I’ve Got Oprah Winfrey On My Mind (to be sung to the old Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer jingle)

I’m not ashamed to admit that I adore Oprah. You don’t even have to say her last name, you just have to say “Oprah”, and everyone will know exactly to whom your voice refers. And of those souls around the world who have not yet heard of Oprah, they should — and they will. Earlier this year, Oprah hosted a series of programs called “Best Life Ever!”. An episode that aired January 5, 2009, was about weight. Oprah told us that weight isn’t just a physical issue. Our inability to contro our eating stems from a lack of love (bet you didn’t know that!). We must learn to love ourselves before we can shed the pounds (and as we all know, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all). I remember this quote, “The overweight you doesn’t stand before you craving food. It’s craving love”. The idea behind the episode is that what we think, in particular, what we feel about ourselves, influences how we act. This statement is a no-brainer. Oprah says that the cure for our food-induced self-destruction is this: You have to change your mind before you change your body. This, at first glance, seems like another duh statement. But, look at what she says. Immediately, several questions pop up. 1) what does the statement mean? 2) Does it mean that we must change what we believe about ourselves? 3) Is it possible to change beliefs in the way that Oprah suggests that we should? 4) Is she saying that we can make ourselves believe something? 5) So, for Oprah, is belief an act of will? I thought that, since I had no reason to assume that Oprah was insisting that changing one’s beliefs is an act of will, what she was suggesting was a tactic that is a little milder, like Pascal’s wager. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested that we can acquire a belief in God by way of a “wager”. Pascal asks, what have we got to lose by believing in God? Pascal says, if we believe in God, and there is none, then no harm no foul. We don’t lose anything. But, if we believe in God and he does exist, then all the better. We are rewarded with eternal salvation. The idea is that your belief in God is prudential — it is in our best interest to do so. This may be what Oprah means — not as it pertains to God — but in what we believe in/about ourselves. It is precisely ourselves that changing one’s mind is supposed to fix. This is why I suspect that Oprah’s edit is more forceful that Pascal’s wager. Many dieters and addiction specialists know that, to change or end an addiction, compulsive behavior, or bad habit, such as smoking, gambling or overeating, one must change one’s mindset (in addition to changing behavior). This may require throwing out our entire belief system or at least our beliefs that have to do with ourselves. This is the mechanism behind 12-step programs and rehab. As George Clinton famously said, “free your mind and your ass will follow”. Again, a bit of a duh. We can say that this is a rehash of the mind-body issue. Descartes said that the world (reality) appears to him as he perceives it. Which is why Descartes employed his method of doubt to discern what he could accept as true (what he believed) about himself and the world. So, it seems that Oprah is suggesting that I must change what I believe if I want to gain contro of myself and my life. Perfectly Cartesian. But, there’s a problem. It is this: If I believe or say that I think that I believe that I cannot lose weight, this is because I hold that I am helpless against my own lack of willpower. Therefore, I will not lose weight. My behavior confirms my belief. I cannot stop myself, so I will not lose weight. Oprah says that this cycle will continue so long as I do not change my mind. I must stop telling myself that I cannot lose weight. But how do I do that? She says that I must stop accepting that I cannot. This appears to be a true (using the term colloquially) statement. It’s certainly anecdotally true, and may even be psychologically true. It may even be empirically true. But there’s something dubious about Oprah’s claim. When you start looking deeper at many of Oprah’s claims, the stink of dubiosity begins to rise. The problem may be this: Oprah is simply guilty of using a poor choice of words or worse yet, she is guilty of non-specificity. When we say that we’ve changed or are going to change our mind, we’re talking about what we think, believe or feel. We tend to use these words interchangably, but they are not the same (at least not philosophically). I suspect that this is what is going on here. This kind of word-switching is what is creating the problem. On it’s face, Oprah’s sentiment sounds wonderful and better yet, actually practicable. But, when we look at what the statement means, it gives us no means for actually solving our problem. It’s nothing more than flowery self-affirmation claptrap dressed in a nicely tailored, but empty suit. Before we do anything, we have to figure out what we are working with. Figuring out whether we are dealing with thoughts, emotions, or beliefs is crucial to whether we can follow Oprah’s advice at all. Since feelings do us absolutely no good when things philosophically, we must throw that out. Let’s assume that Oprah feels the same way about emotions as philosophers do (it’s not that they don’t have their place — it’s just that they don’t here). Let’s assume that Oprah wants us to change either our beilefs or what we think. If I say that I think something, I realize first off, that I can think of nearly anything. I can think that the sky is orange, or that I am 5’1, or that I will find a unicorn that knows and can sing the entire Donovan songbook, or that I will get a Ph.D in philosophy (hey, it could happen). But my thoughts can be anything that comes to my mind. They need not be true or actualizable. My thoughts need not be “thought through”. Unfortunately, my thoughts can and are often wrong. They are merely whatever I can conceive of in my mind. I could change my mind, but there is no obligation that changing my mind has to changing my body. I think that what Oprah is going for is something stronger — that if I change my mind, it will necessarily lead me to change my body. If that is what she is asking us to do, then what we must change are our beliefs. What I think differs from what I believe in that my beliefs are the thinks (if you will) that I am entitled to. My beliefs are connected (necessarily) to the idea of Truth. My beliefs cannot be any old thing or some willy-nilly notion. I must be justified, or have a good reason, for believing (a think) before I can call any think a belief. Without adequate evidence or unless something is analytically true ( I suspect that some will claim that what Oprah says is), I am not entitled to believe anything. Ok, this is what Oprah wants us to do, but the question that confronts us here is can we actually do what she wants us to do? Maybe not. There is a problem with what she is saying. The problem is two-fold: 1) Oprah is being vague (although one might say that the problem is ambiguity). Because we don’t know what Oprah is saying, we must make alot of assumptions (the only thing that I took away from my logic 300 class is that we don’t assume anything unless we have to). Oprah’s directive lacks clarity and definitude. Even though we might assume the she wants us to change our beliefs (as opposed to changing thoughts), we don’t really know. We’re not clear on what we’re doing because we’re not clear on what we’re doing (this may sound like a confusing duh, but it is really a sailent point to our discussion). 2) it’s impossible. If we are merely changing thoughts, Oprah’s advice is easy. But, if we are changing beliefs, then we might run into a problem. Namely, beliefs are not so easy to change. We cannot force ourselves to believe something, even if believing so will be better for us in the long run. Beliefs cannot be willed. Unlike body movements or thoughts that I can change by deliberate action, I cannot do so with beliefs. Truth is a necessary element to belief. What is true must also reflect what is. I cannot will what is true or what is not true. My beliefs aren’t the product of decision-making. If I accept one belief as true, but I have an opposing belief, I cannot accept both as true (lest I dare contradict of the Law Of Non-Contradiction). If I take both as true, I am guilty of self-deception. Worse yet, if I take contradictory beliefs to be true, I may be delusional or endulging in the worst kind of bullshitting (I could make a pretty good argument that this is exactly what Oprah requires one to do to follow her advice in the first place). The problem is, is that she doesn’t tell us either way. Our solution is to close our eyes, hold our noses, pick one (thought or belief) and hope for the best. While I’m on the subject over whether we should be dealing with what we think or with what we believe, I just thought of the tons of advice out there urging people to “think”. I, myself, own a T-shirt bearing the quote, “Think: It’s not illegal yet” (come to think of it, I think George Clinton said that, too!). I recall that the commedianne Janeane Garofalo used to sport a tattoo bearing the word “Think” on her wrist. After thinking about all this Oprah, I think that our emphasis on thinking is a part of why we’re having so much trouble with what we’re doing. Perhaps the city of Baltimore had the better idea with its billboard campaign that urged the citizens of the city to “Believe”. I think, perhaps, that believing is better than thinking. I wonder what Oprah would say about that?

Conversation Enders # 15: How To Appear Smart While Convincing Others How Stupid You Really Are Or, A Short Treatise On Pretentiousness and Choplogic

When I was in elementary school (5th grade to be precise), my 5th grade teacher, who shall remain nameless (not so much to protect his identity, but to avoid being sued), initiated a lesson that proved that “gifted and talented” kids may not be so. Some teachers did and still operate under the impression that so-called topnotch children should develop their critical thinking skills. This idea is obviously a big mistake. Try to see where this idea goes wrong. My 5th grade teacher attempted to introduce a classroom full of eleven year-olds to the philosophic enterprise of logical thinking. Yeah, right. Dude, we were eleven year olds! It’s difficult enough to get a classroom full of well over twenty one year-olds to sit down and shut up during an actual college level philosophy class, let alone attempting to reason with a group of hyperactive and disinterested kids (and we really were disinterested in learning any of that crap) that reading philosophy was going to make us into better people. The only thing that I remember about the whole ordeal is that the focus of all that crap he had us reading about was some dude named Harry Stottlemeyer. Needless to say, the attempt did not go over — at all. It was a lead zeppelin in the truest sense of the phrase. Unfortunately, my teacher’s failed attempt was just the first of many attempts by subsequent teachers to nurture one of education’s worst side effects — thinking too much. This overthinking is a problem to say the least. It affects both the educated and the uneducated alike. Unfortunately, it’s found among the educated in greater frequency than any other segment of society. This overthinking silll leads to another affliction among the over-educated set: the need to convince others how smart we are. If you’ve spent too much time around these over-educated types, you mave have noticed that they tend to manifest their need to impress with their brainpower in one of two ways: 1) impressing others with their extensive book knowledge. This is usually examplified by the incessant need to add more detail or backstory to information that other people already know. For example, a group of people are discussing the evils of slavery in the Americas. There is no real need to add detail to the horrors of slavery more than the fact that human beings were bought and sold as property. But the individual who needs to impress others with his smarts will inevitably add such factoids as the fact that the first recorded slaves came to the Americas in 1620, and that, throughout the slave-holding states, it was illegal for a slave to own a comb, or that, because of the prevalence of rape of female slaves, as high as 70% of the U.S. black population has European ancestry. It’s not that these facts aren’t entertaining or interesting. But the plain truth is, is that no one asked to hear what the guy had to say. His point was that he had to prove that he knew more about the subject than anyone else in the room. The second type of overthinker is the worst of the two: he is the person who finds the hidden significance and deep meaning in damn-near everything he sees — no matter how trivial or insignificant the thing is. We’ve all seen this jerk. Let’s say that there is a group of people reminiscing about the incredibly stupid TV shows that aired during their collective adolescence. The show that they are discussing is the incredibly, mind-numbingly awful saturday morning classic, Saved By the Bell. Without ever being invited into the discussion, Mr. Smarter-than-you decides that he is going to learn everyone about how Screetch reflects Hegelian alienation, or what Slater’s physique can teach us about Platonic forms. He decides to wow us all by explaining in painstaking detail, how Zach is really Nietzsche’s ubermensche. Whichever one we encounter, conversations tend to drift into the realm of the academic — where words like “pedantic”, “didactic”, and “soporific” come to mind ( I did a little wowing myself just there. I pulled out three 50 cent words!) All this overthinking (bombastic overthnking at that) tends to result in the exact opposite effect that it is intended to have. Amazingly, overthinking deralis thought. It creates a type of disposition in those who are prone to overthinking that we should only think about those things that are “important”. Inevitably, this line of thinking itself tends to cast the net of subject mater very narrowly. Conversations tend to be small and for the most part, uninteresting. I say, if you want to try this out, try talking to an academic about any subject other than their subject of choice or expertise. Good luck. The unfortunate result of this mindset is that those who think too much are often accused of snobbery. This, I think, has to do with why so many Americans are so dismissive of education. It’s esay to see that we have a real disdain for bookworms, smarty-pants, know-it-all’s. We hated Al Gore in part because he came off like he was smarter than everyone else (and worse yet, knew that he was). The allegation, however, isn’t entirely untrue. People who overthink are sometimes arrogant jerks who do feel that they are the smartest people in the room. The unfortunate side effect for those who overthink is that many of them become so wrapped up in being dismissive of anything that does not warrant intellectual merit, that they often miss the point of thinking entirely. The key is that we must remind ourselves that it’s not that nothing trivial has significance to it. Eric Draven (aka, “The Crow”) said that nothing is trivial. Unfortunately for Mr. Draven, he realized that fact after he was stabbed a few times and chucked out of a 4th story window. For the majority of us, our lesson need not be so extreme. Now, it may be true that there are really trivial things that lack any significance whatsoever (for instance, it is a waste of time to contemplate the philosophic significance of my big toe), but it is easy to understand Draven’s sentiment. When it comes to overthinking, we have a problem. But, our solution is not dismissing all as insignificant, either. During the last KPFK fund drive (wait, that might still be going on now), a host lamented the fact that there are a bunch of movies at the cineplexes that don’t teach anything. That statement, and I think that she might take offense to my supposition, is exactly what is wrong with overthinking. It is possible to find, if one looks hard enough, significance or a lesson in nearly anything. I’d say that her problem is, is that she was being intellectually lazy and dismissing anything that set out to entertain as its first priority as non-instructive. There is as much to learn from Madea as we can learn from a documentary about detainees at Gitmo. (Really, this is true). That’s the trap. There is a possibility that, with all of our looking, that we run the possibility of looking too deep. The key is finding what the Buddha called the “middle way”. That is, when we look for significance, we must be careful not to overthink, but we must also watch that we do not underthink, either. Take what you watch or read or hear with caution. I was listening to “Fresh Air” a couple of nights ago while I was washing dishes. Terry Gross was talking to Woody Allen. I’ve been around philosophy types long enough to know that this guy is the total package so far as filmmakers go. Ask any philosopher which Woody Allen film he digs and you’ll be sure to hear Annie Hall, or Crimes and Misdemeanors sure as I can crack my knuckles. Personally, I’m a fan of What’s Up, Tiger Lily?. But that’s just me. I was amazed to hear Woody Allen say (alright, I already kind of knew this) that he isn’t a deep thinker. He says that people look all over his movies, looking for clues for life’s hidden meanings. But to him it seems, his movies are merely the product of his or his partner’s imagination. There is nothing more than what makes for a good story. He says that he’s more likely to be the guy wearing a T-shirt drinking a beer than he’d be the guy knee-deep in some philosophic roundtable discussing the merits of some deep and complex philsophical theory. I know that many philosophers hail Woody Allen as some sort of movie god, and often rank him among those who are “philosophers” in the academic sense. I learned some time ago that Woody Allen, unlike say, Lakers (Go Lakers!) coach Phil Jackson, Harrison Ford or Steve Martin, wasn’t a philosophy major in college. He studied film… and flunked out. But you see, that’s where overthinking gets the best of people. Not only do they see deep thinking where it isn’t, but they also created a persona for a filmmaker to match their own tendency to overthink. I think that the king of (cinematic) pop, George Lucas, said it best when he said that there are people who dismiss films like Star Wars as fluff, but on the flipside, there are people who look way too deep. They’re so busy looking that they miss the point. I’d like to end on this note. I think that it applies: Back in the mid-90s, there was this Tom Petty video for the song “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. The viedo had all sorts of flashy images in it, and plenty of people started asking,”what does all of this mean?” (I guess it’s worth noting that this is the era when video directors like Mark Romanek and Mark Pellingham were churning out videos that had “meaning”). I remember watching VH-1 one afternoon when the subject of Tom Petty’s video came up. The second most frequently asked question about the video (right behind “Is that a man?”) was what did the video mean? Tom Petty’s answer was that the video meant nothing. There was no point other than to throw alot of cool stuff together in a video (although I suspect that there was some deconstructivist that said that there was meaning, and of course, Tom Petty didn’t see it). That’s so cool! And it’s especially cool for this point: you can dig too deep and shoot right past the answer. You can dig enough and find meaning that was lurking in a Romero zombie flick, or finding the Jungian archetypes in Lucas’ Star Wars. But you can also not look at all and still get it. The point in all of this is that, despite my early trauma with the likes of that Stottlemeyer bastard, and my excursion into the academic world of overthinking (something I have not completely shed from my soul yet), I am aware of, and seeking that happy balance between the two extremes.

Half-assed Apologies

While I’m on the subject of negativity, I’d like to acknowldge that, from time to time, I can go a bit too far. I was looking at a previous post I’d written called “I truly hate the well-intentioned”. I was shocked by the level of vitriol that I had expressed in that post. I don’t think I was being so much negative as I was being mean. I must have been really pissed off about someting or on my period to write so meanspiritedly about people who mean well (and the Pacifica listening audience). Sorry to those who were the targets of my meanspirited commentary (and there were particular people that I had in mind writing it). Though I’m apologizing for the level of meanness, I’m not, however, taking abck the sentiment that I had expressed in that post. I still think that people who say that the solution for racism is race-mixing are more than a little misguided in their “solution” for the problem. If you think about it, their solution may be worse than the cure. But I don’t want to open up that can of worms today.

A Frown Turned Upside Down

I have a problem with negativity. Really, I do. I’ve always had it. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t pissed off about something. Nope. I can’t. There are people that say that our dispositions are evident in the womb. That is, we are born who we are. And there’s always somebody’s mother blathering on about how such and such was fidgity in the womb, and went on to be a fidgity kid who grew up to be a fidgity adult. “He was always like that” she says, shaking her head. Our personalities are as fixed as the stars in the sky. Unfortunately, some of us have what might be called “problem” personalities. We’re the ones who are sure fire to bring down anyone’s good time. The Eeyores and Oscar the Grouches who seem to get off pissing all over everybody’s parade. The honest fact of the matter is that we do. Or at least I do. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to find another group of misanthropes who share your disdain for all things happy. In high school, I was lucky enough to find a couple of kids who shared my pessimistic outlook. Back in high school, I was partial to the “gothic” lifestyle. The funny (Iguess slightly ironic) thing is, is that there are plenty of self-professed goths who are, when the world is not looking, fairly upbeat and optimistic people. And this is exactly the situation that I found myself in. I had hooked up with happy-go-lucky goths. My worst nightmare. I was too dour for the downtrodden. All these years later, I find that I haven’t lightened up a single bit. I’m just as bitter as ever. Perhaps even more so. (the past eight years of the Bush administration really put me in a foul mood). I’m so negative, that I’ve caused more than a few of the people that I know to say that i should stop being so negative. I’ve tried. I really did. I tried to do that “the Secret” crap, where you put out positive thoughts to attract positivity to you. Well, it didn’t work. I tried to be positive. Does anyone out there know how hard that truly is — being positive? I guess that experts on happiness (although I believe that being negative does not exclude one from being happy) will tell me that I didn’t work hard enough at changing myself. They’ll tell me that I was trying to take the shortcut, and that I wasn’t being positive so much as I was wishful thinking. Either way, failing to attract the positivity that I deserve in the ling run, gave me one more thing to be negative about. This attitude is quite detrimental to long-lasting relationships. I had thought that I was doomed. No one, it seems, likes a perpetual grouch. I thought that i would spend the rest of my life faking optimism for everyone else while secretly harboring my little, black stormclouds. That is, until I realized that my problem wasn’t that I’m a negative person. My problem was that I was trying to not be a negative person. My efforts to throw off my cloak of despair had led my to a place where I shouldn’t have gone in the first place. I was trying to be so pleasant for everyone, that I wasn’t being who I was. the reason why I was repelling people wasn’t because I was a grouch, it was because I was a faker. I wasn’t a genuine person to anyone, least of all I wasn’t being genuine with myself. That was my problem. So, I’ve embraced my inner crabby person, and agreed with myself that, no matter what, i will not give over who I am to entertain the needs of other people. If other folks can’t handle a little bad mood, then so be it. We’ll part on good terms. I think that’s what I’m going to do. At least until I meet some incredibly hot and painfully optimistic guy. In that case, I will immediately throw out everything about being an incurable pessimist and begin sunning it up immediately. After all, I’m only a girl.