Wednesday, December 7, 2011


What is the difference between over-thinking and sufficient thinking? Having been wrongly accused of the former, I'll use the latter to answer the question and offer a rebuttal.

The case is this: Rob S. (no, that's too obvious, let's call him R. Strong) believes I over-think my aversion to Facebook (a website on which I may or may not have a nebulous, negligible presence). He writes, "You are a classic over-thinker, and you are over-thinking this 1,000%." I, of course, believe I sufficiently think about my aversion and then follow that thinking by maintaining and strengthening my aversion.

First, we both agree that under-thinking is a scourge. Those who under-think their own country will be given to jingoism. Those who under-think advertisements will be driven further into impulse purchases, including holiday Lexi, over which purchases they have decreasing control. Those who under-think the food they eat will continue to consume dangerous amounts of orange, leading to degraded health.

Those who under-think about their partners will likely become boorish towards them. And those who under-think about their own lives and time, who are unexamined, will behave in ways they don't understand for reasons they don't understand, confusing themselves and others along the way, and playing out the clock as they engage in activities they don't want to engage in.

Because I have committed myself to battling ignorance and because I'd prefer not to be a jingoistic, boorish purveyor of confusion--with Cheetos powder festooning my cheeks--I am whole-brainedly against under-thinking and bristle whenever I hear the phrase, "You're over-thinking" or "You're thinking too much."

"No matter the scourge of under-thinking (which you know I agree with you concerning)," writes Strong, "the remedy to that is not over-thinking; it is sufficient thinking." More on that later.

Now, the negatives of under-thinking having been amply laid out--and amply apparent in our droopy-eyelidded poleis--let's look at the negatives of so-called over-thinking.

Over-thinking takes longer. Is that it? If so, I'll gulp that medicine any day of the week.

But that's not quite it. One can be said to be over-thinking if one spends too much time thinking about something that is not complex. 'Why does cheese taste good?' may not require an hour. 'Should I buy this dish soap or that one?' can almost never warrant more than a few minutes, environmental impact aside. Over-complicating is to be criticized because it takes us into the same muddle as under-thinking--the amount of time and energy spent considering an issue is not commensurate to the topic, and that effort, or lack of, leaves us confused.

But if something is complex, and if its effects on the whole of our contemporary society seem to be complex, is over-thinking that thing even possible? I would say the threshold is high and that it would take a truly enormous amount of thought to become an intellectual-extremist.

Certainly, we can't be completely consumed with one topic--Facebook, for instance--because that will lead to under-thinking other topics, and proportion is key. But why shouldn't we be able to mentally chew on a powerful, consuming entity that, to my mind, has been all-too-readily accepted as a dominant mode of communication--and a dominant mode of being if my experience with teenagers in the public library yesterday can be allowed to show me anything--by all-too-many people who have ceded their critical thinking skills in its bluish glow?

Why shouldn't a website that seems, I emphasize seems, to encourage inauthenticity and false intimacy and that may insidiously enable isolation be worthy of a couple minutes, or hours, of my analysis?

Socrates said about rhetoricians and dictators that they are "the least powerful members of their communities, because they almost never do what they want, rather than what they think it's best for them to do." Those in power don't really have power if they do things they don't want to do.

So why shouldn't it justify some of my inner discussion when people I respect seem to be swallowed into an online activity more than they would otherwise like, when they're sapped of power and time, and when they act unconsciously to continue that sapping activity, admitting that they've been swallowed, magnetized, etherized, enveloped by something they don't want to do? (Note: this is not Strong's professed experience, but it is an experience I've heard professed).

(A few moments of sufficient[?] thinking on the benefits of Facebook, which benefits include in-touch-ability, networking, efficient sharing of information, crowd-wrangling, and the encouragement of non-digital society (questionable). Those benefits may also include harmless, distracting fun, and the website may allow the shy to be more socially comfortable, the voiceless to be more politically active, and so on. It may let us stay more connected to our past acquaintances as well, and therefore to our past selves.

Additionally, if there used to be French salons and bowling leagues, and those were eventually replaced by postmodern, home-bound alienation, couldn't Facebook be said to be a reconstituted salon and/or bowling league in which ideas are shared, countered, and revised, and bowling balls are bowled? Yes. And the movement from Public-Square Life before Television to Overly Private, Withdrawn Life with Television to Reinvented Social Engagement after Television, via and post-Facebook is an interesting one. Possibly we've gained and regained. But there have been losses, mostly ignored, and those who talk about those losses--for one, the fact that my 18-year-old students seem less and less able to have actual, unstunted conversations and feel sad about that--are vigorously shouted down as over-thinkers.

I vigorously shout up!)

On thinking: Descartes believed it made him human. I don't recall any Cartesian worries about over-cogito-ing.

Hamlet thought, "Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Is my over-thinking actually giving something value it doesn't inherently have? No. Hamlet is way too stoic for me here, morally relativist, adolescent even. It's a tempting way of being--solipsism--but isn't it better to believe, "There are good and bad and thinking makes them clear?" Though that's not iambic (or is it--I'd want to over-scan it), and though my clarity idea may be philosophically-flawed, it seems practical and necessary to wrestle ethically with the major forces we encounter and ask whether they are good, bad, neutral. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" seems closer to the truth, and because of this multitude in heaven and earth, I prefer to over- and to sufficiently think than to risk under-thinking.

T.E. Hulme said: "I always think that the fundamental process at the back of all the arts might be represented by the following metaphor. You know what I call architect's curves--flat pieces of wood with all different kinds of curvature. By a suitable selection from these you can draw approximately any curve you like. The artist I take to be the man who simply can't bear the idea of that 'approximately'. He will get the exact curve of what he sees whether it be an object or an idea in the mind." I prefer, though I know I have oodles of rotten wood in this brain, to be an artist-carpenter of over-thinking rather than give in to unmeasured approximations.

(When hanging pictures, however, speed is to be valued, and though a level is sometimes useful, I prefer to wing it).

Meanwhile, isn't what is taken to be over-thinking actually just a willingness to express what one thinks? No one looks at me staring into space and says, "You're over-thinking." But when I say, "Here's why J.J. Abrams is tiresome, in three parts," my company counters that I'm over-thinking. No. I'm over-saying maybe. I'm misjudging possibly. But I'm probably not over-thinking.

It's the case that my thinking is either mis-expressed or my company doesn't want to muster the energy to delve into the issue I've chosen. So, "You're overthinking" must mean, "I've judged that your topic doesn't require as much of my energy as you think it does."

Which leads us to the difference between sufficient thinking and over-thinking. It is subjective. One man's over-thinking is another man's sufficient thinking. Nothing is over- or sufficient but thinking makes it so. (Wait. . .Okay, no, that construction works here better than it does for Hamlet because he's positing an amoral world and I'm just saying that we each have to judge what's a sufficient amount of study for each of us, and that the only two options are over- and sufficient.)

When this charge of excessive mulling--"You're over-thinking"--is leveled by Jamie Samuelson--a made-up, genderless, vapid person I sometimes meet in a coffee shop--well, I don't suffer that kindly. When it's leveled by the prodigious thinker, R. Strong, I'm given pause. Is he right?

In this case, it has been leveled by a person who's often known as an over-thinker himself. (Full disclosure: I admit that even I said, "You're over-thinking" to JK Zokeler a year ago when he questioned whether a Jeff Bridges' comic monologue was funny or not. In some cases, it seems that we do just have to accept a premise, especially in comedy, but JK Zokeler had the same reaction to me that I'm having to R., so I'm not sure yet--except to say that that particular sketch seemed inconsequential enough--and that was what made it funny--to let slide without too much criticism, but I could be wrong).

So, now that I've thought about all of this--sufficient thinking, Facebook, Jeff Bridges, bowling (these last two go nicely together)--here's the flesh of the cow. My friendship with Rob is largely based on thinking about things in a way that non-Us's regularly deem to be over-thinking. So when he says, "You're overthinking" it is somewhat like Megan telling me, "You know, you're a bit too married." Now, I haven't been hurt by this at all, just prodded to more thinking, so that's great.

But I also wonder whether my arguments about Facebook with Rob are particularly vexing to me because the most consistent, vocal, in-my-literal-face friend I have continues to argue for a mode of friendship--status updating and homogeneous glibbery--that is wholly different from the one we most heartily enjoy.

If friendship is eggs and Facebook friendship is Tabasco, then bring it to my table please, and promptly. But if Facebook friendship has the potential to be Egg-beaters, as I suspect it does, then I will continue to say "No Thank You."


Rob Strong said...

Let me be the first to say that your extended thinking on the macro phenomenon of facebook friendship is welcome. As a teacher of young writers, you have a particularly crucial post in society for helping them incorporate technological communication into their lives in a way that enhances their real flesh-and-bone existence.

However, it is your micro-level over thinking that gets to me. Not regarding the question of whether facebook is a societal good, but the question of whether you should join. Which, of course you should, as you now have agreed.

It is especially with respect to your post at the front lines of helping people write well-formed thoughts in standard English that I have encouraged you to inflate your envelope just a tiny bit. Your suspicions of shallowness are limited to being just that--suspicions. Your complaints about the website will always smack of "what the hell is this guy talking about?" as long as you haven't had an honest try at it yourself. Now, I'm not saying every human owes it to themselves and their fellow friends to sign up for an account, but those who will lecture 18-year-olds sure as hell better, lest they come off as a tee-totaling Baptist addressing an AA meeting on the perils of that devilish liquor.

Dave said...

Do I also need to learn clarinet before I hate Kenny G or, more pertinently, rush Beta Theta Pi to have an opinion about fraternities?

My job is to expose college students, most of whom eventually agree with me that their Facebook experiences are probably a bit too influential, to better thought. That's all.

(Some of them text their papers. Those students do not agree with me.)

Meanwhile, the insistence that Facebook is a special society--and not just a watered-down one--that I can't possibly understand without immersion is unpersuasive.

Depending on the peril, some tee-totalers may have a point. And so I prohibit myself.

Google Plus, on the other hand, is a wonderful, runic experience and I invite you to join my circle and come to understand its secrets.

Rob Strong said...

No, you don't need to learn the Clarinet to hate Kenny G, or even necessarily justify yourself; go ahead and don't like what you don't like.

However, if you wanted to be in the position of explaining to Kenny G fans why they might look for a more challenging and authentic form of jazz, you would be well-advised to maybe listen to a few of his albums. For one thing, then you'd know that he plays the soprano saxophone, and not the clarinet, and you wouldn't immediately alienate your target audience with the implication that you were a sanctimonious prick.

If you are suggesting merely that facebook (like, say beer) may have some downsides that we ought to be aware of in addition to its positive merits, then why not join and learn more about both aspects. Why can't I have a little drink to unwind myself?

If, however, you are claiming that it is more like heroin, and that it ought properly to be shunned and that for every person it is likely a net negative, well, then you're implying a negative judgment against me personally, which is why I find myself taking this argument to heart at times.

Dave said...

You're right. Kenny G does play the sax.

In order to judge Kenny G, I would need to listen to Kenny G (I have), and that listening would be analogous to, what, being aware of Facebook? Seeing it sometimes? Talking to people about it.

I don't think I need to embrace something whole hog in order to have an opinion of it (see my fraternity analogy, which I imagine you accept).

I cop to the clarinet error, which is nearly unforgivable. However, "sanctimonious prick" seems erroneous in this case. I'd have called myself "an inaccurate prick" or a "know-nothing blusterer."

As for perceived personal targeting, I will happily apologize, especially if you will admit that your prodding me to sign up for Facebook has sometimes taken the form of mild ad hominem shaming. That is, your mild disrespect for my position has at least approached my mild disrespect for yours.

We should all have a drink to unwind ourselves! Please use Facebook responsibly.

Anyway, I prove, with my choices, that you have at least somewhat won the day on this social media point. I will welcome your gracious victory laps.

Yours in good-natured disagreement. . .