8.02.2009

I Want to Believe

One of the particularly brilliant things about the 1990s sci-fi espionage thriller The X-Files is how it rewarded faith. Only in the world of Fox Mulder could his suspicions – “I don’t know, Scully, sometimes human evolution does take a great leap forward” – voiced somewhere in the second act, actually be one hundred percent true. Of course, they had to be true – there wasn’t enough time in a single episode (especially the monster-of-the-week episodes) for Mulder to develop a theory. No, his theories had the weight of exposition. They didn’t just describe the world of The X-Files, they defined the world of The X-Files (insert whistling theme music here).

I believe a lot of things, some of them more far-fetched than other. Par for the course. I believe in gravity (I can test it). I believe in evolution (also test-able, though not on so large a scale as required for it to be accepted as “law”). I believe some traditionally “conservative” things: the government is only mediocre at best at solving problems; that liberal social policies will be abused by people who take advantage of the letter of the law; that people tend to care more about things they own than about things to which they have access; that the second amendment to the Constitution is a good thing. I believe some traditionally “liberal” things: it is smart to minimize the wage gap; racism in particular and discrimination in general are social ills that need constant addressing; that the first amendment to the Constitution is a good thing.

Big deal, so what.

The problem is that when I say “believe” there is a suggestion – somewhere buried between my words – that I believe in facts. Because I'm a reasonable person, and you're a reasonable person, and you also believe in facts. It doesn't always shake out this way, though, and there are a couple of consequences.

When we dispute somthing (is there such a thing as global warming, should the Skylight have fired Bill Theisen, can there ever be a moral justification for abortion), we marshal facts as well as opinions that have the weight of facts. In other words, our opinions start to feel like reality. Our being gets tied up into the argument. Am I smart or dumb to believe what I do? I believe in facts – according to me. According to you, I believe in fanciful superstition. Suddenly what I believe becomes a marker for what kind of person I am. Barack Obama can never satisfactorily defend the fact of his birth in Hawai’i, because to Birthers this is only a “fact,” a statement without defense. What Birthers want to believe is that Obama was not born in the U.S., and therefore, constitutionally, not eligible to be president. No amount of facts (or “facts”) will ever be enough to convince them, because their belief is an article of faith.

I want to believe, and by wanting to believe, I deny any other options.

When we argue, we like to think that we rely on logic. We use causality, deduction, induction – but we also argue from a particular perspective that helps to define our facts. What the Greeks knew, what politicians and the media know, is that argumentation or persuasion is only partially about logic and facts. Logic and facts are simply tools in my persuasive arsenal. The real clincher is emotion, which connects to faith.

The summer before my senior year of university I went with three other friends to Ohio to try and start up a theater enterprise. Logic told us that it would be difficult to land jobs, but we wanted to believe that we were skilled enough, resourceful enough, to find something. Logic told us that we were fighting an uphill battle for audiences, for ability, for talent, but we wanted to believe that we could pull it off. Our rendition of The Mystery of Irma Vep, was, I believe, fairly awful – but I have trouble remembering because my left wrist was in a cast for the fracture I’d received several days before when I slipped climbing through a trap door. It came as a relief when our second show, Mississippi Nude was censored because we’d wanted to use some Robert Mapplethorpe photos that were, at the time, controversial (hard to believe now). It was ill-fated from the start, but we wanted to believe, we wanted our dream to be true, to be successful.

I want to believe, and because I want to believe, I will fly in the face of many things I know to be true, to be good ideas, to be smart.

What do you want to believe?

5 comments:

  1. I think some of what you're talking about here is confused by linguistics.

    Words like "faith" "fact" "believe" have hard and soft meanings. We tend to use these words (especially in online discourse) intending their soft meanings because it is easier to say: "Skylight shouldn't have fired Bill" than to say: "it is my opinion, based on what evidence i have encountered, that Skylight may have made a mistake in firing bill, if more evidence is forthcoming, i will modify my claims".

    When speaking or writing an online comment we tend to assume that others will read the first statement and assume all the softening clauses of the second statement.

    When hearing or reading an argument, we tend to perceive the first statement as something the speaker holds as absolute.

    This disjunct and misunderstanding is typically minimized in person speech by tone, body language, etc, so it is maximized in online textual speech. One of the two habits needs to be dropped if we're going to use this medium for anything other than disruption and estrangement. Either the speaker or the reader needs to be more careful. I propose the reader, for the sake of brevity.

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  2. Also, earlier, regarding the Skylight situation, you said something about how artists will get upset, and then, out of necessity go back to working at the Skylight, cuz paycheck is more important than loyalty (i'm paraphrasing, turning your words into an overstatement, for the sake of brevity).

    I'm curious, have recent events modified that somewhat pessimistic view, or are the Skylight artists as yet no more successful than the other examples you mentioned in that post?

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  3. I want to believe that people mean what they say, and that they say what they mean only after deeply analyzing what they are willing to commit to.

    What I'm finding, and what drives me insane, is that people say what will cause an immediate effect, what will change the world to get them what they want, and that later what they've said can be completely reversed and everybody accepts this. ("I'm breaking up with you forever." Subtext: I'll get back together with you tomorrow if you do what I want.) In most situations this completely confuses me, because I take statements at face value. But what the Skylight situation is teaching me, is the value of the emotional argument, the conditional commitment, to try to get things done. It truly has power when nothing else works.

    ~kelly crandall

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  4. Kelly, you're right, and it sucks. But, i think that power comes at a cost, that people who threaten to break up in order to get what they want in the short term violate trust and eventually pay a price.

    The emotional argument works in the short term, for immediate results, but cannot be maintained forever.

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  5. I'm 2 months late but I relate to the Ohio theatre founders profoundly. Except: I'm not young along with my idealism. I believed in a "Field of Dreams" approach to presenting small contemporary dance. I believed that if I built it, someone would have a magical insight into how relevant and interesting it was. I believed that this magical insight would lead to some kind of magical support.

    I didn't lose my "faith," rather (like your young, edgy theatre company), I now see that my assumptions were so very naive. Sometimes that naivete can carry you a while--it is your strength. But then the bills come or audiences don't and then it's time to take stock of beliefs and dreams.

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