Monday, March 01, 2004

The Suppressed Fifth Chapter of Ecce Homo: Why I am so fat

Recently published research shows that television leads to obesity in small children not so much because of the hours they spend in a motionless trance before the screen, but because of the irresistible advertisements for junk food they are exposed to. As one of the researchers commented in a radio interview, kids under seven believe everything they hear and see. Presumably adults do better; but tendency of people to believe what they hear is very strong. Under laboratory conditions, grownups may be capable of distinguishing between image and reality; but they seldom do so in the wild. You frequently read that the great thing to learn is how to learn, but it is just as important to learn how not to learn. My field research indicates that the second lesson is seldom successful.

I recall a freshman who was unhappy because he had to read the Republic. “What’s with this old stuff? Plato didn’t know about relativity and quantum mechanics like we do.” World-class naïf that I am, I responded, “Gee, I didn’t even know you were a physics major.” But if it is common for particular people to act as if they somehow possess the knowledge and capabilities that actually pertain to a few specialists, it is even more common to define humanity generically in terms of characteristics that are seldom in evidence in the day-to-day behavior of individuals. Is man a rational animal? Not very damned often. As Piaget showed, at a certain age people become capable of what he terms abstract operations and can, therefore understand why a tall beaker doesn’t necessarily contain more fluid than a short one. In the real world, however, individuals do not routinely function at this level, which is perhaps why wine makers go on putting a dimple in the bottom of the wine bottles.

Being rational means, if nothing else, having fully human language; and people certainly do talk. But while adult speech certainly can not be boiled down to a congeries of stimuli and responses as B.F.Skinner used to claim, from a natural history perspective a large proportion of our discourse does consist of bouncing ready-made phrases off one another. The creative aspect of language production, the human ability to produce an indefinite number of grammatical sentences at will, is seldom strenuously exercised; and as with music, most of the creativity on display is a matter of performance, not composition. The real problem, however, is not that new and relevant statements are not uttered often enough but that they aren’t heard often enough. Fully human speech reception requires the activation of the same capabilities as speech production. It is easier to react like a pigeon in a Skinner box and assimilate verbal input to a short list of expected signals, thus becoming a perfect victim for the reinforcement schedules of the political and corporate manipulators.

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