Raymond Skiles seeks a different way, a better way, through alternative, and unconventional answers to life’s problems. He doesn’t think like the rest of us do. It’s one of his most endearing qualities, and one of his biggest faults. Raymond scours alternative resources to find alternative routes through our legal system, our financial systems, and in the ways we maintain health. The discussions the two of us have on these subjects often devolve to him arguing from what I consider an illogical base, and me struggling to avoid thinking he’s wrong and I’m right. I strive to believe that there are many forms of intelligence, and what works for someone like Raymond may not work for me. When Raymond told me that he was going to risk it all based on some alternative information he learned, however, I felt the need to warn him based on my understanding of the issue we were discussing. I cared about Raymond Skiles, and I didn’t want to see him pursue avenues I consider ill-advised.
Raymond Skiles is a dumb guy. We both are. He did as poorly in school as I did, and we both decided to educate ourselves, after our school years, to try to catch up to those who were more engaged in school. Being a dumb guy was more state of mind than an absolute characteristic for us, and we spent the rest of our adult lives trying to escape the label. We shared so many of these characteristics at one point in our lives that some might call us similar. We both fell prey to some crazy, wacky conspiratorial beliefs in our youth, but at some point in our respective timelines, we diverged.
The differences that emerged between the two of us can be explained in one simple scenario. If a used car salesman approached us, on separate occasions, with his persuasive sales techniques, we would both enter into the transaction believing that we were smarter, more savvy, and better than a used car salesman. I don’t know if there was an incident, or an accumulation of moments that led to my epiphany, but at some point, I realized that I wasn’t half as bright as I thought I was. This former dumb guy-turned-erudite-turned-dumb guy again, realized that while I might know more than the average person knows about James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and U.S. Presidents, that knowledge doesn’t do me any good the moment a guy in polyester leaps out of his balloons saying, “What do I have to do to get you into a car today?” I developed a technique that works best for me. I run away.
Raymond Skiles, on the other hand, knows a thing or two about the techniques used car salesmen employ on unsuspecting customers. By reading websites that warn potential clients about the tactics used car salesmen use, Raymond believes he knows them, and that he can use that knowledge to defeat them at their game. “You just have to know who they are,” is something he says. “Once you know what he eats for breakfast, who he calls his family, and if he’s stepping out on his wife, you got him where he lives.”
Whereas I recognize the limits of my intelligence the moment I set foot on a salesman’s home turf, Raymond considers it a challenge and a mark of his intelligence to outdo the man. I might over-estimate the craftiness of the average used car salesman, but if they are half as skilled in the art of persuasion as I fear most of them are, they will know who Raymond is. They will then flip the focus of their negotiations into an arena Raymond finds pleasing. They might even compliment Raymond for the knowledge he has attained on the industry, and they might take a more honest and direct approach in their exchange, and Raymond might end up paying more for the car than he intended.
In this battle between unconventional thinking and following traditional or conventional norms, unconventional thinking is far more seductive. The purveyors of unconventional information seduce us with different knowledge, with the idea that it might lead to more knowledge. When we hear conventional knowledge, we’re more apt to consider the source and frame it accordingly, and then fact check the source. When we hear unconventional ideas, however, we have an instinctive, emotional attachment to them. Some part of us wants these ideas to be so true that we put our skepticism aside to embrace them, another part of us believes that unconventional knowledge is the result of skepticism and therefore thoroughly vetted. Some psychologists state that we must make a concerted effort to avoid falling prey to their allure. Those who fall prey to the desire to have more knowledge should heed the warning that quantity does not always equal quality in this regard. There are only so many facts on a given issue, and they’re comparatively boring. Alternative, unconventional avenues are so intriguing and sexy that they can make us feel intelligent for coming up with them before any of our peers do. In some cases we should consider those arguments, but in my experience most alternative theories provide nothing more than provocative distractions and obfuscations from the central argument.
Another break between Raymond’s way of thinking and mine occurred when I realized how often alternative theories based on unconventional information are wrong. Conventional information, reported by conventional outlets, is not always true either of course, but I would suggest their batting average is far superior to the alternative outlets. The battle between the two results in some unconventional thinkers putting so much stock in the unconventional thoughts that they end up considering the rest of us naïve for believing everything we’re told.
In our discussions on a wide variety of topics, Raymond and I found many differences between how we arrive at a conclusion. We both seek primary source information, corroborating evidence, and perhaps some opinion pieces to bolster our conclusions. At some point, however, I am “easily satisfied” with my findings, whereas Raymond digs deeper. Raymond knows when the subject of a topic is a piece is crud, and Raymond knows the way a piece of crud thinks, and he seeks explanations that detail the piece of crud’s motives in a way Raymond can understand. In Raymond’s search for what he considers total objectivity, he accidentally trips over a critical line between objectivity and subjectivity. He finds subjective speculation regarding the motives of the piece of crud that fit with his theories on the subject in question, and he uses them to develop theories that are mostly autobiographical.
Police officers, working a beat, have a modus operandi (M.O.) they bring to their job: “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” This is the ideal mindset for a law enforcement official working a beat to have. Is this M.O. ideal, however, for a casual consumer of news, an employee who learns information regarding their employer, or a friend listening to another friend tell a story?
A high profile media personality once suggested that skepticism of the press undermines their authority, but the vaunted role the press plays in our republic should require them to endure constant, intense scrutiny, skepticism, and cynicism that makes them uncomfortable. Members of the media should conduct themselves in a manner that welcomes all of that from their audience and defeats it with performance that leads to a solid record they can point to whenever anyone questions them. Wouldn’t the members of the media say the same thing of the subjects they cover?
There is a tipping point, however, when a healthy sense of skepticism creeps into a form of cynicism that believes “none of what I hear and half of what I see.” Such cynicism opens holes in most people that allows other information to fill it.
As an individual who has an insatiable curiosity for unconventional thinking, specific to human behavior, I have had a number of friends introduce me to a wide array of alternative outlets. They introduce me to various definitions of human psychology through astrology, numerology, and witchcraft. One of these friends introduced me to the idea that aliens from other planets could teach us a lot about ourselves.
This friend provided me a collection of transmitted (or transmuted) messages from these superior beings to earthlings. As I read through the information he found, I found that the theme of these messages was that my philosophy was wrong. I found them somewhat humorous, but before I could entirely dismiss them, I learned that my friend considered these messages proof that I was wrong. Although he didn’t say these words exactly, the import of his responses was that I could not argue against statements made by superior life forms.
The first question this skeptic would love to ask authors of human psychology, by way of alien scripture, is how do we arrive at the assumption that aliens from another planet are of a superior intellect? The collective thought, among certain quarters of human authority, suggests that not only is there intelligent life out there, but they’re more intelligent than earthlings can conceive. Even though we have no proof that life exists outside our planet, at this point in our space explorations, it would be foolish to think that the only lifeforms in the universe are those that exist on Earth. If other lifeforms exist, however, we don’t know what form they take. (We assume they are humanoid in form and that they’re here for our water, but if they’re intelligent beyond our comprehension why haven’t they been able to develop a substitute for water, or an artificial way to preserve or increase their supply?) We also don’t know what concerns alien life forms have, or how they think, but we assume that all creatures have the same concerns as us. The one crucial nugget of information missing in these theories is that we know less than nothing about aliens. If we had some proof that they existed, we could say we know nothing about them, but we don’t even know if they exist. With that in mind, any theories of alien intellectual superiority can only be rooted in the human inferiority complex.
What would be the point of worshiping a deity who had a level of intelligence equal to our own, and what would be the point of reporting on the transmissions from space if the aliens were not of a superior intellect who could teach us a lot about our way of life? My takeaway from this friend’s collection of transmitted (or transmuted) messages was that most of the alien transmissions submitted for the reader’s pleasure have an agenda that suspiciously aligns with the author of the work.
The next time an alien transmits a message that suggests humans are of equal or superior intellect (“We are in awe of the capabilities of the new iPhone X, and we have not found a way to replicate that technology in our labs”), will be the first time I take an alien transmission seriously. The next time an alien transmits a message that has something to do with a compliment regarding human technology in agricultural techniques (“We find the techniques developed by Monsanto Co. awe-inspiring”) will be the first time I re-read an author’s interpretation of their message. One would think that a complex being would know that the best way to persuade another being is to surround criticisms with some compliments. Even if they have no emotions, in the manner most sci-fi movies depict them, it would only be logical for them to suggest that our life form did manage to get some things right. What readers receive from aliens, instead, are warnings about our dystopian nature that suspiciously align with human politics.
We Want it to be True
Unconventional information is so interesting that it’s difficult to read it and say, “That’s just wrong.” We pursue it to hear the angle, the speculative ideas regarding motive, and the idea that the purveyor of such knowledge is fighting against the man, or the status quo. Concerned parties watching such scenarios play out, might want to caution their friends from relying too much on these alternative sources of information. We might want to tell them that doing so could lead them to being vulnerable to half-truths and greater confusion.
When we try to caution them, however, they tell us that they’ve done massive amounts of research on this subject, and most people don’t know the truth. “I know I didn’t,” is something they say before they launch into one of their speculative theories. The questionable outlets they research often provide them information that confirms their biases and leads them to believe they are more knowledgeable than those who ascribe to conventional truths, because they have massive amounts of different knowledge that they believe equals greater knowledge and truth.
Disciples of alternative knowledge also fail to focus on results. How many of these outlets provide straight, verifiable points that pass peer review? How many of them can point to a verifiable track record of their assertions, as opposed to providing the anecdotal evidence that they promote? How many of their messages devolve into speculation regarding motives that no one can refute? How many of us are skeptical enough of the information that seems so right it has to be true?
Those of us who ascribed to unconventional thoughts at one point in our lives began to see them for what they were, and we came to the uncomfortable conclusion that just because the information we hear is unconventional, alternative, and “what your father doesn’t want you to know” does not mean that it’s correct. We enjoyed the offspring of the counterculture for what it was. We all thought they were so hip that our interest in their thoughts led some programmers to identify and capitalize on the purveyors of unconventional thinking, until those thoughts seduced us into incorporating them into our conventional thinking on some matters.
Whether it is political, social, or any other venue of thought, some people derive definition by fighting against the status quo, but we could say that the status quo is an ever-shifting focus that can lead to so many converting to such thoughts that those thoughts could eventually become status quo, conventional.
I no longer buy a book of unconventional thinking, or befriend an unconventional thinker, with the hope of having them change my mind on a subject. If their ideas persuade me to change my mind, that’s gravy, but I have learned that such thoughts, are often best used to challenge my current worldview, and/or bolster my arguments as I attempt to defeat them. I do not then write this with the intent of changing anyone else’s mind. I do enjoy, however, taking the conventional standpoint and melding it with the unconventional to arrive at what I consider a hybrid of the truth that neither party has considered before.
He Used to Have a Mohawk
The lifelong fascination I have had with these modes of thinking drove a piece I wrote called He Used to Have a Mohawk. In this piece, I document the conventional thoughts some might have regarding an individual who decided to have his hair cut in a thin strip on his head. At one point in the main character’s life, he grew an eight inch mohawk, and at another point he dyed it blue. Conventional thinking suggests that he might deserve any ostracizing he receives. Unconventional or non-traditional modes of thought observe that there’s nothing wrong with a person who decides to shave their head in such a manner. This line of thought suggests that it’s on the observer to accept the mohawk wearer for who he or she is as a person. It also suggests that the conventional observer might discover the limits of their preconceived notions or conventional thoughts of a person, by finding out that a person who leaves a thin strip of hair on their head, grows it eight inches, and dyes it blue is actually a beautiful person inside. The approach I took, with this piece, combined the two modes of thought and examined them through the prism of a character who used to have such a haircut.
What kind of person asks a stylist to cut their hair into a mohawk? What happens to them when they age and go back to having what we consider a more traditional haircut? Do they miss the altered perceptions they used to experience when they had the haircut, or do they regret ever having the haircut in the first place?
One of my favorite critiques of this piece stated that the immediate components of this story could lead a reader to find impulsive, emotional offense, until they re-read the piece to carefully understand the complex subtext of the piece through deep analysis. “I like the way you take a mohawk and turn it into something greater than just a simple hairstyle. You give it character that I feel not many others could appreciate,” Amanda Akers wrote.
No matter where the reader stands on the conventional fulcrum of this subject, they must acknowledge that an individual who asks to have their hair cut into a mohawk does so to generate reactions, or different reactions, more than a person with a more traditional haircut might invite on any given day. Some would say that mohawk wearers generate unwanted attention for themselves by wearing such a haircut, but others could say that no attention is unwanted for some.
Another mohawk wearer surprised me one day by wearing it to a Halloween party. I told him that I enjoyed his costume, but he told me it wasn’t a costume. It was his hairdo. When I asked him further, more prodding questions, he said, “I wear my hair flat in the office, but I wear it up when I go out.”
If a mohawk wearer detested those who judge them for such a haircut, he or she could just allow the hair to lay flat. They don’t, I pose, because they enjoy detesting straight-laced people who will never understand them as a person, they enjoy the bond they have with those that sympathize with their plight, and they bathe in the sheer number of reactions they’ve received since they made the decision to wear a mohawk.
I met the main character, who used to have a mohawk, at his wedding. After the wedding was over, the groom’s best man and the bridesmaid both stated, in their toasts, that they wanted to get to know the groom who used to have a mohawk, when he had the mohawk, in part because he had a mohawk. As they learned more about him, to their apparent dismay, they discovered that he was a nice man. As an uninformed bystander, I considered the shock they displayed that a man with a mohawk could be nice, a little condescending. We could view a traditional thinker’s views of a person who has a mohawk as condescending, as they might make generalizations about mohawk wearers, and they might stereotype them. Listening to these toasts, I heard sympathetic souls, who I presumed aligned with unconventional thinking, sound just as condescending as one who might generalize or stereotype. The only distinction was that they were trying to ingratiate themselves to the groom, but I still found it just as condescending.
The groom appeared to bathe in all of it. I watched this man react to these toasts, and I couldn’t tell if he considered it a mark of his character that he had befriended people regardless of the haircut, or if he missed the reactions that he used to generate when he had the mohawk, but my money was on the latter.
The point, as I see it, is that we should maintain a level of skepticism for anything we see and hear, but those who put so much energy into unconventional thoughts often end up more confused on a given subject than enlightened. Forming a hybrid of sorts, is the ideal plane for one to reach as it suggests that while we should remain skeptical in nature, we should also maintain an equal amount of skepticism for enlightened, unconventional thoughts. Yet, as I write, we deem unconventional information to be the result of skepticism thereby granting it immunity from a ledger that scores the thoughts, theories, and ideas.
FOBF: The Fear of Being Foolish
Most people hate being wrong, but we’re willing to concede to the idea that some of us are going to be wrong some of the times. What we cannot abide by is the idea that we’re wrong so often that somebody is going to consider us a fool. How many rhetorical devices, tactics, and persuasive techniques have we developed over the years to avoid being called a fool? One thing we’ve established is that a fool is someone who believes in nouns (people, places, and things). Believing in things leaves us vulnerable to this charge, and we seek foolproof status. Due to the fact that most alternative thoughts can never be substantially proven incorrect, unconventional thinkers are shielded against being called a fool. On the off chance that they are incorrect, they might make slight adjustments in their presentation to incorporate the newfound facts, or they just move on.
“They just move on?” I asked a friend of mine who told me about her unconventional parents. Her parents latched onto just about every conspiracy theory and unconventional theory they ever heard. When the facts rolled out, and they were proven wrong, they just moved onto the next one. “So, when the rest of us are proven wrong, we have to deal with the ridicule and scorn that comes our way, but when your parents are wrong, they just move onto the next conspiracy theory? How do they do that?”
“They just do,” she said.
Her parents were prophets of doom, as the millennium neared. They were handing out pamphlets and grain pellets at their church. They believed something would happen on 9/9/99, and when it didn’t, they moved onto the millennium. When nothing happened on 1/1/2000, they suggested that we miscalculated the Aztec calendar, and that the day of doom still awaited us sometime in the near future. They listed a specific date, based on specific calculations, but I don’t remember the exact date, because I knew they would just move on after that date passed. I knew they would just move the date of doom to some date in the all too near future.
This mentality eludes me, because I know, firsthand, the feeling of being so wrong on an issue that people won’t value my assessments in the future as a result. I would’ve been mortified when these dates passed without event, but their daughter informed me that after all those dates passed without event, her parents were handing out pamphlets and grain pellets warning about the next date of doom. I’m still not sure what drives common, every day people to heed the warning of such doomsayers, but I believe it has something to do with the idea that the track record of alternative, unconventional information is somehow immune to criticism. It is foolproof, because the alternative is believing what the “they” want you to believe.
“How can you be so sure that it won’t happen this time?” is something people like my friend’s parents ask.
We can’t be sure, of course, because we are insecure beings who falter in the face of such certitude. We’ve also watched too many movies where no one believed the sexy actors who knew something no one else in this production did, and we don’t want to be portrayed by the overweight, unattractive character actor who didn’t believe. They frame this question in a probing, “Who do you think you are?” manner that asks us how many times we’ve been wrong before, and if we’re willing to wager that we know more than all this information they’ve compiled from experts.
Dumb guys who fell prey to believing far too many alternative, unconventional, and conspiracy theories were so relieved to read some psychologists write that we must all make a concerted effort to avoid falling prey to this type of seduction, because it suggests that we’re all susceptible to their siren calls. Our grades in school haunt us to this day, and we will use any excuse we can find to declare that we’re not as dumb as we think we are. When someone comes along and basically writes that the siren call of these theories are so alluring that all of us must proactively keep our susceptibility in the “off” position, it lends credence to the “shame on you for fooling me” portion of the meme, as long as we maintain the “off” position to prevent the shame from doubling back and making us the fools in the future. Though the psychologists’ conclusion does not absolve us of the idea that we once believed a wide variety of crazy theories and loony conspiracy theories, we do find some comfort in numbers.
Maintaining this “off” position is not easy, and it is not my intent to suggest that I woke up one day deciding that I was no longer going to believe alternative ideas loaded with unconventional information that can lead to conspiracy theories that have a conjugal relationship with fact. It wasn’t that easy for me, and it sounds like it isn’t that easy for anyone. Their theories are so interesting and thought-provoking that defeating our susceptibility to them requires constant and diligent effort on the part of the consumer. Tune out, turn on, and defeat is the credo I use when I encounter sexy and enticing pieces that lead to emotional reactions. Current and future stories such as those are as difficult to ignore as all the previous ones were, but after mentally charting all of their hypothetical guesses, based on alternative thinking that many considered unconventional, I was finally able to break the leash.