Who Hears the Voiceless? On Being a Nobody

The Invisible Couple in Bournemouth Gardens (Credit: © Copyright william )

I’m a nobody.

You might think “You have this website, and a twitter and views and people listen…”

Nah, they don’t. Not really.

Not compared to, say, someone who went and did a journalism degree, then worked at the local paper for a bit and then, they were a bit nerdy so they worked the science desk and the next thing you know they’re on BBC local news and it all goes uphill from there.

Compared to those people, I’m a nobody.

I don’t have those qualifications and I’m not going to go into the whole sob-story about what happened with that. This ain’t fucking X-Factor. I don’t want to win public approval with a pretty face and a sob-story – mainly because I only have one of those two.

…I’m damn pretty!

The fact is I dreamed of becoming a doctor. I wanted to do a PhD. In zoology, find some post-grad projects on some far-flung islands, whatever the weather, I just wanted to leave the towns and cities, leave the hustle and bustle, the constant grinding of gear on gear, the abattoir grinding of human bone and sinew in this machine, working away; I wanted to leave and just focus on this whale’s genitals or that parasitic worm, this rare mollusc or dream-of-dreams, that rare cat.

Some dreams don’t come true, no matter how much you sacrifice for them. No matter how hard you work, nor how long you work that hard and in that case my dream was not going to come true. Could it have? Situations being different? Sob story being less sob? Maybe. But it didn’t.

It’s reality. Successful people will tell you that’s not true and you can make anything happen if you work hard enough. This a complex of cognitive biases that lead to them thinking that. Because they achieved anyone who is ‘good enough’ must be able to as well.

Survivorship bias – the cognitive processing and understand of being the remaining member of a selection process generally ends up one of two ways – One, “I was the best so I survived!” or; two, survivor’s guilt. “Why am I the only one left?” Can you hazard a guess which one is more likely to come when the survival process is for a positive outcome, and which is for a negative?

One of the most famous images regarding Survivorship Bias – a bias countered by Abraham Wald and the Statistical Research Group of Colombia University. When planes returned from combat pocked with gunshot holes (seen here in red) Wald insisted that the areas of the plane with no holes (more white space) be immediately armoured. The US Military argued this decision as clearly the areas that had been shot needed more armour. Wald countered by noting that the planes that had been shot in those areas were the ones that returned. Implying getting shot on the whiter areas of the diagram is more likely to lead to loss of pilot and aircraft. (credit: McGeddon)

Then there’s the ‘just-world’ hypothesis, or the just-world fallacy. “You reap what you sow,”, “what comes around goes around,” the idea that bad things happens to bad people, good things happen to good people – to some extent the Eastern philosophies of karma, all tie into this.

The truth is awful things are happening to absolute angels out there, relentlessly, while devils are getting paid, honoured, respected and lauded for being the devils they are.

Combine those two things and you’re in possession of a heady cocktail of delusion as to how the world works.

Hard work is important, only the truly privileged will get anywhere without hard work – some people do go places without hard work! But luck is the single biggest determining factor in whether you will be successful or not.

I’ve worked hard, for a long time, and at some times harder than others, to have something happen. It’s just never worked out. Whether it was my writing or my studies, applications for opportunities and jobs, whether it was my own awkwardness, insecurity and alienation or whether I was ostracised and disrespected – it never worked out.

The thing is though, when I left university and gave up my studies that’s when my real education began – and  no, this ain’t gonna be some ‘school of life’, that-twat-in-the-pub talk. I mean real education.

I read more textbooks, cover-to-cover, outside of university than I ever did in university. I couldn’t afford the time when I was studying, I had deadlines to reach. I read my pages, my extracts and the necessary and did the work.

I rounded my knowledge about my subject matter more outside of university than I ever did in university. The way we learn, the universities and colleges themselves didn’t happen by accident – they have social roots going back millennia and thus sociological baggage just as old. All of that is, actually, remarkably important for understanding why the organisation grinds on as it does. Nobody taught me this.

How to teach? What to teach? Why teach? The system of education we have did not form in a vacuum, and, mercy-of-mercies it also doesn’t have to be that way.

There’s a lot of money making sure it does, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

I learned skills, for example improving my guitar ability, which translated to increased pattern recognition in other similar musical systems. This gave me an ability to ‘enjoy’ music, to flow with it, and follow it, rather than have it be a menial frustration, a consistent chase and then I realised.

Wait.

The same is true of study, of knowledge, of reading, of learning, of growing. The more you do of it, the more skills you develop to do the doing of it. The more skills you develop the better you flow, the less it feels like work and thus the more you enjoy it.

A pile of books of no significance beyond contextually. Literally just a media device used to break up the text and provide interest and flow to the page (Credit: Latemplanza)

As a result I delved into more journal articles (where freely available), pop science books, text books, history books – developed a strong love for Ancient Roman history – moved on, got textbooks about sharks, about brains, about life, I’ve got a book ‘Animal Architecture’ by Karl von Frisch. I bought this because I was interested in the extended phenotype. That is the external bodies organisms build themselves that are, effectively, an extension of their genetics. Then I did a double-take on the name…von Frisch, I recognised it. It’s the bee waggle dance guy! Karl von Frisch is literally the man who helped recognise and understand that bees communicate to each other via a waggle-dance. I’ve got books on environmental and climate science written by people I bumped into at my former university, I’ve got old texts, new texts, out-dated texts, up-to-date texts, academic texts, popular texts and, of course, mandatory Douglas Adams.

Sometimes I take breaks, of course. You can’t continuously fill your head with knowledge any more than you can continuous fill your car with petrol – at one point it starts overflowing and leaves you in a desperately inflammatory situation. But learning is not something I think you should have to ‘cram’. Our current system makes it so. Cram and specialise, cram and specialise – that seems to be the pattern. It didn’t work for me. I wanted to go slow, and understand. Diversify and speciate. I wanted to learn to grow, not learn for a specific job or career. I just wanted to see aspects of the world around me as clearly as we knew them to be.

Sometimes my eye would wander here, my mind drift over there, sometimes I’d want to go move in a new direction and sometimes the winds of curiosity would just carry me that way. Whatever, cram and specialise is not how I learn!

I am better qualified now to do any of the things some undergrad hiring program would give a kid with a bachelor’s degree and yet…I’m a nobody.

I have no ‘ins’. I don’t know anyone in the business. I used to have one but that situation is incredibly complicated.

Even then there was always a feeling from me that I was a hidden shame. ‘The Help’ if you will. Maybe it’s not the case and it’s my mind playing tricks but it goes to show how deep those wounds cut, how long those scars stay. The pain of the working-class person with smarts. I will always have to fight for legitimacy, sometimes by underhanded methods. Maybe this is why I was so sympathetic to Edmund the Bastard in my King Lear write-up, whilst previous academics had not been. Maybe they never knew the role of the outsider, the illegitimate, whose work would never be done.

When I was a working-class boy I was bullied and picked on for trying, for learning, for wanting to do well. It was putting me in danger so I stopped. That made me ridiculously unhappy. It took me a few years but I picked myself back up and got back to what I was good at. But then I realised the world I wanted to be a part of, they didn’t really like me either.

They didn’t like that I swore so fucking much, or that I could be brusque to the point of rudeness. I didn’t know then that I was autistic or else I’d have excused the latter. As for the former I am a firm appreciator of all language and think and really good, hard fuck placed at the right point in the sentence is better than anything some flowery Regency era twat could have written.

The fact is I am, as of right now, the sole proprietor of a blog that I intend to turn into a multi-media machine with the aim of disseminating academic knowledge with equality and fairness, to the masses…

…and I haven’t a single qualification in how to fucking do it.

Stolen from a Christian blog without permission…Maybe I am a bad person and that’s why bad things happen to me! (Credit: Unknown)

I don’t know SEO bullshit, I don’t know outreach. Networking can fuck off, I’m autistic, if you put a gun to my head and said “Networking event, eat your own bollocks, or I blow your brains out?” I’m either dead or taste-testing testis.

But that’s my point? Isn’t it? That’s the point of We Lack Discipline? To show the people who don’t know what they’re doing that they can do it too. They can join in.

It’s easy to look at qualifications as being the be-all and end-all of learning, society certainly does – removing the merits of people like myself because we don’t have the correct letters, arbitrarily given, before or after our names. But to me they are not the be-all and end-all, they are the fuck-all. For me the value is in knowing, and continuing to know that you will endeavour to know.

I might be a nobody now, but if I keep at this, and if you keep supporting me, there’s a real chance we could make a somebody of me and something out of this. There’s also the very real chance it goes nowhere, but will I have wasted my time? Already I can say no. I have been afforded a platform to share my passion for things I don’t have many people, or many outlets, to share them with. I have enjoyed it.

The astronomy stuff was new and exciting, I’d never really been into astronomy before. Sadly there are emotional reasons it was sort of put on the back-burner but it will return. The universe is one big, imposing, majestic place with so much going on. It will be back.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of Roman history and that is one facet of Ancient Western civilisation that is one facet of the process of global civilisation that can all be learned, and talked about.

I have, for fear of ballsing it up, barely touched biology and that’s pretty much my specialist subject if anything could be considered it.

I’ve got a lot to talk about, I am not done yet, and I want this to grow, to take in more people, to get bigger and better so we can really have a multi-class, multi-race, multi-ethnic, open, accessible hub for people to learn shit in an engaging, entertaining way.

In a way We Lack Discipline is hostile to the ‘Old Guard’ – those grim-faced snobs who think education is only for the best-of-the-best like reading King Lear is reserved for the fucking SAS. There are an increasing number of scientific communicators, academic communicators out there who realises the values of all voices in their disciplines. Perspectives change, beliefs change…

…I’m going to do it. I’m going to finally quote Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

On Angel’s pondering the class stratification of society, particularly since he is a gentleman in want of a wife, Hardy gives us this observation;

“…his experience of women, which, having latterly been extended from the cultivated middle-class into the rural community, had taught him how much less was the intrinsic difference between the good and wise woman of one social stratum and the good and wise woman of another social stratum, than between the good and bad, the wise and the foolish, of the same stratum or class.”

Translating from 18th century ponce, there are more similarities between bad and foolish people, and good and wise people of both classes than there are differences between classes.

I like to believe that. I have my insecurities, sure, but among people who meet me on my level I rarely have trouble finding my feet and fitting in. When I am caught between bad fools who can advance me and good, wise people who offer nothing, though, I’ll stick with the good and wise. I only hope that I can meet more of the good and wise from the strata ‘above’ me, who have respect enough to elevate me.  

Sorry to be so personal. I guess I recognised in some personal troubles of mine right now something of the reason I started We Lack Discipline in the first place. I feel ‘othered’ and ignored. I feel like another voiceless voice crying out to be heard, and for reassurance that what I have to be heard is worth hearing. I don’t want anyone to feel like that simply for pursuing the adventure of knowledge.

That’s why We Lack Discipline is. To tell you, whatever your place, whatever your social status, it is okay to want to know.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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