Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Stoicism and Insecurity lol

I think the world needs more Stoicism. We seem to live in a time in which the expectation of changing oneself and the world becomes an obsession. Stoicism is the inspiration behind the famous Serenity Prayer found on a oil-stained ceramic plaque above your grandmother’s stove. The prayer says to change the things you can, and accept the things you cannot. Stoicism provides the wisdom to know the difference.
    Evidence of our unStoical times is found in the phenomenon of body modification. Celebrities who employ chemicals or facial surgery in order to look younger are often the objects of our disdain, but they are just a fun-house mirror of our own values. Stoicism says that we must keep our mind in a state conformable to nature. The best compliment you can give to a 40-year-old Stoic is to say “You look 40 years old!” Yet we would offend someone nowadays by saying such a thing. With body modification we fight, like a hissing kitten, against the Behemoth of death. And this is considered admirable in spirit, even if we sometimes smirk at the extreme results.
    But even worrying about aging is a sign of insecurity, and we give in to our insecurities in many ways. The topic I’d like to talk about specifically is our manner of communication. Electronic text communication has familiar drawbacks. Philosophers refer to the concept of a “metaphysics of presence,” by which they mean the belief that our words are accompanied by intentions that determine those words’ meanings. When we speak with someone in person, this seems obvious to us: we think we perceive, in some perhaps mystical way, the intentions of the person talking. But when you think about it, the words are out in the world, orphaned from the intentions of their author. In writing, this disconnect is more pronounced. The writer can be absent, perhaps even dead. We find meaning in the words, but the author of those words does not have authority over their interpretation.
Facebook posts are a useful example. You might intend something perfectly innocent by your words, but some smartass friend is quick to find the meaning that best serves his perverted intentions. (Facebook would do us a great service by providing a “That’s What She Said” button in addition to a “Like” button.) Now notice what happens if we object to this smartass interpretation: We have to enter our interpretation into the comments with all of the others. We have no special privilege here.
So are insecure about our communication. We fear being taken the wrong way (when, in this postmodern world, the right way is only determined by the rare event of consensus by the commentators). As a result, a writing habit has developed in which people add “lol” to the end of what are fairly ordinary statements.

“It is dark and snowy out, but at least I have my coffee lol.”
“Happy Friday to everyone lol.”

The phrase is now divorced from what we assume was its original meaning--that the writer was laughing out loud--and is taken to mean something like “I am saying something lighthearted, perhaps even mildly so.” What it is really saying, though, is “I am insecure about people taking me the wrong way.” Words of the Stoic Epictetus should be heeded here.

"Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words. We may, however, enter, though sparingly, into discourse sometimes when occasion calls for it, but not on any of the common subjects, of gladiators, or horse races, or athletic champions, or feasts, the vulgar topics of conversation; but principally not of men, so as either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons. ... Don't allow your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor profuse."

This means that we should not only refrain from gossip and providing inane comments about vulgar topics (“vulgar” meaning “common” rather than just “offensive”); we also should refrain from adding ‘lol’ to these comments. Epictetus is telling us to be confident in our writing. We know what we meant. It is not our responsibility to interpret it for you. We will deadpan all of our jokes, and provide our sarcasm to those with understanding. With confidence, we end sentences with periods.

--Tadd Ruetenik

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