Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Shutupsmanship: Mankind’s Eternal Quest For The Last Word

We all need ways to say, I’m not listening, the more pious-sounding, the better

A friend takes frequent woods walks with a spiritual buddy.  On the walks the spiritual buddy talks freely, but whenever my friend talks, the spiritualists shushes her saying, “Let’s just enjoy the present moment OK?”

Non-human animals show no signs of being able to second-guess themselves, whereas, because we humans have the power of words, we can second-, third-, fourth- and umpteenth-guess ourselves, opening a troublesomely infinite worm-can of wondering about whether we’re on track or off.

To see how words open the can of worms, take the seemingly innocuous word “it,” which we can use to point to anything and then think or talk about it.

I can decide to buy something and then, second guessing myself, can think about it meaning my decision. I can third-guess myself by thinking about it, this time meaning my tendency to second-guessing my purchases. And on and on, up and up. 

We can umpteenth-guess each other too.  You and I might be having an argument. I can use it to refer to our argument saying, for example that it’s not worth having.  You can say it is, and I can say, “I’m not going to debate it,” the it now pointing not to our argument but our argument about our argument.

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A word like it is like Spiderman’s web-shooter wristband, enabling us to point at and connect with anything real or abstract.  We can climb walls with it, story after story,  arguing, then up a floor arguing about arguing, then up another floor arguing about arguing about arguing. 

And it’s not just the word it but all of our words, together weaving the most intricate expansive webs imaginable. Nothing’s beyond our power of words, nothing’s beyond the reach of our Spidey web verbal capacity.

We like words. We need them (plural for it). Still, our word’s-eye view expansiveness is so vast that often we wish it would just shut up and leave us alone.

Well, not exactly. Sure we enjoy a quiet, wordless, thought-free present moment every once in a while, but more often we don’t want silence but the firm embrace of the web’s we’ve already woven and wish that other people’s conflicting word-webs didn’t entangle and undermine ours.

See we don’t weave our word-webs for nothing. Our word-webs hold us us.  Think how readily you can put into words what you’re doing and why, tying off to what you want and don’t want, like and don’t like, believe and don’t believe, a nice, neat hammock of connections that holds you perseverant in your life’s work. 

You have ways to cut ties to nagging, web-undermining ideas, and link yourself to the things that hold you firm.  And then someone comes along with his damned web, and tangles yours up, and you’ve got to find a way to disentangle, to cut the very ties his words are making, for example his words about why your web is flawed and you should pay attention to this instead of that. You need ways to not listen to his words so you can remain snuggly held and perseverant in the web of self-affirmation your words provide you.

And it’s not just you. We all have to do this. We all need ways to say “shut up” to other peoplewhen we feel it’s TMI, outside our pay grade, more than we want to think about or otherwise threatens to tangle and tear the web of commitments that holds us.  And we have to be careful or else by our very act of saying “shut up” we’ll cause him to spin more of a tangled web around us, or make us looked closed-minded thereby further tangling and tearing the web we’ve woven for ourselves.

In other words, we need and collect ways to get the last word, high-minded and pious ways to say shut up, and since we need them for interaction with each other, there’s competition for pious-sounding last words. Shutupsmanship--ways of saying “In my considered opinion, that’s not relevant,” that trump each other’s “shut ups.”

It’s ironic. Words give us the power of ever-expansive thought, a way to hold ourselves to our commitments that non-humans don’t have, a need therefore to stop the expansion, a craving therefore for last words that given the umpteenth-guessing power of words, that, given word-power we can never really achieve.  Our capacity for language makes last words both desirable and unachievable. Hence we’re stuck with ongoing competitions for last words that we can never really have. 

In practice it’s not quite that bad.  Though technically anyone can up-guess anyone else, mostly our last words are convincing enough to ourselves that we manage to cut ties to those words that will spill us out of the webs that hold us. You may not buy the last word I use to shut you up, but if I buy it, it’s good enough.

And lest it sound like I’m arguing that we say shut up for strictly egotistical reasons, I should clarify.  We all really, really need to be held perseverant on our paths and most of the time for altogether honorable or at least natural understandable and inescapable reasons.  None of us can live receptive to all possibilities.  We have to place our bets, and call it as we see it. Most of the time we’re trying to bet right by whatever best standards we can muster.  

Is that egotistical?  Yes, if you mean self-interested. No, if you mean bad.  Indeed calling someone else’s argument “ego” is a classic example of shutupsmanship:  Ego is sin.  Your words are bothering me.  So all I have to do is hint that the only reason you’re arguing with me is your selfish self-interest in believing that you’re right and I can get you to shut up, and do so from some supposedly pious place where I have no ego and yet can diagnose other people’s egotism.

Shutupsmanship has always been a problem, but for most of history one handled collectively.  When cultures were more homogenous, whole tribes were held together by a common web of things to talk and not talk about.  They were more proudly closed-minded than we are, calling their closed-mindedness faith, and cutting the tongues out of anything and anyone heretical. 

We’ve opened culture and, from a shutupsmanship perspective, with predictable consequences. Individually we are at most only a little more open-minded.  We each still need to be held perseverant in the bets we’ve placed. We’ve just had to get a whole lot more inventive and discrete about how we tell each other to shut up.  In our culture which celebrates open-mindedness, we’ve had to invent ways to say shut up that make us look not closed-, but open-minded. We’ve had to devise way to ignore our closed-mindedness and pretend like closed-mindedness were a rare pathology we can diagnose in our detractors.

There are as many faiths as ever, indeed many more of them coursing through our diverse culture in the form of popular moral buzzwords.  Libertarians have faith the virtue of liberty, freedom and self-determination and the vice of political correctness, government control, and oppression.  Spiritualists have faith in the virtue of the present moment, kindness, and expansiveness, and the vice of ego, attachment, and greed.  Business culture has faith in the virtue of empowerment, creativity and thinking outside the box, and the vice of bureaucracy, red tape and micromanagement.  Whatever good these might do for making us more thoughtful in weaving our webs is probably outpaced by the new powers they afford us to say shut up to each other in culturally sanctioned and pious-sounding ways.  Absolute virtue corrupts absolutely.  As soon as a virtue-word becomes widely popular it becomes a new way to tell someone to stop raining on your parade.

The moral thing to do would be to admit that we all need to be closed-minded and then to speak more plainly, honestly and directly about it.  

I find it refreshingly honest and realistic when people say “I don’t want to hear that right now.  I’ve got commitments that your words undermine, so please could you shut up?”  I still feel snubbed but not nearly so much as I do when they make a rationalizing moral case why I’m wrong for wanting to bring things up, pretending they’re open rather than admitting they’re naturally and understandably closed, just looking for a last word that will work to keep me at bay.

Own your closed-mindedness. Embrace it as necessary, and then direct your attention to what you want to be closed-minded about.  That’s the moral and open-minded thing to do. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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