Some dumb thing


See the shirt I'm wearing in this picture? I hate it. I wear it, but it is with a deep and abiding sense of loathing. I wear it because it looks good, it's comfortable, it fits well, and I'm reluctant to throw out any shirts, since they allow me to extend the time between laundry expeditions.

I hate it because of the stupid thing it says on it. I once loved it for its stupid thing, but that love turned to hatred very rapidly.

If you can't read it, it says "TEH" on it. If you type a lot outside of word processors that automatically correct spelling mistakes, you know TEH all too well. It's the word you accidentally type when you mean to say "The," and then you don't catch it until after you've sent your Instant Message and it makes you look like a doofus. I got this shirt at the San Diego Comic Convention. It was being sold by Jeph Jacques, creator/writer/illustrator/entire production process behind Questionable Content. He's a nice guy, and it's a fine comic strip. The "TEH" shirt was one of the first his male lead, Marten, wore. I bear him no ill will for the shirt.

The problem is that this shirt is a conversation magnet. A while ago Dianna mentioned wearing headphones to keep people from starting unwanted conversations with her. This shirt is the anti-headphones. People don't normally come up to talk to me. When I wear this shirt, though, strangers and quasi-strangers will just stop me and ask me to explain what my shirt "means." It means nothing! TEH doesn't stand for anything! I was already sick of being asked what "TEH" meant by the second time it happened and I got the sense of forboding that this would happen every time I wore this stupid shirt. And it has.

Now I have a pavlovian reaction to being asked about it. Even when people I know ask about it I get mad. I'll be having a conversation, smiling and jovial. Then the question, "So... What's with that on your shirt? What does TEH mean?" I'll suddenly get angry and snap at them, "It doesn't mean anything, okay? It's just some dumb thing!"

I should find a way to get the TEH off of this shirt. Or just wear it to events and locations filled with indie hipster-types who will just accept it as a generic piece of ironic clothing and pay it no mind.


What your TEH shirt does to you, my CHOOSE back tattoo did to me until I half-hid it behind a bunch of vines. Both result in a startling upsurge in unsought conversation, centering around a question that can be either simple and irritating ("it means nothing! shut up!" or "it'saboutfreewillshutup") or complicated ("you see, it's a common typographical error which has entered the vernacular of a subset of the population in a deliberately ironic, self-deprecating way which serves to identify those who recognize it as members of a common blah blah blah blah" or "you see, while the experience of personal agency is considered by some to be an illusion, I've found that the belief that it is both real and potent prompts the believer to take actions which themselves effect change and prove that blah blah blah") and VERY irritating. Neither was fully understood with respect to viewer responses before acquiring, but then, only one is permanently welded to the body of the wearer.

So just count yourself lucky that you didn't get that TEH tattoo, eh?

Also, your expression of wounded dignity makes that photograph truly excellent. "Teh, how could you hurt me so?"

Your long explanation for "CHOOSE" actually puts you in very good company; it's similar to the line of reasoning that William James went through on the subject of Free Will.

William James, brother of novelist Henry James, was a feckless and indecisive young man. His brother fought in the Civil War while he stayed home, too sickly to serve. He went to Germany to be trained as a doctor (where all doctors went to be trained in the 19th Century), but quit. He then tried his hand at psychology, and had a nervous breakdown over the subject of Free Will.

Essentially, his problem was the general problem that you can't know if you have free will or not. Our subjective experience is that we do, since we seem to be choosing our course in life, but religion and increasingly science tell us that, objectively, we probably don't. What we perceive as choices are the product of forces greater than ourselves, be they the natural actions of neurons and synapses or the supernatural hand of God.

So William James was in a quandary; his scientific training forced him to value the objective over the subjective, yet the idea that man had no free will was so depressing that he lost the will to live. What, after all, is the point of living and doing if our choices have already been made for us?

And then he had a revelation: It doesn't matter, really, if we have free will or not, he said. I am going to act as though I have it. And my first act of free will is to choose to believe that I have free will. Choosing to believe in free will gives me the power to act, it motivates me by allowing me to think that I can change the world for the better, and it gets me out of this existential crisis and gets me through the day.

And that was really the turning point in his life. He finished his studies in Psychology, wrote the definitive Psychology textbook of the era, accepted an appointment at Harvard, and became one of the great American philosophers.

YES! As of this moment, I love William James. That's pretty much the thing that I kept trying, and failing, to explain to the no-free-will people in that giant debate on my blog: there's very little personal emotional reward for being a fatalist, and therefore no point to it (except, in their case, to be pedantic). If you're looking for an excuse to do nothing, then it's great. But if you'd like anything else out of life, you absolutely have to have some degree of belief that your deliberate actions are effective and significant.

Me, I have no problem finding reasons to do nothing. I'm a walking crisis of motivation. Belief in free will is critical to my being able to function as a human being -- if I think I'll wind up in the same situation no matter what I try to do, I can't work up the energy even to eat dinner. Forget things like school and interpersonal relationships and lifestyle and career choices and intellectual exercise; they're way too much work if it doesn't matter.

When an anthropology professor explained to me the concept of agency, and the growing anthropological assumption (crystallized in the school of anthropology known as "poststructural") that people are not just motes of dust being blown around by cultural and biological systems after all, it was like being handed a magic wand. Tap this three times against your forehead and remind yourself that you can be interpreted as a free agent and a controlling force in your own right, and you'll stop wanting to go to bed and never wake up.

But the hell I want to explain this to every random stranger who comes up and wants to know what I mean by "choose". I should either make a FAQ and hand it out, or just refer them to William James. Perhaps you could do the same for TEH (minus the William James part, anyway)?

Actually, that's not quite true. The specific thing that I was trying and failing to explain to the no-free-will camp in that big debate was that there is no difference which you and I are capable of observing between free will and the illusion of free will, so belief in one or the other has to be interpreted as a matter of philosophy and not of knowledge. And on the philosophy side of the argument I firmly believe that William James and I are holding all the high cards.

The thing that I was expounding above was actually what I wanted to and didn't try and fail to explain in the debate, for various reasons mostly having to do with the conversation getting sidetracked. So now I've sidetracked your blog with it instead. See how my actions throw your well-ordered blogging into chaos? Truly I am a force with which to be reckoned.

Oh, and as for the shirt, you could always find a patch of some kind (preferably with something less attention-getting than TEH on it) and sew it over the TEH.

And if you can't find a patch that you like, you can always make one.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on October 27, 2005 3:18 PM.

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