Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
I don’t think I was a particularly unhappy child. Like most other people, when I go back in time, I seem to remember the things that stick up, which are usually the bad moments. I think we all do that. The good times are pleasantly flat and sunny, but they don’t make a fuss about themselves, and they don’t have unresolved issues and unreleased emotional responses, so they’re not so visible in the terrain of our memory, although they occupy much more of that landscape.
Last night my wife and I went to see the gloriously wonderful film Amelie at Quay Arts. It wasn’t the first time we’ve seen it, by a long way. In fact, I could probably watch it once a week for the rest of my life. It’s that good. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the auteur who directed and co-wrote it, inserts small explicatory pieces of film with a voice-over, at particular moments, to explain why people are as they are, by describing an event that changed them for life. I like this cheeky device very much, and it works beautifully for the story told in the film, but I don’t believe he really thinks that it’s so simple.
I’m questioning the logic here
Characters in books or films are necessarily fairly simple. We complain if they’re too flat, because they’re not believable (even if they’re aliens or superheroes), but if we give them too much complexity we get confused. In film, unlike in life, everything has to be considered from the point of view of moving the story along. Life isn’t a story, or maybe it is, but there’s so much extraneous detail and complexity that we can’t see the wood for the trees.
I’ve never quite believed anyone who explains some piece of behaviour with a simple sentence or phrase. “I don’t like dogs because I was bitten by one once,” sounds quite reasonable, except that there are plenty of people who have been bitten by a dog and gone on to like dogs, or at least to tolerate them, because they decided or discovered that the experience wasn’t extremely traumatic. I’m not disparaging people who have been bitten by dogs, but I’m questioning the logic that assumes a dislike of dogs is inevitable or irreversible.
Sniffing out the news we want to read
We all have our own inner moments of horror or anger or disappointment, or worse, and we all manage, except in extreme circumstances, to find a way to live with them. Sometimes we bury them, or we avoid any further possibility of recurrence, or we get some sort of therapy, professional or otherwise. I have nothing but sympathy and admiration for holocaust survivors, but mostly I feel sadness for those who don’t manage to rise above lesser trauma. None of us know how we would react to difficult events until they happen.
I know that there’s a school of thought out there that believes we never change. These people can be heard all the time saying things like this. “She’s always been like that, ever since I can remember. And she always will be.” And all these people can come up with endless examples to prove their point. But I believe that people can change, and that, in fact, we’re constantly changing. I can come up with numerous examples too. We’re very good at sniffing out the news we want to read, because it confirms our world-view. And we’re very good at not noticing anything that contradicts that world-view.
That can seem like the obvious thing
A lot of this difficulty over the idea of changing results from fear of the unknown. Which might be another way of saying unwillingness to stir oneself from an uncomfortable but familiar place. Which might be characterised as a lack of confidence in oneself or one’s expectation of success in the world. And if you don’t have a good grasp of who you are or how you think, you can easily decide it’s because of something or someone back in your past. And that can seem like the obvious thing, so it becomes a ‘truth’, in that way we have of believing something is true because we say it often enough.
There’s a very long list of things we believe to be true, often without a shred of evidence. And usually we have no idea that this is the case. I came across a wonderful phrase a few years ago. ‘Received wisdom’. This refers to anything that someone believes they believe, but they just accepted what was said to them by someone who spoke as if they knew it to be true, and they never questioned it. That’s my own definition, so I apologise if it’s inadequate.
A version of parenting we no longer actively encourage
This phenomenon used to be praised as a virtue, because children were supposed to accept the word of their parents, on the supposition that their parents were wiser on account of their experience. This idea is the perfect example of received wisdom, because you have to believe what you were told by your parents, and they believed what their parents told them, and on and on, back to the beginning of time. It makes no sense. I think it was someone’s brilliant idea to take the Fifth Commandment – ”Thou shalt honour thy father and mother” – to mean doing and believing everything they tell you.
This is a version of parenting we no longer actively encourage. We don’t believe any more that our parents know or understand more than we do, although it might be true in some cases and in certain circumstances. We do believe in healthy scepticism, where people are supposed to be able to back up their beliefs with facts and arguments. Or at least we used to do that. I know that certain daily newspapers and President Trump, to name but two, can say anything they like, and it seems like huge numbers of people will believe them regardless.
That’s why we invented language
Perversely, I’m comforted by the thought that nobody believes anything I say, at least without argument. I think that’s healthy. I expect some of you will be disagreeing with me right now, if you’ve managed to read this far, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I might be able to convince you, or plant the seed of an idea in your mind, and you might find your world-view changing, even if you deny it, because all conversation and exchange of ideas will change us. That’s why we invented language, that’s what it’s for.
I’m well aware that certain clever but morally-ambiguous people use language in a bad way to influence our thinking, either because they’re politicians or in advertising, and I wish they would desist. Here we have the finest means of communication, honed to beautiful shades and extremes of subtlety, so important that our vocal abilities are changing the make-up of our species through Darwinian principles, and what do we use it for? Selling deodorants, among other things. Those clever people come up with things like “Protects you from sweat!” And we buy it, because we want to be protected from sweat.
We aren’t very careful about using our doubt circuits
Now I don’t know about you, but I have a list of frightening things out there in the world, that could do me harm. It’s a very long list. It contains, among other things, rogue asteroids, nuclear winter, plagues, tsunamis and earthquakes. I’d put marauding drunks in there, as well as drunk drivers, infected food, vicious undertows, falling ice from passing jets, lightning, and many other realistic and fantastical things. But I’ve actually racked my brains to work out how a bit of sweat could harm me, and I’ve come up with absolutely no scenarios. And the thing that amazes me even more is just how anyone could hear that phrase without being as puzzled as I am. But those advertisers are cleverer than me. They understand that people want to avoid danger, so they’ve spliced the idea of danger to the idea of being socially embarrassed because of moist armpits, and it has worked perfectly, because the sales went through the roof.
We now live in a world where cartoon films have studied human faces to such an extent that they can mimic any shade of expression perfectly, and we respond. Computers can recognise us in a crowd because of the way we walk. Politicians can hone their language so well that we believe them even if they’re talking complete tosh. We know this because we smell a rat when they fail to keep it up, like in the last election. But somehow we aren’t very careful about using our doubt circuits.
Because it’s the sort of thing we’d like to hear
We don’t need to be persuaded any more. We don’t ask questions, we’re not sceptical enough. We hear stuff, it goes in, and we trot it out, probably because it’s the sort of thing we’d like to hear, even though it’s outright lies or fabrications or ‘alternative truth’. We’re not all like that though. Part of me wonders what the difference is between these two types of people, and whether anything can be done about redressing the balance before we run out of feet to shoot ourselves in.
My message, if I have one, is simply this. Things don’t have to be this way. We don’t have to accept things just because someone in a suit tells us it’s true. That’s why suits were invented, let’s face it. We don’t have to believe we can’t change either ourselves of the world, because we’re all changing, all the time. Are you exactly the same now as you were when you were three? Or thirteen? Or twenty-three? I’m certainly not. Just ask yourself why you believe the things you believe. Ask yourself if you could just possibly believe something else, and what that might be. Ask yourself if you’re happy with everything you believe. Ask yourself if you’re happy with everything in your life. Ask yourself what’s stopping you from making things better.
It’s never too late
Of course, you might be perfectly happy with everything in your life, and you don’t want to change anything at all. If you are, I congratulate you, and of course, nothing I’ve written here will apply to you. Otherwise, I’m generally of the opinion that you owe it to yourself to ask a few more questions, and shake things up a bit. We only have one life, unless we don’t, and it would be terrible to come to regret things undone, or not getting over things done, when it’s too late.
Of course, it’s never too late, but the earlier you do it, the more time you have to enjoy the improvements.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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