Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Redux: Pay your bills and pay your dues (It starts with Dr. Phil's show on bullies)
Recently the Dr. Phil show has covered the topic of school bullying, and has introduced a book by Dr. Phil’s son Jay. Other books on the topic by Nancy Willard and Susan Lipkins add material to understanding the topic. Today I want to put a personal spin on it, with what happened to me in the 50s, and lead to a discussion about the flip side of how we view structured hierarchal social relationships in a society that wants to value individual freedom.
I remember feeling tormented, somewhat in grade school, but especially in seventh grade. Since I was not competitive physically as a boy, I began to develop feelings of not just modesty but also shame about my body, a most unacceptable emotion. I do not recall the incidents as well as I recall the questions about being expected to “hit back” and then the occasions when I did retaliate. A few times I fought with my fingernails (possibly causing a serious cosmetic injury that year; I still cringe) and then verbally, in one particularly upsetting incident in ninth grade. In senior high school, I was very much better off. But, as I have covered in the blogs, I had quite an experience in my first semester at college (1961) (William and Mary) and wound up being expelled for admitting homosexuality. I remember skipping a session where freshmen were supposed to be hazed.
The modern interpretation of this problem is to tell the victims that it is not their fault. Certainly, when I went to school, administrations were unwilling to stop the “picking on” of kids who were different, and even today schools say that their hands are tied in policing behavior off the school campus (as on the Internet). Why did authorities have such a diffident attitude? I think there is a natural bias in our culture to encourage “strength” and to expect the “weak” to accept their place in the world. This is a problem.
Some of our more intelligent animals, like wolves and lions, have hierarchal social organizations that do not allow all members the same rights or even to reproduce. They have developed power structures so that their groups, viewed as wholes, have the greatest chance of surviving and reproducing in an uncertain, possibly hostile world. Modern human society, we thought, it supposed to be different. We have the rule of law. If everyone is equal before the law, we can guarantee a level of individual rights. But we have to “guarantee” that the law will work.
I recall after my expulsion my father said once, “Now we have to worry about what everybody thinks.” Appearance is more important than truth. It’s easy to dismiss this as intellectually illogical. In a real world, social dependencies matter. We all depend on the sacrifices or subsidies of others that we don’t see. So we get a sense that people have to be responsible for each other, whether they choose to or not. Taking that responsibility requires competitive skill. In earlier generations, notions about competition were tied to gender, and ideas that men had inherent obligations and “duty” to “protect” women and children (first in their own families) that went beyond the scope of personal choice. Someone with more ability could do more for others, but also could have more power. That meant that someone with less ability (me, then, in terms of male capabilities) did what others said. There was a sense that such a hierarchal order was morally “right.” This moral paradigm reflected a sense that the outside world, even the legal system and market economy, was uncertain and that families and local communities needed reliable “chains of command” and locus of authority, and a sense of loyalty form members. This kind of “moral thinking” accepts the existence of “enemies” as a real part of the entire moral landscape of “right and wrong” and is willing to vilify people who are too disruptive to harmony. It’s true, it’s not hard to get from that kind of thinking to totalitarian systems that we were supposed to be fighting (and had beaten in World War II).
My own father would make something of this, trying to make me learn to do certain manual tasks, unnecessary in a practical sense, a certain way according to the discipline imposed by others. It seemed he wanted me to accept the idea of doing certain things just so show respect “for authority’ or power for its own sake.
In time, I got a pass on my physical inadequacies. I got my C’s in gym and the high school didn’t count them in the GPA. The Cold War world had awakened to the idea that it needed its dorks and nerds. (It also meant that my talent for piano and composition had to be set aside.) Yet my doing so left a certain moral imbalance. I finally served in the military, but after graduate school (and my recovery from the expulsion). I was sheltered while in the Army, whereas others who were physically more forceful but not academically inclined made sacrifices from which, according to the moral standards of the time (centering on the moral debate over draft deferments), I benefited. One can suggest that, while school administrators should have stopped the bullying, I should have been made to measure up. (That is my “Point 1”). That would be much easier to do today, with modern medicine, to determine what the cause of my social, mechanical and physical development problems.
Had I overcome these issues, would my life have been different? Probably. I might have dated, married, had children, and learned “family responsibility”. And then perhaps I would have wanted to break the marriage to experience what came next anyway. Which outcome was right? For me to spare someone a possible divorce, or to create and share parenting responsibility? It’s not necessarily a wash.
Now, I could say, this narrative belongs on the GLBT blog, but I think the problems are broad enough to belong here. But this brings to how I “came out” – twice, as narrated in my books. Because of the effect of the teasing and “bullying” and the way I reacted to cultural norms, I developed a different psychological strategy. I came to value, through a process of upward affiliation, men who were both “smart” and “strong”. This got to be elaborated to a fantasy life and erotic feelings that mapped back to a belief that I knew and could choose what was morally “good.” One of the most important points (“Point 2” of this essay) about this process is that I was admitting to myself that I “bought” the moral values that say that notions like duty and local power are meaningful and necessary. I did not believe that everyone was equally “worthy.” Furthermore, modern technological culture offered other opportunities for self-expression (for some of us) besides procreation. (I could turn that around and make it more negative.)
During the William and Mary and NIH treatment periods in my life, as I’ve explained, I noticed a flip in the attitudes of those who had previously made fun of me. They sensed a dark side to my personal values: I could place myself in a position of being able to remind them that they could fail physically, too. I think that this observation helps explain, in a practical sense, a lot of what we call “homophobia” today or “homohatred.” It’s obviously relevant to the way that the military views the problem. I think that this process is also an admission of the process that competitive male heterosexuality invites its own contradictions, which somehow must be contained.
Remember, I made no pretense then of claiming “equality.” I just wanted to freedom to “be myself.” For a period in my life, that freedom was taken away to assuage the emotional needs of others. I would eventually understand that many marriages, to remain active and stable, are predicated on the notion that the families marriages form become a source of identity for everyone, including other adults who don’t marry and have their own children. Marriage seemed to need to claim a monopoly on how sexuality was to be used. If one wanted full adulthood, one needed to be open to the particular kinds of intimacy and emotional self-giving that marriage and parenthood requires. This turns upsidedown the modern way of looking at problems of teen pregnancy as simply making bad choices. Openness to procreation and sharing in its uncertainties was to be expected of everyone. For example, this was a very important part of Vatican moral thinking, to the point that the Catholic Church managed the issue of men who do not want to procreate separately, offering a celibate priesthood, so that these men would still participate meaningfully in carrying on the generations. It’s important to remember that both family and church were expected to provide a source of collective identity to protect those who really, for “no fault of their own”, were less able and less competitive. This is really how people thought, like it or not.
The world, it seemed once I was in early adulthood, would feel more comfortable if I, despite my lack of manly competitiveness, would marry and have children myself, so I couldn’t remain in a position to “kibitz” the masculinity of others. (Kibitzing the chess games of others is fun..)
Nevertheless, for about three decades or so, I would enjoy my “urban exile,” living my own life my own way, as if on another planet. Until the 1990s, the gay community was relatively separate socially from the rest of society, so others learned to tolerate the existential problems that gays could raise. The one huge exception to this was the reaction to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
But in the 1990s things changed, for a couple of reasons. The biggest stimulus was probably the opening of the public Internet and World Wide Web, which brought different kinds of people into what author Clive Barker calls “reconiliation.” The other big reason was the emergence of political issues, particularly gays in the military, which president Bill Clinton would bring up when he tried to lift the ban, as well as gay marriage and civil unions, which were percolating in the 90s. One major context for these issues was that gay people should share the risks and responsibilities of a free society with everyone else. Now, with a global economy with the family less central in American life, the idea that someone who did not share these responsibilities could become a “second class citizen” became important. But – just think about it – the new paradigm for equality and libertarian, hyper-individualistic idea of “personal responsibility” could make less secure or “less competitive” individual people in “the straight world” feel personally exposed.
In 1997, I entered the world of self-publishing (and self-promotion) with my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book. In the first few years I focused on “fundamental rights” and on building a belief system around “personal responsibility,” which could be cast as requiring sometimes involuntary responsibility for others as ones “dues”. But some of that is a way of projecting the more communal ideas about encapsulating responsibility in the family. Circumstances went wrong. We had 9/11, financial scandals (with executives who no longer know right from wrong), and destabilizing concerns about (nuclear) terror, pandemics and global warming; and I had my eldercare responsibility. The notion that one has to deal with other people on terms other than one’s choosing (the “personal responsibility” and “harm” principles) in an unstable world became morally compelling. Family responsibility wasn’t limited to adults who had “chosen” to have kids.
I still, as I did, maintain a conviction that there was an uncanny connection in the issues that led to my college expulsion (and my subsequent draft physicals and military service) and the 90s debate on “don’t ask don’t tell” that continues until today. This, over time (including my involvement in the COPA litigation) morphed into a “paradigm”: in the larger world, “don’t ask don’t tell” came to accepting a certain amount of moral hypocrisy and information hiding so that we could get along without dead-end existential confrontations. The DADT philosophy seemed to infect our entire government, leading to today’s Wall Street crisis.
One of the most important concepts to me became public information transparency. (Surely, investors needed that!) People tend to participate in democracy by letting surrogates (aka paid lobbyists, often enough) speak for them, which encourages the “I’m an oppressed victim” public whining and the childish demonstration campaigns, and deliberate public disinformation that we saw (from the religious right) in measures like Proposition 8 in California. (Both sides look foolish!) Indeed, ethical conflicts can keep people from speaking truthfully for themselves. But that’s the only way we can have a society where we really understand how other people think.
Now, I’m at "Point 3", which is that some parties are unnerved by my drawing public attention to myself when I haven’t taken on the same “family responsibility” as other people (as “real men”) and don’t personally experience their struggles before speaking.
I did embrace the libertarian point of view with the first book, and I still do to some extent. But I’ve come to realize that no government and no regulation can lead back to an overly decentralized world of bullies and enemies. I am not trying to interfere with people getting organized help from government in any area, like collective bargaining, health care, eldercare or, now, mortgages. (When it comes to foreclosure, as John McCain said, “I am my neighbor’s keeper” it seems.) What I present is a lot of observations with links or connections between the observations, pointing out often overlooked problems; but I am not really advocating a specific (ideological) agenda. But I do think that there needs to be a fundamental change in the way people understand issues and pursue them. People need to become much more objective, and much more willing to understand the “other side(s)”. Well, the free flow of information on the Internet helps us to achieve that. But the abuses and gaping exposures (for the innocent) still can threaten the entire “free entry” system that we have gotten used to, and very suddenly, as I’ve pointed out in the past several posts. We could get back to a system where people must have “standing” before they have earned the privilege of being listened to.
In recent years, some parties have tried to challenge be to function as if I could act as an authority figure (for “authority’s” sake) and bond with others in forms of “intimacy” that used to be expected of men who make themselves visible to others. They have tried to “accommodate” me with situations where I could serve as a “male role model.” Some of these situations occurred in bizarre (and in one or two cases, potentially humiliating) circumstances when I was substitute teaching. Others have occurred with calls about jobs predicated on manipulating others through sales or even charity-related circumstances. I have a reaction to this. You want to say “don’t tell” and ask me to “pretend” to be a father figure, in a world where United States code has a statute (relating, to be sure, to the military) stating as a matter of law that I am not fit to assume some of the responsibility for preserving freedom. Indeed, had the bullying that I talked about earlier never happened, I might feel much more all right about this. Okay, that’s what accommodation means, you say. My unwillingness to take this kind of responsibility for someone in circumstances that you dictate makes a perfect excuse for calling me "hostile." And maybe it's "dangerous" to have more than a low profile after admitting that one is no "authority figure" able to "protect" others (outside of depending on the law). But, still, you want an act. In recent years, I have gotten interested in acting, but in situations where people know it is acting (the movies).
Again, it seems as though the underlying idea is that, before being heard from, someone should prove that he (or she) can support others beside the self, even if single. Someone should compete for responsibility and authority and get concrete results, measured in numbers or financial results. Okay, you say, I worked for twelve years in life insurance, so why don’t I want to prove that I can manipulate people into buying it. Well, it was a good living, but it isn’t something that I did myself. I’m interested in managing an activity (and the people working on it) when it has to do with a problem that I have researched and concluded is critical (I’ve documented plenty of them on these blogs).
Most of my life, I’ve had a sense that most people want to see everyone play by the same rules, on a level playing field. They also want to see people share risk and uncertainty, and own up to the way they depend on others out of sight. That was the idea of “morality” that I grew up. There was never any question that you took responsibility for your own actions. You understood that you had some responsibility for others. We do call this “fairness” or “justice” and we expect the political and legal system to work for us in these areas. It doesn’t always, which is one reason why people put stock in matters of faith and family and accept interdependence. I have come to understand indignation and self-righteousness, and in my own beliefs I can become as “fundamentalist” as anyone else. No one wants to be forced to support others in a manner against their beliefs. No one wants to feel cheated. No one wants to believe they are expected to subsidize wrongdoing. But even with saying this, I can understand how such thinking can run away from people, in other parts of the world, and lead to the tragedies we have seen.
I think that we will need to have some townhalls or public events about how new challenges will be met on an individual level, as issues like national service, climate change, and worldwide economic imbalances portend major changes in the way we live. Perhaps we will indeed adopt a new mantra, “pay your bills and pay your dues.”
I guess I need to say how I will pay mine. It’s a lot easier if I can get paid to tackle these problems, and don’t have to play into some phony hierarchy first.
A stable democracy needs both “truth” and “right”. “Truth” refers to the transparency and accuracy of information easily available to the public. “Right” does refer to a “power structure” reasonably related to the merit of the people occupying it. Without “right” (and even information coming from the “right” places) truth will not be recognized or acted upon. Without truth, power structures will “make” wrong rather than right.