In bad light, you’re a real jerk…Let’s be friends.

Oct 31st, 2009 | By | Category: CG Blog

My son is afraid of himself.

He doesn’t like to enter his bedroom alone. The Other Bastian will ‘get’ him.

The real problem is the mirror. It doesn’t hang flat against the wall and so it reflects a very slightly slanted view of the room. Bastian knows it’s just a mirror. He ignores it most of the time, but every now and then he talks about The Other Bastian as though his reflection is a real boy, and a spooky one. Yet he doesn’t want me to remove the mirror. He likes it, even though it scares him a little.

And thus a superstition is born.

But this is a post about biases, not superstitions. Right? Yes and no. In and out. Heads. Tails.

Superstition is any blindly accepted belief or notion

Bias is a particular tendency or inclination, esp. one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question; prejudice

Bias and superstition both come from the same human drive: Fear. They both cause the same result, too: Distance from reality.

When we’re honest, we admit that much of living is putting up with shit we don’t like and that doesn’t like us. It’s a tale as old as time, but back before our creation myths were set in stone, it was simply a matter of survival. Fear is foundational stuff, and ‘fight or flight’ is going nowhere, even if we’ve outlived its usefulness on the grand scale.

‘If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.’

Ideally, my son should feel safest in his room. So why does The Other Bastian emerge there and bother him nowhere else? Because that’s where he feels safest. With no outside threat to perceive, he invents one to satisfy that deep-brain part of himself. That’s also why he won’t let me take away his mirror; the next fright he gives himself may not be as easy to appease as The Other Bastian (who disappears in the presence of laughter).

So… We need our fear? Indeed. Fear is called a ‘drive’ for good reason. It’s a damned effective motivator. And where we aren’t faced by clear and present danger in our everyday lives, we will invent threats to our identities in order to produce the reward our instincts demand: Self-preservation.

There, I said it. It’s all made up. We allow ourselves to be driven by fear of The Other. It is a completely selfish instinct we inherited from the ancient geniuses who also gave us the secret of fire.

You already knew that. At some point in your childhood you figured out that there’s a difference between reality and make-believe. After which you promptly ignored that inconvenient data and went on pretending about Santa Claus or [insert your favorite myth-of-choice here]. You did it for your younger sibling’s sake. You did it to manipulate your parents. You did it because it takes effort to be reasonable, and everyone else was doing it, anyway.

Here’s the news: Superstition isn’t bad and bias isn’t evil. They’re just dumb.

If you’re already arguing with me, I understand. I prefer to demonize the irrational, too. However, if I examine the matter closely enough, I must acknowledge that no survival impulse is a terrible thing in its own right. It’s just that we have few appropriate applications for them in present context. Nowadays, we shouldn’t be surprised if our superstitions get us laughed at. And we shouldn’t be shocked if someone jumps all over our shit any time we reveal our biases. That’s exactly what should happen, in fact, and we should pay close attention while we are getting schooled. How else will we learn?

What’s the difference? What makes superstitions laughable and biases actionable? Direction. Superstitions are rubber and biases are glue; we may do silly or stupid things under the influence of our superstitions, but our biases firmly locate responsibility for our identities outside ourselves. We may cling to superstitions in the face of reality, but it takes a lot of effort to make them stick when we apply them to other people. On the other hand, biases are all about sticking it to someone else.

Because it’s one thing to have a favorite food or to believe in a god. It’s another monster entirely when we start insisting that other people align themselves according the stories in our heads.

Ready to walk out of the abstract? I brought concrete.

I’m a good girl at last; I married a man. We even procreated together. What the fuck, but some days it seems like the whole world wants to give us a prize for the kind of sex we had four years ago while we were trying to conceive. It’s scary to crash a party like that. Who knows how the bigots will react when you drop the bisexual bomb? Will it end with the raising of eyebrows? After someone leers at me and calls my husband a ‘lucky guy’? Will it stop when someone crosses the ‘faggot’ line? Or will it quietly snowball until someday I’m brave enough to attend another family reunion and I once again find myself looking down the wrong end of a gun barrel?

Not concrete enough?

Go even further. Take the belief that color has inherent meaning. White good; black bad. It’s nonsense, of course, and if that was where it stopped, everyone who prefers fact over fantasy could safely ignore it and it would leave them alone. But no. Bias thrusts past the bounds of impolite superstition and into the rules of play. I can do no wrong because I’m white, and anyone black is bound to be a blemish on the otherwise flawless ass of civilization. I get validation where they get scorn. Furthermore, if they want to change the rules, they must remember this: the rules were created this way so that I could get away with murder.

People are that stupid and cruel on purpose. And, you know, just out of habit. We use biases to elevate and protect our identities. We do this even when we are at no disadvantage. Hell, if we’re facing no actual threat, we’ll invent a superstition and let that fear drive us. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not inherently evil. But it proves terminally counter-productive in the long run.

Meanwhile, everybody does it. You should see me react the first time I learn that a friend is a pot smoker. The cringe is noticeable and it ain’t pretty. I’m certainly not proud of the hypocrisy; my smoking days are a distant, hazy memory, but the truth is what it is. And yet my automatic internal response to finding out I’m friends with a toker is still, ‘Gross! I can’t believe they haven’t grown out of their idiot phase yet.’ That’s right. I think I’m better than all y’all mellow fools. Sorry, that’s just my bias showing.

No, no! Dig up, stupid!

We are all creatures full of myth, but we’re not all haters all the time. We can be reasonable. And this could be the point in the blog where I pretend I’ve got something to teach you about how to be a better person. Because I’m so enlightened, right? Instead, let’s just do like my son does when it’s time to give The Other Bastian a rest.

Laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Because in the end, we’re all children watching a crooked mirror in the dark.

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