Wednesday, March 22, 2017

There's no such thing as society

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation." Margaret Thatcher

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Punishment as kind of love

If we accept, as I argued yesterday, that it sometimes makes sense to treat failure as a sin, we should also accept that God will punish some our failures and that he will do so even when we don't reject him in failing. That he might punish us for failing when we are "doing our best".

Yesterday, I argued that the mother who punishes her child for failing does harm when she wrongly assesses the child's abilities and the challenges they are facing. You should be able to pass in Math and History but it is not reasonable to expect you to be the most popular kid in your class. That said, some kids could reasonably aspire to be the most popular in their class, in which case we would have to ask whether this is a good goal when it is achievable.

God, being God, would seem to be the one most qualified for punishing our failings for he could make these judgments correctly.

In the end, we have to trust that he loves us.
We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. (Benedict XVI)
Living morally, then, is a matter of establishing within ourselves the disposition that goes with that encounter.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Overly critical maternal superego

One of my favourite blogs is The Last Psychiatrist. He writes long posts and uses a style of analysis favoured by Wittgenstein that not everyone likes. What that means is that he tends to analyze by circling around and trying out different perspectives rather than dissecting the subject. I find he's worth reading and can almost always find a gem in his pieces.

Like this one:
... an "overly critical maternal superego" which is different than a paternal superego because it yells at you not when you sin but when you fail. This is the mom who doesn't want you to have premarital sex, of course, but a girl like you should be dating the captain of the football team.
We were discussing narcissistic parenting styles on Facebook the other day and I wish I had this quote at my fingertips at the time. I leave it to readers to decide if it sounds like anyone they know.

Here’s a puzzle: when is it reasonable to treat poor performance on a math exam as a moral failure Perhaps the relationship is not clear?

On one level, doing well at arithmetic is simply a matter of skills accumulated. You learn to do the mental math, which consists of memorizing addition from 1+1 to 9+9 and multiplication tables from 1x1 to 9x9. Then you learn a series of steps to follow when doing more complex operations in addition and multiplication. At the same time you learn how to do it backwards so you can do subtraction and division.

But it’s also a moral task because learning how to do these things is a matter of self discipline. Assuming you don’t have to deal with special mental challenges, it’s expected that you will “get” arithmetic. That’s a moral expectation and your mother and father will see it as a moral failure if you don’t.

This requires that they make accurate assessments of what it is reasonable to expect from you. At some point, after passing calculus and linear algebra in my case, you’re allowed to stop. No more is expected of you unless you really want to do it. If you decide you want to do more, then it is reasonable to expect that you do it well.

There is classic child-parent encounter on the front of “I can’t do any more”. It starts with a walk in the park perhaps and the three-year-old says, “I can’t go on” and the parent either picks them up and carries them or insist that they keep pushing. The parent has no strict calculus to make this determination. They simply judge the child based on their experience.

And the parent might well fail morally here. She might cruelly drive the child to the point of injury but that is extremely unlikely. The more common occurrence is she will think it easier to just give in and carry the child rather than help them develop self-discipline. And so children grow up to be weaklings.

And what of the failure of the mother in the example above? The problem is not that she criticizes her daughter for failure rather than sin for failure can be a sin. No, what she has done is to establish an unrealistic explanation. She has failed to assess the situation.

The captain of the senior football team gets sex from the girl he dates. Perhaps not at a strict Christian high school but any other high school he does and no sex means you aren’t his girlfriend. To expect a daughter to meet both conditions of no premarital sex and captain of the football team is impossible and the mother who pushes for such a thing is cruel and heartless.

You could put together a whole list of such statements:
“Just stand up to bully, he’ll back down.” 
“When I was your age I was slim without ever dieting or exercising.” 
“Your cousin Archibald plays the piano beautifully and he never took a lesson.”
A parent who’d say such things does incredible damage to her children.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

When your illusions are shattered ...

... the thing to remember is that they were your illusions. You didn't think of them yourself; you simply chose them from the available options. Maybe you didn't even find them yourself but had to wait out until some seemingly helpful person showed them to you. If so, that seemingly helpful person may even be the one who later shattered them. But they were your illusions because you embraced them.

File that under the heading of "advice I really could have used back in 1983".

What I'm wondering about now is revisiting them. The illusions. What was it that swept me up sometime in the 1970s and made me so vulnerable to those pedlars of illusions who were such a big part of my life. There is no point in blaming them—I think they were just as vulnerable to those illusions themselves, which is why they were so effective at selling them—but the illusions themselves should be scrutinized.

The final episode of Mad Men end with "I'd like to teach the world to sing". I'm three years younger than Bobby Draper and seven years older than Matthew Weiner. There was a recited word hit of a poem called Desiderata maybe a year or two later than the supposed end of Mad Men. It's the sort of thing you don't publicly admit to liking but it was in high rotation on all the radio stations the year I was twelve and that sort of thing can make a really deep impression on a boy.

I have reservations about it now but there is also some good advice in that poem. That said, even at twelve, I only turned it up when I was the only person in the room. But that kind of thinking was much in the air then. And that is the atmosphere that led Matthew Weiner to create this.

Okay, but is that an illusion? The temptation is to say yes but I think it's just a hope. Even the people who embrace stuff like this know the world isn't really like that.

This, on the other hand, is illusion. It's also much better art and I can't help but wish that the series had ended here instead of as above. More interestingly, for my purposes, it almost exactly mirrors the ending above only with a seemingly more cynical ending. I say seemingly because this is what illusions look like.

If you want to sell someone, like yourself, a whole boatload of illusions, the way to do it is to make it look like you're a cynic dismantling illusions. And that was the kind of illusion I grew up with: the illusion of being above illusions. One of the options on the table, I can't say whether it was the only one, but one of the things I was taught from an early age I was taught to cynically doubt not only other people's motives but also their hopes and dreams. As I say, I embraced these illusions so I don't blame others.

Monday, March 13, 2017

When people close to you attack you

Here's how Thomas Friedman began his column a little more than a year ago:
I find this election bizarre for many reasons but none more than this: If I were given a blank sheet of paper and told to write down America’s three greatest sources of strength, they would be “a culture of entrepreneurship,” “an ethic of pluralism” and the “quality of our governing institutions.” And yet I look at the campaign so far and I hear leading candidates trashing all of them.  
Donald Trump is running against pluralism. Bernie Sanders shows zero interest in entrepreneurship and says the Wall Street banks that provide capital to risk-takers are involved in “fraud,” and Ted Cruz speaks of our government in the same way as the anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, who says we should shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” (Am I a bad person if I hope that when Norquist slips in that bathtub and has to call 911, no one answers?)
Now, there is a tremendous problem with sloppy logic here. Donald Trump is running against pluralism? Not exactly. We wouldn't say that someone who opposes a certain kind of exercise is opposed to physical fitness. But there is a deeper problem than that and it's in the last line. Grover Norquist wants government to have much less influence over our lives and he used a colourful metaphor to describe that. Friedman wants Norquist to suffer.

And note that wanting smaller government is taken as being identical to wanting to shut down emergency services. Is Friedman actually so stupid as to believe that? Think carefully about your answer because if he isn't stupid then he is dishonest and manipulative.

I suspect that a big part of what motivates Friedman is fear. He can't imagine life without big government and so he engages in vicious and unfair attacks on people who think otherwise. A consequence of this way of thinking and behaving, however, is to shrink our sense of community. In Friedman's world there are good people who believe in big government (and Friedman can't imagine quality government being anything other than big government) and there are people he wishes would suffer because they have the wrong beliefs. That doesn't leave a lot of common ground.

Social psychologists have long known that we present different faces to different people. We do this based on the level of commitment. Friedman may well wish Norquist, whom he doesn't know or care about, dead for simply having the wrong opinions but he is unlikely (I hope) to think the same thing if his wife or one of his children became a libertarian. He might wish that they didn't think this way and may even have heated arguments with them about it. But he'd still love them. If, on the other hand, he meets someone on the bus and they express such a view, he might decide to change seats. The degree of commitment to the person matters.

For that reason, we can usually be more open with the people closest to us. We can say what we really think and not worry that they are suddenly going to start yelling and screaming at us or that they will stop speaking with us. But what if they do just that?

Facebook is a particularly interesting test case for this. You present more or less the same face to everyone on Facebook. What does it mean if people who are supposed to be in your core group of close friends and family respond to your opinions with anger and threats to cut you off while others calmly accept your right to have these opinions? It means they aren't really your close friends or family anymore. They may even be your enemies now. It's nothing you did. They chose this. You don't have to do anything about that. I'd argue that you shouldn't do anything about it. I mean, you shouldn't retaliate or try to convince them to change their minds.

Friday, March 10, 2017

On loving your enemies

The Office of Readings for today has a great reading on loving your enemies by Saint Aelred, abbot. I've always had great difficulty with the notion of loving your enemy.

As I was reading it, it suddenly hit me that two people I have lately had trouble with are, in fact, enemies. They are not enemies by my choice but by their choice. They have attacked me for years now and, a few months after each attack, come back and re-established "friendship". And I, like Charlie Brown when Lucy offers t hold the football, have cheerfully readmitted them. That won't happen again.

I'll forgive them and do my best to forget this latest affront. But I'll have nothing more to do with them. They aren't friends because they don't act like friends even when they aren't being jerks.

Not surprisingly, Aelred gives Jesus as the exemplar of how to love your enemies. I won't pretend to even come close to him in terms of forgiveness but it struck me as I read the piece that Jesus never made the mistake of thinking his enemies to be friends. He asked that they be forgiven and even suggested that they only did what they did because of a misunderstanding but nowhere in the gospels does he pretend they are his friends.