The various defenses we make for our shortcomings — have you noticed this? — can almost never survive an honest conversation.
I’ve been pondering Vince Gilligan’s character “Jessie Pinkman” in Breaking Bad. You’ve seen this guy. We all have. He’s the aloof, distant stoner, the guy who can’t be bothered to study, to apply himself, because even life’s blessings — learning, work, sportsmanship — all become overpowered by the irritation of being asked to conform to rules those blessings require. This is a bit of a stretch, but if you were holding a chestful of diamonds, and giving away fistfuls for free, Jessie Pinkman would spurn the gift, if he had to put out his cigarette to earn it. You can see in Jessie’s face the reflection of a disapproving parent at all times. He’s on the verge of making the right decision, but a stern warning to do that very thing, will send him in the opposite, life-depleting direction.
If Jessie were simply a half-wit, a simpleton, a poor wretch wrestling with mental illness, his behavior might not be so frustrating, but he annoys us because he’s none of those. He’s capable. He’s smart. He’s not without empathy or conscience. We are told, quite clearly, that he grew up in middle class comfort, the product of an intact family, but his aesthetic is baggy-pants gangsta. He seems to wear, speak, and sing a ghetto street-speak he doesn’t own, because, somewhere, somehow, it’s upsetting an authority that isn’t even bothering with him anymore.
I found his character annoying because I’ve know a few weasels like this, but I think my conclusion here is that we are all, in some respect, “weasels like this.” We all harbor some safe interior room of irrationality that simply won’t bear the honest scrutiny of our true friends.
When Jessie is confronted by his parents for being essentially too self-destructive, too deceptive, too dangerous for polite company, he will make some true, but off topic observation: parents are supposed to love their children. Well, of course they are, but the audience in these encounters — the dramatic jury — can tell who is speaking the truth and who is abusing it. When reasonable parents confront a young adult who has established a meth laboratory in the basement, it is not “unloving” to tell him there are consequences.
I think human beings are social animals for more than just company. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t stumble on even a portion of the truth if we didn’t have a rude aunt saying the difficult, but honest thing. That super product we think we can turn into the next billion dollar industry? It needs to pass the first barrier of the Cal Tech cousin who tells you it’s been tried a dozen times before.
The truth is established by vigorous, heated, passionate argument. They say America is polarized these days, and that is certainly true, but we need to bring those zapping, electrified polar opposites into closer contention. The truth is established by sparring in the arena.
And that may be precisely why freedom of expression is under attack. Some folks appear invested in making sure we never find the truth. They want to wander, Jessie Pinkman like, into the back room, and shoot up in their “safe space” — unopposed, unquestioned, and perpetually unable to have an “up close and personal” encounter with the truth.
It explains social media these days, some churches, and the college campus. Going to your room is easier than going to your jury.