You’re pestered to try a walk, a taste, a dance, an affair or a career on “the wild side”, or at least to “unwind”, “loosen up” or “chill”.
Often, when not also above all, you are expected to be excited or calmed by what seems to be exciting or calming the pest at the moment or in general, whether that be salsa, yoga, growing aluminum-siding sales territories or whatever.
Maybe that someone was a colleague at an office lunch who dangled slithery raw squid bits under your nose while insisting that you are way too “uptight” and that you must “loosen up”, “unwind” and try it.
Or maybe it was a meddlesome energizer-bunny who, like some self-appointed dance-policewoman, intruded into a promising, if not already intimate conversation to drag you onto a nightclub-for-the-deaf, woofer-blasted dance floor.
Or maybe—especially at the office—it was less in-your-face, obvious than that.
Subtler Professional Pressure
Less overt, more sedate and decorously professional versions of this kind of pressure are not hard to find, once the subtlety of their manifestations is appreciated.
For example, “Don’t you think you are being overly cautious about this obviously solid merger opportunity?” or “You really should overcome any unconscious fear of failure and open up your mind more to the adventure of being a propane and propane accessories assistant manager!”—the cartoon mantra of Hank “King of the Hill” Hill. Such exhortations to loosen up are on a par with dangled squid exhortations and accusations, yet less obviously so.
What all of these social and professional badgerings have in common, regardless of any differences in vehemence and urgency, is that they all spring from one or both of two logical fallacies: the “fallacy of complex question” or the “fallacy of begging the question”.
The former is, as will be shown, a kind of subspecies of the latter, with both having the flaw of categorically assuming as a critical premise something essential to the inference or assuming as a claim one that is the conclusion itself, e.g., that you have an unconscious fear of failure in the propane business or that a career in it is indeed an “adventure”.
[16th-century philosopher Rene Descartes’ rather silly “I think, therefore I am” , which "proved" he existed by assuming he did, is perhaps the most concise, most famous and historically overrated example of the fallacy of begging the question.]
Most commonly, because of their imagery and logic, these “loosen up!” taunts and insinuations can be difficult to rebuff or even reply to. Most are based on unspoken, embedded psychological models that can be tough to identify and rebut—e.g., that your “resistance” is based on “inhibition” or “blockage”, rather than a basic lack of interest in or of value in that which is being promoted.
Call this the “resistance” or “inhibition” model of uptightness, based on the image of keeping the lid on a high-pressure boiler or of blocking a plant’s natural tendency to flower even through cracks in smothering concrete.
Then there’s the tightly-wound “watch spring” aspect of this model—the idea that you unwisely have simply accumulated too much unreleased “potential energy”, apart from any “kinetic energy” “wasted” on resistance to releasing it.
Together, these encapsulate the main psychological model underlying the illogical form of the insinuations that you need to “loosen up”, “let go”, “let your hair down”, “let it be” and “unwind”.
“When are you going to wake up and face the fact that your career is going nowhere?” is another example. It is a vexing, truly annoying question because it is purely rhetorical in intent and form, and posed not to get an answer, but instead to make an accusation—that there is something seriously wrong with you or the career you chose.
Don’t assume that there’s interest in knowing whether you will wake up sooner rather than later, or “wake up” at all. Although it’s possible that was the intent, it is far likelier that the question is actually an emphatic accusation: “Your career is going nowhere!”
That “going nowhere”-framed ambiguity could fuel another fallacy, aptly named the “fallacy of ambiguity”, in this way: “Your career is going nowhere. Therefore you aren’t working at it hard enough.”
Not necessarily: The problem may be that the job is dead-end, not that you are a deadhead dead weight. The only reason that inference seems logical is that “your career is going nowhere” is subtly and elliptically ambiguous—as between “going nowhere because of your faults” and “going nowhere because of the job’s faults”—in a way that may pass unnoticed at first blush.
Where’s the Proof?
Whether the fallacy committed is “complex question” or “begging the question” [which does not mean the colloquial “raising or inviting the question”, instead, for historical and technical reasons related to formal debate tactics, designating “assuming the answer to the question”], the logical flaw is in assuming something crucial with no proof whatsoever, as in the classic complex question “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
This is called the “fallacy of complex question” because there are actually two questions, not just one, being asked: 1. “Have you beaten your wife?”; 2. “If you have, have you recently stopped beating her”?
Begging the question is broader and simpler than this: “Your life will be a failure if you pass up on the fantastic opportunity to become a propane and propane accessories assistant manager.” The question of whether it’s a fantastic opportunity is begged, i.e., assumed without proof, and answered in the affirmative, apart from the question of how your life will turn out if you give propane a pass.
Interestingly, “loosen up!” is used with the same kind of tactical ambiguity, in a kind of one-size-fits-all situations way: It can mean entirely opposite things as an accusation or strong suggestion that you’re not living right.
On the one hand, it means that like a tightly wound spring, you need to “let go”, “unwind” and go “wild”—e.g., to discharge or use more energy and channel it into something wildly exciting, like brain-pounding rave parties you shun. Basically, this model encourages re-allocating and ramping up energy expenditures, away from alleged self-control to alleged self-indulgence.
On the other hand, it can mean the opposite: “relax” and dissipate “tension” and the bound energy of inhibitions by doing less, not more, and by going into a Type-B Zen state, breathing slowly and deeply, reducing your energy expenditures, relaxing muscle and mind, engaging Nothingness. Here, the goal is to discharge energy, not to reallocate it to more “kinetic”, high-energy activities.
The problem with this is that, because, at any given time, your autonomic nervous system can be in a high-arousal “sympathetic” [agitated, stressed] or low-arousal “parasympathetic” [unstressed, blissful] state, you are, in either case, very vulnerable to being a target of the ambiguous exhortation to “loosen up”, unless you happen to be in the same state and engaged in the same thing as your “accuser”.
The main frustration in having to parry these exhortations is that they put you in a lose-lose situation: If you silently endure them without objection, that’s self-incriminating proof that they were warranted and accurate; if you attempt to rebut them, that’s proof of the intensity of your inhibitions and resistance.
For example, if you reply, “I’m not uptight or cautious; I’m just not interested”, you’ll almost certainly elicit, “That’s a rationalization; let go of that, and you will see!”
You can’t win—or so it seems.
Or are there ways to counter or blunt these?
Pest Control Tips
Here are some possible retorts I can suggest:
- “So, I should inhibit my inhibitions?”
- “Shall I let go of my inhibitions about smacking you too?”
- “Confucius says, ‘Unwinding snake is the most dangerous.’” [Perfect while doing forced esoteric meditation or a when pressured to take a free, seizure-inducing hot yoga lesson.]
- “A tightly wound watch is the most accurate and reliable.”
- “So, a clam is really just an inhibited eagle?”
- “So, an eagle is just an over-excited clam?”
- “Our shoe sizes are not the same.” [This is an allusion to “I’ll walk in your shoes only if they fit.” This will “put the shoe on the other foot.”]
I’m sure you can think of more of these.
If you’ll just let go of your inhibitions about trying.
Note: All of the aforementioned logic links are to what I regard as the best encyclopedia and analyses of fallacies available online or maybe even anywhere, at www.fallacyfiles.org.