Spit or Go Blind: Slang with cosmic implications

“I can’t tell whether to spit or go blind.” I’ve always liked this phrase (alternatively, “shit or go blind”). It’s slang for confusion in the face of options, and etymologists aren’t sure where it comes from. Its appeal, I suspect, is partly onomatopoetic—it sounds confused. Its appeal may also be the precision with which it depicts the horns of a dilemma.

When something is amiss, you can either attack the problem head-on or turn a blind eye. You can throw a spit fit, or you can look away. When a relationship runs into conflict, you can marshal the energy to hassle it out (spit) or dissipate that energy (go blind). It’s hard to do both at the same time—hence the confusion.

Hence also, a third option. You can say you’re confused, that you can’t tell whether to spit or go blind. You can step out of the confusion to comment about it.

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The phrase therefore captures a fundamental pattern—fundamental because from it emerges the nested hierarchies of life: parts making wholes that become parts of still larger wholes. Confusion between two options within a system forces us out a level to see the system as a whole. Bouncing back and forth between the two options reveals the system we’re in, a dilemma comprising two partly tempting answers.

The choice between spitting and going blind is like the liar’s paradox, that bedeviling subject of philosophical debate for over 2500 years. The liar’s paradox is the statement “I am lying,” which oscillates eternally between being true and false. If it’s true that I am lying, then the statement is false, but if it’s false that I am lying, then it’s true. Only in the last century did logicians recognize that the undecidabilty of the statement is both absolute and inescapable, and that, practically speaking, the only thing you can do about it is to call it undecideable, climbing up and out of the dilemma to another hierarchical level and commenting from above about the dilemma, declaring in effect that you can’t tell whether to spit (declare it a lie) or go blind (declare it true, ignoring its internal contradiction).

Or in everyday terms, say you’ve got this friend. You’ve been close a long time and have had very solid rapport. Suddenly something your friend does throws your rapport off. Did he just insult you?

You can confront him, you can let it pass, or you can express your confusion. Your friend might make a convincing case that he didn’t insult you, might insult you further, or might join you in talking about the relationship overall. Any of these could be clarifying. But there are other possibilities.

Your friend might say, “Why are you confused? You’re always making such a big deal out of things.” You might say, “Sorry you’re right. Forget about it,” and then try to settle the confusion in your own mind, chalking it up as either an insult or a misunderstanding. But your friend’s counterchallenge can also move you not down the hierarchy but up it. It can get you wondering whether you are right to wonder whether you should spit or go blind. Before the undecideable was whether you should spit or go blind. Now the undecideable is whether you should be wondering whether to spit or go blind.

That’s how hierarchies form: an antagonism between an inseparable pair of forms, ideas, things, or allies forces an upleveling. I recently coauthored this academic article discussing how it might be implicated at the origins of life. It’s potentially that fundamental. Yet at the same time, it’s completely commonplace in everyday interactions.

Now people make principled arguments that you should always spit or always go blind. Set good boundaries and protect yourself; practice the art of forgiveness and turn the other cheek.

In hierarchical decision making, however, these absolutes don’t resolve anything, because you can apply them at one level and the outcome is exactly opposite of applying them at another level. Set a good boundary within the relationship or up a level about the relationship? Within the relationship, you should defend yourself against your friend. Up a level you should defend the relationship itself—my friend right or wrong.

Likewise turn the other cheek within the relationship or outside it? Within the relationship, embrace your friend. But outside this particular relationship, embrace good relationship overall and hold a high standard. If you love this particular relationship, let him attack your rapport. If you love good relationships, attack him for his assault on the rapport you share.

The way one principle leads to opposite outcomes from different hierarchical perspectives makes for ironic humor. Take Rodgers and Hart’s ballad, “To Keep My Love Alive.” To maintain her enthusiasm for the general idea love, the singer confesses, she has killed one particular husband after another. Rather than spit at love by going blind to her husband’s faults, she spits at husbands, going blind to the impracticality of her idealized version of love.

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