Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Lost Perspective

For those who haven't keyed in yet on my MO, I like to approach a point from several angles, trying to weave in connections to other ideas that occupy me. It might seem repetitive (there are thoughts below that you've seen a number of times here), but I'm building momentum via multiple running starts, hoping to crash through to further insight. The following ties together several familiar Slog points in a fresh way, though you may need to read it a couple times to fully follow the thread.

Human beings compress extremes. We regress toward means. In plain language, we narrow our perspective, which means we "clip" the ends of the scale, mentally compressing extremes into a nondescript paste. When every bad thing is The Worst Thing and every good thing is The Best Thing, there's no room to accommodate the exceptional on either side.

If I served you a freezer burnt slice of toast alongside a mound of barbed wire Parmigiana, you'd quickly (if temporarily) acquire a keen appreciation for the vast terrain between "Bad" and "Worse". But serve someone just the toast, and they'll grimace, describing their displeasure with extravagant superlatives. Extremes are hazy until a concrete example gets shoved in our faces to restore perspective.

For another example, a few weeks ago, I noted that “crazy and stupid” is not evil.
“Crazy and stupid” is awful, corrosive, exasperating. It seems like The Worst Possible Thing. But it’s not. There is genuine evil in the world, so anyone (including the crazy and stupid) who’d never imagine going out of their way to deliberately harm is a “5” at very least.

A person can be nasty, selfish, derelict, uncompromising, unreasonable, willfully ignorant, and astoundingly unpleasant without scratching a nanometer toward actual evil. They can inadvertently ruin lives and knock over every worthy thing without being evil. The end result of “crazy and stupid” may be indistinguishable from the end result of evil, but intentions do matter.

All non-evil people are on our team, and that, alas, includes “crazy and stupid”. “Crazy and stupid” is the bottom rung of acceptability, not the bottom rung of humanity by a very long shot.
Crazy/stupid feels like the absolute worst, yet it’s only half-way to serious badness. Perspective gets compressed!

Similarly, George W Bush once seemed like a malevolent boob for many of us who presently view him as a flawed-but-menschy statesman now that we find ourselves balls deep in the Donald Trump Experience. Yet, as I recently wrote, Trump himself is perfectly typical of the sort of vulgar, vain, shallow, narcissistic, ignorant, racist men who’ve run most every institution in the world for thousands of years. He only strikes us as appalling because we've compressed the extremes. We've lost perspective.

In fact, GWB was a “7” (I'd give Obama an "8.25"), Trump’s a “4” , and if we ever landed ourselves a “3”, let alone a "1" or "2", Trump would seem as mild as freezer burnt toast (and GWB would be compared to Lincoln, ‘cuz we’d be compressing the other end) - at least for a moment, while the difference was shoved in our faces.

This is more of the perceptual framing I keep going on about. It’s endlessly lithe, and that's ordinarily a good thing. But without a firm baseline, mere displeasure - for us wealthy, comfortable First Worlders living in a Utopia too sublime for our ancestors to even dream of - strikes us as OMG THE WORST NIGHTMARE I AM SO STRESSED FROWNY FACE FROWNY FACE because our president's a typical vapid boss when we expect only above-average experiences. We compress perspective.
Standard disclaimer: I detest Trump. But, per this very posting, that doesn't make him The Worst Thing Ever. Refusal to compress does not constitute approval.
The world has perpetually seemed to be going straight to hell just as it's gotten fabulously better and better. Why? Because we're spoiled princesses increasingly vexed by smaller and smaller mattress peas. We're Mrs. Howells endlessly piqued by poor picnic weather and inattentive servants. This explains why the merely wealthy are beginning to foment class warfare for unfettered access to the trappings of super-richdom. This cadre fights not for bread and shelter for the disadvantaged, like their righteous forebears, but for their right to smart watches and Beemers.

When our grandparents urged us to "count our blessings", it wasn't so much an endorsement for Positive Thinking as a means to regain perspective.

Scientists keep trying to tweek the Drake Equation to explain the absence of evidence of advanced civilization in the Universe. What is the X Factor obliterating civilizations before they can build Dyson Spheres, capturing the totality of a star's energy, or find a way to communicate over the void with brutes like us?

Comfort and wealth, baby. That's the perilous X Factor. Comfort and wealth.


Humanity has persevered over illness and lions and warlords; famines, droughts, and extreme poverty, and its pain has only grown in the process. Comfort and wealth will prove an indefatigable challenge.

As I noted here:
By the time we're down to our very last Nazi (some geezer raving and saluting from his electric scooter), we'll all be so unhinged by his presence that we'll jump in the ocean and drown en masse like lemmings.
Follow up posting

1 comment:

Display Name said...


there is a saying that once the nazis show up the thread needs to be locked. Nice post. I keep trying to tell my one friend conan that complaining is a habit that can be broken, to no avail.

Blog Archive