Jonathan Dodd: Unattributable impressions

Jonathan Dodd returns with his Sunday column and this week ponders on the difference between informed opinions and uninformed impressions.

Claude Monet Painting

Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed

I was at a funeral several years ago. I’ve been to a few in my time, and there’s not a lot you can say about any of them, but they always give me an opportunity to think about the life that’s over and what I’m doing with my own life. Occasionally something stands out, and on this occasion there was a poem that I’d never heard before, and it made a great impression on me.

As with all such things read out or recited on such occasions, it’s meant to express some of the feelings and thoughts evoked by the life of the person in whose honour everyone is gathered. Nobody thinks about who wrote the words or where they came from at the time, although afterwards people do often try to find them again, because sometimes they sink in very deep.

Dance like no one is watching

Dance like no one is watching,
Sing like no one is listening,
Love like you’ve never been hurt,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.

Peasants dancing

There’s a whole way of living right there. If someone says that about you, they’re talking about a person who lives their life full to the brim, rich with experience and depth and an openness to what’s available, and a willingness to get involved. You may not love a person like that, you may not even like them, but you can’t be neutral about them.

She was who she was
The person who was being buried that day was exactly like that. She still resonates in the minds of those who knew her, whether with exasperation or admiration. The arresting thing about her is that she was who she was, she didn’t mind what people thought about her, she just got on with whatever she was doing, fully and head-on. The way people felt about her was entirely in their own minds, and based on their own reactions to her.

buddist monk

I know she would have loved those words, and probably knew them well. It took me a lot of googling to find them, and I was fascinated by the journey I made whilst doing that. The words themselves are attributed across the Internet to a myriad of origins, from one of those always-unnamed Buddhist monks to Mark Twain, and they’re often claimed by people who take them up and use them.

It’s gotta come from the heart
It turns out that the words I heard above aren’t the original version, lyrics from a country and western song called ‘Come From The Heart’ written in 1987 by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.

storm trooper

Something that cool came from such ordinary people
The version I heard was rewritten apparently by an author and speaker called William Purkey in 2001. Here’s what Richard Leigh has to say about it.

“The reason you cannot find any printed or recorded support for these assertions dating back any earlier than our song, is because they don’t exist…. I think the folks out there must be unconsciously disappointed that something that cool came from such ordinary people, so they keep giving it the loftier authorship they believe it deserves.”

crowd outside buck palace

Of course, the Internet being what it is, all this may be made up and entirely incorrect. But I like Richard Leigh’s attitude. He’s a man I feel I can relate to, and I guess he and Susanna Clark wanted to live their own lives that way.

The actual truth, mixed up with the spoil of the ages
I’ve often come across this Internet phenomenon, where layers of information are mixed up with supposition and plagiarism and laziness and downright made-up stuff. This all turns into the sort of rain of dust and detritus that buries old buildings in the ground, only to be rediscovered hundreds of years later by archaeologists, who sift everything, trying to discover the actual truth, mixed up with the spoil of the ages.

Dr. Muhammad Zahir excavating at Bhamala Site

We live in an age where anyone can say anything, often without being challenged, and they’re guaranteed a significant number of people who’ll believe them. We haven’t got the time or resources to go through everything and discard the rubbish from the truth. At the same time we’ve finally discarded the idea that there is any absolute truth, so we don’t have a sieve to separate the valuable nuggets from the mud.

We need to make holes and then fill them up again
Since Nature, as we all know, abhors a vacuum, into this empty space rush lots and lots of people desperate to fill it. We’re human. We need to make holes and then fill them up again. The trouble is that we haven’t found a way of filtering the stream of information, and there’s so much of it. Technology always grows faster than our capacity to deal with it properly, and we know that societies that refuse change get swallowed up very easily. That’s why we spend so much on weapon research and development, before the other side get the drop on us.

matrix data waterfall

We’re already seeing the consequences of this randomisation of people’s inner reality, where gung-ho politicians are able to skew elections through misinformation. Sorry, but that’s what happened. I understand that the recent votes reflected how the majority of people felt about the candidates and life in general, but the playing fields of elections are now a sea of unsubstantiated accusations and assertions, instead of any attempt to analyse the current situation and who might have the best and most considered policies to manage it. Serious politicians let us down by failing to respond, and the winners let us down more by killing off serious discussion.

I can’t help thinking it’s a sideshow
I live in the same world as everyone else, whether or not they hold different views to me. I always have. I’m used to it. I just thought our civilisation was based on a reason and common sense. That’s not the case any more. Everything is becoming a popularity contest. Like in the playground, the person who shouts loudest is deemed to have won the argument, and it all takes place within social media. Watching videos of cats is fun, but I do worry about the need in certain circumstances to prove that you have a large following.

screaming boy

We’ve known this for some time in the celeb culture, but I was at a meeting recently where I was told that a writer won’t get published or taken seriously if he or she hasn’t built up that large following. OK, if that’s what it takes, but I can’t help thinking it’s a sideshow. We’ve split many things that used to be simple into two parts. You used to become famous if you were very good at something. Now you become famous by publicising yourself until lots of people follow you, regardless of whether you have any discernible talent. You used to gain friends, who liked you, and that friendship was a precious thing. It still is. But you can kid yourself that all those social media ‘friends’ are your real friends and that they really like you, rather than ‘like’ you.

It’s never going to be as good as the real thing
The secret to all this is, of course, to take it seriously, but keep your sense of proportion. People do make real friends, it’s still possible to become famous because you’re very good at something, and with hard work you can achieve real progress in your chosen field. Being good at social media doesn’t make any kind of dent in that, it doesn’t validate or improve it, and it’s never going to be as good as the real thing.

best friends

We also need to stop just reacting to things and we need to stop relying on impressions as a basis for developing our opinions and beliefs. Anyone can walk into a room where a film is playing, watch ten seconds and then form an instant impression of it, but it’ll never be accurate, and it’ll never take the place of actually watching the film and thinking about it. I think I understood how that quick impression can harden into something solid that refuses to budge.

A belief based on reason is able to change
A belief built up through thinking and research over a period of time has three advantages over an opinion based on an impression. First, you know what you believe, and why. Second, your belief will be useful to you and increase your stature and reputation and self-confidence because you formed it yourself through hard work. And third, because a belief based on reason is able to change as time goes by.

einstein quote

A well-formed belief will change and develop because new experiences and knowledge are added to our stock of information all the time. This is how we learn. We adapt to a changing world and our place in it, and we aren’t supposed to get stuck with frankly ridiculous opinions that make us look stupid to all except those who are stuck in the same place.

Wake up and re-engage
I’ve been describing a somewhat dark scenario here, but I actually think all of this is a kick in the pants to us all to wake up and re-engage. We need better politics, we need institutions that reflect today’s world, which can adapt to these rapid changes. We need strategies for verifying information and challenging opinions that plainly make no sense and only appeal to people’s baser emotional responses.

The Big Debate on Racism

There is a difference between informed opinions and uninformed impressions. There is a discussion that can be made about all these things. All the issues that confront us are complex and intertwined. None of them can be resolved by simply latching on to one simple idea or element and shoving that down people’s throats. Hearts and minds are won by discussion and honesty and as much good information as can possibly be assembled and presented. You can raise a rabble, but they’ll always turn on you when your empty promises fail to come true.

You don’t want here to become like there
I’m raising a flag for a return, somehow, to the idea of thinking things through and presenting well-argued cases, instead of shouting slogans and expecting easy answers. We’ve been there before, and that usually ends in hideous wars. There are plenty of countries around the world where they do that all the time, and you don’t want to live there, and you don’t want here to become like there.

klu klux klan

Challenging these unattributable impressions feels like hard work, but the consequences of not doing so will inevitably cost much more. It’s like insurance. We don’t like having to pay out, but it makes a big difference if our house burns down.

If you have been, thank you for reading this.

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Opinion Piece

Sunday, 12th March, 2017 9:53am



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3 Comments on "Jonathan Dodd: Unattributable impressions"

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Robert Jones
First television got the blame for ‘dumbing down’, with considerable justification; and now it’s social media, the internet – and, particularly so far as I can see, some of the worst newspapers in the western world. But then, people read the last of these, people go on social media (I do myself, even I’m not perfect….) – I think there’s more going on than our being exposed… Read more »

I’m sure you sing better than you describe.

Thanks for the erudite argument. I’m mad as hell, and l want to make a better system.

In a way I think some of us are starting to think in terms of saving the soul of the West.

Robert Jones

Careful, or I’ll come round and sing for you – you’ll soon realize that compared to me,a water-buffalo with a nasty case of wind sounds melodious….