PROBLEM 0020: On Condescension and Opinions

I wanted to learn how to condescend today, for the express purpose of not condescending, or at least condescending with intention and style. That might be fun. But it’s a word that has always baffled me, condescension. I heard the word in House of Cards last night and was impressed that the character recognized condescension when it happened to her. I was less impressed that whoever wrote the episode was able to use it. Condescension is a horrible thing, or is it…?

WILLINGLY SINKING INTO A PERSON PIT

The best definition I’ve found of “condescend” is on Etymology Online. “[The] Sense of ‘to sink willingly to equal terms with inferiors’.” From mid-fifteenth century France. Much better than the Webster’s pallid offering. Look at that adverb there, willingly to sink—and to where shall we sink if in this mode?—down to our inferiors, to be on equal terms with them at last. Beautiful. Très intentional. But how to do it with style? That is the question.

Whenever I read a blog post or visit some website that offers opinions, I often suspect (let’s be fair: unfairly) that the author (whoever they are, and they are everyone) is trying to help me. Makes sense. Most people read a blog or website to get something out of it. If the readers get something, they’ve been helped. Fine. But I’m not talking about How-To articles or lists of interesting things or flat news. I’m talking about everything else. Opinions. God, I hate opinions. Opinions come from all corners, and most of those corners are at least subtly elevated above the reader. (The balding therapist with the first fruits of rosacea points out that the present author prefers to be firmly planted above such people…) (naughtiness)

So maybe that’s the problem, Number 0020b: On Opinions.

WHAT IS AN OPINION?

  • The seed of a fresh debate
  • The seed of a moldy debate
  • The seed of debatable value
  • The declaration of a declarer
  • The interrogation of an interrogator
  • The propagation of a head full of [insert preferred scatalogical reference here]
  • The gold of a mind
  • The silver of wood in the palm of a hand
  • The copper who notes your license plate with no probable cause
  •  The iron shavings seeking a willing magnet
  • The tiny hairs off of a freshly shaven chin that will surely clog up the sink
  • The china in the cabinet brought out for every meal, even the lonely ones

Okay, so none of those definitions are very nice to opinions and probably count as opinions in and of themselves. But a declaration of value is what I’ve come to expect from myself, if this website is any indication. But this website also tries to give things the benefit of the doubt. Can we find value in opinions if we can write a list such as the one above?

ART AND OPINION

I have always hated art that makes a point of making a point. Rarely has art with a point been something I return to with any frequency. I prefer to look at Picasso’s Guernica without thinking about what it’s really about. Instead, I set it next to his blue guitar and his dishes. It’s fascinating for what it is, not what it represents. Is this fair? Not really. But Guernica is not an opinion piece, it’s not an editorial. If it was either of those things, it would be ineffective. (And surely it must be something else, as a Google search for “Guernica” returns much more about the painting than about some invisible borders within Basque country, whose bombed out death toll was either more than 1500, somewhere between 100 and 500, or exactly 802, thank you very much, Mr. Wikipedia.)

Or take Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature. Full of opinions. But in the role of lecturer that is his job, to be stern and at times condescending with the purpose of altering a miseducated mindset. His book on Gogol? At times, it is the gold standard of condescension. When he relates his conversations with the publisher regarding his refusal to summarize Gogol’s stories, one cringes at the man’s porcelain balls. It’s amazing the book was ever published (and perhaps this is condescension with style?). Nabokov refuses to condescend (literally) to the reader and yet speaks in a condescending tone about his publisher (who is at the same level as the reader in his opinion). But now the word is becoming more diffuse, less visible, a Guernica of a word that is losing its utility even as it makes itself more useful. Perhaps this is less about thinking critically and more about feelings…

When either opinion or condescension are recognized, an instinctual revulsion occurs, inert gases charged to irritating brightness and faint buzzing. Take any random conceptual artist who creates art out of neon (Bruce Nauman? Kelly Mark? The bar down the street?). These works are the very type of ironic condescension that I find irritating and banal (“Who’s condescending now, Mr. Hischier?” “Me?” I reply), which by a nice tautology means they succeeded (hell, yeah!). Some of these artists claim to have a self-deprecating sense of humor about their work, but I find it to be more of a global self-deprecation. “This is what I think, and you do, too. Except that I noticed it and made something out of it.” That’s totally okay. I just don’t like it or find it worth more attention than the five minutes I’ve spent writing about it.

Feelings. Personally, I get condescending when my feelings are being threatened. Look at that paragraph above. Is that a fair assessment of neon art? Personally, yes. I have my critical reasons which I’ve chosen to leave out of this article. But is the paragraph a fair assessment extra-personally? Not likely. If anything, it may sway where it has no right to sway (this is the purpose of rhetoric)(note that the parenthetical is the typographic mode of neon condescension). I would hope that in a true debate my words stay away from condescension, as condescension implies that I have noticed that I am debating with an assumed inferior. Not a good thing. And probably an impossible expectation of one’s self.

THE VALUE OF CONDESCENSION AND OPINION

The only value I can see (right now, today) in either condescension or opinion is one of ignition. If a person suspects another of condescension, they are ignited against the speaker. If an opinion is dropped, it is a glove thrown down for rebuttal. This is good. Just because a debate or argument has an unpleasant start, that doesn’t mean the conversation as a whole won’t be valuable. There is a lot of good that comes from conversation that is meaningful, and both condescension and opinion can push two people wrestling on down the road to meaning. Feelings may be hurt, goodness may be threatened, but hopefully it all turns out to be amusing and/or beneficial to both parties.