Monday, December 07, 2009

Why "The Rules" are so important to some people; redux on "the privilege of being listened to"

While watching the tense POW scenes involving the Taliban’s capture of the American Marine captain in the movie “Brothers” (as played by Tobey Maguire) Saturday, I was struck by the way the radical Islamist characters are so taken by a world under absolute rules and laws, and how they feel that Americans and westerners have taken moral certainty away from them. You get the impression that a belief that everyone adheres to “The Rules” is very important to them in a personal way in their own family lives (however their treatment of women comes across to westerners). That may help explain the psychology that led relatively privileged young Saudi men into 9/11. (It’s easy, by the way, to understand the personal “shame” that radical Palestinians feel about the West Bank settlement issue; its much harder for individualistic-thinking westerners to understand the more abstract sense of invasion of Islamic lands as mentioned in the film.)

There’s one aspect of extremely conservative religion: the laws are dictated by “God” or “Allah”, and as long as everyone can be forced to obey them, no one can cheat the system; no one can get out of things, no one can benefit from a hidden dependence on others, and there should be no "double standards". Of course, we may say that is not really true (look at the regal lifestyles of Saudi Arabia’s royal family), but people of that persuasion believe it is true. There is no “democratic debate” on the “rules”: they are supposedly dictated in the Koran. Likewise, with a lot of conservative (sometimes “evangelical”) Christianity, the rules are laid out in the Bible and not subject to debate. And again, no one gets out of stuff (so they think). Indeed, some conservative religious groups, like the Mormon Church (LDS) do a good job of having its members share social responsibility at a deep level. On the other hand, there have been secular attempts to enforce a similar view of “morality”: look at the Cultural Revolution of Red China back in the 1960s, when intellectuals were forced to take their turns becoming peasants (described by some left-wing authors as an exercise in "absolute justice"). Isn’t this what the Cold War came down to?

It’s pretty clear that radical Islam (whether Sunni or Shiite) is as vitriolic in its treatment of homosexuals as any society since the Third Reich. I look back at what happened to me, with my college expulsion in 1961 and the subsequent period, and a related, if somewhat different, set of values is apparent. Back in the 1950s, one of the main purposes of anti-homosexual views (and sodomy laws) was to “guarantee” parents that their kids would be loyal to the families that they (pro)created. This was seen as an important “insurance policy” for the longevity and stability of marriage itself, that everyone share in the cultural value of biological lineage (just see how lineage plays out in the Old Testament). As an only child, this was especially critical for me, yet I did not understand this at, say, age 18 because I had never dated girls or even been interested in heterosexual experience myself. But, yup, to some parents this kind of loyalty really was that important (and still is today – look at the confrontation scene in the film “Latter Days” between the “boy” and his mother). The mandatory sharing of family responsibility was viewed as a social temporizer, a way to make class divisions (even as segregation started to come to an end) morally acceptable.

Of course we know what happened. The “sexual revolution” that started in the 60s and that draws so much criticism from cultural conservatives now really was born on the need for social diversity in order to have the intellectual capital it took to win wars. That is, we couldn’t win WWII without Alan Turing (who was gay), and we couldn’t win the Cold War without pampering geeks and intellectuals, who were often too self-absorbed to care much about procreation. This would play out in the moral conflict over student deferments in the Vietnam era draft, a problem that would bear a curious contraposition to “don’t ask don’t tell” today.

Then, starting pretty much in the supposedly “collectivist” 1970s, individualism and objectivism started to gain credibility as moral theories. The Libertarian Party was born and gradually grew. Individualism could be challenged by problems ranging from oil shocks in the 1970s to AIDS in the 1980s, but, ironically in large part because of Reaganism, it flourished. (In many ways, the 80s were the best years of my life. I hate to say it, but I miss the Reagan years.) With a focus on personal responsibility (including “safer sex” and medical research) we were solving our problems.

We’ve seen a lot of this unravel, especially during the second Bush presidency, especially since 9/11 and now during the financial meltdown. There’s a new concern about the basis of our moral values, and the idea that there is too much inward focus on the self, not enough “generativity” necessary for a sustainable future. A childless person, so the theory goes, might not care about how much carbon he or she puts into the air.

This brings up the position of the Vatican, not just recently in the DC gay marriage debate, but on the whole panoply of homosexual orientation and conduct (one could extend this discussion to the attitude of the military). The Vatican says that the “Teachings” of the “Church” (which are not debatable or negotiable with them any more than with the Koran) require that any access to sexuality (even fantasy or masturbation) requires “openness to procreation” and the continuation of life – generativity. It goes way beyond the bounds of the usual debate on abortion. It requires that everyone share some of the responsibility for raising the next generation and, particularly now given suddenly longer life spans, the previous generation(s). Family responsibility comes from the fact that one has a life in a community at all; it doesn’t come about just because someone has heterosexual intercourse and creates a pregnancy. The point has become particularly relevant because medicine today makes it possible to extend life much longer, particularly for the elderly; there will be many more people with disability or a need to depend on others for long periods of time than there were even two decades ago. Therefore, the notion that “everyone plays” (something we see in the health care debate with proposals regarding mandatory insurance and higher premiums for younger people) becomes morally relevant, perhaps compelling. But it’s also possible, as Jonathan Rauch points out, to imagine a world where this is so (and were filial responsibility laws are enforced) and welcome gay marriage as long as it is really “expected” and understood as offering an “alternative” path to lifelong responsibility for others. As long as “nobody gets out of things” marriages (straight or gay) will be better motivated and remain stable. People become important relative to media and fantasy and “creativity”. But one important benefit of this world view is that in a community, everyone’s life has intrinsic value because everyone has some interpersonal obligations, even those who did not beget their own children. That seems to be the real aim of the Vatican’s mandatory “openness to procreation,” and the uncertainties or risks any family faces (despite “personal responsibility”) when having children. (It doesn’t seem to apply to priests – because they are supposed to have no access to sexuality – believe that!)

This is really difficult. Even fifteen years ago, we were talking like we could base civil rights legislation (including equality for gays, in terms of service in the military as well as domestic relationship benefits) on the idea of “absolute personal responsibility for the self.” Sometimes President Clinton seemed to embrace that idea in the 1990s, even as he did tell the Democratic Convention back in 1996 “we aren’t going back to the days of fending for yourself.” Well, we did, given the course of the health care debatwe! Today, we find that “equality” is a much trickier notion. In a community, no two beings are exactly equal in everything they do; there is always some interdependence, and in families there is usually a lot of with the Vatican likes to call “complementarity”.

We are left, then, with debate, in a pluralistic society, where not everyone functions on the same “moral vector basis” when it comes to responsibilities one has for others besides the self (as well as basic genetic luck and “where one started in line”). Until the Internet age, most political matters like this were settled by organizing and funding of groups, and tended to involve a lot of bargaining among special interests, in a way not morally or intellectually satisfying.

Then, with Internet innovation, individuals like me enter the debate and “keep ‘em honest” (as Anderson Cooper says it). I think it really works. But it brings up that notorious notion “The Privilege of Being Listened To.” Others question, why is involvement in all of these political matters “my business” when I can put myself and perhaps drag others into the firing line, given the self-generated limelight -- perhaps by playing devil's advocate and making those "autistic connections", connecting the dots and showing new ways for things to fail (as in I.T. person, I was paid well to do that for thirty-plus years). “What can you do about it?” they say. “You still belong to a family”. (Some people tell me they do not think there is any point in an average Joe's following the news!) It’s no longer about choice, it seems; it’s about accepting the uncertainty necessary for a worthwhile and reasonably free community to grow with some overall sustainability. In religious terms, it’s about Grace rather than equality and individual justice as we usually see it. Yet it seems sad. We have lost a lot of ability to determine the courses of our own lives, to make our own choices (let alone take moral responsibility later for these choices), to call our own shots, as Cameron Johnson says it. The bad Bush Decade has taught us that we are much more interdependent, and much more dependent on the unseen sacrifices of others, than we were ever able to admit.

Yet, for the time being, I am in. There is nothing to do but press on. Keep them honest.

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