Image by Blue Canoe

Image by Blue Canoe

A friend recently gave me what is apparently a classic book on improvisational theater, called Impro, by Keith Johnston. The entire book is remarkable, and worth reading for anyone, not just those in the theater, but my favorite passage is the one below:

I once had a close rapport with a teenager who seemed ‘mad’ when she was with other people, but relatively normal when she was with me. I treated her rather as I would a Mask – that is to say, I was gentle, and I didn’t try to impose my reality on her. One thing that amazed me was her perceptiveness about other people – it was as if she was a body language expert. She described things about them which she read from their movement and postures that I later found to be true, although this was at the beginning of summer school and none of us had ever met before.

I’m remembering her now because of an interaction she had with a very gentle, motherly schoolteacher. I had to leave for a few minutes so I gave the teenager my watch and said she could use it to see I was away only a very short time, and that the schoolteacher would look after her. We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: ‘Look at the pretty flower, Betty.’

Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, ‘All the flowers are beautiful.’

‘Ah,’ said the teacher, blocking her, ‘but this flower is especially beautiful.’

Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm her. No one seemed to notice that she was screaming ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see!”

In the gentlest possible way, this teacher had been very violent. She was insisting on categorizing, and on selecting. Actually it was crazy to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by sane people as violent. Grown-ups are expected to distort the perceptions of the child in this way. Since then I’ve noticed such behaviour constantly, but it took the mad girl to open my eyes to it.

Johnston was concerned by this imposition of reality, because he believed that the way we socialize children drives out their creativity – they can no longer think outside of the categories, clichés and storylines they have been taught. It’s an entirely valid point of view – school not as “learning facts” but as “having reality imposed on you”.

But when I read that story, I recognized the girl, because I cannot tell you how often I have said, in disgust, “Can’t you see!” And then in sadness, “Can’t you see?”

Most people can’t see. They don’t see. They refuse to see.

They are given or find a schema for organizing the world with neat little categories, they slot things into those categories as soon as they can, and then they don’t think about them. They learn storylines that explain the world “Islamo Fascists want hate us for our freedoms” and they fit every event, every person, into the storyline somewhere, ignoring any information that doesn’t fit.

As a child you may have gone through the phase of “what’s that”, and the phase of ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘what?’

A child points at a flying object and says “what is that?”

“A plane”.

“What’s a plane?”

“It caries people places.”

“How does it fly”?

“Air under the wings pushes it up.”


“It just does”.

And that’s where most of us break down. We get into the habit of brushing the questions off, of shutting them down, of not answering them fully. We accept the name as the thing. What’s a plane? Do you know it if you know it flies? Do you know it if you understand how air flow on the wings keeps it up? Do you need to know how its engines work? How the flaps and the rudder work? The effect of increased altitude. The nature of the composites?

At what point can you be said to know what a plane is?

What if you just think that a plane is anything man made that flies? What about helicopters? Are they then planes?

And does it matter that some planes are different than others – prop vs. jet, multi engine v. single, fly by wire vs. traditional controls, standard wings v. tilt forward wings, etc?

It matters if you have to fly one, perhaps. Or if you need to buy one. Or if you need to get the right one to get somewhere fast enough. Or if you need to build one, or maintain one.

But those are all the tasks of specialists – really, for most people you need to know how much it costs to buy a ticket, how soon it’ll get there, and when you should get on.

So perhaps you don’t need to know.

But in the sphere of public political knowledge the same principle applies. I will lay you odds that not one person in one hundred could give me a coherent definition of terrorist that didn’t turn their own government into terrorists. Not one in ten could tell me what the differences are between Hezbollah and al-Qa’eda, and tell me how they matter in dealing with the organizations. (You wouldn’t try to land a jumbo jet on a VTOL pad, would you?)

False categorization, and superficial categorization then are two sins of sloppy thinking and they come from thinking that once you name something, you don’t have to think about it much any more.

Then there are false analogies. Let’s take Islamo-fascism. Think about if for a few minutes. In what way is it productive or revealing of the motives of al-Qa’eda, the Muslim brotherhood, Hamas or Hezbollah to compare them to fascism (which to most people means the German Nazi party.) Are they say, movements that exalt the State and patriotism above all else? Are they movements that blur the boundaries between corporations and the state? You can go down the list of what it means to be fascist like this and find that the matches aren’t all that strong. Some exist, but it’s clear that these organizations don’t have much to do with fascism. (It also becomes clear that those movements are each different from the other in significant ways.)

There’s nothing wrong with using analogies in your thinking—it’d be hard to think about anything abstract without them. But sloppy use of analogies, of cramming things into the analogy is potentially deadly. (For example, pre-Iraq war people used to use Japan and Germany as analogies for what the reconstruction and occupation of Iraq would be like. At the time a number of us argued those were bad analogies. Closing in on 3,000 deaths have told us that we were right. Bad analogy, deadly results.)

The kissing cousin of analogies is the storyline. Humans almost automatically sort events into storylines and people involved into the events into various archetypes, starting with heroes and villains but moving on to ingénue roles, best friends, wise men, treacherous advisors and so on. Storylines are easiest to watch in the press and deciding what their proffered storylines are on any issue is something a lot of people spend a lot of time doing (the most famous in the blogosphere perhaps being Peter Daou).

Bush is an iron jawed man of resolve fighting evil terrorists led by the mastermind bin Laden. The Iraq war was about taking out Saddam’s WMD and was a glorious march of freedom. The Hezbollah/Israel conflict was about destroying a terrorist organization that had kidnapped brave Israeli soldiers. Israel is a small and beleaguered bastion of democracy surrounded by evil people who want to destroy it and cause a second Holocaust. Lamont was a one issue candidate supported by far left bloggers and the anti-war wing of the party.

Note that prominence of characters there. Character = story. Period. If you are the hero, you will be shown as the hero, no matter what you do. If you are the wise advisor, you will be shown as the wise advisor—the storyline will be changed to fit the character role you are expected play. John Kerry was a wishy-washy flip-flopper, therefore he couldn’t have been the man who won and deserved all those medals – the man who turned his boat into gunfire. Dean was angry, therefore the scream was manufactured.

Sometimes this heads into truly surreal territory. The 9/11 hijackers, for example, despite being willing to die for their cause were somehow cowards. More people voted in the Afghani election than the entire population, but the election was clean according to international monitors. Lowering taxes will increase tax revenues.

All of which is enough to make one want to roll on the ground and scream: ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see!’

Now none of this is to say that categorizing things, using analogies, or using storylines is innately bad. Quite the contrary. Only the Zen master and the mad girl see the world without cutting it into parts and sticking it in a fryer.

What matters is cutting along the joints. Categorizing correctly. For example, Hezbollah is an organization that uses terrorism. Al-Qa’eda is a terrorist and insurgency organization. The Red Brigades were a straight terrorist organization.

Hezbollah has an army which is also capable of doing guerilla work. It’s not most usefully thought of as a militia – which is non professional. In fact, as a friend of mine who is a military analyst quipped “what do you call well trained light infantry who can also disperse and become guerillas? Special forces.”

When you classify things incorrectly you run into problems. Israel though it was facing just guerillas and a militia. They were facing an army made up primarily of special forces. The rest of the world thought that Israel still had the army that won all its wars – they didn’t, they have an occupation army used to shooting badly armed Palestinians, bulldozing houses and  using missiles to assassinate people.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, knew exactly what it was facing.

Sun Tzu put it best. “If you know yourself and your enemy you need not fear the results of a thousand battles. If you know yourself and not your enemy you will lose one for every one you win. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will lose every battle.”

Tell me this – which category does the US fit into?

When trying to categorize the thing to look for is things that don’t fit. Think Hezbollah is a terrorist organization? Ok, do the checklist. How much terrorism do they do? What percentage of their money is spent on what? When was their last terrorist operation?

Doesn’t take long to realize they aren’t the Red Brigades, or even al-Qa’eda, does it?

When using analogies the method is to simply run a checklist. Fascism has the following features. How many does al-Qa’eda match? Oh, not a good fit.

And when looking at storylines the question to ask yourself is actually mostly about people and the character role they are fulfilling. Is this person doing the things that someone who belongs in this role would do. If Bush is the steel jawed man of decisive action – why was he frozen on 9/11 and why did he not return to Washington? If al-Qa’eda is full of cowards, how did they manage to fight a war during the eighties? Why did bin Laden lead from the front lines during that war? Why are their operatives willing to die to complete their missions. Oh, they aren’t cowards.

Are bloggers a bunch of twenty somethings blogging in their pajamas? Well, political bloggers at least average about 40. We know that. And they tend to be ridiculously well credentialed as a whole. Are liberal bloggers anti-Semites (the current storyline being floated). Well, can you find a major liberal blogger who has said anti-semitic things? How often? How many? So they aren’t anti-semitic.

There is no such thing as a mind control ray, but controlling people’s thoughts is relatively simple – if you pick the categories, choose the analogies and create the storylines they use to make sense of the world – you control their minds.

And if you don’t want someone else sticking their stories in your head, the first thing you have to do is to put categorizing, analogizing and turning things into stories, off.

First you see. Really see something for what it is, in all its wonder. See that Hezbollah cares for the orphans, gives the widows pensions, picks up the trash, runs the hospitals and the soup kitchens. See that they grew out of a 18 year old guerilla war against an occupation. See when they have done terrorist acts, against who and under what circumstances. (Hmmm, bombed the marine barracks after the US shelled Shi’a villages). Note that they have a million Shi’a who voted for them. Realize that the core of their army are hardened veterans of 18 years of guerilla warfare.

Look at that and suddenly “terrorist” seems just silly. Beside the point. But what’s clear is they aren’t being destroyed by Israel. An organization which fills almost all of the roles of a government, whose military wing is a hardened guerilla army with the support of a million people used to the hardships of occupation and civil war. The organization has the capability of doing terrorist acts but which has joined the government and sworn off terrorism against the US. It’s primary foreign backer is Iran, which believes the US wants to destroy it, and thus is unlikely to abandon a military asset.

Those two paragraphs describe an entity very different from al-Q’aeda don’t they? Somehow “terrorist organization” doesn’t cover it, does it?

And it’s not hard – all it requires is that you see.

See first. And anyone says “it’s like” ask yourself, “in what ways is it like, and in what ways isn’t it?’ When someone say’s “oh X is just Y”, ask yourself if that told you anything. By knowing the word for it, do you know it? Is that word accurate? Is it big enough? You might argue Hezbollah are terrorists. But is terrorist a big enough word to encompass all that Hezbollah is?

And when someone tells you a story, ask yourself “are those people really playing their roles? Are they doing what people in those roles would do in a story?” If they aren’t, then the story doesn’t have predictive power. It doesn’t tell us what is going to happen next.

And this is important in even the simplest stories. One story Americans love is this, ‘the good guys always win.” Now, I’m not going to argue that story isn’t true, that often the bad guys win. What I’m going to say is something else – for that story to work for you, you have to be the good guys. The good guys don’t invade countries based on lies. They don’t enrich their cronies in companies like Haliburton before spending 1/10th the money to get the job done right with locals. The good guys don’t torture people. They don’t lock people up without giving them trials.

When the good guys win because they are good, and being good is more powerful than being evil, because it makes people want to be on your side, they do it because they are truly good.

People are acclimatized to play out their roles. You put someone in charge of a team and even if he’s never lead, he knows more or less what to do. You make a man a prison guard and most become brutes. We know how to be father, mother, coach, buddy, co-worker, teacher, student, patient, nurse… all of those roles are there, and we step naturally into them when we need to.

And if we all step into our roles in a story, the story generally happens as it should. But when people aren’t playing their roles, the story loses its explanatory power. Cowards don’t die for their belief. Good guys don’t torture. Terrorist organizations don’t pick up the garbage.

“Can’t you see? Can’t you see!”

So remember, look before categorizing. Don’t accept sloppy analogies, and always see if the characters in a storyline are acting the way they should.

And while you may not see the world through the eyes of Zen master, or a mad girl – at least you’ll starting seeing again. And I think you may find that the world is a much more wondrous place, and much more beautiful and full of hope, when you don’t shut down wonder by sticking it in a hole and saying “but this flower is most beautiful”, shutting out all the other beautiful flowers in the world.

Published at some point in the past, but I’m not sure when or where.