Wednesday, July 01, 2015
If you're "different" or "special", you have to look at everything through a "moral" lens
I know, in an intellectual sense, that my lifetrack experience is “different” from that of most other peers. It seems normal to me. It’s rather like relativity. And my own life divides into a sequences of segmented episodes, each of which quickly becomes a “new normal”. A previous episode is fresh in mind but then gradually recedes.
My capabilities are “different”, and I often, when growing up, did not do well in some of the gender-specific tasks typically expected of boys. I did have talent in academics and music, and it was a legitimate expectation that I could do well if left alone. But others will sometimes come knocking. So the life experiences of others became relevant. And of course bad luck can come knocking, in the way of natural disasters or illness, even if I have had less of that than a lot of others. Worst of all, when people seem to have benefits they didn’t earn, they will, as individuals or members of larger groups, tend to attract some enemies, motivated politically (beyond the usual psychopaths and criminals). Someone like me can be suddenly confronted with the idea that he would not be of much use in a post-revolutionary society (as in the NBC series). History repeats itself.
My personality is such that I insist on following my own direction, on goals chosen by me. Paul Rosenfels used to say this was the defining characteristic of the “unbalanced” (“objective masculine” or “subjective feminine”) personality. Sometimes “life” doesn’t let one do this (without the unseen sacrifices of others, at least), and one needs resilience, which makes, then, this sort of constructive “selfishness” (that Ayn Rand would approve of) morally controversial. Much of the parable story telling I the New Testament deals with this, and all major religions (including Islam, when reasonable and moderate) struggle with this.
That’s why I feel anyone in my position must examine his life on moral terms as well as simply self-fulfillment according to “who one is”. Inductive reasoning follows, and it sets examples for others.
Before going on, look at this piece on Slate, "The Church of Self-Help" by Helaine Olen, then come back.
Moral thinking, beyond the libertarian idea of harmlessness and non-violation of consent, seems filled with contradictions (sorry, “Atlas Shrugged”) in western culture. That’s because the individual matters at one end, and the future of all civilization (all those not even yet conceived, let alone born) matters at the other. (That sounds troubling, that future people who don’t yet exist have claims on us and “rights”.) In between are various layers: “natural” family, community, country. The legitimate interests at these different levels can be in tension. Sometimes, family comes before being a “global citizen”. But not always. Imagine the situation of a young adult who grows up, in say, a West Bank settlement and has to assess his own moral situation as an individual, based on what his family has done. But Scarlett O’Hara faced the same thing in “Gone with the Wind”.
In my own experience, there are at least three areas that seem particularly troubling.
One of these is that indeed I wasn’t very good at doing the manly things people expect, particularly when men can be called upon to fight for women and children, as was expected in the past. My experience with the draft illustrates that point. I tended to retreat to my own world, which was very satisfying.
The second is that I am much less inclined than normal to engage someone in an intimate or serious personal relationship where the other person is very needy. I cannot imagine living up to the “in sickness and in health”. For all the talk about it in marriage vows, my own upbringing didn’t expose me to this potential very much. But had I been “better at things” than I was, I might have been more responsive to women, and found it important to have children and become a father. I disagree with the claims of immutability in this sense.
The third is that I do indeed enjoy my position of speaking from a distance, and being heard, without having to “take sides” or work for someone else’s cause in the usual way that is expected. Technology – first low-cost desktop or print-on-demand self-publishing, and then the Internet, with efficient search engines – allowed me to become “published” without a gatekeeper, and to maintain a “keeping them honest” presence to oppose partisan, narrowly tailored speech demanded by others. It’s more important to me to win arguments than converts, but that’s a bit of a luxury, afforded by a legal climate (buttressed by the First Amendment and many Supreme Court opinions) that is more generous to me than it might have been.
Yet, I constantly have to entertain the possibility of various disruptions and approaches, where others think it would not be so bad to carry the banner for someone else. Don’t “normal people” – with kids and a biological stake in their own futures – have to do that?
In the midst all of this, homosexuality became a proxy for all the other, “real” issues. I am astounded at the progress of the past ten years, even since writing my second book. Yes, much of the material in my first two DADT books must now seem dated, unless they are read for historical context. One of the reasons I keep all my material around is that most young adults really don’t understand how precarious the history just before them is. Most don’t realize what a draft was like, or what political threats came from AIDS in the 1980s, or why someone like me would have been thrown out of William and Mary in 1961. “The kids” will have to read this history in books (including mine) or hear college lectures on it, but I actually lived it.
In the past, I saw sexual orientation as a “being left alone” issue, but (as was so much the case with the military), what disturbed people was not “conduct” per se, but what the meaning of my “desires” (or lack thereof) could mean, and the distraction that they felt this presented to their own future family formation. My kibitzing could be more disturbing than a rival in the usual sense. Today, I find the same idea. If I “reject” becoming involved with some deserving cause, others can extrapolate most unfortunate meeting (that “people as people” don’t matter, and that has potentially dangerous political consequences, as we know from history). True, no matter how clever or good someone’s content is, it doesn’t mean anything until other real people “consume” it, and that has to be more than just “the choir”.
It is true, not every moral problem is just a matter of following through in a “choice”. Sometimes we have to join and fight other people’s battles. Sometimes we have to raise OPC (other people’s children” even when we didn’t have our own, or take care of our parents. Some situations, like accepting distribution of an estate, pose their own hybrid ethical questions. Libertarianism does say it is predicated on "freedom from other men" or at least the involuntary demands of others. One trouble is that we don't start at the same place in line. Another is that expression is meaningless until other people receive it (again, "relativity").
And some behaviors do matter in the collective, where the whole seems to be more than the sum of its parts (a non-Euclidean triangle inequality). The vaccine debate (and herd immunity) provides a good example. So do other public health issues (agricultural practices that incubate avian influenza, or in the 1980s, chain-letter sexual practices that could “amplify” something like HIV).
In authoritarian countries, politicians often assert that public safety and even national prosperity depends on disciplining individual citizens and supposedly “right-sizing” them. Consider, for example, Putin and his handling of Russian population crash. (Yes, right now, ISIL and North Korea are the very worst.) This leads often to horrific results (going all the way back to Sparta). But even in free societies, the way people make their own personal choices can matter to everyone.