Monday, June 17, 2013

The Jonathan Safran Foer fallacy


Last week, I saw a stranger crying in public. She had just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s essay ‘How not to be alone’ on her iPhone’s NYTimes app, when she was overcome by a wave of deep sadness. I heard her say ‘why is this person so horrible?’ over and over.

I was faced with a choice: I could interject myself into her life, or I could respect the boundaries between us. Or I could look up the meaning and usage of the verb ‘to interject’. (It was a three-way choice.) Intervening might make her feel worse, or be inappropriate. But then, it might ease her pain, or be helpful in some straightforward logistical way. I say ‘logistical’ because in my spare time I run a company that specialises in supply-chain management.

An affluent neighbourhood at the beginning of the day is not the same as a dangerous one as night is falling. And I was me, and not someone else. Think about that for a moment.

It is harder to intervene than not to, but it is vastly harder to choose to do either than to start tapping notes on your smartphone for an essay you plan to submit to the New York Times. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat. The phone didn’t make me avoid the human connection. The fact that I’m a horrible person did. The phone just gave me something to look at whilst ignoring this other human sobbing just metres away.

The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits. I thought of that while someone was crying. Don’t you feel like punching me in the face?

Cares that you are crying

Psychologists who study empathy and compassion are finding that unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to comprehend the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. Just imagine! Your reaction to burning your hand on the stove is quicker than figuring out why a person is sad and what you should do about it. Science says so. And the more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care. Nothing to do with being a soulless, self-obsessed narcissist or anything like that.

Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention — even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” She said other things as well, but by then I had stopped listening. Get to the point, Simone, for chrissakes! I’m working to a deadline here.

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. (I’m so confident about this assertion, I’m not even going to check it against Wikipedia.) And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it. I’m almost sure that’s right: a computer is just a more complex telephone. Also, the word ‘declension’: yeah.

But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up. Especially our brother-in-law, Frank. How we all hate talking to Frank.

Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching Frank. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.

Is it clear enough that when I say ‘we’, I actually mean ‘you’? This is very important. I’m actually a wonderfully caring person. Just look at this bear.


With each generation, it becomes harder to imagine a future that resembles the present. I feel that this is a very solid point. Pretend that I argued it until you are thoroughly persuaded.

Only those with no imagination, and no grounding in reality, would deny the possibility that they will live forever. I suppose that if you were going to write a parody of this essay, you might not even know how to tackle that sentence. Did I just say immortality is within reach, and that you would be a fool to deny it? Wow. Let’s assume, though, that we all have a set number of days to indent the world with our beliefs, to find and create the beauty that only a finite existence allows for, to wrestle with the question of purpose and wrestle with our answers. Are you still with me?

We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or — being “anti-technology” is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly “pro-technology”. So let’s all pretend that I hadn’t spent the last nine hundred words blaming technology for my inability to relate emotionally to strangers, and call it a question of balance that our lives hang upon.

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. Especially the woman in front of me, who’s basically drowning in a pool of her own tears by now, and that I plan to console as soon as I’ve filed this essay. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers. This is not the time to question if the last sentence makes any sense whatsoever. This is the time to feel and to care .


We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life.

I have plenty more shitty non sequiturs. There is a market for telling people that their emotional life is impoverished by electronic gadgets, and I’m right in it. It’s me, Nick, and a few others, and let me assure you that we have the genre thoroughly figured out: blame technology for putting distance between people, or between people and nature, implying that before technology the world was more ‘real’; subsume economic and social relations to ‘the internet’ or ‘smartphones’ or ‘social media’ so as to make all of our arguments circular, their logic self-fulfilling; cite uncritically every bit of social science research that supports our hypotheses, and those only; and make a spectacularly dishonest use of the pronoun ‘we’, so as to turn the experience of technology into a bland universal. To really investigate contemporary alienation would require a qualitatively different kind of effort: one that is much more careful in its evaluation of psychological evidence, and much more willing to question the idea that a life less mediated is a life more authentic. One that is aware of politics, and not just of sentiment. But there’s no money or glory in that.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to leave because this damn woman’s incessant weeping is beginning to creep me out, and people are starting to look at me funny.


11 comments:

Philip said...

You might at least have the courtesy to include an update on the condition of the bear.

Word Verification: place sseduNe, a public misprint in French Algeria.

Giovanni Tiso said...

The bear is dead.

Tamara said...

Seriously. It isn't hard. A couple of years ago I sat on a bus listening to music on my phone. Opposite was a girl who was crying. I smiled at her and gave her a pack of tissues. I've felt that unhappy before. Okay, so I am a woman so maybe it's easier. But there's really no excuse.

Chris Trotter said...

Last week, I saw a stranger sighing in public. She had just finished reading Giovanni Tiso's essay ‘The Jonathan Safran Foer Fallacy' on the 'Bat, Bean, Beam' blog, when she was overcome by a wave of deep admiration. I heard her say ‘why is this person so horribly clever?’ over and over.

Olwyn said...

My heart always does a little leap of joy when someone other than me quotes Simone Weil. It's a bit like seeing in the supermarket queue someone wearing the tee shirt of an under-appreciated band that I love.

"People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little." That is true, and it is a good thing to keep conceptual space open for the recognition of others, the way the monks kept learning alive during the dark ages. This lovely piece of writing is a fine contribution toward just that.

Greyhoos said...

Life's too short for hate-reading. But having made the mistake of reading Foer's second novel, I have to admit I deeply appreciated this.

> But there's really no excuse.

As a rule, there isn't; but at the same time there is. Or so I've found. The cognitive dissonance that can arise from one's own deepest principles, and too often finding that acting on that sort of thing can lead you into all sort of uncomfortable or chaotic situations. Which is another topic in itself, and one that Foer's little bit of pseudo-sensitive blahblah completely fails to even acknowledge.

Irony noted: An older man approaches a vulnerable teenage girl who's weeping over something that is very much only her own business, at which point the girl tells him, "FUCK OFF, CREEPY GUY -- MY MOTHER WARNED ME ABOUT PEOPLE LIKE YOU!!!", and runs away.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"But there's really no excuse."

Or maybe he had just run out of tissues.

Greyhoos said...

> "But there's really no excuse."

I was referring to the remark of a previously commenter. Which on principle I'm inclined to agree with. While in actuality, I've found those same principles have their hazards. Hazards being: difficult situations, cognitive dissonance, and the occasional brush with the police. ("Once again, officers -- I didn't know 'the suspects' until about an hour ago...when I pulled along the roadside to help them jump their car battery.")

But anyway: back to Foer. Unfortunately the comments section only allows for limited HTML coding, which means I can't insert a photo. But let's pretend I just inserted below a picture below:

*img* [ random African-American male of apprx. septuagenarian vintage ] */img*

And let's pretend that he's a homeless guy that regularly sits on the curb on where I live, and whom I know on first-name basis, and sit down and talk with on an nearly daily basis. And to whom I regularly slip some dollars to, even though I know he's never gonna pay me back like he keeps telling me he's going to do some weeks down the road. (Often he's quick with an astute observation about what's happening in the world, or in the city, or on the block ["See that fool there -- you can't tell that boy shit."}, and every so often he veers off in some weird digression -- showing me a picture of Jar-Jar Binks he'd clipped from a newspaper, telling me about how UFOs had landed downstate and were building a colony out in the cornfields.) Plus, even tho' he hasn't told me as much, I deduced that he sleeps in a car, and learned which car it was and where he moves it to to evade ticketing & the like; so if I see the car sitting in the same spot for three days, and haven't seen him in the same amount of time, then I know to start asking around, and...

But now I'm not really sure why I felt compelled to share that photograph. (But the fact that I felt it worth sharing says a lot about me, dunnit?) Maybe it has something to do with compulsively showing rather than telling. Or something to do with telling over actually doing. Or with sharing over...uuaaaugggh! Dammit, now I have a headache. Thanks you so much, Jonathan Safran Foer, for making my f******n' head hurt from involuntary self-examination.

But then again, JSF sounds like an exceptionally noble and insightful person. The sort that always (by default and preference) rides public transit, gathering anecdotes and observations about human nature all the while. Chances are we all could learn a few things from him.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"But now I'm not really sure why I felt compelled to share that photograph. (But the fact that I felt it worth sharing says a lot about me, dunnit?)"

I wish JSF had stayed with that question, and had explored the exploitativeness of his premise. How seamlessly he turns his own individual failure to connect into a failure of *everyone but him* to even understand what socialisation means anymore is truly quite remarkable.

(I too was referring to Tamara's comment, the tissues thing.)

Tamara said...

@Greyhoos - I suppose I was being hyperbolic. And being considered creepy is a risk for a man, which I did allude to in my comment.

Take away: always carry a spare pack of tissues.

Megan Clayton said...

Sent from my iPhone
maternal jawbone
privacy's ringtone
Mama, I know.

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