Sunday, November 13, 2011
Will sustainability concerns bring back older notions of socialization, and be bad for self-exrpession and for psychological diversity?
Having just watched Lars van Trier’s “Melancholia”, I’m going to structure this autobiographical self-assessment in “parts”, as if it were a treatment for that director’s next movie.
In fact, let me preface all this by stating that I am working on my “Do Ask Do Tell” movie and promising that I will try to produce it, with the “real system”. (Sorry, I won't do "The Proles"; some people who know me remember what that is, all on the Movies blog in the review of the end-of-world film, Nov. 11.)
Part 1: Introduction:
Okay, what is my purpose? I know I got into writing and self-publishing big time to fight the military gay ban, and the issues grew around that, in a concentric spiral right out of string theory. Today, I keep bringing the news, in my own efficient way, as a kind of warning. Your freedom is not free. Be wary, and become intellectually consistent. Watch your integrity. Note what maybe you shouldn’t be doing. True, don’t play victim – but keeping our freedoms is going to take more than the focused idea of personal responsibility that we cultivated in the 1990s, whether in libertarian writings and candidates or in media experiences like South Park. Am I “Big Gay Al?”
Seriously, we’re going to have to pay more heed to notions like “shared purpose.” Sometimes, some of us, like me, will have to be willing more often to sign on to efforts with goals defined by others. We’ll have to accept more complementarity back in our culture. And more locality. I know that some people do that now – the media coverage of volunteerism puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us.
The main reasons for this seem to stem from the finite nature of our planet, creating some “inconvenient truths”. They play out in various ways, from climate change to demographics – with richer populations aging and having fewer people. In history, most controversies developed around conflicts among identifiable groups of people. Often, the world was expanding, and growth or renaissance provided a way out. Sometimes, however, civilizations got hemmed in and failed because of their excesses. So it is today.
What I see is some questioning, even arrest, of the growth of individualism and self-definition – call it personal autonomy or sovereignty. We’re relearning the idea that everyone needs a social context, the experience that he or she meets the real needs of other people. Particularly, more of us will have to develop real stakes in real people in other generations, particularly going forward.
Man is unusual in that he can live both as a social being and as an individual. Social groups could take care of weaker individuals and mute the variations in personal capacity that naturally occur in any animal population – and therefore support the idea that human life specifically is special, to be treasured for its own sake. Generally, when man is fully socialized, problems like abuse of power and jealousy occur, because people really “need” their relationships. Individualism could act as a counterweight to corruption. That was a very attractive draw to libertarianism. But individualism cannot protect people or give every “living soul” meaning “just as a person,” as my father used to say.
A turn to more socialization – to more tightly knit extended families and to local focus (even in communities that learn to embrace permanent same-sex relationships) will put more pressure on those of us who are “different”, like me.
Indeed, in my own experience, I came to question hyperindividualism because I was sometimes forced to, either by the emergence of the needs of others or by their use of direct pressure against me. Periods of forceful intervention by others occurred early (my William and Mary expulsion in 1961 for “homosexuality”) and late (my own eldercare experience with my own mother, when I had not formed a family of my own.) I can rightfully ask, “what did they want?” Or, “what are their rules?” How are those of us who are different supposed to behave? That’s the other side of the question as to how we should be treated.
Part 2: What do “they” want?
Throughout history, most people have experienced life though their preset social structures, particularly the family. Parents believe that it is both their right and their responsibility to socialize their kids to carry on their families into the future, proving vicarious immortality. That would seem to generate the “old time morality” that goes with “old time religion”, but people generally didn’t experience this as living by a set of laws. It was just their experience. The need for “rules” comes from outsiders like me. Nevertheless, many people “needed” strict family structure and adherence to gender roles to find lifelong marriage “exciting” so they really could provide for future (and sometimes past) generations.
Nevertheless, it’s useful to note a very different perspective on what the “rules” were in the past. Today, we think in terms of making choices (consent) and a responsibility to follow through on the consequences of choice (contract). A market economy, functioning properly and far enough away from natural finite constraints, can enforce that with limited government.
But, when I was growing up, and living a meaningful youth but without the measure of my own ability to earn my own fiat money, the moral currency was more nebulous. It seemed as though the most “important” moral responsibility was to be able to take care of oneself, within some rather vague limits, and to develop the capability to provide for other people. During the time I grew up (the 1950s), the latter was tied very much to complementarity based on gender. You understood that you needed others for certain things in the community, and they needed you. If you were a male, you were expected to develop the capacity to protect women and children partly because women took their own risks (childbirth). This came to be particularly focused on the moral controversies that circulated around the Vietnam era military draft for men, and particularly student deferments (and marriage and parentage deferments earlier). Contingent physical sacrifice could sometimes be demanded in that moral alternate universe. Many people have forgotten all about this issue of the past, a curious contraposition to the more recent problem of “don’t ask don’t tell”. But later, a related idea would emerge, particularly with the protests from the Left: it was wrong to benefit from the unseen sacrifices of others (that is, manual labor of the people).
Men who were more successful in group competition were rewarded with more “power” over others, who had to do what they said. The less competitive male was supposed to feel some shame in his inadequacy. But, later in adult life, he was supposed to be valued as a “human being”, but only in a local context. For example, he was still supposed to try to marry and have kids himself to carry on the family. This was a contradiction that the culture which raised me could not come clean about. It created a “double standard”.
Men (and women, differently) generally understood that they would have responsibility for others in the family regardless of choices. Parents might expect older siblings to help raise their children, or be able to step in when unavoidable family tragedies occurred. Unmarried adult kids (usually women) were expected to stay home and look after aging parents. The irony is that today, when family units are weaker, parents and elders of a family may live much longer in disability, because medicine can prolong life, a combination of circumstances that can seriously test our commitment to the sanctity of human life. And that’s part of the “demographic winter” problem. In earlier times, however, technology had not developed to the point that individuals had a potentially productive alternative in “standing alone” as I ultimately did; and the continual external threats, enemies and adaptive challenges required that people put "family first". It’s clear, however, that even today “responsibility for others” doesn’t wait for a chosen act of sexual intercourse to create a child. The responsibility for possible sacrifice exists anyway. No wonder men may come to believe that the availability of sex of its own sex is a kind of birthright.
It is true, of course, that during the growth of hyperindividualism (from about the time of Watergate until 9/11), many people tended to see their lives in terms of their own individual “accomplishments” and personal performance. Family and children came to be seen as an optional afterthought, a problem for others only if they made the “choice” to procreate. (I used to see this as the “New York Boroughs Problem”.) But with the problems we’ve had roughly since 9/11, we have come to see that we can hardly afford that.
I had, however, come to see virtue as its own reward, somewhat like a secular fundamentalist. There was pleasure to be gained in promoting virtue as I saw it. I craved the freedom and opportunity to do so. I resisted ideas of becoming connected to less intact people who might benefit from relationships with me, because I saw them as morally less virtuous. So my own attitudes had become a reflection of what I had thought (through conservative upbringing) the moral code around me to be. I had become an example of the problem of having “the knowledge of good and evil.” Once you think you can see and touch “good”, even in fantasy, it’s addictive.
Part 3: What was “their” gripe with me?
As I “review my life”, I see four broad areas of problems in the feedback people give me.
First, I was viewed, early in life, as depending on others too much, particularly in gender-related skills. Others might well have believed I would not have the regimentation it took to earn a living, and societal changes gave me the chance to prove that wrong. But some of the skills (the veritable ability to change a tire for a lady) were more related to chivalry and the impulse to provide for others. But in earlier times, this distinction would not have been so clear.
Second, I have been seen as aloof, lacking emotion, even natural compassion (or "empathy", in a sense) for others. It’s true, that most of my career in I.T., I lived by my own efforts and did not need a lot of social cohesion – it might have been unwelcome. I would resist opportunities to share “emotion” with others, particularly because I had no “ownership interest” in the adaptive needs of their lives. I did not like to be recruit people to sell them other people’s ideas. I would rather win arguments than win converts. As for interpersonal relations, I seemed to be more interested in living inside of fantasies of other people’s permanent perfection than in relating to people with real problems.
Third, once technology enabled me to do so, I drew attention to my ideas, and therefore myself, with my “much speaking”, self-published, especially on the Internet. In certain circumstances, this could pose dangers to others connected to me (like my mother late in her life). That tendency toward self-promotion – through broadcast rather than nuanced, layered social networking now the norm of web behavior for the past few years – would attract unwelcome solicitations from those who would try to “hire” me into jobs or situations where I shared responsibility for their social obligations (children) or proved I could “take care” of people by “selling” to them – hucksterizing.
Fourth, layered on top of all of these, was my homosexuality. Sometimes, that was an issue by itself. Other times it seemed to be a proxy for a deep rift between fantasy and the “real needs of others”. The biggest issue, quite bluntly, is that (historically at least), homosexuality has been viewed (however silently) as a proxy for attempting to avoid responsibility to participate in raising the next generation (as well as avoid unwelcome sexual outcomes with others) -- an observation which shows that others see raising a family as an activity that requires real “sacrifice”. That leads to another result: it’s impossible to adulate people as moms and dads without sometimes putting the childless into a questionable position. (The right wing arguments about public health – at one time very threatening in Texas -- that surfaced with HIV in the 1980s thankfully settled down with improving medicine and education. )
After my “second coming” and moving to New York in the 1970s, I did encounter a group called the Ninth Street Center, today known as the Paul Rosenfels Community. The group did articulate an idea of psychological surplus, where people live for purposes they choose themselves, after making adaptive lives as simple as possible. This sounds like a nice New Age notion. But Rosenfels had also generalized on the notion of gender with “psychological polarity” to replace it. People still needed to meet real needs of others in permanent relationships founded in some genuine psychological complementarity.
Part 4: Contraposition
I took a real chance with the second half of my life by staking all of my creative energies on self-publishing and ditching overtures to sell things in a more conventional way, or even become a teacher. (Actually, the sequence was rather complicated.) The Internet might not have developed the way we did, where Section 230 and Safe Harbor help limit downstream liability and make operations like mine possible
It could still flounder. There are a number of possible “existential threats” (many of them dealing with downstream liability risk to providers) that could stop me. There is a basic question, particularly in battles over the Web, about “when am I my brother’s keeper?” Again, the laissez-faire environment of Internet law in many areas (the latest being privacy, perhaps) enables me to reach a large audience with almost no cost and “become a citizen of the World” and impact its debate heavily without having specific responsibilities to provide for specific other people (that is, kids). I can indeed function well “standing alone”. But the same capability allows others do harm others. I don’t spread Internet rumors about people, but others do (as in a recent Anderson Cooper broadcast, discussed here Nov. 10). My self-expression depends on a laxness that is perhaps supported (in a hidden way) by abuse committed by others. That fits into the old Left-wing concerns of taking advantage of the hidden sacrifices of others (soldiers, firemen, cheap laborers overseas). Sometimes the uncomplimentary word for someone who does this is “parasite”. Back in my coming of age, I heard that word in more than one Maoist-leaning meeting that I spied on.
One can imagine a world where one does not have a free soap box or even a right to vote until, at least as an adult, he has to support others, usually in a family (yes, it could be headed by a same-sex couple – except that the “experience” isn’t quite the same – a subtle point that has come out in the past few years of debate). One then needs the ability to have a “relationship” with another adult who is much less than perfect, with whom one is likely to grow old (sorry, no Melancholia approaches). One needs to be able to bond to and raise children who may be quite ordinary in ability (or less) and not grow up to become stars who can host SNL at age 17. These may sometimes be OPC, “other people’s children”, after a variety of possible sequences of circumstance.
Why is this so objectionable? One reason is that participation in the “social world” was very humiliating for me earlier in life. Suddenly, some people would want me to jump off my high horse and make others “all right”. I cannot bring myself to do that. If I did not have kids myself, which should a family trust me to “protect” theirs, say, by selling them “financial services”? In the meantime, I was finding that people wanted to "define me" by my life with my mother in her final years; I found not to have "my own domain" first made the experience shameful. I could understand the jealousy in soap operas that much more.
Human beings sometimes attach great significance to whatever brings sexual excitement. Sometimes this gets to be elaborated into a belief system about “good” or “less good” people that could become quite dangerous if actually accepted and eventually carried out in practice. History has taught us that. (Call it fascism.) So, I can understand the reaction of others to my “schizoid personality”, “upward affiliation”, and tendency to make a lot of fantasy in the period that followed my W&M expulsion. No wonder they still sought solace in what George Gilder used to call “the sexual constitution of our society”, which, again, was supposed to “protect everybody” in family structure. At one time, challenges to this setup were not to be entertained or even tolerated. Thankfully (for me), all that changed.
A world that requires everyone to belong to a “family group” can still talk about “civil rights” and even “equality” at the group level, to the extent that members of a particular group (race) are not discriminated against for a benign characteristic. That can necessitate conventional politics involving supporting and raising money for specific candidates – partisanship, again, something about which I am personally very aloof. (Instead, with an Internet soapbox, I can address anything my own way, and “win arguments”.) Within a family or community, however, with complementarity, the idea of “equality” can become meaningless, or at least sometimes has to. Of course, the increase in opportunities for women since the 1970s – not accidentally coincidental with the rise of gay rights – has made some straight men, dependent on social structure to find “meaning” and even maintain lifelong marital interest – feel superfluous. One can understand the rabid insistence in other parts of the world on rigid gender roles and familial structures – for the men to mean anything at all.
So, here I am, at 68, pretty much one who “stands alone”, in a world that has allowed this strategy to work. I am uneasy as to how my “autonomy” or sovereignty can be infringed by “the needs of others” – because after all I depend on them, and some people get hurt in a loose world like what we have now. For most of my career, I was the “master of my own ship” – it was the accuracy and dependability of my own work that paid the mortgage. Now, I am more vulnerable to OPM, or “other people’s mistakes.” If I go down because of the misdeeds or negligence of someone else, I still perish. No wonder we need Grace.