by Chaya Grossberg
I was at a meditation gathering of a specific Indian tradition last night where I happened to be the only female present. Disclaimer: the purpose of this is not to “genderalize” or specifically focus on gender differences, but rather to use socialization differences (which are not solid or permanent) as an example. I noticed at the end of the evening when people were talking casually, some of the guys got into “name dropping” spiritual books, teachers and traditions (all men, written by men and conceived of by men alone) in a similar way I’ve seen people talk about sports stars, celebrities, politicians, cars, history and current events, with an empty-of-substance naming of things. This, of course, can happen in any group of people regardless of gender ratio.
There’s comfort, I suppose, regardless of gender, race or class in sharing common celebrities, priests, psychiatric labels, medical jargon, language, and tradition of any sort-but if it’s simply about naming books, traditions, “illnesses” and teachers to show you know of them, it becomes empty trivia.
Trivia sounds like trivial and becomes not only trivial but harmful if used as a social lubricant without exploring these books/people/labels in more depth and being sure to contrast male written books, theories and traditions with the voices of women and other minority viewpoints. Trivia for its own sake is a subtle but powerful form of hierarchy (and usually patriarchy) whether it is about celebrities, sports stars and pop culture or the celebrity priests and pop culture of a specific religious tradition. It’s not inclusive and can hurt those who are not in the know, or outsiders for any reason whether gender, race, class or something else.
When I first got to college I met a boy I was enamored with and started dating immediately. He was into obscure songs from very popular Broadway musicals. As a musician and sincere music appreciator, which he was, this was fine except that he made fun of me for only knowing the hit songs from these shows. His trivia was more elaborate than mine (in this area), yet the game he initiated was about seeing how many of these songs you could name.
Whoever decides the rules of the game can, of course, design it so they will win, if it’s trivia. In mainstream trivia, many are allowing and accepting of the fact that the trivia games they play have rules that have been decided by someone they have little in common with. When our lives feel empty, these trivial games can “fill the emptiness” in countless cult-like ways whether through gossip or fetishes of memorization (of any group of characters/labels/”facts” etc). There may be many real reasons for our interests, but reducing them to trivia (guess what) trivializes them.
Realizing that every cult or sub-culture has its form of trivia (including spiritual traditions, branches of medicine, academic subjects, groups of friends, families, etc) can point us back in the direction of real life, which is about not only digging deeper into that which has been trivialized, but studying the things that don’t make it into the trivial sphere. Whatever group of people you are in, notice what and who the trivia includes and does not include. This will point you in the direction of social justice and personal integration.
If any race, gender or class predominates the trivia you discuss with your friends or cohorts, challenge your group to study other groups. Trivia topics aren’t empty until they become trivia-at which point we are no longer thinking for ourselves, but rather regurgitating back what we’ve been told similarly to how we did it in school. Knowing the names of people, places, songs, movies, actors, gurus, writers or diagnoses does not equal an understanding of their meaning and if you fill your mind with the accumulation of “facts” that have been told to you by a trivializing culture, of course that culture will tell you you are very smart.
In order to liberate ourselves from this rat race to “know,” we must as individuals retreat from the cult to some degree, at some point, and find our own answers. Knowing trivia can help connect us with others and the basic concepts they hold, but this should be a stepping stone rather than a tired destination. When it becomes a destination, we become very boring people, so bored we have an insatiable addiction to more trivia. And this boredom that trivializes (out of shame and fear) is at the root of all addictions.
Psychiatry and Psychology use trivia in their cult. When human experiences become categorical diagnoses to study and memorize, they are boring trivia, as well as harmful.
I once went to a Smith College School of Social Work classroom with 2 other members of the Freedom Center to teach on our activist work and share our experiences in the mental health system. We waited out in the hallway for them to finish playing “Mood Disorder Jeopardy,” where you can probably guess they had to name the disorder label that went with an oversimplified, medicalised and stigmatizing description of normal human experience. This is a perfect example of our most meaningful, vulnerable and important life experiences being literally trivialized.
The benefit of this awareness whether in psychological, spiritual or mainstream circles is that seeing through this trivialization brings relief. Every one of us experiences suffering due to trivialization, and seeing it for what it is brings us directly back to what matters, our actual experiences, especially the ones that don’t fit into the Jeopardy squares. All trivia is in jeopardy, as our stories, idols, gurus, diagnoses and mythologies are constantly changing. If it doesn’t fit into a Jeopardy square, it might have a chance of providing meaning to the evolution of our communities.
If feelings aren’t socially acceptable, discussing trivia may be one of the only socially acceptable options. I get a painfully bored, left out, marginalized feeling when I’m the only female and the males around me go into “trivia talk.” I get this feeling even if I’m not the only female, but in a different way. It brings up feelings from my childhood of experiencing this with my father and brother, but I am not feeling my pain alone. There’s a great deal of pain in the need to escape from feelings and into trivia all the time. This can happen with any gender ratio or group of people, though each gender has been more conditioned out of different types of feelings, in many cases. There are exceptions to this and my purpose isn’t to say that this is a problem that exists because of men or their conditioning. It exists in all of us in different ways. If you look at any group that is especially focused on trivia, you will also see that feelings are not safe or acceptable in that demographic.
Trivia is marginalizing and hurtful (and of course we all participate in it). If our lives are REDUCED to trivia, there is no choice but to check out and take a drug or develop an addiction, which is why the trivia of psychiatric labels continues to create drug dependence and increase other addictions.
Being true to ourselves is the only way out of the maze of trivia.
Studying names, diagnoses and “facts” becomes a procrastination, protection, numbing out technique to avoid the pain, triumph and challenges of living our real lives which are messy and unable to be jeopardized. All people can take the risk to be vulnerable and real, to take a few baby steps away from trivia, away from procrastination of their deepest desires.
There was a time in history (not even too long ago) when trivia had more practical value, but we’re mostly past it now that we have technology that affords us the luxury of not needing to memorize facts. Western medicine is an entire medical system almost entirely of trivia- NAMES of illnesses, body processes, pills. To go beyond trivia in medicine would require looking at the whole person, environment and community in all health issues-otherwise it will continue to be primarily a band-aid medicine, perhaps lengthening human lives in the short term, but drastically decreasing the health, natural wealth and sustainability of the planet and its inhabitants in the long run. This is how trivia harms us, only looking the names and titles of things.
Women’s and men’s brains have evolved differently and women’s brains communicate more between the different hemispheres while men’s tend to compartmentalize, or keep activity in one part of the brain at a time. Excluding women from mainstream medicine may have once seemed like a “safer” way to go when medicine was mostly trivia, which requires exclusion of the parts of the brain that find meaning, and that kept certain power structures in place. Hopefully with more women (and a larger diversity of people) being accepted in mainstream medicine (and all other realms of life), the value humans have put on the trivialization of all things will start to shift.
The challenge we face is that knowledge of trivia is still seen as expertise, while true expertise is having experienced something. Experience is the opposite of trivia-it’s not boring, nor is it about memorization, rote repetition or outside “experts” who know more. Instead it’s about real life, the one thing we lose when trivia is the sole focus of affairs, such as in the DSM, psychiatry’s rule book for their game of Trivial Pursuit (where they pursue explanations which have no meaning and make the rules of their own game).
Creating a system of trivia that is accepted on a grand scale has been a good way to “win” in our current economy since trivia is still widely revered and humans have imbued it with so much power that could be better used to advance our own meaning.