[This is another of my “runaway rants”, but I couldn’t squeeze that in the headline and keep it punchy. When I call something a “rant” I just mean it’s more or less stream of consciousness, as opposed to me sitting down and making a structured outline. I’m just getting some thoughts out there that I’ve been mulling over.]
Have you ever talked to someone on the phone first and got a strong impression of them, and then met them, only to be surprised how off base your former impression was? One of my memorable instances of this was when I was in college and we had a room for rent in our apartment across from the campus. I’d put up fliers and a ditsy blonde called about the vacant room. I was somewhat hesitant about her as a prospective roommate, but beggars can’t be choosers, and if we didn’t find a new roommate we’d have to cover that person’s allotted portion of the rent. When the girl showed up to see the room she was a Goth Latina.
My girlfriend is half Chinese and half Thai, but looks about 90% Chinese, and if you talked to her on the phone you might think she was white, as she was born in America and English is her first language. When we lived in Cambodia most people thought she was a Chinese tourist fresh of the plane from Beijing, and would greet her with “Ni Hao”. Chinese tourists weren’t above making this mistake themselves when they’d discover her walking down the street, or in the supermarket, and with a sigh of relief plaster her with burning questions in Chinese about directions or where to find ingredients for Chinese dishes. I found this particularly amusing, because having lived in China for almost five years, I could field some of their questions, in which case they just assumed she must have taught me Chinese.
There’s a guy who does those portentous movie announcements for action or thriller movies, and he did some cameos on YouTuber prank channels where he follows people around in the street and makes impromptu announcements about their dramatic, pending futures: “He was an A student, and she was the girl next door, but together they would go on a killing spree…” I think this same guy also does the intros for mixed marital arts competitions. But when you see the guy, he’s not the authoritative, hard-boiled, muscled, masculine specimen he sounds like. He’s rather soft, round, and nonthreatening.
I used to have a job in marketing that included insuring that our ads in 25 magazines would appear in the upcoming issues. This was a perk of the job because all, or nearly all the reps were women, and so I spent a good deal of time chatting with a large group of women on the phone. Because we had a mutual interest in doing our jobs and staying out of trouble with our bosses, and because I was friendly, I got along with all of them and established voice-only casual relationships with at least a half-dozen of them. I never saw most of them, but one picture of one of my favorites. The visual is oddly much more specific than the audio. We can learn infinitely more about someone through talking about them, but the visual component is made of seemingly incontrovertible facts sculpted in flesh. The woman in question was attractive, but she became more defined in a photo, whereas the voice alone was less restricted to a specific identity.
I could come up with myriad other examples, but I’m sure you have several of your own that come immediately to mind. Is the voice and what it says a more concrete portrayal of a person, or is her or his appearance alone? As a visual artist I can’t completely disavow appearance or what it suggests. You can’t make a portrait that says anything if you do not make some sort of associations with physiognomy, expression, and so on, and if you aren’t familiar with how other people perceive these same things. Van Gogh’s or Frida Khalo’s scores of self-portraits imply their facial features mattered and were inseparable from their core identities.
Went shopping and grabbed breakfast. Back.
What would be more important if you were going to be subjected to an arranged marriage, an opportunity to talk to your prospective partner on the phone for 2-5 hours, or access to a photo-album with at least a few dozen pics of him or her? If you only got one you might fear the other would be a deal breaker.
The person on the phone is more of a performance they have control over. You hear yourself speaking while you talk, and you can gain skills at how you present yourself and interact. There’s also potential for being misleading. I’ve had whole conversations in which I was an elderly gentlemen, “Hugh from Leisure World”. Pictures can also be performative, but there’s a lot more outside of ones control. Let’s face it, in today’s world the booty has become a very important part of the whole package, as evidenced in Nicky Minaj’s song, Anaconda:
My anaconda don’t want none if it ain’t got buns.
Other than the toning one could do in the gym, or one’s weight, you can’t control how your booty appears like you can how your voice appears.
Consider lyrics from another popular song, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of you”:
I’m in love with the shape of you. We push and pull like a magnet do. I’m in love with your body.
A magnet does, no? This song played the other day while I was in a pizza restaurant, and I remarked to my girlfriend: This song is profoundly stupid.
That, I guess, was self-evident, and for a panoply of reasons, but the one I had in mind was the unintended insult. It’s not, “I’m in love with you” or even “I love your body”, but, “I’m in love with your body.” This is a little better than saying, “I’m with you because I’m in love with your car” but it’s on the same side of the fence.
Let’s say we see someone with gorgeous eyes, and we want to complement them. But how responsible are they for their eyes? Sometimes people will preface such a complement with, “You’re lucky” thus acknowledging the probable mere happenstance.
I’m Not Going to Apologize for my Anatomy
My hair is thinning, though not exceptionally for someone in his 50’s. But it’s not really my hair that’s thinning. It’s just nature doing its thing. I have nothing to do with it.
I find that I am frequently reminded that I am a very bad person, innately, because of my DNA. I was wicked and offensive while still in the birth canal. I am told I am inconsequential and reprehensible, unconsciously programmed to be a monster. If you are a white man, chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about. And the irony and hypocrisy of this is that these pejorative characteristics that are projected on me with passionate insistence are done so in the name of eradicating stereotyping, racial profiling, and all manner of judging and categorizing people by their bodies alone. Nevertheless I am supposed to be knowable, bad, and easily pigeonholed because of my biology at birth. Nothing that has happened since then, and nothing I’ve done matters in the least.
I know many people will object to this, and bring up issues of structural or institutional racism, white privilege, and so on, all rather hypothetical conclusions coming out of the critical theory branch of academia. Consider the curious absolute connection people make between your average Joe or Jody and the slaveholders of the Antebellum South, and not between them and the majority of white people who opposed slavery and ended it of their own free will. I find myself in the remarkable position that if I declare that I am not a bad person because of my DNA at birth, that is evidence I am a bad person who necessarily is guilty of racism.
There’s a rather astounding logic that goes a little something like this: There’s one bad or evil race of people, and all problems are due to them, because they are racist.
Anyone notice the sleight of hand? A decade ago all problems were due to the 1%: now they’re due to the deplorable majority white working class. No? Today’s working class is now accountable for the abuses of power of the aristocracy of hundreds of years ago, and today. There’s no man behind the curtain, it’s that damned scarecrow. BURN HIM!
By the way, the problem with the global elite was the universal weaknesses of human psychology: selfishness, greed, avarice, corruption, the abuse of power, and the exploitation of the less powerful. They were faults we all possess to some measure, and ones the player has to contend with. It’s an internal, lifelong struggle, and we trust the people in power to be above serving their lower psychological drives, and at the expense of everyone else. But now things are much simpler, and all problems are due to, well, my body.
There were triplets separated at birth, deliberately, unbeknownst to them, in order to study nature versus nurture. There’s a documentary about this called, Three Identical Strangers. For years everyone marveled at how shockingly similar they were, including the clothes they chose, the women they liked, and their choice of cigarette. They all had the same winning smile and seeming boundless enthusiasm for life, like adult puppies. Over time however, it became apparent that the media had focused on their similarities because that was interesting, curious, and perhaps appealed to the part of us that likes to think lines in our hands hold our destiny. But eventually their differences became more apparent, and one of them ended up committing suicide.
If three identical twins could be that different — their similarities being largely superficial — why would we boldly assume that people of the same race mystically share the same psychology, personality, perceptions, worldview, and inner life?
There’s a reason the schoolyard bully will hone in on his or her victim’s physiognomy, if there’s anything vulnerable. The strategy is to reduce the inner person by fusing it with some perceived inarguable shortcoming in the physical world. YOU are a lesser individual because of your skin color, gender, hair, freckles, glasses, weight, height, and so on.
Let’s revisit the uncomfortable content of a few paragraphs back = racism. I mentioned that white people are only associated with the worst historical crimes of the white race (and in this line of thinking there are clearly distinct races), and none of the best accomplishments, especially of a moral nature.
The current definition of racism is “power plus privilege”, and this is on a grand but vague structural or institutional level. The first issue with the definition is you can have power and privilege without being a racist, sexist, or what have you. It must be that racism requires power and privilege in order to pack a punch. We will end up hearing, as I was told in grad school, that only a white person can be a racist.
This is all very odd and ironic, some might even say hypocritical. We could also say that racism is assigning the worst qualities of a race to every individual member of that race, and in outstanding instances attributing one glaring fault to ONLY that race.
This is why, I think, former liberals are jumping ship and big advertisers are starting to discover the phenomenon of “get woke, go broke”. Instead of fighting racism, discrimination, stereotyping, the underlying essentialism [you are essentially your DNA] and 19th century biological determinism, people are fighting against whiteness, which must be eliminated by any and all means necessary.
[Note that the most liberal countries with the most lenient immigration policies are the most criticized for their lack of liberality and the strictness of their immigration. There may be some irony in eliminated by any and all means necessary the culture that is, at least on paper, possibly the most humane.]
Some things which sound so just, progressive and inclusive may be the opposite in spades. Recently I got notification from a service I use that they are now taking active measures to insure the safety of protected classes of people. On the face of it, sounds great. They are stopping racist, sexist, bigots from harassing and bullying vulnerable groups of people online. But then you just flip that around and there’s only one unprotected class, and it’s open season on them. THAT is ass-backwards with a vengeance. Why not make everyone a protected class? Simple, logical, fair.
This makes the gave error of declaring that the person is the avatar. It also quite conspicuously latches onto a scapegoat, and with scapegoats we deny the player so that we can project whatever we want onto the avatar, and then sacrifice it.
Sci-fi and video games are getting wickedly good at addressing issues of identity and consciousness (think The Matrix, or Westworld]. Let’s just go with a classic sci-fi theme: the brain transplant. I’m not sure if medical science sees this as an actual possibility in the future or not, or whether it’s ethically OK or not. Consider what we would have to agree on for it to be ethically OK.
It’s one thing to get a kidney transplant, but another to take on the entirety of the other person except the brain. I might feel that my body is MY property, with MY history, and nobody else has the right to it. It’s not the same as donating ones corpse to provide needed transplants: it’s you wholesale except something that can’t even be seen from the outside. In order for it not to be a form of unintended but inescapable identity theft, we would have to believe that the real person is in the brain, not infused in the body.
What would happen if we were able to transplant brains between two willing healthy people, say a trans male and a trans female (gotta’ have some reason to do it)? If you knew one or both people, or if they were family members, would you gravitate to the brain you know, or the body?
Let’s use the names Barney and Alice. Do we call Barney’s brain in Alice’s body Barney or Alice? If they weren’t trans and it was just a diabolical experiment with innocent victims, but for some great scientific and philosophical breakthrough, would Barney, now in Alice’s body be a man or a woman? And over time, would the bodies themselves, and how the world impacts them, significantly alter the brain? Would Alice’s personality change because she was in Barney’s body, perceived differently in the world, and appearing differently in the mirror…?
That all gets very complicated because of unknowns, effects that could only appear over a long period, and all the variable combinations between different brains and different bodies. I would generally say, though, that we would assume the real person is in the brain, rather than the body. This would be so no matter how profound the effect the body had on the brain.
One way to simplify this is to think of what the person can and can’t be said to control. I’m arguing that you can’t define someone by something that they can’t control and are not responsible for (hence the problem with defining people by race, gender, and physical appearance…). If someone dislikes me because I’m a middle-aged white male, they don’t dislike me, they dislike the universe. I’m no more responsible for my DNA at birth than they are.
Another way to look at it is that the real person is only that which they can control and are responsible for. The card player is not the hand dealt to him or her, but how he or she plays it. One of the reasons people like gentle giants is the person doesn’t become an easy bully, but chooses to be nice instead. It’s why we also admire the person who has little, or is in a bad way, but is still somehow agreeable.
Recently, I went to the hospital for a very minor ear problem. The doctor insisted on using her long, proboscis camera to look up my nostrils. She informed me that one of the passages was narrower than the other, but I almost laughed because the way she said it sounded accusatory. Perhaps she thought I snorted drugs or something, but I don’t think it was that. It’s as if she saw my inner person as causing it, rather than it happening to my inner person, unbeknownst to me.
I once dated a woman who had previously been married, and I suppose one of the reasons she was driven to divorce is the underlying perspective her husband exhibited in telling her, “You must have chosen to be female for a reason”. Wow! Whew! That’s loaded. You have the double whammy of 1) assuming that being a woman is the wrong choice, and 2) blaming the person for making this choice before birth. She wasn’t just guilty of being a woman, but of making that choice on a spiritual level. I gather the choice included being subservient, or weak, or able to be dominated, or something like that.
A woman confided in me that her father, who was a photographer, had some issues with her body in terms of her being a model. He once asked her, “Why are your legs so short, and why are they so plump?” Her best comeback would have been, “if you don’t like your own genes, don’t pass them on”. All these little anecdotes illustrate the ubiquitous phenomenon of blaming people for their DNA before they were born.
When I woke up this morning there was a rush of that familiar stable consciousness filling me up like a balloon and without which I’m a zombie. The tree suddenly realizes that it is not the tree, moving it’s leaves about: it’s the wind enveloping the tree and blowing the leaves. My body doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the Earth. Even my words are not my own, but inherited from dead men and women. What’s left is the player. I didn’t invent the game, nor choose the avatar, but I do choose how to play, and I don’t have a choice but to do so. I am an involuntary subject in a cosmic experiment.
There are lots of people, including scientist, Sam Harris (if you know who he is) who boldly declare that we have no free will. In a physical universe, each event is the unavoidable consequence of the proceeding one, and follows the laws of physics. As physical entities, humans are no exception, he argues, and thus all our actions are pre-determined.
I have a lot of arguments against that, such as that consciousness is not a physical phenomenon, and unlike every other physical thing in the universe we actually make conscious decisions, but there’s one thing everyone agrees on: we absolutely experience life as if we have free will.
That’s a really big deal. Subjectively speaking, free will is an inescapable reality. It’s only from a purely objective standpoint that free will is an illusion, and that’s based on current science, and current science can’t even find consciousness (and everyone agrees on that, too). How is it that something science can’t find must follow the physical laws of things we can find, and measure, and weigh? I think the answer is that we have free will, it takes place in consciousness, but as we haven’t even located consciousness as a physical thing (perhaps it’s not one), we are simply yet to discover conclusively how consciousness makes decisions and acts in the physical world.
One fine day I learned that the universe is not expanding outward from a central point of origin as I’d imagined. Big Bang or not, the universe is expanding in every direction simultaneously. I couldn’t quite grasp how everything is moving away from everything else without moving towards anything else unless everything were moving outward from a central point. But what struck me at the time is that it didn’t really matter on the ground whether I believed the universe was expanding from a fixed point, or in every direction, or if it was slowly contracting. Whichever it was I was still going to order the same thing for lunch. Reality wouldn’t change no matter what I understood or believed about it. Reality was what it was, and I already existed within it.
The Soul as Metaphor
So far I’ve asked whether the person is the parts he or she has no control over, or the parts he or she can control and is responsible for. I’m saying it’s the latter. Note that if you disagree with me, and say that the person is the body, or more the body, than the person becomes indistinguishable from the Earth and the universe, unless you are going to say the individual is somehow spiritually responsible for his or her corporeal incarnation.
Another comeback would just be that it’s not so simple, one is both the body and the mind, but I’d ask if it was only the body as a set of circumstances that impinged upon the mind and colored it.
The soul is an excellent metaphor, and we might have lost something important when we ditched it for a more pragmatic paradigm. I’m not referring to how a soul is described as a supernatural being that transcends death, is reincarnated, and so on, and all that is attached to it in terms of beliefs, but as a force. Not a THING but a FORCE.
Some people attribute all sorts of spiritual attributes to consciousness, even proposing that it exists everywhere, or that the brain is a mere antennae that receives the transmission of consciousness from elsewhere. Last I heard we know that the brain houses memories, and intelligence is dependent on its particular configuration. Consciousness need not be a literal spiritual phenomenon, nor independent of a physical brain to be a FORCE that is experienced subjectively [such as when I awoke this morning and it flooded my body].
One of the arguments against free will is that we can’t choose our parents, where we are born, our avatar, and the rest. Well, free will doesn’t mean we can perform miracles, but rather just that we are in control of ourselves evan as we are bound in physical reality and the laws of physics. As I said earlier, everyone experiences this first hand as true. Go ahead and try to touch your nose if you don’t believe me.
I might have said that a person is the CHOOSER who, using free will, makes thousands of insignificant choices a day, and a few meaningful ones. But we do more than merely choose. We imagine, we create, we play, we contemplate. Here, a soul works better as an invisible host that plays the person like an avatar in a computer game.
The soul, as a metaphor, allows one to easily grasp what a person might essentially be. If you thought Barney’s brain in Alice’s body was still Barney, it wasn’t even the brain, but rather the memories, associations, personality, and how it all floats in the ethereal being that is the real Barney.
I sometimes find it odd when we hold a criminal responsible for a crime committed long ago. There’s no real alternative but to do this. However, it assumes both that the person has free will, and that the person is a stable entity: the one and same individual who did the terrible thing a decade ago. We could ask the criminal, “Why did you do this crime?” and there’s just an odd thing that the person contextualized by the immediate circumstances is not the same person as the one enveloped by the prior ones. They are still guilty, but there is something a tad weird.
On the other end of the spectrum, people blithely link people to crimes committed by others centuries ago, as if guilt could be passed on through DNA, and even if the DNA doesn’t match. You can probably come up with your own examples.
An objection I have to the metaphor of the soul is that people may attribute inherent individuality to it, in which case a newborn is not a blank slate. That could go horribly awry if people then superstitiously decided someone was an evil spirit, or something. Quite the opposite, I’m using the metaphor to conjure a living FORCE of will, consciousness, and mind, all of which are universal properties shared by everyone. I see the player as born with the body, and suddenly enmeshed in a universe of very specific and powerful circumstances.
Sometimes I am less shocked that women are so similar to men, in their minds, than I am that they aren’t more different. I might not be able to imagine what it’s like to live in the shoes of a woman I see on the street (especially if she’s wearing heals), but more surprising is the difference it doesn’t make. I might say that the metaphoric soul is trapped in the circumstances of gender, but not defined by it. Alice’s brain, plopped in Barney’s body, might very quickly no longer be feminine.
Another thing to object to with the metaphor of the soul, besides religious baggage, is the goofy, self-aggrandizing notions such as that, “Well, I am a very old soul”. Yes, Napoleon or Cleopatra no doubt. So, maybe I better just say the person is the invisible player (that is aware and makes decisions).
My point about seeing a girl on the street and not being able to imagine being in her life is that it’s the wrong way of looking at her. For example, a girl pushing a snail cart in Siem Reap, Cambodia (this might have been my actual inspiration for this quandary). I can’t relate to her circumstances because they are so different from mine. This doesn’t mean I can’t be empathetic, but it’s hard to imagine having a 60 pound, skinny, Cambodian girl’s body, pushing around a snail cart, and having her life, which includes enjoying or enduring how other people treat her. It’s imaginable, but a bit of a feat of the imagination.
But when I think of her as a force of consciousness and an invisible player housed in that body and set of circumstances, that’s the self-same universal force that animates my own body.
Who you are in dreams
Sometimes we are different people in our own dreams, but I rarely find that’s the case exactly. And even if I am suddenly someone else, I’m still me playing the role of someone else. If I get the disembodied third person aerial perspective and see myself as another person from above, I’m still me watching over the spectacle. But most times I’m my same person with my same name. I can’t recall ever being female, for example.
Dreams are a really fascinating phenomenon, but one we take entirely for granted because we’ve had them our entire lives and disregarded them our entire lives. But just consider the power of imagination involved. Your own imagination envelopes you in a spontaneously created and maintained universe in which you are captive, and you don’t even realize it’s a fiction. The unbridled imagination is much more powerful than the one that comes out the spigot of the conscious mind.
While dreaming, your mind, I learned a couple days ago, is as active as when you are awake. Your body is essentially paralyzed to prevent injury. You are in effect a disembodied spirit in your own dream world, but somehow you manifest as your usual body anyways (I’m starting to find age is rather fluid, though).
In the dream, are you the body your imagination has created for you, or are you the locus of “I” that is experiencing the dream, or are you the much more powerful imagination that is orchestrating it behind the scenes?
Since you are the captive prisoner of dreams, would it be more accurate to say that you have dreams, or that dreams have you? If you are the person within the dream, than you are the dreamed and not the dreamer. If you are the dreamer than you are something which is, at least in the course of the dream, greater than yourself and not conscious, or at least not within the locus of your experiential consciousness.
Are you the same person in your dreams as when you are awake? I tend to find I have the same inhibitions and basically the same personality, though it’s a bit blurry to say the least.
The Window to the Soul
This is a cliche and I rather think the eyes are just an indicator of where someone else’s attention is, while also giving expressive clues about what they are feeling or thinking. Looking in someone’s eyes is the uncomfortable, mutual attention feedback-loop (I am looking at you looking at me looking at you….). Looking at someone’s eyes is undoubtedly better than looking at her or his feet, though.
The real person is invisible and initially unknowable. You can have a smattering of clues, but most of them are superficial. You might have a gut feeling which could be much more accurate, or erroneous.
When I was around 18 a much older teacher proclaimed that it’s very difficult to know anyone. I thought I knew a lot of people. But really, I merely recognized them, and was familiar with their outward behavior. Some people I knew better, to a degree, but I’m not even sure close family members who are overly familiar with each other to the point of nausea or contempt really know each other.
You can’t really know anyone else unless you really know yourself, and that can take a lifetime or two or three. As I get older I constantly reevaluate what age means, along with race, gender, culture, generation, and all that rich and creamy stuff that surrounds us.
Earlier I wrote about mistaking someone for their avatar, and a good example would be the soldier who was formerly seen as the powerful athlete and football star. A year later and he’s come back from a war, legless, and now is the emaciated guy in the wheelchair looking off trying to comprehend or forget a bottomless pit of horror he was thrust into that it would take several lifetimes to stitch into something digestible. That’s where I got the several lifetimes notion from, but I think it also applies to just knowing people.
There is no end-zone, no perimeter to be reached after which one has it all figured out. Jung thought Freud was wrong about dreams, and he wrote the book on dreams. A little aside, but, Freud thought dreams were basically wish fulfillment, and Jung thought they represented an attempt by the unconscious to wrangle with the unknown and manage anxiety about it. I’m gonna’ go with it being the full spectrum. What I was getting at was that if Freud could be wrong about dreams, and Jung, how sure can we be we’ve got it all figured out.
Am I the person people see in the street, the voice over the phone, the person my students see as their teacher, the middle-aged foreigner living overseas, the white male oppressor, the person who writes rants like this, or the artist who manifests his inner vision on canvas?
Can someone know me without being broader than I am? You’d pretty much have to encompass a massive amount of experience and skills to envolope anyone else’s inner life, and everyone has unique experience and their own individual portal on the universe.
The worst mistake would be to think that you know someone merely because you recognize them. Just consider all the people in Cambodia who recognized my girlfriend as a Chinese tourist fresh off the plane from Beijing, and who spoke fluent Chinese.
Usually I fall into the trap of doing just that, judging people by their avatar. It’s easy and allows one to navigate around the mall. But at least I know that I don’t really know them at all.
The real person is invisible, a mystery, impossible to know entirely, and yet, at the core the same universal force of consciousness — call it the soul — that you are. Not only is the person not the avatar, but rather the player, underneath it all we may also be the same essential player.
It could be that people are born with various dispositions and inclinations, and maybe some are more or less selfish out of the starting gate. We used to hear that the personality is formed in the first three years of life. Even if this were all true, there’s still a player working with that set of circumstances.
I could be wrong, of course, and biology may have a much bigger impact on the underlying subjective experience, the immaterial mind, and even the primal sense of “I am”, but the most egregious mistakes, cruelty, violence, hatred, and abject stupidity people are subjected to come from people seeing them as the avatar.
Guess which side I’d rather err on.