By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Yesterday someone whose opinion I value told me, “You hate the government.”
I was stunned by this summation.
“I don’t hate the government.” I thought to myself. “In fact, I am often a formal, working part of the government.”
Where did this broad stroke about my emotions toward the government come from? What caused it to happen? Why do we create these opaque and rigid summations?
It occurred to me that the most interesting, and I’ll suggest threatening thing, about a four-letter summation of any belief set, any person, any group is that it is convenient. And convenience is comforting.
Living with me is anything but comforting, orderly and convenient. I am a weird guy, given to remarkably reasoned insights, absurdly chaotic ones and everything in between. I hate furniture, love open space, and fill it with a clutter of superfluous gear and books. I am kind to animals, believe in some form of gun control and own guns. I believe in peace but work in an industry whose mission is war. I like the government but believe it should be smaller and more efficient. None of who I am is congruent or follows a convenient narrative. I don’t fit into anyone’s tidy little four-word box. Even if you try to suggest, “Tom Demerly is complicated”, it’s not that simple.
We live in an age of accelerating and proliferating media. And, as with nearly every new technology from the first crude stone age weapons to atomic power to social media, we develop the technology before we develop the mutually acceptable and broadly beneficial ways to employ it.
We think shit up and then figure out how to use it later. People driving while texting on cell phones is one example that comes to mind. The guys who invented the atom bomb are another.
As a result, the acceleration and proliferation of media has created a world of chaotic stimulus filled with billions of new voices, some of them skilled in delivery, all of them screaming at once in what feels like escalating volume and urgency.
The influx of stimulus is deafening and disorienting, and creates a kind of social or collective panic that, on an individual level, may make us yearn to make some de facto sense of it all. We want one thing we can hang onto, one set of things to believe, one unimpeachable, unassailable truth to comfort us and still our cognitive waters.
Imagine a world where the distance from one end to the other of a thirty six-inch, three-foot-long yardstick changed arbitrarily. No two peoples’ yardstick reading thirty-six inches was actually the same length. It would be immensely confusing and chaotic.
Quickly, people would gravitate toward a consensus on the physical dimension of the thing we call a “36-inch, three-foot yard”. The consensus may vary from broad region to region, especially those separated by wide geographical obstacles, like oceans and the metric system in Europe and Asia, and the imperial measures still used in the U.S. But broadly we would gravitate toward an emotionally convenient and culturally necessary convention on the physical dimension we referred to as “one yard, three-feet, 36-inches”. We would all get on the same measuring stick.
The need for a common social and cultural yardstick is what drives belief sets like common religions, desires, hatreds and prejudices. We like, and need, to all be on the same page, and in the chaotic world of fast, evolving media, the pages of modern media blow by like a book tossed in a hurricane.
In Gia Fu Feng and Jane English’s landmark translation of the philosophical masterwork by Lao Tzu, The Tao De Ching, it has been translated from Chinese that:
“All the Colors blind the eye.
All the sounds deafen the ear.
All the flavors numb the taste.
Too many thoughts weaken the mind.
Too many desires wither the heart.”
The Tao de Ching was written in about the fourth century B.C. Its origins likely came from even earlier, around the sixth century B.C. and took two centuries to summarize into the cryptic, lyrical haikus that we read today. When you read it, you have to stop and contemplate its meaning and context. It is light in text, heavy on interpretation.
The thesis of this passage from the Tao De Ching is that too much cognitive noise bothers us and may tend to make us gravitate toward the opposite extreme, very defined beliefs that can be distilled into a few words. Simple ideas to make sense of complex stimulus.
The remarkable phenomenon of life has never been as simple as a few words. It is complex. As this complexity is hurled at us in an acceleration and proliferation of media we struggle to make some sense of it. As a result, we summarize and rationalize, trying to cram ideas and people and events into convenient boxes as they come at us faster and faster in a rapidly accelerating and stressful game of cognitive whack-a-mole.
That is impossible. And undesirable. If things were simple, we’d get bored.
I’ll offer that exposure to the “drinking from a fire hose” consumption of social and news media benefits from taking some contrasting time of quiet contemplation, deep research into narrow topics for a more thorough insight and, most of all, strong individual reflection while trying to avoid cramming- and being crammed- into convenient thought boxes.