Thursday, October 30, 2014

How did the camera get there?

Every once in a while someone will send me a video of some surprising event; usually the surprise is that the events shown are heartwarming but sometimes because they are cruel. My reaction is always skepticism.

It troubles me that more people aren't skeptical. The question no one seems to ask is the one in the subject header. How did it happen that someone was there with a camera? Some of these videos feature multiple cameras and are expertly edited. How did that happen?

I think we need to ask ourselves that question about every news story. How did the camera and the reporter manage to get there? Why were they paying attention?

And, why weren't they paying attention before? Also, what are they not paying attention to right now?

If you've been paying attention to the Canadian news, you'll know that a local media celebrity has been accused of violent acts towards women during sex. Things look rather bad for him right now as the number of accusations and accusers is multiplying. Some are even reporting that nasty rumours have long been circulating about this guy. I have no idea if that is true or not but, if it is, why did nobody look into it until now?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A scout's virtues: Friendly

Well, there had to be one weenie one.
A scout is friendly: He is a friend to all and a brother to every other scout.
As we used to say when I was a student, want to time me on this one?

Actually, I'll just assume that you can see the problems.

What I'd rather discuss is the necessary exclusiveness of friendship. The virtue hiding here, and there is one, lies in the fact that friendship is something special, is something you don't give to everyone. And every boy/man should not only be able to be a good friend but actually be one.

(The "friendly"above could only mean "behaving like a friend", as opposed to actually being one.)

That's a hard sell on a list of virtues appropriate to an organization such as the boy scouts.  Friendships are not only exclusive, they are also private. And they are based on a desire for self improvement. A friend should challenge and even threaten you a bit.

And yet, friendship, as we'll see when I get to Rudyard Kipling's Kim later, friendship is a huge part of the scouting ethos.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A scout's virtues: helpful

This is the virtue that puts the "boy" in Boy Scout. Helpfulness is a boyish virtue. By that, I don't mean that men aren't helpful but rather that helpfulness is a virtue you work at during your youth.  Learning helpfulness as an adult male seems like learning to tie your shoes as an adult; it not only demands an explanation, it suggests that you are developmentally challenged.

But it only appears that way. For when we read the explanations provided in the 1911 Handbook, we realize that to be helpful meant a whole lot more then than the word does now.

The first discussion of a Scout's virtues (pp 8-10) actually gives little attention to helpfulness. You get the impression that it is not one of the capital-letter virtues. This is a little surprising given how much attention the good deed for the day gets. In popular understanding of Scouting, being helpful and doing a good deed every day are second only to "Be Prepared".

It is interesting that,there is no virtue to correspond to preparedness in the Scout Law. And yet, the motto is unquestionably at the heart of the scout virtues, even more so than being trustworthy. Here is a telling detail from the Handbook's explanation of what is required for preparedness.
To be prepared in body, by making himself strong and active and able to do the right thing, and then to do it.
Fans of the great Greco-Roman moral thinkers will recognize the philosophical approach here: what you can and do do is more important than what you think. It's also a very manly moral philosophy in that only a vigorous and strong man could reasonably be expected to live up to it.

How did such a manly idea become the wimpy, juvenile nonsense that the public perceives scouting to be about? Well, it's partly the fault of the scouting movement. The Wolf Cub pack I was part of in my youth was a very feminized culture. Our leaders were no different from kindergarten teachers; not one could have lit a fire or tracked an animal to save her life.

Now, we might wonder if there aren't certain inescapable pedagogical realities at work here. Scouts are boys after all and Cubs are very young boys. They need to be protected! Yes ... to a point.

When I was a kid there was an old Scout's Pathfinder Annual in the house. It, like every Pathfinder Annual of that era, had a feature on the scouts who had received the highest awards of scouting. Some of these were awarded posthumously! One that always stuck with me was the scout who jumped into a burning oil truck and drove it away from the house it had been making a delivery at. This could easily have been a posthumous award but wasn't as the boy leapt from the truck and ran away before the fire exploded to full force.

Would we teach a boy that sort of virtue today? Or would we teach him to save himself first?

Have a look at the wording on being helpful from the manual:
A scout is helpful: He must be prepared at any time to save life, help injured persons, and share the home duties. He must do at least one good turn to somebody every day.
There is a descending order of romance and bravery running from being prepared to save life and ending with help with chores around the house. But there is a lot that isn't beings aid because it didn't have to be. Helping around the house meant helping with the manly deeds, deeds that required hard work and strength. A scout might help his mother dry the dishes but the understanding was that the core of his helping would be doing many stuff with his dad. That's no longer true. As Robert Glover correctly notes, we men are now raised by women and that has been the case for a long time.

A big part of being a man today requires us to make a conscious break with our mothers and other teachers. We have to stop seeing being helpful as a way to fit in and be good little boys who are docile and easily controlled and see it instead as a way to establish our identity as men.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What's really wrong with SATC? Its fans.

The Vulture site has one of those articles that points out that a popular television show is unrealistic. This is not only not news—why and how did Mrs. Howell pack all those gowns for a three-hour tour and how did the friends on Friends get such cool apartments in NYC with no money—it's also stupid; expecting television to be realistic is like expecting dessert to be nutritious. It's meant to divert and amuse.

There is one good point in the piece. It's made by accident.
It's become one of those cornerstones of our pop-culture vocabulary: We label our friends — the Miranda, the Charlotte, the Samantha — while convincing ourselves that we are obviously the Carrie of the group. It’s been more than ten years since Sex and the City went off the air, and we’re still binge-watching, quoting, reliving, reminiscing, and continuing the eternal Mr. Big/Aiden debate.
Here's the thing, if it is painfully obvious to you that you are the star and that your friends are the supporting characters, you are a narcissist.

Everything about the show is designed to appeal to narcissists. 

BTW: Ask any man which SATC character is least appealing to him and the odds are he'll pick Carrie. Not that that is judging her by any terribly high standard; none of the SATC principals are exactly relationship material, a fact that the show implicitly acknowledges but that it's narcissistic fans are in deep denial about.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A scout's virtues: loyalty

This is the second in a series in which I think out loud about the content of the 1911 Scout Handbook. These are not necessarily my final views. I'm just trying out some thoughts to see how they feel. To see the whole series, click on Be a Scout?
He is loyal to all to whom loyalty is due: his scout leader, his home, and parents and country.
Notice the qualification: "loyal to all to whom loyalty is due". I made this point last time because it is always the case with virtues. They cannot be reduced to rules because any set of rules will be too narrow. If Kant had tried qualifying truth telling to deal with even a small fraction of the circumstances that life's vicissitudes toss up, he would have reduced his moral rule to nothing. That is precisely why he argued, insanely but coherently, that we should tell the truth to everyone regardless of the circumstances.

To be loyal then, is loyal to those who are due loyalty. Let's contrast that with courtesy. You should be courteous to, among others, the weak, meaning both the physically and the morally weak. It would not be appropriate or virtuous to be loyal to the morally weak.

Loyalty also reminds us that virtues are part of a social system. Loyalty only works if the people you are loyal to understand that it is part of a social system of moral obligations. This isn't just a matter of mutual benefit like the grade schooler's selfish argument that you should tell the truth to others so that they will tell the truth to you. Rather, the entire social system relies on it. That is why ingroups where loyalty runs deep are so different from other groups.

This weekend, I left my wallet with all my credit cards, along with my iPhone and my iPad alone in a room with about twenty people and went for a forty-minute hike. As you've probably guessed, the people were all family members and their partners. And it's important to note here that thefts do happen among family. A good friend of mine ran the same risk about twenty years ago and one of his nephews cleared out his wallet to buy drugs. Conversely, you might get away with leaving your valuables behind at a bar or coffeeshop. But we take the risk with family more often, so much so that we don't even think of it as a risk, because we can expect loyalty from family members.

As a consequence, the person who isn't loyal doesn't just hurt the person they betray; they put an entire moral system at risk.

That, now that I think of it, is also why there has to be ingroups. For I think that what makes an ingroup is not, as psychologists would have it, that we psychologically identify with a group but that we buy into a shared moral system. Once upon a time, to be a citizen required that we buy into a shared system of moral obligations. The liberal project, however, has been to build a society where the foundation is inalienable rights. But a society where only rights are shared and not moral obligations would crumble. We learn about shared moral obligations in ingroups, starting with the family and, in a liberal society, ingroups are the only source of shared moral obligations since citizenship no longer requires them.

I suspect the political consequences of this are far-reaching for loyalty is also an exclusive virtue. To be loyal to your scout leader is to be loyal to the organization and its values and not just the person in the office. To see why this is the case, think of the way some feminists defended Bill Clinton when he sexually harassed women. Was that loyalty? No. It was, at best, blind allegiance.  If loyalty is to have any meaning, then leaders who fail to live up to the standards of the group need to be mercilessly excluded from the group and only allowed back in after some sort of public penance and then only as members and not leaders.

(The Democrats and their supporters found the Republican efforts to impeach Clinton scandalous. The real scandal was that they didn't do it themselves. "The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.")

Loyalty then, requires not just individuals willing to be mutually loyal but a social system. You might think, well, why can't my friend and I, or my spouse and I, agree to be loyal? Well, you can but that is only because you live in a  society where friendship and marriage are part of the agreed-upon moral system.

As I start this project, these words keep coming back to me:
It [scouting] is, in a word, a school of citizenship through woodcraft. ... Therefore, the aim of the Scout training is to replace Self with Service, to make the lads individually efficient, morally and physically, with the object of using that efficiency for the service of the community. (Robert Baden-Powell)
The usual criticism of being a boy scout type in today's society is that the values are out of date. But the reverse critique, that the values only seem out of date in a corrupted society, is equally coherent and, I think, more plausible,


Thursday, October 9, 2014

A scout's virtues: trustworthy

From the 1911 Scout's Handbook by the Boy Scouts of America:
A scout's honor is to be trusted. If he were to violate his honor by telling a lie, or by cheating, or by not doing exactly a given task, when trusted on his honor, he may be directed to hand over his scout badge.
I love this stuff. It's exactly what was missing from my childhood. What follows is not a thorough analysis but my first reaction to what I read.

I should add that there is plenty of other good stuff such as a scout's promise and the scout motto but I'm drawn first to the virtues for reasons that, I hope, should be obvious to anyone who has read any of my stuff.

So, is the above a virtue or a rule? It sounds like a rule and you could (mistakenly) take it as one. The thing that makes it more a virtue, in my opinion, is the all-important qualification: "when trusted on his honor". Take it as a rule and that qualification will rapidly start to seem a little ridiculous.

As a rule, it has a lovely, old-fashioned gentlemanly feel about it. "Will you do it?" and then, "On your honour?" One is reminded of one of the Watergate conspirators who was willing to break the law, reportedly, would feel obliged, on his honour, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth if asked to testify under oath. I don't know if that is true but it demonstrates the fundamental problem with rules. How do you know you're following a rule? The right answer, as all Wittgenstein fans will know, is that following a rule means more than meeting some definition of following a rule. There must also be a shared judgment about what being trustworthy is.

At this point, you might be tempted to claim that is circular. Well, it would be if we were thinking of an entirely abstract thing when discussing being trustworthy. We are not. Trustworthy here means something embedded in some set of social norms and practices. As MacIntyre says, every morality implies a sociology. (That's not an exact quote.) Everyone grasps that some kinds of games not only allow but require you to deceive your opponents. To be asked to do something "on his honour" implies not just a certain set of circumstances but also a general agreed upon judgment that this is such a case that honour is required.

There is also an implied notion of legitimate authority. Suppose a scout were part of a group of hostages and the leader of the group holding the hostages charged him with delivering some message and made him promise, "on his honour", that he would not take advantage of his temporary freedom to inform the police and the scout swore he would keep this promise. A certain kind of moralist would argue that he would be honour-bound. After all, the "rule" seems to imply that. Some others, like me, would regard even discussing the possibility that the scout was honor-bound in such a situation to be ludicrous. On the basis of what? Here, to be Wittgensteinian again, there is a place where reasons stop and we appeal to a shared judgment that says that anyone holding hostages is not a legitimate authority.

Okay, enough about what "on your honour" does not mean. What can be positively said of it?

More from the Handbook:
Indeed, this [honour] is the basis of all the scout virtues and is closely allied to that of self-respect.
I'd humbly suggest that that is/has to be reversible.  What I mean is that all the other virtues taken together will tell us what kind of boy a scout is supposed to be and that if his self-respect requires him to be the kind of boy who does these things, then we can say what honour is; we can say that honour means being the sort of person who actually does these things.

I was reading, on Ann Althouse's blog, the other day of research that said that
"People on the receiving end of an act of kindness were about 10 percent more likely than the average person to do something nice themselves later in the day." 

"On the other hand, those who granted that kindness were slightly more likely than average (about 3 percent) to commit a small act of rudeness or dismissiveness later in the same day — granting themselves 'moral license' to do so."
I doubt very much that the claimed specificity here—10 percent and 3 percent—is anything but hubris. That said, you can see how it could be a problem. Having done my good deed for the day, I might just slack off. How could we overcome this? Assuming we don't pull a Tierney and write it off as impossible, the answer is to make doing good deeds a part of your identity. In that case, failing to do so will feel like a violation of our self-respect. In this regard, doing at least one good deed a day is not a matter of ticking off the requirement as it is a matter of training yourself to be a certain kind of person.

That still leaves "on your honour" undefined but, I think, suggests what the definition would be: it would be an accumulation of requirements like a good deed for the day carried out not just to tick them off but to train ourselves to be a certain kind of person.

I hope to be able to flesh that out as I go along.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A scout's virtues

In the Atlantic, John Tierney, a professor and author, writes about the Boy Scouts. The article itself is interesting but it's some introductory remarks that Tierney makes that just staggered me.
I knew early on that I wasn't cut out for the Boy Scouts. I was a Cub Scout for only a year in elementary school before the reality was clear to me: Those worthy attributes mentioned in the Scout Law were beyond my reach. 
And now, more than a half-century later, those virtues are also beyond my memory. So, with my addled brain unable to call up the Scout Law from its dark, gray recesses, I Googled it. What I found rings a bell: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” To me, that sounds more like an aspirational statement than a law, but who's to say?! Whatever you call it, that set of traits is still beyond my reach.
Still beyond his reach?! Brave I can see someone having doubts about in that there is a subjective aspect to bravery such that a person might always think they should be braver than they are. But even there, I think that it is easy to set a standard of bravery that any man who wishes to call himself a man should live up to.

To say, as Tierney does, that those virtues are beyond your reach is more a statement of intention than of aspiration. There is no reason a high-achieving adult like Tierney couldn't attain all those virtues. I'd even go so far as to say there is no reason he shouldn't. Yes, they are something to aspire to but they should all be easily achievable. When Tierney says he can't, he really means that he won't.

What's more, I suspect Tierney would, were he called on this, easily change his rhetoric and begin arguing for why it should not be expected that anyone should attain these virtues. I suspect I could even guess what some of his arguments would be.

My relationship with Cubs was about as short-lived as Tierney's but for different reasons.  After a year and a bit in the Cub Scout Pack at Saint Dunstan's it became painfully obvious that the women running the show weren't serious and that we were never going to get to do anything adventurous. So I bailed and found my adventure elsewhere. Since then, I've met others who had experiences with Cubs and Scouts. Some had experiences like mine. Others were lucky enough to join organizations that had serious, knowledgeable leaders who created opportunities for adventure and learning.

Lately, I've been reading the 1911 Scout's Handbook. It got me wondering, what would it be like to set out today to attain all the skills, knowledge and virtues that were required of a scout of that era? I'm not sure what they are just yet but I am going to make it my project to find out.