Don’t Look Now, But Here Come Jennifer Smith and Little Biffy
by David Kennedy Bird
About a year ago, we introduced you to the characters of Little Biffy and Jennifer Smith. Surely you remember: Little Biffy was the ten-year-old kid genius / committed student of philosophy, and Jen was the twenty-something business graduate who’d ended up in an unsatisfying job at a major insurance company. If your recall of that encounter is a bit hazy, you can go back and refresh your memory here.
What you may not have realized at the time is that it’s not uncommon for Jennifer Smith and Little Biffy to run into each other downtown and have lively philosophical discussions. She pretends to be annoyed with his dogged pursuit of answers and his insistence on precision, but the truth is that she secretly loves it. Not that there’s anything wrong with the world of business, and making an honest nickel while putting in a solid day’s work; but Jennifer has always had nagging questions about the meaning of existence that she couldn’t really share with most of her friends, so the Biff-ster provides her with an intellectual outlet. An intellectual outlet in the form of a ten-year-old. A ten-year-old philosopher. This is not a common thing. Nothing against ten-year-olds. But really, be honest — you were thinking the same thing. If you even try to deny it, you will lose all credibility. I would advise against it.
Well, you may want to fasten your seatbelt, because you’re about to find yourself right smack in the middle of another conversation between Jen and Biff — one that took place quite recently — at the Stone Cup coffeehouse right here in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Little Biffy: Well, i’ll be… it’s Jennifer Smith!
Jennifer Smith: Why, hello there, Little Biffy! Wow.
Little Biffy: It’s really nice to see you! This isn’t your usual haunt. You’re usually a Panera Bread kind of gal. I haven’t run into you here in a while.
Jennifer Smith: No, you’re right — the last time we met here was that time you harassed me with confusing accounts of flockbinkers and other awful-sounding but, hopefully, nonexistent things. I wasn’t used to you yet. You were freakin’ me out.
Little Biffy: Heh heh. I’m sorry you think that flockbinkers and wamwams sound awful. You sound really relieved to have concluded that they don’t exist!
Jennifer Smith: No thanks to you. As i recall, you spent half the conversation trying to convince me that they DO exist.
Little Biffy: Actually, your memory isn’t serving you very well on that point. I wasn’t trying to convince you that flockbinkers exist. I was just pointing out that whether they exist or not, and whether or not we even know what the term ‘flockbinker’ refers to, it’s okay to feature them in logical syllogisms.
Jennifer Smith: I’m having scary flashbacks.
Little Biffy: But we did end up learning a little bit about logic! That’s the bright side.
Jennifer Smith: I don’t remember learning anything about logic. I remember a meandering conversation about flockbinkers and… mammals. We talked about whether all the mammals in the world could fit comfortably into the state of Alaska.
Little Biffy: Well, not exactly. But i’m glad that our conversation at least made an impression on you!
Jennifer Smith: You’re such an odd little fellow, Biffy.
Little Biffy: I feel certain that you meant that as a compliment! Hey, since we’re both here again, how about we pick up where we left off with our discussion of logic!
Jennifer Smith: Wow.
Little Biffy: I’m glad you approve. So here’s a question: What is the importance of logic in daily life? Not just when one is talking about flockbinkers, wamwams and other critters of uncertain ontological status, but in the course of normal daily activities?
Jennifer Smith: Hmm. Well, i suppose that depends on what you mean by “logic.”
Little Biffy: That was a fantastic answer, Jen! It is okay if i call you “Jen,” isn’t it?
Jennifer Smith: You’ve asked me that about fifty times. Yes, you can call me Jen. And i will feel free to call you “Mister Potato Head,” or whatever else comes to mind.
Little Biffy: Well, that takes a long time to say, but if it’s really what you want to call me…
Jennifer Smith: Ahem. Back to the question. What place does logic have in everyday life?
Little Biffy: Right. Do we really need logic in the normal rhythms of living, or is it something special that can be safely consigned to “intellectual” pursuits?
Jennifer Smith: Well, okay — again, i think it depends on what you mean by ‘logic.’ If you mean all the stuff about syllogisms and logical inference and whatnot, then i’d say those things have limited application. But if you just mean thinking clearly and making sense when we talk, then definitely — definitely a need in everyday life.
Little Biffy: You’re making your Uncle Biffy proud.
Jennifer Smith: That statement was disturbing in about ten different ways.
Little Biffy: Indeed! Oops. Heh heh. So, Jen, would you care to elaborate? You’d say logic has application to normal everyday living? how so?
Jennifer Smith: Okay. Here’s something. I’ve been following the current presidential campaign with stunned fascination. Every time you turn on the TV or log on to Twitter, it just gets even more bizarre. I can’t help thinking that if logic were more popular, then the whole climate of the country right now would be different. A thousand times better. Do you have a Twitter account?
Little Biffy: I must confess i do not.
Jennifer Smith: It’s just as well. You would be paralyzed with astonishment every time you opened up your Twitter feed. No logic to be found anywhere. It’s a logic wasteland.
Little Biffy: If i didn’t know any better, Jennifer, Jen, i’d be tempted to say that you’re an apologist for philosophy in the public marketplace!
Jennifer Smith: No. I just can’t stand it when people are talking past each other and making less than zero sense. It’s just so unnecessary.
Little Biffy: Would you mind coming up with an example? But be careful. The Blogger likes to stay away from politics.
Jennifer Smith: The…who? The Blogger? Biffy, what are you EVEN talking about?
Little Biffy: I shouldn’t have mentioned that. It would be too hard to explain. The fourth wall must remain intact!
Jennifer Smith: You’re making it worse. The fourth wall? What?
Little Biffy: Never mind. Nothing. I didn’t say anything. I’ve been sitting here in complete silence.
Jennifer Smith: You are SO strange.
Little Biffy: Heh heh. Well, anyway. Um. Can you share an example of the kind of illogical public discourse you’ve found so frustrating in this election year? But just try not to, oh, you know, make it too specific.
Jennifer Smith: Right. Because somebody called the Blogger doesn’t want his fourth wall breached.
Little Biffy: Precisely! That’s exactly right! I didn’t think you understood.
Jennifer Smith: Oh boy. Well, okay. Here’s something i see all the time. One person will make a political statement on Twitter or Facebook that sounds like a memorized slogan. Then another person will call that statement into question, and the first person will respond, not with an explanation, but with an insult and another memorized slogan. Or even just by repeating the same one again, as if that’s any kind of answer.
Little Biffy: Terrific! That’s a good example.
Jennifer Smith: It really bugs me, and i’m no philosopher. But how hard can it be to take someone’s objection seriously and address the point they’re making, as if you were actually listening?
Little Biffy: How hard, indeed? Not hard at all, you’d think.
Jennifer Smith: You’d think.
Little Biffy: Well, what do you think might be the reason for this? Has public discussion always been characterized by this kind of belligerence and ignorance?
Jennifer Smith: I don’t think so. I’ve studied enough history to know that political debate has always tended to get passionate, but it just seems like people used to be more articulate, used to be better able to argue sensibly, to actually engage the points other people were making.
Little Biffy: I think that’s accurate, Jennifer. Do you have a theory to explain what’s happened?
Jennifer Smith: Well, sure, i think it may be a combination of things. One of them is our educational systems. When i was in school, i don’t remember ever being taught about critical thinking. Not really. Not in any real sense. I was never taught how to put together a position and argue it… oh, gracious… you know… argue it logically. Stop grinning.
Little Biffy: Let the record show that i did not say a thing!
Jennifer Smith: You’re showing heroic restraint. But another thing is the whole popular culture. It just feels like we’re surrounded by an entertainment industry and a sea of media messages that discourage careful, reasonable thinking. It’s all, “follow your heart, do what feels right, have experiences, you do you, make it up as you go along,” whatever. No one seems to be saying that we should appeal to some kind of, oh, you know, structured understanding of what’s true and what’s not.
Little Biffy: Logic.
Jennifer Smith: Right. Sure. Logic.
Little Biffy: Was there another factor?
Jennifer Smith: Sure, i think so — there’s also the whole tech environment that has taken over our lives. I’m not even that old…well, compared to you i am… but i can remember a time before smart phones. We’re all slaves to our devices now, and people feel like they have to communicate in a way that’s quick and superficial, and in little bursts. Texts and tweets. I’ve got friends who even talk in statements that sound like texts and tweets.
Little Biffy: You have tweet friends.
Jennifer Smith: What? Was that an unbelievably bad pun?
Little Biffy: It was. [turning red] I’m sorry.
Jennifer Smith: You little punster. Well, did i satisfy your need to talk about logic? Because this Patricia Cornwell story isn’t gonna read itself.
Little Biffy: For now, i suppose. I’ll leave you and Ms. Cornwell to work out what needs to change in our society in order for logic to be returned to its proper place.
Jennifer Smith: Mmm. I’m not sure how much help Patricia’s gonna be. She’s one of my guilty pleasures.
Little Biffy: Well, carry on, Jennifer!
Jennifer Smith: See ya, Little Biffy.