Meditation #1: Something to Cry About
Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy. – Aristotle
Like many people no doubt, I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. I should admit up front that it all too often shows the worst side of me. I can get temperamental there sometimes, which is strange because I rarely get that angry away from the keyboard. So my poor, long-suffering friends and family get the brunt of my hotheadedness whenever it flares up. But the thing is, my anger isn’t really aimed at them, and after I purge those feelings I always feel remorseful about my emotional outbursts and usually apologize after I’ve calmed down again.
As a bona fide card-carrying right-brainer, I have always struggled with my emotions. I was a pretty meek child, and that is putting it mildly. Easily hurt by any angry word directed my way, or even reduced to tears by a stern look, I was a real mess. I know what you’re probably thinking, but this was not a plea for attention, believe me. I was ashamed of it and always did my best to hide it (as I did all of my issues), with varying degrees of success. It still drives me up the wall when I see another child who, like my child-self, has an eggshell-thin emotional shield and breaks down easily, only to be forcefully told by the child’s parent or other relative that his/her outbursts are just a ploy to get attention. Maybe that’s true in some cases, but honestly any child who can call up tears like that on a whim still has to be fairly thin-skinned, and I do not use that term derogatorily. Despite society’s bullshit, I have come to accept my rich emotional life and emotional vulnerability as a blessing.
Even so, unsurprisingly, at age forty I am much better overall at controlling my negative emotions than I was as a child, although in my case I had to go through the living hell of chronic depression and severe social anxiety for years before I could get to this point, and I lost something in the process that I know I can never get back. Moreover, I have still never forgotten what it was like to be a prisoner of my hurt and fear as a child. Add a physical disability, some major health issues that alienated me from my peers and a taboo sexuality into that mix and perhaps you might be able to grasp the horror that was my adolescence. My only real refuge from that nightmare was books–particularly speculative fiction, comics and books on psychology and social issues–and my art, and occasionally my amateurish attempts at fiction writing. And my sexual fantasies of course, which I was wise enough to keep to myself.
Culturally, the open expression of most of the full range of emotions is denied to males. We are expected to keep any signs of emotional “weakness” hidden. It’s still true to some extent, but it was definitely the case when I was young. The only extreme emotion we are allowed to express without being considered a pansy is anger, because this has traditionally been thought a masculine emotion, probably because of its usefulness in warfare. Anger is an inherently alienating emotion though, and I hate not only the feeling of it when it strikes me but also its effects on those exposed to it.
I have noticed that families in poverty are often full of temperamental people. This is no mystery: the stress of wondering if you’ll be able to pay your bills that month is bad enough, but when unexpected bills arise because of some health issue or car problem or household maintenance issue, it can quickly become a crisis. And since the poor can’t afford to invest in things that last, such crises occur often in low-income families. The poor are a tough lot. They have to be to deal with all the bullshit that comes with being poor, but that toughness can be a hindrance too in poverty situations, where masculinity has to be proven again and again in the competition for the scant resources available to them. That, along with the bodily aches and pains of working hard for meager rewards (often going without the medicine needed to treat the bad health that inevitably comes with such a life), the family turmoils, the obvious disdain for the poor held by the political and social elites, and indeed the built-in unfairness of the system which routinely crushes the bodies and souls of the poor–a system designed and operated by those same disdainful politicians and fat cats in power–tends to make poor people bitter. And that bitterness in turn infects the entire family, adding to the already overwhelming list of ills they must endure, which gets passed to the next generation, and on it goes.
For awhile wealthy American conservatives of the Reagan-Bush, Sr. era at least pretended to care about the poor, even as they privately operated against them. But with the rise of the neoconservatives the game changed, and they began to be more open with their hate, as their current policies and attitudes attest. Using everything they’ve learned from history–from intentionally convoluted logic to dupe and confuse the ignorant, to the Appeals to Emotion, especially Argumentum ad Metum (e.g. The government is coming to take away all your guns!), pioneered by conservative talk radio and perfected by Fox News that is designed to sow fear of the federal government amongst the lower classes, to the use of bait-and-switch tactics that distract the poor with hot button social issues like abortion and gay marriage and keep them away from fiscal issues, to the use of Orwellian semantics tricks to twist traditionally liberal arguments back on liberals (e.g. accusations of liberals waging class warfare)–the rich and powerful have never been more successful in pulling off the Big Lie and compelling masses of poor people to vote against their own interests.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the neocons was to create and entrench mistrust of intellectuals and intellectualism. The neocons knew at the outset this was extremely important because they know that the more educated people are, the more likely they are to see the truth and call the neocons’ bluff. Why? Because on some level they know that most of their positions do not hold up well either to reason or to moral rightness. If it was otherwise, then why not embrace intellectualism? For, as John Milton once wrote:
“Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do ingloriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple: who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
Although Milton meant this to apply only to the various warring factions of Christianity in England in the 1600s, it’s a point that’s relevant to the entire Marketplace of Ideas today.
But I digress. We were discussing the feelings that the poor, and especially the male poor, are culturally allowed to express. Happiness? Sure, a little, but not too much. After all, if you show people you’re a happy fellow, then the more fortunate members of society assume you must be better off than you’re letting on and use it as an excuse to argue against social programs that support the poor. But, if you let on that you’re miserable, well then you’re judged by the same group to be ungrateful and therefore undeserving of society’s benefaction (a perfect example of Morton’s Fork). Or they just think you’re a scumbag who’s faking your misery in order to bilk them out of their money. Either way they don’t trust you, and they certainly don’t like you. So what’s left to poor males? Stoicism? That is acceptable. Anger? Yes, as long as you’re channeling it at people who don’t matter in their book. And that’s about it.
Now, if you look at the states in America where the poor fare the worst, they’re almost invariably the chronically conservative ones; and regionally the South, where I live, is the worst of all. Violence rates among the rural poor in the South often rival or even surpass the inner cities of major metropolitan areas in other regions of the country, to say nothing of the violence within Southern cities. Guns aren’t merely ubiquitous here–almost everyone in the South owns at least one, with most Southerners owning several. I myself own a .22 rifle, a gift from my dad. I’m not against the ownership of firearms (clearly, or I’d be a hypocrite) but I am quite certain that gun laws in the South, such as they are, are designed to kill off poor people.
Cynical? Maybe. On the other hand, you have to be pretty damn gullible to believe that people who think it’s perfectly okay for them to horde millions or billions of dollars they have no intention of using while the poor kill each other over a few hundred bucks or over some disagreement over drugs that make the hurting go away, and then have the gall to bitch about paying a few more percentage points’ worth of taxes, are in any way out to look after the interests of the lower classes. Sorry, po’ folks, but those people don’t give a flying turd about you. Stop buying into their bullshit. Please.
Anyway, so a few poor people who have easy access to firearms get pissed off once in awhile and wind up killing each other. What’s it to the rich? In fact, that’s just a few more mouths they don’t have to pay taxes on to keep fed. But, of course, it isn’t just a few poor people. The numbers don’t lie. Violence is ubiquitous here, and murders occur more often than most non-Southerners think. A murder occurred even within my own family here a few years ago, a crime of passion (as most Southern murders are) that likely would not have occurred if the murderer, a felon who was out on bail as he awaited trial on sexual assault charges, didn’t have such easy access to guns. But heaven forfend anyone suggest some amount of reasonable limits on the ownership of guns. If you do then you must be a communist seeking to destroy America! Even your own family members think you’re delusional, at best ignoring you as they happily pass around anti-Obama and anti-liberal informational memes in Facebook that are often easily proven false.
And maybe now you can better understand the fons et origo of my online flareups. But I have learned my lesson: no more will I channel my indignation at those who are just as much victims of the modern ultraconservative system as I am, even if they cannot really comprehend why this is so and actively continue to support the politicians, pundits and tycoons who secretly laugh at the poor’s gullibility and ignorance as they continue to manipulate them and feed them horseshit conspiracy theories about Obama. In truth, the rural impoverished who swallow these lies are to be pitied rather than raged at. Henceforth the only people who will receive my fury are the ones who truly deserve it. They know who they are. I look upon all of us in the lower classes as victims of the neoconservative coup that took place in Washington in the early 1990s regardless of our beliefs or politics. Meanwhile, we may rest assured that the neocon house of cards will fall, and it’ll happen soon.
Meditation #2: Afraid of Tight Mindspaces
I believe that ideas such as absolute certitude, absolute exactness, final truth, etc., are figments of the imagination which should not be admissible in any field of science, and this loosening of thinking is the greatest blessing that modern science has given us. The belief in a single truth, and that you are the sole possessor of it, is the root cause of much evil. – Max Boen
Surely we’ve all experienced cognitive dissonance, that weird, unpleasant feeling we get when something known or perceived doesn’t match up with our worldview, self-identity, social/cultural expectations or other entrenched beliefs . . . our psychic comfort zone, so to speak. Although most older folks will never admit it, it’s a problem that tends to compound with age. Kids’ brains are much more plastic than adults’. Children arrive in the world with lots of genetic preprogramming so they aren’t exactly blank slates, but they do not come with built-in programs for values, cultural mores and so on. The reason for this is simple: these things are human inventions and therefore must be taught (socialized) rather than inherited. Morality is programmable software. It has to be. For much of history and in many cultures a child’s survival depended on its ability to trust completely in the authorities that held power over it, particularly its parents, and part of that was accepting and internalizing its parents’ and ultimately its culture’s values.
Many people prefer to believe that the universe is innately moral, or at least that morals exist out there somewhere in some a priori sense. Even many governments’ legal systems are founded on this notion of some sort of preexisting moral code. The U.S. Constitution is one of them. It’s based on the concept of natural rights. Some folks believe it is God who has established these unbending universal rules, others that they are axiomatic regardless of who/what did or did not establish them; which is to say, they should be accepted as a given and as the starting point for our understanding of the issue.
Let me say here that I have studied many religions, philosophical movements, ethics systems, and of course the natural world itself, and I can say without hesitation that there is zero evidence for the a priori existence of rights or any other moral concepts in the natural world. Indeed, the evidence that nature is completely amoral is overwhelming, and the term ‘natural rights’ is a misnomer if ever there was one. When people speak of natural rights, what they really mean is supernatural rights, and like all things supernatural, there is scant evidence to be found for them in consensus reality. There are behaviors amongst animals that seem to be manifestations of moral intent, but when you examine them closely what you find is that they are instead manifestations of genes that have evolved to look out for themselves and their own continuation. A good example is a mother animal’s instinct to protect its offspring. No matter how much we’d like to think otherwise, the fact is, mothers protecting their young is an evolutionary trait that occurred because it is in the interest of the continuation of a species.
I said in my last post that the recognition of our species’ right to exist should be the highest of our moral imperatives, but make no mistake: I was not suggesting that this is a moral imperative because God or nature says it’s so. No, a moral imperative is what we decide it is and can (and should) rest on the grounds of reason. It is reasonable to acknowledge that humans, like all species, are compelled to procreate. Not because some manuscript thousands of years old says “Go forth and multiply” but because our genes are just built that way. Furthermore, it is logical to look at nature to see what works and doesn’t work. That’s the beauty of being human–we have the greatest capacity of all animals to consciously learn from our environment, to accept or reject whatever parts we like of it, whereas all other animals (to the best of our knowledge) operate exclusively–or nearly so–by instinct. Instinct is not a moral choice; in fact, it is not a choice at all. It is behavior that is automatically activated by some exterior stimulus; it is unthinking behavior. But true morality can only be a conscious decision, a will to do what is right.
Look at it this way: the fact that deer don’t usually go out of their way to destroy your car doesn’t mean the deer are doing so because they believe destruction of your property is wrong. Rather, they avoid your car because they instinctively recognize that it is in their self-interest to do so. Likewise, just because we humans traditionally think of certain behaviors in ourselves as moral (e.g. mothers protecting their young) doesn’t mean other animals who do the same thing are then behaving morally. In the end, though, it makes sense for us to mimic the most successful and least destructive strategies in nature and hold them as moral imperatives, and there can be no doubt that mothers protecting their young is one of the most successful strategies for species propagation that has evolved in the animal kingdom.
Yet all moral imperatives have limitations, which is to say, they cannot be applied in any universal sense because inevitably they will run up against another moral imperative. Let us take as an example one of the crimes we generally consider to be among the most heinous: rape. This one seems to be universal, but it isn’t. When would the taboo against rape be trumped? How about this: a group of known murderers have taken a man, the man’s best friend and the friend’s entire family hostage at gunpoint. The criminals decide to force the man to rape a family member of his friend. He doesn’t want to, of course, but the thugs assure him that if he refuses to comply with their order the entire family will be executed on the spot, and the man has no reason to doubt their veracity. In that case I would argue that he can and should make an exception to his general moral prohibition against rape, because the very real possibility of murder, and especially murder of more than one person, trumps the taboo against rape in this case.
Now, you may argue that rape is still a grave moral violation regardless of what conditions it is committed under. In the abstract, at least, I wouldn’t argue that point with you, but it should be clear now that the application of our morals to real life situations is limited, and therefore all morals must be considered to be of finite value, for morality is only meaningful if it can be applied to consensus reality. But let me be very clear here in case anyone is getting the wrong impression: rape is still a major crime and a horrific moral violation for the most part, and the instances that would allow for it to be otherwise are extremely rare and extremely unlikely to manifest in most people’s lives. Ergo, I am NOT suggesting that because mortal imperatives do have limitations that all bets are off. As I said, in the vast majority of cases rape will still be a flagrant ethical violation and should be thought of and treated accordingly.
With that settled, let us lay out all of the relevant moral choices in the above scenario and consider their consequences:
#1 If the man believes rape to be universally evil and therefore always immoral to commit but rapes his friend’s family member anyway with the intention of saving the family’s lives, then the man clearly believes there are circumstances where it’s okay to violate his own moral code; he is thus a hypocrite and his moral system is rendered meaningless in application.
#2 If the man believes that the social and legal injunctions against rape should never be violated but also believes mass murder is worse than rape and should also be prevented if possible, and yet he refuses to commit the rape and lets the family die, then he has violated another of his moral imperatives, the one against allowing mass murder to take place if he can prevent it, and the same point applies.
#3 If the man rapes the friend’s family member with the understanding that this isn’t really a violation of his moral code because his options were limited and because another, higher moral imperative would be prevented if he failed to comply with the murderers’ wishes, then he recognizes that the moral itself has a limited application.
Well, the same conditions apply to all moral decisions (with varying degrees of import, depending on the decision), for, unless you recognize only one universal moral–and it must be said that you have a staggeringly simplistic worldview if you do!–then there is always the possibility that one moral imperative will conflict with another because life is messy and complex. People do not violate values systems in a vacuum. One must, in cases where such conflicts exist, decide which of his/her values in conflict are to be considered greater than the others and operate accordingly.
Returning to our starting point, what does all of this have to do with cognitive dissonance? Well, a lot, actually. Often when two moral imperatives come in conflict, people experience cognitive dissonance. This is especially the case where they have an inflexible moral viewpoint on the issues involved. How does one dissipate his cognitive dissonance and restore psycho-emotional balance in such cases? It’s clear to me that in order to truly do so he must resolve the conflict somehow. Some will do as I would do, weighing the options and choosing the least disagreeable one. Such a person may accept, as I would, that such conflicts are inevitable and that moral values are always limited in application. Or, he may outwardly express his belief in moral absolutes even as he behaves otherwise, in which case he is a hypocrite and his system of morals is self-contradicting and therefore meaningless.
Maybe rather than attempt to resolve the conflict at all, he will construct elaborate fictions for himself in order to keep the cognitive dissonance at bay. Here’s where those pesky (and brilliant) cognitive biases I spoke of in my last post come in. But then the conflict is never truly resolved, is it? Just hidden behind a mental labyrinth of smoke and mirrors. And anyway, just because a conflict has been pushed out of our minds doesn’t mean it no longer exists in reality. The conflict is still there.
Perhaps in some rare cases people try but are unable to resolve these conflicts, obsessing over them until the cognitive dissonance becomes something much bigger: an existential crisis. Most people probably experience an existential crisis at least once in their lives, some more severely than others. I’ve gone through it at least twice. The first time it happened I was in my early twenties and resolved the dilemma relatively quickly by taking up Christianity, a belief system I had long rejected but tried to follow faithfully anyway. This was fairly short-lived in the scheme of things, and as pointed out above, the issues were never really resolved for me, just staved off for awhile. My second existential crisis was far different. I was nearly thirty years old, about to graduate from college and too smart by then to talk myself into some simplistic, prefab, one-size-fits-all ideology like Christianity; consequently, the price for my wisdom was steep for I suffered much, much more and for a far longer duration on the second go-round. In fact, I had a nervous breakdown and was reduced to a puddle of sadness and horrific anxiety, an epic two to three year event that I have since mostly rebounded from with the help of time and several drugs (some legal, some not).
Nevertheless, I’m still on the mend and probably will be for the remainder of my life. You don’t recover from a years-long bout of depression and anxiety overnight, and in order to move on from it at all you must accept that you’re likely never going to be as happy and carefree as you once were. But you learn to go with the flow, and a sort of numbness sets in for awhile with the occasional hiccup of emotion and/or panicked resistance to the new status quo, which I reckon is something akin to the shell-shock some soldiers experience after returning from war. Slowly, slowly, you make your way up the hill until you begin to reach something like the plateau of normality, if there is such a place. I’m dubious these days. It’s probably all slogging uphill from here, but whatever. I deal with it as I need to.
Something good did come from that experience: the resolution I had long sought was eventually reached. That resolution is what I just laid out for you above (well, part of it anyway). Accept it, learn from it, and maybe you will find peace without having to go through all of the turmoil that I was cursed to experience in order to arrive at that point.
I wish you all the best!