The masochist says “Beat me!” …

and the sadist says “No.”

It is hard not to pay attention to people who are screaming for your attention. It’s hard to manage your own attention in the best of circumstances; sages have for thousands of years been directing our attention to attention, and still we are easy marks for those who would control our minds by misdirecting our attention.

We pay attention: The metaphor is important. When we pay attention we give a share of one of our limited resources to someone or something else. We can get something in return, or not. Largely we get to decide what we want to pay attention to.

This resource — attention — is valuable to others. Your attention is valuable to your spouse, to your children, to your friends; they are likely to appreciate it and to repay you in their own attention. Your attention is also valuable to people trying to sell you things (if they don’t have your attention, they can’t), to people who crave attention for its own sake, and, in a negative sense, to those who want you not to notice certain things. These people are not going to give you a fair return on your attention.

It is hard for us not to pay attention to what the government, corporations, and other sociopathic things tells us is important, even though we get no return for our invested attention. We engage in endless arguments over questions that make nobody’s life better, and the only winners are those who want our attention focused on those questions, or not focused on their hands in our pockets or the chains they are fastening to our ankles.

Things that cause emotional responses attract more of our attention. If a stimulus makes us happy or sad or disgusted or afraid, we pay attention to it. We like to feel happy, and we think we don’t like to feel said or disgusted or afraid, but our behavior — paying attention to things that make us sad or disgusted or afraid — suggests that all of these emotions attract us.

Fear might attract us more than the other emotions

How, then, can we not pay attention to people who set out to make us afraid? Especially when they evoke an ancient evil? Especially when they are armed?

It is hard.

But parents and dog owners know that it is hard to deprive a misbehaving child or dog of attention, and yet they know that that is the proper response to acting up. Because attention (measured in strokes, by the way, which could connote a velvet glove or an iron rod) is sometimes the only reward that the erring critter is looking for, and if you stop giving the critter strokes, eventually the misbehavior will stop.

It is hard, but necessary. There’s no other way to stop the bad behavior. But what if you aren’t the only person whose attention they seek? The media are going to pay attention to those screaming for attention; this can’t be helped. You can’t control others’ behavior, so if everyone else is paying attention to them, you might as well.

The same argument applies to all ethical questions: You can’t stop everyone else from doing x, so why not do x yourself? I find Kant’s Categorical Imperative to be a compelling response: Act in such a way that the world would be a better place if everyone did the same.

5 Comments

  1. Is the issue of paying or not paying attention really a matter of difficulty? Is it not a choice? A choice that for various reasons (mostly related to emotion) some are capable of making while others are oblivious of the empowering effect of making such choice? If we get to decide what we give attention to, should we consider how we arrived at such selection? Does our reasoning truly exist or is it just real to us?

    Should we question the motive behind someone wanting our attention? Are those people the beneficiaries of our attention or are they just in the business of brokerage / wholesale of “attentions”? Is there a monetizing business model for “attentions” that have armed people and platforms to use emotion to influence us to volunteer ours? Is our attention predictable? Is it a scientific formula? A principle? A living law in us? In most?

    I believe attention has been held up for ransom. Attention has become a prostitute, well, more like a sex slave victim being sold by its captors to the highest bidder. Without the increasingly importance of monetizing people’s attention, I believe we would be more free, rational and find solutions to most of society’s problems and challenges. Emotions through communication, media, and marketing exist in an imaginary bubble, a mental slavery, which gradually becomes more real to those who give it more attention and emotion.

    I suggest the armed person evoking evil upon us does not exit. He was fabricated. We have a well behaved dog. And we do not rely on emotion to discipline a child. We hold true to that which says: “Instruct a child the ways he should go and he will never depart from them.”

    Can knowledge burst the bubble created by those who seek our attention?

    1. Xavier,
      People who arbitrage our attention profit from us just like other beneficiaries. There is no difference. Many of them would take something from us without compensation. They are able to do so because most of us aren’t paying attention to attention.
      Children are not rational, until they are. They have to be taught how far emotion will and will not carry them.
      And I think that you’ll find this book worth your attention (which I am, I confess, arbitraging with a link that will profit me if the link is compelling enough that you buy the book).
      MB

      1. Thanks for the recommendation. Is the goal of managing one’s attention (or alternative) that of individuality?

        I believe we can benefit from tracing back attention. Why is attention so? What was in the beginning that gave motion to such phenomena? Is it still there? Has it been usurped? Perhaps my logic is: there are different types of attentions. Attentions that are wholesome in our development as a human beings are to be managed on a certain way. Then there are superficial attentions which are the representations of people/brands that are mostly fictional for the intent of commerce (with whatever value proposition). In my opinion, it is worth while for anyone to learn and see the mixture of attentions and choose accordingly.

        But becoming individualistic goes too far for me. I believe it misses the point of human existence which in my opinion is tied to that which in the beginning required our attention in the first place. In our attempt to recover our original state, we may fall under a snare of individuality and think we are thus free when in fact we have now given all our attention, to ourselves.

  2. ‘Act in such a way that the world would be a better place if everyone did the same.’ That solves the problem Xavier poses about potential hyper-individuality.

    Haven’t I paid you enough by reading your commentary, and occasionally thereafter actually giving some thought to what you had written, that you might just recommend the book for free? Would the world be a better place if everybody read this book? Do you not want the world to be a better place?

    Do it for the children.

    1. Ernie, you pay no more for the book. It is Amazon that is paying me for your attention.

      I assure you that I will put the money to better use than Amazon would have, so it’s a categorical-imperative win for everyone.

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