On the blissful wonders of another’s perspective, unbidden and uncalled for.
Late afternoon, a cloudy November in England. The wind chases the brownish autumn leaves into piles and sometimes scatter them across the streets. Everything is wet, damp even, as is so often the case in Britain: inside is the only place that’s reasonable to be — and even that is not so nice.
My main work for the day is done — editing work for a client finished and submitted — and I turn to the reading that nourishes my soul, sharpens my mind and lays the groundwork for later writing. The newly released A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein just showed up in the mail a day or two before and I could hardly wait. I have listened their immensely popular podcast, DarkHorse, for over a year and greatly appreciate their evolutionary perspective on modern life. Like so many others, I came for their Covid commentary and stayed for the evolutionary biology.
For the occasion, a fancy-looking place I had merely walked past before would do nicely. I step inside and see a rounded sofa-chair of worn leather, perfect for the sophisticated reading I picture myself doing for the next few hours. The milieu is murky and gloomy, but with enough light for reading. The half-dozen patrons are scattered and fairly quiet, though with the non-invasive lull of background conversations in a public place. Grand!
Whiskey glass twirling in my hand, book in the other, legs comfortably crossed, I begin the journey that Heying and Weinstein are about to take me on — a journey that would occupy my mind for the next few days and weeks, arguably ’til this day. They take me back to Costa Rica, a country I have spent some time in — recently as well as over a decade ago — and I can vividly picture the settings they describe: the mountains, the river, the lush green forests, the pressing heat.
I’m slowly taken away on the intellectual journey that all good books, fiction or nonfiction, promises to do.
— “What are you reading?”, I suddenly hear called out from across the room, but as far as I was concerned it snapped my attention from across the world. Involuntarily, I found myself transported back to the real world, away from the spell-binding words of Heying and Weinstein’s excellently written prose. I look towards the bar where the noise came from, and see the 30-something alpha-woman staring at me — bored and without the company of the barkeeper who had mercifully found some excuse to leave her side.
Oh, fuck, I think. Leave me alone. I look at her scornfully and with a mere twist of my left hand turn the cover of the book towards her: she doesn’t look like the reading type so I’m sure anthropology and evolutionary biology would put her off. If I don’t engage, I’m sure she’ll just go away.
— “Eeeh… I can’t see”, she mutters and before I know it she makes her way over, almost snapping the book out of my hand. Fuck.
— “Aha, ‘the Challenges of Modern Life’.” She reads the subtitle in what sounds like a ridiculing tone but I can’t be sure; she is a stranger after all. She grabs the book more firmly and I reluctantly let go of my delicate grip, my little baby. Looking down at me from where she stands, she opens the book and starts reading aloud from its jacket:
— “‘We are living through the most prosperous age in all of human history’ — , yea, no, we’re not — ‘yet we are listless, divided and miserable’.” She scoffs at what she reads. I tilt my head and look at her sceptically. Annoyingly even. My hand goes out and I ask politely if I can have my book back.
— “Yea, yea, yea, sure — so this is what we’re going to do. I’m going to read this description of the book out loud and then I’m going to tell you what I think.”
The emphasis on the “I” put me back for a moment. What in the world…? This was the voice of someone too narcissistic for her own good and who is unfamiliar with not getting her way. What have I found myself in? How will I endure this rant?
As if struck from above with the inspiration that usually only arrives way after their appropriate moments pass, I hear myself, untroubled, deliver the most savage line imaginable:
— “If I wanted to know what you thought, I’d read your book. Now, can I have it back, please?”
She’s stunned, not at all accustomed to having men — or anyone — speak to her like that. I’m sure that wherever she goes, she’s valued, looked up to, admired even, and that her self-awareness has suffered accordingly. “OK”, and she mutters something under her breath that I’d rather not repeat.
Oddly, this interaction stayed with me for months. What in the world would compel a person to interrupt someone who so clearly wasn’t seeking their attention? Who step-by-step signalled every hint in the playbook? And then presume that her opinion, on matters she had no idea what they were, was valuable?
No, ma’am, we do not care.
The Virtues of Leaving People Alone
Some people leave others alone — ruthlessly, consistently so. Even if what they do is odd, weird, or even disgusting…
Our attention is limited, and we live in a world with infinite information — much of it is of garbage quality, I admit, but even of the interesting stuff, there’s way too much than we could ever hope to get through.
Besides being rude and revealing a narcissism I thought only politicians possessed, Miss Obtuse displayed another problem of our times that few critically ponder: that everyone has the right to their opinion and that everyone’s voice is equally valid. No, you don’t. And no, it’s not. It’s only some asinine democratic idea that everyone’s perspective is valuable and everyone’s opinion matters. They don’t.
“If you have not thrown or caught many balls, or used hand tools, or laid tile, or driven stick shift — in short, if you have little or no experience with the effects of your actions in the physical world, and therefore have not had occasion to see the reactions they produce, then you will be more prone to believing in a wholly subjective universe, in which every opinion is equally valid. Every opinion is not equally valid, and some outcomes don’t change just because you want them to. Social outcomes may change if you argue or throw a fit. Physical outcomes will not.” A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, p. 194.
We should interrupt one another more often, embody the scepticism that we once paid lip service to. We ought to clarify to one another what we find of interest and what we don’t. If not, then leave others alone.
Uninteresting People, version 2: A Guide to Arguing with Strangers
It takes a rare kind of open and direct friendship to withstand hyper-honest comments like “mate, this is…
Friendships endure when they stay in the Venn diagram of the conversation topics and interests that are of value to each party. Since time and effort are limited resources, and our attention is scarce, the intersection of the Venn diagram is all that matters — the outskirts mostly wasting the other’s time.
If you don’t like what someone else is saying, you don’t have to listen. If you disagree with what some random guy you’ve never heard of — with or without PhD — said on Joe Rogan’s show, you don’t have to listen. I’ve said it before: If you don’t find a liking to my words, you’re free to click away — in fact, please do.
Let me not trouble you if you don’t find that my words and thoughts deliver value. (I do ask that you buy me a coffee in the hopes that I’ll do better next time).
Miss Obtuse was quite the spectacle. Don’t be her.