Tuesday, 10 November 2020

No, it's you who hurt my feelings

[epistemic status: i'm basing my assumptions on how human psychology in general works on a general assumption that in certain situations others feel the same way i feel]

One of the more interesting phenomena of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US has been that of the anti-lockdown protests being largely a conservative phenomenon. Both evolutionary and social psychologists have found that conservatism is correlated with higher levels of disgust and pathogen avoidance (although recent research has also cast doubt on those findings). It's commonly accepted that purity, health, and strength are classically right-wing preoccupations (indeed, if you're a certain sort, seeing the words "purity, health, and strength" together might make you bristle). Which makes the American conservative response to the lockdowns—one of open hostility and defiance—puzzling.

In terms of class, the conservative "rank-and-file" tend to be the small-town middle-class petty-bourgeoisie types. So from a materialist perspective, we might say this: the lockdown violates specific privileges that the petit-bourgeoisie treasures. The haute bourgeoisie has nothing but privilege; indeed, even in a period of intensifying class conflict, economic crisis, and declining profitability, the richest still got richer. Meanwhile, the position of the petit-bourgeoisie is inherently precarious; they have a few privileges that the rest of the population don't enjoy, but they can be lost at any point if a crisis occurs or if a personal calamity strikes. And one of these privileges is the ability to be served what one wants at a minimal cost to oneself. (This explains the whole "Karen" thing that popped up earlier this year: the class mentality of "I'm a respectable member of society, I deserve to get my way, I'm relatively confident that authority figures are going to side with me" is what the meme was initially about, before it branched off to be about a whole bunch of other things)

So, from this perspective, the conservative right mobilising against the lockdowns is actually not that surprising. The American conservative movement will compromise on its values of liberty when issues of security penetrate deeper, and it will eagerly abandon its obsession with cleanliness and order if class privilege is on the line. Marx:

We speak of two interests of the bourgeoisie, for large landed property, despite its feudal coquetry and pride of race, has been rendered thoroughly bourgeois by the development of modern society. Thus the Tories in England long imagined that they were enthusiastic about monarchy, the church, and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, chapter 3

But there's another psychological dimension to it that I don't feel has been adequately explored from any angle. Look at videos of conservative antimaskers confronting people going about their daily lives—they're not hard to find—and notice some commonalities. 

Notice how other than the invocation of "freedom" (a floating signifier if there ever was one), their attitude towards the possibility of them getting sick by going maskless is at the very least blasé. They take it for granted that COVID-19 is largely a hoax, or at least overhyped, and as such do not consider it a personal threat to themselves. They conceive it only as a potential threat to others, and one that those others are exaggerating in importance anyway. And this is why they react to others wearing masks and urging general mask-wearing in the way they do.

(there's also something to be said here about how contemporary right-wing conspiracy theories insist that, instead of the conspiracy covering up how bad everything actually is, the conspiracy actually wants to cover up how fine and dandy everything is. but)

This sort of thing has been going on within the right wing for years now. If I was Eric Berne, I'd identify it as a psychological game, and I'd title it "Are You Triggered Yet, Libs?" after the ubiquitous utterance many conservatives, right-libertarians, and far-right weirdos make after doing something intended to embarrass people of a liberal or left-wing persuasion. It might be fun here to talk a bit about how there's a sort of culture of cruelty on the right, but actually it wouldn't, because as a left-winger I already know that pretty well, and honestly the left and centre are often pretty cruel in their own ways, and besides it's much more interesting to me to explore why there's a culture of cruelty than simply the fact that there is one.

Ahem. So. "Are You Triggered Yet, Libs?", if we're going the transactional analysis route, involves two or more parties. One being the Conservative, and the other being the Lib. The Conservative says something that seems, to them, to be indisputable truth, but which offends or irritates the Lib in some fashion. For instance, the statement, "There are only two genders." In response, the Lib might get mildly offended or irritated—this is called Triggering. If the Lib is Triggered, the Conservative wins.

This has played out in high profile numerous times over the past several years. Frequently, the people doing the "triggering" are campus conservatives and right-wing politainers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, or Charlie Kirk and his strange little outfit Turning Point USA. Recently, the meaning of the term "triggering" has become a bit stretched in response to demand: for instance, when some Turning Point USA members decided a few years ago to set up a playpen and dress up as babies complete with pacifiers and diapers in order to make fun of the perceived infantile nature of college safe spaces, they were greeted not just by liberals and leftists but by other conservatives and right-wingers with amusement and mockery. The libs were laughing at them for dressing up in diapers in order to prove a very strange point—therefore, the libs laughing at them were actually nervously laughing, and they were triggered! N—nail...nailed it.

Anyway I said that's not the thing that interests me so much. What's the motive here? Obviously the point is to discredit "the left", however broadly defined. The point is to depict the left as overly sensitive, thin-skinned, unable to take fair criticism, looking for things to be offended at, censorious, and weak. These are generally viewed as bad things to be, and obviously there are plenty of right-wing people with these—wait a second. Do you notice something strange about that list of descriptors? Like, obviously they're not specifically political, but that's what's so intriguing. How do these play out in a nonpolitical situation?

Imagine you're at a small party, or some sort of gathering of friends and acquaintances. Conversation is going well. You make a basically innocuous joke about short people, something about how they're always standing on their tiptoes to see things and you have a weird urge to pat them on the head when they do that. All well and good, everyone laughs. Except after the crowd disperses and you go for refreshments, one of the people attending who's about 5'2" walks up to you and says, "Hey, I'm sorry to bother, but that joke kinda hurt my feelings a bit there."

If I were in that situation—figuratively speaking, I have been, and I'd hazard to guess most people have—I'd feel wounded. Probably justifiably so: to be told that upsets my feelings of normality. Up until this point, I'd believed that something like this joke truly would be innocuous, that if it caused any offence, it'd be minor. But now I am forced to confront the fact that I am responsible for a living, breathing person being hurt by what I said, that what fits in my own sense of normality can in fact be harmful to others.

If you're like me, you basically have two options there, and you have conflicting impulses to do either. The first is to say, "I'm sorry, that was wrong of me and I won't do it again." The second is to say, "You're being thin-skinned; it's just a joke, and you're the one with the problem if you're offended." Both of these have their own particular reasons and consequences. If you take the first option, you're restoring a sense of good faith, helping them feel less hurt, but it comes at the cost of binding yourself to limit the way you express yourself in the future and agreeing to change your sense of normality. If you take the second option, you're making it clear to that person that you are not apologetic, potentially compromising your relationships with other people, but you are also defending your own sense of normality, restoring a sense that the order you perceived to be the case is the case.

And here is where I must take a detour into discussion of Virtue. If you've known me for a while, you might know that one of my minor pet obsessions for a while has been The Virtues. This is because I routinely observe people online and afk behaving in very stupid and unpleasant ways that would easily be avoided if more people took the time to become aware of and attempt to cultivate the classical virtues. The ancients of various cultures understood virtue to consist in the moderation between two extremes. Taoism takes moderation as one of its Three Jewels; the temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription "μηδὲν ἄγαν"—nothing in excess; Islam emphasises wasaṭiyyah (وسطية), the Golden Mean; Buddhism emphasises the Middle Way—you get the picture. All extremes are vices, and often people do not realise that the exact opposite of a vice they despise is yet another vice: often it's the case that someone is annoyed with others' licentiousness and self-indulgence, and in reaction becomes insensible, and perhaps someone else is annoyed with that person's insensibility, and resolves to become licentious as a counter. Very worryingly often, someone observes others' vanity and boastfulness, and in turn becomes pusillanimous and overly modest.

So this has strong implications for the subject matter of this post: neither one of the responses I outlined is universally correct in all occasions. Quite often, the person offended is in the right, and you are not, so it's right to simply apologise, take the L, change your habits, and move on. But sometimes the offended is being oversensitive, and in that case it's necessary to gently but firmly inform them of this fact. This is difficult for many people, because it requires discretion, and many people are tired and simply want hard and fast rules to apply in every situation. Discretion might be too much mental work. Left-wing spaces are full of injunctions to simply apologise when someone says they're offended by something you said; this is an overcorrection against the dominant cultural sensibility of general boorishness toward those who have less cultural power. But it's an overcorrection nonetheless. You stumble and offend someone every once in a while, but you simply remember the rule that You Have To Sincerely Apologise If Someone Is Offended and oh shit now you've cultivated obsequiousness. Which is a vice. Congratulations...?

But as much as I'd love to go on a rant about the Unvirtuous Left, this post is about the Unvirtuous Right. And as easy as the typical left response of obsequiousness is, it's not psychologically satisfying in the way the typical right-wing response is. The typical right-wing response is, of course, to apply a hard and fast rule that if someone is offended, it's their fault. And, if you've been paying attention, you'll notice that this is at least equally, if not more, pathological than the converse response.

What's the draw of this response? Simply put, it guards your feelings by creating a justification for your behaviour. If applied universally, it absolves you of ever having to consider the possibility that you did something wrong—if their feelings are only hurt because they can't take a joke, because they're too sensitive, there's no need for me to worry about my sense of right and wrong or my idea of normality. That's kind of liberating in a way. Indeed, it's part of the reason that right-wing commentators have been able to, at least to themselves, paint themselves as "the new punk rock". The classic image of the right-wing was, as Scott Alexander pointed out, Mrs. Grundy. For a while there the primary form of liberalism was tits-'n'-beer liberalism: if you remember the brief early period of "anti-SJW culture" which relied on a general comparison between the woke position and censorious social conservatism, that was effectively the last gasp of that form of cultural liberalism. And that comparison wasn't entirely without merit: the liberal Tipper Gore and the conservative Parents' Television Council both categorised things like "promotion of homosexuality" and "excessive violence" alongside racism and misogyny as societal ills to be avoided. But as liberalism started to absorb its own "woke" critiques, for good and ill, it started to marginalise its tits-'n'-beer variety. So tits-'n'-beer was, somehow, absorbed by the right. Literally:

But, as I mentioned, this creates its own problems. That liberating feeling of never having to adjust your sense of normality in response to claims of offence simultaneously leads to strained relationships with others. And it creates a sort of strange perspective on harm: over time, more and more varieties of interpersonal harm become wrapped up in the "offence" banner. For a lot of people who drift to crude conservatism, they feel like they don't have their lives under control. Take rolling coal, for instance: the impulse behind it is a simple "fuck you" to anyone perceived as trying to control via offence. Even if it's not especially harmful in the context of most vehicles relying on fossil fuels, it's still a pretty easy way to symbolically rub your middle finger in someone's face when you don't really have any other way to exercise personal power.

And that's a pretty compelling feeling. Destroying things and acting ridiculously to "trigger the libs" isn't actually about actually making the liberals angry and afraid, it's about proving to yourself that you don't owe anyone anything. And that's the actual spiritual danger of it: it moves on from being a safeguard against feeling wounded by challenges to your sense of ethical normality to a safeguard against having to confront any ethical challenges whatsoever. (Lest I be accused of being partisan for the left here, I want to emphasise that the categorical left response I mentioned earlier, of apologising at all mentions of offence, is a shortcut to this same safeguard against ethics, since it just shifts the burden of having any ethical positions at all to others.)

So at some point, the actual categories of harm stop being relevant. As I mentioned at the beginning, antimaskers don't seem to regard COVID-19 as a potential threat to themselves. But that's the only threat they'll mention when they're pressed on it. The standard argument I've heard from them is something like "I'll decide for myself what risks I'll take, there's no reason for the government to tell me how I have to keep myself safe." Which is a pretty compelling argument, or would be if there was only incidental danger to others associated with wearing a mask. But that's not the reason why there's a degree of wrongness to going without a mask: the problem is, of course, that other people can be harmed if you don't wear a mask. In discussions I've had with antimaskers, their response to this is simply winding back to the original argument with different phrasing and emphasis, and some claims about how the lethality rate is much lower than claimed.

Why doesn't the danger to others factor in here? There's a category error here, I think. Say I've already been trained on the rule of "claims of offence = other person's problem". If you're telling me, "You're putting other people at risk by going out like normal without a mask," there's a good chance I'm not hearing you as saying "You are very potentially about to spread a crippling disease causing intense pain to anyone you might come in contact with," but as saying "You're hurting my feelings by going without a mask, because masklessness offends me." I've already committed myself to saying, "No, actually it's you who's hurting my feelings by telling me how I have to behave around you." The thought that I could be exposing myself to searing pain and lasting lung and heart problems doesn't factor in, and therefore neither does the thought that I could be exposing other people to this sort of thing. If I'm not actively punching people in the face or killing them, then I'm not hurting them at all, and fuck you for trying to make me feel like I am.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Thoughts before The Intuition of Haruhi Suzumiya


A tweet:


I want to expand on this a bit.

There's a decent hypothesis floating around the Internet that Tanigawa wrote the Haruhi Suzumiya series as an embellished version of his own high school experiences, although written in such a way as to make the characters more archetypal. The setting is somewhat suburban, and the description of the locale is very clearly based on the places he grew up. The events are a mix of simple life and fantasy: what high school kid hasn't mythologised their friendships, imagined that their highs and lows, their triumphs and tragedies have fantastical depth to them?


A lot of attention is paid, especially in the later novels, to the fact that the characters are growing up. Unlike a manga such as Azumanga Daioh, though, which ran in real time, such that someone who began reading it from the beginning as a first-year would effectively graduate alongside the characters, Haruhi Suzumiya is splayed out over now 17 years—Haruhi herself would be 33 this year. Hold that thought in your head.

Much of the series is the dialectic between, on the one hand, Kyon's desire to live normally and not stand out at all, and on the other, Haruhi's desire to live an extraordinary, outstanding life. Of course, to the age range it's targeted at, these are extremely familiar desires; ones that more often than not coexist in the same person.

And one of its greatest strengths is that neither of these desires are ever fully satisfied: Kyon keeps finding himself unwillingly dragged into situations of life and death, where the fate of the world depends on his actions, while Haruhi, oblivious to her own power, is forced to live a relatively normal high school life, and compensates by overloading herself and her club members with (comparatively mundane) excitement.

I suspect this is familiar too. A very (un)lucky few people ever live a truly average life; something always comes up to preempt it, whether it's a death or a birth, a crisis or an adventure. And yet everyone is deeply familiar with the experience of having their grander dreams and stranger schemes foiled and trampled into the dust. That's the way we all go.

Further, the emphasis on the passage of time complicates this. The characters start to look back on their old activities, all the adventures and pain and joy they had just a year ago, and realise they can't recreate that. It's in the past, whether they like it or not, and the "feel" of it can't be created anew. And meanwhile, a brand new cast of characters show up, and several new kinds of situations occur, and the mixture of these with the existing cast and their memories introduces us to ever-larger and more complex dramas. Everything is changing. Slowly, but nonetheless.


At this point it should be obvious that the series is trying to speak to its readers. One might look at it and extract a sort of trite moral about the necessity and beneficence of change, but considering the utterly strange and alien nature of several of the new characters, as well as the fact that Sasaki, who is practically a second centre of gravity for the last couple of novels, is someone from both Kyon's and Haruhi's pasts, this seems unlikely.

(Quick spoiler warning for the last uhhh three Haruhi Suzumiya novels here, also later for The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya)

The new characters are immediately established as a threat to the SOS Brigade. They have a cohesive agenda, and from the perspective of the main protagonists, it's malevolent. Yet it's very interesting how they're written: their motives are simultaneously incomprehensibly other and (yet) thoroughly understandable. Just as Koizumi, Mikuru, and Yuki are dedicated to the preservation of the world by keeping Haruhi entertained, so Kyouko, Fujiwara, and Kuyou are dedicated to the preservation of the world by sacrificing Haruhi and transferring her powers to Sasaki.

And yet it's their erratic behaviour, willingness to sacrifice, and general hostility toward the SOS Brigade that cements them as a threat. Kuyou in particular is characterised as a person who, like Yuki, is basically alien, yet her relationship with humanity is so fundamentally other, even in comparison to Yuki's, that she takes on eldritch qualities.

At the same time they're dealing with these newcomers, the SOS Brigade is struggling with trying to recruit new members to carry it on, as Haruhi realises their graduation is coming sooner than they thought. The pressures introduced by these new forces make Kyon debate whether to reveal to Haruhi that he's "John Smith".

Importantly, the mantra of "three years ago" changes to "four years ago".

Why is this so important? "Three years ago" signifies the beginning of the story temporally, and the beginning of the world of the series spatially. The time loop created in "Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody" effectively creates the world. It signifies many things, and is used both casually and impactfully throughout the series. In the first place, it's literally the first major event in the series' timeline. Again, it's a reference to the passing of time, and has some universal connotations: how many people, especially young people, are in situations where they can recall that they can trace much of their present lives to a handful of seemingly insignificant events from a few years ago?


But one of the most important things it signifies, albeit indirectly, is the message Haruhi was trying to send that Tanabata night:

"I am here." If Haruhi Suzumiya revolves plotwise around the fantastic results of that message, then it thematically revolves around that message itself.

When you stop to consider it, Haruhi is at her core a very lonely person. At a young age, she came to see her total insignificance in the world, how in a huge crowd, she was indistinguishable. How in a country of millions, a planet of billions, a universe teeming with life, she was nothing more than a short-lived speck. Her whole life has been an attempt to fight off the implications of this existence, to give herself a role in such a petrifying life. If she comes across as narcissistic, it's because she kind of is. She's utterly terrified by the possibility she will die without recognition, and she ruthlessly dedicates every second of her life to staving this off. Outwardly, she's larger than life; inwardly, she's small and terrified of the fact she was born at all.

Speaking of which, do you ever notice how there are never any depicted parents, and extremely few adults in general, throughout this series? If there wasn't occasional reference to them, you'd be justified in thinking that this is a world where children just pop into being of their own volition. This is one of the things that's most attractive about it, to me at least: more fundamental than Haruhi's powers, more basic than the presence of the paranormal and the necessary masquerade disguising it, the core law of this series is individuation. Every single aspect of this series is dedicated to who the characters are in and for themselves, and for their chosen relationships. It avoids preëstablished necessity as often as possible; the necessity of the series is almost entirely determined by the characters' own selves and actions.

Underneath it all, underneath all the enjoyment and excitement, the characters feel real pain. Their interpersonal relationships are often strained, and it's not uncommon for them to overstep each other's bounds. That one scene in The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya is a perfect example of this: Haruhi's actions toward Mikuru are obviously hurtful and indefensible, but Kyon's reaction, though emotionally justified, is unwise and just creates more potential trouble. As the series goes on, things that were played for laughs in earlier instalments—things like Haruhi's harassment of Mikuru, Yuki's detachment from humanity, Kyon's moral and personal struggle with his role in Haruhi's entourage—all get treated more seriously. The hurt that they feel is made more concrete.

And yet, the series insists, this does not negate the enjoyment. Just as the joy doesn't negate the pain, the pain doesn't negate the joy; to pull them apart would butcher the essence. And it's illustrated in one of the most incredible scenes in film that I can remember:

This is the ultimate message of the series; this is what it's trying to tell its readers. Read between the lines here.

Back in that world you rejected, Haruhi is just some stuck-up girl. And Miss Asahina is just some cutesy moe character. Koizumi is just a normal high schooler. And Nagato is just a super-shy bookworm. Well, most of the time, anyway. But if she heard some stupid joke, I bet she'd laugh. And then she'd blush. And as she got older, her heart would open up a little more every day. You never know. She might've been like that. But you had to go and throw away a normal life by hitting that button. Why is that?

Why is that? Because in the context of the show, this isn't a normal life; it's a parody of normality. It's a frozen world where everyone is reduced to one thing, where the possibility of conflict is practically nonexistent. And without conflict, there is no growth. It's a dead world. What's special about the world that Kyon chose to return to is that it's real. Kyon isn't—you aren't facing agony and hardship because your world is filled with aliens, espers, and time travellers; you're facing agony precisely because your life isn't normal, because no one's life ever is. And yet, paradoxically, it's also the banality of it that drives many people figuratively—and Kyon literally—to try to create worlds where everything is "normal", to try to eliminate conflict from their lives, to embrace stasis and what is often called "peace".


This is what the series is saying: this is impossible. More of an anomaly than time travel, more of a fantasy than ESP, more of a futility than humanoid aliens. And you might ask, then why is it that The Disappearance leads us to grieve over the alternate Yuki? Why is "Yasashii Boukyaku" written to reduce people to tears? And it's very simple: it's about change and loss in general. The film wants you to think very carefully about this, and process your feelings fully. It's saying that trying to impose this stasis is perverse, but it's also perverse to take the fact of constant change as a reason not to care. That's the mistake Yuki sees herself making: when she resets the world, she doesn't make the choice for herself, she offloads it onto Kyon. She's been taking a passive attitude to the world around her, accepting her "role" as an all-powerful cleanup hitter, only being involved to the bare minimum of what's needed of her. This is safe for her, but even then it's exhausting. It's only after Kyon decides once and for all that he wants the "old" world back that both of them understand that this is a destructive way of being.

And so the series encourages them, and us, to grieve. Not for the loss of stasis, but that stasis never truly existed in the first place. It at once affirms that it is right to feel sad that everything must plod on in the storm of history, and denies that this is a reason to give up and sink back. I promised myself that I wasn't going to say these words, but: mono no aware.

So Haruhi Suzumiya is about you, as you experience it. The memories that the characters make, which become their driving force throughout, are meant as parallel to the memories you make as you live in the world. Their games are supposed to be your games; their pain and joy are supposed to be yours; the terror they feel at their existence is supposed to be your terror. It's meant, in a way, to be something you look back on fondly, because its whole story is something the creator and the characters are to look back on fondly.

There's something nostalgic about the whole series, and much has been written of the idea of toxic nostalgia in the present day. People are always pining for a bygone past and the idylls of their childhoods. Sometimes this can be dangerous; the return to an idealised past is the hallmark of reaction, and many people use the fact they'll never recover their allegedly happiest days as a reason to give up and retreat. Nagaru Tanigawa has written something opposite to that: in the series, it's the memories the characters make and cherish that give them the reason to keep going on, and in the real world, it hopes that your memories of it help give you a reason to go forward.

It fell from the sky
with all the wishes still on it.
Maybe they were just a bit too heavy for a single star?

As I thought, something's wrong;
the you in my heart has vanished.
Can I even say that I really remember?


The past is one's own;
naturally, I wouldn't want to trade mine away to anyone.

That's because...

It was a birthday to us—
the time our meeting was born
was when we had our first dream.
"What should we do?" and worrying about it.
Even though now we can laugh thinking back on it,
why am I crying over it?

Harmony for you, harmony once more.
Let's just dream our dreams together.

I'll do it somehow, facing forward—
hey! The clues behind you are escaping!
So catch 'em right away! I'm connected to you!
That incident is your footprints...

...I've already forgotten it. I'll search for you!