Monday, September 30, 2013
Is This Boring Or Are You Just Stupid?
Last week the always-great XKCD ran a clever comic strip showing different opinions on data privacy. There is the exhibitionist, who intentionally puts X-rated personal stuff online hoping the NSA is tuning in. There's the nihilist, who is convinced their data means nothing, so who cares? And right there in the first panel there's the philosopher, who starts to opine about the differences between internet privacy and IRL privacy but stops there because the person listening thinks to herself, "SO BORED."
Of course, it's funny because it's true. Philosophy is boring. More importantly, it's frequently way more boring than it has to be. Various reasons, partly to do with the search for precision and making arguments and ... oh, sorry -- SO BORING. Let's just say there are various reasons and move on.
At the same time, can we just pause for a moment to acknowledge that the philosopher is the one person in the comic saying something serious, sensible, important and possibly true? And can we be honest and up front with one another about the fact that "so boring" is not a real criticism in the sense that "ignorant," "simple-minded," or even "mistaken" are?
I like to think about complicated things and then express those thoughts in speech and writing, so I'm on intimate terms with with the "SO BORING" critique. My students are bored by reading Mill's "Utilitarianism" and hearing me talk about it. Colleagues in other departments are bored by the endless distinctions and exception clauses that philosophers always make when they talk about anything. I've seen countless eyes glaze over when I try to explain that copyright and open access are complicated, because artists need to live on earnings from creations, whereas protections for scholarly research are very often a hindrance, and not a benefit, to scholars themselves ... yes, I know, compared to "information wants to be free" or "downloading is theft," this is such a BORING point of view.
I got news for you. Sometimes the truth is boring. Deal with it.
It's also worth nothing that boring is in the eye of the beholder. And while there are surely some boringness judgments that reflect genetics or your deep inner self or whatever, a huge part of why you do or do not find something boring has to do with your own habits, choices, and behaviors, which make you into the kind of person who is or isn't bored by something. This means, in some ways, you are responsible for your boredom.
It's not rocket science. If you spend a lot of your time watching action shows, playing video games, multitasking with Facebook and Twitter while you eat salty chips and cookies and text your friends, then settling down to read or just to learn about something slightly complicated is going to have the feeling of Herculean effort, like you're climbing the most boring mountain in the world. If you spend a lot of time doing things that are even mildly intellectually demanding, those things will not be boring.
Please note: I am not saying there is anything wrong with action shows, snacking, and texting! Those activities are all fine. The problem is when you do them all the time and don't do anything else, you make yourself stupid. And yes, you are doing it to yourself.
And here I think a harsh truth must be said: many people are turning themselves into the mental equivalents of toddlers with respect to what is and isn't boring. When they say something is "boring," it's not that it's boring, it's that those people have made themselves stupid.
I could go and on about the dangers of a world full of people who are really easily bored, but let me just point out one thing, which is that in addition to their other problems, people easily bored by thinking about things have the mental energy only for the most oversimplified and reductive view of things. So when the truth is boring, they cannot deal with it.
I got news for you, people. Often the truth is complicated. Often, simple slogans that sound like rallying cries -- "information wants to be free! downloading is theft!" -- are deeply mistaken. Often they're deeply mistaken because they're simple, and the truth isn't.
If you're the kind of person who uses the expression "TL;DR" to make fun of anything that goes on for more than a few sentences and doesn't contain the elements of some zany narrative, I got news for you: it's not boring, you're just stupid.