In 1950 German researcher Theodor Erismann at the University of Innsbruck devised a fascinating experiment. He created a set of goggles that would invert the vision of those wearing them—effectively flipping their world upside down. He fitted them to one of his students in order to observe how the subject’s brain would handle the inverted reality.
The experiment has been repeated and document multiple times since, and what it typically reveals is that, while those wearing the goggles tend to fumble over the most simple physical acts such picking up and object or pouring water, nevertheless after several days the brain does make the adjustments. They can read, write, ride a bike or draw at a similar level as without the goggles. The human brain is a powerful computer!
The postscript to such experiments is what happens once the goggles are removed! The brain adjusts more quickly, yet it still takes the better part of a day to return to normal.
And don’t all of us have our worlds partially inverted? We’ve been raised under a certain set of conditions and inputs by which we determine right-side-up. Our lives constitute a process by which those things are either confirmed or debunked.
What takes place when we become conceptually upended? Even when parts of our world get flipped right-side-up it is often unpleasant and disorienting—we enter bouts with mental and emotional vertigo!
This is what psychiatrists refer to “liminal space” (i.e., threshold space). Priest and author Richard Rohr describes it like this:
It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.
It is discomfiting, and we as humans are therefore prone to retreat from it.
Of course this makes us retreat from uncomfortable ideas in general, doesn’t it? We don’t like the way they make us feel! This has become a crisis in our society.
I call it a crisis for two reasons: first, because it splinters our society into ideo-centric factions, stealing glances over their entrenchments only to confirm the idiocy of those with whom they can’t agree. (As though the preponderance of human groupings have colluded to absurdity, whereas my group happens to be the one who actually thought about things. That’s not only arrogant, but is itself an absurd outlook on life.)
The second reason I call this a crisis is related. We are, all of us, wrong! (Yes, you! You are wrong!) Our stubborn refusal to enter that liminal space of confronting our conceptual wrongness keeps us wrong. We remain static beings; flat-earthers in our own right.
Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.
Mill was grappling with what makes societies oppressive and incompatible with human liberty. He understood that an open, candid marketplace of ideas was a necessity. (He was a bit of a conceptual Darwinist, in that he took for granted weaker ideas would lose out to fitter ones in such contests. On Liberty and Darwin’s The Origin of Species were actually both released in 1859.)
Mill saw oppression as rooted in ideological intransigence, and he also bemoaned how this social posture would suppress the promotion and refinement of crucial thinking. He continues:
Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
Mills sentiment is as stinging as it is ringing in our day, and our universities are, sadly, as rife with this ideological regulation as any place. Contraversial writers shouted down by mobs. Thoughtful religious leaders being stripped of honors because of diverging theology. Some campuses are attempting to push back on the new terminology of “trigger warnings” and “micro-aggressions” (see my last post for links), and this brittleness is certainly something our institutions must learn how to delicately reproach. Yet this crisis is nothing more than a reflection of our social values.
In the political realm this manifests itself in ridicule; around the dinner table through passive-aggression. Communication isn’t happening. It’s one big stalemate!
There is no doubt that ideas carry inherent danger; virtually every idea contains this potential. But fewer ideas are of an entirely perilous nature—the same can be said for those who espouse them! But it is in the open air that diseases die. If you want those most deadly ideas to flourish, shunt them into dark places! There they will thrive and grow like black mold in the recesses of our own home. God forbid!
We need to confront this societal armor chink, and this involves self-examination on the part of transmitters and receivers.
For the receivers, this liminal space is virtually unbearable. It’s understandable why you would want to circumnavigate it and why you would ask for your society’s cooperation. The bad news is that this world will never be that kind of place. It’s not always out to get you, but get you it will. The good news is that the vertigo of pain, panic, fury and the like constitute opportunities for you to become more personally powerful than you can conceive. Understand that the source of that vertigo is found in upside-down-ness or right-side-upness, but strength comes from resolving the one from the other satisfactorily.
Oliver Wendell Holmes put this as only he could,
I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.
There is a calm awaiting the brave on the other side of the storms of discovery. You simply must ask yourself, “Will I be brave?”
For the transmitters, it is an even simpler word: don’t be reckless! I suspect that the bravado and dismissiveness of most noxious heralds only conceals a fragile personal terror, and recklessness is nothing if not preemptive assault. Confident people are winsome; they are patient, reflective and aware of others. They’re not bulls in China shops, they are humans in places and spaces with others humans.
Come to think of it, both parties need to be braver—less afraid. Fear really is our worst human trait, is it not? Are you content with the thought of being a coward? I’m not.
As I mentioned in a previous post, some researchers are identifying imagination as the quality which makes us most human.
Nobel Prize winning South African novelist JM Coetzee wrote:
There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.
So the real choice before each of us in these splintered days is whether we will imaginatively aspire to our own humanness, or be content with something lesser. (I’ll be rooting for the former!)