I had as lief have been myself alone

Being alone is not easy for many of us -perhaps because it allows an inner dialogue to emerge that is ordinarily submerged in the noise of the crowd. And yet it is in solitude that a still small voice emerges: the one that allows us to assess our actions, and to argue with ourselves.

This, of course, was a central theme of the Jewish-German thinker Hannah Arendt who fled Nazi Germany to America. I suppose she came to public attention largely because in 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust.

I happened upon an essay on solitude by Jennifer Stitt, then studying at University of Wisconsin-Madison who was obviously impressed by Arendt’s work: https://aeon.co/ideas/before-you-can-be-with-others-first-learn-to-be-alone

Arendt believed that ‘solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think… Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder… A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ The banality of evil.

I also discussed this in an essay I wrote last year in relation to extremism and loneliness: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2019/03/27/society-is-no-comfort-to-one-not-sociable/

But here I’m not so concerned with the aberrant aspects of enforced solitude -during a quarantine, say- because being lonely and being alone are separate creatures. Most of us are never really alone -that’s when we meet our inner selves. It’s when there is no one else inside, that we feel lonely. ‘Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.’ This suggested to Arendt ‘that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’… Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it.’

‘Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.’

Millenia ago, when I was a child in Winnipeg, I remember having to stay away from school and in our house for a week or two because, in those pre-vaccine days, I had the measles. I would stare through the bedroom window at my friends playing in the field outside in the snow and tell my mother how bored I was. After reading every book I could find, and tiring of the adult radio programs she was fond of listening to while she cooked, I would wander into the kitchen and complain that there was nothing to do. She would listen patiently for a while, and then shoo me out of the room.

I still remember the day at breakfast that I announced that I had decided I was going to go out and play with my friends. It was Saturday and everybody was throwing snowballs at each other -I could even see them through the frosty kitchen window. I tried to look determined and crossed my arms over my chest like I’d seen my father do when he was intent on something.

“It’s only been 5 days, G,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re still contagious.”

I shrugged at the argument. “They’ve all had measles, mother… And besides, I’ll be so wrapped up none of my measles could get at them.”

She smiled at me -it was one of those fake smiles she usually put on when she was trying to hide her frustration. “How do you know they’ve all had it, G?” Her face softened when she could see I no longer had my arms crossed over my chest. “What do you think would happen then?”

I thought about it for a moment. The teacher had warned us that measles could be dangerous to some children. She’d never actually told us what that meant, but at recess Jamie told me that his uncle had got a bad case when he was young and something had happened to his head –‘gitis’, or something. He was never the same after it, apparently, but he didn’t explain.

“What could happen, G…?” I was taking too long to answer her question, I suppose.

I remember shrugging and looking first at the window, and then at the floor. “Gitis,” I mumbled guiltily, not confident I had pronounced it correctly. Anyway, I should have thought of that, and prepared a suitable rebuttal.

It had an unexpected result at any rate: she bent down and hugged me. “That’s right, sweetie,” she said after kissing the top of my head. “I knew you understood why I need to keep you home. You just had to think about it, that’s all…”

I now realize that Arendt was on to something. There really is a voice somewhere inside if we stop to listen to it. Mine sounds suspiciously like my mother’s, though…

Nobody in Particular

Why do we believe something? How do we know that we are right? When I was a child, I was certain that the Fleetwood television set my parents had just purchased, was the best. So was the make of our car -and our vacuum cleaner too, come to think of it. But why? Was it simply because authority figures in my young life had told me, or was there an objective reality to their assertions? For that matter, how did they know, anyway? Other parents had different opinions, so who was right?

I was too young to question these things then, but gradually, I came to seek other sources of knowledge. And yet, even these sometimes differed. It’s difficult to know in what direction to face when confronted with disparate opinions. Different ‘truths’. Everybody can’t be right. Usually, in fact, the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle of it all, and it becomes a matter of knowing which truths to discard -choosing the ‘correct’ truth.

Despite the fact that most of us rely on some method like this, it sounds completely counterintuitive. How many truths can there be? Is each a truth, or merely an opinion? And what’s wrong with having a particular opinion? Again, how would we know? How could we know?

Nowadays, with social media algorithms selecting which particular news they report on the basis of our past choices, it’s difficult to know if we are in an echo chamber unless we purposely and critically examine whatever truths we hold dear -step back to burst the bubble. Canvas different people, and sample different opinions. But, even then, without resorting to mythology, or a presumed ‘revealed’ truth that substantiates a particular religious dogma, is there an objective truth that somehow transcends all the others? Conversely is all truth relative -situationally contextualized, temporally dependent, and ultimately socially endorsed?

Should we, in fact, rely on a random sample of opinions to arrive at an answer to some questions that are only a matter of values, but not about realistically verifiable facts -such as the height of a building, say, or maybe the type of bacterium that causes a particular disease? Would that bring us closer to the truth, or simply yet another truth?

Well, it turns out that the average of a large group of diverse and even contrary opinions has some statistical merit: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140708-when-crowd-wisdom-goes-wrong  ‘[T]here is some truth underpinning the idea that the masses can make more accurate collective judgements than expert individuals.’ The Wisdom of Crowds ‘is generally traced back to an observation by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1907. Galton pointed out that the average of all the entries in a ‘guess the weight of the ox’ competition at a country fair was amazingly accurate – beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. This is the essence of the wisdom of crowds: their average judgement converges on the right solution.’

But the problem is in the sampling -the diversity of the members of that crowd. ‘If everyone let themselves be influenced by each other’s guesses, there’s more chance that the guesses will drift towards a misplaced bias.’ Of course ‘This finding challenges a common view in management and politics that it is best to seek consensus in group decision making. What you can end up with instead is herding towards a relatively arbitrary position. Just how arbitrary depends on what kind of pool of opinions you start off with. […] copycat behaviour has been widely regarded as one of the major contributing factors to the financial crisis, and indeed to all financial crises of the past. [And] this detrimental herding effect is likely to be even greater for deciding problems for which no objectively correct answer exists. […] All of these findings suggest that knowing who is in the crowd, and how diverse they are, is vital before you attribute to them any real wisdom.’

This might imply that ‘you should add random individuals whose decisions are unrelated to those of existing group members. That would be good, but it’s better still to add individuals who aren’t simply independent thinkers but whose views are ‘negatively correlated’ – as different as possible – from the existing members. In other words, diversity trumps independence. If you want accuracy, then, add those who might disagree strongly with your group.’

Do you see where I’m going with all this? We should try to be open enough to consider all sides of an argument before making a considered decision. Let’s face it, you have to know what it is that you’re up against before you can arrive at a compromise. And perhaps, the thing you thought you were opposing is not so different from your own view after all.

Even our values fluctuate. Unless we are willing to be historical revisionists, it’s obvious that people in the past often assigned values differently to how we do today -sexual orientation, for example, or racial characteristic and stereotyping. And who nowadays would dare argue that women are not the equal of men, and deserve the same rights?

There are some things about which we will continue to disagree, no doubt. And yet, even a willingness to listen to an opposing opinion instead of shutting it down without a fair acknowledgment of whatever merits it might have hidden within it, or commonalities it might share with ours, is a step in the right direction.

I’m not at all sure that it’s healthy to agree about everything, anyway, nor to assume we possess the truth. It’s our truth. I think that without some dissenting input, we’d be bored, condemned to float in the increasingly stagnant backwater we chose, while just beyond our banks, a creek runs merrily past, excited to discover another view that lies beyond and behind the next hill.

After all, remember what happened to Caesar after Shakespeare had him boast: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.”

Just saying…