Monday, January 17, 2011

Why Such Provocative Posts?

"Are you doing this on purpose?" a friend writes to me. "Are you trying to provoke people's anger with your posts?"

The answer is that, of course, I am. See, I have this theory that getting people to think is akin to pushing a car down a hill. You need a significant initial effort to get people's brains to start moving. As soon as you get them to move in the direction of independent thinking, though, this process of intellectual development cannot be stopped. I use this method a lot in my teaching. No effort is too big to get students to generate the very first idea of their own. It is extremely hard to make that happen, but once you do, there is no stopping such a student.

People respond best to trivialities, to received wisdoms of all kinds. Most of us are never as happy as when we hear something that we heard before, that we already know. Observe the faces of people at a lecture or at a conference, and you will see their eyes happily glaze over and their heads nod hypnotically whenever they hear something self-evident that has been said a million times before. The reason why we are so happy to hear things we heard before is that this liberates us from the painful necessity to think, which is the greatest burden a human being has to shoulder.

Thinking is more difficult than any other task we can face. This is why people go to such lengths to avoid the unpleasant duty of thinking for themselves. They join religious cults, support totalitarian regimes, dilute their individuality in collective identities of all kinds. In short, they do anything they can to let others think for them and provide them with ready-made opinions they can contentedly regurgitate for the rest of their lives.

This is why all kinds of received wisdoms and generally accepted pieties annoy me so much. They are a cop out, an abdication of one's God-given (or an evolution-driven, whatever you prefer) right to have a fully functioning brain. When I was little, my father heard me say that I agree with something that was said on television. "This is completely wrong," he said. "Whenever you hear an opinion, no matter how big of an authority proclaims it, your first impulse should be to disagree. How else will you find out which opinions are actually yours?" Of course, I responded by immediately disagreeing with his position. I still believe, however, that the words "I agree completely" have to be used very sparingly lest we allow our brains to petrify as a result of not being used often enough. 

I don't want to write posts that make everybody nod sagely in agreement. That would be the worst thing that can happen to my blog. More than anything, I want to make people start questioning, doubting, engaging passionately with issues. All of my favorite writers, critics, philosophers, journalists, and bloggers are the ones who help me do that.  


Greenconsciousness said...

Nice naming of a tiresome phenomena. This receiving of wisdom has become the meaning of "community" on the blogs. The blogger posts and the community reinforces nodding like groupies who can write. Any deviation from the line is met with rage or a note that the comment is not "on point" or off topic. Said comments are treated as a threat by the groupies. The connections have to be as clear as a blueprint. Because the other readers are not going to be able to make a connection that is not obvious.

How do they stand the boredom of their thinking? But it is comfortable. I too can be seduced by that fuzzy comfort.

Clarissa said...

I don't like to agree. :-) Here, however, I couldn't agree more. There are several blogs that come to mind that fit your description perfectly. They are like mini-religious cults where any dissent is treated as heretical. I absolutely love visiting such blogs and making some provocative comments there. It's too much fun. :-)

David said...

Damnit, took me until this post to understand what you were doing there. At least in my defense I haven't been reading your blog for long :P.

Clarissa said...

Oh, I know what I should do. I will start a new page where such "programmatic" posts will be gathered.

Thank you for nudging me towards this idea, David!

fairykarma said...

Žižek once said something to the tune of, intellectuals enjoy being provocative. However while they do espouse and promote certain causes and ideas, they are against the actual materialization of them.

One of his examples was that a lot of leftist academics support leniency towards immigrants (especially Hispanics), but were this leniency ever to occur to a significant degree, it would mean tougher job and resource competition on part of the academics. People forget immigrants of Hispanic descent are not all grass cutters.

For this reason, I'm wary when it comes to people who think they're immune just because they think their minds are alert.

I mean if thinking is so valuable and important, why is it my paycheck comes from doing fairly repetitive tasks? After I graduate, it's going to get much worse where I get to be repetitive fulltime. I get to wait behind red lights more than I do now. I get to do more grocery shopping. Pay more taxes. All kinds of drudgery that puts time for thinking on the sideline.

I keep hearing there was a golden age in the past where only rich people had time for thinking since their other tasks were taken care of by their servants.

I'm thinking I should get a million dollar golden parachute so I can spend more time.... thinking...yes... thinking.

Clarissa said...

You see, I'm not saying that thinking is going to be highly valued by others. :-) But I see it as one activity that really makes it worth even having a life. That kind of sounds grandiloquent but I'm a little tired.

According to my observation as an educator, the children of extremely rich are utterly hopeless in terms of their thinking capacities. So maybe we don't really need that million, huh? :-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for enlightening me. My life would have no meaning without your wisdom.

I was being sarcastic in case you missed it...

Clarissa said...

The point is that you are supposed to enlighten yourself by producing original ideas of your own. Another person cannot do that for you. Like they can't grow for you, or read for you, or think for you.

Rimi said...

Clarissa, I was brought up with similar ideas at home -- our natural state given the conformist structure of society is to be comfortably numb, and not in a good way.

But precisely because this lesson of shock-to-critical-thinking was drilled into me from a young age, I've had several years to notice how increasingly, people don't respond to shocking or startling language/ideas with engaged thoughtfulness (whether in assent or dissent), but with reactionary anger and rejection. The entire conservative policy-making in the US, in fact, is based on this knee-jerk rejection-reaction. The party of no and so on.

Since I haven't read your blog long and then only read it in fits and bursts, I don't know if your experiences match this hypothesis. Does it?

P.S: "I don't like to agree. :-)" is perhaps the most honest and amusing sentence I've read in a long time :-)

Anonymous said...

Do you have a life and any friends, other than this blog? I can't imagine you have time to do your job well because you spend way too much time writing articles on this blog every day - sometimes more than one!

Perhaps you should spend some time out in the world, truly living and getting to know and accepting people for who they are before you write such judgmental gibberish.

You may have 5 degrees and went to an Ivy League school and may be quite intelligent, but it doesn't mean you have any commonsense nor wisdom.

Clarissa said...

Oh my god, here she is again with the same boring rant about living in the real world. What are you, a broken record?

The blog is in front of you. Can you stretch you miserable non-existent powers of reasoning and figure out how to find out everything you want about me from this blog?

If you decide to post any more, can you please try very hard and come up with something new to say?

Clarissa said...

Rimi: I have noticed a strange phenomenon here. Quite a few people come to my blog from angry anti-Clarissa blogs, write a few outraged comments. . . and end up staying for good. Of course, most of the times it doesn't work that way. But there have been quite a few occasions when this happened. And that process of people going from starry-eyed fanaticism to wanting to read more and learn more from an opposing point of view is fascinating to me.

Pen said...

Interesting. And to think, all those times where I felt I couldn't leave my comment because I didn't quite agree with what was written, but I couldn't say that I disagreed entirely, I could have posted my thoughts anyway and might have actually got somewhere with it.

Maybe it's small steps, though. I hear a negative review of a book. I go and buy it anyway, and read it, to see if I think so. The entire matter is forgotten, but I've formed my own opinion on the matter.

I appear to respond to a lot of your posts with an attitude similar to that Douglas Adams' ruler of the universe: "I think fish is good, but then I think water is wet, so who am I to judge?" I haven't formed many opinions yet, so my first instinct is to agree immediately. And then I begin to doubt that, because really, you're only one person, and then I look up opposing arguments to the point where I've eventually turned the whole issue on its side and the question is no longer "Is it ethical to dye my feet blue?" but "To what extent is it ethical to dye my feet blue? Explain. (And, really, why am I considering dying my feet blue anyway?)" The whole thing reads eerily similar to an English or History question, in the end, and I'm forced to make my own conclusions.

I think it's working.

Clarissa said...

I think it's definitely working. :-). Feel free to post any of your comments as I'm sure they will be a great acquisition for the blog.

Tom Carter said...

Clarissa, you say, "Thinking is more difficult than any other task we can face." That's self-evidently not true. We all think all the time, and generally we're thinking for ourselves, although our thoughts are obviously influenced by what we see and hear around us. Don't you really mean to say that most people don't think "correctly," i.e., their thoughts don't conform to what you would consider acceptable? I go out of my way to read and listen to opinions (another word for "thoughts") that I know I'll disagree with. And you know what -- once in a while I learn something and change my mind. Give it a try.

Do you really think you have to "get students to generate the very first idea of their own?" News flash: university students have had ideas of their own for years. They may not be well-formed and perhaps could use some guidance and nudging, but they definitely had ideas long before they entered your classroom. And one more flash: the world is full of people who never attended a university who are intelligent, successful, and very thoughtful.

As for provocative posts -- keep 'em coming! I don't comment on many sites, but I come back here because on a given day you can be either brilliant or very irksome -- in my opinion, of course.

Anonymous said...

You're so right ;-)

eric said...

Keep it up! You do for blogs what Bill Maher does for late night TV. I don't agree with everything you write (Enlightenment individualism to me is a bit quaint, and far too indebted to substantialist metaphysics for my taste)--the point is, your posts are interesting, and they stimulate discussion amongst fairly intelligent people. And that's really what we need nowadays.

Clarissa said...

My blog is fortunate in having some the most intelligent regular readers that can be found anywhere.

Thank you for being here, people!

Anonymous said...

My policy on commenting has always been to only do it if you have something you realy want to say.
It just so happens that the times I have commented here happend to on stuff I agreed with.

The times you've written something I haven't agreed with I ether haven't felt like commenting for whatever reason or didn't feel my contribution would make much diffenence. Anyway for whatever its worth, as long as you keep writing I'll keep reading.


Clarissa said...

This last sentence just made my day. :-)

Do I know you, 2020?

Anonymous said...

No we've never met, I just enjoy your writing. The reason I sign my posts like that is I can only post anonymously and I kinda like having a screen name, something to identify me you know.


FD said...

Mmmm. I read mainly because I don't always agree. I can find lots of blogs that neatly dovetail my prejudices. (Being a liberal, small l, I can admit that my prejudices are in fact prejudices!) What is less common, and what I look for are ones that aren't so diametrically opposed as to be unintelligible and thus inaccessible, but still have enough difference to challenge my thinking. Perhaps I should comment more often. ;)

Clarissa said...

Thank you, guys!

Cube Angel said...


In my entire life I have been wrong many times on so many things that I can't count.

I started questioning my own thoughts that were in my own head. I asked how do I truly know what thoughts in my head are actually true, false, or partially true and false.

I concluded these two things. 1. I knew nothing whatsoever. 2. I concluded I am the most ignorant man on this planet. In fact, I do not even know if 1 and 2 are true.

I do have a philosophy that takes into account my ignorance. I do not know how viable or correct it is.

This is it in a nutshell.

1. There are absolutes

2. All human beings have biases, predjudices, and wrong information which can cloud our thought processes including us autistics.

3. I believe in order to truly get to these absolutes we as human beings have to uncloud our minds from these biases, predjudices, and wrong information.

4. I do not believe we can always get to number 3.

5. I believe we as human beings will have to continously refine our thought processes. We as human beings will always be learning and we will always keep striving for this elusive perfection.

6. I believe this whole process is the answer. I call this process of struggle, learning, rooting out biases, and bettering ourselves Dynamic Honesty.

Anonymous said...

Oh no, I cant pass this topic, read only Clarissa's initial post, no time now for 320 comments,but disagree with Clarissa:
#1am Aspie and child sure too, but score smaller,only 146(of child)
#2came at USA being 9 y.o. was immediately bullied at abest school of NY state; child spent ONLY 2,5
years at USA school,and did self taught being a student of correspondent's school(Oak Medow)
#4 child read a lot;played piano/organ;spent time at concerts etc
#5.results: at college was the only one exempted from English and 20 other credits
#6.etc etc etc
So: saved time;got 2 degrees;etc etc
--what is so bad about it???
Not to be bullied at a most tender years,to have independent thinking? Be save from all that groups,cheer leaders,thousand activities (in order to have all the points for Ivy etc)and APs and to have time to READ ,to listen music, to be the Individual?
Especially if the alternative at poorest NYC immigrants borough--for Asperger's without common math/science interest--only the poorest public schools. To jump out of all that dangers to one of a best music schools--thanks to homeschooling, yes.

Anonymous said...

AAh--I wanted it to put at homeschooling--seems in a wrong place, sorry!

Clarissa said...

And how is it going for you right now in terms of socialization? Professional situation? Personal life? Do you wake up every morning and want to sing and dance with joy?

Autistic tendencies are often exacerbated in children by an intolerable home situation.