Decorum, Metaphors, and the Social Construction of Reality

3rd March, 2007

A friend of mine’s brother, Tim, has some phobias.  One of them is about stairs and escalators.  When anxious he refuses to use them.  My friend (Bea) often asks her brother to let her know if he’s feeling uncomfortable. He seems more willing to express his phobia verbally, and in advance of encountering stairs/escalators, when they are alone together.  Surrounded by strangers, like at a mall, he seems unwilling to tell her he’s feeling anxious, choosing instead to wrestle the anxiety on his own.  He often loses these contests, and an awkward, public moment of ‘aberrant’ behavior ensues.

 This has happened enough so that Bea has been able to observe and note both Tim’s behavior/response and the public’s behavior/response.  She characterizes both as ‘crude’ and ‘awkward’.  Tim suddenly stops or pulls away from the stairs or takes a few steps and then retreats, won’t look at anyone directly (even her), and then refuses to talk about what is going on. The public, by and large, do nothing, or simply get pissed-off, scowl, occasionally mutter some things to themselves, and also avoid any conversation or dialogue (like, “are you ok?”).  Both parties seem to want to just get past the awkwardness as soon as possible while acknowledging that the experience was not acceptable, and have nothing further to do with each other.

 Bea tells me that she’d like to try to anticipate these episodes but feels like she needs more information in order to do so.

 To me, this is an side-effect of decorum (appropriate behavior) and illustrates how rules governing proper behavior have the effect of arresting our own potentials for more detailed understanding of experience.

 Tim is responding to and expressing aspects of the agora.  His actions and experience have just as much to do with him and with everyone around him, as they do with the design of the spaces where these events occur.  There is, potentially, a wealth of understandings waiting to be explored in regard to behavior and environment that might benefit a significant group of people.  Instead, we end up with seemingly pat, clumsy, and hopeless responses.  When neither Tim nor anyone else will spend any time exploring those awkward moments in situ, the events remain vaguely defined (and experienced) by grunts and grimaces, instead of understood, described and explored by nuanced language.  Language is, obviously, a major tool for sharing and learning.  When we lack the words to express ourselves accurately we tend to become individuated from the collective – segregated by our inability to share our experience and thusly disconnected from others.

 It has been said that metaphors are the tools of knowledge.  Think about how many metaphors you have at your disposal for so many aspects of your experience and how using those metaphors allows you to broaden your understanding and experience of countless aspects of your life.  Think about how your ability to express your experience is related to your ability to engage with, and connect to others; an essential aspect of the human experience.  When experience can be accurately represented it can be shared and can be a basis for mutual understanding and integration.

 Choosing to divide aspects of experience into acceptable and unacceptable (whatever that means) is one thing.   Not participating in the exploration of experience – direct, ‘real’, ‘first-hand’, experience like the episode described above, whether acceptable or not, is akin to arresting one’s (and one’s culture’s) own capability for intellectual growth and understanding.  Choosing a grunt or a scowl (or a ‘nothing’) in response to a complex public event involving another person in apparent trouble implies subservience to rules and regs over innate human empathy and curiosity.  Projecting this model forward, what sort of future do you imagine?

 We need better metaphors, and must work on developing nuanced expressions providing more accurate understandings of events and experiences we participate in to facilitate interaction with others. Such interaction inevitably fosters greater understanding and empathy, and often implies evolution and change.  The alternative is a developmental path (things change persistently, and our participation in this change has a palpable effect on the quality of our lives and on the forms our culture takes) of diminishing returns as we narrow our point of view and individuate from each other into a mash-up of misunderstood factions.

 Artists, Scientists, everyone thinks and models (as in builds things that embody key aspects of experience for the purpose of sharing and exploring them with others), and these models become discussion points that bring us closer as I, for example, find an aspect of what you’ve chosen to describe resonates with something true within me, that I haven’t been able to express, until now.

 I think about the areas of experience that I can readily discuss, and about the real but ill-defined aspects that I look forward to figuring out with you.  I imagine that if I accept whatever you express with empathy first, and judgment, if at all, later, we’re off to a decent start.

 Or maybe Tim could just medicate himself; apply a pharmaceutical on/off switch to any unacceptable behavior and smooth those rough patches, keeping us moving comfortably within a clear set of immutable parameters.

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