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Tagethics

the methods of the Official Straighteners

Two recent stories — one involving a Chicago priest named Paul Kalchik and one involving Marine le Pen — have something significant in common. Neither figure is being punished but each is being examined. In Le Pen’s case a psychologist will be tasked with determining whether she is “capable of understanding remarks and answering questions.” Fr. Kalchik’s psychological examination, Cardinal Blaise Cupich wrote, is to ensure that he “receive[s] pastoral support so his needs can be assessed.”

These are perfect embodiments of what C. S. Lewis called “the humanitarian theory of punishment.” Those holding this theory

maintain that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable?

Thus Cupich’s claim that his actions are focused on Fr. Kalchik’s “needs.” But Lewis’s continuation is vital: “One little point which is taken for granted in this theory needs, however, to be made explicit. The things done to the criminal, even if they are called cures, will be just as compulsory as they were in the old days when we called them punishments.” And, from the point of view of the state or any other governing body, this shift from punishment to healing has certain desirable consequences. More from Lewis, on an article he had recently read:

The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts — and they are not experts in moral thology nor even in the Law of Nature — who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

It is not clear, of course, that there will be any “sentence” of Fr. Kalchik or Marine Le Pen. But the remote possibility of lengthy punishment is coupled with the immediate certainty of compulsory therapy at the hands of people who wield enormous power over their future. This is certainly meant to have a profound deterrent effect not only on them but in the one case on all priests in the Diocese of Chicago and in the other on the French public as a whole. Pour encourager les autres and all that.

Lewis is at pains to emphasize that his case against the Humanitarian theory of punishment assumes “no evil intentions on the part of the Humanitarian.”

My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

But what if the official straighteners are not good people? You’ll have to read the rest of his essay to find out.

the instrumentalist chain

Earlier I wrote of goods that can’t be aimed at directly, and here’s another example of that.

Like all college teachers, I have heard many times — many, many times — more times than I can count — something along these lines: If I don’t get an A in your class then I won’t be able to get into medical school [or law school, or business school, or engineering school, or dental school] so just tell me what I need to do to get that A.

Here’s how I usually respond:

First, I understand and sympathize with your anxiety, but please don’t say that. Whether you mean it to or not, it sounds manipulative. (“If all my dreams are crushed it’ll be your fault!”) And teachers are no exception to the general rule that most people don’t like feeling manipulated and will often do the opposite of what they think others are trying to get them to do.

But second, and more important for our purposes, you’re really not thinking of this problem in the right way. The problem is not I’m getting a lower grade than I want, the problem is I’m not doing excellent work. Your grade is only a marker or token of the quality of your work. You can’t get a better grade by focusing on getting a better grade. Your grades will improve when your work improves.

This is the pitfall of all instrumentalist thinking — even when it’s properly instrumentalist. By which I mean that there are some things it’s perfectly okay to think of as means to other ends. I exercise so I can be healthier: if I don’t love exercise in itself and for itself, that’s not a problem — unless I fail to pay sufficient attention to what I’m doing when I exercise that in the end I don’t improve my health as much as I want. The way for me to fix that is to start focusing on the exercise itself. Wanting ever more intensely to be super-healthy doesn’t actually help me.

Many of my students don’t care about the quality of the work they’re doing. They care about the grades they get, and they care about grades because the grades will determine whether they get into med school, and they care about getting into med school because that will determine whether they get to be doctors, and they want to be doctors because … well, who am I to judge? My point here is just that there’s a lengthy chain of instrumentalist motivation here, acts that are meaningful only because they lead to other acts that are only meaningful because they lead to still other acts, in regressive links that I can’t see the end of. But the only way people are ever going to get to their goal, whatever that happens to be, is by starting to care about the work they’re doing today.

The Profumo Option

The other day, in one of his many recent posts on the waves of sexual scandal that are afflicting American churches, Rod Dreher made a passing mention of John Profumo. In the early 1960s Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War and got caught up in a sexual scandal that led to his resignation.

So much so ordinary (sad to say). But what happened afterwards wasn’t so ordinary. Profumo — a very well-connected man with many friends and supporters who would gladly have eased him back into some significant political or business role — simply left public life and never fully returned. He began to work as a volunteer for Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, doing menial work at first and gradually, over the course of decades, becoming a primary fundraiser. He never sought office again. For the rest of his life he worked out of the public eye to serve the poor.

Will a Profumo arise from our current situation? Will even one, single, solitary Christian leader who has been caught doing or enabling or covering for nasty things decide that the proper response is to perform extensive penance? And by performing extensive penance I don’t mean just taking a few months off to plan a comeback tour. I mean, rather, embracing humble service as medicine for the soul.

Will there be even one? Will any our currently disgraced leaders do for even a few weeks what John Profumo did for fifty years?

I doubt it. There are multiple forces conspiring against it. One is a religious-celebrity culture that produces no shortage of people who want to rub shoulders with the famous even when they have become infamous. Another is the almost complete disappearance of penance from the life of the Church — of churches in the west, anyway, including Catholicism, where it remained structurally embedded the longest.

Will anyone take the Profumo Option? I doubt it. But I hope.

the end of hypocrisy

Today, many critics on the right are noting that the New York Times is extending to Sarah Jeong gracious understanding that they refused to Quinn Norton, and that the Atlantic refused to Kevin Williamson. These critics then go on to accuse the Times, and the center-left journalism world more generally, of hypocrisy. 

Hypocrisy occurs in the presence of an agreed-upon standard which people in power — perhaps the power is only local — apply variously according to preference. If a standard helps someone I like, I’ll apply it to them; if it helps someone I don’t like, I’ll carve out an exception and say it doesn’t apply to my enemy. Thus I become a hypocrite. 

But as Stanley Fish pointed out decades ago, during the first round of political-correctness culture wars (ca. 1985-95), in this sense hypocrisy is simply what human beings do. According to the definition given above, it is virtually impossible to find non-hypocritical judgments. In his famous essay “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too” Fish describes John Milton’s famous celebration of free speech in “Areopagitica,” which commends “the virtues of toleration and unregulated publication in passages that find their way into every discussion of free speech and the First Amendment,” after which “Milton catches himself up short and says, of course I didn’t mean Catholics, them we exterminate.” Here’s the key passage: 

I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate . . . that also which is impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners no law can possibly permit that intends not to unlaw itself. 

Beneath every commitment to free speech, Fish says, is this unspoken but essential question: “Would this form of speech or advocacy, if permitted to flourish, tend to undermine the very purposes for which our society is constituted?” If the answer is Yes, then that speech is unprotected by our laws. 

Supposed commitments to “free speech” and “fairness” and “equal access” and “inclusiveness” are always — always — smoke screens for some commitment that is both narrower and more fundamental. Fish summarizes it thus: 

Speech, in short, is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict. When the pinch comes (and sooner or later it will always come) and the institution (be it church, state, or university) is confronted by behavior subversive of its core rationale, it will respond by declaring “of course we mean not tolerated ——, that we extirpate,” not because an exception to a general freedom has suddenly and contradictorily been announced, but because the freedom has never been general and has always been understood against the background of an originary exclusion that gives it meaning. 

The general failure to understand this point leads to a pathology of thought that is extremely common but rarely acknowledged for what it is. You see it when people say that they’re all about empowering women’s voices, but of course pro-life women aren’t really women at all. You see when people who advocate for true freedom for black people in America say that a black person who supports Trump isn’t really black at all. You see it when Republicans call other Republicans RINOs. You see it when people say that Catholics who don’t support the Pope against ancient tradition aren’t really Catholic, and when others say that those who don’t support ancient tradition against the Pope are the ones who aren’t really Catholic. You see it when people want to celebrate the beautiful unity of Christianity, but those who don’t hold our views about sexuality aren’t really Christians at all. “Of course we mean not tolerated ——, that we extirpate.” 

I think this chasm between what one claims to stand for, who one claims to speak for, and one’s actual loyalties happens because most people have two conflicting desires: (a) to feel that they belong to a majority, they they speak for and with a great cloud of witnesses, and (b) to exclude and punish dissenters. It is very difficult to face the possibility — and it’s more than a possibility, it’s a certainty — that those two desires truly are irreconcilable, and that you’ll at some point have to choose one rather than the other. So it’s easier to pretend that there’s no choice to be made. This is how you get to “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” 

For those of us observing such scenes, the best practice is simply to ignore what any institution says it stands for, and pay attention to its actions. The self-descriptions of institutions are meaningless, because, to borrow terms from William Butler Yeats, they tend to be either rhetorical or sentimental: “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbor, the sentimentalist himself.” There is really no point in your calling attention to the hypocrisy of institutions in applying their professed standards. The lack of fit between their words and their deeds is inevitable, and precisely the same is true of the institutions you love and pledge your loyalty to.

The idea that you can somehow back an institution, or an individual, into a corner by drawing attention to that lack of fit is absurd. When has that tactic ever succeeded? The accused parties merely tweak their definitions to disguise the inconsistencies and resume their self-soothing. 

It is better, then, just to pay attention to how institutions act and draw the conclusions the conclusions that are generally obvious. The New York Times has room for Sarah Jeong but not for Quinn Norton; the Atlantic has room for Ta-Nehisi Coates but not Kevin Williamson. Churches, universities, businesses all likewise define themselves through their inclusions and exclusions, their actions and inactions. If you’re not distracted by institutional self-descriptions, the math is rarely hard to do. 

the moral ideal

When the guide of conduct is a moral ideal we are never suffered to escape from perfection. Constantly, indeed on all occasions, the society is called upon to seek virtue as the crow flies. It may even be said that the moral life, in this form, demands a hyperoptic moral vision and encourages intense moral emulation among those who enjoy it…. And the unhappy society, with an ear for every call, certain always about what it ought to think (though it will never for long be the same thing), in action shies and plunges like a distracted animal….

Too often the excessive pursuit of one ideal leads to the exclusion of others, perhaps all others; in our eagerness to realize justice we come to forget charity, and a passion for righteousness has made many a man hard and merciless. There is indeed no ideal the pursuit of which will not lead to disillusion; chagrin waits at the end for all who take this path. Every admirable ideal has its opposite, no less admirable. Liberty or order, justice or charity, spontaneity or deliberateness, principle or circumstance, self or others, these are the kinds of dilemma with which this form of the moral life is always confronting us, making a see double by directing our attention always to abstract extremes, none of which is wholly desirable.

— Michael Oakeshott, “The Tower of Babel”

why hospitality matters: ancient poetry edition

I’m looking forward to reading Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, though I will admit to being put off a bit by the intensity of some of the praise, which tends to give Wilson credit for something that Homer does and that is fairly represented in pretty much every other translation. (Thus Alexander Pope and/or William Brooke in 1726: “By Jove the stranger and the poor are sent; / And what to those we give to Jove is lent. / Then food supply, and bathe his fainting limbs / Where waving shades obscure the mazy streams.” Etc. etc.) That emphasis is in the poem, not the translation.

It is a key theme in the Odyssey, though, and one that I often call particular attention to when teaching. This is the second major point at which the importance of hospitality to the stranger appears. Earlier, when Athena (disguised as Mentor) is escorting Telemachus around to see a bit of the world, they arrive at Nestor’s home at Pylos and are welcomed warmly and offered roasted meat and red wine and “deep-piled rugs” to sleep on — but when they come to the much grander home of Menelaus at Sparta they are greeted with considerable suspicion by one of Menelaus’s companions. Now, to be sure, Menelaus chastises the man for not being more generous, but Homer is showing us something here about the difference between a household that’s instinctively and naturally welcoming and, on the other hand, one where the welcome is grudging at best. Mentor wants Telemachus to learn the right way to live, and the right way to live requires hospitality to strangers.

When correcting his companion, Menelaus explains why: Could we have made it home from Troy, he asks, if people had not been hospitable to us? This was not a world, as I remind my students, in which you could drive up to a Holiday Inn and pull our your credit card. We do best when we extend a helping hand to those in need, not least because one day soon we could be among the endangered and dependent.

But the lessons of hospitality don’t come easily to those — like the suitors of Penelope, hanging out in Odysseus’s house and eating his food without earning a damned thing for themselves — who think that what they need will always be within reach. They are spoiled, arrogant, grasping; and in all these respects just the opposite of Nestor and his family, of the princess Nausicaa, and even of Odysseus’s poor old goatherd Eumaeus, who even in his poverty takes care of a man he thinks to be a ragged beggar, because “strangers and beggars come from Zeus.”

So be generous to the homeless because it’s the right thing to do; but if you’re not going to do it because it’s right, do it because someday you may need some generosity yourself. And if you don’t, you could end up like those suitors, whose end is — spoiler alert — not pretty.

credit and debt

David Bentley Hart:

The Law not only prohibited interest on loans, but mandated that every seventh year should be a Sabbatical, a shmita, a fallow year, during which debts between Israelites were to be remitted; and then went even further in imposing the Sabbath of Sabbath-Years, the Year of Jubilee, in which all debts were excused and all slaves granted their liberty, so that everyone might begin again, as it were, with a clear ledger. In this way, the difference between creditors and debtors could be (at least, for a time) erased, and a kind of equitable balance restored. At the same time, needless to say, the unremitting denunciation of those who exploit the poor or ignore their plight is a radiant leitmotif running through the proclamations of the prophets of Israel (Isa 3:13-15; 5:8; 10:1-2; Jer 5:27-28: Amos 4:1; etc.).

So it should be unsurprising to learn that a very great many of Christ’s teachings concerned debtors and creditors, and the legal coercion of the former by the latter, and the need for debt relief; but somehow we do find it surprising—when, of course, we notice. As a rule, however, it is rare that we do notice, in part because we often fail to recognize the social and legal practices to which his parables and moral exhortations so often referred, and in part because our traditions have so successfully “spiritualized” the texts—both through translation and through habits of interpretation—that the economic and political provocations they contain are scarcely imaginable to us at all.

Hazlitt hating

In private life do we not see hypocrisy, servility, selfishness, folly, and impudence succeed, while modesty shrinks from the encounter, and merit is trodden under foot? How often is “the rose plucked from the forehead of a virtuous love to plant a blister there!” What chance is there of the success of real passion? What certainty of its continuance? Seeing all this as I do, and unravelling the web of human life into its various threads of meanness, spite, cowardice, want of feeling, and want of understanding, of indifference towards others, and ignorance of ourselves, — seeing custom prevail over all excellence, itself giving way to infamy — mistaken as I have been in my public and private hopes, calculating others from myself, and calculating wrong; always disappointed where I placed most reliance; the dupe of friendship, and the fool of love; — have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.

— William Hazlitt, “On the Pleasure of Hating” (1826)

the poison of consequentialism

From this conversation:

Rebecca Traister: … the argument for keeping Clinton … was in part that the power he wielded could theoretically shore up or increase the very set of policies and protections that are supposed to ameliorate the gender-imbalanced conditions that make sexual harassment so pervasive, i.e., it was to some degree a compromise on a feminist issue designed specifically to further a feminist agenda. I don’t think there’s the same moral symmetry with Trump voters: that they’ll vote for a man who spews open racism or is accused of groping women specifically because they think that if elected, he’s going to strengthen defenses for women or for people of color; in some cases, the opposite. This week, Kellyanne Conway said that voters should pick Moore because he’ll help pass the tax bill. Is there a line of logic that says that voters upset about pedophilia charges should vote for the accused pedophile, despite their distress, because a lower corporate tax rate would lead to a systemic reduction of child abuse?

Ross Douthat: It’s not precisely the same, but many of Trump’s supporters framed it as “we’re compromising Christian values by electing a man who doesn’t live up to them, because that’s the only way in order to further a Christian agenda on abortion or religious liberty.” There’s some overlap with your view of how feminists thought about Clinton there.

You know what both of these arguments sound like to me? “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Or consider this story that Rod Dreher recounted the other day:

Back in 2002, I interviewed a Catholic woman who had been blackmailed by her confessor into having an affair with him, even though she was married. She finally broke down psychologically, and sought professional help from a psychiatrist who was known to be a faithful Catholic. (I interviewed him too, and he confirmed her account.) When she and her psychiatrist went to the local bishop (who is now dead, by the way), the bishop told her he had sent the priest away overseas (as he had — that I confirmed), and that if she pursued charges against the offending priest, or made his abuse public, then he, the bishop, would be forced to go after her publicly for her messy past.

She quoted him as saying, “I have to protect the people of God.”

Protect the people of God … by destroying this woman who is one of the people of God. As I have suggested in a different context, consequentialism poisons character.

As horrible as these revelations are about sexually predatory men at the highest levels of our culture, they serve as a reminder of what we Christians have been saying all along about the inevitable consequences of the sexual revolution. So even as we lament with the victims, we are, I think, justified in calling attention to the higher standards that we, at least, have held our male leaders …

Um … never mind.

you and I, dear reader

If one reads through the mass of versified trash inspired by, for instance, the Lidice massacre, one cannot avoid the conclusion that what was really bothering the versifiers was a feeling of guilt at not feeling horrorstruck enough. Could a good poem have been written on such a subject? Possibly. One that revealed this lack of feeling, that told how when he read the news, the poet, like you and I, dear reader, went on thinking about his fame or his lunch, and how glad he was that he was not one of the victims.

— W. H. Auden (1947)

ways and means of debate

On the current debate among “small-o orthodox” Christians about sexuality and orthodoxy, I warmly recommend this post by Matthew Lee Anderson. It’s longish but really thoughtful about the key issues. I don’t think I agree with Matthew’s use of the idea of the “grammar” of credal theology, a use he shares with Alastair Roberts, because I fear that it can make Scripture and creed alike into an infinitely reshapeable wax nose: you can quickly move past what it says to focus on what you claim is entailed by its grammar. (Another way to put it: I am made uneasy by this mode of theology for the same reasons I am made uneasy by Newman’s view of “development of doctrine.”) But the argument is well-made and worth considering.

Anyway, I just want to make one brief comment about my participation in this whole business. I have had almost nothing to say about the substantive theological and moral issues at stake because my primary concern here is not the “what” but the “how”: how we handle disagreement. There’s an important sense in which our means need to be upstream of our ends.

One of the major themes of my forthcoming book How to Think is the fruitlessness of arguments badly conducted. When we treat those we disagree with as necessarily wicked or stupid, when we forbid to “their side” practices that we cheerfully allow to “our side,” when we recklessly (and sometimes quite intentionally) misconstrue those who disagree with us, then genuine argument never happens: we descend into shouted recriminations.

Of course, many people are perfectly happy with shouted recriminations. But Christians are forbidden that. As I have reflected on these matters in the past couple of years — and I’ve spent a lot of time in such reflection — I have been struck by just how consistently concerned the New Testament is with proper responses to conflict. We are told, by Jesus in the Gospels and by the apostles in their letters, how to respond when we are attacked and vilified by those outside the “household of faith” and how to deal with various kinds of conflict within that household. Almost all of what I’ve written in the last year or so about the current disputes has been focused on the need to be obedient to these teachings.

One of the most famous passages in the whole of Scripture, but one that almost no one seems to find relevant to the current debates, is this: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” I just wish that before leaping into any fray — especially if it’s conducted on social media, given the online disinhibition effect — my fellow Christians would just spend just five minutes meditating on that passage.

“this is what you no longer understand”

We live in an era in which the overwhelming majority of filmgoers will have no experience of military life whatsoever, either as veterans or relatives thereof. “Dunkirk,” a visually stunning film—overwhelming in IMAX— will not give those audience members the illusion that by having watched the film they understand what war is. They will be moved, I’m sure; this particular story cannot be anything but. But its very distance from the communal character of military experience marks it as a film of our time trying to reach back to another era, when military culture was more generally understood, and show us: see, this is what you no longer understand.

Noah Millman

life among the crackheads

Damon Linker:

After six months of unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure, and credible evidence of a desire to collude with a hostile foreign government to subvert an American election, President Trump’s approval rating is astonishingly high — with something between one-third and two-fifths of the American people apparently liking what they see and hear from the White House. They approve of the constant ignoble churn and presumably want it to continue. This is the kind of politics they prefer.

Damon is precisely right about this, and of all the elements of Trumpworld that might make a sane person worry, this is right at the top of the list. I have no quarrel here with those who supported Trump reluctantly, out of the belief that however bad he might be, Hillary would’ve been worse; I want to talk about people who like a demeaned and diminished public sphere, who enjoy taking to social media to spread contempt and mockery and hatred, and who applaud when others of their political tribe do the same (even if they cry out in outrage when people of the Other Tribe do the same thing).

There’s been a great deal of discussion over the past eight months or so about who’s most to blame for this situation, but I want to waive all such questions. I want instead to look forward.

In order to do that, I believe we need to look right past the gleeful haters. Basically, they’re crackheads: wholly addicted to their cheap and nasty drug of choice. They’re not hopeless — I’m a Christian, I don’t do hopeless — but you can’t count on them for anything constructive. If there’s a crack house in your neighborhood and you’re trying to build some kind of community, you don’t go out of your way to invite the crackheads to your meetings. You don’t hate or reject them; if they happen to show up, you welcome them in, and you gently encourage them to note and heed the rules of polite discourse; but you don’t try to drag them to the meetings.

You don’t try to drag them because you’re practicing containment: you may not be able to eliminate the crack house, or turn it back into a decent family home, but you want to do everything you can to make sure that no more houses in your neighborhood become refuges for crackheads, because crackheads can do a lot of damage to the houses they inhabit. In fact, you’re holding these meetings to help the families in the neighborhood take care of the place, take care of each other, keep the neighborhood an actual neighborhood rather than a row of crack houses. And the healthier your neighborhood, the better you’ll be able to help the crackheads, show them a better way to live; because they’re sad figures, after all, far more to be pitied than despised. They just can’t be allowed to dictate the condition of the neighborhood.

Our public sphere is an old neighborhood with a few social-media crack houses in it. And if you’re spending a significant amount of your time fighting with people on Twitter or Facebook or even in the comments sections of websites that still have comments sections, then you’re a crackhead, which means that you’re a danger to yourself and to your neighbors. Sorry, but the first step to getting better is always to admit that you have a problem.

Anyway, we’re going to move ahead with our neighborhood improvement project without you. And here’s how we’re going to do it:

1) We have to make sure that we ourselves avoid crack like the plague that it is. So, Don’t fight on social media. Ever. It spreads the addiction to more and more of the community, so that you get situations like the one Scott Alexander imagines in this thought experiment:

Alice writes a blog post excoriating Bob’s opinion on tax reforming, calling him a “total idiot” who “should be laughed out of the room”. Bob feels so offended that he tries to turn everyone against Alice, pointing out every bad thing she’s ever done to anyone who will listen. Carol considers this a “sexist harassment campaign” and sends a dossier of all of Bob’s messages to his boss, trying to get him fired. Dan decides this proves Carol is anti-free speech, and tells the listeners of his radio show to “give Carol a piece of their mind”, leading to her getting hundreds of harassing and threatening email messages. Eric snitches on Dan to the police.

As Freddie deBoer recently wrote, we’re living on a planet of cops — or, if I may stick with my metaphor, we’re in a crack house of cops. So let’s sneak out quietly and leave the crackheads to their mutual recriminations.

2) We have to teach our children. No matter how commonplace, how normal, smoking crack may seem to them, we have to work firmly, consistently, and patiently to make sure they understand what it really is. The same goes for the many other drugs they might use that don’t show their effects so publicly: porn may be more like certain of the mellower opioids rather than crack, but it can make messes of lives too, just in different ways.

I emphasize educating the young because I don’t see how you can draw people away from the crack of social media if they’re long-habituated to it. Again, I don’t say that they’re hopeless, but rather that you can’t count on them. You have to proceed without them. And you have to focus your attention passionately on the next generation, to do everything possible to keep them away from the Bad Thing. Even if it means taking away their smartphones — and I really mean that.

how being rich wrecks your soul

As stratospheric salaries became increasingly common, and as the stigma of wildly disproportionate pay faded, the moral hazards of wealth were largely forgotten. But it’s time to put the apologists for plutocracy back on the defensive, where they belong — not least for their own sake. After all, the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, the Koran, Jimmy Stewart, Pope Francis and now even science all agree: If you are wealthy and are reading this, give away your money as fast as you can.

Chuck Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark. I think I’m gonna say that I have enough money that my soul is just kinda sooty.

civility rethought

What contemporary theorists of civility can and should take away from [Roger] Williams is his recognition of the inevitable disagreeableness of disagreement…. Faced with a heated disagreement, both participants and observers find it difficult to separate the condemnation of another’s position and contempt for her person. It’s precisely this difficulty that we call upon the virtue of “civility” to alleviate.

If we think all of the ethical work remains to be done by others, that our opponents alone are the uncivil ones, we are mistaken. As long as we are determined to trace every difference of opinion to some aspect of identity or perspectival privilege, we will continue to win arguments by proclaiming our own epistemic authority and to refute our opponents by impugning theirs. In the face of this politics of purity and the resultant proliferation of ad hominem, Williams reminds us that responses other than ostracism and outrage are possible, while providing a model of how coexistence and cooperation might work.

Teresa Bejan

sandwiches

You learn a lot about people by noting what trivial things they obsess over, and today’s David Brooks column is a perfect example. Let me be really clear about this: people are freaking out about The Sandwich Bar Anecdote for one major reason, which is that they know the rest of the column is dead-on accurate and they’d prefer not to think about what it tells us about our social order.

But even The Sandwich Bar Anecdote itself isn’t bad — it makes a valid and important point, one that finds an analogue in the experience of many of us. Look at this post by Rod Dreher for some good examples, from his own experience and from some of his readers as well.

One Christmas I bought my parents the most expensive gift I had ever given them: a big basket of fruit and cheese and pastries and various other goodies from Harry & David. It arrived several days before I could get home myself, and when I arrived at their house I saw the basket sitting in a corner of the living room, removed from its box but unopened. They never did open it. They were pissed. They didn’t want to talk about it, but eventually it became clear to me that the basket was “fancy” in a way they thought totally inappropriate. “But it’s just fruit and cheese!” I said. “I can buy fruit and cheese at Kroger,” my dad growled. I started to explain that it was exceptionally good fruit and cheese, but then realized that that wouldn’t work: for one thing, it was the opposite of what I had just said (“It’s just fruit and cheese”), and for another, I knew that my parents would take any praise of the food in the basket as a criticism of the food they bought at Kroger. There was no way for me to win this one, so I just shut up. I expect they eventually threw the whole basket away without ever opening it.

It didn’t have to be food: I could have bought them clothes they also thought “fancy” and they probably would have been equally disdainful. But I think food is generally perceived as sending especially strong signals — perhaps because it involves “consumption” in a completely literal sense. It is what you take into yourself, and while Jesus may have said that it is what comes out of a man that defiles him, not what goes in, for most people that’s an unnatural point of view. I will always remember in this regard Rod’s story about how disgusted his family were when he and Julie made bouillabaisse for them — even though pretty much everybody in Louisiana has eaten fish stew.

I didn’t buy my parents any more food for Christmas, and from then on when I shopped for them I shopped at Wal-Mart.

Brooks writes, “Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else.” This is true, and true in very important ways; and the intuition that such rules are always in play can make people uneasy or angry when they think such rules are being enforced against them. If you can’t acknowledge this you’re just being willfully blind.

no feelings may be hurt

Suppose, I asked the students, an observant Jew has a florist shop. One day, a customer, who is also Jewish, comes to the shop to say she’s getting married and would like the florist to do the wedding. “That’s wonderful,” the florist says. “Where will you get married?” The customer replies that the wedding will be at a local nondenominational church, because her fiancé is Christian, and she, the customer, isn’t very observant. The florist thinks about it and then says, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do your wedding. It’s nothing personal; I’m sure your fiancé is a fine person, as are you. It’s just that as an observant Jew I don’t approve of interfaith weddings. For our community to survive, we must avoid intermarriage and assimilation. Please understand. There are many other florists who can do your wedding. I’ll even suggest some. But I can’t, in good conscience, participate, myself.” What result?

In posing this hypothetical, I was not so interested in how the case would come out under current law. Rather, in good law-school fashion, I was trying to show the students that these are complicated questions and that they need to consider both sides. Much to my surprise, the students were uniformly unsympathetic to the florist. There should be no right to decline services in this situation, they told me. The florist was not acting reasonably and in good faith. […]

Conservatives often assume that controversies like Masterpiece Cakeshop reflect changing sexual norms and an intolerance of resistance. That’s correct, in part; one definitely senses a “you-lost-get-over-it” sentiment on the other side. And yet, the students’ reaction to my hypothetical case suggests that something else is going on as well, that the dispute is not about sexuality as such. Rather, it’s about not allowing people to draw moral distinctions that exclude others and hurt their feelings, no matter what the justification. That’s what the florist was doing in my hypothetical case—and that, I think, was what bothered the students.

Mark Movsesian, St. John’s Law School, New York. A fascinating case study for people who tend to think these disputes are all about the sexual revolution. As it turns out, and as I have sometimes suggested, demand for the affirmation of sexual choices may simply be an example of a greater demand, that for the affirmation of all the self’s choices. The real principles here are (a) I am my own and (b) the purpose of society is to empower and affirm my claim that I am my own.

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

Surveillance and Care

Another day, another story about the legal trouble you can expect if you’re a free-range parent. This matters, a lot, and what’s at stake needs to be made clear.

1) The parents here are accused by the state of “child neglect,” but what they are doing is the opposite of neglect — it is thoughtful, intentional training of their children for responsible adulthood. They instructed their children with care; the children practiced responsible freedom before being fully entrusted with it. And then the state intervened before the children could discover the satisfaction of exercising their freedom well.

2) What’s happening here is fundamentally simple: the surveillance state enforcing surveillance as the normative form of care. The state cannot teach its citizens, because it has no idea what to teach; it can only place them under observation. Perfect observation — panopticism — then becomes its telos, which is justifies and universalizes by imposing a responsibility to surveil on the very citizens already being surveilled. The state’s commandment to parents: Do as I do.

3) By enforcing surveillance as the normative form of care, the state effectively erases the significance of all other forms of care. Parents might teach their children nothing of value, no moral standards, no self-discipline, no compassion for others — but as long as those children are incessantly observed, then according to the state’s standards the parents of those children are good parents. And they are good because they are training their children to accept a lifetime of passive acceptance of surveillance. The Marxist theorist Louis Althusser used to speak of the ways that culture can be transformed into an “ideological state apparatus” — that’s what our society wants to do to parenthood.

Code Fetishists vs. Antinomians

Charles Taylor explains many (most?) internet debates — and a great many others from the past two hundred years. If you ever wonder why people on Twitter (serious people, not mere trolls) can get so extreme in their policing of deviations from approved behavior, see “The Perils of Moralism,” in Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays (emphases mine):

Modern liberal society tends toward a kind of “code fetishism,” or nomolatry. It tends to forget the background which makes sense of any code — the variety of goods which rules and norms are meant to realize — as well as the vertical dimension which arises above all these.

We can see this above in relation to contemporary Anglo-Saxon moral philosophy, as well as in the drive to codification in liberal society. But the sources go back deeper in our culture. I want to argue that it was a turn in Latin Christendom which sent us down this road. This was the drive to reform in its various stages and variants — not just the Protestant Reformation, but a series of moves on both sides of the confessional divide. The attempt was always to make people over as more perfect practicing Christians, through articulating codes and inculcating disciplines. Until the Christian life became more and more identified with these codes and disciplines.

In other words, this code-centrism came about as the by-product of an attempt to make over the lives of Christians, and their social order, so as to make them conform thoroughly to the demands of the Gospel. I am talking not of a particular, revolutionary moment, but of a long, ascending series of attempts to establish a Christian order, of which the Reformation is a key phase…. (351)

Code fetishism means that the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code. Kant proposes perhaps the most moving form of this (but perhaps the capture wasn’t complete in his case). His followers today, be they Rawls or Habermas or others again, carry on this reduction (although Habermas seems to have had recent second thoughts).

Modern culture is marked by a series of revolts against this moralism, in both its Christian and non-Christian forms. Think of the great late nineteenth-century reaction in England against evangelical “puritanism” that we associate with names as diverse as Arnold, Wilde, and later Bloomsbury; or think of Ibsen; or of Nietzsche and all those who follow him, including those rebelling against the various disciplines that have helped constitute this modern moralization, such as our contemporary, Michel Foucault.

But these reactions start earlier. The code-centered notion of order and its attendant disciplines begin to generate negative reactions from the eighteenth century on. These form, for instance, the central themes of the Romantic period. Many people found it hard to believe, even preposterous, that the achievement of this code-bound life should exhaust the significance of human existence. It’s almost as though each form of protest were adding its own verse to the famous Peggy Lee song: “Is that all there is?” (353)

sacrifice

‘Sacrifice’ is another word liable to misunderstanding. It is generally held to be noble and loving in proportion as its sacrificial nature is consciously felt by the person who is sacrificing himself. The direct contrary is the truth. To feel sacrifice consciously as self-sacrifice argues a failure in love. When a job is undertaken from necessity, or from a grim sense of disagreeable duty, the worker is self-consciously aware of the toils and pains he undergoes, and will say: ‘I have made such and such sacrifices for this.’ But when the job is a labour of love, the sacrifices will present themselves to the worker—strange as it may seem—in the guise of enjoyment. Moralists, looking on at this, will always judge that the former kind of sacrifice is more admirable than the latter, because the moralist, whatever he may pretend, has far more respect for pride than for love.

— Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker

GLADWELL: Well, it made me think that the average level of celebrity behavior must have been much worse 50 years ago than today. So suppose we channel our inner Nate Silver and come up with a universal celebrity misbehavior metric. We grade each public incident on three dimensions, each measured on a scale of one to 10. First, the stature of the celebrity. Second, the degree of impairment at the time of the accident. And third, the severity of the transgression. Your grade is the sum of those three scores.

SIMMONS: Hold on, hold on — we need to name this thing. And as much as I want to force-feed O.J. into the acronym, I love your “universal celebrity misbehavior” metric because “UCM” is such a strong acronym. I could see Bill James re-releasing Popular Crime just to reassess every famous murder with UCM.

GLADWELL: Why has it taken so long for the Moneyball revolution to come to Hollywood? I don’t get it. Because the UCM finally makes it possible for us to make rational judgments about scandals. So, take Tiger Woods’s run-in with his wife’s 9-iron. As a celebrity, Tiger is a 10. His impairment, a sex addiction, maybe painkillers, and probably alcohol, is also a 10. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that cheating on your Swedish model wife with so many hookers that she may have believed it was in her best interest to smash the back window of your SUV with a golf club is, at the very least, a nine. That’s 29 out of 30. Future generations will now be able to look back on that night and understand that it was the Apollo moon landing of the modern tabloid era. In fact, as much as I like UCM, maybe we should refer to this score as someone’s “Woods Number” in honor of the contemporary champion.

To put that 29 in perspective, I think that in the normal course of affairs, it’s really, really hard for anyone to score above a 20, for the simple reason that as your celebrity score rises your ability and willingness to max out on the transgression and impairment scales fall. I have no doubt, for example, that, say, Lindsay Lohan or Axl Rose are routinely putting up sevens and eights on transgression and impairment. But they just don’t have the stature they used to.

Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell exchange e-mails – Grantland. I’ve often been critical of Malcolm Gladwell, but this is pure genius.

The engagement of understanding is, then, a continuous, self-moved, critical enterprise of theorising. Its principle is: Never ask the end. Of the paths it may follow, some (we may suppose) will soon exhaust their promise. It is an engagement of arrivals and departures. Temporary platforms of conditional understanding are always being reached, and the theorist may turn aside to explore them. But each is an arrival, an enlightenment, and a point of departure. The notion of an unconditional or definitive understanding may hover in the background, but it has no part in the adventure…

Here, theorizing has revealed itself to be an unconditional adventure in which every achievement of understanding is an invitation to investigate itself and where the reports a theorist makes to himself are interim triumphs of temerity over scruple. And for a theorist not to respond to this invitation cannot be on account of his never having received it. It does not reach him from afar and by special messenger; it is implicit in every engagement to understand and is delivered to him whenever he reflects. The irony of all theorizing is its propensity to generate, not an understanding, but a not-yet-understood.

— Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (1975);  cited here as a possible, rare instance of an ‘absolute secularity’, incorruptible by revelation, only for a commenter to point out at once how similar it is to both some kinds of reading and some kinds of religious belief. (via unapologetic-book)

Rereading Krakauer’s Into Thin Air after finishing Hansen’s book, I was once again struck by the brutal selfishness and callous disregard for one’s fellow humans that characterizes contemporary mountain tourism. In 1996, Japanese climber Eisuke Shigekawa and his partner had walked past three dying men from another party on their way to the summit of Everest; they offered no aid on their way to claim glory, and none on the way down, despite the fact that the three men were alive and not yet past hope. Partly this is due, of course, to the harsh conditions up there, which make it hard to keep oneself alive, let alone help another in danger. (“Above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality,” Shigekawa later said.) But then, Everest is not a battlefield, nor a suddenly occurring natural disaster area — and you have to wonder about individuals who have knowingly and freely put themselves in a situation where they’ll have no choice but to turn their back on those dying all around them. That these people risk their lives is a well-worn cliché; what’s less acknowledged is the degree to which they risk — and lose — their humanity for the sake of a thrill, or a little glory.

The Code of the Streets, a term popularized by the hip-hop duo Gang Starr and the sociologist Elijah Anderson, is the code of men who have come to feel that they have nothing to lose. Much of the struggle with young black boys and teenagers today lies in getting them to see all that violence endangers. At 13, I could imagine not going to jail, not getting shot, being a responsible father. I could not envision much more. I could name careers and other paths, but I had no real sense that it was possible for me to get there, or how. Somehow I got there. And on arrival, I found myself in the company of others like me: an entire fraternity founded on the need to comprehend the folkways of a world we had never been sure we’d see.

Some people come up expecting to win. We came up hoping not to lose. Even in victory, the distance between expectation and results is dizzying for both. The old code remains a part of you, and with it comes a particular strain of impostor syndrome. You have learned another language, but your accent betrays you. And there are times when you wonder if the real you is not here among the professionals, but out there in the streets.

Along with all of the other rising inequalities we’ve become so familiar with – in income, in wealth, in access to politicians – we confront now a fundamental inequality of accountability. We can have a just society whose guiding ethos is accountability and punishment, where both black kids dealing weed in Harlem and investment bankers peddling fraudulent securities on Wall Street are forced to pay for their crimes, or we can have a just society whose guiding ethos is forgiveness and second chances, one in which both Wall Street banks and foreclosed households are bailed out, in which both inside traders and street felons are allowed to rejoin polite society with the full privileges of citizenship intact. But we cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful. This is the America in which we currently reside.

— Chris Hayes, quoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates

What’s curious is that of all the ethical commitments that liberal-leaning consumers with discretionary income try to maintain today (dolphin-safe tuna! locally-sourced food! environmentally-safe detergents!) the circumstances of workers rarely if ever figure into the imagination, and yet, it’s not been so long since the treatment of workers did have a place at that somewhat trendy table. Now? You can see the banners at Whole Foods that mark off the company’s ethical commitments and not expect to see anything about its laborers or even about the labor conditions at the point of supply. That’s not just that the owner of the company is something of an infamous asshole about labor and regulation, it’s par for the course. Apple moved to deal with rumbles about labor conditions among its Chinese suppliers before they became a major issue, but it’s hard to imagine consumers making this a major part of their brand preferences or even foregoing certain products entirely. I don’t say that as an accusation against others: I can’t imagine myself not having a mobile device or desktop computer out of scruples about the workplace ethics of the producers.

In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb is the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.

— W. H. Auden, “The Joker in the Pack” (in The Dyer’s Hand)

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