Issue #2 – The Art of Selective Refusal

The Art of Selective Refusal

Davood Gozli

  • It seems as if what I wish to write here, like many other plans and ideas, doesn’t want to be written or perhaps it doesn’t want to be completed. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be written in the format I first imagined for it.
  • To write something while knowing it will be incomplete, knowing it will remain a draft or a list of bullet points, knowing it will not take the form initially envisioned, is itself an act of selective refusal.
  • An employee receives a request from his superior and knows immediately he must refuse it. He postpones his decision, however, trying to ignore the need for the decision the request, wishfully thinking there will come a time when he doesn’t have to accept or refuse the request to respond. The assigned task gathers within him an excess of feeling. It mixes with an unclear sense of personal history, a history of unfair treatments, overbearing bosses, and his own inability to assert his preferences. The request becomes undifferentiated and, consequently, the response to it will lack lose clarity when the act of refusal finally comes out of him, it is imprecise, totalizing, and it fails to speak to the here-and-now.
  • A wholesale refusal, which is a totalizing and imprecise act, is among other things an occasion for empathy.
  • Imagine being offered a cup of hot chocolate by your friend, assuming you don’t like hot chocolate. Is it possible to get carried away in saying “no,” to the hot chocolate? Is it possible to say, “no to this friendship, where you offer me something I clearly don’t like,” or even more widely, “no to the world, in which I am offered a beverage I dislike.”? How many friendships have ended, how many projects have been abandoned, based on an overreaction to some metaphorical hot chocolate?
  • One source of temptation for wholesale refusals is our wish to not have to reject the same offer, the same request, the same type of person, the same worldview, repeatedly. We prefer to do it once and for all, and such total refusals are necessarily imprecise. To selectively refuse is to keep the door open for further negotiation.
  • A good friendship can become a terrible romance; a good conversation can become a terrible working collaboration; a city can be a pleasant destination for a short trip, but a terrible place for settling down. The art of selective refusal is about salvaging the friendships, the conversations, the travel destinations, while saying “no” to the desire in all of them to be transformed into something more (or something else).
  • If these unfinished thoughts were to become an essay, they could I might incorporate in them Todd McGowan’s theory of comedy.
  • Here is an example from his book, Only a Joke Can Save Us: A Theory of Comedy.. On page 42: a Jewish man complains about his son to a rabbi. “He tells the rabbi, ‘I gave my son a Jewish education, a good bar mitzvah, and all the proper religious instruction. But when he left home, he converted to Christianity.’ The rabbi responds, ‘Funny you should mention that. The same thing happened with my son.’ The man asks the rabbi how he handled the situation. The rabbi says, ‘I went to God with the problem. I told him that I gave my son a Jewish education, a good bar mitzvah, and all the proper religious instruction. But when he left home, he converted to Christianity.’ The man asks the rabbi, ‘What was God’s answer?’ The rabbi says that God sighed and stated, ‘Funny you should mention that … ‘”

  • While this joke begins with clearly identified categories, Jewish and Christian, it eventually cuts across them, creating a way of both affirming and refusing the boundary between the categories. If God’s own son (implicitly, Jesus) also starts out “Jewish” but becomes “Christian” and yet is still God’s son regardless, the difference between the categories is rendered absurd.
  • Contrast the above joke with any number of jokes that attempt to sustain a clear separation between the categories, Jewish and non-Jewish (e.g., “A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar…”), identifying one side with an attribute the other lacks. While such a joke might surprise us in some way, it operates through the acceptance of a dichotomy.
  • A joke is often the refusal of some taken-for-granted logic. It surprises us and for a moment destabilizes a thread of thought. But a simple and plain surprise, an unexpected turn of events, on its own is not very funny. What makes us laugh is the fulfillment of our expectations in an unexpected way, a selective refusal of some logic, category, or script.

  • McGowan brings these gradations of refusal in humor into the domain of politics. He identifies conservative humor as a wholesale and totalizing refusal, typically targeting a category of people or a way of life (e.g., Rabbi vs. Priest); emancipatory humor, by contrast, embraces a universality in its refusal of what is initially given (“Funny you should mention that …”).
  • To love truly as a finite human being requires at least brief moments in which one admits the inability to love perfectly, infinitely, like as an eternal and eternally functioning “love machine.” To love while knowing it will be incomplete, imperfect, disorganized, knowing it will not take the form initially envisioned for it, is an act of selective refusal.
  • To teach someone can be mixed with the recognition that you cannot teach them everything, that you cannot teach them forever, that maintaining a teacher-student relationship for too long would oppress the spirit of education. To teach anything is an act of selective refusal.
  • In a recent public conversation, speculative anthropologist and philosopher Cadell Last talked about the disappearance act as the final step in the teacher-student relationship. The teacher disappears from the life of the student, refusing their relationship to be frozen forever in the asymmetric form. Having myself left an academic career, I see the disappearance act not simply as an exit into nothingness, as a total disengagement, but as a pre-condition to a reappearance and a better engagement.
  • Is it ever possible for finite human beings to accept and reject something completely? Do we ever have a full view of what we are rejecting? To refuse something wholesale is to deny our finitude. To practice selective refusal is a way of embracing, embodying, and performing our finitude.
  • A task that seemed impossible (and still seems impossible)—the writing of an essay about selective refusal—became possible as an open-ended and tentative list you see here. By writing the list, I discovered how I could reject a particular pre-determined format, without refusing to explore an interesting theme. I must remember to thank my friend, Natalia Smirnov, who encouraged me to play with form and exercise courage in practicing selective refusal in my writing.

Davood Gozli completed his PhD in Psychology at University of Toronto. He has been visiting researcher at University of Vienna, postdoctoral fellow at Leiden University, and Assistant Professor at University Macau. He resigned from his tenure-track position in 2021, and he currently lives in Toronto. His book, Experimental Psychology and Human Agency, presents an overarching critique of cognitive-experimental psychology (Springer, 2019). He blogs at