The audience of his peers had transformed into a righteous mob and it could smell his uncertainty. The presenter, after a shaky and uneven talk, had not provided a strong response to the first question posed to him and — even worse — had become defensive all too quickly.
The next person’s question was a thinly veiled attack. Again, the presenter wavered and, very quickly, the Q & A turned into a verbal stoning.
It was academia at its worst and, sadly, even at its best, post-presentation Q & As are rarely much more edifying.
Eventually, after the pillaging was almost intolerable to watch, a kind soul intervened and tried to help, offering the presenter a very friendly and easy question, recasting his position in a much more charitable light.
But it was too late. He was now in survival mode and he responded with hostility.
The kind soul patiently sidestepped the hostility and restated her question, clearly indicating that she was on his side.
He couldn’t make sense of her intentions. He couldn’t hear the intended meaning of her words. He heard only the palatable hostility of the mob and he attacked again.
The kind soul shrugged, she rephrased her question, and took his out eye with it. The verbal stoning continued brutally until the presenter’s time was up.
This little anecdote is based, sadly, on a true story but, in case it wasn’t clear, I should say I wasn’t the presenter (nor the kind soul).
Last weekend, however, I finally realized how easily I can slip into a negative outlook that makes it very difficult for me not to interpret the actions of another person and — in particular her words — in a way which only confirms my own insecurities.
As unhelpful as that particular outlook may be and, as much as it may be a detriment to my own well being, it in itself is not the worst bit.
Unfortunately, at some point, I will respond negatively to the negativity I’ve imparted to the other person’s words and actions, and, if she challenges me on my reading of her text, I will then argue that she is — in fact — wrong and that she must have meant what I thought she meant all along — even if she denies it now.
I should also point out that I made a living for some time — however meagre — rooting out the “hidden” meanings of various texts and vigorously presenting my case to my learned peers. I can only imagine that it must suck rather tremendously to have someone you care about vigorously presenting the case that you think much less of him than you actually think and that you are much more negative than you actually are.
I’ve used the feminine pronoun self-consciously because it seems that this all encompassing and almost inescapable negative perspective most often — and perhaps only — kicks in when I’m feeling uncertain and insecure about someone with whom I am romantically involved. Whether the broader pattern is there or not, in this case, it is the bare fact of the matter.
I have some theories about the origins of this negative habit, ranging from Freudian-esque family psycho dramas to Pavlovian state-dependent memories rooted in adolescence to undigested pieces of potato, but, I really don’t think the secret origins of the behaviour matter all that much. It’s shitty and irresponsible and I need to change it — whether it exists because I was loved too much, too little or because I watched the wrong kind of television growing up.
Fortunately for me, unlike that presenter, my kind soul didn’t shrug her shoulders and join the hostile mob of my own imagination but instead patiently made the case that my behavior was unfounded, unprovoked, and unacceptable. Once I had a clear mind again, because of that irrefutable kindness and patience, and after some hard thinking, I was able to identify the problem and now that I’ve identified it, I can work on changing it.
Thanks, kind soul.