When Small is Big

On Twitter I recently posted this:

When it comes to seeming important, a small movement’s best friends are usually its enemies.

And got promptly asked what I meant by several people. So I might as well explain it here. There are three primary ways in which this is true:

1. Bogey Men Are Well Known

People often justify their own importance by the danger their enemies pose. Therefore they are prone to taking small groups and exaggerating the danger they pose to look important themselves. Doing this makes the bogey man they’ve chosen seem far more important too, though.

The classic example of this sort of enemy is somebody who is fighting a fight that’s already been won. They want to relive the glory days of old, but they just don’t matter any more. So they look far and wide to find some sign that the apocalypse is actually nigh and they are needed to fend it off. The result is that they seize on small groups and make them out to be a world-wide threat. It’s great publicity for the small group that they’ve seized upon. Unfortunately if the small group is actually bad, this is a net negative for the world, but people concerned with their own importance aren’t worried about that.

2. Rallying Points Rally

The thing about large groups is that they all have enemies. So when a large group attacks a small group, that small group becomes the most active place to fight the big group. This means that people who want to fight the big group will be drawn to the small group not out of any sympathy for the small group but only because that’s the place to be to fight the big group.

If the small group is extreme enough this can actually look like a tactical advantage to the big group. By causing their enemies to rally around the small group of wackos, some of the stink of the small group will rub off. This can backfire yugely, however, if the small group is not as generally unacceptable as the big group thinks that it is. The more extreme the big group, the greater the danger of this happening since somewhat mainstream groups look extreme to them.

3. Martyrdom Is Convincing

Having enemies gives you the opportunity to prove that you’re serious. It is only by having enemies than one can prove one’s courage and conviction. There is an almost Chestertonian paradox in this, but one cannot prove one’s valor on one’s own schedule. Real adversity can only come from the outside; it’s only adversity if there is an adversary. Or in other words, you can only show that you believe in a truth so much that you are willing to die for it if someone is willing to kill you for it.

It’s Normal to be Normal

Over at Amatopia, Alex writes about The Pinnacle of Flatness. To give a bit of the flavor of the post:

Extrapolate this line of thinking to cities and towns the world over. I’m sure you’ve noticed that Toronto looks like London looks like Los Angeles looks like Berlin, and so on. Not identical, but close enough. Modern architecture is but one way in which ideas of design seem to be converting on something universal…and kind of beige.

And then there’s urban sprawl and the explosion of squat, concrete strip malls, fast-food joints and gas stations, and big box stores everywhere. It seems like that’s all some towns are.

And this, of course, goes for the arts as well. Movies all feel the same, screenwriting formulae aside. Musicbooks, television shows, educationpop culture…the list goes on.

Then he asks the crucial question:

Is this just where things always lead? Is there an “ultimate design” that we as human beings have finally reached? Or is it the natural consequence of a society that embraces Adam Smith’s “capitalism” while rejecting the “guided by moral principles” part of the equation? In other words, is function driving this sameness, or is commerce? Or is something else?

Though Alex does have an important point which I’ll get to, I think even more important is to point out that his question is in some senses a very odd one. For most people throughout history, the big things tended to be very utilitarian. Dwelling places, transport, and to some degree clothing tended to be first utilitarian and second aesthetic. You have to be fairly rich before you can afford to spend money on non-functional design.

A manor house might well have heavily aesthetic influences in its design, but the average peasant’s hut would not have had a wide variety of designs whose purpose was to express the individuality of the owner. In the era before heavy machinery, those things take a lot of labor which a peasant could not have easily paid for. I don’t mean that people wouldn’t have decorated their houses to their tastes, but they wouldn’t have done much design to their tastes, since that mostly means varying the design from the most affordable one. There would have been variation in terms of adapting to the exact lay of the land, of course, but again that’s a result of not having the heavy machinery to turn anyplace into a decent building site.

Clothing is probably the biggest exception, but for the average peasant one’s clothing was made from fabric spun and woven by the women of the family, tending to limit one’s pallet to the colors wool and flax (etc) came in. And the designs tended toward those which required (and wasted) the least fabric to make, since so much work went into the making of that fabric. Modern clothing is unbelievably inexpensive since the spinning and weaving is all done by fast machines. There would have been variation because everyone made their own clothing and so it was all made differently, but that is a reflection of variations in workmanship, not in the expression of individuality.

But even more than the practical elements, aside from some people aspiring to fame and glory, human beings throughout most of history were not primarily concerned with distinguishing themselves from everyone else. They needed other people too much. Their primarily concern was solidarity with their fellow man. Your brothers and sisters and cousins and neighbors were all people you depended on for survival. Showing how special and unusual you are is a preoccupation of the rich, not of the common man. Novelty is also a luxury of the rich, who can afford to pay for it. But it doesn’t at all follow that novelty is all that good for human beings. Historically there were such things as diseases of the rich—chief among them obesity and various types of malnutrition caused by being able to afford things like white flour and white rice and foods prepared in expensive ways that also happen to leach the nutrients out into the less tasty part that the rich don’t need to bother to eat. I actually strongly suspect that novelty really isn’t all that good for human beings above a relatively small dose. People of above average intelligence—like Alex—can probably take higher doses—but on average novelty may actually be more destructive of happiness than conducive to it. Consider how important ritual—doing the same thing over and over—is to sanity.

Now, all that having been said, there is a very legitimate form of variation which is not available to the modern secular world. That is variation of virtue. A world which doesn’t understand virtue can’t tell stories of the interplay of different virtues, or how different men balance virtues in different yet good ways. As I’ve said, there’s That Story That Modern Screenwriters Can Tell.

Reader Expectations: A Conversation With Russell Newquist

I spoke with publisher, author, 4th Degree blackbelt (Shin Nagare Karate), Dojo owner, programmer, husband, and father of four Russell Newquist about reader expectations and how they influence how the reader perceives a work of fiction. (This is related to my post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) As with previous conversations we’ve had, we also talked about a lot of other things too. You can also watch the video on YouTube, if you prefer:

How To End Conversations

Recently the topic of ending conversations came up and so I thought I’d write down a brief guide to good ways to do that in case it’s helpful to someone who hasn’t seen good examples of it.

And just as a preface, if you want to exit from a conversation, don’t give the other person hints that you want to be out of it. You have very little control over how aggressively hints are interpreted, and in the best case people will wonder why you didn’t trust them enough to say what you meant. In general, passive-aggressive leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. And further, if you want a job done, don’t delegate it to someone who may not want it done.

Before I get into specifics, we should first talk about the generalities of the situation, so that the specifics make sense. All conversations have between one and two purposes. Conversations which might be said to have no purpose will generally have the purpose of fulfilling social obligations to interact with people in some circumstances. Common purposes include:

  • Wanting human connection (to stave off loneliness)
  • Enjoyment of a subject with someone who also enjoys it
  • Passing the time
  • Communicating information
  • Being polite

For the most part, people are in a conversation for one of these reasons. Exiting a conversation in a way that does not offend the other person is primarily a matter of acting consonant with two propositions:

  1. The other person’s concerns matter
  2. the reason you are ending the conversation is that something of greater importance than the current state of the conversation has come up

The specifics of this depend on the reason the other person has for being in the conversation. Though one generality is to make sure to smile as you’re ending the conversation. Smiling makes everyone less likely to be offended, as long as your smile is commensurate with the words you’re saying. (For more, I’ve got a whole video about the use of smiling as communication.) Taking them in increasing order of difficult:

Being Polite

If the other person is in the conversation merely to be polite, which typically means something like the two of you are together and it would be rude to act as if the other person isn’t there, exiting the conversation politely is generally as simple as saying that you should do something else and saying it was pleasant to talk with them. (Note: there is no way to politely exit a conversation if you will still be in the situation where it would be impolite to not talk. “I’m going to stand here and ignore you while you stare at my forehead” will always be impolite no matter how you say it.)

Here’s my stop. It was nice talking you, and good luck with [thing person said].

Passing the Time

Related to being polite, passing the time is where conversation isn’t necessary but someone finds it preferable to the alternatives. When only one person is passing the time, this can be unpleasant for the other person but may be done as an act of generosity. If you’re the one passing the time and the other person has things they’d rather be doing, generally the best way out is to apologize, since it implicitly recognizes their generosity.

Well, look at me going on and on. I didn’t mean to take up so much of your time but thanks and I’ll let you get back to [whatever they were doing or should be doing].

If the other person was passing the time, then the key is to not make them feel like they were a burden. (Even if they were; odds are very good they’ll realize it on some level even if you say nothing and anything you say will probably over-communicate that message. If a person is constantly doing this to you, greater firmness will be required, but if at all possible escalate slowly.)

Hey, it was good talking to you but unfortunately I’ve got to get to [whatever you should be doing]. See you around!

Communicating Information

On the plus side, people generally don’t have emotional investments in communicating information. On the downside, these sorts of conversations can easily get lost in the woods and wander endlessly. The key to ending them is making sure that the other person has all the information that they need and that the conversation doesn’t accidentally become mutual politeness, like the time I and a group of college friends walked to the ATM before getting food together only to stand there and look at each other to see who needed to get cash before eating when none of us did. How to get out of this conversation will depend on whether you are the one who needs information or the one who is giving it. If you’re the one giving it (at a suitable time when you’re not interrupting a thought):

OK. Well, does that answer your question / give you what you need?

If they say no, then go back to trying to answer the question. If they say yes:

OK, great! I’m glad I could help, and if there’s anything else you need, just let me know.

If you’re the one who was asking the questions, how you exit the conversation will depend on whether you got the information you were after. If you did, this is easy:

Hey, well, that answered all the questions I have. Thanks you very much for all the information.

(At this point the other person may take a moment to point you to additional sources of information, such as books, websites, etc. Actually write this stuff down if you can because in the worst case a little effort here will make the other person feel better, and in the more common case you won’t have to ask for the recommendation all over again.)

If you didn’t get the information and it’s clear that you’re not going to, then it’s best to be a little vague, but of course within the bounds of honesty:

Hey, well, thanks. That gives me a sense of where to get started. I need to do some more research to come up with more focused, better-formed questions. But this gives me a good start for doing that.

On the real extreme end of having gotten nothing at all out of it, just thank them for their time. They’ll probably be more glad than you are to get out of the conversation. If they ask if that answered your question, I suggest discovering your inner skeptic. What can you really be certain of, anyway?

I’m not really sure, actually. I’ve got to think about it and figure out what it is I’m even trying to ask.

or

Possibly. I need some time to think it over and turn things over in my head and see if it makes sense or if there’s stuff I still need to ask about.

If it was such a cluster-fudge that you got information that was contradictory or you know to be wrong, stick to what’s true:

Well, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

Enjoyment of a Subject With Someone Who Also Enjoys It

This is the classic conversation between friends, at least when it’s going well. If this is actually going on with a friend, then it will probably be hard to go wrong, unless you have to leave early. With friends, openness is generally the best approach, so if something came up that means you have to run, say what it is.

Oh shoot. I promised my [blood relation] I’d [do something] now, so I’ve got to run. I need a few more hours in a day. Will you be available [time/date]?

This both gives them an entirely believable reason why you had to leave so quickly, and by making reference to when you next talk to them, communicates unambiguously that you want to continue the subject, or at least keep talking with them.

If the conversation has come to a natural close, then mostly all that’s needed is an acknowledgement that you enjoyed the conversation. Everyone has things to do in order to stay healthy and under shelter, so no real excuse is needed, though there’s no harm in providing one, either.

Well, it’s been great talking with you but I have to get going.

Or with an excuse:

Well, it’s been great talking with you, but unfortunately I need to [practical activity, such as eating or going to sleep].

If the conversation was not really symmetric, where the other person was far more into than you were, the excuse is more important. And to limit such conversations without giving offense, try to pick an early but not abrupt point to consistently end them; the other person’s sense of you being as into it as them will depend heavily on how participatory you are, so limiting your participation will naturally encourage them to look elsewhere while still thinking of you as meaning well toward them. (I’m assuming that you do; if you dislike someone and wish them ill, you don’t need advice on how to communicate that. Everyone knows how to shriek obscenities and throw things.)

Wanting Human Connection

This may be the hardest one since ending a conversation is inherently—if temporarily—severing the human connection which the other person is seeking. Accordingly, there isn’t a great way of doing this. There are actually two bad outcomes you need to try to avoid:

  1. Making the person feel unwanted or like they’re a burden
  2. Making the person think that you have more time to give them than you do, so that they are set up for disappointment when you don’t talk to them again as soon or for as long as they were expecting.

As is probably obvious, navigating this isn’t easy, since the easiest way to avoid one is to run straight into the other. The best bet is to express happiness that you conversed and to be very realistic about the next time you’ll talk. It is far, far better to over-estimate how long it will be than to under-estimate it. People are always delighted to hear from someone earlier than expected but feel quite bad about not hearing from someone when they expect to. This is of course difficult because the further off an estimate one gives, the less happy the other person will be to hear it. This is what tends to push us into giving under-estimates and disappointing them.

If this is a relative or other close person, it’s ideal to establish some sort of regularity. Calling every Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening or whatever. The regularity both gives the person something to look forward to and eases the ending of the conversation because less will feel like it’s at stake. If they feel like they can rely on hearing from you again, it will be painful—but not nearly as painful—to say goodbye.

That said, the key is to strike a balance between being cheerful and acknowledging that the ending of the conversation is not a happy thing for the other person. Much of this is in the tone of voice, of course; something gentle with a note of sadness among a generally positive sound is the goal. If you can stick to a schedule, something like this:

Well, it’s time for me to get going. It was great talking with you, and I hope you have a good rest of the [realistic time period until you talk again]. I look forward to talking with you [tomorrow/next week/etc].  [If appropriate, this is where you stick professions of love and affection.]

If you can’t stick to a schedule, then something like this:

Well, it’s time for me to get going. It was great talking with you, and I hope you have a good rest of your day. I look forward to talking with you again. [If appropriate, this is where you stick professions of love and affection.]

Honestly,

It is ironic that the English language does not have any literally-true colloquialisms for “what I am about to say would be too complex to say in a manner that complies with normal etiquette so I’m going to say it without normal etiquette but do not take it to mean that I think you are unworthy of etiquette and still less take it to mean what it would if you were to apply the normal etiquette-reversal filter we all use to know what the other person means”. The standard ways to say things I know of are:

  • “Honestly,”
  • “With respect,”
  • “With all due respect,” (this one really loses its effect since one isn’t bothering to figure out how much respect is actually due—which is not very respectful)
  • “I love him, but,”
  • “I consider him a friend, but,”
  • “To be blunt,”

None of these directly mean what is intended, though usually the speaker understands it from context. There’s not wrong with this. It’s how a lot of language works. It is, however, ironic, that the way one says that one will not use circumlocutions is with a circumlocution. (If you’re not familiar with the word, it means to talk around the subject rather than directly to it, circum=circle, locution=talking.)

The question might arise why we need to do this at all. Why not dispense with etiquette all the time and just speak directly? That would work in cases where everyone knows everyone else extremely well. In small, isolated groups of hunter-gatherers, for example. Outside of that, we mostly only have a basic sense of what someone means and have an instinctive tendency to take what other people mean in its most negative light. It’s safer that way. Etiquette exists in order to deal with this instinctive tendency. It softens what we say in a manner that doesn’t trigger our instinctive tendency to take everything strangers say as badly as possible, while its standardization means that we also know how to invert it to get at the original meaning at a higher cognitive level where our comprehension won’t trigger our fight-or-flight instincts. It’s cumbersome and time consuming but all safety is cumbersome and time consuming. This is also why there are protocols for temporarily setting it aside without losing all benefit from it.

Get Smart: The Next Generation

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2008 a movie was released which was based on the TV show Get Smart. It was called—unsurprisingly but in a sense daringly—Get Smart. It starred Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. It had some callbacks to the original, but other than that it had basically none of the spirit, tone, or style of the original. And I enjoyed the movie immensely. Before I proceed, let me note that I’m a big fan of the original. Here are my DVDs of seasons 1 and 2:

IMG_20180205_093637249

The TV show with Don Adams and Barbra Feldon was immensely fun. I watched it as a kid and still love it (as, I hope, my owning of two seasons of it demonstrates). So how could I enjoy a Get Smart movie which basically had nothing to do with the original?

Actually, that’s how I could enjoy it. Having nothing to do with the original, I could simply enjoy it on its own terms. It wasn’t pretending to trash something I loved, so I had nothing against it. And on its own terms, it was quite fun.

I should note that the movie did have a slight connection to the original, in that the Control which this Maxwell Smart worked for was hinted at as being the same that the original Maxwell Smart worked for; there’s a moment where Max passes a tour which include the original’s suit and shoe-phone and sunbeam tiger, and the tour guide is telling the people that Control was disbanded at the end of the cold war. That’s really the only connection; everyone in the original has retired, having done their duty and succeeded in protecting their country. And that’s entirely respectful of the original. It’s also approximately the amount the movie has to do with the original, so it fits.

Further, the writers of the new Get Smart actually developed their own ideas, rather than trying to milk the original ideas. And they broke with modern movie trends by not winking at the audience. I’m not sure why writers are so enamored of winking at the audience—my guess is it used to be cheap laughs and they’re desperate—but it is a profoundly annoying habit. Its complete absence in the new Get Smart allows one to enjoy the film as a film rather than as a nostalgic celebration of how you’re too cool to indulge in nostalgia.

Ultimately, I think that if next-generations/sequels/continuations must be made this is one of the better ways to do it. Pay some tribute to what you’re following and do something good that isn’t trying to be the original. The odds of recreating the original are approximately zero, anyway.

Urban-Fantasy.com—An Opportunity

Silver Empire Publishing—the company who will be publishing my novel The Dean Died Over Winter Break—has just (as of February 2nd, 2018) announced an interesting opportunity for devoted fans of urban fantasy. (For those who don’t know what Urban Fantasy is but are reading this anyway, here’s the Wikipedia article on it. tl;dr fantasy in a modern-day setting.)

We’re looking for a few good contributors to our new blog! Applicants must be able and willing to provide regular blog posts on the following topics, all related to Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Fiction, or Supernatural Thrillers:

  • Book reviews
  • Movie reviews
  • TV reviews
  • Theory, critique and discussion
  • Analysis

They’re looking for people who will do this primarily for love of the genre because the perks (in addition to exposure) are related to free access to lots and lots of Urban Fantasy. If you’re interested, check out the link to the full announcement for details and how to apply.