Context matters greatly in human affairs.  If you have the proper context you can understand cause and effect, see what could have been done better, what could have been worse, where the argument falls short.  Without context, everything has to be taken out of context — on faith.   You are left with an unreasoning “hooray for our side!”, a collective huzzah or curse, depending on the context-free thing you’re responding to.  

Context provides nuance, detail, background, and while we may dispute the significance of certain details, without context we are looking through a pinhole.  We have a very limited ability to analyze anything presented out of context, as many things are presented, particularly in politics.  I heard a great illustration of context, I don’t recall where [1], but I’ll share it now.  

A guy is on the subway when a man and several children enter the subway car he’s in.  The man sits down and the children proceed to go wild, screaming, swinging from the hand rails, jumping on the seats, snarling, chasing each other.   The guy endures this wilding for a moment, goes over to the guy and tells him he ought to control his fucking children.  

“You’re right, and I’m very sorry,” the man says, his head down, “I’m at a loss for what to say to them right now, we just came back from their mother’s funeral.”  

Bingo, from asshole to wholly sympathetic character, in a few seconds, purely as a result of seeing his situation in context.  

I recently offered a friend an anecdote about how we often buy ridiculously oversimplified explanations as the plausible final story about something. Racist historians attacked the brilliant W.E.B. DuBois when he pointed out that their rewritten history of Reconstruction, and defense of southern apartheid as good for the blacks, was standard anti-black bullshit.   “He’s a fucking communist!” was their response, since DuBois was busy analyzing the systematic economic inequality that led poor whites to hate poor blacks instead of finding common cause with them.   Can we have some context?

The anecdote I told this friend was about our mutual friend’s view of his father’s sudden outburst of anger.   I spent many days in their house when I was growing up and this particular father took a tremendous amount of shit daily.   He took it with style and some grace, a drink usually in his hand.  His ancient widow and their son told me about a period when he was suddenly, unaccountably, berserk with rage on a daily basis.   Turns out it was a reaction to the steroids he was taking.  Nobody had told him that a common side-effect of steroids was rage.   In their telling he was sent to a psychiatrist who taught him to meditate.     Problem solved.  Suddenly the old, placid, droll, lovable man was back with his family, no more rage.

My friend wrote back that this seemed to make sense.  Mediation is a good skill to have when you’re trying to calm agitation between people.  I’d omitted the second T of meditate, leaving “mediate”.  I wrote back that he’d been taught to MEDITATE, and that meditation, in this history I’d been given, taught him to look within, calm himself and not get angry anymore.   A world of context erased in the time it took the son and his mother to tell me the authoritative anecdote and nod in agreement at the end.

Do we really not need the rest of the story to understand the incompleteness of their history?  The man took steroids for relief of a nervous condition that had long plagued him.   Medicine did not have an answer for his particular condition, though it was observably driven by stress, probably exacerbated by swallowed anger.   He was prescribed the wonder drug of the day, a steroid.   My father was given steroid shots once in a while for his psoriasis, for the same reason.   No more context needed than that the person had a mysterious emotion-driven disease, had a bad reaction to the treatment and learned to look within?  

To tell the rest of the story, give the context I’d observed many times, the widow would have had to make the difficult acknowledgement that while she took good care of her husband, she also could not resist riding him with sharp spurs whenever the mood was on her.  The son would have had to realize that the treatment his father was often subjected to in front of guests would have made anyone angry.  Based on what I observed as a boy, the guy had every right to scream “enough!”    Not acknowledging that right?   I don’t know how you can understand the man’s life and ongoing dilemma without that piece of the puzzle.  And the story the family had agreed on reduced the problem to a matter of a simple bad reaction to a drug and a wise psychiatrist teaching him how to overcome that side effect.  Easier to swallow, for them, harder for me.

Context, context.  Without it we lose the ability to analyze and depend on experts to give us insight into how we should react.   The New York Times published a critical review of Dave Chapelle’s recent stand-up special on Netflix where the comedian discussed the wave of sexual harassment that is suddenly coming into public light.   I’d watched the show with Sekhnet and we both thought it was thoughtful, sensitive, sometimes very funny, sometimes just thought-provoking.  Chapelle said at one point that women were going to have to realize that some of the men who would be helpful to them going forward in solving this shit would be “very flawed allies”.  He made many good points.  The New York Times found him insensitive, thought he was making light of a very serious problem.  

I found the Grey Skank typically tone deaf, predictably sanctimonious.  My friend who’d read the review in the Times was hesitant to watch the special, after reading the cautionary piece in the paper of record.  He thought he might read the transcript of Chappelle’s show, he told me.

I thought of Dustin Hoffman (recently accused of fondling beautiful young starlets on the set, or something like that) as Lenny Bruce in “Lenny”.  At the end of the movie, beaten down by the long obscenity prosecution he was fighting, he jumps up in court to interrupt the police witness who is reading from his notes.  The police witness is reciting his transcript of Lenny’s act, emphasizing each “fuck” and “pussy” and “motherfucker” and “asshole” as he puts the final nails in the dirty mouthed comic’s coffin.  Lenny pleads to the judge to let him just do his act.  

“This witness is mutilating my act, your Honor.  Let me do it for you, and if you don’t think it’s funny you can find me guilty right now and sentence me, I can’t afford to keep fighting this case anyway, I’m broke.  It’s comedy, your Honor, let me just…”   He is drowned out by the pounding of the judge’s gavel, threatened with being found in contempt of court, and the witness continues hacking Lenny’s routine to death.  The next shot is Lenny on his bathroom floor, finally broken, dead of a heroin overdose.  

“That’s comedy from a transcript,” I tell my friend.  No context.


[1] most likely source is a talk on forgiveness by Zen teacher Jack Kornfield

This entry was posted in musing.

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