Sunday, February 5, 2012

If I'm Actually Good For Something --

-- if I serve a purpose, it may be in helping people to un-learn some cliches. There's an old cliche that says that cliches are cliches because they're true. Like many cliches, that sounds good without necessarily making any sense.

The market for cliches is quite crowded; alongside many old and famous glorious-sounding ones, some of which may possibly make some sense some of the time, new pithy phrases constantly crowd in, striving to establish themselves and become cliches. The better ones sound so good that often they persuade us to completely stop thinking about the topics they cover. Lately I've heard quite a few magnificent-sounding phrases of the formula: What defines a person is not A but B. If you come across the right terms for A and B you can come up with phrases which will bring massive amounts of perfectly-useful thinking to a screeching halt all at once. This is where I came in.

Does it make any sense to try to define a human being? Assuming it made sense, could it be done? I'm inclined to say no. Now obviously, the way human society runs at the moment, aspects of people's performance, behavior, rights, responsibilities and so forth are constantly being evaluated by educational, legal and other institutions. In that sense we're constantly defining one another, and no, unfortunately, I don't have any brilliant scheme to suddenly improve upon all of that. Those sorts of definitions, evaluations, judgements are not what I'm talking about. I'm referring to the attempt to sum up a person, or his or her "character." (Whatever the Hell that is.)

It seems we're often encouraged to define ourselves, judging from all of these would-be cliches asserting that what defines you is what you do when no-one else can see, or words to that effect. Don't get me wrong, I agree 100% with these phrasemakers that it's good when people do good for its own sake and not only for reward, and they and I would probably agree almost all of the time about what sorts of things we're trying to encourage: honesty, courage, generosity, trust, kindness, regard for non-human animals species, reducing one's carbon footprint, fighting for freedom of expression and freedom to protest tyranny, etc, etc. Right on. I'm down with all of that.

But not with this business of "defining" a person. And not only oneself: go to a bookstore, browse the biography section and see how many times, on the covers of the books, you see the phrase "the definitive biography" or words to that effect.

So what's my problem? I think people are more complex than that. You're evaluated all the time by institutions in the course of our society functioning the way it does, do you really need to add an overall self-definition to all of that? Why do you need such stress? Couldn't you give yourself a break and try to enjoy and/or accomplish something instead? A "definitive" biography? Really? This famous powerful person whose life touched the lives of so many others for good or ill or sometimes both, you're going to define his or her entire life in one volume, three other biographers of the same person couldn't come up with three or more entire interesting areas you completely neglected? I don't think so!

And that's okay! It's fine! I'm bringing good news here, not bad. It's not that our definitions are weaker or more mistaken than we thought, or that I've spotted anything wrong with the noble craft of biography, but that we are more complex and full of possibilities than we routinely give ourselves and each other credit for. Every moment actually is full of various possibilities and choices, and we ignore and trample that rich complexity when we purport to define, to definitively capture in the few words of catch phrase, or even the few tens of thousands or tens of millions of words in a biography, something as complex as an entire human being.

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