Saturday, August 4, 2012

Truisms and Tropes: Taking shortcuts safely.

We all operate with certain tropes guiding us. By trope I mean a rhetorical device or cliché that we assume to be in operation in stories we encounter. Imagine a scary movie in which a young man decides to take a short cut that passes through a restricted area. A friend of mine’s short film brilliantly used this beginning to create dread. In any horror movie we know the young man has determined his fate the moment he takes the short cut. In a horror movie, you should always go the long way.

For some people such a distrust of short cuts is something for the off screen world as well. For them it may be a basic truism that well beaten paths are well beaten for some reason; people generally make sensible choices. Another truism may be that we often think we are original when we aren’t. Combine these and you have the belief that any short cut you imagine you discover has probably become the non-standard path via a process of people choosing not to use it for good reason. Such truisms are the building blocks of tropes we assume to be in place; take the short cut and expect the negative consequences.

In philosophical arguments we are often chastised for holding to truisms and tropes by other people who hold to different ones. That’s understandable. Our tropes close our minds to other arguments. They really are prejudices. They pre-judge story endings basically. Likewise we have little time for the tropes of other people that we don’t share. We rarely investigate and attack specific tropes though. Instead we just call each other close minded and accuse each other of having forgone conclusions. Perhaps because we are barely conscious of our own prejudices we insist on a position of complete open mindedness in others.

Truisms and tropes are increasingly helpful.

I don’t think it’s ideal however to operate without tropes. Honestly life is full of some pretty obvious clichés; The magic wristband that will prevent cancer, the mining magnate who only has the best interest of the nation at heart, the faith healer who needs you to make a faith commitment (by cheque or credit card). Why wouldn’t you want to avoid trusting some of these? We don’t need to do that by investigating the facts of each individual case. We can do that much faster by establishing truisms that build up tropes. We can presume to know how the story would end if we were to sign over our savings to the faith healer for example.

Furthermore facts are cheap. Did you know that 86% of people who never brush their teeth still don’t experience tooth decay? I don’t. I just made that up. How did I do that? I typed it on a page. Notice that no internet cop came and arrested me. As astonishing as it may sound whole books of facts have been made up. The internet has just made this easier. In popular fields like parenting or pet care there is page after page of absolute fiction calling itself expert advice. Why? Because there can be and giving advice is fun.

The internet has made it easier to check facts too. Enough checking and you can build a consensus of what people have typed. A consensus of people is still not a measure of much though. Many people think they’re too fat. Are they? Researching on-line can feel like chopping through a jungle of anxiety and aggrandizement, honest speculation and pure spin, accidental biases and unintelligible acid ramblings.

In such an environment truisms and tropes are time savers and sometimes even life savers. With a truism such as “people always think they know better than mother nature” we get a nice little restraining influence on something like a plan to convert deserts into fertile land. With a truism like “an idea that’s been rejected by scientific bodies is probably not true” we can filter out the voices of self-made authorities on climate change. Combine these truisms and we know not to invest in cloud-busting crystals to fight drought.

It seems to me that a relationship exists between the complexity and variety of questions we try to answer and the need for tropes and truisms. We could choose to disclaim an opinion on matters beyond a few. On those few topics we could investigate carefully and test our hypotheses. In my experience such a life feels a little irresponsible when our world is as interconnected (by trade, environmental effects and media) as it is. However if we want to have an opinion on a range of matters from global warming to the politics of Burma then we are obliged by time to use some sort of prejudice like tropes.

Relationships won’t do it anymore.

Our prejudices have traditionally taken the form of relationships. We develop a trust with a particular newspaper or columnist or set of encyclopedias. Equally we can remember who has led us wrong. However three things limit this strategies effectiveness. Firstly organizations with which we have a bad relationship simply change or conceal their name. Also organizations with which we have a good relationship are hijacked by other interests.  Relationships with people may have more stability but as any victim of abuse can attest – people can conceal true agendas while they build trust. Basically this is the inherent unreliability of authority. Just think of Jonestown.

Secondly the blistering speed with which we encounter new technologies and ideas makes it impossible for people and organizations to slowly build trust in their field.  Even in a basic area such as nutrition which we could imagine hasn’t changed since Adam’s proverbial childhood there are such shifting economies of food that the advice of one era is hard to use in the next. Is organic really necessary when it costs so much more? That depends on how conventional produce is produced. They are not using what they used a decade ago.

Thirdly in as much as you rely on a relationship of trust you fail to develop truisms and tropes of your own. Then when your authority is not available or you encounter a problem that hasn’t been exactly covered for you it is much harder to figure out your response. Basically relying on a trustworthy relationship isn’t really thinking for yourself and so is far less adaptable or tailored to your life. That’s an even greater problem when there is difference between your life and that of your trusted relationship i.e. your favourite writer has been dead fifty years or lives in another country. Once again we face such a dizzying array of changing concerns that those differences between us and our authorities are typical.

 Know your tropes.

Certainly tropes are useful, expedient and even necessary in our world. However they are still essentially an aspect of our mind’s closure. We ponder and ponder and ponder until… insert trope, we estimate how the story ends. Therefore we should use tropes carefully. We need to be able to expose and investigate a trope’s usefulness or they wont be life saving but life-endangering.

We can be unaware of our own tropes. Our tropes seldom get questioned if everyone around us shares them. That after all is what common sense is. Similarly we shouldn’t expect other people to be able to articulate what their tropes are. Many people group with like-minded people exactly so that they can share a common sense which they may not be able to articulate.

When we can’t name our tropes however then they can be implanted from anywhere. A trope that taking the shortcut will have ill effect can be built from the truisms I mentioned earlier but it can just as easily come from watching too many horror movies.  In which case we believe we know how a story ends even when we can’t say why.

Why we adopt tropes in fiction for example, where we have no experiential basis for them, is psychological wish-fulfillment. That’s what many stories, particularly horror movies, tap into for our entertainment. It’s why they’re fun. An example would be that people who take the long road rather than a short cut shall be rewarded for their effort. That’s an understandable wish if we, or a character we connect with, has made the costly decision to go the long way. However it’s not borne of anything about short cuts. There are no truisms about how shortcuts and long ways originate underlying it. Our trope in this case is borne entirely of our deep need to justify our choices to ourself. We are avoiding the negative opinion-state of going the long way for no reason but not actually responding to reality.

When we are willing to adopt tropes that are psychological wish fulfillments then we are absolutely ripe for advertising of the worst kind. We can be sold not only products but ideas. Consider the central trope of many action movies which holds that victory goes to whoever steps up the quickest and backs down last. Young men who absorb this trope are tragedies waiting to happen. Furthermore if we really let our minds go and indulge in tropes based on psychological wish fulfillment then we never learn even when reality contradicts us. That’s one way of understanding repeat violent offenders. (It’s also why many citizens of the U.S.A. would support invading Iran next regardless of actual   results in Afghanistan and Iraq).

If we are to use tropes usefully then we need to build them from explicit truisms which are themselves based on our response to reality. That response to reality doesn’t have to be direct experience. Who wants to directly experience being the victim in a horror movie? Not I.  However a response to reality is at least an opinion about how things actually are rather than how they should be.

As a final example of a trope consider the current fascination for positive thinking. Our belief that a negative attitude will lead to bad outcomes can be heavily influenced by psychological wish fulfillment. People with negative attitudes annoy us and distress us and as an inducement to be positive (and please us) we want other people to suffer for their negativity. Further we put effort into being positive and pleasing which we want to be rewarded for. However when it comes to things like whether your car breaks down pessimism can have no effect. In fact if optimism about outcomes led you to delay a car service then a positive attitude hasn’t helped at all.

On the other hand it is a truism that people are willing to give more aid to a cause they think is already likely to succeed. This truism is borne out by observations of panhandlers. The "better" dressed who describe themselves as just needing help in this moment earn much more than those who appear chronically poor. Positive thinking therefore can encourage ourselves and any other people whom we convince to give more attention and effort to a problem we have. That attention and effort helps us. This supports the trope that winners are grinners with observations from reality.

There is an important difference between the two ways of using tropes just mentioned. If our trope that winners are grinners is based on psychological wish fulfillment then we have no direction when to apply it. No particular truisms have to be in place. We will even blame whatever negativity we failed to excise from our hearts for a broken down car. On the other hand if we based our trope on what we think “is” instead of what we think “should be” then we are able to amend it with additional truisms and even discard it all together if it ceases to be useful.

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