Feelings, Faith and Facts: Glib Is Not Wise

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The human voice exhibits a powerful affinity with our brains.  We feel closer to someone when communicating by voice than by text, even when we can’t see the face from which the voice emanates.  Voices soothe us, arouse us, command us, instruct us, when we can see the speaker and when we cannot, even when the voice is our own. [1] And even when it seems to come out of a burning bush in the middle of the desert. [2]  Any mentally intact child born into any human culture will pick up the language around her with no instruction, but will have to be taught, often laboriously, to read. Our brains are specifically organized to acquire, imagine and attend to human speech.

Julian Jaynes analyzed and substantiated the power voices have over us in his brilliant and groundbreaking work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. [3]  In this work, Jaynes hypothesizes that human consciousness is quite recent, only about 3000 years old, and that pre-conscious mankind, a state he calls “bicameral man”, heard disembodied voices (as perhaps about 4 percent of us still do [4]) that helped them navigate those novel situations that we navigate through conscious narration and analysis.  Indeed, Jaynes argues persuasively that voices originating between our ears, but identified as coming from outside, can be far more dominating, compelling, controlling than any voice solely from outside:  we can’t get away from such voices; we can’t even adjust our distance to them; we can’t cover our ears to block them out.  He exhaustively documents the evidence for the conclusion that bicameral man’s voices were his gods (and, along the way, Jaynes uncovers the first suggestions of answers to those two perplexing questions:  How did religion originate and why does it persist?)

Whatever one thinks of Jaynes’ origin-of-consciousness hypothesis (The heroic characters in Homer’s Iliad were not self-aware like me?!  Unacceptable!), his demonstration of the influence of talk on us is irrefutable.  We are entranced by talk, sometimes enthralled by it.  We are charmed by the quality of some voices, the rhythm of the patter, the very formation of the sound-clumps, often regardless of what they mean.  To this day I remain quite enchanted by the near-hypnotic, sing-song cadences of the old preachers you still sometimes hear on radio, the ones who make “Jesus” a four-syllable word:  “And Jee-EE-zuss-suh came UNto them.”  If the flow of sound is of a certain quality, our substantive filters tend to get clogged up and quit working.  Surely this is at least part of the radio charm of guys like John Hagee and Rush Limbaugh [5]:  mellifluous, serious-sounding voices that make us forget that the content is gibberish.

We have created a culture of talk:  talk radio; talk shows on TV; DJs who do nonstop, high-speed chatter, often in teams, whenever the music stops; cell phone chatter almost everywhere; “panels” on almost every news channel who talk among themselves about almost every nuance of every story.  And we talk fast, faster as we get younger.  We abhor silence, that dreaded “dead air.”  It is as though, everywhere, we create those alternate realities of language I wrote about earlier, which are ever more thin and fragile and require constant replenishment.

The downside to this affinity for talk is that we conflate glibness and wisdom.  This was not always true.  The smooth talker used to be viewed with some wariness.  Back on the midwestern prairie, when I grew up in the ‘50s, if you had the “gift of gab” or a “touch of the blarney stone” you were not being unconditionally praised (although there was often a kind of grudging admiration for the sheer competence of it, the kind one held for card sharps and successful pool hustlers).  Slick talkers, like car salesmen and lawyers, were probably out to cheat us.  “That Silver-Tongued Devil” may have been a romantic figure, but he was not to be trusted.

It’s almost the other way round now.  I watched the August 11 Republican presidential candidates’ Iowa “debate” and even the least glib among the eight, Ron Paul and Herman Cain, rarely paused or slowed down.  When any of them was caught momentarily off-guard by a question, she or he simply tap-danced with some canned patter until something more relevant came to mind and the talk barely missed a beat.  Of course, the TV format – 15 seconds here, a minute there – exacerbates this, but our talk culture pretty much demands that anyone who expects to be taken seriously must never appear “at a loss for words.”  These candidates do not present to us as process, conditional analysis of dynamic systems, but as product, complete repositories of truth just waiting to be tapped into.  They know the words the faithful want to hear; they know the language reality they are expected to maintain:  “No new taxes” not “I want to cut taxes and I will be as careful with any necessary revenue enhancements as possible, given the inherent uncertainty of the future.” [6]

Most of us know people who can readily string together well-enunciated real words [7] in great bunches without producing anything but nonsense.  Particularly when we’re younger, we tend to add words that are not intended to convey information, that only contribute additional vocal sound.  “Like” and “ya know” are widespread examples.  As long as the sound keeps flowing, we can pick out a word here and there that cues us to keep nodding and smiling.  This is the truth behind the witticism that every sentence out of Rudy Giuliani’s mouth after the attack on the World Trade Center included a noun, a verb and “9-11”.  Verbal facility is often compounded of clichés, bumper stickers, recalled earlier verbal formulations, key words, memorized bits, past applause lines, etc., and is quite separate from the mental ability that includes analysis, consideration, and assessment.  And this is the truth behind the Brad Pitt character in “12 Monkeys”:  torrents of words and mad as a hatter.

This conflation of loquacity and wisdom has two sources.  First, if you’re silent you may be deep and wise, or too stupid to have anything to say, so why should we assume the former, without evidence and perhaps at our peril.  Second, from well before the dawn of human civilization until quite recently, human speech has been the source of all of our wisdom.  The stories, myths, sacred narratives, ancestral instructions that have defined our social groups – extended families, clans, tribes – and carried their accrued, hard-won knowledge have all been exclusively oral until the last few thousand years.  Even today, families and other social groups have unwritten stories that define and bind them.  Since true human speech began, we have evolved to trust and depend, for our very lives, upon talk.  Habits die hard.

But the world is different today.  Being reasonably informed no longer requires being within earshot of the wise members of our group.  Today – for almost all of us, for almost everything and almost all of the time – ignorance is voluntary.  We are unaware and misinformed and just plain wrong because we choose to be.  Even if we have a good excuse because that library is simply too far away, we actively choose not to avail ourselves of that hitherto-unimaginable wealth of information, waiting for us in cyberspace, just beneath our fingertips.  We choose instead to nod and smile at the absurdly misleading code words and clichés rolling smoothly off the tongues of whatever persons-of-the-moment best flatter our current presumptions and prejudices.

Examples pile up by the minute.  A quick scan of news sites just now reveals clips of Texas governor Rick Perry asserting that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by scientists who manipulate data to get money [8] and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann promising that if she is elected President, gasoline will be back to $2 a gallon. [9] Well, why not?  It could happen, as Judy Tenuta often reminds us.  Don’t we all want these things to be true?  Perry and Bachmann are genuine personages, actual candidates to be Leader of the Free World, and they disclose their wisdom with such fervor and sincerity.  How can this not be truth?  It seems almost churlish to remind ourselves that Perry appears to have no idea what science is or what scientists do [10] and that Bachmann has no understanding at all of the economic realities of oil or of any other dwindling global commodity.

A great many potential voters – we hope not a majority – have cast off the modern obligation to inform themselves, have traveled back to a happy place in their heads, around that ancient campfire where the ones who could talk well were the repositories of wisdom, where truth was whatever they said it was, and where the rest of us listened attentively and nodded and smiled.

ARC – 8/21/11


[1] http://litemind.com/solve-your-problems-simply-by-saying-them-out-loud/

[2] Exodus 3:1-15, KJV.

[3] 1976, 1990.  Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY.

[4] http://www.livescience.com/7177-hearing-voices-people.html   There is even a sort of loose support structure, the Hearing Voices Movement, that aims to reorient how we view those who hear voices. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hearing_Voices_Movement

[5] A friend of mine quite uncharitably refers to these two and others of their ilk as Fat White Guys With Greasy Hair, FWGWGHs (pronounced “fugwugs”),

[6] And kudos to Fox News for this election’s Republican group show-of-hands outing (Last election’s was Who doesn’t “believe in” evolution?):  all eight candidates raised their hands to indicate that they would not accept even a budget deal that cut $10 of spending for every $1 of increased revenue.  No New Taxes, indeed.

[7] While we sometimes refer to these folks as being Through the Looking-Glass, they don’t use clever made-up words like Lewis Carroll: “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.”

[8] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20093535-503544.html

[9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20110818/us-bachmann-2012/

[10]    He confirms again today that he thinks creationism is a scientific theory.  http://politics.blogs.foxnews.com/2011/08/18/perry-questioned-evolution-and-creationism-new-hampshire-says-texas-teaches-both

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