Noisomes Off

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If I could have one superpower, I would choose the ability to blink leaf blowers out of existence with my mind. My faithful sidekick would do car alarms. We would be The Sound and The Fury – fighting for peace, quiet, and the manual way.

Leaf blowers are stupid, especially in the city. They accomplish no more than a rake or broom, in barely less time, and do it all while polluting the air with ear-splitting noise and filthy dust. Gas-powered leaf blowers (which is most of them) do all of that while also spewing toxic fumes, making them simultaneously noisy and noisome.

‘Noisome’ is one of those words that makes no sense, because it should mean “loud” but instead means “offensively stinky or unpleasant”. That dissonance, though, is what makes it the perfect word to describe the current state of communication in our culture.

We have a problem with noisome discourse – increasingly disagreeable, foul, and loud – and just like the leaf blowers, the problem is largely fueled by GAS:

GENERALIZATIONS – all of which are terrible. (See what I did there?) Too often we inflate our arguments by shouting that “all cops are bad” rather than “this cop is bad” or that “all men are pigs” when at the moment only that man is a pig.

[Why is ‘pig’ a derogatory term? I love pigs. They are smart, and clean, and taste like bacon. We should all be pigs!]

The problem with arguments inflated by generalizations is that they are easily punctured by a single anecdotal counterexample – thus letting the air out of what may otherwise have been solid logic.

ASSUMPTIONS – which not only make asses out of us, but likewise also leak a noxious stench into the air. When we hear words leave a fellow human’s mouth these days (or see them typed), our instinct seems to be to immediately assume the most racist / sexist / elitist / ageist / atheist / anti-whatever-ist intentions behind them. Sure, taking offense is fun, but why not allow for the possibility someone is curious, mistaken, or just plain dumb instead of horrible? Assumptions are dangerous; it only takes a single spark of defensiveness to ignite an explosion of anger and send civility up in flames.

SELFISHNESS completes the toxic triumvirate in our GAS. Not just “shut up and let me talk,” selfishness, or the “my way or the highway” variety; we have also become selfish in our refusal to accept partial agreement or any personal fault. High on the fumes of our own opinion, we focus all our attention on winning that last minor point against an ally instead of working with them to battle the larger problems facing both of us. As with any gas, the overall pressure of selfishness increases as the force of our need to be 100% right gets divided by a smaller and smaller area of focus, ultimately resulting in a blowout.

This chemical cocktail of generalization, assumption, and selfishness is fueling a lot of sound and fury in our world today.

As science has shown, GAS will, once released, expand to fill any available space. It may not seem harmful at first, and is even tempting since GAS can burn colorful and bright or give us a quick high that makes life briefly hilarious. But it is not healthy to breathe and can quickly turn dangerous, which is why we should stop releasing GAS entirely.

It won’t be easy. GAS is often hard to hear, mostly impossible to see, and no one ever wants to admit it comes from them (even though we all do it). But GAS is filling our world with an odious cloud that is highly combustible, poisonous to ingest, and toxic to our environment.

On Earth Day, let’s all stop spewing this GAS into the air and let clearer heads prevail.

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Logical Mystery Tour

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Once upon a short time ago, I spent over twenty minutes arguing with a Time Warner Cable representative about how math works.

My monthly cable bill had suddenly increased by $7 (increased again, I should say, because this was not the first time), so I had looked and found a new $7 charge listed for the modem. (The modem I had been using for no charge since…always.)

The TWC representative tried repeatedly to convince me that they had always been charging me $7 for the modem, it’s just that now they were listing the fee as its own line item on the bill. I replied that if that were true my bill total would not have increased (because, math), but it had increased, so there was clearly a new charge for something, and would she please just fess up to it already.

After twenty minutes of our own little version of Waiting for Godot (“I recognize that tree!”) she finally succumbed to the power of how numbers work and agreed there was a new fee. I agreed to no longer be a Time Warner Cable customer.

While I appreciate that this woman provided the kick I needed to finally bail on cable, our conversation makes me want to bang my head against a wall. For six years, I have spent much of my time helping adults prepare themselves for the rigors of law school, and in that time I have been repeatedly surprised and disheartened – as I was on that phone call – with the general lack of logical reasoning employed by humanity.

Logic is important, even if only to save us from Kafkaesque conversations and murderous thoughts. If we used it more, our civilization would be in a much better place.

For one thing, logic allows us to recognize when people (and cable companies) are lying. It demands reasons and facts be given to support arguments – including our own. With logic, we also recognize when a statement is technically true (“That Awkward Moment is the #1 comedy of the year!”) but essentially meaningless (“Dude, it’s still January”).

Even more relevant to our current state of debate, logic helps us stay focused on the actual point, instead of getting distracted by more convenient statements that are off topic. Sure, mental health and how we treat it is a major problem in the world, but it isn’t a relevant rebuttal to “I think there should be more gun regulation,” any more than “vegans are annoying” addresses whether we should let the pregnant pigs move around, or “I hate science” is an argument against global warming.

Most importantly, though, logic is vital because it exercises a skill that is crucial to human success: creative thinking.

It is no coincidence that Einstein was a skilled violinist while Hitler was a bad painter; creativity and reason go hand in hand. To be logical is to be able to mentally entertain as many possibilities as can be imagined and then evaluate them against whatever facts are known. It is to know that there was a mass extinction of dinosaurs, imagine the infinite reasons it could have happened, and use the evidence of meteor strikes, lack of evidence of spontaneous combustion, and miniscule likelihood of alien invasion to conclude that most likely the meteors were the culprit.

(It is also to know that the limited facts demand language like “most likely” instead of “of course it happened that way, how dare you question me?!” or “I don’t believe you so no it didn’t!”)

Logical thinking trains us to have flexible minds, which is the ultimate reason it needs to be more prevalent in our world today: because mental flexibility is the key to empathy. Yes, it also helps if we have and understand emotions, but empathy by definition requires the ability to think beyond our own personal situation.

In college, I was once asked by a boy (he was a boy in every sense) why I was pro-choice; to answer him, I started by saying, “given my own health issues, I can certainly imagine why someone might need-“ and he cut me off by rebutting, “It’s not about YOU. You’re so selfish.”

His statement was technically true – it wasn’t about me – but meaningless, because it WAS about my ability to put myself in another person’s shoes; to imagine circumstances that, while not true for me, may be true for someone in a different place or time or dimension.

A rigid “I would never” is not enough to close the book on any subject. That’s great that we would never; it is completely our right to choose to “never” – but somebody would, and shouldn’t we at least take the time to explore and understand their reasons before we judge?

Without empathy, progress can only happen once everyone personally knows a victim of sexual assault, a minority being denied rights, a dark-skinned person who has suffered harassment by those in authority, or someone forced to make a bad choice in a bad situation. Of course, the sad fact is, everyone already does.

That some people still refuse to acknowledge it defies logic.