Some of us use words and tools in such a way that appears to others that we cannot control our use of words and tools. We do this when under threat of being exposed as unworthy. Being found out as unworthy of the concern of our companions is something very few can stand. Whenever the threat arises, something must be done to ward off this dread discovery. This book is about what we do when so threatened.
Though what we do under threat doesn’t seem to make sense, it really does make sense. There’s a payoff. Shakespeare told us this a long time ago. It was said of Hamlet’s bizarre antics: “though this is madness, yet there’s method in it.” However hidden from our inquiry, nonsensical habits always have a reason, a purpose, an aim, an end, an objective, such that they, given the circumstances, make sense. In other words, given the double-bind situation, it’s reasonable to act unreasonably.
Nonsense, as B. F. Skinner would say, is “reinforced;” or as Robert Thorndike would say, has an “effect;” or as William James would say, has “cash value;” or as Eric Berne would say, has an “ulterior payoff.” Note that only Berne alerted us to the possibility of hidden gain. A more current way to put it is that, upon acting crazy, a person gets “to cry all the way to the bank.” But all would say that what appears to be nonsense makes sense behind the scenes, because it is there that the payoff is to be found. So to understand “madness” or “insanity” we have to go backstage and see what’s going on behind the scenes.
Since the reward, effect, payoff, gain — the cash value — of such action is not obvious, where are we to look for it? Pragmatist William James would counsel us to look for the “practical consequences” of such action. The question is, who does what in response to nonsensical action that appears to be unrewarding to the actor? The answer is that the payoff to ritual nonsense is the response it evokes. Assuming that ritual nonsense—nonsensical use of words or tools—entails hidden payoff, consider the following declension—
- nonsensical use of words or tools is distracting
- distraction is annoying
- annoyance evokes censure
- censure of automatic action is unwarranted
- unwarranted censure is abusive
- abuse is exculpative
- exculpation provides an escape from responsibility
Why escape responsibility? Because those who feel unworthy doubt their ability to solve the problems of life: mating, friendship, work. Thus nonsense pays off in three ways:
- The immediate payoff is distraction
- The intermediate payoff is exculpation
- The remote payoff is escape
Not that all of us can use the same methods of distraction, exculpation, and escape. Our methods depend on the kind of knowledge and skills we have acquired, and the kind of knowledge and skills we acquire is predetermined by the kind of brain we inherited. And our brain enables us to use one method of escape while it limits our use of the methods our companions can use. In making nonsense, just as in making sense, we are confined to our own way.