Wednesday, September 18, 2013
It really matters how we see one another, and how we see ourselves
“You don’t see people as people,” my father said, one early evening in mid December, 1961, in the den, as he reclined on a 1940’s-era aqua love seat. “You see people as idols. You don’t see someone as a living soul.” This conversation occurred just after I had started “individual therapy” a couple weeks after my November expulsion from William and Mary. We were already planning for me to go to GWU and “live at home”, but relations with my father were certainly strained over what had happened.
I’ll come back to this later. Today, I want to run through one more overview of my “DADT III” book, as I prepare a final edit of the manuscript.
So, what makes me tick? What am I all about? Why (at age 70) do I write and broadcast my sometimes controversial opinions, when I could (as sometimes asked) keep a low(er) profile and help people personally?
Self-expression was important to me early in life. An eighth grade math teacher wrote a comment on a report card that I didn’t know when to stop expressing my views, even though they had proved valuable in class discussions. By age 13 or so, I was composing some music. Yes, I did relish the idea of recognition some day (and I did get some accolades for playing piano in recitals and festivals). But the desire for attention was balanced by the subject matter itself. The music mattered, even when experienced privately by listening to records (pre-CD days by two decades) alone in the family basement.
I tended to move somewhat from music to writing – and I note that composer Arnold Schoenberg once wrote that in music you could say whatever you wanted – particularly about erotic matters – without getting caught. I felt motivated to write – and get published – because there were so many logical flaw and ethical inconsistencies among the things people expected me to do or, particularly with the team loyalties they expected me to profess. “Your” needs were not necessarily more pressing or deserving than someone else’s. Everybody needed things. The world seemed to have no intellectual honesty. The events that had unfolded at William and Mary that fall had been shocking, and a bit mysterious.
Of course, my “latent homosexuality” had grabbed attention, and once that topic came up, it monopolized the way everything else (which was much broader) could be perceived. In a companion essay posting on my GLBT blog yesterday (September 17), I discussed these concerns from the artificially narrower perspective of “homophobia”. Over the decades to follow, the gay community often depended on the argument of “immutability” (or “born this way”). I’ve always resisted, and said so very publicly, depending on these arguments. That’s partly because it doesn’t work with other biologically-influenced traits that can affect behavior (like alcohol abuse). But the bigger reason is that it lets “the enemy” off the hook. “It” doesn’t have to explain why our largely adult and consensual private choice are other people’s business.
In the GLBT essay yesterday, I went into some of the esoteric psychological aspects of my early therapy. I could have added a review of “the polarities”. There was something of a loop apparent in my thinking. I seemed to treasure virtue for its own sake, and wanted to be associated with young men who exhibited “masculine virtue”, especially according to some of the superficial, sometimes race-associated norms of the period in which I had grown up. I refused to feel affection for anyone who didn’t “measure up” (partly explaining my father’s remarks). The world I had grown up in was not particularly welcoming to people with any disabilities (compared to today); they had remained the responsibility of “families” so I had not been exposed to emotions that can occur in families that do have to deal with it. That has certainly changed in the decades since. But it is not that easy for me to take heart and make my own internal attitude more welcoming.
I also noted the way I became motivated when the opportunity to lift the ban on gays in the military was raised by President Clinton in 1993. This issue seemed to embrace everything: privacy, freedom of speech, personal identity, and balanced by the “real world” need for people to work together and share risks in intimate situations not of their choosing – leading to the “unit cohesion” idea which could apply ultimately to many other ideas of society – as in discussions of “social capital”.
My basic idea then (with the 1997 book) was that government get out of the business of regulating people’s lives (libertarianism), while, at the same time, the markets need to learn to recognize that people really do have to share obligations for the “common good” that aren’t always under their control. Many of the concerns were presented in economic terms, such as the loss of disposable income to people once they “commit” to having families. The challenge of eldercare and filial responsibility (and maybe even “demographic winter”) wasn’t as clear in the mid 1990’s as it is now.
But the needs of people would become a much more personal problem for me after 2000 with my mother’s eldercare and with various jobs I held after “retirement”, especially substitute teaching. Sometimes I found I was “ambushed” and getting dragged into personal situations in which I would not have imagined myself even welcome a decade before.
In my mind, I see a large collection of expectations that others think they should have from me, all the way from my teen years to now in retirement. There are certain patterns, but also certain inconsistencies. Some expectations become contradictory and don’t add up. This is the “would’a-should’a-could’a” problem. (It’s more than just opening all the mail.) It leads to the generic question, what should be expected of someone like me who is “different”? Oh, maybe we are all different. But some of us are in a gray zone (or “transition zone”, or what astronomers call the “termination zone” on a tidally locked planet) where we have the ability to conceive of the long term effects of our actions and especially self-expression when we may not have the personal stake in real human future that others have. Okay, one could say that about the founder of Facebook.
I’ve sometimes called this the “Pay your bills, pay your dues” problem. Maybe it’s “giving back” or “paying it forward”. The good side is fairness, solidarity, social capital, and an easing of indignation and social tensions that today are getting out of control and becoming brazen. The down side is less innovation, which must usually start with self-interested and self-promoting (frankly) individuals. But when someone who is "special" doesn't "pay his dues", then someone who is "normal" winds up taking more of the risk and hidden hardship. That's that how it came across to me as I grew up.
In the Internet age, there are indeed a couple of trends that apply here. I’ve written about “the privilege of being listened to” before. It is a privilege, not a right. The free entry system for self-publishing on the Internet seems very linked to legal downstream liability protections, like DMCA Safe Harbor and Section 230, the latter of which is suddenly under fire again form state attorneys general. The system gave me a “second career” and essentially made returning to mainframe unnecessary, and made hucksterism unnecessary, too. It probably precluded my becoming a math teacher, which would have sounded like a desirable result. But what gives me freedom comes at the “expense” of putting less “fortunate” families – minor children of less prosperous, less educated or less attentive parents – at risk, especially from cyberbullying and identity theft. Again, because (seemingly) of my lack of heterosexual passion, I don’t have children and share the responsibility – although that picture is starting to change (gay marriage and parenting, eldercare).
Another problem is a little more subtle. It has indeed to do with the erosion of “social capital” in some areas of our society and economy. Even some libertarians (like Charles Murray) have noted that the reduced interest in organized civic activities is not a good thing in the long run. With an Internet that appears to give insular people “like me” some power, there is less incentive to join organizations, or to buy from salesmen, or to even respond to marketing calls (phone, house) that used to be accepted in past generations. This development is certainly making it harder for some people to make a living and can deepen the indignation that has a lot to do with today’s brazen crime and attacks. As someone who doesn’t compete well socially, why should I “take orders” from the bureaucracy of an organization when I can run my own show and draw attention? Every organization is “partisan” and “non-objective” in that it must meet preferentially the needs of its own constituency, right? But the deeper point is that this “atomization” or being “alone together” on the Internet is something that is relatively new. Until about a decade ago, perhaps a little more, people really didn’t have much choice but to join up and serve “special interests”. K-Street had its real place. Is it better now? It’s a very double-edged question, like an unclear chess position. Some controversial piece sacrifices in opening theory really work.
What does all this add up to? The best “chess” sense I can make of it is, “Step Up” when you have to. I talked about the baseball analogy, the “three strikes”, here Sept. 1 (put negatively as “don’t be a coward”). That’s much easier to deal with if you have developed “normally”. But it takes on the aspect of a moral principle, although it implies the troubling conclusion that the “less able” should stay in their place and not challenge the family structures or “providers” who look after them (a common belief as I grew up in the 50’s). Conservative social theory suggests that once people master this, they’ll be able to form permanent marital relationships upon which all other stable social structures depend. Maybe that’s just a nice theory, but it has a certain smoothness and consistency.
The “requirement” does tend to communicate the idea that everyone shares some of the common burdens. It’s true that totalitarian systems make a lot of this (from both the Left and Right). But it’s also true that some people, when they see others getting out of what they have to deal with (even if it’s the top 1% on Wall Street), come to believe there are no rules, no laws, that life is about what you can get away with, to survive. It’s an unpleasant truth, authoritarian cultures usually have less personal crime.
One thing that is different about this, in a liberal democratic culture, is that it gets more “personal”. Societies can be stable and sometimes reasonably progressive technologically without a lot of compassion (and openness to forgiveness) in the culture, but they cannot be free. Perhaps China provides a pertinent lesson today. The idea of “radical hospitality”, as presented at a local church here (Trinity Presbyterian in Arlington VA) fits in here. The openness to personal interaction to “people as people” as my father said in 1961 seems relevant. But, on the dark side, this is more feasible to face, especially when confronted with loss or sacrifice for others, if one knows that others will also do it.
The social conservatives stumble around when they have to reconcile “family values” with horrible practices in the past, like racism – slavery and segregation. “Conservatives” have this idea that socialization comes from taking care of your own first. That may be true to an extent – parents often expect older kids to learn to take care of siblings. But then “they” take this further, and say that marriage is the one institution that can socialize people into taking care of others. (They tried to use this argument against gay marriage a few years ago.) It seems to me that it’s the other way around. Marriage (long term intimate commitment with the structure to raise children and take care of others, like the elderly) is a result of a process that needs to take place anyway. So lack of “marriage” can mean that needed character development didn’t happen. But this observation can have profound implications for just how we want to recognize “marriage” – and the Supreme Court may well have implicitly agreed this past June. In practice, young adults, even high school students, today often do go out into the undeveloped world and serve in ways that are more personal than one would expect (see drama blog, Nov. 4, 2012).
We’re used to a rather narrow idea of personal responsibility, particularly in libertarian circles. Our legal culture is tied to it more than ever. It is certainly true that how well one does in life, and how one is perceived by others, is very much affected by how well one does “his own job”. That was certainly true for me as an individual contributor in the IT workplace for thirty-plus years. One gets very defensive, developing failsafe CYA systems. It is certainly true that people eventually tune out of “productivity” because of medical or behavioral problems. Every one of us comes to an end somehow (unless there really exist “angels”) and most of the time, it’s “medical”. But we also are seriously affected by circumstances, and particularly by the deeds of others. It can be “worse” to “go down” because one is targeted, either as an individual or as a member of a group or even a country or religion, for violence at the hands of others who have become indignant. In my circumstances, it could simply make me into a fool. Without more social engagement again, there is no legitimate way for me to become a “victim”.