Why Communicate?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

A couple of things out there on the Internet right now turn out to be closely related, although they may not seem to be at first.

The first of these things is an essay I've bumped into several times now, most recently at Lifehacker, called "The Complete Guide to Not Giving a Fuck." Although the essay errs on certain points, its overall message is one that lots of good people need to hear. I take it to be something along the lines of this: "Don't let concern about what you imagine random strangers might think stand between what you judge to be the right thing to do, and acting on that judgement." In that sense, I already don't give a hoot, so it took curiosity about why this was striking a nerve to get me to read it.

The other thing is the Obama Administration's absurd flip-flop on whether to release photos of the carcass of Osama bin Laden. Neither of the rationales for Obama's ultimate decision is good, whether he wants to avoid "spiking the football" out of some caricature of magnanimity or to avoid offending Moslem sensibilities. In the meantime, the Taliban are slamming Obama for not offering "proof" of death. The only thing anyone in the government has said that makes any sense is, "Conspiracy theorists around the world will just claim the photos are doctored anyway." (Too bad Republican Mike Rogers was merely using this to further rationalize not "inflaming" irrational brutes.)

But let's think about that part about the conspiracy theorists for a moment, anyway. Guess what? If that ilk can't prove the photos were doctored, they'll say the man in the photo isn't really bin Laden, and that everything was staged. This can go on and on and on, as nearly fifty years' worth of lunar landing hoax theories eloquently attest.

Notice what is missing in both situations: a rational consideration of the purpose behind communication, be it implicit in one's course of action or explicit. Instead of being concerned only with what a rational judge of their actions would think (and only when such concern would be appropriate), or working to communicate a point effectively to a rational audience, we see people in each case paralyzing themselves with worry over what they imagine an irrational imagination might cook up. And regarding irrational audiences, people are getting things wrong, too, as we shall see.

We were attacked without provocation on September 11, 2001. To imagine that sparing the sight of bin Laden's carcass from anyone who supports that will keep them calm is delusional. That horse has been out of the barn for nearly a decade now. To be concerned with proving to the Taliban (of all people!) that we killed their "hero" is to neglect the fact that proof of anything is the least of the concerns of a theocrat. To take a more mundane example from the essay: To not wear odd-looking running shoes -- for fear of being laughed at -- if one judges that they might help avoid or mitigate foot injuries is to accept pain or actual harm rather than face the disapproval -- real or imagined (strange things make many people laugh) -- of someone who simply hasn't reached your conclusion about footwear. This is no way to live, to put it very mildly.

Ayn Rand once noted that, "Cognition precedes communication; the necessary precondition of communication is that one have something to communicate." When we place the whole universe of what somebody somewhere might imagine based on what we do (as if it will really be tied even that much to reality), we end up sacrificing both real communication and cognition to the whims of others. I will not belabor the importance of cognition and acting on cognition to the life of a rational animal here, but I will note something about communication.

When we communicate with rational people, we do so to make clear our own grasp of reality, whether it be to inform or to seek out information. Communication with the irrational can properly include deception for the sake of self-defense. In any case, the purpose of communication is to cause others to consider whatever it is we are communicating, and to act accordingly.

The example of the non-verbal communication inherent in wearing odd running shoes (e.g., "I think these will help my poor, aching feet.") shows us that there can be no concession to any degree of irrationality (real or imagined) in one's audience. The random ravings of terrorists (who will threaten us and claim we're lying no matter what we say) show us how little consideration the irrationality of an audience deserves, too. If our government officials think that showing the photos would deter terrorists (or comfort their enemies), they should release the photos. If not, not.

We communicate because we grasp something about reality and want to benefit in some way by helping or hindering others (depending on context) to know what we have grasped. The only consideration the arbitrary imagination an audience deserves is, to the extent it can be predicted and exploited, is whether it can be used to aid any lying in self-defense that such an audience makes necessary. (I must emphasize here that hiding the photos and giving burial rites to the carcass do not count in this regard, as both will be taken as signs of weakness -- by an enemy whose primary motivation is precisely to tell us what to do.)

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Good analysis of faulty premise behind not showing photos of OBL dead, for fear of offending anyone's sensibilities. I'd not grasped explicitly before how this worry over offending theocratic/superstitious/primitive mentalities had become pervasive and overt in the present Administration, and accepted by many others as reasonable.

As someone on the radio remarked J.Edgar Hoover and the FBI released many photos of dead mobsters (blood washed off, of course, but plenty of bullet holes) throughout the 1930's, perhaps longer. Those photos were intended to deter and to announce that the FBI had scored one on the gangsters.

The present occupant of the White House has no desire to do either.

Roxanne A.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the kind words and for mentioning the earlier precedent of releasing photos of dead mobsters (and how it was done). I had not been aware of that.