Living in the reality of a Marx Brothers movie


Chuck Avery
Published 11:00 a.m. ET Nov. 30, 2019

According to a recent survey, nearly 75% of conversations with friends or coworkers consist of complaints or general negativity. Fifteen percent is made up of social niceties — greetings, weather, rhetorical questions (“How’ve you been?” “Where you been keeping yourself?” “Workin’ hard or hardly workin’?”) and 10% is positive, constructive or informative. The reader may ask who took the survey, how the classifications were decided and what was the size of the group studied.

To be truthful. I am responsible for all of it. My method was to listen to conversations between me and my friends. The survey was made up of three or four people whom I asked, plus a few strangers I overheard in local restaurants. I alone decided how each discussion was to be classified. It may not have been a scientific study in the traditional sense, but I believe the results to be accurate within a certain margin of error.

I concluded that conversations, discussions, disagreements, friendly debates and heated arguments never caused any of the participants to change their minds. In the tradition of pollsters, surveyors and statisticians, I reached this conclusion before I did the study, and I ignored all evidence to the contrary.

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To believe that which reinforces our prejudices and disregard that which doesn’t seems to be a common human trait. Many studies (not like mine, actual studies) have shown that nearly all opinions are based on emotion rather than facts; therefore; facts will not change them. Actually, facts that contradict a person’s strong opinion will cause him to react with anger and harden his stand.

As an example, I will cite a short Emily Dickenson poem. Here it is in its entirety: “‘Faith’ is a fine invention/ For gentlemen who see/ But microscopes are prudent/ In an emergency.” Because I am not a particularly religious person, I have always been convinced that the poem was evidence of Dickenson’s agnostic view of religion. Much of my interpretation is based on the word “invention,” which I define as “something made by man to meet a need.” To me the poem has an ironic tone, and I didn’t see how anyone could think otherwise.

Then one day while browsing on the internet, I came across an interpretation the very opposite of mine. A religious scholar cited the poem as proof of Dickenson’s devotion. He pointed out that the verb “see” was in italics to emphasize the importance of “seeing” or believing in something beyond the reality based on science. The critic had other evidence, but the point is that we both thought the poem reflected our opposing prejudices.

And did I change my view about the poem? Not a chance.

So, there were no surprises last week when the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee concluded its public hearing on impeachment. After weeks of testimony and millions of dollars, those who felt the president should be impeached believed it even more strongly. Those not in favor, even though they heard the same witnesses, were convinced more than ever that impeachment was not warranted. Each side accuses the other of being irrational and pig-headed — and both are correct. That these opinions followed party lines is not only predictable, it is what makes the two-party system America’s most reliable source of entertainment.

Who wouldn’t want to live in a country as amusing as the Marx Brothers’ “Freedonia,” where absurdity reigns, where, as in Alice’s “Wonderland,” words mean whatever one wants them to mean, where “alternative facts” are accepted and where men who claim that “Truth is not truth” are in positions of leadership?

Is this a great country or what?

Email Chuck Avery at [email protected].

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