Wednesday, September 1, 2010

cultural divide

Reading Bridging the Chasm Between Two Cultures was an interesting experience for me. I found it on axelrod's Dreamwidth journal. It's about the gulf between the culture of New Agers and the culture of skeptics, and how those cultures create ways of communicating which do not meet in the middle at all.

In all the din, people in my culture hear what they deem to be hyper-intellectual and emotionally charged attacks upon their cherished beliefs, while people in your culture hear what they deem to be wishful thinking, scientific illiteracy, and emotionally charged salvos in defense of mere delusions.

This is of course a tragedy, but after reading through the skeptical literature for the last three years, I feel that this tragedy may be avoidable.

On the one hand, I felt at first like her point might be that skeptics like James Randi actually fuel a backlash against critically-evaluating cherished and fun metaphysical beliefs like Uri Geller's spoonbending. I sort of... tilted my head and got ready for the Tone Argument, the one that says "nobody is listening to you because you're an angry unlikeable asshole, and angry unlikeable assholes deserve to be ignored no matter what the merit of what they're saying. New Agers won't listen until you're not an asshole."

It didn't come. So here are a few sections from this very thoughtful article. I know it's long, but I read it, and anybody who's had conversations as either a skeptic or a believer should read it. In fact, anybody who has refused to have those conversations for any reason should definitely read it. I know that I've chopped it up into odd quoted sections and put it out of order, but this is at least partly so that when you get to the parts I've quoted you'll say, "Ah. There's that paragraph," and you'll have a chance to read it a second time like (in most cases) I did.

I've been studying the conflict between the skeptical community and the metaphysical/new age community for a few decades now, and I think I've finally discovered the central issue that makes communication so difficult. It is not merely, as many surmise, a conflict between fact-based viewpoints and faith-based viewpoints. Nor is it simply a conflict between rationality and credulity. No, it’s a full-on clash of cultures that makes real communication improbable at best.

Something the skeptics in the audience should note:
I couldn't find myself in the skeptical lexicon. I couldn't identify myself with the uncaring hucksters, the wildly miseducated snake-oil peddlers, the self-righteous psychics, the big-haired evangelists, or the megalomaniacal eastern fakirs. I couldn't identify my work or myself with the scam-based work or the unstable personalities so roundly trashed by the skeptical culture, because I was never in the field to scam anyone—and neither were any of my friends or colleagues.

I worked in the field because I have a deep and abiding concern for people, and an honest wish to be helpful in my own culture. Access to clearheaded and carefully presented skeptical material would have helped me (and others like me) at every step of the way—but I couldn't access any of that information because I simply couldn't identify with it.

Something the New Agers in the audience should note:
One of the biggest falsehoods I've encountered is that skeptics can't tolerate mystery, while New Age people can. This is completely wrong, because it is actually the people in my culture who can't handle mystery—not even a tiny bit of it. Everything in my New Age culture comes complete with an answer, a reason, and a source. Every action, emotion, health symptom, dream, accident, birth, death, or idea here has a direct link to the influence of the stars, chi, past lives, ancestors, energy fields, interdimensional beings, enneagrams, devas, fairies, spirit guides, angels, aliens, karma, God, or the Goddess.

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that’s a cultural conceit and it’s utterly wrong.

This one I was saving for last, because it hurt a little to read.
I've discovered in just the few (less than ten) conversations I've had with faith-based people that skeptical information is absolutely threatening and unwanted. What I didn't understand until recently is that when you start questioning these beliefs, there’s a domino effect that eventually smacks into your whole house of cards—and nothing remains standing. Opening the questioning process is a very dangerous thing, and people in my culture seem to understand that on a subconscious level. In response to their extreme discomfort, I've become completely silent around believers—which is hard, because they make up most of my friends, family, and correspondents.

This one hit close to home for me. I actually physically winced away from my screen as I read it the first time, because it hurts.

It's very isolating to be the one who can't stop herself from applying intellectual rigor where it's not supposed to, because when you make people uncomfortable like that, it feels sometimes like nobody wants you around. I've wrestled with this one a lot. Sometimes I come out on the side of, "Just don't say anything, because everybody already knows what your opinion probably is and if they wanted to hear it, they'd ask. But nobody is asking, because they don't like the way you think and can only be friends with you if they can pretend you don't think like that." Sometimes I come out on the side of, "Goddamn it why is everybody allowed to give their opinion but me! Screw it, I'm saying something like everybody else gets to do. If they don't want to hear from me, then they should stop acting like I'm allowed in the conversation."

I still wrestle with it, though. I don't know what the answer is. Sometimes I just want to crawl all the way into a culture where people like me who "over-intellectualize" the questions we find are considered okay, and useful, and maybe even desirable. Sometimes I'm afraid I'll miss the people I'll leave behind who used to love me, back before they realized that I'm the enemy.

I think that last quote is why I posted it. It's an apology for the fact that I can't unthink the things I've thought, and for the fact that it means I don't feel wanted anymore. Sometimes I want to slip away quietly so that I don't destroy anybody else's house of cards like I destroyed mine, but sometimes I just want to wreck it all because I know that in the long run that the tricky balance between reason and faith isn't sustainable anyway, and I hate feeling something so stupid: hurt that I've been kicked off the sinking ship.

I guess what I'm saying is that skeptics aren't angry all the time. Skeptics don't hate New Agers all the time or even very much of the time, honestly. We understand what New Agers are getting out of their culture, because a lot of us used to be there. Some of us even miss it. We just can't have it anymore. We can't unthink what we've thought, and we can't pretend we didn't see what we saw. We stared into the void of suspended assumptions, and it stared back, and now we're... not like you. And we know you can tell. Sometimes that hurts.

I didn't mean to make this about me. But... the article really resonated with me, and I didn't expect it to do that. As a skeptic, but more importantly as a social scientist, I am saddened by my inability to bridge this gap. I feel, as an anthropologist and a crowd-pleaser class clown, that I should be doing better. I should be the one who can be anywhere, who can fit in with anybody, who can figure out what everybody wants from her and give it to them no matter how complex and unexpected the demands may be.

I'm not doing it. I'm failing.

It's unsettling, and disappointing, and hasn't ever happened before to me. No wonder believers are afraid to ask certain questions; they're afraid they'll turn out like me. Maybe they should be. Sometimes it kind of sucks.

No comments: