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Woody Allen and Salman Rushdie

I've been reading Rushdie's 「Luka and the Fire of Life」, and came across an excellent poking-of-fun at thin-skinnedness/hypersensitivity-to-criticism/control-your-language-so-as-not-to-offend. This is something I was working on writing about anyhow. For dinner tonight, I hopped out to a local indian place, and while there made a tie of the idea to Woody Allen, particularly the comparison between Alvy and Annie's families in the film 「Annie Hall」. Alvy (really, Woody)'s family is a bunch of fussy, often-complaining, smoking, arguing folk gathered around a table; Annie's is prim, excessively concerned with appearances, takes turns talking, and avoids open conflict or emotional expression. I suspect most real families are somewhere between, but there are still a number of firm lines in there as to what they aspire to be and modes of expression.

What is kindness? What is politeness? I believe, when discussing issues/doing philosophy, that civility is very important, and that one should not use a discussion as a means of catharsis from the tension over an issue. Being reasoned is very important. Outside that context though, I believe that:

  • Kindness in action is a good thing. If someone's being attacked, or needs help, or something similar, you help them if you can, consistent with your own needs and dignity
  • Kindness in words is only sometimes a good thing and is far less important. People who focus too much on this are pests.
  • Kindness in philosophy is generally a bad focus.
I divide kindness into reasonable kindness, which is consistent with one's own interests, focused on deeds/material resources, and basically not aiming to be a dick otherwise, and unreasonable kindness, which is not so qualified.

I think my ideal for human relationships is generally closer to Woody's family than Annie's, and closer to Rushdie's Insultana than his Respectorate. I don't believe pulling punches, particularly on philosophy but more generally between people who are close, is appropriate. All topics are acceptable, there is just barely a concept of "too soon", and there are no forbidden topics. If someone's broken on a topic, you don't avoid it for their sake and let it fester into this holy untouchable. You prod at it, and eventually they desensitise (or at least, through repetition, get the idea that they're a bit off), or eventually you forget or lose interest. Being thick-skinned is a major virtue. Being thin-skinned sucks (there are some areas of human interaction where I am pretty thin-skinned, and those are faults of mine). That said, I need to feel close and secure with someone to feel comfortable opening up that way. One of the things that makes that kind of thing possible is the notion that nobody's going anywhere (at least because of the quarrels). There's also the expectation that people really will take care of each other and have each other's best interests at heart. I feel weird recognising it, but I never made it to this level in any of my past relationships. Maybe this is because I never felt secure in any of them, or maybe it's that I never felt they would share that desire; my grandparents were more of a model for how couples should be than my parents were, and they often found each other ridiculous and told each other so up until the end of my grandpa's life. They were also cute together.

I don't think I'd go quite as far as to fully embrace the 「Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke」 sentiment, but I lean much further towards that than I do an emphasis on avoiding hurting anyone's feelings. I really do believe in thick-skins and find touchy people (or people who are absurdly easy to offend; I once had a friend from Chatham, and when I first met her, even given my normally reserved nature with new people, I initially was walking on eggshells in order to avoid offending the particular flavours of feminism that are common there; things really only got better when I stopped doing that, told her I was going to stop doing that, made clear that I do believe in gender equity and was working on solutions but I wasn't going to adopt "feminist discourse" or political correctness because my flavour of feminism finds both of those to be 80% bullshit, and we both got to know each other and she became less sheltered as she started interacting with people outside of Chatham (we also had some good conversations on positions I held, what she held, and the values underlying each, which helped).

I think if we're too afraid of offending others, we stop far too much important dialogue. If we're too touchy or protective of thin-skinned or broken people, we cease to grow. If our standards of discourse push people who agree with our basic ideas away from us, we're self-destructive. If our standards of politeness are all-elbows, we're unpleasantly complicated to be around.

Sometimes it's pretty complicated figuring out where the boundaries should be given this ideal though. Frequent light/oblique mockery is something I'd be happy with; a desire to crush someone utterly is not. I think the purpose of this, aside from it being fun, is so a person cannot escape poking reminders of the areas where they're broken but those reminders also are not taken too personally and are usually ignored/met back with another gentle poke so nobody feels like they're always the victim. If someone doesn't take part in the give-and-take (let's say they're emotionally exhausted, it really is too soon for them for some issue, etc), that's their option, but they're going to know that they're doing exactly that and they'll feel how they're missing out on a layer of the community; they will return when they're less broken.

I think another part of this is a recognition that we're all broken in a few ways but we're going to try to deal with that and get better, rather than ignoring our problems; we'll use those pokes to keep ourselves and others honest. I suspect Woody's family is considerably healthier than Annie's and that there are fewer secrets and nobody has a BS level of how prim and proper each other's person is. I would even go out on a limb and suggest that Woody's family would be more likely to make sacrifices for each other if someone needs it (even if that help might be attached to occasional pokes); the open expression of emotion is less neurotic.