1. The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Entropy
I’m not afraid of snakes. If a cobra was rearing up in front of me, I’d be afraid, but that has never happened, and is not likely to happen soon, so I don’t worry to much about it; and harmless snakes like black snakes and garter snakes I think are pretty great.
That’s not so weird a position to take, but I know some people who are terrified of snakes and run away, literally screaming, from a snake on the horizon.
Similarly, I have a friend who is scared of sharks, and avoids puddles and ponds in the crazy anxiety that a shark may somehow pop out of one. I have never had this fear, but of course if I fell into the sea and sharks started circling me, I’d be afraid.
We might be tempted to say that while I have a rational fear of snakes and sharks, my friends have irrational fears of snakes and sharks, but I think this is doing violence to the word rational. Fear, like all emotions, is always irrational. It is, after all, the mind killer. Caution is rational, and I am, I think rationally cautious around sharks and snakes. But, regardless, my fear of sharks and snakes, we might say without worrying too much about the vocabulary, makes sense, or is less crazy.
(Note that I am not presenting myself as a paragon of mental health; I am afraid of lots of things for crazy reasons, just not snakes or sharks.)
Again without being technical in our word choices, I’m going to call being uncrazily afraid being scared, and crazily afraid having a phobia. I’m making zero attempt to match these terms to some psych textbook’s definitions, I’m just using them in a common-sense way. Like most people I am not afraid of dogs; like most people I would be afraid of Cujo should he charge at me. We can be scared of dogs, but we do not have a dog phobia; we probably know people who do have a dog phobia (and we may know people like Chinese Gordon, whom God “created without fear,” but those are rare), but we can tell the difference between them and us.
Now I want you to imagine that the sinister Dr. Entropy has perfected a way—perhaps a ray, perhaps just a series of Maoist-perfected indoctrination and propaganda techniques—to give people, who are merely scared of sharks, shark phobias. Or perhaps he has the ability to make us phobic about harmless things, like collections of dots and holes or rumpled sheets. This sounds pretty sinister, doesn’t it? You can’t help but consider Dr. Entropy a supervillain, can you? And doesn’t he owe his victims something? Doesn’t he owe us all? I mean, if Jane Taxpayer is so phobic of sharks that she can’t leave her apartment, I can see why the government might let her go on disability. But all the dot-phobic victims of Dr. Entropy—are we all going to pay for them, or can we all agree that Dr. Entropy, who started this mess, who is responsible, quite literally, for their condition, should also be responsible for their upkeep and support?
2. The Horizon Was a Matte Painting All Along
So the first thing I want to say, and you probably already knew this, is that most of your so-called fears are just phobias. Your fear of terrorists: phobia. Your fear of crime: phobia. Your fear of your children being kidnapped/molested: phobia. It’s traditional for someone to now pipe up with, “Try telling the World Trade Center its fear of terrorists is a phobia,” but this remark doesn’t actually make sense. Someone in the world will be bitten by a cobra today, but that fact doesn’t magically transform your snakophobia into sensible snake scariness. (Obviously, you may live in a part of the world that makes a terrorist phobia sane; you may also live in a shark tank; modify all my statements to suit your environment.)
It’s possible that a phobia of snakes is on some level hardwired into the species. When Bushman, the giant gorilla at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, escaped from his cage, zookeepers scared him back in with a harmless garter snake on a stick (source). But most fears, and therefore most phobias, are not caused by evolutionary quirks. And they’re not caused by Dr. Entropy either.
As everyone knows, the government has an incentive to keep you fnord afraid of terrorism because it gives them increased control over your life. The media has an incentive to keep you afraid of crime because it makes clickbait headlines more exciting !!! We all have an incentive to make each other afraid for our children because it lets us narc on our neighbors for letting their kids play in the woods and thereby hurt someone while being self-righteous. This paragraph is hopelessly oversimplified because obviously the government has an incentive to make you afraid of crime and the media has an incentive to make you afraid of terrorism and I have so many theories about why people want to be afraid for children that I could literally write an essay abut it at a later date.
But here’s the problem. People who are afraid of dots, thanks to Dr. Entropy’s campaign—they’re really afraid of dots! We may all be rolling our eyes, because falling for a supervillain’s antidot propaganda is like the fakest reason to fear something. But that’s no consolation to all the terrorized masses, biting their nails in fear every commercial break lest Chester Cheetah appear on their set.
And so a combination of Trump’s election committee, Rupert Murdoch, and your attention-whoring Facebook friends have conspired to give you the world’s fakest reason to fear a rising crime rate when, in fact, all statistics show a long term falling crime rate. The thing you fear doesn’t even exist! It’s like being afraid of the boogeyman, if the boogeyman had been invented a few years ago by someone who had figured out how to profit from it. Imagine if your camp counsellor, when you were ten, told you that anyone leaving the bunkhouse after lights out would get eaten by a Tote-Road Shagamaw. The counsellor just wanted to leave and hang out with friends (and smoke!); it was all lies, and you fell for it when you were ten, but how pathetic to still believe it now, in your senescence. And yet you still buy bottled water because you’re afraid of tap water.
Bottled water is just tap water from a distant state. But knowing that doesn’t take away the fear.
3. Don’t Ask Me, Man, I Didn’t Do It
Everyone knows Mother’s Day is a fake holiday. One woman’s weird Oedipal issues and the powerful greeting card lobby (who also brought you: Valentine’s Day) made it up out of whole cloth; but your mother will still be sad if you don’t call her. Everyone knows diamond engagement rings are a fake custom, invented one day by blood-soaked genocidal diamond merchants. But try persuading your would-be fiancee.
Heck, every holiday and every custom are fake in the sense that someone made them up one day. A holiday like Easter feels less fake because it was made up two thousand years ago by people who believed they were celebrating a theophany. A holiday like Kwanzaa feels more fake because it was made up a few decades ago during the very brief time in American history when anyone would invent a holiday that celebrates “collective work” and “cooperative economics” by someone who was pretty explicitly demographic signaling avant le lettre. But if you grew up celebrating Kwanzaa it doesn’t feel fake to you; it feels like family gatherings and reading Curtis strips etc.
Thanksgiving is a holiday someone made up to give a divided Civil War era nation a common culture. It then got more or less retconned and connected with any earlier, similar celebration that involved thanking people. But it probably doesn’t feel fake to you. Despite being a Christwashing of a Roman pagan holiday, Christmas is so unfake that it literally stopped World War I. (This paragraph is perhaps oversimplifying for the sake of cynicism, but you get my point.)
In this way we are all suckers, tricked into believing that brunch is for Sundays or that socks must match or that making your bed is a sign of good breeding. We can talk about how this happened elsewhere and later, but what’s important is that even the fakest and most manipulated aspects of your culture feel genuine from inside the zone of the manipulated. You know how “kids these days” speak with awkward, forced slang of fleek and crew? Remember how when you said “tubular” it was just a natural way of speaking? Imagine if saying “tubular” somehow made money for someone, which sounds ridiculous, but every time you say “organic” a dollar appears in Jill Stein’s magic bean bag.
Are you picking up what I’m laying down?
4. What Are We Really Talking about Here?
But what I’m really talking about, of course, is being offended. That’s what I’m always talking about.
I’ve tried to outline, again and again, some of the ways that being offended is, in some way (and I’m using this word against my better judgment), “fake.” The term cultural appropriation, for example, was incontrovertibly invented a couple of years ago by people who thought they could use it to change political fortunes (longer discussion here). Feathered headdresses that are now so taboo at Coachella were only a few decades ago being handed out by Native Americans to white people. The time Mike Brady got one is not really evidence, but General MacArthur, to take just one example, received a “warbonnet” from “the Indian tribes of the Southwest” (source) in honor of his defense of Australia. I understand that there’s an element of self-determination in deciding which white people get to wear your headgear, but the point is that no native seemed seemed, in honoring MacArthur, to pause and be offended. They had not yet been carefully taught.
Sometimes people say something like, “You’re not really offended, you’re just faking it”; but this is unjust. As Henry Drummond insisted in different context, we need to take people’s self assessments on face value (except for some people; you know those people). The point is not that they are not-offended; it’s much worse than that.
If you are offended by certain racial or ableist slurs, to go over well-trod ground, you have simply been tricked. Supervillains are using you for their own ends. You end up no better off than you were before you had learned to be offended, just sadder and angrier.
And yet let me repeat that the offense is real. This is the tragedy here. The people who have been manipulated into thinking that kimonos may only be worn, or drawn, by certain races aren’t faking it. They’re the puppets and tools of the ones who are faking it, maybe. Or maybe it’s puppets and tools all the way down.
That is to say, when you are offended, you are most likely in a position analogous to the poor benighted victims of Dr. Entropy.
Unless, and this is the problem, you are more closely analogous to all of us, with out vaunted human “cultures.”
Sometimes you meet a college sophomore spouting profundities who insists we do not actually have emotions, just a series of chemical washes in the brain. But what does it mean to “actually have emotions” that is distinct from experiencing and feeling the most profound sensations of your life?
So people really are offended, they’re just probably suckers, too.
Aren’t we all?