Monday, January 28, 2013

Conformity is like an "alternative minimum tax"

On January 15, I wrote about my sense of living with an “alternative moral universe” (a sort of moral “alternative minimum tax”)

Let me approach this by referring to some famous people, and looking at their “moral” reputations. 
First, consider the history of cyclist Lance Armstrong.  Despite his notoriety right now, most people would say he started out in life with the right “purposes”.  He entered professional cycling in his early 20s, and fought back and beat testicular cancer.  He founded a charity for cancer patients.  He married and had children.  He was socially fluent.  He seemed real.  And then, the doping scandal developed and he fell.

It’s true that federal law is involved, but it’s also reasonable to suggest that professional sports associations are somewhat free to define their own rules as to substance use.  But all major professional sports (MLB, NFL, etc) ban “performance enhancement” and believe that sports competition should be based on “natural” human capacity.  So what Lance did does fit what Princeton Professor David Callahan talked about in his 2004 book “The Cheating Culture”.   It got worse, as Lance bullied and sued whistleblowers, until his house of cards collapsed, leading to the Oprah interviews.
Yet, everything Lance started out with fits what mainstream American culture admires.  It involved proving you could compete in a “real world” and then use that capability to take care of other people.  Men are supposed to do that.  It also included fighting back from humiliating adversity (cancer – we don’t know if drugs could have contributed to it) and charity.  Eventually, Lance “owned” all these objectives as “his”. On his own admission, he became obsessed with “controlling outcomes”.  What had started out as intended to help others became “his world”, to be preserved at all costs.  It was winner take all. 
Callahan, in his book (Book reviews blog, March 28, 2006), explains how this so often happens. 
One can compare the psychological issues in cycling with those in team sports, perhaps.  Football use to be a social necessity and rite of passage for many boys, because it teaches temporary self-sacrifice (maybe like temporary pawn sacrifices in chess games) for the good of a team.  Football has become more problematic as more medical evidence accumulates regarding the dangers of concussions.  Cycling and swimming sounded like among the most healthful of sports. They brought a bit of aesthetic realism with them, as men were expected to shave their bodies down for the most miniscule competitive advantages – did their women care?  Athletes called the experience “peaking”.  It kept life at a certain level of “reality”.   But, then we saw where it could go very wrong.
Is a person who does bad things to accomplish “original” good a bad person?  Maybe that’s an empty question, except that it lives at the center of modern notions of personal responsibility, trustworthiness, and fair play.
It’s interesting to make the comparison with the careers or biographies of Internet entrepreneurs or activists.  Very often people in this culture are more interested in their own ideas and in promulgating or implementing them than they are in direct responsibility for other people, especially early in adulthood.  They believe they are “helping people” by giving (or protecting) the tools for people to express or otherwise help themselves online, but they do not like to be placed into social structures were they are expected to be held accountable for specific people or to follow expected paths of gender and complementarity. 

I experienced this possibility with music and later writing. But in my generation I did not have the same opportunity to “get really good” at things that teens would have a couple generations later.  (I’ve you’re going to be an Internet prodigy today, you have to be able to live “programming” in your sleep by about the time you’re 14, I think.) 

In earlier generations there lived a much more socially determined set of moral values, particularly as to purpose.  One did not seek the limelight for his own expressions until it was clear he could take care of other people and was capable of having a stake in others.  To do otherwise was to seek a morally unsupportable purpose, even if one did not harm others and wasn’t deceitful in one’s dealings with others. 

The tragedy of Aaron Swartz may fall into this area.  It seems as though he was concerned particularly about his own ideas as to how content should be made available to people and he sincerely believed this would help them generically.  But he wanted to follow his own compass first.  Like many of us, he found that establishment leadership, so entrusted with social and economic stability, could become corrupt, and do wrong things after it had internalized the bureaucratic purposes given to it by others as its own.  This isn’t the place to examine the technicalities of the DOJ’s prosecution of him for the way he “stole” research papers from a university server, but the action seems facetious and driven by obsolete models about how information flow works and is monetized.   His actions seemed to harm or deceive no one.

I wanted to do my own thing, live into my own world and then promulgate it.  I found others resisted my apparent intention or “purpose” to do so.  They wanted me to develop the gender-related skills to protect others and take on actual responsibility for others in some personal sense before being heard from.  Theirs was a value system that said that all life was essentially  “locally” social and needed to remain so for families to sustain themselves.   My academic “superiority” and music and other talents would generate resentment from others if I didn’t take my turn in sharing risks, uncertainties, and even some unwelcome personal intimacies.  That indeed was how it was in Army Basic, when I was called “algebra” and “professor” but yet a “stupid man” when I had to be “in touch” with the practical (and survival) realities of the moment.  The model, that everyone  initially (before claiming adult autonomy) submits somewhat to the direction and “larger purpose” of the group (and to loving the people in the group “seen just as people”), seemed to give “marriage” a responsibility that could sustain it when otherwise it probably couldn’t indefinitely  serve narrower self and ego-driven adult interests.  Therefore, others mistrusted the apparent endpoints of my motives and interfered, even if I never did anything “wrong”.  They really thought they needed and had a claim on my loyalty, to survive external hardships as a group, to provide some stability to those even more "unbalanced" than me, to know they had some kind of biological future come what may.

I recall, from outplacement sessions after my 2001 layoff, the Myers-Briggs ”personality types” . I don’t recall the color codes, but I do recall that some people are very good at doing the wrong thing.  One could add, doing the wrong thing for ultimately the right reason.  Others could to the right thing, but for internal (high level) motives that others mistrust, and ultimately become inefficient or ineffective in doing so.  

Understand, it's now an asymmetric world.  "Little people" can, on their own, have much more influence for either good or for bad, by skipping the "purpose-driven" socialization process that used to be almost mandatory.  "Big People", on the other hand, despite some spectacular "clay feet" amputations, generally matter less than they once did.  

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