Wednesday, December 02, 2015

When intense nonsense makes sense


I went through this phase, peaking around age 16. When we were studying Ayn Rand in English class (shudder!!), one of our assignments was to come up with as many answers as we could to the question, "What is conformity?"

I came up with maybe 20 answers. The best one was, "Conformity is the other 999,999 in a million." My teacher liked that one so much she wrote it large on a poster (along with some other faves) and hung it up on the wall. The very next one I wrote after that was, "Conformity is the refusal of reason."  

Wait, what?

At that point, I had a year of obsessive Dave Matthews Band fanhood under my belt, and I'd been on a songwriting jag. I'd been writing songs regularly for more than three years, but the past year's worth had been influenced heavily by Dave Matthews' often-abstract lyrics. That's how I went from writing songs titled "End of Time," "Another Way Out," "She's Mine Tonight" and "Throwing the Kill Switch" to such unforgettable earworms as "Glorifying Disillusionment," "Precision-Crafted Abstraction," "Start What You Finish" and "Atlantis and Babes."

And because this was 1996, I was forever surrounded by peers who were equally or even more pretentious. Pretense was cool in those days. The pretense of angst over the hills of the universe like fading stars or whatever.

So yeah, "Conformity is the refusal of reason" is exactly something I would have written in that environment. I recall reading it out loud in class and at least a few people thinking, "Hmmm, yes, 'tis."

The Washington Post article linked above cites a study saying that people who aren't especially self-reflective and/or are prone to paranormal thinking are more likely to mistake nonsense for profundity. But I think it's more than that — I think anyone can get sucked into it in the right environment. Sixteen-year-old me delved into this phase in large part due to the people around me. My gifted English classes were packed with students I saw as philosophical superiors, because they seemed to be operating on a higher plane, and I tried my best to keep up. The last thing I wanted to do was admit I didn't understand something they said. (In retrospect, I realize they probably all thought the same thing, hence all the mutual nonsensical bullshit we all fawned over like the emperor's new clothes.) Combine that with the fact that we're conditioned not to assume any given statement is sheer nonsense, and it's no wonder most people will interpret most proverbs in good faith. 

It's fun to bash pretense in all its forms, but in a way I'm impressed with people who find genuine wisdom in non-sequiturs. 

But don't even try doing that with "Conformity is the refusal of reason." After all, the teenage bon mot never adheres to the soulful brevity of the night wizard.

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