My step-father Lazar and I had a conversation this evening about conversations; I’ll briefly set this up. My mother and my step-brother Alex were talking about one of Alex’s friends giving him trouble, and my mum said “maybe it’s time to look for new friends, you can do better” and I objected, “that phrase ‘you can do better’ is really horrible because it creates a global hierarchy of people, suggesting that some are intrinsically better than others”. There did follow a brief defense of the phrase from the rest of the table, but very swiftly people started to make fun of me in order to derail things. What they like to do is pick up on an ambiguity in whatever I’ve said, an ambiguity I have almost certainly clarified by that point, and use it to make it sound like I’ve said something completely unreasonable—classic stuff, just the sort of thing you would expect in live debates between politicians or whatever, all very easy to execute; I’m sure I’ve done it to others many times myself. Tonight I objected to this treatment, because I think it’s deeply disrespectful to do every single time I say anything other than “pass the salt”.

Lazar explained to me that the issue is that I take everything seriously, and—for it is usually he who derails—he doesn’t want to take things seriously at the table at that time in the evening, so he essentially cuts me off. He also gives the impression that he thinks almost everything I say is wrong and the reason he knows this is his life experience, and that I over-intellectualise things, and he seems to just know it’s wrong without the need to start dealing with ambiguities etc..

Pre-reflectively I find myself developing a harsh caricature of them all as ditsy valley girls or something: the way my mother might interrupt with some comment about food, or her clothes or something that is designed to derail just as Lazar’s more direct attempts at humour are. Entirely comfortable in their simple little lives they have no interest in engaging with criticism—I could go on, but this is clearly a very foolish way to look at your family members. I note it, though, as my instinctive starting point.

My next thought is that we might just be having a communications problem, a sort of language barrier. I’m wrapped up in the language and method of thought of academic philosophy (or at least the language and methods of philosophy students), and this stops us from engaging because we’re just talking past each other because there is mutual uncomprehension, mutually different patterns of thought. The problem with this is that both of them have masters’ degrees, so they’ve surely had to use this language and methodology before, and my sister sits and reads degree-level History texts so I’m pretty sure she knows what I’m saying too. And considering things the other way around, it always seems to me to be very clear what it is they are saying, and how they have misinterpreted me. I said that they stretch ambiguities for fun, but I think that they often fail to make such distinctions, too.

Given all this I find it increasingly difficult to have any respect for these intelligent individuals who seem to be refusing to be intelligent, put in the most charitable way—put less charitably, they make themselves come across as really rather stupid. I think the time is past for suggesting that I can never know as much as them until I’ve lived more years. How am I to respond to this refusal? Firstly, why is it that I continually challenge like this? I come out with outlandish things, often that I only partially agree with, because it is my way of inviting discussion; it always has been. If someone then doesn’t engage with me, I appear dogmatic; indeed, Lazar tells me I am dogmatic, which I think is unfair. And the reason why I invite discussion is because I see this as something we don’t have enough of to deal with the arrogance of being human that we all share: the unexamined life is not worth living, but unfortunately our society doesn’t tend to examine enough.

Now, I’ve had some recent thoughts on this rather Socratic way of bothering people, in that I’m not sure it’s quite as clear-cut as my approach suggests. If it was the case that continually challenging people had the chance of doing good—making them think and making me think, and correcting us both, for there is no privileged role for me here aside from an awareness that Thinking Is Needed—and no chance of doing much bad, but the possibility of just being brushed off, then I think my approach would be the right one: keep at it and it’ll do good a lot and when it doesn’t, it’s only a little wasted breath. I’m not sure that the possible negative effect is quite this small, because I suspect there is an overall loss of gravitas on my part from being continually rebuffed, and this saps at my ability to spark off examination. I worry now that I am simply being vain: I mustn’t question too much, perhaps, because it’ll make me look bad and lower my standing in whatever social group we’re talking about. I don’t know what to think about this one so I’ll put it aside for now.

I’ll localise this to the situation of my family again. If I’m genuinely never going to be listened to, and want an easier time of things for myself, I could choose to just stay quiet. But this feels like I am essentially leeching food and board off my parents, being quiet and reclusive and trying to pretend I’m not there for my own sake which feels so wrong towards them, so selfish of me. Surely I must be myself, because if there’s any justification at all for parents supporting their children and no-one else, it’s got something to do with the fact that each side has shaped the other’s life and self, and that self must remain if you don’t want either side to think of living arrangements as some kind of accord, which is the kind of thinking I reckon I’d be engaging in if I were to be selfish and keep myself to myself.

There is one other interesting thing to note in the reaction of my step-brother Alex to all this. Alex idolises his father, and my mother finds him very difficult to live with because Lazar doesn’t encourage Alex to do anything and ends up contradicting my mother on practical stuff. For example my mother might ask him not to do something very trivial such as put a particular sized plate in the top layer rather than the bottom layer of the dishwasher or something, and Lazar will give him the impression it doesn’t matter and he’ll get cross with my mother. In the situations round the table that I am describing, Alex interprets the situation as Sean ‘being told off’ or something equivalent, because his sense of sibling rivalry is very strong, and he certainly doesn’t have the capacity to understand what we’re discussing, not knowing what words like ‘equality’ mean. So Alex will sit there, laughing at particular moments, and smirking throughout. And the thing is, this actually affects me. I want to (verbally) lash out at him in his ignorance—I end up drawn into his world of sibling rivalries. It is challenging to ignore it because my sister and I have long been pretty aggressive with each other, and old habits die hard.

This post is nowhere near as cohesive as I wanted. Post title comes from fact that I used the word ‘mechanising’ this evening and was told that this was a very long word.

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I can’t really muster up a whole response to this post, but I’ll say this on the subject of Socratic dialogues and the like: father of Western Philosophy he may have been, but Socrates also always struck me as a bit of a wanker :P.

In seriousness: I have similar issues sometimes (and certainly your description of Lazar’s attitude to you w.r.t. “serious” conversations is similar to the one Andy has with me). My response is now (after trying many approaches) to just not bother and/or be more diplomatic if I want to talk about this kind of stuff. It might mean you have to bend your rigid ideals, but hey, it stops your family members metaphorically hemlocking you.

Comment by jr512 Wed 14 Sep 2011 12:03:26 UTC