"Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That's their natural and first weapon." ~ Gloria Steinem

Sunday, February 28, 2010

A long-overdue response to the Washington Post's "Pearls Before Breakfast"

So I stumbled across this the other day. Yes, I know, I am behind the times. I could have just read the thing, allotted a few moments of head-shaking over the plight of humanity today, and moved on.

But, of course, I did NOT.

This is because the article annoyed me. Not in terms of subject matter; neither am I saying that it was badly written (let's face it, I often hate things solely because they are badly written). The tone and subtext of the article annoyed me. I read the damn thing two weeks ago and it's still preying on my mind, so that tells you how annoyed I am.

The basic premise: a professional, highly and critically-acclaimed violinist plays in the subway with his case out for tips. They expect a mob to gather, because he's this famous violinist, and even though there's no indication of this in the subway, people will recognize greatness when the see it. The idea is, let's take this great violinist out of context to demonstrate that true greatness needs no context.

Needless to say, the whole thing goes completely not as planned. Only one person recognizes him, only one person who doesn't recognize him stays to listen for longer than a few minutes, he ends up making like $30-$40.

Whoever wrote the article decides this is a commentary on the plight of humanity:
  • We're too caught up in our own lives to stop and look around once in a while.
  • Kids recognize greatness better than adults because they're still pure of heart.
  • iPods are bad.

I say, greatness DOES exist in context. There is no such thing as greatness without context.

If you disagree with me, try taking any piece of modern art and telling someone an elephant drew it. Or for that matter, that my 5-year-old nephew painted this Picasso. You will see right then how much context matters.

Because we're human. For us, context is everything. Great music is not universal. Music, by itself, is universal, but great music? If everyone has the same opinion on what is great, why are there so many goddamn bands, labels, and genres today? Maybe I don't enjoy violin music; of course I'm not going to stop and subject myself to what amounts to nails on a chalkboard -- for me.

The organizers of this event -- and indeed, the violinist himself -- fell prey to the logical fallacy of assuming that since they are violin people, the things that violin people know and understand and do are universal to all people, everywhere. The fact that someone is famous among violin people does not mean that all people, everywhere, will recognize the things that made him famous.

Let's say I'm in a zoo, and Frans de Waal is undercover as an ordinary zookeeper giving a talk about chimpanzees. You can bet your ass that I'm going to stop and listen, because I love chimpanzees. Since he's Frans de Waal, the talk will be awesome, and I will recognize that awesomeness because I'm into that sort of thing. I don't actually know what Frans de Waal looks like, so I wouldn't know that I was listening to him in particular, but because I am a person who knows things about chimpanzees and would like to know more, I will recognize the greatness--because I have the proper context already in place in my brain.

Let's say you're in that zoo with me. You, most likely, do not enjoy hearing about chimpanzees as much as I do (few people do), and will, most likely, get bored in short order. This is not because you are a Bad Person or because you are too busy thinking about French fries to care about chimpanzees -- rather, this is because you don't care about chimpanzees. You don't have the proper context. You probably don't even know who Frans de Waal is. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Let's take that one guy who didn't recognize the violinist but still stopped to listen for around 20-25 minutes. Is he more aware of his environment than the other people? Does he recognize greatness better? Is he a Better Person? No; he used to be a violinist.

Yes, that's correct: he was once a violinist, and cherished hopes of being so professionally. He did not end up doing that, but he still remembers it, obviously. Hence, he has the proper context in place to care about a violinist playing in the subway.

Frans de Waal is highly respected in the primatology world; he's conducted a lot of studies, written a lot of books, knows a lot of and about bonobos, and is pretty much my hero. If I suggested that his esteem in primatological circles is triggered by characteristics that would be immediately apparent to anyone who saw him just talking in a zoo, you would not believe me -- and you would be right. The thing is, it's easy for people to assume that a characteristic that brings you millions of dollars is more obvious to the common person than one that does not bring you millions of dollars.

And so, my point is this: the judgement the author of that article held on the plight of humanity is not only false, but something said author is easily guilty of -- in the right context.

I bet he doesn't know who Frans de Waal is, either.

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