Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Moral paradoxes: do we define ourselves alone, or with interpendence on others: the "schizoid" to "narcisissm" problem

Deep within the Internet, if one searches for it on bar or disco computers (I wouldn’t want to bring up some of these sites at home for security reasons), one can find chats or forums where young men make very graphic comments about their desires to be “relieved” from the “responsibilities” that society places on them, however erratically. One need not be too explicit.

Looking back, I, like many other gay men, remember the frustration of being force to “compete” by other people’s rules, when I wanted to be left alone to pursue what I thought was my own calling (music). But it wasn’t always “competition”. Sometimes it had to do with performing manual labor chores in a prescribed way. And sometimes there seemed to be no “practical” purpose for the chore other than a disciplinary exercise for me in fitting in and meeting the needs of others. Otherwise, I would become “spoiled” or “get out of things.”

I can draw on some wisdom, and remember the point of these exercises. The world is an inherently unsafe and dangerous and unpredictable place, even if the immediate suburban surroundings seem secure enough. Others have much less than “you” and are indignant and angry enough to yank it away. You have to defend yourself and particularly, those in your family. Okay, I grew up just after “The Greatest Generation” had demonstrated that. No one can guarantee that you will always have what you want, or even earn it in a conventional way, or even follow what you think is your path in life. Before you get to make and execute your own choices, you have to meet the needs of others. You have to accept complementarity. (The Vatican loves that word, doesn’t it.) You are a man. Men need to do certain things for women and children. Women do certain things for me. (We come to that.) Children obey their parents. But life is first about family and community. Not everyone gets to excel in a public manner. But everyone gets to mean something in the family (even the elderly and sometimes disabled adults). But if that’s going to work, everybody has to do his own adaptive job with some complementarity.

There’s something tricky about this – getting the emerging teen or young adult to learn to balance expression of his or her individuality with interdependence with others. Sometimes “you” have to let others depend on you in circumstances beyond your control. And sometimes – even as a consequence of the first – you have to accept some dependence on others that you would not cause. Yet we think of this as negative, as leading to clinging and jealousy, to monopolizing others – and sometimes in a community it becomes unavoidable and necessary. Even so, future generations may relearn that limiting emotional intimacy to terms of one’s own choosing is not always a “fundamental right.”

Once that’s done, they would say, once you meet your pre-existing obligation to family, you can think about your own freedom. You may distinguish yourself publicly and become a star, but that’s not guaranteed. Things can go wrong. You can still be called back to make sacrifices for others, even if that means changing what you decided to do with your life. The best way to have standing is to get married, have children, and discipline your psyche, the deepest part of your personality, to feel attraction (giving up your youthful aesthetic judgmentalism – we all know about “body fascism”) for one person as you age together, come whatever may (and one can imagine a lot that can come). And think about it, if everyone really could enforce their own judgments all the time, well it would "mean something" and have a political impact, not necessarily good for sustainable freedom.

Call all this hype “anti-narcissism.” On Tuesday, May 5, Cheryl Wetzstein wrote a column on p A16 of The Washington Times, “Falling for narcissism” with analysis of the work of Drew Pinsky and S. Mark Young, link here. The term narcissistic personality typically refers to disregard for others even in the sense of honoring the “harm principle” (sociopathy), and some of what is talked about here sounds more like a discussion of the “schizoid personality” which sounds like a withdrawal from the intimacy and connectivity to others that society demands – yet generally in a “harmless” manner. Yet, in today’s world of public global asymmetry, unthinkable “mashups” and slippery sandpiles, “harmless” is harder to pin down. In fact, Dr. Pinsky starts out by saying “Narcissism, in and of itself, shouldn’t be thought of some bad, per se, but there are liabilities that come with it.”

They develop the interesting point that society provides a lot of distractions from “Vatican” complementary commitment in terms of media images. Sunday, in another column (see my COPA blog), Wetzstein had discussed the way pornography detracts men (and sometimes women) from the necessary

So far, in this discussion, community trumps. But we all know that, since the 60s especially (and really going back to the time of Marxism a century earlier) societies have focused on “fairness” more in relation to how the individual is measured. Or call it “justice” which, in a free society, can never be completely reconciled with “community.” The whole line of thought (I called it “Vatican complementarity”) sounds like an excuse for tribalism and patriarchal structures, and, yes, that does happen. Racism (as prolonged by segregation and discrimination) and now economic “classism” are bad effects (contributing to the current fiscal mess, as it had in the 1930s). Over time, “social justice” came to be thought of in terms of individuals rather than groups, and this worked well with the evolving libertarian idea of “harmlessness”. We learned to treasure diversity and focus on carving out a sacrosanct area of fundamental rights for the individual. Still, we have developed a concern that, particularly in a sustainable world, we need to require everyone to adhere to something like “pay your dues.” Calls for national service or even reinstating the draft come to mind. We are aware that not everyone starts out the same place in line, and that people live off the unseen sacrifices of others. But we develop a tendency to “measure people” – both in terms of accomplishment and in terms of proving they can provide for others.

That brings back a generalization of Wetzstein’s concern over pornography, and expressed in the recent piece Tuesday. The media saturates us with heroes, with people who are “good”. It’s easy to be generous if you have all the gifts of Clark Kent. I can think of plenty of other “role model” characters in entertainment, more or less (like Supernatural’s Sam Winchester, Numbers’s Charlie Epps), and I won’t get into the female heroines to attract heterosexual men. This can translate into what we expect of people we would make commitments to, or particularly what we would expect lifelong of spouses. This sounds like the footprint of narcissism – expecting in the other partner what we don’t have ourselves – starting with complementarity (which has more to do with what one “does”), going through legitimate polarity and winding up as nothing more than unfulfilled fantasy. Yet, it has little to do with pornography.

It also sounds like something we would associate with male homosexuality – upward affiliation – and sometimes it is (to the point that in the early 1970s some authorities recommended exposure to heterosexual pornography as “treatment” for homosexuality). Yet, there are committed male gay couples for a half-century, and this sort of “narcissism” is common in the heterosexual world. In fact, the point could make an argument for, rather than against, gay marriage. It’s get people into “real” relationships and out of their fantasies, please. And get them into raising the next generation and, now, given demographics, taking care of the previous one(s).

What is driving all the concern with this is, of course, sustainability, and the awareness of where demographics has put us. We have enabled people to live longer, but often in a situation where they will need to depend on adult children who themselves never made the “choice” to marry and raise families. This can create new social tensions and moral paradoxes that we are not yet prepared for.

In some ways, we can now understand that the “public morality” more of a half century ago, to let heterosexual marriage officially monopolize all expression of sexuality (“sex is for married people” – “Seventh Heaven”), tended to enforce “local” fairness and “justice”. It meant that, for practical purposes, everyone would have to take some of the “risk” of not just raising or caring for other generations but accepting the emotional uncertainty that comes with any commitment that must in time expose someone to having to feel or care about persons with “problems” previously thought unacceptable by the personality. (In that sense, schizoid, it not necessarily narcissistic, behavior could be viewed as “cowardly”). Now, in this era of Lawrence v. Texas, we know that the modern public, as a whole, in western democracies (the Islamic world is another matter) does not want to revert to using such an essentially dishonest ruse to protect the commitment of the psyche. But it should at least understand the scope of the social problems that face us now, because of sustainability and demographics.

There are particular contradictions in the era of “personal responsibility”. As people live much longer with modern (Medicare-subsidized) medicine and some of them frail, there will be people who somewhat rightfully expect to be pampered by their children and younger generations as elders, even as they “fail” by modern hyper-individualistic notions of “personal responsibility” familiar in the libertarian political (and particularly, corporate and employment) world. While elders impart a lot of collectively-oriented wisdom from generations ago, this kind of experience can impose new “goals” on active adults that previously would have been thought morally unacceptable. The economic changes, toward decentralization, may mean that single people will be more expected to serve as role models for other people’s children (the Phillip Longman argument. New schemes to rationalize outcomes in new moral terms may evolve. Perhaps people will have to prove that they can provide for others and have a generative stake in the future before they go public. But all of this seems to track back to the family values of “the Greatest Generation” which understood that community matters and some outcomes are beyond individual choice and control.

Family responsibility certainly spans a lot more than just what follows from the “choice” to have children. But the media doesn’t seem ready to face that debate honestly yet. I have to applaud Wetzstein and others who write “conservative” columns for challenging us to face this debate. The Biblical “Parable of the Talents” takes on some double meaning indeed. If something really unpreventable happens to us all (as per History Channel’s “Mega Disasters” and hypothetical “purifications”, for instance), family, chosen or not, is all any of us would have. And we would suddenly be grateful for it.

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