Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"The Measure of Morality": Baseball, Facebook, and The Manifesto

Spring training is starting in baseball down in Florida and Arizona, while fans shovel snow in much of the country.  I always say that baseball’s one flaw is that the defense can’t score (as it can in chess, let alone football).  Oh, the people on a team that we remember the most, though, are the starting pitchers. 

President Obama recently noted that if it were not for Jackie Robinson, and for Branch Rickey’s effort to bring him into Major League Baseball in 1947, he might not be president today.  Perhaps you can interpret that more than one way, but the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s might have come much later.  Even Stonewall (1969) might not have occurred then.

Branch Rickey, as dramatized in last spring’s movie “42” (Movies blog, April 12, 2013), actually challenged Jackie Robinson not to fight back if taunted by other players.  We all know the environment from our US History.  Applied here, people said that there would be fewer player and pitcher positions for white players.
Rickey had a lot to gain in the long run, even from the viewpoint of “enlightened selfishness”, Ayn Rand style.  He could make his team stronger, because African Americans could widen the pool of talent.  In fact, the Brooklyn Dodgers did very well in the late 40s and 50s, just as the Los Angeles Dodgers are usually contenders these days.  MLB would benefit from improved player talent as a whole, and higher standards of athletic performance.  To a minor extent statistically, the same argument may exist for gay players today.
Rickey also had to veer away from the socially compelling urge (on any person) to “take care of his own” or “put family first”, but today that would seem to be a foolish, narrow way of looking at one’s serving any common good.

On Sunday, February 16, 2014, Interim Preaching Minister Dr. Stan Hastey of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC gave a sermon, “The Measure of True Morality” (it’s part of a trilogy involving true faith and true love, rather like the “Paradise” movies).  I’m reminded of Clay Aiken’s “The Measure of a Man”.

The scripture readings were probing and interesting, even for a visitor mainly concerned with a libertarian and secular account of morality.  The passage Deuteronomy 30:15-20 gives instructions to the small tribes of Israelites after receiving the Ten Commandments and entering the “promised land”, counseling them to follow the laws in order to promote life, for themselves and particularly for future generations.  1 Corinthians 3:1-9 seems concerned with the idea that people need to see higher purposes than are usually apparent to them.  And the gospel was Jesus’s long passage about the law, following the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:21-32.  Included were the famous passages about adultery of the heart, as I recall from dorm days at William and Mary back in 1961.  But the passages that follow, about turning the other cheek and “giving to whoever asks” may be even more appropriate. I can remember Sunday School debates back in the 50s about "hitting back", which could turn into stepping on people's toes and fighting with fingernails, at least figuratively. 

It seems that what the Matthew passage concerns, is making “the law” contextual.  The “religious right” (in any faith) has lost sight of the point of religious teaching when it wants to interpret the law only in the context of a small tribe surviving in a hostile land in the ancient world.  But the idea that there is a connection between the “greater good”, the self, and the needs of people in circles around the self (almost as the social media world sees these circles now) is very much in play.

Whenever I focus on morality, what I am most concerned about is how the individual is to behave, with respect to balancing his or her own personal goals and interests with the apparent or perhaps just emerging needs of the common good of all the social circles around him or her: the family, the community, the country, and the world.  There has been, throughout history, a lot of conflict or tension between taking care of “one’s own” and minding the needs of much larger communities.  Modern liberalism and individualism would seem to have relieved these, but they are very apparent in other parts of the world, particularly where the standard of living is lower.  And people in other countries may, if goaded by politicians, tend to look at “us” as living off of their sacrifices.  Globalization and “world citizenship” have become catchwords.  What’s deceptive (and what socially conservative religious groups ranging from the Amish to the LDS Church know) is that “globalization” can gravely detract the individual from learning to take of others who have real needs.  The individualist sees the responsibility to support others as resulting from an adult choice: to procreate and engage in heterosexual intercourse.   But people cannot be prepared to make this choice until they have some experience in providing for others beforehand (as often learning within the extended family).  The loss of that capacity can have grave implications for a culture’s long term sustainability and future. The libertarian emphasis on personal responsibility as a driving moral principle (so well demonstrated even on "South Park") is tempered by the idea that vulnerability is inevitable, often depends on luck, and drives the need for sometimes tribal interdependence. 
This balancing act is particularly critical for those of us who are “different”.  Perhaps everyone is “different” somehow, but the ethical issues become much more double-edged for some people than others.  The questions are related to the moral issues people have imagined around sexual orientation, but not limited to them.  Like it or not, it still seems to me that one of the biggest reasons for “homophobia” is that gay people generally are less likely to wind up having children and owning a personal stake – with all the personal risking taking and sacrifice subsumed – in future generations.  When I grew up, with nuclear war around the horizon,
 I sort of thought of any capacity to have children as somewhat superfluous, or at most, very private.
The feedback that I get after seven decades of life is that sometimes people are likely to resent my self-broadcast (or the “logic” of my worldview, trying to root out and fix the inconsistencies of others) unless I’m taking on specific responsibility for others – and sharing the risk and sacrifice that others take.  I’ve called this problem, of self-instantiation outside of normal social and competitive channels of the past (monitored by gatekeepers),  “The Privilege of Being Listened to.”

The self-broadcast, for all the support or liberal culture gives an open Internet that enables the “newbie” to compete with the establishment for an audience with low barriers to entry, does come at some risk vulnerable or poor people, often in certain minority cultures.  I’ve considered here before how the downstream liability protections for service providers (Section 230, DMCA Safe Harbor) come under attack because irresponsible people can harm others on the Internet with no gatekeepers stopping them (or perhaps the harm is sometimes more indirect, like the loss of jobs in old media).

The culture of the Internet also assumes a horizontal quality to the dissemination of information.  People are to inform themselves, and others are free to inform them.  But in older cultures, people are dependent on a social structure, which has to take care of people in sometimes dangerous or hostile environments, to control what they know and therefore what they can say and disseminate.

In the years since I have become known on the web, I have encountered situations where people try to encourage me to become involved in personal situations in which, in the past, I would have been unwelcome.  My disinterest in giving others the personal attention they seek, once I have made myself “famous”, gets interpreted as hostility, rather than just minding my own business.  I am reminded that I am beholden to others for the sacrifices they might have made and that I might not have seen. 

So I get challenged with the question, could I provide for someone else, even if that meant sacrificing my own plans or my insistence on being “objective” in all my public speech.  There is an ancillary concern:  could I have a sustained “relationship” with someone else who “needs me” and who is left than perfect, and who may become the victim of some sort of misfortune himself or herself.  Sometimes this gets backed up to the complementarity (and appropriate long-lasting passion) expected in heterosexual marriage, but now it would be a fair question for same-sex marriage, too. 

There’s an idea in mathematics, “frequently” and “eventually”.  Anyone has the right to turn down any specific other for any kind of personal connection, for no reason.  But everyone, in a moral world, has a obligation to become responsive to need in this area “eventually”.  It’s rather like the “Employment at Will Problem”, where you can fire someone for no reason, but not for an illegal or discriminatory reason.  Insularity, when one has been luckier than others in need, can lead one to be watching his back.  Sometimes you just have to step up.

The person who is different lives in somewhat a quantum state.  If he does not stay in his place, so to speak, he may do harm to others who are even more disadvantaged in expected norms.  On the other hand, to protect the sensibilities of others so that they do what they should do without distraction, he faces discrimination. 

Asymmetry really does matter.  In our world, one person can have a tremendous impact on the whole world. (In ancient times, a tribe had to worry that one non-compliant person could endanger everyone in front of military enemies.)  It might be for good, or likely am ambiguous good that complicates life for some people at a disadvantage in life.  You could see Facebook this way.  You think of doing something adventurous and “selfish” as morally good when it really takes care of other people.  Branch Rickey’s actions in 1947 in baseball satisfied that idea.  The founding of Facebook, by contrast, was by an large a solitary accomplishment, done on one’s own judgment, not necessarily to provide for someone else.  Indeed, the “sharing” may be wonder, but oversharing has become a problem (forcing others to do the same), and the whole idea of “likes” or “dislikes” could be viewed as ratifying prejudices. 

The auteur is always in a position that he could need to provide for someone and find it meaningful, even if some old independence was sacrificed. He would be in a position of making something or someone all right when he would not have, on his own, chosen to do so. The willingness of people to do this, to "step up", when really needed goes a long way to settling the tensions -- and risks -- in a free society due to inevitable inequality.  But you can't have innovation without situational inequality, and attempts by politicians to force conformity to common goals or "eusociality" on individuals usually leads to corruption and an repression. It's very much a moral singularity. 
I guess if this is my own sermon, it will be hard for me to practice what I have preached.  

No comments: