Tuesday, February 07, 2017

`One Idea, Namely, Themselves'

Recent history has provided us with a ready-made, one-word punchline useful in any setting. When people have nothing of particular interest to add to a conversation, and presume you are an intelligent fellow and thus in abject agreement with all of their opinions, they shake their heads and add, with a world-weary look, one word: “Trump.” As a conversational gambit, it’s more inclusive than “global warming” or “capitalism,” other popular thought-stoppers. I don’t start conversations expecting others to promptly endorse everything I say. That’s dull, and your opinions and mine are generally the least important and interesting things about us. Tell me what you know, what you’ve read or experienced. Tell me a story or a joke and spare me the sermon, please.

Almost two centuries ago, William Hazlitt (no mean conversational combatant) in “On People with One Idea,” diagnosed this form of social disease in a single sentence: “There are people who have but one idea: at least, if they have more, they keep it a secret, for they never talk but of one subject.” Some will think promptly of proselytizing religious cranks, but they are outnumbered today by adherents of our secular religion, politics. And talk of politics, sooner or later, turns to anger, and anger is the most tedious of emotions (for its recipients, that is; dispensers of anger love it like a drug). Hazlitt understands this:
“I am not for `a collusion’ but `an exchange’ of ideas. It is well to hear what other people have to say on a number of subjects. I do not wish to be always respiring the same confined atmosphere, but to vary the scene, and get a little relief and fresh air out of doors. Do all we can to shake it off, there is always enough pedantry, egotism, and self-conceit left lurking behind; we need not seal ourselves up hermetically in these precious qualities, so as to think of nothing but our own wonderful discoveries, and hear nothing but the sound of our own voice.”

Egotism is eternal. We didn’t invent it, but have given it a new, casual, single-minded ferocity, and one byproduct is the paucity of good conversation. Humor is reduced to predictable Trump-bashing or Clinton-bashing, and that is almost never funny. People want to be congratulated for the opinions they hold. Again, Hazlitt nails it: “Though they run over a thousand subjects in mere gaiety of heart, their delight still flows from one idea, namely, themselves.” For the first time in my life, I’m aware that some of the people I meet might, without warning, turn dangerously angry. A much later essayist, Eric Hoffer had it right about much of our population, regardless of their ostensible politics. Anger and stridency are nondenominational. In The True Believer (1951), Hoffer writes:

“Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

'Always respiring the same confined atmosphere ' - Hazlitt diagnoses the 'echo chamber' effect two centuries before the event!