Thursday, November 27, 2014

A scout's virtues: cheerfulness

Sentimentality is sentiment that is inappropriate for the object or situation or a sentiment that is not directed at anything at all.

Isn't "cheerfulness", then, nothing but sentimentality?

In this instance, those who turn to the 1911 Boy Scout's Handbook hoping to find an account of virtue from before the rot set in are going to be disappointed. This is the rank sentimentality:
He must always be bright and smiling, and as the humorist says, "Must always see the donut and not the hole." A bright face and a cheery word spread like sunshine from one to another, It is the scout's duty to be a sunshine-maker to the world. (p. 9)
Yes, it's a book for boys and not men but a boy is a man in the making and that sounds more like a Grade 1 teacher in the making. Once we've all finished vomiting, let's see if we can save the scouts from themselves.

The key to extracting something good from all that claptrap is to consider the placement of cheerfulness in the list immediately below duty. What is our duty to others as regards our emotions? Of course, I can be sad at a funeral but how much right do I have to impose my sadness on others outside of special occasions?

Consider the routine question, "How are you?" and the equally routine answer, "Fine!" The transaction was mocked as meaningless in the 1960s and 1970s. But what conditions justify answering that you are not fine? Because the second you do that, the other person has to stop and pay attention to you. It's not hard to imagine situations in which you might not feel fine but wouldn't bother the other person with your troubles.

It's also easy to imagine people whose job requires them to be cheerful. The server at the counter may be feeling lousy but his job requires him to be cheerful. He might be in such a tough situation that he cannot be cheerful. But what is that? If someone really close to him died, he should get leave.

There are people who, as the Lemon Girl says, "are the sort of people things happen to". Live long enough and you will end up with an employee like that. Every week he comes in with another personal problem and bogs you and everyone else, including customers, down with his sadness or anger. You shouldn't feel bad about firing him but you do because, and this is what is wrong with this sort of person, their whole life is about being the centre of attention and they don't care that this makes them a burden to others.

Here is how I'd save cheerfulness. Cheerfulness isn't an emotion. Like empathy, it is a propensity to feel a certain kind of emotion in response to others. These emotions include judgment—judgments than can be sound or unsound. An empathetic person can respond supportively to your fears or, if they think those fears silly and unwarranted, tell you to get over yourself. To show empathy is to have a habit of charitably erring on the side of thinking others negative emotions are warranted. Cheerfulness is to have the habit of charitably erring on the side of responding to life's difficulties optimism and enthusiasm.

It's not a matter of simply suppressing or hiding your emotions. In some cases that may be called for but the real challenge is much harder; it is to actually direct yourself to have the more positive emotions. How is that different from sentimentality? It's different because it has a worthy object: charity towards others.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

And now a word from our cynics

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. And they will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come.
Actually, the cynics have been considerably quieter and more respectful than the idealists. And, six years and a bit later, I think the cynics can now take a victory lap on this one and say, "I told you so!"

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Are the Ferguson riots "understandable"?

Some readers will think it typical of me to think of everything in terms of sexual behaviours. And you'll be absolutely right to do so. I'd add that every analogy is somewhat obscene, and this one perhaps particularly so. All that acknowledged, I still think there is a valid point here. It's a point you'll have to dig for but I think you're up to it.

Some acquaintances of mine have a daughter. I've known her since she was two. I think she is thirteen, fourteen, fifteen now. I don't know and I shouldn't care enough to actually find out.

The other day, I saw her in a grey, V-necked T-shirt. That may have been all she was wearing. If she was actually wearing anything else, it was nothing but underwear and rather abbreviated underwear at that. It was accidental on my part that I saw her but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't accidental on her part. I don't know and, again, I shouldn't care enough to find out. Nevertheless, I wanted to know.  I had to force myself to suppress the thought.

And I still think it would be nice to know; in other words, I'm still working on repressing these thoughts some three days later. And, even though I saw her only for the briefest of moments, I would have liked to have seen her longer. And, go ahead and hate me for this if you want, but I also thought about what it would be like to see her in even less clothing than that. She is a very athletic girl and ... well, wow!!!!

I had other thoughts that I'm sure anyone, man or woman, can figure out without my help.

I think that all of those thoughts are "understandable". Meaning, I know why it happens that I, and most other adult men (and, judging from what I read in the news, a surprising number of adult women) , will have these thoughts faced with a hot girl in her early teens and I know that it is pretty much inevitable that it will happen even if we wish it wouldn't happen.

At the same time, I think it would be vile and reprehensible to act on any of these thoughts. Anyone who did should go to jail and have their reputations ruined forever. Not only that, I think it would be vile and reprehensible to expand on what my thoughts were. OTOH, I don't have to, because you already know what they were.

I think the rioting in Ferguson is somewhat analogous. I understand and appreciate that people imagined horror and violence when the grand jury's decision was announced. What I will not countenance or forgive is that they actually acted on those thoughts. And I think that President Obama should have said as much.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A scout's virtues: obedience

It's Saturday night at about nine o'clock and I have not posted on a scout's virtues all week and I promised myself that I would do at least one of these per week. It's only a promise I made to myself and no one would know any better if I didn't. So ... why not just skip it and go to bed? No one will know.


Is obedience a virtue? Or is it a duty? Deontology, post-enlightenment, rule-based ethics, is often described as duty ethics. It says that you have a duty and that duty is determined by rationally derived rules and it is your duty to obey the rules that reason gives you, whether you are capable of doing so or not.

Aristotle, on the other hand, said that rules always run out. Rules are good and perhaps even necessary but rules alone are not enough to guide behaviour. In this, he agrees with Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein never read Aristotle. But the point remains, the ability to follow a rule depends on an agreement, not just in definitions, but an agreement in judgment: an agreement that this counts as following a rule. Aristotle said that the right action is the thing that a virtuous person would do in a given situation. That is agreement in judgment. That will apply when there is a rule that covers the action. It will also apply when there is no rule. The two positions don't line up exactly (amongst other things, Wittgenstein had little to say about ethics) but it isn't hard to see how they could be made to line up.

Back to the subject at hand.

Obedience to "duly constituted authorities", an important qualification, is indeed a duty but learning to fulfill that duty teaches us virtue. Look at this language from the virtue section (pp 8-11) of the 1911 Handbook and you'll see what I mean:
To be a good scout a boy must learn to obey ... He must learn to obey, before he is able to command. He should so learn to discipline and control himself that he will have no thought but to obey the orders of his officers. He should keep such a strong grip on his own life that he will not allow himself to do anything which is ignoble, or which will harm his life or weaken his powers of endurance.
There is a lot there. Much of what is there will inspire resistance in anyone who  has gone through the modern education system.

Nowadays, we encourage independence of thought and authenticity. Well, we  say we do. Meanwhile, teacher thinks you should see a specialist and maybe be given Ritalin, little boy, because you're not as docile and pliable as the girls are.

A virtue is a strength. Virtue means manliness in Latin. In Greek the word arete means excellence. It's one of history's many ironies that the word has morphed from meaning someone who is good at doing things to someone who doesn't cause trouble for teacher.

Here's the thing: if you're a boy, being obedient is difficult. Maybe if you're a girl as well but boys struggle more with obedience. You naturally resist it. You are always trying to break free. To learn to be obedient to your parents, your teacher, your scoutmaster, does not come naturally. Girls thrive on the approval of others. Boys do not. To master obedience, we need to master ourselves.
He must learn to obey, before he is able to command.
And that remains true even if the only one we ever really command is ourselves.

Reread this part carefully:
He should keep such a strong grip on his own life that he will not allow himself to do anything which is ignoble, or which will harm his life or weaken his powers of endurance.
Why is it important not to harm your life or weaken your powers of endurance?
The motto, "Be Prepared," means that the scout is always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do his duty. To be prepared in mind, by having disciplined himself to be obedient, and also by having thought out beforehand, any accident or situation that may occur, so that he may know the right thing to do at the right moment, and be willing to do it. To be prepared in body, by making himself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and then do it.

Can virtues exist in isolation? "I'm brave but lack other virtues.". It's fine to be brave in battle but that virtue is no virtue at all unless you have the good sense to know enough not to be brave in battle fighting for the Nazis or the confederacy. For Aristotle, bravery is impossible without the virtue of justice. For Aristotle, the men who flew the two jets into the World Trade Center were not brave. An attack on innocent people is the worst sort of cowardice no matter how much this might, as Bill Maher thought, seem to resemble bravery.

In addition to justice, you also need prudence, or practical reason, which Aristotle rates the most important intellectual virtue.

Look at the paragraph about "be prepared" again. You'll notice that the virtue of prudence is hiding in it:
... and also by having thought out beforehand, any accident or situation that may occur ...

Which leaves justice. Where is justice? Obedience takes the part of justice. And, however inclined we might be to resist, that makes sense for a boy. Wouldn't you agree? A boy should respect authority because a boy is too young to be deciding what is right and wrong.

I know, you're with Huck Finn.

What has Huck to do with this? Let me remind you. Huck has just written a letter that would turn Jim over to the authorities that Huck feels he should be obedient to. And he feels good for having done so. And then, he suddenly rejects it all. He looks at the letter but then he ...

... got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. 
Do you see the trick Mark Twain has pulled on us here? He is using language inspired by the Psalms:
" I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices, my body dwells secure." (Pslam 16 beginning at verse 8)
Only Jim stands in for the LORD here. Everything Huck has ever been taught about morality—and we should remember that Huck has not been good at morality, he has been awful at it—tells him that he should turn Jim over to the authorities. He does not do this not, as we might guess, because he loves Jim but because Jim has loved him. This is good Christian morality. Huck, without realizing what he is doing, sees Jesus in the poor and suffering of this world as embodied by Jim who is unjustly kept a slave and he decides that he will reject all the authorities who have ever taught him in the name of this higher and truer justice he has learned from Jim. Jim is Huck's new father, a superior father to his natural father.

That's all very nice and good but how do you learn? Do you, as a boy, have access to this higher authority of love and, because it is love, God?

Twain may or may not have thought so. He may just be using Christian morality against the Christians Saul Alinsky style.

When Bob Dylan said,
You're going to have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the LORD, but you're going to have to serve somebody.
We all instinctively rejected that on the grounds that there was some third option. And that third option is what?

I'll just leave that there for now. I'll come back to it when I discuss Rudyard Kipling's Kim later.

I'll only say this: this is the most important part. If we can't make sense of this, then we have to give up on virtue as a guide to morality.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Bill Cosby chronology

I find myself at odds with a lot of the explaining being offered about and around Bill Cosby. For starters, I never thought him a great performer. I sat through three or four episodes of the Cosby Show at various times during its how-ever-many-years' run. I didn't like it. I thought it not only preachy and condescending but also sentimental and mushy.

He was funny for a while but, like Woody Allen, he had an appeal to liberals that greatly exceeded his actual achievement. Which is to say, liberals revered Cosby more as an act of piety than anything else.

Rebecca Traister makes a similar argument in The New Republic:
White people loved “The Cosby Show,” especially liberal white people. They loved it because it was a great, funny, well-written, and beautifully performed television show. But also because it offered a warm vision of a world in which shared experience might help Americans of all colors to see past racial divisions and instead focus on the places where they connected.
She credits the show as being better than it was but, otherwise, she and I agree this far.

It gets interesting, though, when she goes on to argue why the allegations against Cosby took so long to reach the popular consciousness. 
But in addition to what it had, there was what “The Cosby Show” lacked: Any suggestion that white people were culpable in the history of racism that the show addressed mostly through reference to mid-twentieth-century activism. White audiences were never made to feel bad about themselves or confront any hard questions about how they had benefitted from American systems from which black Americans had not benefitted. White fans never were forced to wrestle with the question of what made this brownstone-dwelling African American family so exceptional. Rather, we were consciously invited to consider them a new normal. It was its own purposeful message, and not inherently a bad one. But it did permit white Americans to buy into one of their fondest (and falsest) wishes: to consider the sins of the past as past and believe that true racial parity was not only possible but perhaps upon us.
Well, maybe. But the allegations against Cosby go way back, all the way back to the 1970s at least.

Another way to approach the problem would be to ask the reverse of the question; instead of asking why the allegations didn't come out before, ask why they are coming out now. When you do that, you get a far more plausible chain of events, not least of all because it fits the timeline.

In particular, we want to ask about the role of the media. Media figures notoriously say things like, "the allegations were ignored," while conveniently forgetting that they were the ones doing the ignoring. That's the biggest lie in Traister's argument. It's not like "white fans" were wilfully ignoring allegations that everyone knew about, as is the case with defenders of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. No, white fans didn't have a clue that there were allegations because the media had failed to look into and then report on these allegations. And now, in Traister's view, it's the white fans fault!

If we approach it my way, the chronology looks like this:
  1. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Cosby gave people working in the media a warm fuzzy feeling because he supported the story they wanted to believe. A story that focused on the positive achievements of activism for racial equality. 
  2. Media liberals began to be disenchanted with Cosby in the decade following 2000 as he placed more and more emphasis on self-reliance and on social pathologies that exist in many black communities.
  3. Because Cosby was an icon, they criticized him more in sorrow than in anger and chose not to place much weight on the allegations as these would obliterate the older, sentimentally pleasing Cosby story they so much liked.
  4. Now that Cosby is more of a  forgotten man and, not incidentally, can be attacked with much less risk to their careers, journalists are rushing in for the kill.
  5. Because they held back, even though they knew there were problems, for so many years, there are a whole lot of allegations to bring forward.
  6. Desperate to avoid any conclusion that would reflect badly on the media tribe, Rebecca Traister blames white America for not feeling guilty enough.

Monday, November 17, 2014

They call it a subculture for a reason

This week's silly story is the lumbersexual. Facial hair, plaid shirts and workboots. How a look that could have been seen on any university campus going back to the early 1970s is "new" I can't begin to guess.

We'll ignore the story. Most of it.

I would like to call your attention to this headline from The Daily Beast:
How Straight World Stole ‘Gay’: The Last Gasp of the ‘Lumbersexual’
Now, I could spend a lot of time advancing a detailed argument but I think the only thing needed to make the point that needs to be made is this:
Percentage of gay subculture that is not parasitic on heterosexual culture: 0
Get over yourselves guys. You're not that interesting except to one another. "Hey, look at me, I'm doing the same thing as you only I'm doing it an ironic, campy manner," is not an innovation. 

The gay subculture is a subculture. Like any subculture, it is entirely dependant on the larger culture for its existence. Yes there has been some trends that sprung up in this subculture and spread to the larger culture, but you would expect that. And do a serious comparison with a genuinely influential subculture, say, the impact that California surfer culture, numerically a tiny group compared to gay men, and you can get a grasp on how small the impact of the gay subculture has had on heterosexual men.

In fact, gay men have had a more significant impact on heterosexual women than they have on men. Think of the importance of the gay best friend in the life of chicklit heroines from Carrie Bradshaw on down. Think of the number of gay men who have been influential art directors and photographers at women's magazines. 

Finally, it's telling that the supposed influence gay men have had on male dress is confined to hipsters.

Here's the thing: when men are influenced by a subculture, it's aspirational. Most men take up a look because we aspire to be the thing that goes with the look. Plaid shirts are warm and comfortable. We wear them because we want to be warm and comfortable. We wear suits when we want to be businesslike and athletic clothes when we want to be athletic.

Is there often some delusion at  work? Do men by the clothes that go with some sport (we call it gear) meaning to get serious about it and never do the thing in more than a half-assed way?  Happens all the time. But what doesn't happen in mainstream heterosexual culture is adopting a look simply as a look. The guy who buys aviator glasses sees himself as thereby seeking after some of the virtue we associate with pilots. Go ahead and laugh at us for that if you want because we don't care.

But do note this: the only reason for a man to follow fashion trends set by gay men would be aspirational, because we wanted to be like gay men. That is why urban hipsters do it; they think that adopting these looks proves they aren't homophobic because it shows that they aren't afraid of being associated with the gay subculture. And maybe it does. Me, I think that anyone who'd go to all the trouble to try and prove they aren't afraid of being associated with the gay subculture would only do so because they are afraid. Most men wouldn't, and don't, even think about the issue, which is why the gay subculture has so little impact on our lives.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Women as "objects of assessment"

I'll start with a question. Is there a moral difference between the case where a person takes a photograph of a naked woman without her knowing and shows the photo to others and the case where a person hacks into a woman's phone and takes a copy of a photo she took of herself and shows it to others?

Having asked it, I now admit that I am certain there is a difference but I'm not sure precisely how it should be articulated. It feels different somehow but I can't think of any valid reason we would treat the cases differently. If you do either, it seems to me, you should end up in jail.

Another way of putting it might be that violating a woman's privacy is wrong even if she participates in the objectification of her own body. But that is a weird thing to say. Did anyone ever say that a woman participating in the objectification of her own body should lose her privacy rights? Well, yes but the people who do are jerks. And yet we act as if it did make some sort of difference; it does seem to change something.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, whose work is very much worth your time, raises a concern about Christian writing about sexuality that seeks to argue "that living the Christian life is not incompatible with experiencing sexual pleasure or contentment, but actually leads to those things in a more thorough, authentic sense".
This is a totally respectable goal. Yet it’s worth questioning if it isn’t inflected with a pair of less respectable intentions. In contemporary culture, for example, sexual chastity is construed as a feminine quality, leading folks like Driscoll to try to reclaim a more masculine, virile edge for the faith; secondly, noble motives can quickly lapse into the lascivious when the right subject is at hand. None of these pieces read precisely like Penthouse Forum letters, but it’s sometimes more a matter of where they draw the line on the narrative than how it would play out given its logical conclusion. These points are, I think, enough reason to contemplate the best argumentative tactics before pressing on with essays like these.
Bruenig wants to have a sexual ethics where, as she puts it later in her piece "maintains the same sexual expectations of men and women ...". Therefore she worries that Christian men writing about sex in positive terms for them are going to end up by effectively writing about the enjoyment of women's bodies.
But even with the best of intentions, the register of pieces in this stream tends to have unintended impacts on women readers. If the Christian publishing sphere is imagined as a literary, online representation of the Church community itself, then these articles are the equivalent of the winks and glances and whistles women get every day, combined with the vaguely lewd remarks one overhears that produce a slightly disconcerting tenor. Women, in other words, are used to being viewed as automatically sexual regardless of how we might want to engage; the very fact of our being women and present seems to occasion, quite uncomfortably, grounds for considering female sexuality. It’s an unsettling experience to enter into a space or conversation expecting to learn or discuss and instead find the topic of your most personal anatomy and experience up for consideration.
Women are viewed as automatically sexual regardless of how they might want to engage? Yes, they are. Is this likely to change? No, it isn't.

It could change. It's not ontologically necessary. What it would take for it to change, however, is that women stop participating in the public sexual presentation of themselves as objects of assessment. Men might not like this but they'd eventually go along.

Now, you could worry that, should such a solidarity spring up among women, that a few women would cave into the pressure of a concentrated male campaign against such solidarity. But that's to misstate the problem because the vast majority of women participate quite willing to various degrees in the objectification of their own bodies. Most of this participation falls well short of Beyoncé, "but it’s sometimes more a matter of where they draw the line on the narrative than how it would play out given its logical conclusion." Does that top enhance your breasts? The temptation is to say, "Yes, but in a restrained and tasteful way." But that is precisely the line of argument that Bruenig rules out for men here and, on her terms, we should rule it out just as vigorously for women.

She's on better grounds further down the essay when she argues that
We therefore stray a little, it seems, when we turn personal marital sexual narratives into public arguments for the superiority of an ethic that would suggest such things should remain at least somewhat private and unknown to others.
Saying "personal marital sexual narratives" implicitly admits, whether Bruenig sees the point herself or not, that where you draw the line on the narrative is the ethical consideration that matters and that wishing that women could treat sexual engagement as some sort of magic bullet is an argument that, while valid, could only apply in a social context radically different from the one we live in. Some feminists would here say, exactly! But the rest of us are willing, however grudgingly, to live in a social context where, as my wife once said, when a man compliments a woman on the top she is wearing, he usually means her breasts. Some women treat such remarks as compliments, others have trained themselves not to notice and some others would prefer that men not mention their clothing for this reason. Most women, however, wear body-enhancing clothing in public and are content with social manners that say, "nice top" is acceptable and anything beyond that should be private and unknown to others.

The solution that will "work", although far from perfectly, is a return to manners. An ethical solution, in the deep sense that a writer like Bruenig conceives of ethics, isn't possible. Of course, to go to manners might seem to be turning the clock back to a darker era. There two answers to that. The first is that modern manners need not be identical to old manners. The second is that earlier eras were not as relentlessly dark as we imagine and the current era has its very dark corners too.

I suppose women could get together and collectively act so as to change the culture such that it is not nearly always the case that their "most personal anatomy and experience up for consideration". If such a thing ever happens, we'll have another discussion.