Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Does the "innovation" that comes from individualism promote inequality, and is it predicated on the acceptability that some others will fail?
Sunday, on the International Issues blog, I wrote about some controversial ideas in the “Prayer of Confession” at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington. I could say the prayer was a criticism of hyper-individualism.
To put in my own words, the prayer criticizes western culture for emphasizing individual achievement and recognition for it, as an attempt to be elevated above others, and as something that is predicated on the failure of others (or unseen sacrifice by others or exploitation of their work). A logical corollary is that everyone needs to experience service with some degree of submission of one's own self, even if that implies the need for authority (or "power") in religious, familial, social and political structures, and that such command over others be left open to possible abuse or corruption.
I could retort, especially to the karma problem, by saying that innovation often improves the lives of many more people than the inventor, but it is true that with most “progress” there will be some “losers”. Innovation is somewhat predicated on inequality, but is certainly a “positive sum” game. Yet, the inequality leads to instability, and certain leads to issues with karma and willingness to accept interdependence when necessary (in religious terms, with inclination to accept that one “needs” God). Some religious groups, like the Amish, explicitly criticize too much efficiency and independence.
We could look at many examples. Social media is certainly an innovation, and Facebook is particularly an innovation by one person, conceived at age 19. Social media certainly has been a boon to many of us, maybe most; it has also had its downside. Employers can use it as a measure of social conformity. Bullies and criminals can abuse it, particularly in privacy-related areas. While social media is valuable for democratic uprisings, it is also used to recruit disadvantaged young men for evil things. The idea of its founder, that one should always use one’s real name, has both benefits and drawbacks.
What I did, with my “do ask do tell” books and sites was an innovation at the time it started (on the 90s). The effect, by my “always being there” at low cost, was to “keep others honest” in conducting political debates, and to bring more critical thinking into political debates. I created controversy by targeting “group think” (such as overuse of immutability and dilution of personal responsibility in pursuing “gay equality”) with various issues in the past (including “don’t ask, don’t tell”). I even think that had I not “stayed up”, even with little notability as Wikipedia understands it, for now close to two decades, we might not have the DADT repeal, and we could have lost battles in Internet speech freedom. You could conflate my characterization of my "do ask do tell" amateur journalism with "keeping them honest" or even "I told you so" as taglines.
The downside (for my second career), though, is that I remain personally aloof, and certainly a double-edged role model at best. In fact, the whole debate over “hyper-individualism” (as faith-based groups often see it) translates into a serious question for people “like me” who are somewhat “caught in the middle”, sitting in neutral equilibrium on a knife edge.
Indeed, others have often “knocked on my door” and distracted or disturbed me, in many different contexts, at various points in my life. I want others to come to terms with “what they want from me.” Likewise, though, I recognize that some things I say and do can put others on edge, and make them feel there is less point in their doing “what they should do” if I don’t have to follow suit. Others may wonder what I would like to see happen (in view of the idea that in a democratic society like ours, every life has to be made valuable); that was particular the case when others made my homosexuality an issue. That was particularly the case earlier in my life, with the William and Mary expulsion, and then with the period as a “patient” at NIH. It was a little bit less so in the Army, an irony which fed how I would participate in the debate on gays in the military twenty years ago. Particularly important was the idea that anyone needs to be able to count on others, especially an intimate partner, if unavoidable bad things happen; to see someone "on the fence" get and stay married made it look easier for everyone else.
One "extra point" seems evident: I don’t seem to get a lot out of personal interaction with others if they have to “depend” on me in an interpersonal way. That feeds into a “virtuous circle” that leads people into marriage, family, and providing new generations, which never seemed to mean very much to me in the past. Is there a contradiction here? If I want to be noticed for the content (music or writings) that I can produce, shouldn’t I “love” the consumer more? The question can come up when others wonder why I don’t try to “sell” to others. Actually, this characterization is a little misleading. I do get something out of helping others if the circumstances are narrowly drawn and related to how I have already lived my life. I do have a real problem, however with joining someone else’s cause, or reporting to someone else’s bureaucracy. I do have an issue if it "really costs me something" regarding my own goals.
I do have to ponder many changes that can occur in my life. A short posting cannot cover them all. But a couple of examples are important. My book publishers wonder why I won’t aggressively push book sales, for example, by renting kiosks at events. Of, over the past years, some companies would call asking if I would become a life insurance agent or tax preparer. And in the charity area, some parties call and wonder if I can give their particular causes a lot of time and attention. It’s possible to pull some of this together: if I could “make money” as somebody’s agent, I could be in a better position to adopt others into dependence on me. This could become a critical moral point when one considers the ramifications of the immigration and (gay) asylum issues. (So could the house that I “inherited” which could shelter a “family” or asylees, for example.) But I can't follow these leads without ditching the "journalism" that I have already created.
The concerns become bigger when I contemplate “really bad things” that can happen. Given a big enough disaster or even terror attack, anyone (including me) can become homeless and “needy”. (The myriad of possibilities, like EMP, have been covered on other postings, but each decade has created its own special dangers.) In fact, there are some existential threats to our way of life, that can come suddenly, from both nature and indignant enemies. It’s possible for my own life to come to an ugly end because of the violence of someone else, who may feel that “rules” don’t mean anything because “somebody like me” didn’t have to follow them (as “he” sees them). I’ve come to realize how this can indeed lead to feelings of shame, and this helps explain some of the nihilism we see in the behavior of some people today. It can be shameful to become a “victim”, and hence that leads to the view (feeding into terrorism) that everyone can become a “casualty”. All of this though process, however, feeds back to the concern that we cannot afford to become smug about our own “accomplishments” or independence, as in the “prayer of confession” that I read Sunday.
Even in my "culture war" battles with my own father ("going to the root", as I would call it) I sensed that, if I had to "respond" to everyone else in their (not my) perspective and "serve" them, I would never be able to excel at what I could be good at (which then was to be music and then academics). There is only so much time and energy. Of course, western values say that you have to do your own work to get recognized. It's easier to deal with this double-challenge if you are more universally "gifted". I would be expected to join a social structure in which I would indeed feel "subservient" even if I was expected to behave like a protective male. I had my own little private metaphors for this, like "low work" and "feeling feminine". It's true, when people "knock" today, I don't live in their world (although I expect them to read "my work"), and the scope of their needs (and urgency) doesn't seem real to me, especially given the excess volume of entreaties, and the heavily partisan and manipulative or emotional tone of some of the begging. My father used to say, "to obey is better than to sacrifice", because he understood that for some people, sometimes, loss is absolute, no matter who "sinned". Sometimes one has to "step up", and learns so very suddenly.