… of Robbie Burns Day

The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley…”

In observance of Robbie Burns Day and, thereby, of John Steinbeck‘s novella, Of Mice And Men, I highlight this thoughtful character study of Curley’s wife, by Leighton Meester for The Huffington Post, based upon her own stage portrayal of that character.

Perhaps above all I appreciate Meester’s nuanced intuition about the audiences who judge Curley’s wife which, beyond their relationships to the characters in the story, might suggest something about their own – our own – blind spots and hypocrisies. How often we live with daily nonchalance, oblivious to the interiority of those we encounter, and of those beyond. How much we rely on our affirmed belief of our selves.

If confronting ourselves is art’s great authenticity, then Meester’s perception is spot-on: in Curley’s wife, Steinbeck subverts our conceit – whether he intended to or not. Indeed, the best-laid schemes…

I May Be Wrong About This, But…

Before introducing the moral pairing of right and wrong to my students, I actually began with selfish and selfless because I believe morality has a subjective element, even in the context of religion where we tend to decide for ourselves whether or not we believe or ascribe to a faith.

As I propose them, selfish and selfless are literal, more tangible, even quantifiable: there’s me, and there’s not me. For this reason, I conversely used right and wrong to discuss thinking and bias. For instance, we often discussed Hamlet’s invocation of thinking: “… there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II, ii, 249-250). Good and bad, good and evil, right and wrong… while not exactly synonymous, these different pairings do play in the same ballpark. Still, as I often said to my students about synonyms, “If they meant the same thing, we’d use the same word.” So leaving good and bad to the pet dog, and good and evil to fairy tales, I presently consider the pairing of right and wrong, by which I mean morality, as a means to reconcile Hamlet’s declaration about thinking as some kind of moral authority.

My own thinking is that we have an innate sense of right and wrong, deriving in part from empathy, our capacity to stand in someone else’s shoes and identify with that perspective – look no further than storytelling itself. Being intrinsic and relative to others, empathy suggests an emotional response and opens the door to compassion, what we sometimes call the Golden Rule. Compassion, for Martha Nussbaum, is that means of “[hooking] our imaginations to the good of others… an invaluable way of extending our ethical awareness” (pp. 13-14). Of course, the better the storytelling, the sharper the hook, and the more we can relate; with more to go on, our capacity for empathy, i.e. our compassion, rises. Does that mean we actually will care more? Who knows! But I think the more we care about others, the more we tend to agree with them about life and living. If all this is so, broadly speaking, if our measure for right derives from empathy, then perhaps one measure for what is right is compassion.

And if we don’t care, or care less? After all, empathy’s no guarantee. We might just as reasonably expect to face from other people continued self-interest, deriving from “the more intense and ambivalent emotions of… personal life” (p. 14). Emotions have “history,” Nussbaum decides (p. 175), which we remember in our day-to-day encounters. They are, in general, multifaceted, neither a “special saintly distillation” of positive nor some “dark and selfish” litany of negative, to use the words of Robert Solomon (p. 4). In fact, Solomon claims that we’re not naturally selfish to begin with, and although I disagree with that, on its face, I might accept it with qualification: our relationships can supersede our selfishness when we decide to prioritise them. So if we accept that right and wrong are sensed not just individually but collectively, we might even anticipate where one could compel another to agree. Alongside compassion, then, to help measure right, perhaps coercion can help us to measure wrong: yes, we may care about other people, but if we care for some reason, maybe that’s why we agree with them, or assist them, or whatever. Yet maybe we’re just out to gain for ourselves. Whatever our motive, we treat other people accordingly, and it all gets variously deemed “right” or “wrong.”

I’m not suggesting morality is limited solely to the workings of compassion and coercion, but since I limited this discussion to right and wrong, I hope it’s helping illuminate why I had students begin first with what is selfish and selfless. That matters get “variously deemed,” as I’ve just put it, suggests that people seldom see any-and-all things so morally black and white as to conclude, “That is definitely wrong, and this is obviously right.” Sometimes, of course, but not all people always for all things. Everybody having an opinion – mine being mine, yours being yours, as the case may be – that’s still neither here nor there to the fact that every body has an opinion, mine being mine and yours being yours. On some things, we’ll agree while, on some things, we won’t.

At issue is the degree that I’m (un)able to make personal decisions about right and wrong, the degree that I might feel conspicuous, perhaps uneasy, even cornered or fearful – and wrong – as compared to feeling assured, supported, or proud, even sanctimonious – and right. Standing alone from the crowd can be, well… lonely. What’s more, having some innate sense of right and wrong doesn’t necessarily help me act, not if I feel alone, particularly not if I feel exposed. At that point, whether from peer pressure or social custom peering over my shoulder, the moral question about right and wrong can lapse into an ethical dilemma, the moral spectacle of my right confronted by some other right: would I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family? For me, morality is mediated (although not necessarily defined, as Hamlet suggests) by where one stands at that moment, by perspective, in which I include experience, education, relationships, and whatever values and beliefs one brings to the decisive moment. I’m implying what amounts to conscience as a personal measure for morality, but there’s that one more consideration that keeps intervening: community. Other people. Besides selfish me, everybody else. Selfless not me.

Since we stand so often as members of communities, we inevitably derive some values and beliefs from those pre-eminent opinions and long-standing traditions that comprise them. Yet I hardly mean to suggest that a shared culture of community is uniform – again, few matters are so black or white. Despite all that might be commonly held, individual beliefs comprising shared culture, if anything, are likely heterogeneous: it’s the proverbial family dinner table on election night. Even “shared” doesn’t rule out some differentiation. Conceivably, there could be as many opinions as people possessing them. What we understand as conscience, then, isn’t limited to what “I believe” because it still may not be so easy to disregard how-many-other opinions and traditions. Hence the need for discussion – to listen, and think – for mutual understanding, in order to determine right from wrong. Morality, in that sense, is concerted self-awareness plus empathy, the realised outcome of combined inner and outer influences, as we actively and intuitively adopt measures that compare how much we care about the things we face everyday.

Say we encounter someone enduring loss or pain. We still might conceivably halt our sympathies before falling too deeply into them: Don’t get too involved, you might tell yourself, you’ve got plenty of your own to deal with. Maybe cold reason deserves a reputation for callusing our decision-making, but evidently, empathy does not preclude our capacity to reason with self. On the other hand, as inconsistent as it might seem, one could not function or decide much of anything, individually, without empathy because, without it, we would have no measure. As we seem able to reason past our own feelings, we also wrestle echoing pangs of conscience that tug from the other side, which sometimes we call compassion or, other times, a guilt trip. Whatever to call it, clearly we hardly live like hermits, devoid of human contact and its resultant emotions. Right and wrong, in that respect, are socially individually determined.

One more example… there’s this argument that we’re desensitized by movies, video games, the TV news cycle, and so forth. For how-many-people, news coverage of a war-torn city warrants hardly more than the glance at the weather report that follows. In fact, for how-many-people, the weather matters more. Does this detachment arise from watching things once-removed, two-dimensionally, on a viewscreen? Surely, attitudes would be different if, instead of rain, it were shells and bombs falling on our heads from above. Is it no surprise, then, as easily as we’re shocked or distressed by the immediacy of witnessing a car accident on the way to our favourite restaurant, that fifteen minutes later we might conceivably feel more annoyed that there’s no parking? Or that, fifteen minutes later again, engrossed by a menu of appetizers and entrees and desserts, we’re exasperated because they’re out of fresh calamari. Are right and wrong more individually than socially determined? Have we just become adept at prioritising them, even diverting them, by whatever is immediately critical to individual well-being? That victim of the car accident isn’t nearly as worried about missing their dinner reservation.

Somewhat aside from all this, but not really… I partially accept the idea that we can’t control what happens, we can only control our response. By “partially” I mean that, given time, yes, we learn to reflect, plan, act, and keep calm carrying on like the greatest of t-shirts. After a while, we grow more accustomed to challenges and learn to cope. But sometimes what we encounter is so sudden, or unexpected, or shocking that we can’t contain a visceral response, no matter how accustomed or disciplined we may be. However, there is a way to take Hamlet’s remark about “thinking” that upends this entire meditation, as if to say our reaction was predisposed, even premeditated, like having a crystal ball that foresees the upcoming shock. Then we could prepare ourselves, rationalise, and control not what happens but our response to it while simply awaiting the playing-out of events.

Is Solomon wise to claim that we aren’t essentially or naturally selfish? Maybe he just travelled in kinder, gentler circles – certainly, he was greatly admired. Alas, though, poor Hamlet… troubled by jealousy, troubled by conscience, troubled by ignorance or by knowledge, troubled by anger and death. Troubled by love and honesty, troubled by trust. Troubled by religion, philosophy, troubled by existence itself. Is there a more selfish character in literature? He’s definitely more selfish than me! Or maybe… maybe Hamlet’s right, after all, and it really is all just how you look at things: good or bad, it’s really just a state of mind. For my part, I just can’t shake the sense that Solomon’s wrong about our innate selfishness, and for that, I guess I’m my own best example. So, for being unable to accept his claim, well, I guess that one’s on me.

Teaching Open-Mindedly in the Post-Truth Era

A year on, and this one, sadly, only seems more relevant…

[Originally published June 16, 2017]

I had brilliant students, can’t say enough about them, won’t stop trying. I happened to be in touch with one alumna – as sharp a thinker as I’ve ever met, and a beautiful writer – in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election campaign and wrote the following piece in response to a question she posed:

How do you teach open-mindedly in the post-truth era?

I was pleased that she asked, doubly so at having a challenging question to consider. And I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to compose a thoughtful reply.

I’ve revised things a little, for a broader audience, but the substance remains unchanged.

How do you teach open-mindedly in the post-truth era?

Good heavens. Hmm… with respect for peoples’ dignity, is my most immediate response. But such a question.

Ultimately, it takes two because any kind of teaching is a relationship – better still, a rapport, listening and speaking in turn, and willingly. Listening, not just hearing. But if listening (and speaking) is interpreting, then bias is inescapable, and there needs to be continual back-and-forth efforts to clarify, motivated by incentives to want to understand: that means mutual trust and respect, and both sides openly committed. So one question I’d pose back to this question pertains to the motives and incentives for teaching (or learning) ‘X’ in the first place. Maybe this question needs a scenario, to really illustrate details, but trust and respect seem generally clear enough.

Without trust and respect, Side ‘A’ is left to say, “Well, maybe some day they’ll come around to our way of thinking” (… that being a kind portrayal) and simply walks away. This, I think, is closed-minded to the degree that ‘A’ hasn’t sought to reach a thorough understanding (although maybe ‘A’ has). Whatever the case, it’s not necessarily mean-spirited that someone might say this. With the best intentions, ‘A’ might conclude that ‘B’ is just not ready for the “truth.” More broadly, I’d consider ‘A’s attitude more akin to quitting than teaching, which is to say a total failure to “teach”, as far as I define it from your question. It would differ somewhat if ‘A’ were the learner saying this vs being the teacher. In that case, we might conclude that the learner lacked motivation or confidence, for some reason, or perhaps felt alone or unsupported, but again… scenarios.

Another thing to say is, “Well, you just can’t argue with stupid,” as in we can’t even agree on facts, but saying this is certainly passing judgment on ol’ stupid over there, and perhaps also less than open-minded. To be clear… personally, I’d never say bias precludes truth, only that we’ll never escape our biases. The real trouble is having bias at all, which I think is what necessitates trust and respect because the less of these is all the more turmoil. I figure any person’s incentive to listen arises from whatever they think will be to their own benefit for having listened. But “benefit” you could define to infinity, and that’s where the post-truth bit is really the troublesome bit because all you have is to trust the other person’s interpretation, and they yours, or else not.

Yeah, I see “post-truth” as “anti-trust,” and that’s a powderkeg, the most ominous outcome arisen of late. People need incentives to listen, but if treating them with dignity and respect isn’t reaching them, then a positive relationship with me wasn’t likely what they wanted to begin with. That’s telling of the one side, if not both sides. At the same time, it’s harder to say in my experience that students have no incentives to listen or that, on account of some broader post-truth culture, they don’t trust teachers – that might be changing, who knows, but I hope not.

But I’m leaving some of your question behind, and I don’t want to lose sight of where it’s directed more towards the person doing the teaching (you asked, how do you teach open-mindedly…).

That part of the question was also in my immediate reaction: respect peoples’ dignity. For me, when I’m teaching, if I’m to have any hope of being open-minded, I intentionally need to respect the other person’s dignity. I need to be more self-aware, on a sliding scale, as to how open- or closed-minded I’m being just now, on this-or-that issue. So even while that’s empathy, it’s also self aware, and it’s intentional. It’s not “me” and “the other.” It’s “us.”

Me being me, I’d still be the realist and say you just can never really know what that other person’s motive truly is – whether it’s a pre-truth or post-truth world doesn’t matter. But whether or not you trust the other, or they you, the real valuable skill is being able to discern flaws of reason, which is what I always said about you – you’ve always been one to see through the bull shit and get to the core of something. I’m no guru or icon, I’m just me, but as I see it just now, the zeitgeist is an emotional one more than a rational one. And there’s plenty to understand why that might be the case. And given that emotional dominance, I do think post-truth makes the world potentially far more dangerous, as a result.

Whatever incentives people are identifying for themselves, these days, are pretty distinct, and that’s a hard one for unity. That saying about partisan politics – “We want the same things; we just differ how to get there” – that doesn’t apply as widely right now. So, by virtue of the other side being “the other” side, neither side’s even able to be open-minded beyond themselves because trust and respect are encased in the echo chambers. More than I’ve ever known, things have become distinctly divisive – partisan politics, I mean – and I wonder how much more deeply those divisions have room to cut. Selfish incentives cut the deepest. Trust and respect guard us from deep cuts.

So, for instance, lately I find with my Dad that I listen and may not always agree, but where I don’t always agree, he’s still my Dad, and I find myself considering what he says based on his longevity – he’s seen the historic cycle, lived through history repeating itself. And I obviously trust and respect my Dad, figuring, on certain issues, that he must know more than me. On other issues, he claims to know more. On others still, I presume he does. Based on trust and respect, I give him the benefit of the doubt, through and through. One of us has to give, when we disagree, or else we’d just continually argue over every disagreement. If you want peace, someone has to give, right? Better that both share it, but eventually one must acquiesce to their “doubt” and make their “benefit” finite, stop the cutting, compromise themselves, if they’re to see an end to the debate. So should I trust my Dad? I respect him because he’s given me plenty good reason after such a long time. Certainly I’m familiar with his bias, grown accustomed to it – how many times over my life have I simply taken his bias for granted? Too bad the rest of the world don’t get along as well as my Dad and I do.

I see it even more clearly with my daughter, now, who trusts me on account of (i) her vulnerability yet (ii) my love. The more she lives and learns alongside me, as time passes by, the more cyclically her outlook is reiterated, a bit like self-fulfilling prophecy. Other parents have warned me that the day’s coming when she’ll become the cynical teenager, and I’m sure it will – I remember going through it, myself. But I’m older, now, and back to respecting my Dad, so at least for some relationships, the benefit of the doubt returns. My Dad preceded me, kept different circles than me, and lived through two or three very different generations than me. Even as we see the same world, we kind of don’t. So this is what I wonder about that deep cut of division, reaching the level of family – and, further than one given family, right across the entire population. Do I fact-check my Dad, or myself, or maybe both? Should I? Even if I do, neither one of us is infallible, and we’re only as trustworthy as our fact-checking proficiency.

Anyway, the child of the parent, it’s as good an example as I can think of for questioning what it means to learn with an open mind because there’s no such thing as “unbiased.” Yet love, trust, and respect are hardly what we’d call “closed-minded,” except that they are, just in a positive way. Love, trust, and respect leave no room for scepticism, wariness, and such traits as we consider acceptable in healthy proportions (for reasons about motive that I explained above).

But “teaching” with an open-mind takes on so much more baggage, I think, because the teacher occupies the de facto as well as the de jure seat-of-power, at least early on – school is not a democracy (although that now seems to be changing, too). Yet teachers are no more or less trustworthy on the face of it than any other person. That’s probably most of all why I reduce my response to respecting human dignity because where it’s closed-minded, for all its “positive,” it’s also a do-no-harm approach.

That jibes with everything I’ve learned about good teaching, as in good teaching ultimately reduces to strong, healthy relationships. Short-term fear vs long-term respect – it’s obvious which has more lasting positive influence. And since influencing others with our bias is inevitable, we ought to take responsibility for pursuing constructive outcomes, or else it’s all just so much gambling. At the core, something has to matter to everybody, or we’re done.

Umm, This.

[Originally published June 11, 2017]

So, it’s interesting, listening to people talk these days, quite frankly, in terms of their words, their language, their speech. I have an issue with what everyone’s saying – not like everyone everyone but, you know, it’s just their actual words when they talk about complex issues and such, or like politics, what with the whole Trump thing, you know, that Russia probe and the Mueller investigation and everything that goes with that. I’m also a bit of a news hound, and that’s really where I started noticing this on-air style of speeching, of making it sound thoughtful and taking them seriously.

And it’s so much out there, like an epidemic or something, which is interesting, which speaks to on-line streaming and TV news, talk radio, and pretty much the whole 24-hour news cycle. I was a high school English teacher for sixteen years, and I also started noticing all this, you know, frankly, during class discussions, too. And there was me, like guilty as anyone.

Here’s the thing, though, because I guess substance will always be up for debate, but that’s just it – it’s so wide-ranging that it’s like people have no idea they’re even doing it, which is interesting. It’s almost like it’s the new normal, which really begs the question – are people getting dumber? Is education failing us? In terms of intelligent debate, that will always be something that probably might be true or false. And let’s have those conversations!

But in terms of intelligible debate, it’s interesting because, when I listen to how people are talking, it gets really interesting because when I listen what they actually say, it’s like they’re making it all up on the spot in the moment as they go, so it’s just that that makes me not as sure it’s intelligent as it’s less intelligible. But it’s all in a sober tone, and they’re just expressing their opinion, which is democracy.

And that’s the thing – if you challenge anybody with all what I’m saying, clarity-wise, it’s interesting, they’ll get all defensive and whatnot, like it’s a personal attack that you’re calling them stupid or whatever, like you’re some kind of Grammar Jedi.

And, I mean, I get that. So that’s where I think people don’t really get it because I totally get where they’re coming from.

Seriously, who would want to be called like not intelligent or anything all like that, whatever, especially if we’re trying to discuss serious world issues like the whole Russia thing that’s been happening or the environment or all the issues in China and the Middle East? Or terrorism and all? I mean, if you look at all that’s happening in the world right now, but you’re going to get that detailed of the way someone talks, maybe you should look in the mirror.

And I mean, SNL did the most amazingggggggggg job with all this, back in the day, with Cecily Strong on Weekend Update as The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party. Comedy-wise, she even like makes a point, but basically, she’s furthering on intelligence, except I’m talking about intelligibility. But still, if you haven’t seen it, what can I tell you? Your missing out, SO FUNNY. She. Is. Amazing.

And that’s the other thing, and this one’s especially interesting, is just how there’s just SO MUCH out there, what with Google and the Internet, and Wikipedia and all, so who could possibly be expected to know like every single detail about all the different political things or the economy and all the stuff that’s out there? And it’s even more with speaking because pretty much most people aren’t like writing a book or something. (W’ll, and that’s just it – nobody speaks the way they write, so… )

Anyway, so yeah, no, it’s interesting. At the end of the day, first and foremost, one of the most interesting things is that everybody deserves to have a say because that’s democracy. And I think that gets really interesting. But the world gets so serious, probs I just need to sit down. See the bright side, like jokey headlines from newsleader, Buzzfeed, or 2017’s “Comey Bingo” from FiveThirtyEight. Gamify, people! News it up! Nothing but love for the national media outlet that helps gets you wasted. Or the one about the viral tweet, for an audience intimately familiar with pop culture? News should be taken seriously, and the world faces serious aspects, for sure. But the thing is, work hard but party harder! I mean, we’re only here for a good time, not a long time!

And it’s interesting ‘cuz people seem to require more frequent, more intense, more repeated engagement, to spice up their attention spans. There’s some good drinking games, too, on that, because politicians! I know, right? But not like drunk drunk, just like happy drunk, you know? Not sure if all this counts as it means we’re getting dumber, per se, but it’s just interesting.

So, yeah, it’s interesting because we’ve come such a long way, and history fought for our freedom and everything, so I just really think going forward we should just really appreciate that, and all, you know?

Here’s Why. Here’s Precisely Why.

To all my students, and to whomever else wondered what and WHY I taught the stuff I did…

Has the unfolding story involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook got you considering whether or not to keep your Facebook account?

The details of this story illustrate precisely why our coursework took direct aim at raising the level of discourse.

What is the story? In a nutshell, Facebook permitted C.A. wide access to its users’ private data, without their consent. Authorities now suspect that C.A. used the data to affect political influence in various countries around the world, specifically by way of on-line advertisements and news stories, both factual and contrived. People were fed information tailored to appeal to them and challenged to discern the factual from the fictional.

Here are a sampling of reports about the story and its fallout, some of which has been severe.

 


The Story

The Guardian

Vox

The Global Significance

BBC News

Fox News

Fox News: Opinion

Al Jazeera: Opinion

CBC News: Opinion

CNN: Opinion


 

Raising the level of discourse is all about discerning and appreciating peoples’ motives, thereby helping to determine what people are after, in order to understand why they do what they do.

To my students, I am confident that our coursework has prepared you to face the kind of cognitive assault launched by C.A. on people across the world. For my part, I’m comfortable keeping my Facebook account open… for the time being, anyway!

To everybody else, yes, absolutely this post is a plug for raising the level of discourse, an approach I encourage all of you to consider.

Read more about my own general take on Facebook here.

On-line Comments: Worthwhile, Bile, or Just Futile

Updated: Aug. 16, 2017

This is like the wild west, kind of lawless.

Colette A. Wilt

 

On-line comments are not guns, they don’t kill people. And the people who wield them, as in write them, are not having a stand-off at high noon. On-line comments are not deadly but, boy, can they be deadly stupid.

They’re so very often uninformed, superficial, and emotionally driven as well as – frankly – bloody lazy. Plenty of opinions from plenty of people carrying free-speech chips on self-righteous shoulders. On-line comments, these days, are just another sign of the times.

“Just how many people bother to research and draft for a ‘Comments’ section response, anyway?”

Does it show I’m fed up with people trying to win personal pissing matches in the “Comments” section? Does it show? …people clawing their way to the top of some imagined pile of respect, in a community comprising whomever read the article – unless of course they only read the headline. Does it show? …the invective, the insults, the one-liner spree? Commenters affirming, negating, defending, attacking. Pointing out who’s so obviously wrong, what’s so evidently right. Commenters commenting, exercising their democracy, one comment at a time? On-line comments are the Twitter of– er, hmm, I’ll need some time to work on that one.

Of course I’m unable to say on-line comments kill people, but that’s not because they actually don’t kill people. It’s because, in the analogy, on-line comments are just the bullets. Computer keyboards would be the guns. And it’s still people pulling the trigger by pressing send – there’s got to be a triggering joke in here somewhere, I’m sure of it. For now, enough to say that guns don’t post comments, people do.

Time was when a letter-to-the-editor was the main public recourse. But sending one to your chosen publication was no guarantee of being published, or at least not published in full. But then came the Internet, the great equalizer. I can only suspect that, way back when, when that first on-line article permitted readers to leave comments, that the author or editor or publisher proudly lifted a glass of wine to rejoice the enabling of the public voice. One step forward for free speech. Here’s to democracy.

How often I’ve read an article, then followed up with the on-line comments, thinking, “I’d like a sense of the broader opinion out there, maybe encounter some different perspectives, pick up a hyperlink or two for this topic.” This does still happen, and it’s what makes on-line comments, for me, worthwhile. It also means I’m relying on the other commenters to offer anything of substance. But, obviously (…is it obvious?) substance doesn’t always just happen. Honestly, though, pretty naïve to expect that it would. And if you thought, in the sheer amount of comments for just one single article, that the law of averages would help, then you probably haven’t read too many on-line comments. They can far, far surpass the length of the article and illustrate far, far less than broader opinion or different perspectives or anything useful at all about the topic. Just as often they proliferate because somebody needed to win.

How often is someone’s on-line comment about the article as compared to that commenter seeking personal affirmation or recognition as some kind of uber-reliability source? How often does an on-line comment chain turn into a personal on-line shoving match? And how often has somebody replied along these lines: “You’re pretty tough when it’s not face-to-face…” ?

Nobody thinks they’re even beginning to solve the issue [whatever it is] in the on-line Comments section. Do they? At least, they couldn’t possibly think so when all they’ve written is a sentence or two, right? At least, when they’ve written sentences. But, unquestionably, essay-length on-line comments are the exception to the rule. Aren’t they? At least, they are in the Age of Twitter – wait, sorry, I already slammed Twitter. This time, I’ll go with Google making us stupid (not for the first time). By the way, even shortened attention spans have been called into question (have a look, neither’s a long read). My own sense, for what it’s worth, is that we attend to what stimulates us the most although – egregiously – I have no research to back my opinion, and if any of you trolls call me on that, I’ll comment you back. So just be warned. Gotta be almost time for that trigger joke.

Are people commenting when maybe they should be writing an article of their own? Would that be too much responsibility to bear? to ask? Would writing an article require too much effort? People seem to care enough to leave a comment yet not enough to offer something more substantive than a line or two, or a paragraph the odd time. Even a few paragraphs, that one time by that one person, but anything truly edited for cohesion – are you kidding, what are we, journalists? How many of us are writers, period, much less paid ones? Heaven forbid anyone be expected to offer more than a few lines of opinion masquerading as oh-such-obvious-fact, or a one-liner, or a dogmatic tirade! (Yes, I not only see the irony, I intended it.) Leave all that responsibility crap for whoever else. Whomever, actually, but that would mean caring.

Who are you, anyway, that you’d present yourself in so superficial a manner as on-line comments yet expect to be taken seriously? Who are you, that you’d conflate your real-life person with your on-line persona in such a way where one belies the other? Which one is demonstrating the true you? Who are you, to be taking this so personally right now when, in fact, right now I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt? Cynicism aside, everyone can think – hence my frustration. If on-line comments suggest anything, they suggest that emotion rules, not thinking.

Don’t misconstrue – thinking and emotion both occur, but by default (I’d say), emotion controls thinking more than the other way around. Far more rarely does rationality show up beyond the article itself, if even there.

Below is an edited chain of comments that I cut & pasted from an NPR article posted to Facebook, about the bombing of the Manchester arena following the Ariana Grande concert in 2017.

To be precise, these comments that I cut & pasted are from the Facebook post, not NPR’s website. I also present these comments as a single, focused discussion when, in fact, other peoples’ semi-related comments had appeared in between some of these, responding to still other people. But the way comments appear is evidently controlled more by their time stamp, when they were posted, than by which person’s receiving a reply in the thread. So, in selecting only these comments here, I tried to maintain the direct discussion between particular people, back and forth. Finally, I’ve published their Facebook names with hyperlinks because all this is publicly published anyway, and nobody’s owed any shelter.

Rather than take sides, see if you can read this thread to understand my point, the futility of trying to solve such grand issues in a Comments section, the pointlessness of on-line comments in general. (Yes, I see the irony in having my own Comments section below. I even intended it.)

Ask of each comment, and each commenter…

  • what, really, is the motive behind this comment getting not just written but posted?
  • what, really, is the response that this person…
    • believes for themselves?
    • presumes from the other person?
    • seeks from anyone else (like us) who may be reading?

Read not only with self-awareness but with other-awareness, with empathy. But please resist taking sides on the issues, irrespective of your own feelings, because the point here is the comments having been crafted and shared, not the terror incident or the politics that are introduced. A tangential point is to acknowledge that it’s possible and sometimes productive to keep our feelings and our rationality separate.

 


The Thread

James Alford What a great freedom festival! I just don’t know what we’d do without all the freedom that comes with unfettered access to semiautomatic weapons. Thanks for sharing this awesome display of our enviable freedom!

How do other nations cope without our awesome brand of freedom?! I mean, other than longer life expectancy, ultra low crime rates, drastically lower prison populations, and better overall quality of life.

Yep. Would never wanna swap my bullet-y freedom for any of that.

Scott Macleod How are the Ariana Grande concerts in places without freedom?

James Alford Scott, they do have WAY less freedom, don’t they?! They only have 0.23 gun homicides per 100,000. We have almost 11!!! Murkah!

Scott Macleod James, that is a meaningless statistic. Here I’ll show you:

Last year cars killed:
Switzerland 269
Israel 263
Sweden 285
Norway 145
Australia 1,299
Canada 2,075
United States 36,166

Deaths from drowning, children under 14:
Switzerland 3
Israel 8
Sweden 4
Norway 1
Australia 33
Canada 28
United States 548

Deaths from alcohol per year:
Switzerland 1,600
Israel n/a
Sweden 2,222
Norway 1,016
Australia 5,554
Canada 8,100
United States 88,000

The United States is an outlier on all of these. You can do the same breakdown with antibiotics. You can do it with hot water heaters. Or with deaths from bees. And the US will have higher death rates.

Jacqui Parker Percentages based on overall population would make more sense in your example.

Seth Martin Did anyone in this thread actually read the article?

Scott Macleod The numbers don’t change when broken down per capita. The US is still an outlier. Know why? Because deaths from X will always be higher in countries with more X. Determining causality is much more complicated. Would taking X away eliminate those deaths? Or would X just be substituted for something else and what would have been deaths from X become deaths from Y? This is what’s important.

Jim Chan Total death doesn’t equal to death rate. What are you a 2nd grader?

Scott Macleod Jim, see comment above. Per capita break down does not change the analysis.

Amon-Raa Valencia Scott Macleod the replacement theory can be checked by looking at life expectancy.

Do the countries you point out have higher life expectancy than the US?

James Alford I’m afraid you’re unacquainted with how percentages work, Scott.

If I have 10 tomatoes in my garden, and 2 of them are rotten, and you have 10,000 tomatoes, and 200 of them are rotten, then my problem is still 10 times bigger than yours, even though you have 100 times more rotten tomatoes.

Find a local 5th grader. He’ll be happy to provide more illustrations.

Wesley D. Stoner So Scott Macleod, in your example, if X = guns then the US logically has more gun deaths because there are more guns, right? Where do you think I am going next….

Scott Macleod So by that logic, James, those other countries have the same problem the US does from guns? Please respond without insults.

Scott Macleod <<Scott Macleod the replacement theory can be checked by looking at life expectancy.

Do the countries you point out have higher life expectancy than the US?>>

Other factors go into determining life expectancy. Access to healthcare for example.

James Alford Nevermind, Scott. The original stat said it all. The U.K. (who you brought up) has a gun homicide rate 44 times lower than ours. If you can’t grasp that incredibly straightforward piece of empirical data, then we don’t have a starting point.

Chris Toscano James Alford, you have unlocked Master Troll Level 99. Fine work sir! Look at all the ammosexuals that you have up in arms.

Carrie Anne 😂Ammosexuals

Margaret Moore Bennett Scott Macleod, I am a statistics teacher, you show a basic lack of understanding for how statistics work. You are a poster child for why the GOP is successful with the un and under-educated.

Scott Macleod <<Nevermind, Scott. The original stat said it all. The U.K. (who you brought up) has a gun homicide rate 44 times lower than ours. If you can’t grasp that incredibly straightforward piece of empirical data, then we don’t have a starting point.>>

A) Again, this stat is meaningless. It tells us nothing about causality or how public policy changes the death rates.

B) Those are GUN death rates. Of course a country with 330 million GUNS is going to have higher death rates from GUNS. Just like a country with greater access to antibiotics has more deaths from antibiotics. It tells us nothing about whether antibiotics or guns are good or bad for society.

Scott Macleod How about explaining it to me Margaret rather than resorting to ad hominem and appeals to authority?

Scott Macleod I am not uneducated. I am not a republican. There’s two misses. What are the odds your third claim that I demonstrate a lack of understanding for statistics is correct.

David Houghton Well, you led with raw numbers and not per capita numbers. Not exactly putting your best foot forward on the stats front.

Tandy Fitzgerald Scott Macleod does that mean a US citizen is more reckless when it comes to driving that the rest of the world and less aware when it comes to their children swimming or less aware of health issues and oblivious to the affects of alcohol? Man US citizens really do prefer to live on the edge far more than anyone else in the world…I guess freedom has more prices then just serving in the military.

Scott Macleod I led with what I had available to copy and paste to demonstrate what I was getting at. I agree it would have been better to break them down per capita. Alas, I’m on my phone and these comments move quickly.

Normally when you see this argument, though, it involves raw numbers. As I have said, what I was illustrating does not change when broken down per capita.

Nick Lucas Scott Macleod My favorite part about your posts is that you are trying to dismiss data because of your claims of causality but you make your first statement of the Ariana Grande concert without the same rule of thought.

What gun would have somehow stopped that bomb from exploding? Why didn’t a person with a gun stop the OK bombing or Boston bombing?

This is the problem with bias is we tend to not be able to apply the same logic to our own beliefs that we do others we disagree with.

Michael Dugger Scott Macleod no gun would’ve have stopped a silent bomb carrier Scott.

Scott Macleod Nick, my original comment was a quip. It was a snarky counter to the OP. I feel like you are reading too much into it.

Nevertheless, it does illustrate what I mentioned earlier. When X is not available, people will substitute with Y and nearly the same amount of people would likely die anyway. Why commit suicide with a $500 gun when you can do it with $3 of rope? Looking at guns only is a disingenuous way of looking at the problem. To be sincere, we would need to look at all homicides to determine causality.

I have not made the claim that access to guns will stop bombings.

Bill Melton “Would it make you happier, little girl, if they were pushed out of a seventh floor window?” Archie Bunker

Jenny Caldwell Scott Macleod Those aren’t death rates, those are simply the numbers of deaths. Death rates are population-based, i.e. # of deaths by drowning/1000. US death *rates* by gun violence are indeed much higher than other countries.

Paul Errman James Alford go cry yourself a river. When their violent crime rate drops and they actually have a population of over 300 million call us.

Onica Annika Scott Macleod you can’t take a gun into a concert permit or not. Stupid example.

Onica Annika Scott Macleod Snowflake are you triggered? 😂😂

Scott Macleod <<Scott Macleod you can’t take a gun into a concert permit or not. Stupid example.>>

I never said you could or that you should. Why are you bringing this irrelevant insight into the conversation?

Scott Macleod <<Scott Macleod Those aren’t death rates, those are simply the numbers of deaths. Death rates are population-based, i.e. # of deaths by drowning/1000. US death *rates* by gun violence are indeed much higher than other countries.>>

I know this. I never disagreed. US death rates by gun violence are higher. I never claimed otherwise. What I dispute is the significance of this information.

Scott Macleod We also have higher death RATES due to drowning, alcohol consumption, motor vehicle accidents, and a whole host of other phenomena. Why?

Looking at RATES and ignoring all other factors gives people a misleading glimpse into reality.

Andrew Scribner NUMBERS HURT BRAIN!!

Doug Bolantis https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ooa98FHuaU0

Choose Your Own Crime Stats

Onica Annika Scott Macleod YOU WROTR “How are the Ariana Grande concerts in places without freedom? 👌🏻”
By comparing the bombing in Manchester to carrying guns and implying people would be safer at concerts WITH GUNS is how THIS WAS BROUGHT UP.

You cannot shoot a suicide bomber without expecting to have an explosion. It would have made absolutely NO DIFFERENCE!


 

Next are comments following NPR’s report on two bounty hunters who engaged a fugitive at a car dealership in Texas, also in 2017 and also posted to Facebook.

 


The Next Thread

Jonathan Fitzgerald So I’m starting to get a little pissed by all this bounty hunter bashing. While a little rough around the edges. Boba Felt was a pretty decent guy. And could tell some great jokes, once he got a few drinks in him. Cad Bane was a generous and loving fellow. He was known to work at the soup kitchens all the time. So chill out. They aren’t ALL bad.

Candy Ellman Johannes That may be but when you see the video it’s quite clear that the two bounty hunters handled the situation very badly. Because they were like that doesn’t mean they were good at their JOB. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. Just that they shouldn’t have been handling this job.

Jonathan Fitzgerald I think you have never heard of Star Wars or a joke.

Isaac Unson Wow, what a tragic and visceral story! Should I maybe post a comment to spur discussion about bounty hunting, or the lack of consideration for things going south very badly?

Nahhhh, that’s original content worthy of discussion. Why not just be cynical and predictable instead and make the usual jokes about guns?

Russell Good It’s fitting this happened in a death merchants offices. More people are killed with vehicles, than anything else, and yet anyone can buy a car without a background check. Unlicensed drivers and unregistered vehicles are hurtling past the innocent in their thousands at this very minute. When will we stop the insanity?

Candy Ellman Johannes A death merchant? No, they’re not. They can’t control how someone is going to drive the cars they buy. And a background check will not tell you how they will do that. Just drive around our community in Texas and you will see a lot of idiots on the road. Most of whom would clear any background check you might think they should conduct.

Patrick Oleary Bounty hunters, we don’t need their scum!

Dan Varns Right, the bounty hunters are the bad guy, not the wanted criminal who assaulted a police officer. Got it. Brilliant, take you all day to come up with that??

Patrick Oleary Dan Varns whooooosh

Marc Brown Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold

Kristopher Danger Why read the article when I can just comment about how much I don’t like or understand firearms?

Isaac Unson Nah, that required critical thinking!

PaulandCarla Todaro Why would anyone want to watch that? Why would you tell us to? So sad that we can watch such violence and then continue to scroll.

Marcus Harrison You idiots this wasn’t about exercising freedom.You people are so stupid!

Christopher Hill How do libtards turn this into a gun control argument


 

I hardly even know where to begin with either discussion. The responses, pardon the pun, speak for themselves, from the aggressors to the defenders to the cooler heads to the comic relief. I don’t even say “aggressors” and “defenders” with any political bent so much as simply noting name-calling and tone. The fact that one person or another, with [whichever] political beliefs, is the aggressor or the defender, here, is not my point, which is why I cautioned to read without taking sides – everybody can be mean-spirited or good-willed, aggressive or defensive. My point is that everybody can also think and listen and reflect, if only they wish to do so, which means more targeted effort and more controlled emotional reaction.

The futility of quoted statistics, which are then attacked and defended, as are the people themselves, in a forum that is informal and, for the most part, unmonitored (perhaps beyond hate speech or something that Facebook would moderate) …what’s the point of it all? Once these people close their browsers, what does each one feel he or she has accomplished? If little to nothing, then why even participate? If something more, then who besides themselves is measuring their effectiveness and, anyway, to what end? And who besides themselves even has a right to judge their effectiveness, especially since this cast of characters – evidently – would have plenty more to say about being judged, and we just kick-start another thread!

How many of you just now reading saw either of these comment threads before reading them here in my post? Which audience needs to see these threads, and why?

Are Comments sections some kind of exercise of free speech? If so, are they worth the trouble? On-line comments are not always anonymous, but they’re also not face-to-face, and that’s perhaps most significant here as to the point of being responsible and thorough before posting something regarding another person. However, it’s most significant in both positive and negative ways – positive because we owe the other person enough dignity to offer them an intelligent reply that respects their point of view, and negative because we can insult the bastard without (likely) ever feeling some physical repercussion. At the opening, I called on-line commenters lazy. Maybe they’re cowardly, too.

Geez, how seriously am I taking this? They’re just blog comments, for goodness’ sake!

 

Oh please, it’s a comments section not a peer-reviewed journal.

Christ, man

 

Here’s another partial comment thread, cut & pasted from The Atlantic website, this time without any comments removed from in between – these are consecutive responses to an article about America’s intellectual decline – a topic not too dissimilar from this very post, even though I disagree in detail with a number of the writer’s claims. However, again, the point here is not to debate the issues. It’s to note the motives and tone behind the comments.

 


The Last Thread

Assistantref

“but also because Christianity, for example, made Western civilization a possibility in the first place.”

What a truly odd assertion. What is your basis for it?

Duncan Tweedy

Start with Gutenberg. Then move on to education, art, medicine, culture, and philosophy. Don’t forget Martin Luther and Henry VIII.

Yes the Greeks and Arabs and others made their contributions. But how did those contributions find their way to becoming building blocks for Western Civ? Via the Romans (Christians by the end) and the Crusades (Christian holy wars). For centuries it was literate clergymen who preserved the ancient knowledge which would eventually set the stage for the Enlightenment.

Like it or not, Christianity is at least as inextricably entwined with the building of Western Civilization as any other influence one could name.

It’s truly odd that you find this overwhelmingly obvious fact truly odd.

David

No, Christianity made western civilization what it is today. It’s not what made it possible. However, we can never know what it would look like had Christianity not exerted the power it did.

Duncan Tweedy

In other news, if your Mom had chosen a different man to be your father, not only can we never know what you’d look like today–it wouldn’t in fact be you. That child might well not have even existed.

Europe’s faced many existential threats over the millennia. Change just a few events, and Western Civilization wouldn’t have survived. Subtract Christianity, and there’s a strong chance the region becomes conquered by neighboring civilizations, and never even develops the thing we now call Western Civilization.

And that’s as far as I need to go chasing after this particularly nonsensical counter-factual.

David

exactly, it’s a counter factual, no need to chase it.

Duncan Tweedy

“exactly, it’s a counter factual, no need to chase it.”

Asking what might have happened if different decisions had been made is often vital to understanding historical events. Although the process is inherently fraught with ambiguity, it’s a valid exercise.

Your reply makes it seem like perhaps you don’t grasp the purpose of a counter-factual.

This counter-factual is nonsensical. Not all of them are.

David

yes I understand that as well. This is getting a little exasperating. My only point in this was that one cannot attribute western civilization’s existence to christianity. At most, one can say that christianity was instrumental in the history and current state of western civilization.


 

Had David simply crafted a more thorough reply to begin with, as he indicates in the final response of this chain, he might have pre-empted all these back-and-forth remarks. More complete remarks might have stirred new ideas, better avenues for discussion, alternatives for research, and just a more thorough model for others to consider. And, sure, where his exchange with Duncan Tweedy was essentially civil and pain-free, he has still made the potential for a bunch of negative things to occur…

(i) people might have accepted his cursory remarks, thereby reinforcing (albeit superficially) their own beliefs in that echo-chamber kind of way

(ii) people might have rejected his cursory remarks, thereby reinforcing (albeit superficially) their own beliefs in that polarising kind of way

(iii) people might have misread, misunderstood, misconstrued, or otherwise missed the context of his remarks and, additionally, might have failed to follow up this thread as far as the point where I have cut & pasted it here

(iv) as a result of (ii) or (iii), people might have grown upset or angry with his cursory remarks and taken him on with vitriol, or worse, simply have begun insulting him outright, neither of which contributes to any constructive progress but, rather, destructive regress and both of which inspire ill feelings that those people now carry into everyday life, and which might later be echoed – on-line or off-line – by still others

(v) some other outcome I haven’t mentioned

Had David afforded more time and thought to (a) the kind of response that could adequately convey his thinking, and also (b) the kinds of responses he might elicit from people who read his remarks if he were to write them this way or that way, then he wouldn’t have responded the way we find here. Yet it hardly seems worth critiquing these, or any, on-line comments at all, they’re so ubiquitous! Yes, I see the irony; in fact, I intended it.

Just how many people bother to research and draft for a “Comments” section response, anyway? The whole concept of the on-line “Comments” section seems tailor-made to evade the vetting and sober second-thought of taking a breath and waiting the requisite 24 hours before responding to messages we don’t like. I’d pay $49 for the t-shirt that reads, “Who took the ‘Editor’ out of ‘Letter to the Editor’? Send me $50 and I’ll tell you.”

Obviously, the question is not how many bother to research and draft. It’s not even a question of whether to bother researching and drafting. It’s a question of whether to bother engaging in the on-line comments, to begin with. And I describe it as “bother” because research and drafting mean “work,” i.e. “What a blasted bother!” as in making a deliberate driven effort versus the blurt of perfunctory emotional reaction, which has always been a human foible and which, these days, seems even that much more common.

All that bother for… what, exactly? For someone to reply with one-line invectives? Who are we trying to reach, on-line? And, in light of that, who are we trying to be?

“Who are you on-line? The person versus the persona – it’s a concept worth considering.”

We’re all still responsible for the things we say, especially when they get published, and especially when “published” now means forever to be seen on-line (a consideration discussed here as well) – a newspaper or a book might at least fall out of print or get tossed in the trash. We might consider being responsible for the writing of an article, so why not for the offering of a comment? All the people I’ve quoted here have plenty to offer, I suspect, given their apparent literacy. But taking the time and resources at their disposal and using them in a more constructive way evidently hasn’t happened. Can that be changed?

What incentive would motivate these, or any, people to offer more when commenting on-line? Do people care about a growing reputation, however much or little it permeates the Cloud of e-culture? Who do they think they are? Who do they think that we think they are? Do they even care what others think they are? Do they care, themselves? There’s so little accountability, no formal editing or vetting as might be found in print publication, aside from moderation, as I’ve said, and that often simply automated. Sometimes there’s a log-in procedure via Facebook or Disqus, say, for whatever assurance that offers. It allowed me to publish selected commenters, here.

“Who are we on-line?” asks Flora the Explorer. It’s a question worth considering before we ever touch a keyboard. So, okay: who are you on-line? The person versus the persona – it’s a concept worth considering since I suspect 99% of on-line commenters will never meet their fellows face-to-face. Yet, precisely because of that physical separation, I suspect few care to consider (or even just bother to actively recognise?) this concept. Yes, that’s ironic, and it’s a shame. If people did care more (or at least actively acknowledge?) the fact that dialogue comprises more than self, how much more might a conversation yield? As it is, on-line dynamics affect our selves so subtly yet profoundly that the Internet, the great democratic equalizer, is proving its ability to take us one step forward and two steps back.

Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef
Who’s who? The more we conflate our Person with our Persona, the more care we must take to be honest about who we are presenting as ourselves. Having integrity has to mean more than having strong opinions, or talented chops. These three were willing to pose for a candid moment as something other-than-pretend (i.e. as themselves!) not merely because they could distinguish persona from person but, presumably, because they respected and even liked each other – go figure…

In and of themselves, given their entire context including their culture, article & blog comments tend to run the risk of oversimplifying issues that warrant and deserve far greater diligence and time spent in meaningful appreciation. They deserve… really? Why? Well, for starters, somebody published an article about [whatever it was], so now it’s out there for public consideration. Moreover, somebody decided that publishing [whatever it was] was worth the bother, and like you and me and everyone, that somebody deserves some basic dignity and respect, whether we ultimately agree with their published material or not. At a minimum, that requires reading the article, if not subsequently researching a bit more. Beyond that, it requires crafting responses of your own that do right by the author who invested the time and effort to create an article worthy of your comment – not “worthy” because you agree but “worthy” because you bothered to respond. Boy, all this bother! Why bother?

This entire blog is a response not unlike what I suggest here – like anyone, I can’t cover it all in one go, but at the least, I can offer something more than a one-liner. The rest of you deserve that much, as I deserve likewise from the rest of you. So, in fact, it is about deserving: if one deserves, then all deserve – either no one is above any other, as far as it involves basic respect for human dignity, or we’re all of us bound for war, waged by all upon all.

For the record, this time I’m not trying to be ironic. This time, it’s all too serious.

If people considered article & blog comments as I’ve tried to frame them here, as a matter of respect for human dignity, then comments – and public discourse, altogether – could be a whole lot different, and probably more constructive. Instead of comments, maybe people would compose entire articles of their own, which I remember is what Internet apologists used to boast: “The platform of the Internet is the great equalizer!” and “The Internet gives everyone a voice!” and “The Internet is democracy at its finest!” …that sort of thing. Shame that so many decide, instead, to use it superficially, far beneath both its potential as well as their own.

So, please, follow up on your own, comment and post, publish and be responsible. Contribute constructively. Most importantly, be thoughtful and thorough because that’s respectful of everybody else’s time and effort and bother. No one can cover every single detail, and every person has two cents to add of their own. But don’t be fooled by that miniscule metaphor – two cents refers to humility, so please make an effort to offer more than a reactive outburst.

Thanks, everybody, for leaving whatever considered comments you might have, and don’t let the end of this post be the end of your opinion.

Catch-22: A Masterpiece by Joseph Heller

WARNING! This post is an analysis and celebration of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, and it DOES contain PLOT SPOILERS. If you wish to read the novel for the first time, do not read this post.

“Give the first twelve chapters a chance” has long been my advice to anyone who asks about Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s modernist masterpiece that critiques the absurdity of the military during wartime. If you haven’t read the book, I will hardly spoil things by explaining how eagerly we witless first-timers set out to read such a lauded modern classic, only to be confronted by what might be the most frustrating paragon of show-versus-tell in existence. (However, I will be discussing spoiler details from here on, so be warned.) From the seemingly disparate chapter titles to the disjointed narrative, which repeatedly folds back upon itself, from a maddeningly mirthful plot device, which tempts you to toss the book aside and deny its existence, to an irresolute closing – if you make it that far – the book continually challenges readers to deduce what’s happening and piece together what’s happened. Toss in what seems like an endless cadre of characters, ranging from odder to oddest to perhaps not so odd, the book is a challenge, no question.

For seven years, I assigned this book as summer reading for returning seniors. Oh, how the students complained about those twelve chapters – excessive! pointless! irritating! – only to feel more aggrieved at hearing, “Exactly,” my necessary reply. Once the venting subsided – usually at least half the first lesson – we’d begin discussing why Heller’s book could only be written this way as compared to some more conventional, accessible way.

For one thing, we need to meet the protagonist, Yossarian, and understand his circumstances so that, at appropriate upcoming times, which of course will have already occurred, we won’t criticise but will instead favour him. To this end, the entire story is told out-of-sequence, opening apparently in media res during Yossarian’s hospital stay. We have character introductions and letter censoring, foreshadowing how words and language will be manipulated while characters will be isolated, alienated, and demeaned. Subsequently, we learn the logic of Catch-22 from Doc Daneeka. And that Snowden dies. If we’ve navigated the twelve opening chapters and lived to tell about it, we learn that Yossarian, originally a young, excited airman, once needed two passes over a target in order to bomb it successfully, which gets his crewmember, Kraft, killed. Yossarian is further distressed upon returning when he receives a medal for the mission. Meanwhile, Milo opens his syndicate. The tension of tedium, the injustice of fortune. The folly of command, the depravity of humankind. Capping the story is the gruesome account of Snowden’s death, the key incident that incites Yossarian’s fear and lands him in hospital, where we first meet him – naturally, Heller waits until the end to tell us the beginning.

Heller writes with an absurd, illogical narrative style that characterises Yossarian’s internal eternal predicament, wending its way through isolation, alienation, discord, misery, paranoia, fear, senselessness, deception, vice, cruelty, even rape and murder. Catch-22 being what it is, its victims have zero-chance to overcome because the antagonists are permitted to do whatever the protagonists are unable to prevent. All along the way, Heller has Yossarian wanting out of the military (fly no missions = live), and he continually ups the ante between Yossarian and all the disturbing confrontations and contradictions that antagonise him, from his enemies and his commanders to his acquaintances and his comrades. But ultimately, and most potently, he has Yossarian suffering from his own self-interest. As the narrative flits and tumbles about, in its own progressive way, Yossarian’s self-interest evolves or, better to say, devolves. What does evolve, inversely to self-interest, is his compassion as he gradually grows more concerned for the men in his squadron, and which by Chapter 40, “Catch-22,” has extended to all innocent people beset by oppression, prejudice, and exploitation. So when Colonel Cathcart’s promised deal to send him home safely, definitely, comes ironically (fittingly!) at the expense of the squadron, Yossarian ultimately recovers enough self-reliance to overcome his personal anguish but not enough to remand himself to the cycle of absurdity. Given Heller’s dispersed timeline, describing Yossarian’s character development as a narrative arc or an evolution is less accurate than the piecing together of a jigsaw or the unveiling of a secret.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Yossarian’s instinct for self-preservation is the source of his personal torment. His despondency and disgust over the preponderance of all human self-interest finally turn Yossarian’s decision to go AWOL, at criminal risk but personal safety. That such a climax works is because readers – like Yossarian – are no longer fighting back but giving in, yet even then Heller offers no respite – the story ends ambiguously, leaving readers to satisfy their own vexation. Even so, I suspect that Heller appreciated John Chancellor’s life-imitating-art intiative as one inspired by more than a spirit of fandom. So where some characters have been subjects of compassion, others agents of absurdity, readers’ resultant responses have also undergone a perfectly natural evolution, mirroring Yossarian’s character development and culminating with his terrifying walk through Rome. The horrors of “The Eternal City,” in this light, are not only an essential but an inevitable piece in Heller’s plan.

Yossarian’s shall-we-say militant decision to desert is borne of Snowden’s ugly death during the Avignon mission, only a week after the death of Kraft and the award of Yossarian’s medal. Seeing Snowden’s innards spilling rudely from his body nauseates Yossarian and haunts him throughout the entire (or, from Yossarian’s perspective, for the rest of) the story. Yossarian, inset by Heller on behalf of soldiers as a protagonist, has no way of making things better. His futile effort at comfort, “There, there” (p. 166), is comically insincere for its honest helplessness, an understated shriek from all soldiers continually sent to face death – not death without context but without resonance. However, for Yossarian and his comrades, the context of sacrifice is all too irrationally clear: thanks very much. Catch-22. Soldiers face the dilemma of following orders that entirely devalue their very existence.

Participation as a soldier offends Yossarian to the core, yet it also helps him to reconcile his fear over death: “… man is matter,” finite, mortal and – without spirit – simply “garbage.” In fact, this sentence sums human worth as a blunt statement: “The spirit gone, man is garbage” (p. 440). Six words of sad, harsh consequence, war, no longer wearing a comic mask. The absolute phrase, a terse syntactical effect, annuls man’s significance – spirited briefly, gone abruptly, an empty corporeal body left over, garbage. Garbage is a harsh image – rotting flesh, buzzing flies, scum, residue, stench. Pessimism, cynicism, worthlessness. On such terms, one wonders whether anyone might willingly die to save themselves, as it were, another troubling revelation engineered by a masterpiece of unprosaic illogic. Yet even on this point, Heller’s genius is flawless. Haunting though it is, Snowden’s death gradually reveals to Yossarian the very path to life and safety that he has pursued ever since the opening chapter in the hospital – which is to say, ever since Snowden’s death drove him there in the first place.

This is why Heller refers to Snowden’s death, specifically his entrails, as a “secret” because to reveal it any earlier would be to end the novel. And he calls it Snowden’s “grim secret” to illustrate Yossarian’s suppressed mental anguish. Heller has Yossarian recall Snowden a number of times, each admitting more detail, each growing more vivid, each driving him a little closer to his final resolution. Heller’s portrayal of Yossarian’s traumatised memories in this way suggests the nightmarish flashbacks that people, particularly soldiers, endure following the horrors of war. His final flashback in Chapter 41, “Snowden”, is prompted when Yossarian wards off the mysterious stranger in – where else? – the hospital. It’s most revelatory for Yossarian – and readers, by extension – because, here at the end of his patchy, appalling flashbacks, he is finally secure enough to divine for himself – or is it to admit to us? – the grim secret found in Snowden’s entrails. In the same way, the climax is most revelatory for readers who – at the mercy of Heller’s dispersed narrative structure – have been made to wait until the closing, when the time is finally ripe.

To get there, we are dragged unwittingly by Heller down a path of frustrating sympathy, illogical absurdity, and agonising anticipation. By the time Yossarian is introduced (in the opening chapter!) censoring letters and conniving a way to escape the war, he is that much nearer to desertion than we can yet know. Certainly, Snowden will convince us to desert as surely as he convinces Yossarian, but that will happen later, after Heller has aggravated our tolerance and mottled our innocence. Heller must drag us down Yossarian’s agonising path, or else he places us at risk of passing premature judgment upon not merely his protagonist but his entire message. Finally, when the moment arrives that we gather full appreciation of Snowden’s death, we have all we need to share in the vindication of Yossarian’s desertion.

So here is our way to grasp the grim secret behind the novel’s dissembling structure as restlessly and imperturbably as Yossarian does: the root of conflict, Snowden’s death, can only occur at the end of Heller’s narrative path, not Yossarian’s. The story simply works no other way.