Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Vicious Bru

Posted by boakley59 on December 28, 2009

“Why are you so vicious?” she will ask when I react angrily to certain speakers.

The answer is simple, but loaded — as, it turns out, is the question. I become what she calls “vicious” when I am frustrated. I find that I am most angry when I feel at fault. If I spill paint on the carpet, I am upset that I made a stain, but I am FURIOUS that I could be so clumsy or perhaps that I was trying to carry too many things with too few hands. My anger is proportional to how culpable I feel for the accident. In a similar way, I become vicious when I am ashamed of myself.

But this is a profound and visceral shame, leading to a kind of primal scream. I become vicious when I do not know how to communicate. Failure to communicate is an old and crushing problem for my self-image. I remember a discussion more than 30 years ago with a fellow undergraduate when I complained about somebody misinterpreting some simple message of mine. He said miscommunication was the messenger’s fault for not putting the message in a form the receiver would accept. As we walked across the quad, I spoke of my extensive vocabulary, experience in reading and writing, and ability to choose terms appropriate for intended audiences. He continued to insist that none of that mattered and that I was still at fault, until I finally was shouting, “I know how to communicate!” Everybody passing by laughed as we all recognized the obvious contradiction.

That moment is ever with me whenever I try to share my thoughts, and I have only slowly come to grasp just what it really means. Words are inadequate to its meaning, for we could both be said to be absolutely wrong (or right), yet paradoxically half-right (or half-wrong). My friend was wrong that failure to receive the message was solely my fault as transmitter, and I was wrong that I knew how to communicate. He was half-right that messengers must consider their audience, and I was half-right that skill with words facilitates communication.

Here’s the nasty little kicker: Communication requires community. It takes two, more or less equally committed to the enterprise and roughly inhabiting the same reality. None of us can communicate universally, because none of us inhabit the exact same reality. We all agree at times to momentarily accept someone else’s reality, and we then communicate to whatever extent we accept the alien.

Someone who speaks only German may communicate with someone who speaks only Spanish, so long as they have a roomful of objects to manipulate or insofar as they can indicate mood through facial expression or body language. If they start with a small enough shared reality, they can expand to a broader world of agreement. But the broadest of shared realities (a common language, middle class upbringing and residence at a distinguished university) is not enough to overcome rejection of the smallest points if either side is simply unwilling.

So, we find ourselves lying as loudly as we can: “I know how to communicate!” Here is the root of my viciousness: When I feel I must attack, I know that communication has failed — and that I am alien. In some way, I live in another world from which I cannot reach the speaker’s world. In that moment, I am ashamed that my knowledge, my facility with words, my feelings and experiences, all are worthless, inadequate, as a means to share. I become vicious when it becomes clear that my humanity is an insufficient bridge to connect with another human.

This is the point where the simple yet loaded nature of the question comes in, for “Why are you so vicious?” carries an undertone of “Why don’t you see that these are really people a lot like me, or at least enough like me that what they say doesn’t bother me much?” So, I am a stranger in my own land, wondering how people repeating demonstrable lies in the most ham-handed manipulation would not bother those dear to me. What cause could be so just or worthy as to make such tactics acceptable? How far have we fallen if the same methods used to sell little blue pills and mildly altered dish soap are applied to matters of life and death, justice and equality, morality and decency?

If it’s no bother that elected officials fabricate the comic book conspiracy talk of “death panels” as a telling insight into some putative power-hungry agenda of people struggling to fix a health-care system that fails (or simply excludes) many of us, if it’s no bother for every complex issue to be reduced to a sound bite or catchy marketing slogan ultimately unconnected to reality — “Teach the controversy!” — then there can be no communication because there is no community.

“How do you know they’re lying?” or “All sides have liars!” are presumed to put the alien in me in my place. It is indeed true that those whose views I accept have lied, that I myself have lied in some things, and admitting imperfection inclines me to grant others some leeway. But all lies are not equal. “That’s a stunning hat, Aunt Mildred” is something entirely different from “I saw Uncle Fred raping sheep” or even from the suggestion that I have relatives named Mildred or Fred.

The ways I know when others are lying are tied up with what makes some lies so unacceptable and why I so quickly become vicious in the face of nonsense. I judge the battle already to be lost if a detailed response is needed to a sound bite that is transparently false. “Science and math have shown that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa, and applying formal logic to claims regarding …” and already the audience’s eyes have glazed over and their cell phones are out as they text their friends to see who’s heard about Fred and the sheep.

I know others are lying when what they say doesn’t match gross, mundane, grand, exhilarating life. Sometimes what they say is too simple to apply widely; sometimes too complex to hold up under its own weight. Sometimes what they say is the waving of the magician’s wand to distract attention from the trick being performed off to one side. Sometimes they describe the emperor’s new clothes, and the alien in me sees only the naked slob waddling down the street. Then, when I think we are on the same street, all with our glasses on under the same light, and I am asked why I don’t like the emperor’s clothes, then I am alone and frightened, because I understand that I am alien. I understand that I don’t know how to communicate, that I don’t speak the language of this delusion, and though I see my inquisitors rejecting reality, I nevertheless feel a sense of failure for not being able to prevent them from denying the undeniable.

I become vicious when the alien in me cannot accept that “u” and “i” together may just be a strange way to spell “we.”


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