Friday, August 23, 2013

Civil Society

We are all limited. We all express ourselves in ways that reveal those limitations (not always where they are flattering to us or other people). So we are all bigots. But we don't have to be uncivil about this. We can learn to express ourselves in ways that pointedly leave room for valid alternatives.

We can be aware that others are not like us, that being like us does not make one a good person, that it is possible to hate us and still be an exemplary human being. We should aim to inspire our opposition to be better than we are by acknowledging that they might be. Heterosexuals who dislike homosexuality (as something they might do or "condone" or whatever) should deliberately make room for gay marriage to exist (and fail on its own merits or lack thereof, if it must fail). Christians who dislike Islam should pointedly refrain from banning its practice, instead giving it room to "do its best" (not worst) by deliberately keeping the level of social discourse high (avoiding the temptation to sling insults and/or bombs). A bad enemy becomes good when he has to model civil behavior to engage you (i.e. elicit a meaningful response). If so-called "freedom fighters" went around doing voluntary business with "oppressed" people in ways that benefited them, this would be (and is) a much more effective means of persuasion (and improving social discourse) than "shock and awe" (which creates more negative blowback than positive compliance, and solidifies the idea that a conflict must be pursued by means that are uncivil).

People make and respond to signals. They cannot help it. The most we can do to influence the process is alter our signals, broadcasting invitations whose outcomes appear better to us (for some reason). Unfortunately, many of us become hooked early-on to the rewards of signalling anger violently (or dismissively). While this kind of signalling inevitably has its place (as something necessary in the human collection of signals), over-cultivating it is disastrous (especially when we move away from small societies with primitive arms into large societies with WMDs). In the latter situation, we want to inspire discord that is constructive (even and especially when parties involved are hostile): we cannot afford to be violently angry (responding to every "terrorist attack" with a counterstrike that escalates the destruction of civil society, at home as abroad). We must de-escalate the conflict by changing its terms, making it a contest to win people over (as grudging allies or neutrals) rather than a race to see who is annihilated first.

The really civilized person recognizes that there are limits to what we can do to defend civil society with dismissive, aggressive imposition (verbal or physical, legal or illegal). If we have to wage total war to save it, that society is already lost: it is no longer civil. Its security does not matter, since it no longer represents something worth securing. It has become nothing more than a giant collection of dynamite wired with what we hope is a really, really long fuse.

We should look for excuses not to intervene. We should absolutely not try to "defend marriage" (or family or virtue or modesty or charity or honor or patriotism or some other seeming public good) by imposing our view of it on others against their will. We should resort to violent imposition in extremis only (e.g. when somebody attacks and we are in process of stopping them from crashing planes into buildings), and our response should be as brief and un-impactful as possible. Minimizing security should be the ideal, not maximizing it. We should openly warn people that the best way to "defend" their way of life (whatever that is) is to practice it peacefully, non-confrontationally, and contentedly: I should not make my happiness require you to embrace it where it is not yours. I should give you space to be yourself, a self that is not me. If you want to wear a burkha, fine. I must be OK with that, and you must respect my decision not to wear one. There is not "one true national dress" that we must all accept. There should not be. Anyone who proposes such a thing endangers civil society more than he protects it--and must be resisted (peacefully, of course).

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Small Meditation on Modesty

In response to this essay.

Modesty is an internal awareness of the signals (including mating signals) that we all project. We cannot help projecting these signals. We cannot turn them off the way one turns off an electric appliance. But we can become aware of them in a way that will empower us and enrich our human experience (along with that of people around us).

We can condition our response to signals--notice it, temper our reaction to it, and make our participation in signalling more thoughtful, conscious, and compassionate. It is a profound mistake to insist on externalities as being crucially important, when what really matters are internal attitudes: what am I feeling? what do I want or need? why do I feel this way? how are my feelings influencing others? what can I do to make myself and others more likely to respond well to these feelings?  Cultivating an attitude of empathy and compassion for other people is much more important than picking the right wardrobe, language, or bodily posture.

Every day, I actively seek out time to contemplate myself and those around me with compassion.  I look at myself and the world consciously, deliberately, and gratefully--noticing the signals that people send, consciously or not, and trying to see how those signals offer insight into a moral instinct that could be the most beautiful human virtue imaginable (if cultivated properly).  I observe people flirting or snarling at one another, and I try to see underneath the basic impulse to love--to protect something vulnerable, to find and savor happiness without harm.  I see that my misplaced signals, and yours too, are merely bungled attempts at loving, and I forgive both of us.  I laugh at us where we are stupid.  I cry with us where our stupidity causes harm that we didn't want (or that we did).  I imagine how we might do better in future, and I encourage us to keep trying (aiming not for perfect success but for minimally disastrous failure).  This exercise has taught me more about modesty (and other human virtues) than any course in external etiquette (of which I have taken several).  Practice compassion, and modesty (real modesty, not the sham stuff) will follow.  Esse quam videri is a saying that really applies here: you are the only one who can see how modest you really are; your modesty will only improve as you learn to see it through practicing compassion for yourself and other people.  There are no shortcuts (that I have found), no external fixes that effectively substitute for deliberate personal investment in seeking empathy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Seeking Eden

A friend pointed me to this very interesting article discussing the role that the British played in turning modern Iraq into a terribly dangerous place.  In essence, the article argues that the Brits possessed an idea of their own history that they sought to make into Iraqi reality, at great expense (in terms of life wasted, in pretty much every sense of the word: the idea was so important and compelling that people failed--and continue to fail--to notice how its implementation caused more harm than good).

To me what matters is not so much what people see (a vision of primitive Eden) or even what they do (e.g. become bodybuilders or political propagandists) but how they treat others.

I don't care what crazy nonsense you want to believe in. Believe in anything you like (with or without something I would recognize as good reason). I don't care what you do to yourself as a result of your beliefs. Smoke dope. Do yoga. Build a tent and go into the wilderness, or start a multinational corporation dedicated to spreading the gospel of GMOs. As long as you don't coerce participation in whatever stupid scheme you may have (a scheme that might be "modern" or "ancient" in character, "progressive" or the opposite), I don't mind. I may disagree with you and even work against you (especially if you are into GMOs), but I respect your right to live just as I want you to respect mine.

My problem with the status quo is the recurring trope that demands all of us be on the same page, no matter what. I want the freedom to dissociate, to disavow, to work for Edens that are not yours using means that you despise (even as you despise my own view of Eden, with or without good reason). I don't want to force you into my Eden; to do so would be to invite you to do the same to me, and I would rather rot in hell (thanks, anyway). This means that I necessarily have to make my Eden small and non-threatening: I don't want to "assert myself" on Hegel's stage of history, inviting you to create WMDs and discharge them against the hell you see lurking somewhere in my Eden (just as surely as I see it all over yours: I know you think yours is pretty, that to see it must be to love it, but that just isn't true). I want to step away from "fixing the world permanently" and concentrate instead on doing whatever I can to fix my own little corner of it impermanently.

I cannot dictate to other people, especially not those with whom I must live and rub shoulders every day. Living with others means accommodating (changing my idea of Eden when it proves unexpectedly poisonous to my wife, my kids, my friends, my parents, my siblings, my students, my work colleagues, etc.). Accommodating means paying attention to data that move all the time, changing overnight in ways that are often wholly unpredictable. I cannot become so attached to today's Eden that I fail to allow for tomorrow's. And that is just within my own life--a ridiculously tiny piece of the gigantic throbbing mess that is humanity. Humbled by my own inability to deal perfectly with the impossible vastness of my own small humanity, how could I dare presume to deal with yours? How could I take that charge away from you--unasked, uncalled for, with no respect for the autonomy that Nature gave you (as she gave it to me)? I am not special. I don't know myself (except insofar as I know that the exercise of seeking such knowledge improves my experience). How could I presume to know you? The most I can do for both of us is graciously give you the space you need to meet Nature on your own terms. Make your own Eden. Until you come to blow mine up without noticing, I won't mind (not even if the world ends tomorrow, and it turns out to be all your fault--when God's angels fire up the celestial supercomputer and discover a butterfly effect emanating from something you did or failed to do).

Life is made out of death. I accept that--and live in a constant struggle to be ready to die. Enjoy the journey, and be mindful of others on it. That is really all I have to offer.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Wu Wei (無為)

If all culture is poison, as I have come to believe, then it is also to some degree healthy.  This is true even of the most awful culture anyone can imagine.  Health is a matter of dosage, not substance.  From this it follows that the most dangerous poison in my life is the one that appears to do no harm.

When I first experienced my faith crisis, there were many contributing factors.  One of them was the terrible shame I felt as a result of contemporary Mormon teachings about sexuality.  As a young man experiencing puberty in the LDS church, I felt that my existence as a sexual being made me inherently evil.  Every time something occurred to remind me of sex, I felt evil, and there was nothing I could do to escape the horror of my own judgement (a judgement that I found confirmed by Mormon leaders, rightly or wrongly, on purpose or not: it doesn't matter).  I was wounded a great deal by my experience with puberty, and the church did thrust some daggers in those wounds, causing them to fester.  This is my story.

Moving out into the world, I meet people with stories like mine, people broken by some toxic encounter with culture.  Occasionally, we victims like to imagine a world in which our personal monsters don't really exist--a world in which no young man is ever ashamed of his sexuality (in my case), a world in which authority is never abused, a world in which perfect justice is something impossibly good rather than awfully evil.  The older I get, the less I believe in the utility of such imagination.

The reality of life is that something will always hurt you.  Something will break you.  Something will kill you.  And no matter who tells you otherwise, there is no silver bullet.  There is no Fountain of Youth, no panacea for human suffering that will make it all vanish or reduce it all to something universally benign (let alone pleasant).  Life is hell.  The trick is not to deny this reality, not to escape it, but to meet it head-on in the best manner possible.  If heaven is a place where nobody gets hurt and nothing goes wrong and it does not matter what you do, then heaven does not exist.  To the extent that I am serious about engaging with the world as it actually exists, I must give it up.  I must make hell minimally painful rather than try to replace it with something else impossibly pleasant.

The problem with people who are hurt (people like me), is that we see only what hurt us.  We don't see how what hurt us helps someone else.  We don't see how banning the drug we OD'ed on will not improve universal human health.  We see life narrowly, generalizing from our own experience naively into the experience of others (who are not like us, not even when they appear to be so).

I cannot tell you how to live.  I cannot tell you how to meet the unique and personal hell that you will face in your existence.  I can support you.  I can be a resource for you.  I can offer sympathy and respect.  But more than that would be immoral--harmful to both of us.

Back to sex.  What saved me in the end from the crippling weight of my own judgement was not a sudden lift in universal human sexual taboos.  People continue to have sex today the same ways they have for eons: my story was never about them.  What saved me was meeting people who supported me, people to whom I was not ashamed to bare my soul.  As long as there are people like this somewhere, people like me will be fine: we just need to find the healers.  We don't need to make everyone practice the same kind of medicine.  We don't need to ban sexual shame, no matter what harm it has done us. How could we?  My shame was interior and autonomous.  The LDS church did not put it there.  Its mistake was to treat me with a generic soul-medicine against which I experienced a severe allergic reaction.  Some people need the kind of medicine that the church practices.  Some people need external shame (lacking the kind of massive internal inhibition that I have, not because I am better than anyone else, but because I am me).  Shutting down the social therapists that dispense external shame will not fix the world; a few guys like me might feel a bit better (for a while), but other guys out there will be suffering for lack of the shame they can no longer find.  My life is not worth more than theirs.  My suffering is not worth more.  They have the same claim to health that I have, and we cannot live by the same lights: our health is not the same.

The ultimate lesson I take away from my experience is that I cannot speak for other people.  I cannot tell them how to be happy.  I cannot pretend to design a single regimen for human life that will "maximize utility" (to borrow the convenient expression) for all and sundry with more benefits than deficits.  I don't believe that this "single regimen" exists (anywhere).  There is not one good way of life.  There cannot be.  All attempts to build and enforce such uniformity end up being more evil than good, hurting more than they help.

This means that people have to be wary.  We have to mistrust others and ourselves.  We have to diversify.  Never trust one institution or regimen with all your soul.  Don't worship one god.  Don't attend one support-group.  Don't bet on one stock, one company, one government.  Don't depend on a single career.  Within whatever career you have at the moment, don't depend on a single path to get the results you want.  Be redundant.  Be inefficient.  Doubt everything.  Don't be quick to identify yourself positively with any group or group ideology, even if you like it.  Be yourself.  Have multiple friends, but not too many, and never burden any of them with more trust than they can bear.  Own yourself (including the reality that you have no concrete self, no permanent essence that persists through all the various permutations other people call "you").  Know your limits, and don't let yourself think you can transcend them.  Don't make others dependent on you.  If you must be a leader for some reason, ditch that role as soon as you can (especially if you are successful at it: success attracts people to court ruin, their own and that of others).  Don't hate the things that hurt you (even when they hurt you really badly, even when you have to defend yourself by attacking them head-on).

Be hard like water: hard enough to break rocks, but not so hard that they break you.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Taking Offense

Some more random thoughts about how to construe hatred (hot and cold, small and grand) from other people in a way that minimizes harm and maximizes benefit. 

I. Offense must needs come, it seems to me. If I must be offended in order that somebody else may live freer and at greater ease (with herself and the world), then I am willing to be offended (especially when the offense comes through words). I embrace the reality that my psyche is blind and weak, and I seek to temper it, hardening it through manageable adversity to the point where it can encounter hatred and misunderstanding in the world without falling apart.

Serving a foreign LDS mission was eye-opening in this regard, in a very useful way (as was growing up in the Deep South, where my Mormonism made me an automatic outsider among the evangelical Christians who constituted the majority of my neighbors). People hated me--as a foreigner, as an American, as a Mormon. There was nothing I could do. I might smile or snarl, and the result would be the same (with this one difference, that snarling was likely to cause physical confrontations that might easily end much worse than the endless flytings). I learned to grin and bear it. It was hard sometimes, but very worthwhile. If I could listen to the hatred of the Spanish people for me patiently, then I can listen patiently to feedback from people to whom I appear, to my consternation, as an advocate for chauvinism or slavery or some other kind of thuggish behavior.

Nietzsche goes hard on contemporary Christianity for being decadently soft (if I get him right). I think this is what he means, that too many of us project our own weakness onto other people (demanding that they be strong where we are weak) instead of looking inward and steeling ourselves to face our demons however we must (mustering the courage to let others be honest about how threatening and insensitive they find us, even when we come with what we see as peaceful intentions).

II. It seems to me that almost all attempts to define just hierarchy are doomed (historically, when we judge them by their fruits over some arbitrary time period). I don't believe in just hierarchy, personally (except as a fiction in the minds of philosophers like Plato or Hegel). The most we can hope for is more non-fatal volatility in whatever hierarchy (feminist patriarchy) we have got going at the moment. Shift the burden of leadership around more. Let someone else screw the world (and take the blame for that) or save it (and take the credit). Maximize opportunities for the oppressed du jour to recover from their bad luck without being destroyed.

Sometimes, that means that we have to hear things we don't like (no matter who we are). We need to be OK with that. And at some point it is always good to "shut up and listen" (no matter who we are) and even "take our toys and leave" (no matter who we are, again: nobody should hang about somewhere they feel threatened, even if the threat is entirely harmless to somebody else). My sister has Celiac disease. If she eats our mom's whole wheat bread, she starts dying (literally). I don't. My sister shouldn't have to eat bread because I can. Hierarchy (feminist patriarchy) is like food, I think, a necessary poison that all of us must come to grips with individually, subjectively, as we can (not as someone else tells us to).

There is not one -archy to rule them all. There shouldn't be. To the extent that there is, it inevitably becomes hell on earth (no matter who runs it).

III. Any actionable opinion carries inherent the potential to become painfully, dangerously personal. It becomes personal ("about me") when people judge me for looking or speaking a certain way--as though my superficial physical resemblance to rapists made me a rapist, as though my hesitation to lynch every accused rapist meant that I endorse rape.  

People should do whatever they feel a need to do in order to feel safe. If that means they take me for a rapist, I am open to that--provided I have the option of then avoiding (or ending) any relationship with those who have no use for me (for reasons that I absolutely do not invalidate: if my appearance or expression scares people, then I need to know it, preferably before I am lynched).  

Some of your relationships will always be unsalvageable, historically speaking. Nobody should have to live with constant fear (or domination or whatever anyone wants to call it). Sometimes, divorce is necessary (by which I mean separation physical and psychological, separation that might be permanent). If my wife ever reaches a place where her relationship with me is unbearable, where I am the proverbial ball-and-chain, then I will encourage her to dump me (and not feel any remorse about it, at least not any that she doesn't want to feel). 

Nobody owes me a life free from challenge, a life of "privilege" (however anyone wants to define that). And I don't want to be caste in the role of "leader" (which I have never sought, not even when I come to places like this and write advice that some readers might construe as authoritative: my opinion on anything is worth to you precisely what you make of it, which might be nothing or a great deal--your decision, not mine).

For those with kids, I think the best we can do is emphasize the importance of respecting other people as individuals (giving them maximal freedom to be honest and autonomous without regard for their genitalia)--and then let the cards fall. If that means that my kids crash and burn (failing in every way society measures success, e.g. in terms of establishing themselves in stable long-term relationships and living above grinding poverty), then I will still be happy--provided my kids are polite. I care more about how my kids react than what happens to them. As long as they retain the ability to love (themselves and others) authentically, I don't care much about anything else (though of course I won't go out of my way to set them up for failure!).

IV. We all give offense, but only the really good people take it well.  I cannot make myself utterly inoffensive, but I can learn to attune myself those around me, trying to see how they perceive me and adjust my persona accordingly (so that I don't hurt them unnecessarily).  I can make the offenses I receive opportunities for growth rather than threats to an imaginary personal security (that I must renounce as a dangerous lie: I am never utterly safe--from other people or to them).

One common cause for offense is the natural desire we have to protect ourselves and those close to us from what we perceive as harm.  If I see my wife or my kids (or my friend or my sibling) in a social circumstance where they appear overwhelmed, I step in and try to help them (by talking other people down, shouting them down if necessary, and even "taking charge" momentarily to defuse the situation: physical confrontation is not off the table as an appropriate response, though it is one that I have been fortunate to avoid most of my adult life, probably because of my lucky childhood, which involved lots of time practicing and thinking about fighting). This is not done because I am a man (or a Mormon or a white supremacist or an American or a liberal or a hero or a scumbag), but because I don't like to see people I love suffering uselessly (some suffering is necessary, useful for growth, helpful--a fact I respect).

I think this "urge to protect" is something that transcends gender (my wife can be very protective of our kids and me in this same way, for example)--but it sometimes becomes gendered (when certain people, for historical reasons, assume that having male anatomy means "being the default protector"). The problem with this "default" position is that it inevitably infantilizes and weakens (psychologically at the very least) the "protected" by placing them in a place of default dependency ("help! save me! I need protection!"). Stepping out of a dependent relationship is always hard (like learning to walk after spending one's entire life crippled--a nice/awful gendered example that comes to mind is the practice of female foot-binding in ancient China). For those who have experience with the Mormon "faith crisis" (or whatever anyone wants to call it), it is very much like "leaving the church"--an experience involving shock and awe, anger, defensiveness, aggression, PTSD, and eventually a new stasis (we hope! I like to think I have found one, anyway).

As you move forward from a personal crisis of identity that involves confronting and removing unhelpful dependency, it is not always possible to salvage relationships whose existence dates to "before the crisis" (certainly not in the same form they had then). Ceasing to be a dependent is not a painless process. It produces a lot of "bad results" (no matter whose perspective one takes: I see bad results of my own faith crisis every day), but that does not mean that it is a fundamentally evil process (one that should be avoided or squelched). The only thing worse than dying free is living an entire life enslaved to some empty shadow of yourself that you loathe. This is true whether one is male or female (Mormon or evangelical, black or white, American or not). If women (or Mormons or Americans or black people or white people) want to rebel or hate men (or Mormons or Americans or black people or white people or me personally) as part of their quest for freedom, I am open to that. I embrace it. Be impotent and angry (from somebody's perspective). Waste your life (from somebody's perspective). At least it will be yours, and for that I personally will respect you (even if we disagree about something important and/or you hate my guts).

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Against the Factions

I like this article (and agree with most of it), but there are two things that trouble me (in it and in much of public discourse about -ists practicing -isms, including feminists practicing feminism).

(1) The business of leadership. Much -ist rhetoric falls into the trap (as I see it) of asking the Platonic question, "Who will rule?" (Men or women? Republicans or Democrats? Liberals or conservatives? Mormons or evangelicals? Company men or free spirits? and so on and on). The answer to this question, historically speaking, is always, "An asshole." No matter what regime we set up, some asshole will always be in charge of it eventually. The fact that someone takes issue with a leader (male or female, -ist or non-ist) is not necessarily an indication that that someone wants to oust or replace the leader (with himself). I have no interest in telling people (men, women, or children) what to do with their lives, what they must do, how they must think, etc. But that does not mean that I am following someone else's lead (i.e. that I endorse any leader in society or any "social order," explicit or implicit, that may exist and cause damage).

(2) The business of class. While I get the idea of "passing" in society (and have been on the business end of "not passing"--a valuable learning experience), I don't like to accept passively my existence as part of a class (or faction). Following Karl Popper (especially his idea of "the open society"), I think class (i.e. faction, no matter how it is defined--i.e. by race or gender or wealth or politico-religious affiliation) is an artificial construct that is in fact unreal.  (At the very least, if class seeks to make itself real, it should be resisted and thwarted at every turn.  People of conscience should always attack it, looking to destroy its claim to offer valuable noumenal insight into reality.  This destruction should not occur as part of a reactive campaign to keep the status quo at all costs.  Instead, it should be part of a deliberate effort to avoid sanctioning the recognition of implicit factions that individuals must belong to because they bear some characteristic that another person has marked as being significant. "You bear the mark of our tribe's totem in your face, and so you must be one of us!"  No.  Not until I do your deeds can anyone make me justly yours.  And even if I do appear to think as you do, I can always repent.  My allegiance is never unconditional or eternal, and I must resist every attempt to make it so.)

I reject my membership in "the male faction" (the same way I reject my membership in "the Mormon faction" and "the conservative faction" and "the white faction" and any other faction that cares to enlist me without my consent and then invoke me as its agent, complicit in all its crimes). I don't think there is inherent sympathy between males (or Mormons, or conservatives, or white people) that is more significant than its concomitant antipathy.

I find a lot of "male things" (conservative things, Mormon things, white things) utterly worthless, and I work actively to dissociate myself from these things (including the persistent classist, racist, factionist idea that I must be a member of some faction, following some leader or set of guiding lights readily available to public discourse, which pretends to know me by collecting statistics about my demographic and then calling the result "social science"). (A man I met in passing in the Book of Faces quoted his wife, a physicist, thus: "Economics is a social science, like astrology." I agree, not because astrology is utterly worthless, but because it becomes dangerous when we take it for simple, generic, objective truth.)

Nothing in this position of mine should be taken by anyone as an endorsement of "the status quo" (that has hurt them). I am not saying one should not resist the enemy. I am not saying what happened to you (or anyone) is right. If I become aware of people giving me undue "privilege" (treating me better than someone else because of perceived class affiliations), then I do my part to fix that. I do not ride the bus that I see refusing a seat to Rosa Parks. I do not send pictures of my disgusting genitalia to other people. I don't like you or anyone more than somebody else because your ugly genitalia look like mine. Melanin count is nowhere on my list of criteria for picking good friends (or culture: my personal disgust for Eminem's music is not at all mitigated by his melanin count). I hate American football. I didn't play with "the guys" in school, and to this day I never presume my perspective is welcome anywhere. I only offer it to people I care about (people I respect enough to engage in civil discourse, be they male or female, black or white, bond or free).

I think the social pressure to "make good kids" who fulfil some external ideal that they have never internalized is fundamentally evil. If you don't want to do something (be a parent, get a job, have long hair, live another day, etc.), then you shouldn't do it--no matter what anyone else says. Even if not doing whatever it is you don't want to do leads to "bad results" (in your own or some external judge's eyes), it is always better to refrain from acting on external values than to embrace them against your will.

Little boys are as impressionable as little girls. Little Mormons are as impressionable as little atheists.  They often wind up acting on values whose goodness they mistrust because, "Mommy (or Daddy or Jesus or Science) said so!" This is evil.

I am willing to be misunderstood. I am open to being hated, too--even by people I respect and aspire to love. But for those who feel as I do (but perhaps lack the tools to express themselves clearly or consistently), I feel obligated to speak out.

[Counterpoint]: Don't say to women [or other oppressed minorities], "Just don't follow that conditioning!" because that is fundamentally blaming the victim, being oblivious to the very real ways that society will punish her [or them] for lacking the privilege that comes with being you [someone whom the totems mark as faction-master].  Don't make it all about you, bringing your faction-master perspective to an issue where history disqualifies you from having an opinion worth sharing.

I don't say, "Just don't follow the conditioning." We cannot help following it. We are primates. Social hierarchy works for us much as for baboons, at least in the beginning (when we are little kids aping Mom, Dad, and the other "big kids"). But we do grow up, eventually, and if we are really lucky (privileged), we get the chance to "check our luck (i.e. privilege)" and realize that it has much less to do with us (as individuals) than we might want. I didn't choose to be what I am today (in every detail). I didn't make all my decisions with full knowledge. I haven't always done the right thing. As a lucky fool, I function by taking in discrete data from my environment and spinning it into narratives (lies) explaining why I am not dead yet, why my food tastes good, why I am talking here instead of writing my syllabus, and so on.

What I seek from human interaction is honest conversation from people who see my environment (the human condition) from an angle different from mine. We are all limited. We are all broken. We all hurt ourselves and other people. I don't think we can reach back into the past and erase that, or even into the future to make sure nothing like the past ever happens again. But I do believe we can exist more pleasantly, compassionately, honestly, and openly in the present. I value the women in my life. I value the men there, too. I value my friends. I value my enemies (differently, sometimes, but they are still valuable). I seek to love everyone, even the greatest criminal I know--myself. My discourse is about me, not because I don't value other people, but because I do value them. I value them too much to pretend that I understand them.

[Counterpoint]: How do we deal with inequality?  Is it fundamentally intractable?  How are you anything but a hopeless fatalist?

When dealing with equality, I like to focus on process (how do I treat people, how are people treated in a particular environment) rather than results (particular success or failure in terms of getting a job, marriage, making a friend, acquiring goods and services). Life is inherently unequal in terms of results. Lucky people win and win more. Unlucky people lose. But we can do things to mitigate the process, constructing it so that losing doesn't mean being destroyed (so that it is as easy as possible for the loser to pick him-/herself up and try again). I don't want to win all the time, or for everyone always to have the same rewards from life (an impossibility). But I do want to be able to survive my inevitable failure. I do want to avoid being kicked while down, and I want to avoid kicking others who are down. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Keeping Appearances

In response to this survey about the murder trial of George Zimmerman, I composed some thoughts on managing threat-perception and response.

If we all got what we deserved, life as we know it would not exist. I am not personally eager to alter the decision of the court (which I support as an institution even when it renders individual decisions that I or others might dislike).

I don't say that Zimmerman had no right to be where he was, doing as he did (even). But to Marc's point, I think he might have done better (either by checking himself before he exited the truck or by being better prepared to defend himself with appropriate force: he relied on the gun too much, I think, and too little on the body manipulating it).

What interests me here is thinking about how my behavior will play out in future, as I seek to avoid being either Zimmerman (the man who can only defend himself by killing people) or Martin (the man who tempts fate by putting a coward's back to the wall: in calling Zimmerman a coward here, I am not saying he is a bad person). There will always be people who see me as threatening and have occasion to overreact to my threat (even if it is entirely imaginary, as I am not sure it was in this case). How do I "play it smart" so as to minimize the likelihood of my (1) sending threat-signals and (2) overreacting to what I perceive as someone else's threat-signals.

(2) Zimmerman was on alert because of recent burglaries. He was understandably anxious to make sure none occurred uncontested on his watch. His mistake was being poorly trained in effective violence. I personally believe that violence is sometimes necessary, and that every able-bodied person who accepts the responsibility of carrying weapons simultaneously takes up the responsibility of learning to use them appropriately (i.e. only when they are really needed). Zimmerman should have been "good enough" at fighting hand-to-hand not to kill Martin, I think. This does not make his killing illegal--or deny that it was most unfortunate. For me it means that we (i.e. ordinary citizens with weapons, not lawmakers or the legal system) need to do some work dispelling the myth that merely carrying a weapon makes anybody safer. The best weapon is a fully engaged human CNS.

(1) The media played the racist card here, but I confess I see that as a red herring. Racism is one of those issues (like gender) that is undoubtedly important at the level of communities: I don't deny that. Its role in individual encounters, however, is hard to define: in this case, all the evidence I see points away from its being significant. (And I admit I am biased by my own experience here, experience which tells me that I always prefer my friends--black, brown, yellow, red, or white--over people I don't know, especially in charged situations where I fear crime. Zimmerman was afraid of Martin because he was an unknown dude loitering in a neighborhood plagued by recent burglaries, not because American society as a whole has issues with racism. This appears clear when you consider Zimmerman's own history of peaceful engagement with black folk.)

The real issue is how to avoid sending threat-signals. First, it is necessary to notice that you cannot turn them off entirely. People will always feel threatened by you at some point, not always because you are really dangerous to them. Martin's mistake appears (to me) to have been escalating a bad situation. When I see a Zimmerman lurking in my rearview mirror, I will remember Martin and refrain from jumping him (since he might have a gun and not know how to avoid using it). Looking over Martin's life-history (imperfectly summarized in the link above, among other places), it seems he had an unrealistic idea of what fighting means. For him, fighting was something males do to show dominance (e.g. the dude he mentions roughing up after school). He didn't pause to consider that not every man out there is always going to "duke it out" in the manner of rams in rut (boxers in the ring, wrestlers on the mat). He misread Zimmerman (as Zimmerman misread himself, putting himself in a position too vulnerable for his fighting capability).

To me this case provides an opportunity for me to revisit how I construct my persona (the threat profile I project into the world) and my response to others' personae (the threat I perceive from other people in my vicinity). I cannot make myself appear universally unthreatening (nor would I want to, honestly: the world has some bad people in it, and I would rather they fear me). Nor can I correct the error in judgement that nature has built into my own threat-perception: the species survives because we are paranoid, seeing danger that isn't always there. That said, I can prepare myself to act responsibly on the reality that my environment presents constant threats. I can become more effective than Zimmerman in dealing out appropriate violence (starting with the rule that I don't charge in with my only defense being "kill the other guy!"), and more effective than Martin in allaying the threat others may feel from me (starting with the rule that I don't jump people who tail me).

Monday, August 5, 2013

Letter to a Jesuit

Below is part of a letter I wrote recently. As an attempt to capture my spiritual path over the last 10 years or so, it seemed worth saving. I have removed anything that might identify the recipient.

I was born into a very devoutly religious family. My parents are both converts to Mormonism (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with headquarters in Salt Lake City), which they found in early adulthood and have adhered to faithfully since before I was born (the eldest of six living children). I grew up Mormon, far away from Utah, in a small and close-knit congregation of Saints (as they like to call themselves, perhaps a bit pretentiously from your point of view). I went through the entire cursus honorum that contemporary Mormonism offers young men—attending weekly meetings faithfully, receiving and carrying out the duties of the priesthood (first Aaronic then eventually Melchizedek), graduating from seminary, receiving my endowment in the temple, serving a two-year proselytizing mission in northern Spain (I spent many months working in Galicia), graduating from Brigham Young University (the LDS church's university in Provo, Utah), and eventually marrying in the Salt Lake temple (which you may have seen: it is rather pretty, especially when compared to more modern Mormon architecture). Experience has taught me to beware of judging the quality of one's faith in terms of external career. In my case, almost everything I did from the age of about twelve came from a motivation informed somehow by my Mormonism—a Mormonism that was very sincere and earnest, perhaps too much so as it happens.

As part of my Mormon formation, I was taught church history and doctrine (I hesitate to call it theology, but the term is not utterly inapt) formally and informally. My formal schooling took place in church, in seminary, in special retreats held for missionaries, at BYU (my alma mater), and in the temple (where Mormons take part in complex rituals that dramatize the creation, fall, and redemption of the world). Informally, I did a lot of reading on my own. I was drawn very early to scripture, and over the course of my youth became very familiar with the King James Bible, in addition to other books the LDS church regards as holy scripture (including the Book of Mormon, which I have read many times). I was naturally interested in the history of the books I read—the context out of which they arose and took their first meaning before being handed down to me. Before I went out as a missionary, I had already begun studying religious history and had even decided that I would need to study biblical languages (Latin, Hebrew, and Greek) in college. As a youth, I did not notice any great imbalance between my personal religion and the religion preached and practiced at church. The more contact I had with the institutional church, however, the more this changed. My two-year mission in Spain was revelatory in this regard: I saw the church doing things that made no sense to me, things that seemed to me to cheapen the gospel in the interest of gaining converts to it (superficial converts, with no great understanding of what it was they were committing themselves to). At BYU, I began studying church history in great detail, on my own and in company with others, and I slowly came to realize that the church history I had been taught throughout my youth was by and large a complete fairytale—a transparent hagiography of the early Mormon movement that transformed men like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young from nineteenth-century mobsters (with good and bad traits) into modern Saints (with no evil qualities worth noticing).

By the time I was married and about halfway through graduate school (far from BYU), I realized that I could not participate actively in LDS Mormonism any more. Under the influence of my ongoing studies into church history (early Christian history as well as Mormon history), I could not see the LDS church's version of Christian history as anything but an increasingly transparent fable (as literal history: as a symbolic narrative, it has some merit). To make things worse, the church demands that the individual conform his private thought and (at the very least) public utterance to its versions of events. It does this by controlling access to temples (etc.) through a process of ecclesiastical confession that involves meeting regularly with local church authorities (the bishop or one of his counselors, and then the stake president or one of his—perhaps a bit like talking to your local parish priest and then the bishop). These gentlemen inquire into your orthodoxy (“Do you believe in the divinity of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost? Do you believe Joseph Smith to be a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator?” and so on). If you cannot answer questions to their satisfaction, then your status as an active Mormon is revoked until you repent. I cannot answer questions as they would like, and I cannot repent (for when I look into the historical record, I do not see what they want me to see—viz. that I must subject my opinion on doctrinal matters to theirs, whatever it may be, without critical judgement).

When I was no longer able to practice Mormonism actively, I did not cease to have a spiritual vocation. I needed to feel myself part of something larger than myself, but I also needed the freedom to express myself openly and honestly, even when others might possibly construe my expression as a threat to faith (not the way I construe it, but I can certainly appreciate that I am not the only person with a point of view that matters: we all see things, and we all matter; I am certainly as open to taking criticism as I am to dishing it out). Fortunately, my wife was not a dogmatic Mormon: she was one of the few external things that remained constant in my hour of confusion; I am very grateful for her unflagging moral support. Initially, I felt something of a gulf between myself and institutional Christianity. (To be completely candid, I still sense that gulf today, but experience has prepared me to confront it with curious interest rather than defensive hostility.) As a result, my first spiritual home outside Mormonism was a small Buddhist sangha in the Kagyu tradition (Tibetan). I found (and contine to find) Buddhist rhetoric very liberating (it is nice to be told that the self is impermanent when your own has just been brutally shattered), and I continue to enjoy the Kagyu liturgy (which involves meditation and chanting prayers, with or without the aid of tools such as a rosary or icons). But there is something important missing in my Buddhist experience, something that I cannot help but call Christianity.

It is hard to put into words, but let me try. Buddhism satisfies my intellectual hunger entirely, offering an outlook on the world that appears appropriately wise and skeptical (important to me, given my past history of being gulled into what the Buddhists would call “wrong views”). While it is very beautiful, Buddhism does not satisfy my aesthetic hunger: I find the bodhisattva distant and aloof, rather like the gods of Epicurus. Mormonism such as I grew up with was not a religion of passive acceptance. Mobster that he was, Brigham Young was also determined to build heaven on earth, and while I shrink back from some of the evil consequences of his efforts (e.g. the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the suffering of people involved in polygamy against their will), I still admire the aim. I want to make the world a better place, actively—or at least to see the examples of others engaging with sin or crime or other natural hardships in authentic ways that I might possibly emulate. I love retiring from the world, but I need to build something in retirement (“the kingdom of God”)—and I have years of exposure to Christianity that predisposes me to find meaning of some kind in Christian scripture, discourse, and ritual.

While serving as a Mormon missionary in Spain, I attended a public mass in the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago and conceived a desire that I carry to this day of completing a pilgrimage there on foot. If I ever have money and time, I will certainly carry this desire out, whether or not I become Catholic. I feel a great internal need to do it, to see the places where I came bearing Mormonism and give thanks for the many unexpected gifts I received in return. One of those gifts was a chance encounter with the Jesuit Andres Torres Queiruga, who invited me into his apartment to discuss religion and left a very profound impression on me (as being utterly sincere and good, even if his belief in the resurrection is metaphorical rather than literal—as mine now is, too). Regardless of how I feel toward what are sometimes called “religious truth-claims” (i.e. whether God is personal in some particular way or the Bible a literal history composed in the manner of Thucydides), I feel drawn toward Christian tradition, especially older versions of it that have a sense of their history—a memory of the good and the evil done in God's name over time. I don't know what to do with this attraction, whether I should abandon it to continue on as a Buddhist atheist (see below) or pursue it (as I am trying to do in reaching out to you).

My reading of the historical Buddha is very like my reading of the historical Jesus. What draws me to both is not the idea that they are more real or powerful than ordinary human beings, but the aspiration that they have come to represent to so many of my fellow creatures, an aspiration to make life beautiful where it can be ugly. I share that aspiration, no matter what I may happen to think right now about the ultimate order or disorder of the cosmos. “The kingdom of God is within you” is a statement that I continue to find incredibly edifying (and frustrating, as I seek some means of relating my window on that interior kingdom effectively to others—in ways that edify them and me, recognizing and respecting the reality that we need each other, that we are all part of a vast ecosystem of overt and hidden relationships that have the power to become incredibly beautiful even if they are occasionally also ugly).

Many people whose circumstances appear externally very similar to mine—people whose history has brought them into significant conflict with some fundamentalist, literalistic religious tradition (such as modern Mormonism has increasingly sought to be)—become atheists. Some of them find all the socialization, all the service, all the spirituality they need outside established paths. I have examined their ways of life thoughtfully, and I find much to admire in many of them. But at the same time, I cannot believe that “the old ways” are defunct, dying, or useless. To me it seems that history shows humanity existing with certain constant strengths and weaknesses. Occasionally, these express themselves in ways that are incredibly destructive (and we get something like the Holy Inquisition in Catholicism or the Danites in Mormonism), but that does not deny that they can also be very good—and dropping a particular ideology does not insure us against their destructive recurrence (as the last century has proved to me: atheism or secularism carries the same capacity for evil that religion does, more in an age where science exists to supply leaders of any ideological stripe with WMDs). I see that religion is occasionally poisonous (like all medicines), but that does not mean that I can abandon it (any more than I can abandon eating, though its eventual consequence is death). I value tradition, I am trying to say—even when I disagree with it, even when it challenges me, even when my response to its challenge is more negative than positive. A good man needs good enemies, friends who know how to wear their friendship in disagreement and disappointment as well as concord. I did not find that in Mormonism. I wonder whether I might find it somewhere in the universe of Catholicism.

Is there some way a person like me might become Catholic, or at least engage Catholicism in a meaningful way (mutually useful in terms of building the kingdom of God)?  No matter what happens, I will always be grateful for the faith of men like Thomas Merton, whose books have been a real blessing to me over the past few years as I have sought to rebuild myself in the image of God.