Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Color the World

My teenage daughter's car earns a lot of attention on the street:

People honk and wave, strangers ask to add their own art, five-year-olds drop their toys and gawk.  A few people look annoyed and turn away.  (Kate describes her car as a "personality tester".)

A couple of years ago, I had promised my 2009 Honda Accord to Kate when she earned her driver's license.  But knowing that Kate cares about appearances -- stylish clothes and all that -- I promised that I'd have it repainted first, since the paint jobs on these old Hondas age badly in the southern California sun.  But when I saw the cost of a proper paint job, I was shocked.  So I suggested that we turn it into an art car, which she and her friends could decorate at will.  (In the 1980s, a few of my friends and I did the same with our old beater cars, generating "Motorized Cathedrals of the Church of the Mystical Anarchist" numbers 2 through 4 -- number 1, of course, being Earth itself.)  She accepted my offer, we bought paints, and voila, over the months the art has accumulated!

I'm not sure exactly what makes the world intrinsically valuable.  I reject hedonism, on which the only intrinsically valuable thing is pleasure; I'm inclined to think that a diversity of flourishing life is at least as important.  (Consider what one would benevolently hope for on a distant planet.  I'd hope not that it's just a sterile rock, but richly populated with diverse life, including, ideally, rich societies with art, science, philosophy, sports, and varied cultures and ecosystems.)

Multitudinous brown 2009 Honda Accords populate the roads of America.  What a bland, practical car!  The world is richer -- intrinsically better -- for containing Kate's weird variant.  She and her friends have added color to the world.

We might generalize this to a motto: Color the World.

It doesn't have to be a car, of course.  Your creative uniqueness might more naturally manifest in other forms (and it's reasonable to worry about resale value).  It might be tattoos on your body, unusual clothing, the way you decorate your office, house, or yard.  It might be your poetry (even secret poetry, seen by no one else and immediately destroyed, timelessly enriches the fabric of the world), your music, your philosophical prose, your distinctive weirdness on social media.  It might be the unusual way you greet people, your quirky manifestation of the rituals of religion or fandom or parenthood, your taste in metaphor, the way you skip down the street, your puns and dad jokes, your famous barbecue parties.

It would be superhuman to be distinctively interesting in all these domains at once, and probably narcissistic even to try.  Sometimes it's best to be the straight man in boring clothes -- a contrast against which the dazzlingly dressed shine more brightly.  But I think most of us hold back more than we need to, for lack of energy and fear of standing out.  Hoist your freak flag!

I see three dimensions of excellence in coloring the world:

(1.) Your color must be different than the others around you, in a way that stands out, at least to the attentive.  If everyone has a brown Honda, having the only green one already adds diversity, even if green is no intrinsically better than brown.  If baseball hats are abundant, adding another one to the mix doesn't add color; but being the one baseball hat in a sea of fedoras does (and vice versa of course).

(2.) Your color should ideally express something distinctive about you.  While you might choose a baseball hat to contrast with the fedoras simply because it's different, ideally you choose it because it also discloses an underlying difference between you and the others -- maybe you are the ragingest baseball fan in the group.  Your moon-and-cat tattoo isn't just different but manifests your special affection for cats in moonlight.  Your dad jokes wink with a je ne sais quoi that your friends all instantly recognize.

(3.) Your color should ideally arise from your creative energy.  A baseball cap from the merch store might (in some contexts) be color -- but a cap modified by your own hand is more colorful.  Let it be, if it can, your own artistic endeavor, your paint and brush, your own selection of words, your own decisions about how best to embody the ritual, organize the party, structure the space.  If it's prepackaged, put it together a little differently, or contextualize or use it a little differently.

Can I justify these subsidiary principles by appeal to the ideal of diversity?  Maybe!  Diversity occupies a middle space between bland sameness and chaotic white noise.  By grounding your difference in your distinctive features and your creative inspiration, you ensure the structure, order, and significance that distinguishes meaningful diversity from random variation.

I imagine someone objecting to Color the World by counterposing the motto Walk Lightly.  I do feel the pull of Walk Lightly.  Don't make a big fuss.  Let things be.  No need to scratch your name on every tree and upturn all the sand on the beach.  Walk Lightly, perhaps, manifests respect for the color that others bring to the world.  Fair enough.  Make good decisions about when and where to color.

Goodbye for today!  Time to drive my own bland car home.  When I walk in my front door, I'll ritualistically confirm with my wife and daughter that they abided by my usual morning advice to them: (1.) no barfing, and (2.) don't get abducted by aliens.


Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I like that car!My teenage grandson is off to school in cincinnati this fall. His first car is a Japanese-made product with 130,000 miles. It does not look like much but runs well. It might last four years, or, it might not.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

If you are a little interested in "entity realism" and/or the late Ian Hacking, see Chris Faille's blog today. I had never heard of Hacking before. Not surprising, insofar as I am a relative newcomer to philosophy, a fact I view as better late than not at all.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hacking is always interesting!