Jon Ronson, who spoke at the Black Box in Belfast last week, said the most interesting things about humans could be seen at the edges, looking back in toward "normal" society. I think what he really meant was how interesting life is when it's grey.
Jon's book, the Psychopath Test, takes an in-depth look at the psychiatric industry and it's methods. At different points in the talk, Jon mentioned his work with the DSM, the "bible of mental health disorders" – which started as a 46 page pamphlet but now catalogs 886 disorders over 374 pages. At another point, Jon talked about working with the Church of Scientology – who's opposition to psychiatry is well documented and who helped set up a meeting with one of the book's central characters, a psychopath named Tony who pretended to be a psychopath to escape punishment, but now can't convince Broadmoor's staff that's he's actually sane.
I chose the two examples above because both illicit a similar response from me. At one point or another as Ronson explained each situation, part of my brain wanted him to immediately sprint to one of the extreme sides of the argument – "The DSM is completely unreliable!" I wanted to hear "It's a fiction of over-fertile and cynical imaginations – nothing more than a series of checklists – I have 12 disorders myself!"
Strangely, my brain also begged for the opposite view "We can wrap up completely the human condition in these definitions – people's behaviour can be predicted remarkably accurately by following DSM guidelines" (The latter being particularly powerful as I've had experience with mental illness recently – in the form of an abusive relationship. I really want to hear that the pain of this can be wrapped up nicely in the bow of a mental disorder diagnosis).
Similarly, when talking about the Church of Scientology, my brain wanted to hear typical Scientology-bashing.
Ronson's explanation of both situations was balanced, unemotional and perfectly in tune with his experience. As he said about Scientology "I mean, I'm not naive. I know what these people are like. But why would I run them down when my experience was a positive one… I refuse to be the tool of someone else's polemic." That last line got me thinking about a lot of things: politics, for one. In the last 10 years it seems to me that politics has been reduced to polemics. There is little room for discussion other than opponent bashing. TV for another: I'm a Celebrity, Big Brother, Come Dine With Me – they're all based on the pleasure one derives from watching people "like you" doing things that look like madness or are incredibly demeaning. we derive pleasure from feeling "better" than them. "At least I'm not THAT crazy", we say.
Even local news radio here in Belfast – supposed respected news shows – offer lines of questions which are purely designed to draw out polemics for the pleasure of the audience.
It's gratuitous – it's conversation designed to titillate only, not further understanding or any debate.
Even in spirituality, the Believer Vs. Atheist debate. It's sad to see such important, complicated discussion reduced to such a black and white terms for the sport of the Huffington Post and Fox News readership.
Which leads me to the grey area. It's the area that no one's comfortable in – quite simply because there are rarely any answers in the grey area. There needs to be a comfort with there being no answers, with nobody being right and most controversially, no "truth". Paradox is the language of the grey area – instincts, flexibility but most importantly compassion are the keys to survival. And by it's very nature, it's the most difficult place to stand, because the ground is always shifting – it can seem like you are contradicting yourself constantly. But the alternative is to arbitrarily ignore an argument because it doesn't correspond with your own. "Do I contradict myself?" said Walt Whitman "So I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes".
It takes constant, uncompromising thought – constant re-examination of one's position. And that can be exhausting.
But to me, it's writers like Ronson who effortlessly tread on the extreme edges of life for their profession, who have the best view of the grey area. (I say effortlessly, but it's clear Ronson's mastery of the grey area has come from many, many years of painstaking effort and focus). Paradoxically, it's out on the edges that one gets the clearest view of the grey area – the clearest view that there are no simple villains, no unblemished heroes. I'd like people to be more comfortable there. I know I'm going to strive to be.