I was on a bus earlier. An older woman got on, and made her way awkwardly to a seat. She nearly fell in the process, and I extended an arm, asking as I did ‘Are you alright?’. Only, she corrected her fall, and didn’t see my arm. All she had to go on were my words, which she took to mean that I was someone who knew her and was asking politely about her general welfare, rather than about that specific near-accident.
Our days are made of such gambles — what I describe as a possible mishap may have been something she had in hand. Making her response to me one that was predicated on me being someone she had misplaced in her memory. I’ve done variations on the same thing plenty of times, going to greet someone who isn’t the person I believed them to be — leading to the deliciously awkward moment when you’ve been over-friendly with someone and they don’t know how to respond to you, clearly a stranger but a warm one. Club nights are rich in such exchanges, MDMA helping form bonds with people you don’t actually know but who you can see are as loved-up as you are. Which leads to one form of chemical warfare I’d be all in favour of: how about the Qadaffi loyalists in Libya are gassed with an ecstasy-derivative?
There are two areas of contention within that proposal. One, that you the reader agree with me about using E to get troops loved-up, or are at least willing to entertain the theory. Two, that you share my feelings about Qadaffi. Change the context, and we might have a difference of opinion: say I’d suggested using a euphoric chemical at student protests, would you be more inclined to want the substance used to quell demonstrators, or the police?
Like it or not, we incline to the binary. ‘Like it or not’ is itself a binary sorting method — we encounter them on a regular basis. Pepsi or Coke? Straight or gay? Centre left or centre right? It’s arguably built into us, what with the way we have pairs of some of our sensory organs — two eyes, ears, nostrils — which cycle in their dominance to refresh our perceptions from time to time. But don’t let that preference for the binary fool you — you have as many options as you perceive.
The interesting bit is finding contexts in which we truly explore the alternatives to our habits. On another recent bus trip, a woman got on with a pram and addressed the people standing around, using the word ‘must’ to inspire them to shuffle along and allow her and the pram to squeeze on. I wonder if she’d have found it within her to speak with that certainty before she had the baby.
But why wait until you’ve got someone else’s needs to think of to explore what else might be possible for you? How about, ahead of any actual ‘need’ (which is another way of expressing ‘must’) we get to jiggle our perceptions up a bit, all the better to find out some other ways of thinking and feeling that will in turn underpin new courses of action..?
Let’s start off with your preferred sources of information. When was the last time you really explored an issue that was presented by your favourite newspaper? My go-to paper tends to be The Guardian, and I’ve recently become aware of how skewed its reporting on Palestine can be. Check out this article to see a good example of why I’m revisiting my take on Guardian journalism where Israel and Palestine are concerned. It’s not a case of having a particular perception, which would be understandable — it’s about editing a quote so they run only that part of it where the Israeli speaker imagines the Palestinian response to the Israeli position. As such, it’s a misrepresentative caricature, where the full quote is nuanced.
As is often the case, Robert Anton Wilson is sharp on the need for epistemological flexibility, proposing a form of skepticism that he termed Model Agnosticism. “Skepticism should be dialectical. Doubt A, then doubt NOT A, then doubt both A and NOT A and then doubt your own ability to doubt enough.” In other words, embrace the fluidity of reality by breaking down any assumptions that accrete and cling, barnacle-like, to whatever it is we believe that we are.
There’s such a thing as going too far with such an approach — Wilson’s writing is wonderful, and he was a fascinating man, but his career was a poor model for anyone aspiring to a writing career: he died in poverty, and with no control over the publishing of the Illuminatus trilogy, the work he’s most associated with (co-written with Robert Shea), which pre-empted the homeopathically watered-down version of some of the same material that has brought Dan Brown immeasurable wealth thanks to The Da Vinci Code.
You don’t need to take Wilson’s sophisticated approach to make Model Agnosticism workable either. Imagine what would happen if children were encouraged to think beyond the categories that entry level history teaches them, about kings who are either good or bad, and foreign nations that are either enemies or allies. And think how life would be for you now, if the world beyond your own borders was similarly rich…