Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Trivial Pursuits?

     It seems that Nature – if it isn’t my evil twin gleefully hashing things up for me to write about – is determined to provide me examples of virtually every observation I’d like to make. Today’s batch is particularly fertile (that’s fertile, as in manure):

     “When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty, you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.” – G. K. Chesterton

     Yes, you saw that here fairly recently. This time around, my focus isn’t on laws, but on offenses against widely held sentiments. Have a list of links for your reading pleasure:

     Mind you, I said “widely held,” not “majority held.” Like it or not, there are people who regard using the “wrong” pronoun as an actionable offense. The folks making noise about the above “controversies” – another word that’s gradually being stripped of its meaning – must regard their respective Causes as among the highest of their priorities. What does that say about their concerns for such matters as defense against violence, prospective survival needs, and acceptance by a congenial group?

     The trivia linked above – and I assure you, you won’t find a Level One through Three concern anywhere among them – don’t even make it to the Maslovian Hierarchy. They constitute pure pettiness: foofaurauws over trivialities. By implication, those who’ve become massively exercised about them have satisfied every other level of the pyramid. That makes them the most fortunate people on Earth.

     To occupy one’s time with the whinings of the uber-fortunate is to waste it. Yet increasing amounts of public attention are directed to such ends. It suggests that our entire sense for what matters and what doesn’t has been thrown for a loop and needs to recover swiftly.

     However, it is worth a few words about why such nonsense gets anyone’s attention in the first place.

     There remains tragedy even in this richest and most blessed of nations. There are victims of true and serious injustices – and lately a hefty fraction of those injustices have been perpetrated by agents of the State: my aggregate term for America’s 88,000-plus governmental bodies. There are persons who lack important things, including the sort many would call survival necessities, and who go unaided despite their troubles being no fault of their own. There are villains in high places...and villains who aspire to high places and who – please God, let it not happen – might yet reach them. And there are those who deserve our respect and remembrance for their service and, sad to say, don’t get either.

     A concern with trivia misallocates human energy that might go toward the amelioration of one of those items. If a reasonably intelligent and well-informed person is visibly consumed by such trivia, what inference can we draw about him?

     Perhaps we’ve overestimated the depth of his intelligence or the breadth of his knowledge. It’s easy enough; maintaining a veneer of intellect and erudition is a learnable skill. Or perhaps we don’t appreciate the true dimensions of the concern upon which he focuses. That, too, is not unknown even among the most civilized and compassionate of men. But it’s quite possible that we’re entirely correct – that he’s giving his attention and emotional energy to nonsense. In that case, we must ask why.

     In some cases, it’s merely virtue signaling: behavior intended to instill in the individual a sense that he’s “on the side of the angels,” or to ingratiate himself with others who hold a particular priority, or both. In today’s exceedingly fractious society, there’s more of that going on than ever before. It suggests that perhaps an element of the Maslovian hierarchy is involved after all: the need for acceptance by a suitable group. If so, one might question the virtue-signaler’s choice of groups, but chacun a son gout and all that.

     In other cases, it’s a bid for stature...and sometimes for power. There are many well known cases of a person of no particular repute rising to high status by hitching his star to a cause that eventually catapults those involved with it to prominence. Need I mention Al Sharpton or Johnnie Cochran in this regard? I thought not. How about Richard Kessel? If you’re not a Long Islander, you might not have heard his name. Still, he’s an example of the syndrome.

     But in a few cases, it’s a sense of personal insignificance that’s tantamount to exclusion: the sense that one is insignificant, “left out:” “If I’m to be heard I’ll have to scream, but I should have something to scream about.” In his magnificent near-future novel Michaelmas, Algis Budrys deemed it the tendency of entirely ordinary people to raise their voices in a simple assertion of their own existences. But when there’s so much screaming going on, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will be heard.

     This appears to be an artifact of our “mass-media culture:” the sense that unless one “makes the six o’clock news” somewhere, one’s life is essentially unimportant. There’s a huge fallacy in there, to say nothing of a complete absence of seemly humility, but a dwindling number of persons appear astute enough to perceive and grapple with it.

     Whatever the reason in some specific case, the appropriate countermeasure is always the same: a snort of dismissive laughter, a wave, and a leisurely stroll in another direction. It’s required if we’re to reestablish appropriate priorities in society generally that we not grant our precious time, attention, or emotional energy to those peddling – at increasingly high prices both in money and human energy – such trivial pursuits.

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