SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - Where You Need No Name
Because art school doesn't teach the art of choice.
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
When you think about the qualities that make us different from all other animals, what stands out? Intelligence, the ability to love deeply, and the creation of art come to mind. Yet, one of our most defining human qualities is so inseparable from our lives that we can’t ponder humanity without it — language.
Nearly all of what makes our lives better today couldn’t exist without language. Constructing complex buildings requires someone to create detailed instructions and others to understand and follow those instructions. There’s a reason god didn’t rain down fire on the Babylonians to end the construction of their great tower.
When two people cannot understand each other,
progress comes to a halt.
Tower of Babel, 1928, M.C. Escher
A device as definitively human as language was destined to be a powerful force for creating both beauty and terror alike. What makes language an art more than a science is the unseen portion of its power — the spring of intention from which our language flows. When we speak the same language but speak with different intentions, the same word can mean its opposite. We know this system intuitively — “I’m sorry” does not always mean “I’m sorry.”
We’ve always inherently known that intention matters.
For a tool as world-altering as language, we use it carelessly. We lie, we don’t speak when we should, we do speak when we shouldn’t.
We use individual words recklessly, too. We call our opponents “stupid” not because it’s true, but because it spares us the work of understanding. Stupidity cannot be understood; when we believe someone we dislike is stupid, that justifies our desire to ignore the spring their intentions flow from.
Just like a wound, refusing to see what we dislike doesn’t cure it, but lets it fester until ignorance can no longer obscure the threat.
Language constructs our world, for better or worse. We dress the people we dislike in language that allows us to dislike them more — we dismiss an entire person with a single word: racist, idiot, nazi, communist, grifter, [enter undesirable thing]-apologist, and yes, even Karen. With just a single word, an opponent loses their own name and individuality; a nazi is not an individual, they’re an iteration of a larger enemy group. A Karen is not an individual; all their unique traits and life circumstances are replaced with a caricature.
Words have the power to revoke agency and render someone a drone whose every action isn’t their own. Someone who lacks the agency to choose their own ideas is inherently unworthy of understanding — you don’t debate drones.
If you want to make an enemy, deny someone’s individuality and agency. No matter how tightly we cling to our group identities, we all live in a tribe of one within our minds. Even the most sinister of cults knows their influence depends on an individual believing membership was always their own choice.
Language is the first stop on the path towards naming enemies; there’s not a single group struggling against a perceived enemy that doesn’t use the power of language to create the perfect enemy.
The perfect enemy is the person you have no remorse over harming, and only language can render complex human beings into the 2-D caricature of evil that creates the perfect enemy. The dark side of the power in language is that it doubles as a powerful weapon. Bestowing the right name upon a person can take them from human to monster in one sentence. Just like stupidity, monsters do not require understanding, but unlike stupidity, fighting monsters is easily justified.
Language is powerful because it can create monsters when there are none and conceal monsters when there are many.
When we use language, we are literally creating our world. All language is creative because it creates based upon our choices. You are given this world-building powerful tool and your individual choices will decide what kind of world you create. There is no human tool more magical or powerful than language.
The ubiquitousness of language today is more deceptive than ever before. We once had to think carefully about our words because they were confined to long-form letters and in-person interactions. Today, the supply of words far exceeds the demand. We write words with only a few minutes of thought that can reach the entire world in seconds.
The tools we have today evolved faster than our own evolution; our cars, our computers, and our means of contact all surpass the slow struggle for survival we evolved for. To survive in our brave new insta-world, slowing down when everything begs for your first reaction is the next task of our evolution. When it has never been easier to carelessly wield the power of language as a weapon, a new world will either be created or destroyed by whether we control that power.
When someone does something contemptible, when an opponent questions your logic, when strangers are rude, when a headline piques your outrage, you are given the creative power to choose.
Will your words be a weapon for destruction or a tool for creation?
Most will choose the easier path, but easy never evolves.
Our days are filled with choices, so many choices that our brains make most of them on autopilot to give us the peaceful illusion of fewer choices. Those autopilot choices can be useful; you don’t need to think much about where you’ll sit in your house or if every person you meet is really a government clone being tested for a new human population program.
Yet, there are some choices we make consciously without realizing they’re choices at all.
Our interpretation of other people, both their words and actions, are all part of those many daily choices we make. Unlike the choices we make on autopilot, our interpretation of other people is usually deliberate. Rather than deliberately kind, we view others through a kind of outraged-world bias that lets us feel righteous or martyred for the moment: a joke is taken literally by a comic’s critics. A partner’s behavior is suspicious before evidence is found. Someone’s criticism of an idea means they support its extreme opposite. Routine rudeness becomes targeted prejudice.
Our outraged-world bias gives us a momentary perk by highlighting our goodness in contrast to someone else’s evil. After the moment passes, we’re left craving our next perk of righteousness. Feeding off the kicks that feeling like a sliver of goodness in a dark world gives us still makes us residents of that dark world, though.
When we choose to interpret our world in a way that increases malice, we choose cynicism. In an internet culture of outrage that rewards the worst interpretation of events, the mechanism we use to interpret our world is skewed towards malice. In cynical waters, neutrality is too easily swept out to sea; to course-correct, we need Hanlon’s razor:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
Attributed to Robert Hanlon in the 1980s, this mental rule preferences a humble interpretation for the unpleasant side of life — pure ignorance. Rather than choosing to live in a sinister world, Hanlon’s razor creates a framework for seeing life not as one evil event after another, but as a messy, absurd, uncomfortable existence where billions of people are bound to step on each other’s toes.
In a world of true horrors and tragedies, a worst-interpretation-first mindset is a creative choice to conjure more darkness in an already overburdened world.
Worse than painting your own world in various shades of malice, few people respond well to being presumed guilty before trial. The expectation of bad intentions becomes a cycle; expect malice, treat others as guilty of malice, receive a harsh response that reinforces your choice to expect malice.
Cynicism is easy.
Searching for the good in people and choosing the more generous interpretation of someone’s words or actions is hard. Anywhere we’re given choices in life, we’re given creative power over our world. That power might be as small as choosing our breakfast or the clothes we’ll wear, but it’s the same power we use in choosing how we respond to other people and what our world feels like.
You might interpret the world through outrage or fear, but it’s you that pays the price; every time we choose the harshest interpretation of our world, we must then live in that world.
The act of choosing is a creative act. Interpret the world generously, not just because it’s likely accurate, but because your creative choices have the power to decide what your world looks like.
Never waste creative power.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.