This Week’s listmaker: Matt Jager. Matt’s nonfiction has been published in travel guides, newspapers, and magazines around the world.
THE FIRST LAW: It’s not worth it.
THE SECOND LAW: Retire sarcasm. Anyone bowling snotnose jibes cares more about performance than communication. If you find yourself in a conversation with an eyerolling know-it-all, refer to the first law.
THE THIRD LAW: Accept the limits of the medium. You’re stripped of any signals that offer context to an internet stranger’s position. So a discourtesy you might shruggingly dismiss during a sidewalk encounter – from a staggering wino, say, or a brimstone zealot – costumes itself online in a false importance. The world is full of idiots. Refer to the first law.
THE FOURTH LAW: Presume no one shares your opinions. That means you’ll have to try hard to understand a range of differing perspectives. Empathy is not easy. You will find yourself presented with half-digested talking points cribbed from hysterical partisan news outlets, vomited onto your Facebook feed by some moron who either forgot or who never learned that confidence is not truth, assurance is not evidence, and even blind ignorance can appear reasonable when you look at it only from a certain angle.
THE FIFTH LAW: Take the dirty out of politics. We use the word “politics” to mean something like “stagy huckster bullshit.” So when someone asks you not to bring up politics after a tragedy, what they mean is: “Don’t pollute this tragedy by peddling that stagy huckster bullshit.” This is probably good advice. But the wholesale damnation of politics in the United States condemns both you and your elected representatives. So long as you vote, you own a share of the process. As individual citizens we need to begin political disagreements with a spirit of curiosity and humility and earnest investigation – rather than ignorance or sanctimonious soapboxing or half-baked misconceptions or hectoring condescension or slimy snake oil rhetoric. And I’m not talking about the other guy. I’m talking about YOU. As in, Uncle Sam Needs YOU.
THE SIXTH LAW Engage in reasonable discourse as a civil duty. Our system of government stalls mid-air when we abstain from political disagreement. Democracy, according to a long-gone New York pastor, is founded on the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people. My passport enshrines that starry-eyed quote on a spread from page 32 to 33. And it’s easy enough to sneer at its cheerful optimism. Because what extraordinary possibilities can even be attempted by free people if ordinary citizens refuse to consider and revise their own presumptions through probing conversation? I read the news and I scroll through my Facebook feed and I think: What a pathetic delusion, to imagine humans could ever solve problems by communication and negotiation and concession to other humans as self-righteous and donkey-stubborn as themselves.
But if you let down your guard – if you flip through your passport when you’re alone in a foreign place, when you’re years from your laws and your language and your country – that line about democracy may make you clench your fists and swallow with pride, and at least for a little while you’ll try to think and act and live as if you’re reaching out toward something better than what you see around you.
Otherwise, First Law.