reconcile them all into one neat conclusion.  Then the discussion gets to the point of agreeing to disagree and goes no farther. Even that, however, may be progress.

From time to time in such a discussion one of the participants might feel that a line has been crossed and that the comment offered up was hostile or demeaning.  What happens then?  If this occurs very early in the conversation, I'm afraid that's it.  No goodwill has been built up to offset this bad outcome.  This is one reason to start of gingerly and get a little more ambitious as the conversation proceeds.  If, however, this occurs after there has been substantial goodwill already established, my belief is to follow the advice offered by Eddie.  Apologize and keep apologizing.  We tend to think of an apology as an admission of guilt.  Sometimes it is.  At other times, however, it is more of a demonstration that the one giving the apology shows he recognizes the perspective of the other who is receiving the apology.  In these cases, caring about the other is more important than establishing guilt or innocence.  One needs a way to demonstrate that.

I now want to redirect this discussion back to the smug Liberals and the Trump supporters.  Much of this divide is apparently urban versus rural sensibilities.  Those differ in many ways.  I am going to focus on just one dimension of this divide.  The last few years I've become a fan of the singer Eilen Jewell.  This is a verse from her song That's Where I'm Going.

All of the people in the city
Wish they could take it slow
Time stands still in the country
That’s where I’m going

The funny thing is, taking it slow really isn't just a country thing.  It's about getting our heads out of our portable devices and instead schmoozing with friends face to face.  Sherry Turkle has been arguing for this for some time.  So, to counter the smugness we need to go for a cup of coffee and chat, the type of talk that lasts a while.  Even us city kids, at least the ones who are my age, grew up watching The Beverly Hillbillies.

Hillbilly that is, sit a spell, take your shoes off.

Y'all come back now, y'hear?

This is not a new idea at all.  Sometimes we should take lessons from what we used to know as kids.

* * * * *

Here's my little bit about the media and then I will close.  Roger Ailes, who ultimately was taken down at Fox News, developed a wildly successful formula for attracting viewers to their programming.  Bombast works.  The more reserved type of news reporting that was the mainstay when the anchors were Walter Cronkite (CBS), Huntley and Brinkley (NBC), and Howard K. Smith (ABC), simply is not entertaining enough to attract viewers now.  The news networks do have an obligation to report the news faithfully.  But they are businesses first and foremost.  They either attract viewers or they go under.  That tension has always been there but when TV was only over the air, it resolved  by having few networks with the franchise.  More recently there are many additional players in the news broadcasting space.  This has tilted the news shows toward the bombast end of the spectrum.

I gather that the MSNBC style is not quite the same as the FOX style.  MSNBC is more like the  HBO series The Newsroom.  Hosts are cast as prosecutors.  Democratic guests may be given some leeway.  Republicans, in contrast, may be treated like hostile witnesses.   In so doing, the hosts may seem to embody the Liberal smugness for which the Trump supporters have such disdain.

The pipe dream is that MSNBC will begin to dial it down in its programming, perhaps at risk of alienating some current diehard viewers, who really aren't concerned with Trump supporters.  The powers that be at the network would do this because while they want to present their perspective on the news, they don't want to be responsible for sewing division in the country.  They explain this to their viewership, letting the star hosts present the argument.  Lo and behold, the viewership stays loyal to them.  Then a funny thing happens.  A good chunk of Trump supporters take notice of this and come to appreciate the gesture.  The healing has begun.

This is fantasy.  To make it close to reality, many other things have to happen first.  Step one is being aware that you have a problem.   I hope that this post helps with progress on step one.

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