On Conversational Traps: A Formula for Responses

We had a very rewarding dialectic with our fellow traveler this morning, on a subject that was very painful for her, and centered around characters with whom she has a situation that she doesn’t feel is changeable. That is to say, she doesn’t feel she can work on the problem by making necessary demands of the other characters. We arrived at this topic because she reacted to something we said, and we were present enough to be generous and ask our way deep into her motivations, arriving at the situation suggested above. Our conversation led us indirectly to become aware of an extremely frequent mistake of conversation that results in the misinterpretation of a response, which we would like to reveal. We hope that some renowned language philosopher hasn’t done it yet, and will refrain from looking until after we’ve written it out.

People who use language to communicate don’t really ever understand each other, and it is a high attainment to understand each other’s language, which is as close as we can come to knowing the other’s spirit. A flexible but clear language between two or more people, founded on a few well-rehearsed moves that show not only motivation but agreement to work on certain terms, is a badge of a profound relationship.

We would like to make our argument in a simplified way, not making specific claims about prosody (tone of voice) or choice of words, such as using “why” when a simple “what” would keep the interlocutor going. The rapid exchange of dialectic results several times a minute in the following, which is responsible for language moving in the wrong direction, and therewith the topic, the speakers’ motivations, and ultimately the speakers’ emotions moving in completely unnecessary directions:

For assertion (A) there are, in an infinite set of responses, responses (B1) and (B2), in which

(B1) = Speaker is thinking out loud, organizing thoughts in response to (A), reflecting with words upon the impact of (A) upon his/her own thinking.

(B2) = Speaker is making a completed response (after the process described in (B1)) that contains a judgment of something contained in (A).

and in which speaker of (A) hears the response and mistakes one of the (B)s for another; the most disruptive response is to confuse (B1) for (B2). Arguably, in a sensitive and generous dialectic, the more frequent response would be (B1), which is a necessary thing for many people. This writer finds it next to impossible to think silently when engaged in a conversation. But our brains are obsessed with all responses being of the type of (B2). So we get “butt hurt” when we get a response that we consider to be an inappropriate judgment, and furthermore a premature one.

The ambiguity in the language used to make (B1) and (B2) can be cured through generous and clear use of language. A response (B1) can be uttered, qualified by including a statement such as “and that’s just my thinking, I’m not demanding anything of you by that.” In this way the speaker of (A) will understand that the speaker of (B) is not judging or pushing forward prematurely, as well as better understanding speaker of (B)’s intentions and perspective. It also takes away the ultimately destructive motivation by either speaker to tolerate something hurtful from the other. That tolerance is what we found at the core of our fellow traveler’s problem in the conversation that started our thinking about this.

Again, this doesn’t fix understanding of the other; it fixes a problem of one’s own understanding of what one is getting from the other. But the real truth in the formula is found in the fact that the fix depends on the generosity of the other speaker. The true culprit in this ambiguous situation is selfishness, and to get around the ambiguity we have to place our contributions a little bit into the interests of our interlocutor. This simple clarification is instinctual in the conversations of children, who are often occupied with seemingly lower-level tasks, like juggling the very meaning of the words in a conversation.

Let’s now think of our topic from this morning’s conversation: if the other speakers who are causing the hurt used generosity, she wouldn’t have to make the demands on their language use that she feels she can’t make, even though their language keeps her in a hurtful place.  To be aware of the confusion described above, and to use such a solution as the one we’ve proposed, should work to slow our reaction speed, check our emotions, and look for the common ground in conversation, like children and foreign language learners do.

Finally, we’d like to point out that the ambiguity we’ve examined bespeaks a real existential problem. It is mathematically possible that up to one hundred percent of our misery is caused by when we want something that isn’t there. We find this explanation to be sufficient because the thing’s non-existence can be caused by us individually or can be visited upon us by others, the latter of which most agree gives the right to be upset. When the speaker of (A) hears a response from an infinite set that includes (B1) and (B2), the fact that one mistakes (B1) for (B2) demonstrates that (B2) is not really there, within fairness assuming that the speaker of (B) is sympathetic. Anger arises out of nothing -the insult is not really there -and the conversation can begin to turn around an axis of anger/hurt for no good reason.

As a student of existentialism, which has aided our investigations of language immeasurably, this writer would like to encourage all readers to put these principles into action. The reader will find that the language we use to accomplish it is not so important; when our motivations are clear, the language will reflect that.

To go further from this article: search “prosodic phrase boundaries.” You will likely need access to an article database to view the results, sorry!


What it means: Toxic Waste is better than Green

Note: this piece is a continuation of “On the Psychosis of the Grocery Store,” to be read after the latter.

With the evidence presented in the piece above in mind, let’s now observe its currently popular workings, namely the so-called Green Revolution marketing campaign. The title of this piece is not a work of irony, but a conclusion based on the evidence of the introductory piece above and on the evidence to be presented below. Right now the entire US, on one level or another, is embroiled in the latest consumer fad of going “green.” It seems every major industry is encouraging us to go green by using their products -even SUVs have little perverse green leaf badges on their rear ends, right above the exhaust pipe.

This means, by a definition compiled from all the products and services that I’ve seen marked “green,” that the product or service is less harmful to the environment with regard to its ingredients, construction, business practices, und so weiter. We shall take the scare quotes away from “green” for the rest of the paper to avoid being annoying, and take pains to avoid describing anything below that is in fact colored green, except when describing packaging on materials that are supposed to be “green.” You get the idea.

For instance, my credit card is green because I can get a statement online rather than a paper envelope containing a paper account that must be delivered to me by airplane or truck. My household cleanser is green because it’s made of plant-derived chemicals found naturally in the earth, so it theoretically shouldn’t harm the ground that I empty the mop bucket on, nor contribute harmful chemicals to the sewer system. One of my Spanish 1 students retorted to my hemming and hawing about consumerism by showing me that the plastic cap on her plastic water bottle is green because it’s smaller than it used to be (indeed its label, which is usually red and white, was now green). I noticed right away when she showed me, because one’s hands memorize a bottle cap.

As we discussed in the introductory piece above, our symbols are undergoing modification to protect us from the concept of starvation or harm; they are symbols protecting symbols from other symbols. We now have this green symbol that protects us from the symbol of environmental disaster, which threatens our symbol of selfish satisfaction and prosperity. That’s not a blame on anyone; that’s a report on reality. However, as we suggested toward the end of the piece above, these products are still produced in the exact same way as the more harmful products, yea, even side by side with some. Similarly, the credit card is still a piece of plastic made in a factory and loaded with information enlivened and managed by coal, gas or nuclear powered computer systems, and the people who manage it still commute to work through the usual methods, und so weiter. The most dramatically stupid example of this scam may be cars, which are extremely destructive to produce, but recycled packaging for convenience food items is just as culpable.

We want to talk here about the productivity of our symbols. The fact is that the green revolution is a desperate shift in marketing and production that protects our most valuable anti-hunger symbol, that of the unshakable presence of consumption. Consumption protects us from hunger, and now environmental crisis threatens consumption. Green means that we can keep driving individualistic cars (to be discussed in our next psychosis essay, if we ever finish researching it), keep buying packaged food and goods, keep doing things exactly as we do, as long as it’s green. Greenness is ordering us to keep consuming, and most of us are eating it up like hungry dogs. But what about our behavior modification proposed above, that of reconnecting to all things through growing our own food, and so forth? If we grow our own food, as discussed above, we get the understanding of our seasonal lifecycle, and so forth. If we buy green, we’re still buying.

We’re experiencing a huge resistance to the green revolution by many consumers, even though this shift is barely different at the point of purchase -that is to say, they sit on the same shelf and we pick one -and certainly not an effective solution to our environmental crisis. This is because greenness is not effective enough a symbol for our above-demonstrated symbolic economy. Toxic waste is an excellent symbol, as even the lousiest of our high school history books tell us (see Loewen, “Lies my Teacher told Me, usw). No one likes toxic waste, no one wants to swim in a polluted body of water, no one wants to live next to a dump. Therefore, to ditch the green scam and go back to paying attention to toxic waste would be a much more effective symbol for driving behavior modification. But of course greenness is far more profitable for those selling the products; toxic waste is only ever a liability. As long as we’re in a consumerist mindset, any consumer-oriented brainwashing will be effective on us.

There is of course a graduation of actual effectiveness of these green products. As mentioned above, my household cleanser actually can be dumped in a cold compost pile without hurting the stuff living in the compost. The dust and crap I clean off my surfaces is probably more harmful. When the cleanser runs out every three years or so, I wash the plastic container out and either get it refilled with a new natural cleanser (I’m spoiled by living in northern California) or I throw it in the curbside recycling.

Furthermore, it could be argued validly that we need some things, like toilet paper and soap. Those of you who make your own natural toilet paper and soap are welcome and encouraged to knock this section down a peg. These products are nevertheless prime candidates for one hundred-percent recycledness. Of course we can make natural soap -we’ve been doing it for centuries. Of course we can make waste paper into toilet paper. It’s all paper, unless it’s one of the heavily treated kinds.

However there is an opposite and ridiculous side to this. In my district they’ve outlawed polystyrene packaging, and vegetable starch-based fast food packaging has become the mandatory rage. So I got breakfast a few sundays ago and took it to the beach, which I almost never do. When the food was gone, we were stuck with a biodegradable plasticine bag, a potato-starch paper carton, and potato-plastic forks -which could not be thrown in the recycling because they’re biodegradable. The alternative: throw them in the regular beach garbage can, which is lined with an old-fashioned plastic bag. So the biodegradable mass still won’t ever biodegrade, because it’s now stuck in a plastic bag in the garbage museum. In this way, the green revolution will cause more garbage and threaten the funding for recycling, which encourages us not to recycle, but rather to stay lazy and wasteful unless we have a compost bin at home for the packaging.

More important than arguing the validity of green products is recognizing how fast the introduction of greenness has set up a tyrannical rule over our perception of environmentally harmonious living. Ten years ago “organic” was still a relatively new idea for most people, and now there’s a “certified organic by whomever” sticker on almost everything in the store to help us use our new green symbol. Has anyone asked a Navajo in the desert or a Bavarian high in the mountains how they’ve managed for so long? Of course not. They don’t have the “organic” sticker, and we mean that literally. A piece of cave-aged cheese from France from a provincial farmer can’t be organic, because it’s natural, and hence doesn’t need to be graded by the organic police. I was talking to a Mexican man I know who works up here and then spends what time he can at his family’s ranch in the central Mexican mountains. At home he does everything “naturalmente,” a description I eagerly encouraged him to use. He at first said “organico,” but I assured him that I understood that he meant natural, and the conversation went on with a wonderful easiness of understanding.

In colonizing our consciousness, Green has made us as scared of naturalness as the processed food titans of the twentieth century did. A solution: begin to connect to all things by raising even the smallest bit of food for oneself. We must realize that we’re scared of tradition because we’re supposed to be doing this increasingly ridiculous “progress” thing. Organic and green are not a solution to the side effects of progress. Dwelling on toxic waste will just make us scared, but what action we take when confronting fear will have a much greater longterm effect than action taken from delusion. I’m not qualified to argue that point; one may look up the civil rights movement for a good dramatization.

We can conclude by reflecting on how easy it’s been, for those of us who have gone green, to go green. Anyone who thinks that they’re going to save the environment (“save” being the egotistical active word) through consumption is gullible. Hitler used simple semantics and rhetoric to convince drunk laborers in the beer halls that, given we=poor and jews=in germany, then of course jews/(#jobs – #us) is a function f(x) when x=the regression into poverty of us. This was one of his simplest ones, but you get the idea. Similarly, Jackson argued that, since there was so much gold in Georgia Territory and so many Indians in that territory blocking the white man from getting at that gold because it was under their homes, then the Indians were guilty of keeping the white man in poverty. The above examples are identical to the present argument that toxicness and wastefulness are keeping us from feeling good about our rampant consumption. So, like Hitler and his mentor Jackson, we march toxicness and wastefulness off on the trail of tears with our mighty weapon greenness. Like the Indians and the Jews, toxicness and wastefulness are nevertheless still here, and we’re not addressing the issues around them realistically.

On the Psychosis of the Grocery Store

On the Psychosis of the Grocery Store

As we’ll state many times, in discussions of this nature, the communities of the rich world are moving toward an existence more and more dependent on symbols, which is precipitating a massive individual, isolated decoding effort that’s replacing actual communication between people.

It could be argued that language and money are currently the most important symbolic systems in the world: neither actually produce or describe anything, but rather reflect our desires about things. The cultivation of language, for instance, is beautiful to the one who can do it. Nevertheless it is ultimately an economy of diminishing returns, as with the cultivation of money, because a person’s fluency in a language is far more a result of his or her ability to understand his or herself than the product of plying the tools of language to a certain craft.

As a brief example, a man may tell his significant other that he loves her more today than he did yesterday. When we get to the reality of things, this declaration isn’t the complement that we all surely assumed it was upon first mention, for the individual is, in all likelihood, professing the miraculous ability to allow himself to feel more love for her than he allowed himself to yesterday. Many of us will never get to this point, and our symbols for love must labor under our anemia. Of itself, the expression is beautiful to us, for we all would have it reflect our desire for love, and we all want it to be a complement. But it is actually a reflection and not a complement to be conferred on another as a result of exposure to the other’s desirable traits.

Money, as a symbol, works in much the same way, and with equally as disastrous consequences. Money is the symbol of our ability to achieve the objects of our desires, or, to put it in its full perversity, a symbol for catching symbols. Of course the ability to get what we want is far more important to us from day to day than actually getting what we want (just ask doctor Faust), so money becomes more important than the actual product it buys. Again, we gain a symbolic victory by using symbols to catch symbols, and this burns up enough of our energy to render us useless when it comes time to go outside and let our bodies have some fun.

This economy of symbols has now reached our food. It did decades ago, more or less after the second world war, when the military learned how to turn weapons into fertilizer, literally feeding us the stuff of war. Yet only now do some, like Schlosser, Pollan, et al., begin to discuss the implications of our divorce from the material economy of our most basic needs in favor of a symbolic replacement for it. The irony here is, though we are (for now) adopting a very materialist analysis of this condition, the problem is that the material is being largely ignored by individuals, and that technology has prevented the divorce within us to starve us to death.

Now we come to our argument. As Pollan so lucidly points out, the wealthy country’s grocery store has no seasons. Somewhere in our longitude there’s a warmer latitude this time of year, or a greenhouse, whence someone will provide us with out-of-season food through the shortest possible distance between us. If the food threatens to go its natural way before it arrives at our arm’s length, we can preserve it any number of ways. We then grow so accustomed to the safety of preservation (though bacterial outbreaks continue to remind us of its fallibility) that we regard anything that hasn’t undergone the rite of preservation and been served to us clinically dead with extreme suspicion. Has anyone ever tried to offer homemade sauerkraut or kombucha (this writer is from California –ignore the latter if you don’t know what it is) to the grocery store-brain and had the guest, learning that it’s five weeks old and raw, decline to try out the masterpiece?

The net effect here is that the model of the wealthy country’s grocery store, with its rows of processed and colored sameness and its practically immortal produce, becomes the only acceptable model for getting food. The method of acquiring food through this ritual conveniently requires the use of our money, symbol of our ability to master the objects of our desire. We’ll keep the even weirder fast food model out of the scope of this discussion for at least two reasons: it’s more weirdness, and we want to impress upon the reader that the grocery store is just as weird, quality differences be damned, and creates just as unhealthy a relationship with the material world and with what we’d like to think of as all things.

The fact that we have grocery stores, like so many other things we now have, somehow generates a symbol in our minds that convinces us that we need grocery stores. We actually don’t, strictly speaking; grocery stores are a technological extravagance  that we’d like to consider beautiful, just like language and money, and all are now governed by the out-of-control symbolic systems we’re using.

That delusional need for a certain model of existence, that psychosis of the grocery store, is what we would like in this discussion to begin healing from, that we may heal our connections to all things.

We mustn’t let our egos run off, however, and blame people for being like this. For a start, that would not be the reflection of our inner relations that we are so proud of exhibiting. On a more practical level, how is a person brought up from childhood going only to the grocery store to be blamed for keeping such as his or her only model for getting fed? To confront this we must confront the false safety engendered in us by the store.

The grocery store’s existence motivates us to regard it as the symbolic satiation of our hunger (ever since the time we invented it to do just that). No matter what happens, no matter how low our chances get of taking advantage of it, the grocery store is always there. If an earthquake or a hurricane knock it down, it can be reproduced exactly as it was. Knowing that it’s there eases our hunger. We should like at this point to verify that this is not strictly a materialist analysis. For one, the physical reality of hunger is greatly amplified by the spiritual events inside us, and, for another, should we confine ourselves to materialism, the ghost of Weber will rap our knuckles.

The fear of losing the food security promised by the grocery store is one of the strongest contributors to the psychosis of the grocery store. To measure how decadent, delusional and de-natured a community is, one must simply count the number of things that its members feel they stand to lose. The sum is proportionate to the delusion; how many things do unwesternized, indigenous people, prisoners and slaves feel that they have to lose compared to the commuting suburban couch potato? Not a hell of a lot.

As with many things, we must confront the fear of loss in order to come clear with the grocery store. Ironically, the strength of fear in this situation is swiftly destabilized when one begins to heal one’s connection to the growing world by learning to grow our own food. In fact, this writer conceived this essay a few years ago, just a few weeks after first spending no money on lunch by eating potatoes and collard greens grown in a square meter of rehabilitated apartment dirt using only water, sunlight and eager attention.

Furthermore, it’s not that we completely lack a connection to all things, but that we know that we can grow our own food with a tiny amount of soil for at least a few seasons of any climates year as we have for millennia, yet we don’t. We lose belief that it’s possible. The lack of balance between the frequency of luxurious trips to the grocery store and the real physical and spiritual toil of trying not to screw up the carrots has the following result: our clever brains simply make a hard turn away from the less-frequently visited vibration. If we add this to many people’s current lack of knowledge of cultivation and the lack of belief that it’s possible, we get a terror of instability. That instability is in turn a symbol for the terror of starvation, no matter how unconscious, or of not achieving the objects of our desire, if that’s better, and the vessel of that terror will prostitute itself to any force that promises to protect it. Hence we’ve got a deluding set of tools developing: a symbol that catches symbols, and a symbol that protects symbols.

We’d now like to raise the problems in our discussion to the level at which they encounter the out-of-control symbolic systems suggested above. We shall review our argument once more, but this time we’ll look at it in terms of symbols and of the psychosis, the unhealthy delusion, that they cultivate inside us.

We have a fear of hunger. The grocery store has the potential to cure our hunger, but its important role as a symbol is to reflect our desire never to be hungry. This is precisely because of the reality of growing our own food. However, just as we can spend money and make what we want magically appear in front of us without having to actually produce the thing, we can go to the grocery store and feel the relief that we’ll soon not be hungry, as we mentioned above. When naturally cultivating food, that guarantee is not constantly present.

Without discussing it, we in the store’s vicinity agree that the store will be a symbol of our security. As a proving action, we all go to it for food, and this normalizes its presence, gives it a symbolic identity that shields any other possible identities from our perception. Should one of us claim not to go, our brains become so overcome with terror at the thought of insecurity that we first assume that he or she must go to a different one. Maybe a cheaper one or a more expensive one, or one that takes checks.

The symbol of the grocery store, in any case, is as portable as the design of the store, and as language and money even, so it spreads, and the process begins again in another neighborhood. In our rush to make our symbols agree, that is, to make them like real communication (which they’re not), we rush to all accept that the grocery store is the model for security against hunger. We use a symbol (language) to rapidly reproduce symbols that protect us from other symbols. Then we wonder why no one understands each other, even when we’re being honest, even though we harp on the same strings for centuries. A more ambitious scholar will take Victor Borge’s and this writer’s cue from here and demonstrate to us the “obesity of language.”

If we add to the above the wicked, delusional and stupid symbology of the advertising necessary to support industrial food production, before we know it we can only prepare food at home that comes from our symbol store lest the specter of insecurity bleed through our thatch of symbols. For the most obvious example of this, see what happens to people who visit the frozen aisle often. Without digressing too much, we should also like to suggest the health implications of what happens when one acquires the habit of budgeting food money exclusively according to the store’s prices. In any case, we cannot blame people for not knowing what to do with a kitchen full of garden-fresh produce, unfrozen, unbalanced, unsoaked, unsalted.

We need to begin using the simple solution of growing our own food, of making ourselves vulnerable to the seasons and the whole uncertain astrology of natural reality. Action is great for reducing fear, if only because it makes us too busy to be afraid. We don’t have to be land owners or independently wealthy or unemployed to do it; one needs only to start, to meet someone who’s done it and let him or her banish doubt with stories and instructions.

We need a body and spirit that know store-food from home-food, and that can see its own fingerprint in its food, if that’s what’s necessary. Of course this applies mainly to vegetables, but that still has a quantitative value, and with ingenuity one can also cultivate eggs. With a healthy, realistic relationship to both foods we can make decisions about them. One cannot change who doesn’t think they have the choice (another useful measurement of decadence), and one cannot liberate a thing from its symbol until one can make good decisions enough to trust oneself with building new meanings for the symbols through communication with other people. We can’t yet resolve the issue of our talking mostly to ourselves, so we must overcome our psychoses and use our symbols freely as the simple, governable tools they are supposed to be. We can use them toward growth and healing, until perhaps the symbols aren’t as important to us as communication about a thing. Then a grocery store can be a grocery store, an opinion can be an opinion, people can be healthier and more respectful of the earth, and a wall of delusion can fall to reveal our connection to all things.

If we don’t do this, a destructive consumption cycle will continue to grow. To pick up from the digression above, we must consider that, since we agree to rely on the food in the store to fill our very model of what food is, and support our symbols of survival, there has been constructed a very powerful capitalist machine to provide that to us. We speak namely of companies like Monsanto, Cargill and ConAgra (these are the heads of many, many smaller and friendlier companies), who own so much of the means of producing our food that no one wants to think about it lest they have an Orwellian panic attack.

These companies are pursuing the money symbol, and their psychosis works in perfect harmony with that of us consumers, as we have demonstrated above with the interdependence of spending money and visiting the grocery store. They know that we use symbols to protect our symbols from harm, and they’ve mastered how to become one of our symbols while hoarding plenty of their own favorite symbol. They will drain, starve, and destroy as much land as they can to have more capital, and are suing, robbing and shutting down as many farmers as they can in order continue. This obviously isn’t something an entity does when it lives by a connection to all things. If we train our bodies to make decisions about whether to eat store-food or home-food, we take away a large share of Agribusiness’ power.

We shall conclude by reminding the reader of the goal of these essays, which is to demonstrate that these “psychoses,” and we as their vessels, are currently stuck in a negative feedback loop with the conditions that gave rise to them, and with our efforts to maintain them, though they’re no longer valid or useful. The psychosis of the grocery store is in large part caused by unsustainable economic novelties invented to keep an expanding America fed, of which the model of the grocery store is comprised, and by our repeatedly renewed response to it, detailed above.

These discussions all point toward the problem of self-preservation, and our symbolic structure should now make it clear that the decadent industrial world has gone so far beyond a meaningful, natural sense of self-preservation (to whose formulation we invite the reader), that we now feel the need to preserve our symbols for survival as much as the means of survival themselves. Unless we let go, all of these precious white liberal progressive ideas and movements for change will amount to nothing but running in circles. We cannot, for example, ever hope to cure global warming by driving hybrid cars and consuming at the level that we believe to be necessary. We’re to save the world with a car that is constructed, advertised and delivered to us using the same polluting methods as to for a “utility” truck? Whoever’s fooled by that deserves to have his or her house eaten by rising seas.

It is true that our quantity and habit of consumption is unsustainable, “organic” or otherwise, and is very close to wrecking our communities. However, rather than proposing a hysterical, millenarian apocalypse, as is the fashion, we suggest that the end of our communities as we know them is but a point in time, on either sides of which life shall go on. We have proposed furthermore that we look at our place in the circle of history and simply use new habits to shift our direction. The platitude that habits are some of the most difficult to change is itself born of habit, and we must work on many levels of our consciousness in order to render habits more pliable. This is proven to be possible through traumatic experiences, such as surviving cancer, seeing a gruesome film, hearing a tear-jerking story, and so forth. The simple plans for healing from the psychosis of the grocery store are indeed also plans to heal from our consumption habits, and there we have a tool that we can use for good: an action that disciplines and constrains symbols.