I’ve had the privilege of having many great teachers and mentors. Some of the best teachers and mentors have had one unifying quality: they were super ANNOYING. They harped on and on about the same old things again and again.
A lot of the time, quite honestly, I wanted to tell them to…
And yet, although I wasn’t always receptive to what they had to say at the time, I now appreciate their willingness to persistently nag at me. They cared enough to keep bugging me until I took a hard look at myself. In that sense, they were following in a long line of figures who danced between annoying their students, annoying themselves and annoying whole societies. Perhaps the greatest of these was Socrates. Teacher. Philosopher. Self-proclaimed troll.
Of course, Socrates didn’t use the word troll. Troll comes from Scandinavian culture and Socrates had no exposure to that concept. Instead, during his trial, he framed his own behavior in a context every Athenian could understand. Socrates called himself a gadfly. What is a gadfly? It’s a fly that bites horses, cows and sometimes humans. Nasty, little things. And yet, on defense for his life, Socrates described himself as a gadfly.
Where did Socrates get this analogy? Perhaps from Greek mythology. Madly in love with Io, Zeus turns her into a white cow to hide her from Zeus’ wife Hera. Hera sends a gadfly to torment Io in cow form until Io is driven further and further away from home. Plato describes Socrates as doing the same thing. In Plato’s Apology, Athens’ political scene was described as a slow, dimwitted horse that lumbers on. Socrates was like a gadfly scoring tiny bites that by persistently getting under the skin of that dimwitted horse had the power to turn it from “home.”
Since you’re getting your yellow belt in Mixed Mental Arts, you know Culture Binds and Blinds. That is why societies operate like slow, dimwitted horses. They have a stubborn stability that keeps them doing more or less the same thing. In that sense, culture is like DNA. If culture doesn’t mutate, it can’t evolve because there’s no change. If culture mutates too much, then you get cultural breakdown and the culture falls apart. Teachers aim to deliberately change culture. The primary tool for that is a singular cognitive state; they seek to spark reflection.
The problem is that because culture (like genes) are mostly blindly transmitted from generation to generation through the emotion of cool most people don’t even know what their culture is. And they certainly don’t know what their BLINDSPOTS are. To paraphrase another teacher, Jesus Christ, it is WAY easier to see other people’s blindspots than to see your own.
Getting people to see the beam in their own eye requires harping on it. It requires being annoyed. Great teachers are like gadflies. They get under people’s skin and work away at them until they are forced to reflect and see the log in their own eye. Sometimes, these teachers aren’t even teachers; they’re your fellow students. Once upon a time, I had a big old beam in my eye where I was blind to the ways that emotions were driving my thinking. Then, I spent ten years in an acting class. My fellow students annoyed me so much with their talk about emotions that I was forced to confront them. And so, I went to the science and looked up what we knew and I discovered that science had rediscovered much of what the ancient sages knew thousands of years ago. People who annoyed me got so completely under my skin that they forced me to find the log in my own eye. As I’ve worked it out, I’ve come to realize that A LOT of people have the SAME BEAM in their eyes. And now, I pay humanity back by being a gadfly.
Of course, some people call that behavior trolling. I decided to rebrand it as intellectual terrorism which was a way of rebranding non-violent conflict. In the end, it’s the same thing by many names. You’re deliberately creating conflict within people’s beliefs to force self-reflection.
Recently, someone in the Mixed Mental Arts Facebook group said they found the group’s tendency to write feelings as feeeeeeelings annoying. If you’re trying to get people to like your product or please your customers, then you should stop. But, if you’re trying to spark self-reflection, then annoyance is a sign that you just might be getting somewhere. Writing feeeeeeelings wasn’t my idea. I got it from my co-author on The Straight-A Conspiracy, Katie O’Brien. She says it that way really drawing out the “e” sound playfully. That playful attitude helped manage my annoyance and create a spirit of play that made self-reflection easier. What role did feeeeeeelings play in my thinking? And, eventually, I realized I’d made Descartes’ Error. Playfulness and acknowledging the beam in your own eye helps make it easier for others to acknowledge theirs. The experience that this person was having was the EXACT same experience I had. Talk of feeeeeeelings annoyed me so much that I decided to learn everything about emotions I could. It changed my life massively for the better. Now, I give that experience away any way I can.
On trial for his life, Socrates underscored the importance of supporting dissent and people who annoy you. “If you kill a man like me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me” because his role was that of a gadfly, “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” Being annoying can actually be an act of love.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it always is.
A gadfly wants attention to spark self-reflection and to share the story of how they discovered the log in their own eye. And some people just want attention for no other reason than to feel important and powerful. Is that a troll? I don’t know. But if they had lived in the age of the internet, I’m quite sure the Athenians who sentenced Socrates to death would have called Socrates a troll to discredit him. One man’s troll is another man’s gadfly. Or rather, one man’s troll is another man’s Gandhi. To change the thinking of one person takes a lot of SLOOOOOOW THINKING. To change the thinking of hundreds of millions of people requires a willingness to annoy a lot of people persistently enough that they do that SLOOOOOW THINKING. Gandhi’s triumph was turning the whole nation of India into a swarm of gadflies that the British couldn’t simply swat away. That’s exactly what Mixed Mental Arts aims to do. We’ll make the conversation about culture so big that every human on the planet has to reflect on the biases that we all picked up from our cultures. That’s going to take an awful lot of gadflies. You up for getting under some people’s skin?