Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Strange Disorder

Blaise Pascal wrote, “Man’s sensitivity to trivia, and his insensitivity to matters of major importance, reveal he has a strange disorder.”

The game Trivial Pursuit and the television game show Jeopardy tell us a lot about ourselves – we are intrigued by trivia, impressed by it, and applaud those who excel in it. People become famous by winning games based on trivia; they do not become famous explaining what the trivia actually means, its context, its place in history or in life. I’ve heard the host of Jeopardy say how bright various contestants are; they may have good memories but can they explain the questions or answers, can they critique a painting put on the screen, can they judge the truth of a quotation? Giving an answer does not mean that we know what the answer means. If I ask my Border Collie to “get fish” she will retrieve a canvass toy that looks like a fish and bring it to me, but I don’t think she has much of a larger context in which to interpret and understand my command; I don’t think she can engage in a comparative analysis of “fish” and “hose” and “ball” and “bottle” and her other toys. Perhaps with enough training she can participate in Jeopardy?

The news, as it is typically presented to us, is not much more than trivia – after all, how much contextual content can be communicated in thirty seconds or one or two minutes? If Pascal was writing about trivia in the 17th Century, what would he think today?

It is indeed a strange disorder that we applaud the trivial and resist engaging in the most important questions of life; we embrace the things that don’t matter and we reject eternal questions.

Why is this so?

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