Stranger ethics and fuzzy thinking phobia

June 14, 2014

I feel so tired of hearing harshness in ironies, and my own writing registers as flippant to me in spite of it, but I’m beginning to hope it will fade out – when I think out loud the sound of my own voice is less unbearably pointed, and yet it’s confusing to look at the kinds of thoughts that seem to be helping my feelings resolve away from the jagged-edged sounding sense of disgust with my options for confronting the world as I see it.

That’s part of the reason I pulled back some earlier blog entries about the domestic violence case a public prosecutor brought against my mother. I’ve now heard that the charges against her were dropped and she’s interested in resuming contact with me, after several months of avoidance. I hadn’t realized until then how badly I wanted a conviction even if she was only sentenced to anger management counseling again. Her sense of impunity frightens me.

The things I end up having said somehow seem to jostle the barbs of fear and anger at the same time, I can’t look at my own words or hear my own tone of expressing what I’m angry about without hearing the same cruel habits in myself, yet I don’t know how to demand change of myself. Apart from violating Wizard’s Eighth Rule and becoming a vegetarian.

Maybe I’m just too tired to trust willing change to matter and that makes it easier to imagine it’s a different kind of problem, not a grounds for capitulating to the way things are – a desire to resist a sign of failure to understand the real, a failure to apprehend the truth as straightforward as a bad grade in physics.

I sound like a hypocrite to myself. Misery loves company but when your unhappiness is disorienting, you know better than to take the idea of reducing anyone else to grief and confusion lightly, if they listened hard enough to be hurt by what you had to say for yourself.

Fears feed each other, not in a metaphysical way I don’t think, it’s as simple as associational logic underpinning all the unreflecting habits that make up a susceptibility to attentional bias.

Any strong sense of alarm heightens your alertness to everything else that has come to mind lately that is frightening, and then your concrete perceptions about just those things that frighten you dwarf the other things you already know, and even if one fear can be resolved you look from one to another and it’s far too easy to feel overwhelmed.

Lies are so easy to blame people for, so complete in the harm they seem to do, it’s easy to feel undone by mistrust of your own ability to tell what’s going on. And putting names to feelings when you’re that unsure feels like inviting other people to listen when you know your intuition feels unreliable.

But you wouldn’t reject a reassuring lie that worked for you, if you knew fear was what was keeping you disoriented, no matter what rabbit hole it led down. You’re reduced to that, willingness to believe anything that differs from the sum of all fears, even if it’s a twisting around of whether something confronting you is to be feared, as if what you feared for could be devalued in a way that would help.


When you’re prone to black and white thinking that seems like too much, you look for other explanations for the way you feel even if there are none coherent enough to hang on to.

Perception is the credible threat – not Cartesian anxiety about whether I am there, but a totalizing sense of contingency about how revisable I am as a person who has an identity drawn up by way of self-awareness as well as actual habits and traits of which I may be less entirely aware.

Look at informal credit, and the way people use numbers as if they didn’t know better for ambiguity and indirection about social distance, the absolute value of informal credit ratings, with a give and take measured in price information asymmetry in the sense of access to gossip, always partial in both senses of the word. Walter Bagehot, founding editor of The Economist, was good at explaining that sort of everyday micro-economics. I named a beagle after him for putting a positivist spin on the dismal science.

Part of what I’m struggling with is fuzzy thinking phobia. Fuzzy thinking is how we get through unscripted parts of our lives, but it is rather a lot to face if your biggest fear is being misunderstood and that fear applies to even concrete details of your identity and memories, whereas in real life there isn’t time to so much as verify the verifiable, let alone make your case for what you can’t corroborate with external evidence beyond the integrity of your own testimony.

This is partly why I am so fond of The Legend of the Seeker. Craig Horner interprets Richard Cypher’s distaste for magic as a preference for dealing with tools and threats that are tangible and concrete rather than deceptive and mysterious. This validates my reluctance to allow experts to tell me this or that is merely psychosomatic pain, or that threat perceptions can be chalked up to catastrophizing just because they’re recurrent and inconvenient to redress.

I was a runaway as a kid, but I never got far, and eventually my plans for running became a joke even to me, a comment on the fact that hell is other people but foraging isn’t a viable alternative to life where there is nowhere to run. What I was running from gradually infected my understanding of the world I thought I was running toward until the fantasy fell apart.

Secrets and lies and the group dynamics of gossip and ambivalence compromised my notion of a better world “outside, over there” through incident reports of violence in my home and bystander-typical reactions from the people I confided in about it. Some of the violence was quite psychological – as when a toad was found impaled on a pencil holding down an improbable note implicating a very young neighbor and friend.

Pulled punches left confusing memories – heated verbal threats of bodily harm followed by relatively light bruises, a blurring of death threats and petty injuries into a bleak comedy about the elephant and the mouse.

Zooming out to the sociology of health, all this seems to be part of the social experience of alienation that is widely considered a modern urban phenomenon but has close parallels in the paranoia of rural poor communities concerning envious neighbors. Maybe alienation is the price we pay for trying to live by voluntary agreements loaded with uncertainty about how well trust holds when bargaining rules approximate zero sum games.

There is something perversely reassuring about coercion in this context; expectations reinforced by threats are considered more reliable and can be liberating if you are willing to respond to fear without compunction or if the expectations don’t feel compromising in a way that would tempt you to face your fears and disobey.

Maybe alienation is exacerbated by social conditions promoted by marketing culture that exploit asymmetry of information systematically. Could a political economy of seduction produce more atomizing social conditions than the hierarchical compliance culture of patronage politics?

“Don’t stand so near me!
I am become a socialist. I love
Humanity; but I hate people.” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

False sympathy or use of opportunities to tend to the weaknesses of others to curry favor and the idea of “entrenching the need for help” by institutionalizing welfare provision come to mind. Why do the administrators of vital social safety nets come across as patronizing and out of touch to their own clientele? In how many ways are status-oriented microaggressions masked as kindness?

Does defensive posturing about “the best a flawed social safety net can do” capitalize on the prevalence of faux pas issues from cognitive dissonance, or is the difference of intent that relevant if the recipient can’t tell where the speaker’s misconceptions are coming from or to what degree they are rooted in unspoken but internalized hostility rather than unconscious mirroring of a hostile cliché? Victim-blaming stereotypes must come to mind in such a workplace.

People who attend to your sense of distress about a weakness, limitation or source of pain without kindness and a compassionate impulse to alleviate your distress often are relating to you as an enemy, in their minds your claim to their capacity for compassion is presumptuous or artificial on some level. Doctors, in particular, have strong pain-silencing prejudices for coping with patients.

We all have a sense of our own limitations to help others, and recoil quickly when we feel someone is asking too much of us relative to our means; in a helping professional this can lead to internalizing a triage ethic that is rather out of touch with the root concept and rather clumsy as a way of respecting personal boundaries. They feel defensive about relatively impersonal boundaries like purview, workload, minor conflicts of interest like whether or not they get along with the colleague whose help they would need to follow through on a perceived need of a client, etc.

What if conservative economic philosophy is a belief system that also protects the upwardly mobile from shame when they must refuse their own social contacts some of the favors they are asked to grant as if they owed their friends and family to spread their wealth? If they are consistently stingy fewer people will take it personally or be bold enough to put them in a position to have to refuse a request.

Liberals want resource allocation professionalized within the public sector for fairness and efficiency, the same reasons conservatives prefer private charity be responsible for allocating surplus. Both fear the selfish corruption of rhetoric that misallocates resources in the name of the social good.

If futile in another’s eyes, your interest in discussing your own victim status will often be seen as undignified, pathetic and self-defeating. The victim role assigns significance (injustice) to the ongoing distress and thus elevates its prominence, which does mean experiencing it more acutely than you would if you didn’t see a need for redress of the injustice but chose to be more accepting instead.

In this respect counseling someone to stop complaining and accept their fate is a kind of advice that can bring a degree of relief to their distress, and make them more willing to distract themselves from it. Even if your frustrations are blameless on your part and reflect serious fault on someone else’s part, dwelling on the unfairness of what happened to you won’t necessarily solve the problems that were caused for you.

Yet no one should put their own hardships in a global perspective in the sense of trivializing their own unmet needs if they can think of some other unmet needs in the world that would dwarf their own if lined up side by side. There is plenty of external social pressure to keep quiet about one’s unhappiness conditioning us not to be an unreasonable imposition on those we could turn to for help or emotional support at will. Internalizing it is redundant and unsustainable.

In particular, the hidden harms of institutional violence – discrimination in its passive forms, distinct from micro-aggressions – leave their victims with largely unshareable experiences, difficult to discuss openly with anyone who hasn’t been through something very similar. Support groups with people who have had similar victimization experiences are important in part because of the way cognitive dissonance has denied them adequate emotional support and understanding from friends and family who lack the kind of insight that comes from personal experience.

But even within support groups we are all strangers, with reactions to one another’s stories typical of bystander indifference. That’s why I’m getting a copy of Michael Ignatieff’s book The Needs of Strangers. I have a feeling that until I understand what it means to be a stranger, I won’t fully understand how to be a friend.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: