Friday, October 17, 2014

A troubling singularity in my own experience of liberty

A couple of the incidents involving “coercion” (as I mentioned in the previous posting) do lead to some troubling – and interesting territory.

One “incident” concerns the simple act being invited to dance in a disco – when I’m “watching” (someone who is attractive).  The individual, who may not be interesting to me, breaks in. No big deal, and sometimes I have danced.  (And a few times he may have been someone I would “want”.)  But onetime, to a particular woman, I said no, and she got upset. “Really?”   This was a walk on “the right to reject” someone.

Another incident concerns an “interview” one cold fall evening in 1974 in the East Village, to join a talk group sponsored by the Ninth Street Center.  The interviewer (who was the “psychologically feminine” partner in a particular relationship, using the terminology of Paul Rosenfels), suddenly lambasted me, with “don’t you see you incredibly boring you really are?”  Ironic to quote it, isn’t it.  What seemed to unnerve him and some other people was my tendency to bring “outer world” issues (of the time) or “current events” (history class) into social interactions and the talk groups at the Center.  At the time, the energy crisis (following the Arab Oil Embargo) was a big issue for me, still living in New Jersey – as it could affect my mobility – my ability to get to the Center or to gay social scenes at all – and my economic stability, my job (although it never did in fact).  Many of the people who came to the Center at the time had simple jobs (cleaning apartments), lived on little, and stayed in the neighborhood all the time.  They felt “bullied” by my hitting their “complacency” about bigger issues.  They took “stability” for granted.  Of course, “gay activists” know that in much of the world (especially then), you couldn’t take your ability to function for granted.

Of course, someone I really look up to (the “upward affiliation” idea from George Gilder) I would be much more careful with.  If I bring up the “on the outside” problem (as we had called it at NIH in 1962) I’d make sure it’s really pertinent to the other person.  But the people that I tended to “prattle” about this were people who maybe made some kind of impression on me, which would weaken quickly.  I wasn’t serious.  So the interviewer would ask, well, why don’t I “care” about “people” more?  Why don’t I cry about this sometimes?  He said sometimes people would be socially brutal “back” at me and I seemed oblivious.  I really didn’t care.

It’s pretty easy to see that stuff like this can play out in social media today.  In fact, I don’t make a big deal of “followers” or “friends” since the posts are public.  I don’t let the “unfollow” or “unfriend” event become an issue.  Some people I simply just look at their threads once a week or so.  I’m pretty sure a number of people, especially in college, do that with me.  That’s fine – there is no issue then. 

But there will be people who say, “I don’t need to get bad news from you”  -- about Ebola or ISIS or whatever – even though it’s pretty clear that some of these things could affect them, and affect us all, adversely, even existentially.  They want some kind of personal “sharing” of “own experiences”.  Well, I can do some of that. 

And I once got an angry email from someone in Australia about one of my posts, saying something like “You are not the judge of the cretins of the world.”

So, here I come back to the central point.  I recall one evening in December 1961, when my father, lying on the love seat in the den and putting a heat pad over his nervous stomach (a quick complication of my William and Mary expulsion), said, “The psychiatrist says, you don’t see people as people.”  

That’s right (and I don’t mean that as a Christian chant).  I see in someone what I see.  It’s a tautology.  The person matters (interpersonally, not in the sense of having individual human rights respected legally, but personally) if he appeals to me.  If he does not appeal to me, I don’t look for explanations or “bad luck”, which may be quite pertinent.  He may have started way behind me “in line”.  He may have a biological disability.  (So may I, but I’m am right on the “coin edge” as to whether that matters.)  He may have been injured by the carelessness or violent hostility of someone else.  But he still is “what he is”.  That is how I feel.  And that is how I feel about myself.  The word “victim” means nothing in my own psyche; if anything it seems shameful.

I have indeed noticed this more in my own thinking in retirement, since 9/11 and Mother’s long eldercare.   I’ve also noticed it in my substitute teaching, when unexpectedly and suddenly confronted with situations with disabled or disadvantaged students (“other people’s children”) that were much more personal than I had ever imagined possible.  (I could tell a story about “the swimming pool” here, but that’s for another time.)   I used to have a much simpler, libertarian idea of “personal responsibility” (as I outlined in my first book).

Of course, I can decline because of age (and the medical events that come with age), or I can “screw up” myself.  But I have come to realize I can become “less” because of someone else’s antagonism or negligence, too.  Once I am “less”, that’s an absolute thing.  I don’t extend myself to anyone else this way, so I can’t accept the idea of someone extending to me just because of “bad luck”.  This can become more disturbing than the normal losses of age or one’s own failures. I didn't become "socialized" to the point that marriage would be meaningful, because I wasn't competitive enough; so the alternatives were "diverge and watch", become subservient. or die.  So, yes, I am exposed if something "happens", and I am irrelevant outside of our own immediate way of life.  
And that is difficult.  I can see how it undermines the idea that people can take risks for one another when it can really cost them something.  That’s an important idea behind military service or any period of service.  (In fact, before my own draft, I used to say that I didn't want to come back if maimed in Vietnam, and other people, on campus, said the same thing;  we were willing to let the disadvantaged become what I see as real "sacrifices" through the deferment system.)  If it is “acceptable”, it can undermine the passions of marriages – of others who witness it.  That explains some of the antagonism I sometimes encounter, in the two incidents I mention here, as well as the troubling period at William and Mary and NIH in 1961 and 1962.

So this is another side of morality, one we have forgotten how to talk about in moral terms.  
Libertarians talk about “personal responsibility” and honoring voluntary promises and contracts, and sometimes defiantly announced (like the appealing teen character Bob in “The Zero Theorem”) “I’m nobody’s tool” (or imagine John Galt’s speech in “Atlas Shrugged”).  Yet sometimes we don’t get a choice on belonging.  Sometimes things change us whether we think we will accept it or not.  Courage and cowardice belong in moral debate, too.  Omissions can be as deadly as commissions.

People who live in authoritarian societies experience this view of "morality" all the time, because often their social, tribal, familial, religious or political structures face threats and leaders can exploit the idea that, if the culture is to survive. it can only be as strong as its least resilient link, so threats to "social capital" are viewed as criminal.      

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