Tuesday, December 04, 2012

In a "sustainable" world, you can be "different", but not "special"

I’m spending a lot of my “creative” effort these days on exploring and documenting just how “society” treats those of us who are “different”, and particularly the moral question of just how “we” should behave and what we should expect.

I recall an episode of “Smallville” where the young Clark Kent said, “I’m not special, I’m just different”.  Earlier in the series, before he knew where he had come from (and saw the spacecraft hull in Dad's barn), he had just wanted to be “normal”. But, of course, he was “special”. 

The “moral” problem comes when someone cannot or does not perform most of the “duties” that society normally expects for its “common good”, but can, because of specific or unusual talents, distinguish himself and gain widespread public recognition, often in an asymmetric fashion because of technology.  The moral issues can come from the possibility that he does not recognize his dependence on those who have made unseen sacrifices that enabled him to “shine”. In the global Internet age, we are finding out that asymmetry matters. We constantly find ways in which expressive freedom for some people can indirectly burden those who have less practical control of their circumstances, and who have more family responsibility. 

This discussion may not mean anything to anyone focused just on his own narrow ends, possibly in a “fun and pleasure” mode.  But, if you’ve ever experienced coercion, as I have at some points in my life, or even contemplated the hardships of others, you see why it is important.  The issue generalizes into a concern about the fundamental right of anyone to chart his own course in life, without undue pressure to conform his goals to those of his group or tribe.  It challenges the notion of "I surrender all", as in the famous hymn. 
Even by the time I was well into grade school, I sensed that my life would run along a precarious bargain struck meeting the coercive demands of others.  I was “behind” physically, in terms of strength, coordination, general competitiveness.  I latched on to my musical ability and had started piano at age 8. Certainly by sixth grade or so, I knew that I could be a good student and distinguish myself in other ways, but that I could also create resentment among others (including peers) who viewed me as owing myself to them.  I did experience the teasing, but the outright bullying usually was not as bad as in the notorious cases today. 

The idea that we all had to share common risks in some fairly apportioned way seemed, during my own youth, as the heart of moral controversy.  The military draft and controversy over student deferments provided a scenario for working out who made the “sacrifices” and who was more “valuable” (that is, "Brains over brawn", as in a famous story and classic film "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, Movies blog, May 5, 2009) .  I wound up being drafted after graduate school, and saw with my own eyes the unequal “sacrifice” and resentment of “education” and sheltering privilege – particularly during my worst days at Tent City at Fort Jackson SC in Special Training (“special” again) in the spring of 1968. 

This sort of issue -- "paying your dues" and surviving rites of passage --  was embedded in a much bigger issue about family life.  When I was growing up, young men were expected to protect women and children.  It wasn’t simply that you “chose” to have intercourse and would be responsible for the child.  You were supposed to do your part for your family’s future; in older times, women and men needed each other in a more complementary fashion for the whole family to thrive or even survive. 

But because I had trouble with this requirement, I developed another way to make my life significant.  It involved introversion, and a preoccupation with my own ideas, perhaps fantasies, about virtue and the external trappings thereof.  Aesthetic perfection – in music, art, people – became an end, and it may seem not so different in psychological terms than religious preoccupation with virtue (even in radical Islam).  It could become something to live for.  But people “as people”, with all their imperfections, came to seem a bit vulgar, even if fecund.

I wrote on my GLBT blog (Nov. 28) that sexual orientation tended to become an issue itself, a core of a much bigger question about personal sovereignty or autonomy, and a life where expressing one’s values, as a validation of ego, becomes much more satisfying that meeting the real needs of other people.

As I have often noted, this often worked in a world growing richer with focus on hyper-individualism.  Having families with children became a choice, almost an afterthought, to other accomplishment, throughout the latter part of the previous century. 

That is changing, however.  The most challenging question is whether we can sustain a world predicated on this sort of individualism, which depends on the “sacrifices” of those who don’t get the game, often because of poor circumstances.  Sustainability concerns occur in many areas, such as demography (lower birth rates and longer life spans), climate change (making infrastructure less stable and affecting the developing world in such a way as to cause tensions and security problems), financial indebtedness, and increased social instability, causing many people not to play by the rules and making the stability that individualism requires less secure.  Others (libertarians) will, or course, say that it is institutional corruption that threatens sustainability, and that the individual will be the world’s salvation.

My recent LGBT blog entry talked about the way I entered “public life” (a quote of a line uttered by actor Anthony Hopkins once), with a self-published book and search-engine-driven Web 1.0 websites motivated by the debate over the military gay ban and “don’t ask don’t tell”.  It was fascinating to me how the debate over “privacy” and “forced intimacy” (which I could not escape in the Vietnam era draft) morphs into ideas like “unit cohesion” and “shared purpose” that transcend the military and apply to most communities in the world. These notions countered the growth of individualism.

I’ve also explained that once I was a public person who had set himself up as “special”, it was no longer possible to return to more conventional ways of making a living in pre-retirement.  I could no longer represent just one cause and sell stuff.  I could not easy belong to other people’s social capital.  Yet, people (even my own mother) would ask, “Who are you do to talk publicly about this?” After all, I had avoided the risks that a lot of other people take.  I see that I’ve covered a lot of this territory with posts on Oct. 17, July 16, and May 1 2012.

What would contort my own appreciation of “social graces” (to use an Army euphemism from my Basic Training days) would be the long period of eldercare for my mother.  I’ve gone into some details on my “Bill Retires” blog and will do so further in a DADT Supplement e-book that I plan to issue.  I would be pressured by others to become more intimate deal with physical matters that I had never thought about.  I would also be cajoled to learn to become assertive with health care providers and caregivers.  I thought, if I am to be “interpersonally effective” in a social structure, I would need to have my own domain first.  No wonder people become jealous when they think they have relationships; I had escaped the consequences of social combat since boyhood until now.

I found my circumstances personally humiliating.  This might have been OK had it gone on in my own home (had I “borrowed”, bought and kept one) rather than my mother’s, or if I had a male partner (gay partners do indeed take care of elderly parents in their homes).  There was more going on, too.  I had worked for a while as a substitute teacher, and sometimes been surprised by the “intimacy” that the job sometimes suddenly demanded.  I found this also to be humiliating, had I never  married and fathered children myself.  I do know that female teachers were often unmarried and childless, and that “old maids” in past generations often stayed home and looked after parents as “family slaves”.  This “second class life” was not acceptable for a male who had grown to count on independence for decades.

There is more that can be done today to keep alive much longer, with variable quality of life.  But it can only work when there is plenty of social capital around, and a lot of that would need to come from never-married or childless adult-children.  This is a “sea change” from previous generations when medicine could not prolong life as much.  Social isolation, widely accepted fifteen years ago, runs counter to the ability to extend life, or to engage in the charitable activities which media have made much more visible in recent years (than in the past).

Infrastructure sustainability forms an important drop-cloth for this discussion. Energy influences personal mobility, and it was a big issue when I was focusing on my own logistical issues during my “second coming out”.  It became stable, and then the HIV epidemic became a very different problem, which I personally “escaped.”  But I was certainly aware that my capacity to live according to my own instincts and solutions depended on external forces “beyond my control”.  Today some of the biggest “threats” concern the fragility of the power grid (to both solar storms and terrorists), and the accumulating problem of climate change, which for now means bigger storms and more physical threats, and later is likely to lead to war.
There are several personal moral aspects to these environmental questions.  One is that I used to see avoiding bad things as a measure of “personal responsibility”.  Don’t have unprotected sex, and don’t live on the beach.   It is more “complicated” that “that”, the libertarian retort.  It’s true that I’ve escaped the worst partly because, being on my own, I am more careful and meticulous about “mistakes” than others who have “family”.  My own work as an I.T. professional taught me that.  But environmental changes can come quickly and overwhelm anyone.  Climate change could put me in a shelter some day, after an F5 long-tracking tornado hits in an area where it was previously thought impossible.  Catastrophe (or “purification”) can expropriate, and become the great equalizer (like a razor blade, was we used to say in Army barracks).  Let a major part of the country go without power (after a big solar storm or conceivably an EMP blast) for six months, and money means nothing.  Social skills and hands-on work mean everything.  There are people around who would like to see that happen (and the motives in the NBC show “Revolution” are no so far-fetched – nor was the “Cultural Revolution” in China in the 1960s where intellectuals and geeks took turns being peasants).  Indignation – from those who think that our individualist moral system makes no sense – could make homeland security unmanageable some day.  I’ve seen it in a few people myself, even during my old “coming of age” days. 

The horror of all of these potentialities – a big motivator for discussions like this -- could be my (or anyone’s) being forced to build “relationships”, even intimate ones, with peoplebwhom I might have  “looked down upon” in the past.  I could no longer afford my aloofness (sometimes seen as a good thing), or to “cherry pick”.  (I’ve actually gotten a couple of angry emails about this point in the past -- challenging me to ponder whether I would have anything to offer a world left over if the things I had been good at were yanked away by force from me, as I guess they have from others.)  I hinted at this point in the LGBT essay – people can “hate” to avoid being forced to feel things (or people) that are unwelcome. Nobody is “better” than others after all, it seems. The "natural family" ultimately makes a place for everyone. 
 There’s another point of real emerging moral concern, “generativity”.   I could pass away of any of the usual medical reasons, of course, and the world could fall apart the next day.  Then, it wouldn’t affect me. Actually, I think it would.  My own belief, based on modern physics and even thermodynamics more than religion, is that somehow individual consciousness, once it is conceived, cannot be completely destroyed.  Maybe it lives inside a black hole floating in the galaxy.  I don’t see myself living in a condo in Heaven (“The First Dominion”) happily with family for eternity, because I wouldn’t have one.  I do see reincarnation, maybe into poverty or social servitude, on another world or planet. I also see loss, whether from natural disaster or someone else's covetous wrongdoing,as absolute, something I cannot make "all right" for myself or someone else.
Given the changes in our environment, people with temperaments like mine might not be permitted the “waste” of wandering the wilderness the way I did for decades.  People might have to be more socially and locally connected.  And people might have to put their own skin into biological future again, so they don’t leave a world behind that is poorer than the one they grew up in.  So responsibility for progeny is more than just deciding to make a baby (or doing it “accidentally”).  Around the world, many older teens wind up raising siblings, created by their parent’s acts, not theirs. 
It’s a useful exercise to ponder how my life would have gone if I had been more physically competitive as a male.  That might have crowded out my other gifts, such as music.  But, as I look around, I see that this does not have to happen in other people.  So it’s fair to ask, what if I had been physically competitive (pretty enough to look at) and good at music and school.  Lots of people are.  I think, given the times I grew up in, I would have married and had children.  In the back of my mind, I might have seen a little of this in terms of my own mother’s aversion to “getting out of things”.  And I would had a vicarious “biological future”.   As I got into my 30s, say around 1980, I could have yearned for men.  It might have been easier if I had been stronger and more “attractive”.  Imagine the medical catastrophe that this could have caused for my hypothetical family, given what would soon develop in the 1980s.  So maybe what I did was the best thing. But was it sustainable? 
I still say, when I look around, though, it’s not that easy just to pick up a hammer to fix things and help people after a disaster “on the beach” -- particularly help people who would not have welcomed by presence in the not so distant past.  You want more of your own output to give (not just an amorphous “self”).  But the world has to hold together well enough to let you, particularly if you’re not a “Doomsday Prepper”. WE could, as they used to say in the Army, all go “back to the Bay”.

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