Friday, January 23, 2015

The true story of Ann(e) Shirley

It’s only as an adult that I realize that the true plot of the Little House books is Laura growing up and moving the hell away from Ma.
That's from the piece about Little House on the Prairie I linked yesterday. It reminds me of a theory I have about Anne of Green Gables. I loved that book as a kid. My family spent pretty much the entire summer on Prince Edward Island from 1967 to 1970. After that, we move to Quebec and couldn't spend as long but we got two or three weeks in every summer for several years afterward.  

When you're there, the story feels real. You forget that it's fiction. That's a dangerous thing with books like Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie. It's dangerous because there is a huge wish-fulfillment element to these books. Both writers had a desperate need to imagine they'd had better childhoods than they really had and they created them in print. Imagining you had a perfect childhood is a form of delusion that prevents us from growing up. 

Don't get me wrong, you didn't have a miserable childhood either. That would be simply to create a mirror image and the mirror image of a myth is still a myth. And that mirror image will just as effectively keep us from growing up.

My theory about Anne 

It's really Marilla's story. Anne never exists. Marilla imagines Anne because she cannot be honest about her own childhood. Marilla's problem is not that she didn't marry John Blythe. (Notice how Maud Montgomery's stories are always cyclical: the same things keep repeating over and over again. Marilla's story is just like Anne's.) She never wanted to marry John and her imagined Anne never wanted to marry Gilbert just as Maud herself never wanted to marry and regretted it the second she did.

You might think these stories are about stolen childhoods. That's the way a lot of kids read them in our era of extended childhood read them. You might think, as the quote above suggests that Little House is really about Laura moving away from Ma but it's really a story about how Laura Ingalls Wilder never quite managed to confront the truth about her mother. She kept mythologizing her mother because she never really grew up.

And likewise, much as I love her, Maud Montgomery. Anne is the story of how a spirited young girl became Marilla. Every one of Maud's books is an attempt to rewrite her history with a happy ending that she never got in real life; despite her success as a writer she was miserable.

You can see this in the Anne books. It's always a variation on the same story. For example: no matter how far up the educational chain Anne and Gilbert get, they are always the two star students in the same rivalry. She keeps rewriting her childhood, thinking that if she can make it perfect (and her actual childhood was miserable) that will make everything else okay.

It didn't work.

You have to confront your parent's failings. As a child, you're helpless. Your need for protection and care is so intense that you make up a whole mythology about your parents and how they always had your best interests at heart. They didn't because they couldn't. No one could. The point of moving beyond it is not to hate them (to repeat: the opposite of a myth is still a myth). The point is reach the point where you can take care of your own needs and wants for you not only are allowed to have those, you absolutely have to to flourish.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A virtue ethics primer

Added: It occurs to me that I left an important point out in what I say below. Because it was too obvious to me! Anyway, why is this about virtue ethics at all? Because we connect ethics to human nature and the purpose of human life in virtue ethics. 

Those who push rule-based ethics, by contrast, never worry about what human nature is like or what we are trying to achieve in life. They simply determine what the rules should be and insist that everyone obey them. Consequentialists only care whether the outcome of a moral choice is good or bad.

"Ma" from Little House on the Prairie is a classic rule-based moralist. She has rules, such "you shouldn't be selfish", that she combines with a sense of duty to follow the rules and that is all. She has no stopping point therefore. If selfish means not thinking of others, then you should give them every last thing that you don't absolutely need to survive.

When we allow virtue into the discussion, we start to worry about what human beings are and what they are supposed to be. Under that ethics, it becomes reasonable for someone like Laura to wonder, is it a good thing for my personal development to keep my beads and my doll? Would it help make me a better and stronger person to have some beauty in my life and to keep a treasured keepsake? The answer to that isn't necessarily going to be yes but it might be.

Here is a nice introduction to virtue ethics in the guise of an attack on Ma in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie: (UPDATE: Link fixed)
In Ma’s world—and in the world of many people during that era—a well-behaved girl has a suffocatingly boring life. No tears, no laughter, no smiles, no running, no anger, no joy. A good girl and a good woman had no vision of self, but spent her life working only for others. And that vision is bullshit. 

Let’s talk about her bullshit vision of what the word “selfish” means. Ma’s idea of being a good girl is apparently ignoring your own desires and giving your own toys—your toys that you LOVE—away to someone else. Remember the time Mary and Laura found a bunch of pretty beads in an abandoned Native American [“Indian” in the book] camp?
And it's not just Ma. Your mother probably did this to you.

My mother's big thing was apologies. If there was a conflict, she'd instruct me to suck it up and apologize so everybody could get along. She'd tell me that even if the conflict was 100 percent the other kid's fault. The lesson was that your mental well-being, your flourishing didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was that everyone get along again.

To give our collective mothers a break: they were raised that way too. 

Besides, they need to control you. They have things to do, other children to take care of, parents of other children to get along with.

That's not sarcasm. Of course she is like that. We're all like that. The thing that makes it different with her is that she is Mummy and it is very hard to accept the fact that Mummy doesn't have our best interests at heart. (A point that remains true even for people who don't have mothers or who were given up for adoption and later went looking for their "real" mother. If Mummy doesn't exist, we will invent her.)

It's even harder for her to accept the fact that she doesn't have your best interests at heart and she will go on messing with your life for years past the date when it is reasonable for a mother to mess in her child's life because she will convince herself that she has your best interests at heart. (That said, to really love someone is to want them to flourish.)

But here is the thing, you could spend the rest of your life reinforcing that bad lesson. I've watched people, especially women, do it. They tell themselves they aren't giving enough while systematically denigrating their every desire.

One of the most liberating things I ever did was to hate my mother for a while. I'd resented things she'd done on and off for a long time. But resentment, while a genuine and useful emotion, comes from a place of helplessness. The only way it can come out is in helpless rage. And you don't allow yourself to rage because that is what we think selfish people do.

But his one day I just let myself go and feel anger towards her. And I kept waiting to find the evidence that said the anger was unjustified so that I could apologize to her, like I was supposed to. This even though she'd been dead about a year at the time.

Instead, I found evidence to justify my anger.

I told myself that this was just my selfishness. That I wanted to feel vindicated in, to wallow in, my anger. I told myself that because that is one of the arguments she used on me when I was balking at apologizing for something that seemed to me wasn't only not my fault but very clearly was someone else's fault. My mother would tell me that my anger had so blurred my judgment that I was seeing or imagining only facts that justified my anger.

That's sometimes true. It's also sometimes not true. The way out of the quandary is to look at the evidence more closely. But that isn't what my mother taught me to do as a child. She taught me that I was being irrational and selfish (two words that she so often linked that they came to be synonyms).

Getting angry at her after her death was freeing. Eventually!

The first few times I suppressed the evidence as I had been taught to but I kept going back to that well and soon noticed that there was real water in it, not an endless gusher of new resentments, that would have been evidence that I was being irrational, but a core of genuine betrayals, yes betrayals and not just accidents or momentary lapses in judgment.

And then the anger started to subside. That's the paradoxical lesson in allowing yourself to be angry. We're told—and not just by our mothers—to always suppress our anger because anger can make bad things happen. We're told this about emotions generally but especially about anger. It's not true. Anger can lead to forgiveness. It is a necessary condition for forgiveness.

But you have to want what is best for you for it to happen. That is also a necessary condition.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Virtue ethics state of the nation report

Although I've never announced it as such, this blog is part of a personal project to actually live virtue ethics instead of just thinking about it. For the most part, I have not written about how this works out in my life because I don't think it's a good idea to talk about yourself that way. What follows, therefore, is not autobiographical but a sort of lessons learned.

1. Virtue ethics and rules are not exclusive. 

My experience is that you need rules to live. You need two kinds of rules. You need rules that set goals. For example: I will not lose my temper with that irritating jerk of a boss/colleague/brother-in-law/sister/ex-girlfriend who always gets under my skin. You also need rules that set outer limits: "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother." [Mark 10:19]

2. Virtue ethics makes rules more useful

Rules are binary. If I tell myself I'm not going to blow up at that sibling who always pulls my chain I do so because I have a history of failure. I do this all the time and I don't like this in myself and I want to change. That's all good but look what happens when I make this a rule. The next time I see my sister I'm either going to succeed or be a failure.  If I fail, then the rule is also a failure. It has served me no purpose. [This, I think, is a big part of Saint Paul's point about works of the law.]

At the same time, there are some rules that we set with the precise intention that they never will be broken. You might call these third-rail rules because very dire consequences follow from them. You might, for all that, still fail; at which point you will have to continue living your life.

"Why have these rules if the consequences of failing are so obvious and dire?" Because they set measurable limits. Sex with someone who isn't your spouse or who is someone else's spouse is adultery. That gives you a clear way of knowing what not to do.

I'd add that I think the Catholic church's huge expansion of the definition of adultery has the reverse of the effect desired precisely because it makes so many people into failures. Faced with a rule they are most likely to fail at, many young adults simply reject all of Catholic moral teaching along with the bathwater.

On the same lines, it strikes me as important that Jesus gives us so few commandments. I think it was Wittgenstein who said that it took him his whole life to see that Paul and Jesus shared the same message. Both seriously undermine legalist approaches to morality; they undermine any legalist approach to morality and not just the Pharisaic one.

3. Virtue ethics make it harder for other people to manipulate you

I've recently changed my uncool quote (first time in six months or so):
Tea partiers and Wall Street occupiers disagree on a great many things, but there’s one place where the Venn diagrams overlap: the sense we’re all being played for suckers, that the rules are being set up to benefit those who know how to manipulate the rules.
The truth is that lots of people know how to manipulate the rules. Anyone in power, including you and me, will occasionally succumb to the temptation to manipulate the rules now and then. And they will do so in order to manipulate you.

Once I was in line for a bank machine at a shopping mall and there was a mentally challenged guy in front of me. Someone had told him that he shouldn't let people stand too close behind him so they could see his pin code.  Good rule! Only he used it for a power trip and started demanding that the I move further and further away. Even when I was twenty-five feet away that wasn't enough and he started yelling and creating a scene.

As I note above, most rules are just tools for living. That includes a lot of rules that classify as laws. Recognizing this makes it harder for others to use rules to run you.

Oftentimes, you will recognize that people are trying to control you and play along anyway. I let the mentally challenged adult have his way and simply left the mall to find another bank machine somewhere else.

4. Virtue ethics makes moral decision making easier

This last one should strike you as odd. If there is anything that both proponents and critics of virtue ethics agree about it is that virtue ethics is not helpful in making difficult moral choices. But here's the thing: nothing is! If there is one thing I have seen in my life it is that difficult moral choices call for a man of action and not an analyst. Someone needs to do something.

"But what if they do the wrong thing?" That might be bad, it might even be very bad, but no one has anyway of knowing ahead of time what the best choice is.

An important qualification is that you should not act too soon but my experience is that the man of action* is better at judging this than the analyst.

*I'm avoiding inclusive language on purpose by the way. Not because women are incapable of being like men of action but because men make the better image; this is a manly skill.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The really weird thing about The Bachelor is that it isn't nearly as weird as Willa Paskin wants it to be

I've never seen The Bachelor. I've never seen any reality TV show.

In any case, I'm taking Willa Paskin's account of the show as accurate.

The odd thing about her account is not what she finds odd but the many things that she doesn't find odd. Check out the sentence I've emphasized in this paragraph:


Typically, The Bachelor’s resemblance to an unusually public escort service is kept under wraps until late in the season, when the bachelor has narrowed the field down to three suitors. They are then invited—or not invited—to spend the night with the bachelor in a “fantasy suite,” an evening in a romantic, usually tropical location where the cameras will finally leave these two people alone to get up to whatever they want to get up to. Having one off-camera sexual encounter with a person who may soon give you a grapefruit-size engagement ring seems like a good idea. But in practice, it means a man has sex with three women, three evenings in a row, and professes his deep and romantic feelings to each one of these women, all of whom are fearful of behaving in a way he might not like. It’s callow, sordid behavior made somehow acceptable by the use of Hallmark Card language and a really fly hotel room.
It's not that I disagree with her, it sounds incredibly sordid. But why does having a sexual encounter with a man who might give you valuable jewellery seem like a good idea? It sounds like being a prostitute to me.
The show assembles a harem of attractive women who attempt to woo one man not just with their charm, but their bodies, their insecurity, and their willingness to suppress any part of their personality that might make them seem difficult—in particular, their innate discomfort that this man is availing himself of numerous other women as he speaks to each of them about feeling a “real connection.” To distract from the ickiness of this setup, The Bachelor plays the prude, only ever speaking of sex in the most coded, vague terms, like a pimp who blushes at the word “vagina” and claims his clientele are just playing cards.
"The show assembles a harem of attractive women"? That leaves something out. It leaves out that there are no end of very attractive women, and men, so desperate for attention and fame that they'd want to be on this show. And simply agreeing to be on the show wouldn't be enough; you'd have to be deeply enthusiastic to make the cut.

In passing, I should note how little Paskin seems to know about pimps. Having met a few when I worked as a bellboy as a teenager, the word "vagina" could only make a pimp blush because he'd be embarrassed at not saying c___, t___, or p____.

Anyway, what Paskin really finds weird is that one of the contestants recently got slut-shamed for having sex too soon in the story. Really.

The reality in this reality show is that contestants—male and female—are all whores. Complaining that there was a little slut shaming as well is a little like complaining that a suicide bomber had poor personal hygiene.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Is hatred really a problem?

Everyone, including me, agrees that the Westboro Baptist Church is a hate group. In a sense, even members of Westboro Baptist agree in that they openly hate others.

At the same time, there is a great rush after every terrorist atrocity on the part of some to establish that Islam is a religion of peace, or that, at the very least, it ought to be when "properly understood".  That is not quite so crystal clear as the claim that Westboro Baptist is a hate group but let's take it as read for the sake of argument.

The problem then is that not a single person has been killed or even bruised in the name of Westboro Baptist. Hundreds if not thousands of people have been killed or injured in the name of Islam this year alone and it's only January 12 as I write this.

When I was four years old my mother, like every mother of her era, taught me to say and think that, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me."

That's not empirically true. You can be, and lots of people are, hurt by name calling. But you can be hurt only if you let the names hurt you. You have to co-operate—at least passively by not building up a resistance to being hated—in order to be hurt. (That was what my mother really wanted me to learn.) Bullets and bombs, OTOH, always hurt and there isn't much you can do about it other than hurting the people who want to physically hurt you so badly that they can't act.

It's time to relearn that lesson.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Don't fall for the "Lumbersexual" trick

I got up and took a shower and then put on green khaki pants, a grey T-shirt and a red and black plaid shirt. I love flannel shirts. It's what I put on when I want to feel comfortable in cold weather and have done so since I first started to buy my own clothes in my teens. I like flannel. I had no idea my masculinity was in crisis.

What links the mythic lumberjack to his modern-day incarnations is a pervasive sense—in his time and ours—that masculinity is “in crisis.”
There has been a lot of criticism of "lumebrsexuals" along with some good replies to it but something else needs to be said.

How does the philosophical problem about mental processes and states and about behaviorism arise?—the first step is the one that altogether escapes notice. We talk of processes and states and leave their nature undecided. Sometime perhaps we shall know more about them - we think. But that is just what commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter... (The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent)

That's Wittgenstein. He's not talking about lumbersexuals. He's talking about psychology. The point he is making that as soon as you label something, you define it. You think you're doing the opposite when you say, "Well, there is some sort of psychological process going on here but I'm going to avoid defining it so as to keep an open mind."

The same trick was played with lumbersexual. Men have been growing beards for millennia and wearing flannel shirts for well over a century. Vendors such as L.L. Bean and Pendleton's owe their existence to the flannel shirt.  But, suddenly!, it's a trend and it has a label.

And once they can call you by a label, they can analyze that label. And you aren't going to win. You can't embrace the insult.

What's happening here is that the same techniques that have been used to manipulate women for decades are now being applied to men. You used to be able to dress the way you wanted. Now you are inhabiting a label and you will never feel free or justified dressing the way you want. You'll have to explain yourself and defend yourself.

"The only container that they can fill"

Elliot Hulse* made a whole lot of videos once upon a time. As he freely admits, and mocks himself for, he said "a lot of crazy shit" in some of these videos. This one, however, is pure gold. Before you click on it, a warning: Language! If your boss, child, maiden aunt, or anyone else's boss, child, maiden aunt, is within earshot, put on the headphones.




* Elliot also looks a whole lot like my dad did in his thirties.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What do we talk about when we talk about ethics?

1. Catholics often use moral language that is meaningless. 

I know, that's probably unfair in that other groups also engage in meaningless moral talk. But it is fair in the sense that Catholics do it and we do it a whole lot. For example: "We have to find new ways of being church." I hear that all the time. And the problem is not that it's weird jargon. Most people who use weird jargon can explain what that weird jargon means if you ask them. I've tried asking people who say "new ways of being church" what that means and they can't give a coherent answer. 

And sometimes they avoid answering the question by getting angry at me.

2. I know I go on a lot about narcissism here but ...

It's amazing how often we talk about ourselves when we talk about ethics.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The point of virtue ethics is to become a better person and that requires us to focus on ourselves.

But ... what do we focus on when we focus on ourselves? here is two possibilities:
  • Did I clean up the kitchen every day this week?
  • Did I share other people's poverty?
I hope you can see the problem.

At one level we might be afraid of poverty because of the demands that justice will make on us if we face it. In fact, I remember that the readings from the mass the day we left Michael included the exhortation, “Say not to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give,’ when you can give at once” (Prv 3:27). Challenging words. But there may be a more fundamental reason why we build the wall. When I recall how strangely difficult it was to receive Michael’s gaze, it strikes me that it was not from a fear of what I owed him, but from a fear of who I had to become, and of what I had to let go of, in order to receive his presence. 
In short, I was afraid of facing Michael’s poverty alongside him, of receiving him in his poverty, because in order to make room for him I had to acknowledge the poverty of the world that I can easily inhabit at times, a world where I imagine that I can be free from my own needs, on my own terms and by my own work alone, the Into the Wild world of “boundlessness for its own sake.”
Start with that opening, 
At one level we might be afraid of poverty because of the demands that justice will make on us if we face it. 
Why not simply say,
One reason we deny the existence of poverty so we won't have to do anything about it.
What does all the talk about "the demands of justice" achieve? 

There is something more fundamental. And that thing that is more fundamental turns out to me ME!!!!!!

But it gets worse! "...  it was not from a fear of what I owed him, but from a fear of who I had to become, and of what I had to let go of, in order to receive his presence." The problem is not the suffering of the poor person who might need our companionship but ME, ME, ME and the very ME-NESS of ME!

3. Here is a crazy, outta-left-field kinda thought: you can see why Pope Francis will fail in the above. That's the way he talks. That's the sort of moral language he uses. It's a language that is designed to create a community. And it's a very exclusive community because it's hard to master.

The irony is that while being small and exclusive in effect, people like Francis and Charles Atkinson, the writer at Ethica Politika whom I cite above, pretend to be inclusive in intention. They aren't because you'd have to make a huge investment to learn to talk the way they do.

But even if you did, their moral language would remain just as meaningless.

4. You think I am being unfair to Pope Francis?
In this way it becomes possible to build communion amid disagreement, but this can only be achieved by those great persons who are willing to go beyond the surface of the conflict and to see others in their deepest dignity. This requires acknowledging a principle indispensable to the building of friendship in society: namely, that unity is greater than conflict. Solidarity, in its deepest and most challenging sense, thus becomes a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity. This is not to opt for a kind of syncretism, or for the absorption of one into the other, but rather for a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides.
That's #228 from Evangelii Gaudium. Look at some of that language:  "a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unit".

It would actually be comforting if that language meant nothing at all. It would even be comforting if Pope Francis was merely using obscure language to be deliberately exclusive. But there are far more disturbing reasons why Francis might be saying things like, "... but this can only be achieved by those great persons who are willing to go beyond the surface of the conflict and to see others in their deepest dignity". Hint: What's the opposite of humility?

5. Okay, how about something positive? How about something that could make our lives better? Here is a thought from the consistently helpful Art of Manliness.
I know a few very smart and talented individuals whose lives are in utter shambles despite their gifts. And it’s because they keep making stupid and avoidable mistakes. They consistently add wholly unnecessary downside to their lives. 
If they had done nothing really positive, but had simply avoided the DUIs, the drug arrests, the out-of-wedlock births, the affairs, and the consumer debt, their lives would have been vastly superior to the ones they have now. 
Let that sink in: doing nothing would have given these people a better life than they have now. 
I sometimes hear people carp that the Ten Commandments or other religious edicts focus too much on restricting behavior, and don’t focus enough on positive actions. But perhaps there’s wisdom in focusing on the “thou shall nots.” If you can go through life not murdering people, not lying, not sleeping with your neighbor’s wife, and not filled with envy, you’re going to have a pretty good life.