The Violence of Taking Sides, or Become the Nuance You Want to See in the World

This is an excerpt from a book I'm writing about arguments. Which feels like cheating posting it here....

This episode eloquently articulates the violence — the fascism — at the heart of "sides."

Which side are you on? It seems like a fair question. There are arguments and battles everywhere. So, c’mon, which side you are on? Pick one!

But that’s one of those insidious questions that behooves us to interrogate it. Most conspicuously, the question can only come after the terms of the discussion have been established and sides drawn; otherwise, there’d be no sides to choose from. To ask the question, then, is to assume that we all agree to the establishment of a) the terms of the issue; and b) that there are these sides from which to choose. It’s a question that acts like it’s asking for your free choice but is, in fact, determining your thoughts before you’ve even had a chance to think.

Let’s look at an example: In the abortion issue, which side are you on? It seems innocuous, if poignant, as presumably you’re other pro-choice or pro-life. But what if you don’t agree to any of these terms? As I’ve argued elsewhere, by calling it “abortion,” we’ve already put focus on the fetus, not the woman. And then we ask: Do you think it’s a woman’s right to choose to end the life of the fetus? This is a loaded question! And terribly unfair to the woman. And, from a certain perspective, it’s an insane question to ask: as a society, we generally don’t leave the act of determining whether someone should live or not to the individual person. In such matters, “choice” doesn’t enter into the equation (of course, we could interrogate these assumptions; for instance, it seems odd that suicide is illegal, a crime against the state; but let’s put that aside for now). By calling it abortion, we’ve already decided that it’s a question of the progress — perhaps not a life, yet — of a fetus. But then saying that it’s a woman’s choice to decide what counts as life is, well, difficult to defend as a general law for a society.

What if we put the focus on the woman and her menstrual cycle and say: Should a woman have the right to regulate her own menstrual cycle? Well, that’s an absurd question that doesn’t even need to be asked because of course she does. Which is to say, if we change the terms of the question, eliminating the very concept of abortion, the issue vanishes just like that. Poof!

And yet people like to be on a side. It makes them feel less alone. How do I know this? Because it’s what we’ve doing for eons: creating, then choosing, sides. We side with these or those folks who look and talk like us. In a world of relentless argumentation, it’s nice to have sides to choose. You’re most likely not going to find someone with a MAGA hat at a pro-choice rally just as you won’t find a someone wearing tie dye and kicking a hacky sack at a MAGA rally. Sides are really more about a culture than a position, about belonging to a group. They share a vocabulary, a sense of humor, and places they shop. Sides are territories with rules and attire. The pussy hat, made popular during the Women’s March on DC, is a kind of flag staking its territory. And like any police state, sides have their modes of policing. Think about “Seinfeld’s” Kramer when he participates in the AIDS walk: he refuses to wear the ribbon and is beaten up for it. This is a common event at any march — someone wears the “wrong” thing and a hullaballoo breaks out.

Sides are fashion communities, the pussy hat a flag colonizing a certain vocabulary and territory.

But in the age of the argument, there are no longer two or even three sides to any position. As arguments proliferate, positions begin overlapping at funny angles, making it even more complex to figure out what to believe. For instance, there are proponents of psychedelics who want to medicalize it, turn these drugs into products for health and profit. And there are proponents of psychedelics who loathe the pharmaceutical companies, believing mushrooms, LSD, and DMT are paths to a cosmic consciousness — a health, for sure, but not in the way the medical industry defines it. I ask you: Are these two groups fighting for the same thing? I don’t think so. And yet they surely overlap at certain junctures. What’s true for psychedelics is true for so many so-called big issues such as gun control which is opposed by both racist separatists and by certain people in the black community who understandably feel under siege from those racist separatists as well as from our heavily armed police state. Are these two groups on the same side?

There’s a keenly hilarious scene in the Tina Fey TV show, “The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt.” Kimmie comes upon a protest, or multiple protests, around a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt asking for the statue to be taken down. One protest sign reads, “You belong in a statue of a kitchen” as another protester yells, “Eleanor Roosevelt gave us unrealistic expectations of cousins” (s4 e10). Meanwhile, a group of lesbians demand the statue come down because Eleanor never came out of the closet. Are these groups on the same side?

Are there even sides to begin with? To choose a side, to be on a side, is to assume that positions are already determined and beliefs are a matter of multiple choice rather than a matter of crafting questions and creating new ways of thinking. By assuming there are sides, we reinforce a territorial approach to belief, an approach we inherit from religions and the nation-state: Here, we believe this, not that! It's the gesture of conformity and colonization.

And we thereby eliminate the act of individual critical thinking. No need to ponder the issues. We’ve done that for you. Either you watch “Fox News” or “The Daily Show." No need to think for yourself. This is how those with power perpetuate their power: by determining the playing field. And, for the most part, people feel involved when they’re invited to play — to vote or tweet on a matter — without ever questioning the field of play or the rules of the game. We’ve come to believe that our freedom lies in choosing rather than creating the very playing field itself. The media, in particular, work hard to reinforce these reductions as it makes headlines much easier to write. It gets a whole lot messier if, every time a newspaper wanted to say something, it had to let you know what it considers the field and the rules of the game. No, it’s much easier — more lucrative — to regurgitate the given terms of a discussion.

Meanwhile, the very idea of sides perpetuates conflict and drama. Sides are thought of in geometric terms, stable spaces: on one side, there’s those kooks; and on the other side, those nutjobs. Perhaps there is some insignificant territory down in the corner, what the media like to call “independents.” But the architecture of sides is never questioned: there are sides, always pre-defined, to which are you invited. Of course, once there, you’re obliged to don the appropriate attire. Can’t watch Fox News with a pussy hat on. The very notion of a side is detrimental to our civility, eliminating independent thought while fostering oppositional aggression.

So what if we got rid of the very notion of sides and instead privileged nuance and difference, quirk and creativity? What if rather than taking sides and perpetuating them through institutions such as debate and conflict-driven media stories, we encouraged people to create their own territories, to craft their own questions. By always asking what side you’re on, we’re telling people that it’s not their job to think for themselves. The world of thought and belief, we tell them, is handed down to you by others. Your job is simply to pick a side (which, in some demented Orwellian turn, is then framed as freedom). It fosters what Nietzsche calls the herd mentality rather than critical, creative thinking that is particular, individual, novel.

Being on a side is to participate in a pre-established sets of beliefs, words, and customs. As Burroughs would say, I’m never on a side, I’m with it. He may be with a side — but only because he’s constitutive of it. He is the side. Which is a version of a great bumper sticker I once saw. You are not in traffic. You are traffic.

I want to proffer a different image for the public space of beliefs, one not premised on taking sides: a public discourse in which there will never have been sides. Rather, there will be nuance, idiosyncrasy, creativity, fresh perspectives. Instead of planting flags and shouting, there will be positions that take time to explain and time to understand — a slow belief movement, if you will. In the place of reductive headlines, there will be nuanced positions that have different modes of thought, that create new playing fields, that invent new rules. I imagine a public discourse premised on difference, not opposition.


My Course on Nietzsche for Renegade University

This is the free intro to what is a 2 hours course that covers what I feel are the main aspects of Nietzsche's thinking, writing, and approach. See here >

I broke the course into six sections:
  1. Affirmation
  2. On Truth and the Creative Instinct
  3. On Morality, Slave and Noble
  4. The World Reveals Itself
  5. Living Beyond Good and Evil
  6. Nietzsche, Postmodernism, and the Political
I think it's pretty good. And my beard was something to behold. It's since been groomed. 

And there are office hours you can sign up for (for a modest fee) and do one-on-one video calls with me. Lucky you! Lucky me!


Conversing with Trees

Look at these two trees. They're the same species, whatever that means, living yards from each other. 
Isn't it obvious that they're living different lives having having made different decisions along the way? 
Don't they exude distinctive style, each taking on the world in its own way?
Don't they communicate with the world quite differently?

I grew up for the most part just north of Manhattan in a tiny town along the Hudson River replete with big bold trees — old massive oaks and maples, some weeping willows, perhaps a Japanese maple or two and, well, that's all the tree names I know. I never took particular notice of said trees. They were always just there, a leafy green background. Mostly, I was wary of the poison ivy that plagued my young summers.

Then, in the early Fall of my junior year of high school, that all changed. One particular night, infused with sudden sensitivity, I could hear the trees. They weren't speaking words we know. This was not some magical world of lore where the trees whisper secrets to me about my life: Seek the love of the dark haired yogi, Vaguely Rabbinical One. Oy, that would be depressing. Can you imagine being a tree and caring whether I date someone or not? To imagine that trees care much about this human nonsense is absurd, limiting, and dangerous. Humans are one relatively minor part of an elaborate ecological symphony. Whether the trees reveal heretofore unknown truths to me is incidental rather than necessary. Like any communication, it can fall on deaf ears, be read this way or that, or just be plain old banal.

These trees weren't communicating in some arborescent semiotic system. This was not "Arrival" — no linguists were needed to parse this root grammar and decode verdant symbols. I'm sure trees have some sort of linguistic structures but I didn't need to know those to hear what these trees, mostly oaks, were saying.

And yet trees of course communicate as trees communicate. How could it be otherwise? A tree speaks a tree perspective, necessarily, just as I speak mine, the gnat its, bovine theirs, cars theirs, and so on. The language of the cosmos is babble and includes the organic and inorganic alike.

And yet we're not bound solely by our local linguistic structures. That would be a dramatically bad reading of what's come to be known as postmodern social constructivism which believes we write our own stories as we see fit. No one I have ever read has ever said such a thing. All arguments, all communication, happen within a milieu of bodies and forces that language inflects, hedges, and distributes. And vice-versa: forces and bodies inflect, hedge, and distribute language.

Communication is not something added to the world. Communication — whether linguistic, terrestrial, affective — is constitutive of the very fabric of the world. The universe communicates. Suns and planets flirt and fight, nudging, enticing, seducing each other. A galaxy is a conversation.

We speak to each other all the time across languages, time periods, geographies, and species. Some of this communication takes place within the linguistic economies of meaning — grammar, signs, inflection. These economies are themselves fundamentally cooperative: language, after all, doesn't belong to anyone. We share these words and these grammars. We operate together in this space of communication, in this in-between where meaning, affect, and bodies are proffered and metabolized — even when speaking in the traditional sense of words.

So when we talk about communication, let's not keep our focus restricted to the ways we learn languages in schools — memorizing conjugations, inflections, vocabulary. Those are just tools. Communication happens between bodies of every sort along multiple registers at once — conceptual, affective, desirous. And while we don't all technically speak the same language, we do all communicate in some form.

Why wouldn't we communicate with trees? Trees are so verbose, so expressive, always and necessarily — almost aggressively so. If you start paying attention, the din of it all can be deafening. But I only took notice, at 16 and suddenly sensitive, when the trees had shed their leaves. All these branches stopping, starting, shifting size and direction. In fact, we call this kind of inflection articulation as in these branches are so articulated and, well, so articulate. They gesture so much and so explicitly. Look. As the great poet, writer, and theorist Kat Mandeville wrote me, "the breeze in the leaves & branches is as emotion & thought is through a face."

Trees have so much to say. Don't you hear all that articulation. What's your reply?

To be clear, it was not a matter of the trees bestowing their ancient natural wisdom upon my foolish human ears. I never want to suggest that humans and our language are somehow lesser than any other language or life — of birds, buffalo, trees, gods. We speak our languages amid the great chorus of languages we call life. Everything speaks its tongue — rocks, doors, ants, kittens, children, plants, machines. And we can understand each other! Just as English speakers can make sense of other people while traveling through Asia, Africa, South America, we can make sense of other forms, living and not. How else could we function with the world if we weren't communicating with it? If linguistic structures were the sole mode of discursive engagement? There are other registers of meaning beyond, within, below our local dialects.

Image result for truth and method gadamer
One of those books that pervades my thinking.
This is the premise of Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics in which understanding is a necessary component of communication. This position stands it stark contrast to Jacques Derrida's deconstruction where understanding is perpetually deferred — we look up a word in the dictionary, then all the words in that definition, then all the words in that definition, ad infinitum so meaning never arrives (for those interested, Derrida calls this diffĂ©rance; to read for this deferral in any text is what he calls deconstruction.) For Gadamer, understanding doesn't come from linguistic signification but from co-habitation of a space-time continuum or what he calls history. We are of this time and place, however linguistically or experientially different; our communication is hence necessarily of the same stuff. His Truth and Method is one of the books that pervades me to this day. (Gadamer and Derrida actually had a public debate about precisely this).

The trees, then, were speaking with me — not to me, with me. All communication, linguistic or otherwise, is multi-directional. It's never a true hermetic soliloquy. I was active in this conversation even if I had little of substance to add. I was only 16, after all. I think one reason I like talking with trees is what they have to say is usually more interesting than what I have to say. It's such a luxury to shut up and listen without being bored or annoyed. Trees are not inherently more interesting than people; they just happen to usually be as they've lived such different lives than I have and usually care about things more interesting than Trump, their job, their romantic lives, or their precious kids. But of course there are boring trees, too.

I say I could hear the trees but that isn't quite right. In fact, I'd say there was nothing to hear per se but that wouldn't be correct, either. I was certainly hearing them — only it wasn't just my ears in play. There was a murmuring, albeit incredibly articulate, that I could see and feel, both sensually and affectively. My senses, my body, and my feelings were being palpated by these trees. As in any rhetorical exchange, I was literally moved. These trees, like all things, were making an impression on me. Such is the way of all communication: when we see, hear, feel, smell, taste things, said things press upon us leaving their mark. All sensing is palpation of a sort.

Keeping senses distinct never suffices. Experience is necessarily synesthetic. How weird would it be if communication occurred through the silos of the senses? My ears hear but I don't sense you in any other way? Feel your presence? How could that be possible? We all know that the encounters we remember are communications that register at different registers at once — the conceptual to the erotic to the physical to the affective. Earthquakes are the earth communicating. All communication is vibratory, more or less intensive, more or less conceptual, more or less moving. We feel it as much as we understand it.

So when I found myself conversing with the trees, all of me was in play, not just my ears. Much of hearing a tree demands seeing. When you look at a tree, you see all these gestures, all these decisions: you see time. You see style. When I gesture, which I do often, said gesture comes and goes and my body goes on as it was before. But the gesture of a tree — the way a branch twists and turns and reaches for the sky — takes time. Trees wear and bear their decisions in their very fabric. We see these gestures happening sprawled over decades, over centuries, playing out before us. The rings of a tree are the most famous way trees wear their time. But it happens elsewhere as in the winding of a branch, the undulations of bark, in the reach of roots' reckoning.

And, sure, were I an arborist or botanist, I'd be able to decode much of a tree's communication. But that language never suffices for surely trees communicate more than what particular climate or animal phenomena shaped their bark or whether they're sick. In fact, I'm tempted to say that being privy to that knowledge can impede your communication with trees as all you're looking for are signs — and signs are necessarily backwards looking, pointing to pre-established meanings. Communication, however, happens now. Yes, it's always historical but it's also part of a moving, living body expressing itself — its mood, desires, its longing — in the moment. Much of what we say lurks in the how.

A tree's gestures are slow, taking decades, even centuries. Look at how this tree dances. Such style! We see its gestures emerging, a dance in achingly patient slow-mo. 

Look at a tree. Look how it winds, twists, and turns. It doesn't grow with maximum efficiency. Its growth is not a matter of instinct, at least not as we imagine instinct. You can see the decisions of the tree, how it bends and bows just so, spreads its branches and leaves. Trees grow for fun; they grow for love, with love, in love. They play just as all living things play. How do I know this? They tell me.

When I left my home town for college in Philly, I thought I'd lost the thread of my conversations with trees. It was as if all I could speak was oak and maple. But then one day as I was traipsing down one of the the utterly depressing streets of West Philadelphia — much of West Philly is actually quite gorgeous — I was stopped in my tracks by this wise cracking ginkgo. It had its leaves. And it wasn't offering anything that seemed of cosmic import. It was just a particularly witty tree. Every time I'd see it, I'd crack up. And, no, I wasn't laughing at this tree; it was not funny looking. I was laughing with this tree because it was just so dry and funny.

This surprised me. I think I always imagined that trees could only be serious. Wit seemed so, well, human. But I was wrong: wit and humor are constitutive of the cosmos. We know this from watching animals play; they can often be tricky, clever, and silly with each other. The same is true of foliage: it can be clever, witty, playful, funny.

Since that one night in 1986, I've been able to speak with trees. For a while, this communication came readily and was in fact so loud, their bellowing often drowned out everything else. I had to hush them. Over time, this conversational ease with the trees faded. It became more difficult to hear them. These days, I have to stop and listen, open myself up, as if recalling those fragments of French I heard as a child.

Such is the way of all hearing, all communication: it takes an opening up with all one's senses. Amid the din of the everyday, we tend to fall into the habit of only hearing the strictly linguistic, the things people say, the what and not the how. But such words are only one aspect of any communication, of any conversation, of any event. The world speaks to us if we know how to listen. The world speaks with us if we know how to converse.

On the Terrible Tryanny of School

This picture is horrific to me and says so much about school: line them up! Make them sit, like little prisoners, while we harass and haran...