Style over substance

Intrepid commenter dtcwee asked:

what role does the goal play in determining whether an endeavour is shallow? What is a shallow goal? And can an earnest effort at a shallow goal be considered ‘deep’?

Appearances are always more shallow than reality.  The phrase “style over substance” is pejorative because we take for granted that substance is almost always more important than style, such that an inversion of priorities is contemptible.

Goals that invert or disrupt natural priorities may be considered shallow, like putting style before substance.  For example, an academic whose goal is to obtain a high number of publications, but who isn’t concerned with the quality or significance of his work.  A singer who wants to be high on the charts but doesn’t really care about how he gets there.  Or a multitude of bloggers, youtube account holders, and other social media fanatics who desperately want to somehow get rich, but don’t have any genuine motivation or inspiration behind their content: – these can all be considered people with shallow goals.

But is this really different from the previous post where we defined shallow endeavours as instances where “the efforts, knowledge, everything that makes up the endeavour itself, are insufficient for the stated goal”?

I think they are different, because in the examples given above the goals are quite specific and oriented toward the defect we are calling ‘shallowness’.  These are not cases where the academic mistakenly thinks his shallow efforts to merely get published are appropriate to his position.  No, a shallow goal contains a kind of duplicity or deception, like a shoddy good masquerading as something of quality.  Whereas a shallow endeavour might see someone totally out of their depth, a person with a shallow goal is quite able to achieve it.  The value of the shallow goal lies in deceiving people, finding shortcuts, cutting corners, and so on.

But as with the previous case of the shallow endeavour – a shallow effort directed toward a genuine goal – it is only with the benefit of greater knowledge that we can label the shallow goal as somehow deficient.  It is ‘shallow’ relative to the normal expectations, in the same way that a product or service is considered defective according to established norms.

I’m sure we’ve all come across situations where people have, in good faith, attempted to undertake a project vastly beyond their abilities.  But many of us have no doubt also come across situations where people have, in bad faith or cynicism, tried to pass off a half-arsed job as the real deal.

The terminology here is far from definitive, because the original intention was to clarify depth rather than shallowness.  In that case, what really matters is that we have so far described two cases of insufficient depth – one intentional and one unintentional.

In this context, how should we answer the second part of the question:

can an earnest effort at a shallow goal be considered ‘deep’?

In theory it can, though the scenario would be somewhat comedic, in that it would imply a person so dedicated to a shallow goal that their efforts become disproportionate to the goal and do approach depth.

Take, for example, the Swedish film ‘The Swimsuit Issue‘ in which a group of middle-aged Swedish men become involved in synchronised swimming as a joke, but start to take it seriously and end up competing in major competitions.  There are other examples that will come to mind later, but the point is that there can indeed be depth in the pursuit of a shallow goal, however, the depth seems to engage and transform the character in new ways, such that by the end the nature of the goal itself has changed, and is perhaps no longer shallow.





Melancholic Facades and the Challenge of Sincerity

Melancholics learn to interact with people through a facade. At the same time, they hate to be subject to duplicity or manipulation by others.

This inconsistency makes sense if you consider that a melancholic is, on the one hand, not easily stirred by external stimuli, while on the other hand he is afraid of being shamed or humiliated. Not easily stirred by external stimuli means that the melancholic will often, by nature, fail to give a suitably emotive or excited or even interested response to another’s words or tales. He might in fact be emotive, excited, and interested, but not to the degree of expression expected by the other temperaments. For a Sanguine interlocutor, the words ‘no, I really am interested’ delivered in monotone with a deadpan expression are insufficiently encouraging.

Depending on the degree of negative and disappointed responses he receives, the melancholic may learn that he must amplify his expressions until others are satisfied. A blank stare must become an encouraging nod; an encouraging nod must become a warm smile; a warm smile must become amused laughter.

This is in fact incredibly draining and slightly demeaning; draining because it requires constant effort to monitor and adapt one’s own expression, demeaning because it undermines one’s natural responses. Yet for an adult melancholic these habits may already be deeply ingrained. At its worst the melancholic may feel that the amplification of his expressions takes on a life of its own, becoming a mask or facade that impinges on his own integrity. But the melancholic never thinks of the facade as an imposition on others, or as a form of benign manipulation. It is, after all, benevolent -an attempt to embody a more ideal example of interpersonal communication- and the pains of an amplified smile or habitual chuckle are borne by the melancholic alone, the cost of pursuing the ideal.

There are two main scenarios in which the melancholic facade encounters a facade in the other.

The first is when the melancholic encounters a facade like his own. In such cases, the melancholic usually realises that he cannot ‘read’ the other person, which is to say that he does not get the expected feedback to his own facade. It’s as though both are trying to be ‘good listeners’ but that leaves no one to do the actual talking. The best outcome is to find some point of common interest that can get behind the facade.

The second scenario can be much harder to pick, depending on the other person. It could be a boss, a friend, a colleague, or a neighbour, and the facade will change accordingly. They may be consistently hard to read, or they may simply give off an impression that conflicts with the context or content of how they present themselves. For example, when someone offers praise that doesn’t ring true despite their apparent sincerity, or when they share information that doesn’t seem quite relevant, or when their persona shifts in an unexpected way in the presence of a third person, such that their responses to you become inconsistent; these examples are clues that a person is not being completely open with you, and may have a hidden agenda or vested interest of which you are unaware.

The melancholic finds these instances of duplicity and manipulation hateful for three reasons: first, because he is susceptible to such tactics and hence is doubly embittered when he finds himself deceived. Second, because he hates to be shamed and humiliated, and it can be both shameful and humiliating to be unwittingly manipulated by another. Third, because the melancholic’s own facade is the product of well-intentioned albeit misguided effort to connect with others in a mutually affirming way, to embody the ideal of interpersonal commmunication. Since attempts to manipulate the melancholic are mediated by this facade, the melancholic may feel that his bona fide attempts to relate to others have been abused. Someone has taken advantage of his attempt to meet the ideal.

In such scenarios the melancholic may revert to a more genuine idealist response, which puts personal integrity above interpersonal ideals. Once he realises that others are not playing by the rules, or in good faith, he will immediately become more cautious, reserved, and less responsive. In his mind, the manipulative person can no longer be trusted, and there is no longer any need to maintain the facade. This change can come as a surprise to others, who may feel that the melancholic has suddenly become a different person or radically changed the nature of the relationship.

The Challenge of Sincerity

This example of facades and interpersonal communication shows how the tendency to embrace the ideal can work against the melancholic if the ideal he chooses is incomplete, one-sided, or misguided. At face value it is genuinely ideal to be polite, empathic, considerate, and attentive. But another ideal – the ideal of sincerity, authenticity, and integrity conflicts with a single-minded pursuit of idealised interpersonal communication. In practical terms, the melancholic will suffer if he continually forces himself to pretend to be polite, empathic, considerate and attentive. In fact, the whole relationship will suffer if the melancholic fails to express himself honestly.

Melancholics are liable to apply their uncertainty and fear of being shamed to their own self-expression, holding back out of concern that their natural, uncontrived, honest self-expression might unintentionally offend, hurt, or disappoint others. A melancholic will tend to think long and hard before speaking, in hope of avoiding such outcomes.

The ideal of sincerity presents a challenge. The melancholic knows that everything will be better in the long run if he ceases to control and contrive his interactions with others; yet he fears the immediate consequences of failing to self-censor and self-control, even while knowing it is flawed and unsustainable. He fears that his true self will turn out to be an objectively bad self. Yet he knows that even a bad self is at least a self, whereas a facade is no self at all.

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma.

The melancholic tends to think in ‘all or nothing’ dichotomies. Either maintain the facade for the sake of ideal interpersonal communication, or drop it completely for the sake of ideal sincerity. But sincerity does not mean pretending one has no inclination to better express oneself. Sincerity does not mean disowning the desire for ideal communication. Sincerity does not mean that the desire to communicate better is somehow false.

Sincerity simply means being without pretence, duplicity, or deceit. While the melancholic facade may constitute pretence, duplicity or deceit, the motivation behind the facade is sincere, and can be expressed in a more sincere way. In other words, there is no need to present to the world either a polished facade or a polished sincerity. No, the choice is between a polished facade and an unpolished sincerity, a potentially messy and inconsistent sincerity, a sincerity that may take time to come into its own.

The fears that push the melancholic towards a facade will fade in time if we allow the gradual exploration of sincerity to unfold. In practice, this means resisting the urge to fill each moment of interpersonal communication with one’s idealised set of responses, cues, expressions and attention. It means allowing oneself to lean instead toward one’s actual feelings and responses, perhaps slowly at first, but with greater surety over time. It may mean expressing sincerely one’s doubts, concerns, and even one’s wish to communicate more ideally – but to express them without duplicity, rather than through the contrived and convoluted mechanism of a facade.

As the Confucian classic, The Great Learning, states:

What is meant by “making the thoughts sincere,” is the allowing no self-deception, as when we hate a bad smell, and as when we love what is beautiful. This is called self-enjoyment. Therefore, the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

This applies not only to self-deception but to the deception of others as well. But ultimately we are deceiving ourselves as well if we think that there is anything to gain from the melancholic facade.