SUPERSTITION & The Dark Knight Shootings (part 2)

23 July 2012

This is part 2 of a two-part post. Part 1 is here.

(Here is the declaration for “superstition” I offered from part 1 of this post: “The essence of superstition is to believe something despite all knowledge otherwise”. The list of superstitions is:

  • If I walk under a ladder, I’ll have bad luck.
  • If a black cat crosses my path, I’ll have bad luck.
  • If I come out of the closet, people will reject me or hurt me.
  • If I don’t wash my hands after going to the bathroom, I’ll get sick.
  • If I see the Dark Knight Rises, I’ll be shot by a madman.
  • If I move to a new town, bad things might happen.
  • If my spouse walks to work, he’ll be mugged or worse.
  • If we don’t build a wall on the border with Mexico, the US will be overrun.)

People who may have elected not to go see The Dark Knight Rises due to the shooting in Aurora, Colorado are exhibiting a variation of the closeted homosexual’s thinking, and the fact that some of you may be scoffing at such people does not let you off the hook. You will act every bit as superstitiously as soon as the consequences are dire enough. Thanks to the media coverage, one would have to have been incognizant of the event to go see the Dark Knight Rises after the shooting and not have the (unbidden) thought, “What if someone shoots up the theater I’m in” go through your head like a bullet. Echoing in the back of that thought is the foundational kernel of superstition, “Well, someone might.” This is why I say it should still be called a superstition.

But I want to dwell on this some more. First, it has to be becoming more and more obvious that there is some serious egotism at work in superstitious thinking. Apparently, I am so vitally important to the world that if I come out of the closet, simply everyone will continuously beleaguer me in every way possible; they’ll even go out of the their way to do so. And if I walk under a ladder, the very metaphysical principle of the cosmos itself (if not actually “god”) will personally intervene to punish me for my temerity. In this case, “bad luck” is exposed as “sin” insofar as transgressing a sin will have the utmost dire consequences imaginable[1]. So since, as an arch piece of superstition, re-casts the actual nature of the world into one where the individual takes on the utmost significance—so that by committing a sin, the whole apparatus of reality must be involved in correcting it. So it is the self-same egotism at work in the (rather excited, thrilling) fear that going to see a movie will put you in the thick of it, like those in Aurora, Colorado. I’m thinking specifically less of those people who stayed home out of fear (probably not most people) and more about the ones who added some additional spice to their experience of the movie by left-handedly “hoping” they’d get caught in a disaster as well—a wish that would evaporate the very moment the very first spritz of gas canister sprayed into the auditorium. One might pick infantile, juvenile, or adolescent as a way to describe this part of superstitious thinking[2].

So, superstitious thinking has a strong streak of excessive egotism about it. In fact, just as the shift from a claim of possible to plausible involves the slippery substitution of one “reality-principle” for another (s when sliding a “god” into a “godless” cosmos), the substitution of the communally shared and lived world of people for one in which I am the most determinative and important factor points to one of the central ways that superstition can get its hooks into us. Current life in the US (just to limit the scope of my comments) is certainly alienating; that adolescent sense of hopefulness or wanting to save the world seems relentlessly disabused by simply observing the world, &c. either because we remain emotionally regressive around this point (where life supposedly convinces us gradually of our insignificance) or because we really do live with a sense of that insignificance, superstitious thinking is an obvious (and obviously appealing) counterbalance.

In several places, Jung remarks to the effect that modern man thinks he’s ever so modern, but give him a bit of a smack and he turns back into the very living image of an other-possessed non-modern. With the view of superstition I am presenting here, self-honesty can only make us realize how frequently we get entrenched into superstitious thinking. And so we go to the movie, and in moments of distraction it might come back to us again that we could be killed at any moment. Or, what is more likely, as soon as we see someone in the theater who could serve as a plausible projection point for the idea “someone might shoot the place up,” the thought will manifest there. We can then laugh it off, and feel proud of ourselves for not being one of the mindless sheeple stampeded by fear, but the irrepressible recurrence of the thought “it might happen” is the most salient point of this dynamic, because it’s that recurrence that will eventually wear us down. It’s on this basis that the jackass insists, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” If that is supposed to be some kind of proof that religion is secretly our last resort, I’m inclined to see it as a terrible piece of (self-) humiliation that the atheist experiences. The terrible, brainless stupidity of “maybe it’s true” has finally (in a moment when he is most vulnerable) worn him down to his last nubbin, and (in desperation) he reaches out to a completely false, completely inefficacious “solution’ that he himself finds humiliating and revolting to grasp. If that’s the Good News, spare me.

I fault no one for wanting to avoid a sense of insignificance in life. But insofar as that is a caricature of human life, so the idealization proffered by religion (and superstitious thinking in general) that places the person at the center of the universe (as its sole and determining force) is equally undesirable and simply the exaggerated obverse of the coin. Of course there’s all kinds of “drama” in the religious view, if one bothers—the spiritual warfare of Satan himself (rarely ever one of his minions) showing up to personally fuck with you; just as it is considered the height of affective appeal that the Almighty Supreme loves you. One wants to survive a face-to-face with the devil, just as one wants to survive a face-to-face with James Eagan Holmes (or any of his ilk)—and all of this presupposes the necessity of such a confrontation in order for significance to be generated.

And this is where we begin to encounter superstition on a social level that has important, undesirable consequences. If we don’t walk under a ladder because it might bring bad luck, if we wash our hands because we might get sick, if we stay in the closet because violence might be done to us, this is all of a piece with not doing anything when oppressive security forces start rounding people up to be taken to camps because “maybe the charges are real.” On a practical level, we might choose to believe that because otherwise the alternative is too frightening, just as we might try to find a “rational” explanation for random violence that happens to people we know.

It must be reemphasized: these patterns of superstitious thinking apply only where people indulge them to be sure, but we all have our own patterns of thinking that will manipulate us just as surely as someone who believes in the power of black cats, germs, or homophobes. The fact that we have to talk down, manage, or ignore the recurrent argument “but maybe it’s true” in whatever context it appears in for us individually points to the nexus points for the issue socially.

One of the more boring and tedious tropes in criticism of the US is the notion of greediness. Most assuredly, many people are seriously greedy, but the overwhelming majority of people in the United States are consuming in excess for the sake of other people, usually children. We can always blame breadwinners and capitalists for being merely greedy, for benefiting from whatever financial depredations they practice upon other people, and of course those depredations have personally satisfying consequences for them, but they also are often in the service of supporting (willingly or not) loved ones, other family members, friends, &c. I mention this because these sorts of affective bonds can play important roles in leveraging our submission to an “it might be true” (superstitious) argument.

As a first fact, hardly anyone (even in Aurora, Colorado) would have thought twice about seeing The Dark Knight Rises after 20 July 2012 if the story were not widely distributed in the media. Superstition being cultural, there must be cultural dissemination to have superstition—more precisely, to leverage our resistance to the “it might be true” arguments of lived experience. The case of this movie is an excellent one, because so few of us are willing (really) to seriously believe the notion that anyone will jump up and open fire in the very theater I’m watching Batman in. In other words, the perceived consequences (though dire) are undermined because they are simply not credible enough. It’s probably this same “risk calculus” that permits us to get into a car and drive anywhere despite the overwhelmingly greater danger[3]. At this point it may be becoming clear why I left out the adjective “rational” when I wrote, “The essence of superstition is to believe something despite all knowledge otherwise.” Just as we might disingenuously elide the possible into the plausible, we similarly like to elide the reasonable into the rational—where the reasonable is simply that which might be done, and the rational is that which might most plausibly or sensibly be done.

I probably wouldn’t argue that it is reasonable to “exercise caution when driving, since there are dangers when driving that can be avoided” but I’m not going to agree that driving cautiously is rationally necessary in order to avoid accidents. This is exactly the same illegitimate move as when hand-washers cite medical mechanisms to justify other grounds for behavior. We all know perfectly well that both attentive and inattentive driving avoids accidents, &c. And that driving cautiously does not guarantee avoiding accidents. Nor is anyone going to claim that’s what they’re claiming, except that that’s exactly what they’re claiming. Just as hand-washing reduces the risks of infection (or smoking increases your risk of cancer), those statistical predictions are (1) only statistical, and 92) say nothing specific about the specific circumstances one is specifically involved in. We drive cautiously to avoid having accidents, but cautious driving can only guarantee a lowered risk of being in accidents. In other words, cautious driving isn’t really doing what we are hoping it does, just as washing our hands does not, just as being in the closet does not, and just as throwing salt over our shoulder does not. So even in this apparently obvious case of the “dangers of driving,” we see more of the same kind of pseudo-rational superstitious thinking at work. And the underlying objection that I have to this is that it means we are doing things that do not get us to the ends we desire (e.g., driving cautiously to avoid accidents, washing our hands to avoid disease)[4].

So it’s partly for this reason I do not claim that superstitious thinking overthrows our “rational knowledge”. My years of incautious driving could be used as an argument against the rational claim that I should drive cautiously. In other words, my lived experience runs contrary to the rational assertion that cautious driving is the only way to go. Lest there be any illusions, if one wants to say that “cautious driving” is synonymous with “defensive driving,” then I’ve not been a defensive driver; in fact, I’ve very often been an offensive driver, and when I was still in college, I was an offensive driver in the pejorative sense of the word. Looking back, I could say that in a sense I relied upon the defensiveness of other drivers to allow me to be an often irresponsibly aggressive driver. I’ve since calmed down a great deal, but it’s perfectly obvious to me that my empirical experience is contrary to what might be called a “rational knowledge” about how one should drive. Similarly, my empirical experience of not hand-washing is definitely not what might be called the “rational knowledge” claimed about hand-washing. And I know I’m not the only one in this regard. So, if one can conclude that it is reasonable to drive incautiously or not wash one’s hands (or walk under ladders), this is an empirical refutation of the “rational knowledge” claimed under the guise of “if you don’t drive cautiously, you’ll get in accidents” or “if you don’t wash your hands, you’ll get sick.”

So, succumbing to superstitious thinking, then, would be when I wash my hands on the presumption that  that is enough to avoid being sick, or when I drive cautiously placing all my faith that that will be enough to make me avoid accidents, or when I don’t walk under ladders with the notion that that’s enough to avoid bad luck. Now, of course one can immediately say, “Wait, that’s hardly a necessary or sufficient condition for any of those outcomes.” Of course, but a person doesn’t tell themselves, “I’m washing my hands to lower the risk of infection”; they say, “I’m washing my hands to avoid being sick” (or, perhaps even more often, “I’m washing my hands because it’s what you’re supposed to do”—which really points up the superstitious part of the thinking). But whichever of the three rationales people give for washing their hands after going to the bathroom, none of them actually have any relationship to the specific circumstances in which the person is. If there are no germs being washed off, then one is not in fact lowering the risk of infection, because there’s no infection to be risked. Or, in the more ironic case, it is the infection on the paper towel dispenser that gets them, because they had to dry their hands off—thus the air-driven hand-dryers in public restrooms, which we all—if we have any sense, of course—hit with our elbows to turn on. And so forth.

It might seem I’m being willfully perverse or that from all of this we should conclude that everything we ever tell ourselves can only be false, so fuck it. Thank you for the hysterics. The point of disconnect is not that everything we know must be necessarily false. I could wash my hands after going the bathroom because I don’t like how they feel or smell. I could drive cautiously because I’m able to pay more attention that way. Medical science is so fraught with competing explanations at this point that it’s quite hopeless for me to listen to what they have to say in order to make a decision about not getting sick—hand-washing is certainly not one of those strategies. And if I’m afraid of going to a movie theater because someone will kill me, I’ll stay home and be victimized by the burglar who’d counted on me being out—bad luck that. There are any number of people who would never go to sleep at night without locking their door—and other people who never lock their door. Some don’t lock their door because “that attracts the negative energy of robbers”. Some people don’t lock their car door because “if someone’s going to steal something in your car, at least you don’t have to pay to replace a broken window when you get it back.” All of these “rationales” (as at least worthy of being called pseudo-superstitions) are rooted in actual, lived (reasonable) experiences. I lock my door because, regardless of where I am in the world, I don’t want to create the opportunity of any random anyone wandering into my house—I don’t fantasize that it makes me secure or safe[5]. The only person who ever robbed me, was a housemate—and that’s far and away statistically the most likely source of any domestic theft. &c.

Let’s review the list of superstitions again:

  • If I walk under a ladder, I’ll have bad luck.
  • If a black cat crosses my path, I’ll have bad luck.
  • If I don’t wash my hands after going to the bathroom, I’ll get sick.
  • If I come out of the closet, people will reject me or hurt me.
  • If I see the Dark Knight Rises, I’ll be shot by a madman.
  • If I move to a new town, bad things might happen.
  • If my spouse walks to work, he’ll be mugged or worse.
  • If we don’t build a wall on the border with Mexico, the US will be overrun.

As already noted, if the media were not keeping me up-to-date on all the (relatively slight) mayhem and madness (compared to the overwhelming amount of peaceableness going on continuously), then the “but it might be true” would not manifest in my life vis-à-vis such mayhem and madness. And this is where the social aspect of superstition kicks in in earnest. If we want to wash our hands or lock our doors on what are essentially neurotic grounds, for the time being at least we can file that under the category of personal choice. But when 395,000 child abductions are by non-custodial parents yet we encourage people to think first and foremost about stranger danger, we have a problem. In terms of “where the problem is” in terms of crime (and this from 2001, for goodness sake):

according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and the Monitoring the Future report from the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, it is our children, and not those of the urban ghetto who are most likely to use drugs. White high school students are seven times more likely than blacks to have used cocaine and heroin, eight times more likely to have smoked crack, and ten times more likely to have used LSD. What’s more, it is white youth between the ages of 12-17 who are more likely to sell drugs: one third more likely than their black counterparts; and it is white youth who are twice as likely to binge drink, and nearly twice as likely as blacks to drive drunk; and white males are twice as likely as black males to bring a weapon to school.

So whatever neurotic activity you’re up to to avoid “criminal Black youth,” it’s pretty obvious that all of that activity, and thus the activity you support both in your politicians (and the policies they draft) and the media stories that “inform” us about criminal Black youth, is wildly destructive and misguided with respect to social life. When you move to a certain area to avoid crime, that’s right in line with the most pernicious kind of social superstition. Remember again, superstition is to believe something (and act on it) despite all knowledge otherwise. Find someone who has any kind of grip on the actual, on-the-ground numbers for so-called illegal aliens that the news is always trumpeting about, and yet how many of those millions have you actually encountered? More to the point, how many are ‘destroying American jobs” and the like. Of course, you don’t know, though you may be able to provide an anecdote about some business that hires “illegals” or whatnot. The salient point for your “argument” is: “what if it’s true.”

As with all superstitions, it is normalized by recourse to illegitimate usages of evidence from other domains. It is extremely uncontroversial to say there are many undocumented people in the United States. That’s of course non sequitur, and one could compare the number of jobs “lost” to “illegal aliens” and the number of jobs shipped overseas to places where wage exploitation is easier. People love to have all kinds of shit to talk about felons, and yet 1 in 4 people in the US now have criminal records of some sort, so it’s a dead certainty you know more than a handful. All that talk about ‘tougher crime laws” are not for a mysterious cadre of no-ones you’ve never met, but to all kinds of your neighbors, probably relatives. With James Eagan Holmes’ rampage, once against legislatures get to get on their high horse and talk about tighter gun control—superstitiously trying to convince us that such measures actually achieve the ends desired. (Remember, where superstition is involved, the rationale one proposes does not actually reach the ends desired.)

What is at stake here is how the media (as the loyal mouthpiece of the self-elected Kings) becomes a major outlet (if not the major outlet) for whispering in your ear, “But what if it’s true.” And by leveraging that unanswerable argument—even without necessarily having to make you fearful—they are able to then manipulate us into going along with whatever nuttiness they are up to—whether it’s tighter gun laws, bigger or smaller government, war with Iran, rolling back civil rights, suspending habeas corpus, detaining people indefinitely without trial, flouting the Rule of Law which (for better or worse) appears to be one of the major bulwarks of that part of civilization I’m not wholly opposed to, or generally distracting you from doing anything about the nuttiness they are up to. If it is too easy to turn the possible into the plausible, the reasonable into the rational, an essential part of this is how the unanswerable “it might be true” is turned into an irresistible “it might be true.”

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that politicians are merely monstrous jackasses out to fuck up the world. They are, however, no better than their fellow human beings when it comes to being susceptible to superstition, though we are right to expect them to be better than that. And much, much more is at stake when States follow superstitions. The part to emphasize is how the claim that the superstition makes does not actually achieve the end sought. For people who prefer conspiracy theories, it is easier to imagine that the War on Drugs was designed (from the start) to affect mass incarceration. I can imagine how this is comforting because otherwise the tragedy of the thing is wholly too epic to wrap one’s brain around. However, whether by design or as a consequence, more than 100,000 civilians in Iraq are dead thanks to the “what if it’s true” that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. As a nation, we should be wholly behind resistance to superstitious polices that do not eventuate in the end sought. We invaded Afghanistan because the government there would not hand over the individual they did not have. &c.

In addition to whatever political and social organizing we might do to resist the susceptibility of government(s) to superstitious policy-making—a process that must be deemed all that much more alarming, not simply because more is at stake but because much more complicated and pseudo-sophisticated rationales will be tortured into existence to justify the superstitions; thus, Iraq was “the right war for the wrong reasons”—there is also the project of ferreting out superstitious thinking in our own lives. At this point, I must reiterate that this is not a question of acting only “rationally”.  It is clear that one can torment data into a rationale using one’s rational faculties—we humans can (and will) excuse anything on any grounds. Recognizing this tendency means we can resist it, even if it will never go wholly away (because we will never be able to wholly dismiss the unanswerable argument “what if it’s true” … Nevertheless, we can resist that unanswerable argument precisely before it become irresistible.)

Analogous to coming out, I’ve recently been in an online correspondence and have been having various sorts of self-insights and affective responses to them, and the process has been (obviously enough) interesting to me. But there was no reason to necessarily believe that my online interlocutor would be similarly charmed by my various mental and emotional conniptions. All the same, I wanted to share at least the fact that they were going on with him and, at the same time, worried that such sharing would not be well-received and might alienate him to the point of no longer corresponding with me. (Did I describe that well enough to make clear the analogy with coming out?) So, in the process of composing the email to him about all of this, I finally had a moment where I became utterly exasperated with my own self-consciousness and simply said “fuck me … Here’s what I’m trying to say.” Using myself as an example runs the risk of allowing you to dismiss the example as merely personal, so find in yourself your own example where you overcame whatever wall of self-consciousness you might have had going on. On one hand, how sweet it would be to say that, for all of my worrying in advance, it turned out he didn’t mind hearing about my psychological adventures in the least an, in fact, received them with brimming enthusiasm. Rather, what became clear to me after he wrote back was the disparity between what I anticipated and what he actually responded with. What I mean: everything I anticipated proved to be essentially beside the point. Now, of course, because the email was delivered with all my second-guessing, that shaped how he responded, but the fear of rejection (or, not even a fear of rejection, so much as more of a non-recognition of the human reaching-out I was doing) was not gratified.  I didn’t find myself pleased that he “didn’t reject me”; rather, I found myself annoyed that I’d allowed myself to succumb to such a worry, not because it was unfounded (i.e., didn’t come to pass after all) but because I’d indulged in a useless superstition.

This may start to seem subjectively trivial. We’ve all, I suspect, finally divulged how we feel one way or another to another person, and only after going through a lot of anticipatory conniptions first. People who come out after much quite real agonized soul searching then find that it was all quite the waste of time. The world-vision, the Weltanschauung, that was driving the whole “I can’t come out, because” line of thinking proves to be wholly unrelated to life as it is actually lived, even when one is subjected to anti-gay violence of this sort or another. Put another way, the person who avoids bad luck by not going under ladders never has that moment when (two or three non-bad-lucky days later) they think, “Gosh! How great it is I avoided all that bad luck.” Most likely, there’s no thinking about it whatsoever, but if there was some thinking, one might try to congratulate oneself for whatever it was you dodged. Never mind the grim possibility that you have some bad luck anyway.

This is all kind of the reverse of magical thinking, where we tend to remember certain moments of “parapsychological truth” while overlooking (because we don’t even see it) moments that refute that world-view. So, the person who comes out and realizes all those closeted conniptions were (ultimately) a waste of time can take courage from that fact, even if she or he then has to go into a new round of superstitious thinking that (like the closeted thinking) is ultimately the testing ground for finding one’s way out of that thinking. Inmates in prison who have settled into routines frequently loathe tremendously that thought of being transferred to a new prison (or even being released back into the prison of society). There can be a (very seemingly valid) anticipatory fear that things will be awful whenever they get where they’re going next, but then they get there and things are both fine and awful in the way that they are fine and awful, quite apart from whatever fine and awful stuffs was imagined in advance. Once again, all that preemptive worry turned out to be ultimately a waste of time (except as it provides evidence for why one needn’t engage in such preemptive worry.)

The more relentless such superstitious thinking and the more dire the consequences of resisting such thinking, the more liberating it must be to resist its rigors. Once again, the parallel has to be cited for those who have come out of the closet—it’s perhaps the most familiar, most culturally visible instance of anti-superstitious thinking. But the point to emphasize right now is how you can look in your own life and spot those times when worry proved needless—not because things turned out well, but because things turned out differently than anticipated (things turning out well is simply the “happy reward” of cynical anticipations). For people who are and want to remain cynical—despite a social obligation to other people not to be—this advice will not be welcome or heeded. But for those who are finding themselves distorting the practice of their life because superstitious “what if it’s true” arguments are shutting them down, then it’s worth making the attempt to resist that unanswerable argument.

To repeat the opening declaration: the essence of superstition is to believe something despite all knowledge otherwise. Superstition is not, therefore, that part of wisdom that learns from experience and uses it for future action. Event he cynic who has never managed to have a successful relationship has lived, empirical knowledge that his or her future relationships are probably not going to work out—which probably means some self-reflection is due on why things haven’t worked out. Superstition, rather, is the belief in something despite all knowledge otherwise. For the inmate who never shows his feelings “because he’ll be made into someone’s prison bitch,” even though he’s never actually tried showing his feelings is succumbing to superstition. The person who washes their hands to avoid sickness even though they have numerous examples (from themselves and others) that their rationale doesn’t reach the aim sought is being superstitious. The politician and the citizen who pass discriminatory laws on the basis that “too much is at stake not to” are using superstition to erode the whole reason one bothers to have a society in the first place. To act on experience is what we humans do all the time; to act on tortured avoidances of certain things (whether those things have ever occurred at all or are simply so imaginatively frightful that they can’t be brooked) is the essence of what I do not want to have in the world I live in.

[1] Significantly, according to Judaism, the wages of sin are loss of social reputation and the diminishment of one’s family over the following generations. In Christianity, of course, Hell is the consequence.  It is important to connect the “reputational paranoia” of the latter to the same pattern exhibited by some inmates—and to remember how being trapped in one’s thinking (like being trapped in a prison) can become preferable to freedom. Hell, of course, is simply an eternal prison—and so it is no accident that (most kinds of) Satanism construe Satan as the symbol of freedom.

[2] I’m not emphasizing some kind of essential Schadenfreude here, though there could be that as well. Rather, insofar as one may anticipate future consequences, then when that future is negative, the thinking resembles (if not is) superstition; when the consequences are positive, they’re something else (if not also still essentially superstition, but I will maintain there is a distinction still). So one may have a naughty, adolescent, thrilled kind of “hope” that a shooter might show up at one’s viewing of Batman without really meaning that anyone there would actually be harmed. &c.

[3] It’s probably not exactly that simple. There is certainly some reassurance in the fact that we are the one at the wheel and the wide-spread (and theoretically vetted skills of other drivers in the face of the) rules of the rod further decrease the sense of consequences. For all of my confidence as a driver, I’m not sure I would sit down on a moped and hazard driving in Saigon traffic, although the self-evident “chaos” of their traffic is obviously amazingly well-organized and effective. The Vietnamese would do well to be afraid of me in such a setting. Similarly were someone from the US to drive in England or on Germany’s autobahn, etc. Nevertheless, the point is that each of us either adduce arguments against the “it might be true” for “if I go driving, I’ll be hurt” or we find some alternative to the imaginable direness we’re confronting. It may also seem, at this point, that such a reasonable risk calculus as is involved here too much no longer resembles (or can be fitted into an interpretive scheme as) a superstition. For the agoraphobic (or the autophobic), this is clearly not the case. By definition, a phobia is an unreasonable fear, so that the only one who is not phobic is someone too unreflective to notice their phobias. My point is that just because we might be willing to pay the price for whatever sacrifice is demanded of us (in terms of giving in to superstitious thinking), such superstitious thinking should not be fostered in general, for reasons the rest of this essay makes clear.

[4] There is a kind of argument that could be raised here that is tangential to my main point. Just as hand-washing can increase one’s susceptibility to disease, so can cautious driving increase one’s risk of accidents. The only person I ever rear-ended at a stop light was someone who (turning right) started to go and then stopped, because she felt the oncoming traffic was too close. I moved forward as she started to go, and didn’t stop when she did. The point is not whose fault this is: she and I were in an accident because her caution, which I didn’t anticipate, made her drive in a way that permitted me to hit her. People driving too slow (less than speed limits) on freeways, etc., etc., etc—it would be interesting to know exactly how many accidents per year are caused by cautious driving. For the closeted homosexual, certainly back in the day, the fact of being closeted meant that trolling for sex (in parks, in bathrooms) often had considerably more danger. It used to be one could not be in security forces because, the argument was, being gay meant you were susceptible to blackmail. &c. One could multiply examples and provide counter-arguments, but the point is not “what happens in each of these specific situations” but rather “my anticipated thought about the circumstance must be true”. One can blame me (from a legal standpoint I certainly was culpable) for rear-ending the woman’s car, but in the lived world she was still in an accident—and it’s not negligible that for all of my wildly incautious driving over the years, that’s the only time I’ve ever actually hit someone. Against the doxa, “one should drive cautiously,” the rejoinder here is, “well, you’ve been pretty damn lucky then.” I mention this to point out how, in the face of a superstition, the resort to metaphysics (luck) is preferred to acknowledging that the doxa (“drive cautiously”) might not actually be as true as claimed. All of this feeds precisely into the effect of superstitious thinking in public life.

[5] I’m not congratulating myself for an anti-superstitious stance here. Obviously, for me, the consequences of leaving the door unlocked are dire enough that I’ll make the minimal sacrifice of turning the deadbolt when I’m in the house. And as much as I might want to say it is rational for me to do that—as a kind of domestic recasting of Pascal’s Wager, what really do I lose by locking the door—I have to call it pseudo-superstitious, because living the alternative (i.e., freely choosing whether to lock or not lock the door) is not really on the map of possibility for me. I could do it, and it would bother me. I have friends who leave their doors unlocked; I don’t begrudge them that, etc. On the most abstract level, I could argue that I should be a door not-locker—what makes my locking the door a superstition, in my view, is that I do it without any actually empirically good reason to do so. I could trot out some racist bullshit about “neighborhoods” and so forth, but what are the “real crime statistics” where I live? What is the plausibility that a home invader should suddenly strike in my neighborhood? “But he might.” Put another way, you are sorely deluded if you think I’m excluding  myself from the perils and social undesirability of superstitious thinking. My guilt dos not excuse yours, however.


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