Wednesday, March 8, 2023

An Abundance of Contempt Ingested Long-Term as the Unavoidable Side Effect of Earnest Open-Mindedness.

I don't mind most of the infamous perils of alcoholics. I'm ok with broken promises, disappointment, irresponsibility and zany dishonesty. All cool by me, blessed as I am with a bulletproof coating of blithe expectations. I don't need things to go any certain way. But there's a trap in that.

The lower an alcoholic descends, the more superior they feel, and that superiority is expressed via contempt for the rest of us - individually and en masse. If you try to help an alcoholic, they will not only exploit and betray your generosity, they'll think poorly of you while doing so, tightly focused on your defects.

Alcoholics, come to think of it, are a lot like adolescents. Flimsy as their track record might be, they will keenly tabulate the flaws of others, deriving nourishment from those failings.
A huge swathe of human foolishness would dissipate overnight if we'd recognize that spotting suboptimality doesn't make you superior. Registering stupidity doesn't make you smart; it just means you're observant.
Most of us sensibly brush off the sneering superiority of whiny teens and depraved drunks. We feel so much higher up the food chain that there's no reason to pay attention. Try to keep 'em extant as best you can, but pay scant heed to the noxious patter.

But I listen to everyone. Not just their assessments of me, but the whole salad. I don't disregard social inferiors because I have no inferiors. I discourse with five year olds like colleagues, often discovering that they have interesting things to say if they haven't been numbed with sing-songey kiddie talk.

So when someone treats me with contempt, I pay attention. Not because I'm sensitive to criticism, but because I pay attention to everything. I don't skate atop. I'm just not that guy.

And contempt accumulates, taking on a reality of its own. Every sneer traces the same despicable truth. I honestly don't know what that truth is. I've never actually located it. But I don't need to know to feel it. It's "in the room" thanks to the cumulative evidence of ten million previous sneers.

There is a difference between an "I don't like what you just said" sneer and a "You are not fully human to me" sneer. The latter is commoditized. Always the same sneer, regardless of context. It's not qualitative; not selective. You are shit. And shit, after all, is shit.

The latest understanding of human memory is that we mostly remember remembering. There's no "original" memory, just an ongoing series of expedient mental photocopies of photocopies created during the process we mistakenly think of as "retrieval". I think it's the same with contempt. It's a strong emotion (at least for the receiver) so it burns in, with each revisit activating previous activations in a blurry but evocative fashion. It becomes, in other words, a familiar note.

A familiar note.

I can't think my way out of this - out of the familiarity of the note - but I can try to keep reframing. A story:

I sat on my porch chatting with an alcoholic neighbor who'd lost his wife, his family, his job, his driver's license, and his car. His house (greyer and grimmer than anything in your most malevolent nightmares) was on the brink of foreclosure, and he'd been banned by half the taverns in town for conking out on the bar. He was a reasonably well-educated, experienced man, who, in earlier days, had possessed some competence. I know what it's like to feel like an outcast and a failure, so I certainly didn't talk down to him. For his part, he gloated with endless superiority over every suboptimality he noticed in me.

I could certainly understand his perspective. I don't do the things people do to make other people like or respect them. I'm not competitive (which, to most people, means "loser"). I was famous once, and now labor in obscurity. And while most people feign broad competence in all things, I don't hide my gaps. In fact, I suppose I make them my outward-facing facade. Folks seldom look deeper - and lord knows I don't make it easy for those who do. It's all a bit of a mess framed head-on. But I don't dwell on it (except here, occasionally, where I curiously try to untangle it all), because I recognize other framing options.

All this was taking place on my quite nice back porch, where we were seated in very comfortable chairs (tracked down with considerable effort), drinking fine aged Belgian ales (which I'd cellared years ago) from the correct goblets (bought back from Europe with the care and delicacy of parents bringing a newborn home from hospital), just outside a kitchen where I'd taught myself to cook heartbreakingly delicious things, a living room with a bookshelf filled with books I'd written, co-written, or edited (commerical failures all, but I guess I can at least claim quality), a music room filled with instruments heard around the world and in countless recordings and film scores, and an office where I write sparsely-read Slog postings filled with fresh credible solutions to longstanding human mysteries.

Mind you, I don't enjoy grasping for dear life at my supposed "accomplishments", like Elmer Fudd endlessly repeating "My name is Elmer J Fudd, I own a mansion and a yacht!" That's a non-bueno habit. But if you lack the immunity of being a stuck-up prick poised to either tune out or fire back, you can reach the point where a guffawing drunk strikes a familiar note so relentlessly that you succumb to despair and shame. Not due to "sensitivity to criticism", but from an abundance of contempt ingested long-term as the unavoidable side effect of earnest open-mindedness.

I guess it boils down to this: A non-superior attitude leaves one highly vulnerable to sneering condescension. I suppose that's why sneering condescension has remained so popular.

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