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Uncle War and Sister Peace

In PeaceAble on September 22, 2017 at 7:18 am

Yesterday, September 21, was the International Day of Peace. Did you know that? Did you care? We’ve had one every year since 1981, but I’m not surprised if you missed it.
Why is it that we have such a hard time not just celebrating the ideal of a peaceful world, but even acknowledging it? I think there are two basic reasons.
First, when we talk about Peace we really have no idea what we are collectively talking about. War is clear. There’s an enemy, there are battles, there is clear and sometimes horrifying sacrifice, there is victory or defeat, and we have simple and uncomplicated ways to identify the heroes and villains.
And in this age of seemingly endless War, most often for vague political reasons seeking ill-defined and often highly deceptive goals, we are getting to know War as an old friend, as that troublesome relative who sits at the table and says outrageous things, farts and burps, flails his arms about, spills food and wine on the Persian carpet, and breaks the good china. Nobody really likes him, most hate to see him show up for the holidays, but he’s family so what are you going to do? Besides, we can all wait until he goes home, drunk and swaggering from his excesses, and congratulate ourselves on how well we handled him.
But Peace is the “Lost Child” in this dysfunctional collection of humankind called the family of nations. Peace sits quietly in the corner during all the chaos and says, “don’t worry about me, I’m all right.” We love Peace, but don’t expect much of her, really. Once in a while, a few of us will go over and encourage her.
“You have real potential, Peace; we want you to do well; someday you will spread your white dove wings and fly; and we will all be so proud of you when that happens. What’s that? What did you say in your soft, nonconfrontational voice? You’d like a little actual help from the rest of us? Don’t be silly. Isn’t it enough that we tell you all the time how wonderful you are? Don’t you see that proclaiming how much we love you every Christmas is helping? Now stop whining and come sit with us while we deal with Uncle War and praise your brother’s noble sacrifice of the last pork chop.”
Then War finally goes home and we all go out in the front yard and celebrate with explosions and flags and songs about our bravery and sacrifice. We give each other medals and accolades and mourn the loss of Grandma’s heirloom vase and Brother’s one good shirt.
I have, elsewhere in these essays, described some of what I think Peace would, or in my opinion should, look like. But what answer would you give? If the world were to achieve something called Peace, what would it look like? How would it work? And, importantly, what would it require of you?
The second reason is that we have no working vocabulary for Peace. No way to celebrate the work of Peace. And our collective response to the International Day of Peace is illustrative of that. The day passed and there were no big parades down Main Street, with bands playing “Give Peace a Chance.” There were no elaborate, nationally televised award ceremonies; indeed, no idea to whom we should give awards for Peace. We have no way to collectively understand, never mind celebrate, the sacrifices of the peacemakers among us.
Where are the markers, the obelisks inscribed with names, the statues that celebrate the peacemakers? What are their names? What did they suffer in their quest for a more peaceful world? Where is the memorial for Rachel Corrie? Don’t know who that was? You see the problem, then. What were the names of the students who defied the tanks in Tiananmen Square? When was the last time you flew your flags or had a barbecue or wore a special bracelet in honor of those who rode the buses, those who were attacked with water cannons and dogs and nightsticks, those who were killed and buried in remote fields or lynched from very public trees in the struggle for civil rights? Beyond Martin Luther King or Gandhi, how many names of peacemakers – global, national, or local do you know? Which of the young men and women in your community have served in the Peace Corps?
You see the problem.
We all claim to hate War, but we keep inviting him to dinner, feeding him, encouraging him by our attention and our willingness do what he asks. We feed War’s ego and think ourselves heroes for it.
We all claim to love Peace, but we let her sit alone in the corner and wait her turn to speak, but to please not speak too loudly or too much. Can’t she see that we are exhausted from dealing with Uncle War? Can’t she respect the fact that we can’t deal with her right now because we have to prepare for War’s next visit? What does she want of us? Peace is so selfish.
I suppose we could ask her to help us clean up the mess left by War, but she’d probably just spend the whole time reminding us that we don’t actually have to invite him back, that maybe we could all work together so that we could find the courage to tell him he’s not wanted.
We want to hate War, but we can see very clearly what it is and what we get from it. And we tell ourselves we can give it up anytime we want. No, really, we could. Really. We want to love Peace, but don’t understand her. What does she really have to offer to replace War? What exactly is it that she does, anyway? We know that the greasy, disgusting casserole and the special home-brew that War brings to every gathering are killing us: but we aren’t quite sure we’d like the taste of that healthy dish Peace keeps trying to serve. It looks kind of bland, or perhaps it’s just that it has all those weird, exotic spices and herbs that we are hesitant to try. Maybe getting healthier wouldn’t be as much fun as what we’re doing now.
So that is our dilemma. Or perhaps it is more of a paradox. We certainly don’t want to go so far as to call it a hypocrisy. Do we?

The Joy of Bigotry and Violence

In PeaceAble, Politics on August 30, 2017 at 10:59 am

A young blond, blue-eyed white man at the Charlottesville alt-right rally was asked why he was there. He responded that he was not, himself, a white supremacist, he was just having some fun. Running around shouting about white power was fun. He thought of himself as a “rebel,” and that was fun.
Setting aside for the moment the generally accepted truism that our actions speak louder than our words; that whether or not he sees himself as a white supremacist, he is at least someone who is willing to stand in solidarity with them, shout their slogans, support them as they wave their flags; I would like, for just a moment to take him at his word. I will allow him his truth. I’m sure he’s worked it all through in his own mind. He isn’t “political,” he supports “free speech,” he has a few friends who are black, he works with black people at his job and has no problem with them, and so on. I would like to focus instead on his other point, that he was there because he thought it would be fun.
And I have to say he had a point, though I doubt that it is a point he knew he was making.
American culture has always had a fondness for fun at the expense of the other. There has always been the sense that picking on the weak and the different is “just a bit of fun.” It is the larger context of “boys will be boys.”
Especially when you are part of the cultural norm, part of the group of the white, male, straight, Christian norm, then you have been encouraged to have fun that is based in debasement, dehumanization and mockery of the others. We have lots of jokes about “Mexicans,” about Chinese, about Muslims, about Jews, about “dumb blondes,” about the handicapped, about homosexuals, and so on. How many jokes do we have in which the central character is considered funny precisely and simply because he is a white, heterosexual, middle class, Christian, American male?
Laughing at those who are different from the norm is a time-honored tradition. We use such humor to reinforce the norms themselves. Making fun of the others reassures us of our own inherent superiority. We tell ourselves through our humor that we have nothing to fear, because the other is less powerful, more ridiculous, even less human, not to be taken too seriously. Why should we fear those we have the power to mock?
And our humor is becoming more violent, both in language and in content. There seems to be a general sense that something is funnier if it contains a slur or a vulgarity. More and more of our humor is “in your face” humor. We can use humor not just to mock the other, we can use it to attack him. Humor can be a weapon.
None of this is new, of course. None of us, I would suggest, can remember a time when these things weren’t true. Our culture has told us what to laugh at, and we have laughed. Do you want to see where a society’s biases lie, want to know how they treat those who deviate from the norm? Look at its humor.
American culture also has a fondness for violence, or the possibility of violence, as fun. Americans consider professional wrestling to be family entertainment, and WWE trademarked toys are marketed to even very young children. Americans go to hockey games hoping there will be a bloody fight or two. We spend enormous amounts of money watching boxers and MMA fighters beat each other up. We go to NASCAR events with at least a small twinge of excitement at the possibility of a spectacular crash. Football, one of our most popular national sports, is seen as a metaphor (and a psychological substitute) for war. We don’t really want anyone seriously hurt or killed, but the possibility adds to the thrill we get from the sense of danger. The injuries, both short and long term, suffered by our sports heroes are accepted as part of the sport, and by extension, necessary to the fun.
Look at how our media, television, films, popular literature, the graphic novel, have all turned terribly dark and violent. Take a quick look at all the “cop” shows, with less and less thoughtful policing, and more and more tough talk and violence, both in the crime and in the response to it. Look at all the superhero movies; the war movies; the large, loud, impossibly destructive weapons; the mass destruction; the explosions and gun fights and bloodbaths of all kinds depending on your choice of fantasy. Look at the most popular fantasy video franchises, in which anyone can take on the persona of a superhuman hero, or villain, and can slaughter hordes upon hordes of whatever enemy they choose.
It has also been argued, of course, that the violence of our entertainment is the reason for so much violence in real life. Of course we have children shooting children, we are told, look at what they see on television, listen to their music, play their video games. But our entertainment has developed as a consequence of what we have wanted, of what we found entertaining. The entertainment hasn’t made us violent, we have made the entertainment violent.
We tell ourselves that these outlets are good for us. When we play a violent or dangerous sport, or when we watch others play it, we’re purging our natural violent impulses, we’re making ourselves less personally violent in some way. It’s purgative, a release, a way to express our darker desires. But violent sports and societal violence have coexisted and supported each other for as long as history has been recording human activity. How do you really feel when you leave a violent sports event or a violent movie; are you feeling purged, or are you feeling enervated, like you’re ready for anything?  When will all this substitution and purgation finally get it out of our collective system?
When we tell a joke that contains a lot of vulgar language or uses a bigoted slur, we tell ourselves that we are being “politically incorrect,” that we are somehow making things less bigoted or less violent by turning things into a joke. But does a joke about a Muslim having sex with his goat really make you feel closer to his culture in a positive way?  This humor has been with us and part of us for centuries. Is it making things better, yet?
A culture expresses what is normal in many ways. Our culture is constantly telling us that bigotry and violence are literally normal. But cultures can change. They change slowly, but they do change. And the change happens not when we embrace the norms and act them out, but when we begin to reject the norms as they are, reject the normalization of bigotry and violence, of white supremacy, of misogyny, of the dehumanization and hatred of the “other,” and begin to speak up loudly and consistently for a new normal. There is some value in laughing at, rather than with, the things we would change. And there are times when we have failed to find other ways to solve our problems and violence enters in. But like all the tools we are given to change our lives, these things have to be handled responsibly, with care, or they become more destructive than transformative.
If you really want to change the culture, end the violence, end the hatred; stop having so much fun with it.

Why I’m a Pacifist

In PeaceAble on August 26, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Nobody WANTS war! Nobody LIKES war!
Well, except for SOME people. And are you so certain you’re not one of them?
When I was in my twenties, I had a habit of congratulating myself on how I dealt with the violence of my temper. I was slow to reach the point of losing my temper, and I had a strict rule against striking out at people. There were times when I would have had enough frustration, fear, grief or other forms of anger so that I would punch a hole in a wall, kick something, break something; but I told myself that these were inanimate objects, just material things, at least I wasn’t hurting anyone.
What I did not know at the time was that you don’t have to hit someone to hurt them with your violence. I didn’t understand that the potential or threat of violence is already violence. To be in the presence of violence is to be hurt by it.
I have spent a considerable part of the past forty to forty-five years learning about my anger and trying to become more sensitive to the impact it has and has had on those I love, and on my friends and acquaintances. And as part of a culture in which violent solutions to problems is often encouraged and even celebrated, a culture whose language has far more ways to create metaphors of war and violence than of peace and non-violence, I have become aware of the part, however small, my own violence has contributed to that culture.
I feel as though America is at a point where we can collectively, culturally, choose to continue down the road of violence as a solution, or we can begin to mature toward a more peaceable way of life. The path of peace is not an easy one, or without danger, but I don’t know how the human race survives if we do not take it.
Even during my most violent periods, I considered myself a pacifist. Even now I can appreciate that there have been times when violence and war have become unavoidable, even necessary. But that inevitability, that necessity is always a failure. War and violence are always a failure to find other solutions to our differences and our conflicts. No matter how noble or moral we believe our goals to be, war itself is neither noble nor moral.
Whenever I have tried to talk about my pacifism, about the need to resist the temptation to answer violence with violence, someone will ask something like, “Do you really think we could have stopped Hitler by being nice to him?”
No. But pacifism isn’t about being nice, it’s about finding ways to solve problems before they escalate to the point of war. The problem is in knowing when to start. How can we learn to recognize the danger before violence or war becomes the answer?
Pick a starting point, any starting point.
I remember, studying history, how easily the books divided things up. There were eras, and periods, and decades. There were significant events, and seminal moments, and turning points. And there would be a brief discussion of causes that usually served as a transition between one significant something and the next, but the focus was on whatever the next chapter title was about, whatever point the timeline had reached. We were expected to understand the great sweep of history as we might follow the plot in War and Peace.
We would examine the years between wars and look for connections, discuss causation, but always stayed in the line of the narrative.
Life isn’t like that, though. It doesn’t really follow any linear plot, no matter how many subplots or expository passages we might insert. The progress of life is messy; and without a sense — genuine understanding is not possible without a much deeper analysis of the scope of western civilization than most people who are not dedicated historians can manage – without at least a common sense that the second Iraq war, and the current problems in Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan and North Korea and the Sudan, to name just a few, are connected to things like the invasion of the Goths and Visigoths into ancient Europe, to the Crusades, to Columbus’ decision to sail out in search of an ocean route to India, to the decimation of the First Nations of the Continent, and so on to the violence in Charlottesville, how do we begin to understand the place to which violence and war have brought us?
And how do we change that trajectory?
Perhaps we can start with the personal. It is a commonly understood concept in human behavior that things often don’t become clear or important to us until we can make them personal, connect them to things that are integral to ourselves.
That’s why I began by talking about my own violence. I can look now at the great sweep of my life (and I am only just about 70) and I can see how it is manifested today in my relationships with my children, my extended family, my friendships and my communities. I don’t always like what I see. Each violent act, each hole in a wall, was part of that.
In the same way, each time we answer our anger, our grief, our frustration, our need not to be hurt any longer with violence in any of its multitudinous forms, we help create the next necessity of violence. Each time we fail to denounce violence even when it seems to accomplish ends we yearn for; each time we use the language of war and violence to describe our reality; each time we allow ourselves to believe that there is no other way, that the “enemy” cannot be defeated, the problem cannot be solved, the conflict cannot be managed without violence; we set up the conditions of grief and anger and hatred that are the building blocks of the next violence, the next war.
There are those that say we have already reached a point of the necessity of endless war. The President still proposes that we can bomb and kill our way to the end of terrorism. We can’t. Neither can we solve the problems of ignorance and crime and poverty and all their associate evils by going to war against them.
I still get angry. I still have fantasies of violence and the defeat of the other. But I have, I hope for the rest of my life, learned to stop and step back from the brink, to eschew violence for acceptance, tolerance, empathy, and at least the outward trappings of peaceableness. It’s a journey, not a place.
Non-violence works, but we have to start sometime, somewhere. Let’s not wait until it is, once again, too late.

NEVER FORGET! — The Fog of History and the Mutability of Memory

In PeaceAble, Politics on August 21, 2017 at 10:29 am

Never forget!
We mark the anniversaries on our calendars. We set up memorial and statues. We raise money. We write it down in the history books.
But we do forget.
We remember the dates and the events. We mark them as points on a timeline. It’s been fifty years since X, 100 years since Y, only 10 years since Z. It feels longer or shorter.
Doctoral dissertations are written to analyze them, put them into the larger context, explain them. These are the things that made a difference, that changed us. If it hadn’t happened, how would we be different, what would be better, or worse?
But still we forget. We remember the dates and the events, but forget what is most important. We remember the events and forget the history; remember the details and forget the human.
John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States was shot and killed, November 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. John Connolly, the Texas Governor was also shot, but survived. A man named Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the murder, but was himself assassinated before he could stand trial, by a man named Jack Ruby. Ruby died in prison of a fatal disease he knew he had before he shot Oswald, and before he could stand trial. In the hours after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy stood next to Lyndon Johnson as he became president. Was she still wearing the dress with her husband’s blood on it? I was sitting in a chemistry class in Holbrook, Massachusetts, when we got the word. The announcement was made. The President has been shot. Classes are dismissed. A friend and I walked home together, looking at the people passing in the street, and wondered who knew and who did not. In our inexpressible teenage fear and confusion and inability to really understand, we laughed at the absurdity of it all. The President was dead, everything was different, but we didn’t know how or why or what it would mean to us.
But these are things I know. I couldn’t tell you where my memories and my knowledge intersect. My memories are reconstructions from the details I know, but I couldn’t tell you if those are really the most important details or just the most vivid. By the time we got out of the sixties, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both dead. The next twenty years saw a President resign, and two more Presidents shot. I know these things more than remember them.
We all forget.
I know that I do not remember World War Two. I don’t remember Hitler or the Nazis, Mussolini or the fascists, Hirohito or Pearl Harbor. I know about these things but do not remember them any more than I can remember the Alamo or the Maine.
We can, as we look at current events, look at the history books. We can read about the Holocaust and the concentration camps. There are still a few people alive who were there, who were old enough to know, but after seventy years, they are growing ever fewer. But what a few remaining individuals will remember, the culture will forget.
We can look at history, we can learn from history if we want, but history isn’t memory. History is a collection of stories told from other people’s perspective on still other people’s memories.
What we do remember is our own happiness, love, successes, passions, and gifts; we remember our fear, grief, pain, and anger. And we want to own those feelings. We don’t want to share them with anyone else, unless we can see something to gain from that sharing. And in remembering any of these things, in sharing them with others, we change the memories themselves, sometimes very subtly, sometimes deliberately and significantly.
I was taken by all the young faces among the Nazi groups. There is no point in trying to tell those young men about how we remember Hitler and Mussolini and their victims. There is no real point in trying to explain to young people waving Confederate flags what should be remembered about slavery and the Confederacy and the Civil War. They remember only their own feelings of victimhood and who the alt-right has told them are their oppressors. It is easy to believe a lie about the present when it is wrapped in a lie about the past; and you have memory only of the lie.
Memorials are by definition about memory, but they are also about the lies we tell ourselves as a society and a culture. So are museums. When someone put nooses on displays at the African-American Museum and on a tree at the Smithsonian, my first thought was, “were there none already there?” If you really wanted to erase the history of America in the 19th and 20th centuries, removing all trace of nooses would be a good place to start. If you want people to know that the past is prologue, that who we are today is still inextricably tied to who we were then, we need more memorials to nooses – and to those who were hanged for the crime of not being white enough. Memorials tell us what we are encouraged to remember. But every memorial, every museum exhibit should be checked to see what is being remembered and what is not. If we move Confederates’ memorials and statues of their leaders from the pubic square into museums, we aren’t erasing history, we aren’t erasing memory, but we may be able to put history into clearer context, memory into the stories we tell about the past.
In spite of the memorials, regardless of the history books, we will forget. We will forget – in the only sense of that that matters – the 9/11 attacks. Quickly, without thinking about it, what was the year? Did you hesitate, doubt yourself, get rattled by the challenge? That is what forgetting looks like. We have, for all intents and purposes, forgotten Pearl Harbor, forgotten the internment of the Japanese-Americans, forgotten what got us into the war in Europe (Pearl Harbor was about the Japanese, not the fascists). We have forgotten about the Cuban missile crisis, and when it is raised in discussions about the current situation with North Korea, we may struggle to see the relevance. Our memories of Columbine High Sc hool have faded to a vague knowledge that kids were shot by kids, and somehow heavy metal music was to blame. Those who weren’t there, on the ground, dealing with the reality of it, are already forgetting Sandy Hook. Memorials won’t stop this erasure of memory and history won’t revive it.
Perhaps we need to stop trying to memorialize things before we have done what we need to do to change what is. After the end of the Civil War, nothing was done to substantially change the cultural, social and economic realities that existed both as the cause of white bias and black slavery; or as the result of tearing down those institutions. After WWII, the world moved on, but the end of the war was not the end of Nazism, fascism, or hatred of Jews, Blacks, homosexuals, and all who were not white, western and self-rewarded with manifest destiny.
Pick an issue or an idea that is amplified by our current political and social polarization. You will find that at its heart is forgetfulness. “Giving” women the vote did not mean we forgot that they were supposed to be second. Electing a mixed-race man with an African American wife did not mean that we forgot that white men were supposed to be the superior race and therefore entitled to special privilege. Instead, we forgot that events change outward more quickly than they change culture; and culture, not any event, is how we express our collective memory of who we are supposed to be.
When people talk about “normalizing” white supremacy or misogyny or xenophobia or homophobia, or violence as a way of dealing with conflict, they are missing the point that those things were already normal. We never changed that, we just rather willfully forgot it.
People talk about the “teaching moment.” Perhaps the Trump Presidency can be such a moment, if we will let it. But who will do the teaching? And what will be taught? If history is any indication, we will fail to change what needs changing and eventually forget what most needs to be remembered.

“It’s Just a Joke”: “Humor” as deflection and excuse.

In PeaceAble on June 24, 2017 at 9:47 am

I think that I can claim a sense of humor. I can’t imagine that those who know me would not acknowledge that I can be wry, sarcastic, outrageous, droll, slapstick, sometimes vulgar and perhaps even an above-average punster. But that doesn’t mean that I will find humor in everything you think is hilarious.
So, if I criticize a meme or take exception to a “joke” please do not respond by telling me it is just a joke or telling me that I need to get a sense of humor. And I will promise to continue not telling you those things if you criticize a “joke” of mine.
“It’s just a joke” is not an excuse for being offensive. “Lighten up” is not a defense of inappropriateness, pointlessness, or trolling. “Get a sense of humor” does not address actual issues raised by objections to humor or attempted humor or the harm they can cause.
Humor is one of the most telling aspects of the norms of a culture. We are either laughing at those things which are not “normal” or we are laughing at those things which are so normal as to be indicators of our common foibles or faults. And it is usually possible to tell the difference. When we laugh at the “other” we are doing something very different from when we laugh at ourselves.
I have recently been seeing a new emergence of “humor” based on prejudice, bias, and the kinds of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and downright meanness that we seriously need to marginalize, not re-normalize.
So, a few suggestions from the point of view of my sense of humor.

1. Any joke which is not funny unless you make the butt of the joke a “dumb blonde” (or any other hurtful stereotype) isn’t funny to begin with. Any joke that is funny already is made less funny by making the butt of the joke a “dumb blonde.”
2. Any joke that uses an outrageous caricature of a Mexican or an Arab or an Asian or a person of color any other race or nationality in order to mock their culture, their customs, or their pronunciation of words in a language which is not their first, is not funny.
3. Any joke that marginalizes or grossly distorts the reality of any culture, nationality, race or group of any kind is not funny.
4. Any joke based on belief in a conspiracy theory, a deliberate untruth, or a misleading and debunked claim is not funny.
5. Any joke based on shaming of any kind is not funny. Any joke that targets the fundamental humanity of any individual or group, that furthers destructive stereotypes or keeps us from seeing each other as equally deserving human beings is not funny.

What is funny?

1. Jokes that point out the human frailties we all share are funny.
2. Jokes told by those on the inside of a group about themselves are funny when they tell them (but not when outsiders do).
3. Jokes that speak truth to power are funny.
4. Jokes that play with our common language, both verbal and non-verbal, are funny.
5. Jokes that point out the absurdities of life or create their own absurd universe are funny.

There are, of course, occasional exceptions to these “rules.” But those can be accounted for by differences in where individuals see humor. I don’t really mind if you don’t find something as funny as I do. And long as you focus on what is or is not funny about it, I won’t mind if you tell me it isn’t funny. I might even, on reflection, find that I understand or even agree with your perspective. I have no problem apologizing for “humor” of my I own if it has hurt someone, however unintentionally.
The problem I see here is that humor is becoming a dodge, a way to be mean-spirited, bigoted, and even cruel without taking responsibility for it. “It was just a joke” is simply another way to say, “I didn’t mean it.” But that’s a cop-out. It’s a deflection, a way of making the other person the problem rather than the action itself. This is what bullies do, and “humor” is becoming a way of bullying.
I love a good joke. Humor is an art form, and like all art forms it exists along a scale from simple, vulgar humor to sophisticated, complex humor. And at every stop along that line we can all find something to relate to. And like all art forms it has its genres, its specialties, its in-jokes, and it’s avant-garde, so that not all of it is equally appreciated even by its greatest artists or most astute critics. But I value genuine humor enough to call it out when it becomes hurtful, when it reinforces the stereotypes and biases our culture would rather keep in place.

 

Go Ahead and Overthink It

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble on April 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

I have often been accused of “overthinking” something.  So, naturally, I cannot help but think about that.

Usually, the offense is committed when I have encountered something that is either intended as a joke, or a clever analogy, or a meme with a narrow scope and that has, I admit, a very clear intent.  But I will see something in whatever it is that seems to need further thought, a bit more careful examination, perhaps something that takes the meaning in an entirely different direction.

So.  Guilty as charged, I suppose.  I do “overthink” things.

And I will continue to do so.  I will proudly overthink things whenever I feel like it.  And I encourage you to do the same.

We currently live in a culture in which we are repeatedly told, both directly and indirectly, not to think very much at all.  We’re told to feel, to react, to seek truth and profundity in 140 characters or less.  Reason is too slow, analysis is the same as bias, facts are whatever we declare them to be and they mean, like Humpty Dumpty’s words, whatever the source tells us they mean.  We’re told to choose our side in any dispute and hold our position against all attacks.  Intellect is suspect, emotions are power, thinking wastes valuable time.  We must act, we are told, and thinking isn’t action.

Culture, however, is not created mainly by the big things, but by the ordinary.  We tell a joke, sing a song, use a common expression we picked up somewhere, buy a product because we remember the ad for it, click on a hyperlink, watch a television show or go to a movie, leaf through the tabloids in the checkout line.

People are amused, they’re shocked, they’re enthralled, they’re outraged, they’re inspired.  And they move on.  they let it go, get over it, wait for the next shoe to drop, shake their heads.  They react; then it’s on to the next meme, the next chuckle or shock or inspiration or outrage.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

But they don’t think.

Often, they don’t even know how.

How many common logical fallacies can you name?  Do you know the order of operations in solving a simple math problem?  Are you proud to tell people that you never use algebra?   Do you understand the difference between a hypothesis and a theory, between a theorem and a law, or between argument, persuasion, and propaganda?  Do you know the structure of a deductive argument and an inductive argument; or why the differences between them are important?  Would you be able to distinguish an empirical study from an experimental one, or know the appropriate use of each?

Does all of that sound boring to you?  Do you think that none of that has anything to do with you or your life?  The fact is that you either use or encounter all of those things, or their direct products, every single day.  They have consequences that affect you, for both good and ill.

Academics and intellectuals are often accused of not knowing anything about real life, as though thinking prevents us from experiencing the things that affect all humans.  Thought and emotion are not, however, enemies.  When properly applied they complement each other.  Problems that are solved with just logic can be dry, unfeeling, even cruel.  Problems solved with only emotion can be rash, clouded with bias, and even counterproductive.  When, however, we apply both reason and emotion, we have the opportunity for both pragmatism and empathy, for solutions that address the human condition realistically and practically.

There is no aspect of human activity or experience that does not require both the mind and the heart for its best expression.  Music is mathematics, sculpture is physics, art is geometry.  Planting a garden is both chemistry and aesthetics, biology and design.

Choose anything that either delights or disturbs you.  Take a moment to examine it.  Try to step away from your initial reaction.  Think about it.  Overthink it.  Practice patience with both ideas and emotions.  Don’t copy, share, like or comment until you have taken a least a few moments to try to understand it, and to understand your relationship to it.  Resist the urge to stop at feeling and go no further.

Hate, prejudice and discrimination are literally thoughtless.  They rely on the triggering of emotion, not of reason.

Compassion and empathy require thoughtful understanding, and the ability to both feel and reason.

There is far too much over-emoting these days.  A bit of overthinking would be a welcome change.  The best answers will usually be found, of course, somewhere between the two extremes.  But you can’t find the center unless you can recognize the poles.

So go ahead.  Join me.  Overthink a few things, or even a lot of things.  Do it for a saner, less polarized, and better understood world.

Or tell me I’m overthinking it.

War is Easy/Peace is Hard

In PeaceAble on April 7, 2017 at 11:04 am

War is easy.

War is easy because it only requires a relatively few people to make it happen.  Currently, only about .75% of Americans between 18 and 65 years of age are serving in the military.  And it only takes 51 senators, 218 representatives, and 1 President to declare a war and fund it.  Of those people, an even smaller percentage will ever actually see combat, with the newest technologies reducing that risk even further.  And you don’t have to involve your adversary in the decision until it’s made.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it’s something we would have to live every day to make it happen.  We are a nation of more than 325 million people, approximately 75% of those are adults.  In order for us to live peaceably in the world, we would first have to learn to live peaceably with each other.  The population of the world is approximately 7.5 billion.  They would all have to learn to live peaceably with themselves and then with us.  We represent about 4% of the world population, and we can only achieve a truly peaceable world if we can get the other 96% to go along with it.

War is easy.

War is easy because it’s profitable right away.  President Eisenhower warned of the military/industrial complex sixty years ago.  Since then, nothing has been done to change that reality.  The war machine eats up a lot of money.  Right now, the current President is proposing to spend 54 billion dollars more on the military.  There is big money to be spent and big profit to be made as soon as those funds are approved.  And that profit will mostly bypass the poor and middle class and go directly to the wealthy.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it takes longer to turn a peace profit.  Make no mistake.  Peace is profitable, but it takes a bit longer to see the profit, and it goes to different people.  A peaceable world would allow us to use more of our resources to heal the sick, break the cycle of poverty for millions, better educate our citizens, clean up and beautify our world, end our dependence on fossil fuels and do a whole range of things we can’t do now because we spend so much on war and preparation for war and the consequences of war.  A peaceable world would make it easier for us to interact economically with other nations, profiting us both.  But the transition from a war economy (and we are always in a war economy) to a peaceable economy would take time, time to create the infrastructure, time to see where the jobs need to be, time to train people to live in such an economy, time for profit to work its way up from the bottom to the top.

War is easy.

War is easy because it produces heroes and glory and victories.  It also, of course, produces destruction, displacement, injury, disease, and death.  War produces great suffering.  But the amount of suffering is always considerably less, we are told, than the glory and the heroism.  And the glory, victories and the heroes give us reasons to party.  In fact, most, nearly all of our national holidays are celebrated with a military presence and a military flair.  Every parade has a contingent of active and veteran military, nearly every parade unit has uniforms and behaviors of some kind that are fashioned on the military.  Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, marching bands, various auxiliaries, all marching in straight lines with a military gait.  We celebrate so many of our holidays with explosions, loud militaristic and nationalistic music, grand speeches about our own greatness and the greatness of our military.  Even when we celebrate the ends of wars we celebrate the victory, not the peace.  When did you last hear a speaker at a Veteran’s Day celebration talk about the effort to rebuild Europe after WWI or WWII, to find a way to peace with Vietnam, to restore our economy, to live in peace with our former enemies?

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it produces invisible diplomats and unrecognized workers.  You may know the names of recent Secretaries of State –  Albright, Powell, Rice, Clinton, Kerry, Tillerson – and a few historic ones – Adams, Madison, Monroe, Rusk, Dulles, Baker, Kissinger – but how many diplomats can you name?  How many people can you name who have led efforts to reduce poverty and hunger and homelessness in the world?  How many pacifists and peace workers ever make it into the public consciousness?  And how often do we celebrate them?  How many awards do we give them for their service, how many parades, how many holidays?  Where is the glory in helping a third world community to build a self-sustaining agriculture, produce clean water, start an industry?  A member of the military is treated as a hero as soon as the uniform is donned.  To be a hero of peace you have to rise to the level of a Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Malala Yousafzai.  Why should we pursue peace when it is clearly so undervalued?

War is easy.

War is easy because we have the language for it close at hand.  Our common lexicon is flooded with words that are either directly or indirectly militarist.  From sports to business even to the pursuit of peace, we talk about campaigns that are waged, victories that are won, adversaries that are defeated.  When we want love, we read articles about how to seduce and win a lover, how to catch a spouse.  In our everyday activities we talk about beating, conquering, destroying, killing, and fighting.  We value winners, and second place is a loser.  We label enemies more quickly than friends, and we are always a bit suspicious of our friends.  We put our children into troops; and they may know the words for guns and rockets and bombs, but not really understand what love is, or empathy, or compassion.  Patriotism is rarely seen as pacifist or even gentle.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because we have too little language for it.  Try to describe what you think world peace would be like?  What words do you use?  How concrete and specific are they?  How general and vague?  We know what a battle is; but what is it’s opposite?  Are you stuck on words like love, acceptance, tolerance, understanding, empathy?  Can you make those concrete?  How do you actually do those things?  Perhaps we can’t all get along because we have no common language to describe what that would be like.  And so many of our peace words carry a cultural connotation of weakness: acceptance, accommodation, tolerance.  We not only don’t know what “love your enemy” means, we don’t want to do it.

War is easy.

War is easy because it can coexist with fear.  If we were not afraid we would not go to war.  Fear is essential to war, both declaring it and waging it.  If we cannot identify an enemy we are supposed to fear, how do we justify war?  Any soldier who does not understand and feel fear risks recklessness and is a danger to his comrades.  We don’t give medals to people who were not afraid, but to those who overcame their fear.  Fear is the enemy, we’re told; something to be vanquished as much as the physical enemy is.

Peace is hard.

Peace is hard because it requires us to be fearless.  In order to build a peaceable world we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to trust, see the human face of the other.  We must let the other in, and we must seek him out without fear.  We must learn to love unconditionally.  We cannot be afraid of our pain, our suffering, our challenges; but we must form the habit of seeking causes rather than blame, profound solutions rather than easy fixes.  We have to be in it for the long haul.  Peace requires courage of us all, we cannot pass it off on a small percentage of our citizens; we need to work at our problems together, all of us, not wait for someone else to make them go away.

And it is important that we learn that war never leads to peace.  War only creates the conditions that lead to the next war.  But war is easy.  Only living peaceably will lead to peace.  But living peaceably is hard.  Peace is hard.

The Fallacy of “Liberal Guilt”

In PeaceAble on March 24, 2017 at 7:53 am

There is an idea circulating that liberals seek things like civil rights, women’s rights, religious tolerance, LGBTQ rights, Native American rights, and so on, out of guilt; guilt about being male, about being white, about being Christian, about being whatever is the opposite of whatever they are championing.

Claiming that people act out of guilt is nothing more than an attempt to delegitimize their actions.  If you are doing something out of guilt, we are told, then it’s a bad thing to do, it’s dishonest, it isn’t genuine.  And it says to those who benefit from the work that the liberal activist doesn’t really care about you, it’s just guilt, so you should resent what they’re doing.  And you should be glad that I, who am doing nothing for you, am not demeaning you or being dishonest to you out of guilt. 

This idea of guilt is also associated with accusations of colonialism, of a supposed sense of superiority and entitlement.  In discussing the social safety net, for example, it works for the liberal activist this way:  1. You feel guilty about the fact that you have plenty of food and a home and a comfortable life when others don’t; 2. This guilt is derived from your belief that you are privileged and therefore superior; 3. When you advocate for the poor you are acting out your superiority, telling the poor that they need your superior largess because they can’t do it themselves; 4. This makes them dependent on you and deprives them of some of their freedom because they believe they are entitled to what you want to give them.  For the recipient it works this way:  1. The liberal doesn’t really care about you, he’s just feeling guilty because he has stuff you don’t have; 2.  What the liberal is telling you is that he is superior to you and you aren’t good enough to do what you need to for yourself; 3.  You should resent the liberal for his guilt and imperialism; 4. You need to learn to take responsibility for yourself instead of feeling entitled to help from guilty liberals; 5. We’re your real friends because we don’t feel guilty about our privilege and our wealth, and we want to give you the freedom to do it on your own, because we respect you.

In other words, if someone helps you they aren’t helping you, and if they don’t help you they are helping you. 

What a crock.

Guilt is an illusionary emotion.  It reduces complex events of cause and effect into simplistic arguments of blame. It masquerades as responsibility when it is really fear; it pretends to be empathy when it is really ego.  Guilt imagines that if one suffers sufficiently, then the wrongs of the past are atoned for.  And guilt doesn’t actually motivate action; rather, it seeks absolution and forgiveness. 

Guilt is a much more showy and public condition than responsibility.  Private, unexpressed guilt is a poison that slowly kills its host.  The only way to rid oneself of guilt is to make it known, and by making it known seek forgiveness.  On the other hand, we don’t seek to rid ourselves of honest and genuine responsibility, nor do we feel the need to make it public. Guilt emotes, responsibility acts.

Is it so hard to believe, especially among those who claim the mantle of Christianity, that any person, regardless of their political, religious, ethnic or other standing, might just have empathy, compassion, concern for another human being?

Is it not possible to feel a responsibility to correct historic wrongs without feeling guilty about the wrongs themselves?  A white person who recognizes that people of color have been enslaved, oppressed, discriminated against, disenfranchised and marginalized by white people can certainly also see that something needs to be done to correct those things without feeling personal guilt.  A man who sees that women have been disadvantaged and disenfranchised by a male-dominant culture can certainly also see that these things need to be corrected without feeling guilty.  A heterosexual or cisgender person does not have to feel guilty about the historic treatment of LGBTQ persons in order to want to correct the injustices.  When a wrong can be clearly seen, guilt is not necessary to motivate the desire to make it right.

If you feel guilty about something, examine it.  How is the guilt helping you?  What is it getting you?  Replace the guilt with understanding and knowledge about what the real problems and issues are, and what can be done about them.  Let your compassion come from empathy not from debt.  Let the past, both cultural and personal, put wind in the sails of positive change, not throw out an anchor that keeps us from moving forward.  And don’t listen to those who try to tell you that not feeling guilty means not having to do anything.

A Warning About the End of Life as We Know It

In PeaceAble on March 7, 2017 at 1:40 pm

 

Life as we know it is in danger.  If we are to prevent the end of life as we know it, we must all remember these basic truths:

 

The Others are not like us.

 

They speak a different language and when they learn our language they speak with a strange accent.  They think that we should learn their language.  They dress differently and strangely, they eat strange food, they worship false gods and they have strange customs and habits.  They have their own laws that are not exactly like ours.  You can recognize them because they look different from us.

 

The Others hate us.

 

They hate our laws, they hate our customs, they hate our beliefs.  They may even hate us because we have things they want to take away from us.  They hate our culture and our way of life.

 

The Others are trying to destroy us.

 

Because they hate us and want what we have, they are determined to attack us, go to war with us.  They want to destroy our culture, our country; they will kill our people; they want to destroy us and everything we have.  They want to steal from us all that we value and take it for themselves.

 

 

 

But if we are to prevent the end of the world as we know it, we must also forget some basic truths:

 

Whenever we leave this place and go elsewhere in the world, WE are The Other.

 

We want to believe that The Other must always be The Other, because WE are WE.  There can be no greater truth than this:  as I look out onto the world, I am at its center; all else is Other; and wherever I am is where the center is.

 

When WE are The Other, everything stated above is still true.

 

This is life as we know it.  This is the world as we wish to preserve it.  It is this we will prevent the end of by remembering the truths above.

 

When all The Others have been destroyed then life as we know it will end.

 

And what will be left will not be what we thought it would be.  We will find no life-as-we-know-it paradise.  Whenever there are at least two people in the world, there will be I and there will be The Other. And perhaps then we will learn that if we destroy The Other, WE destroy ourselves.

 

Perhaps it would be better if we stopped trying to prevent the end of the world as we know it and started working together to build a better one.

 

Cultural Normalization and “Manchester by the Sea”

In PeaceAble, Uncategorized on January 30, 2017 at 11:48 am

Aspects of the norm in any culture are expressed and reinforced in small, subtle and pervasive acts of acceptance.  There are innumerable ways in which our cultural norms are transmitted, with public media an important part of the whole.  My intent here is to use a personal critique of the Oscar-nominated film “Manchester by the Sea” to illustrate how we are led into unconscious acceptance and reinforcement of cultural norms.

First, let me say that media do not, for the most part, create norms or cause cultural change.  The media, including the artists who work in the media, reflect more than create subjective reality.  Films are created at least in part with an intent to make money.  They will only do that if they appeal to a significant part of the available audience.  The best way to ensure that is to reflect the feelings, attitudes, ideas, and perceptions the audience already holds.  Films that challenge our perceptions may achieve critical success, but rarely achieve box-office success.

Also, it is entirely possible for a film to be artistically successful but culturally problematic.  When that happens, it is useful to point out both the artistic quality and the cultural problems.  Failure to do that, in my opinion, reinforces the expressed norms and inhibits cultural change.

“Manchester by the Sea” is in many ways a very well made film.  There is some remarkable acting, though I did not find Casey Affleck’s performance equal to the over-the-top hype that so many reviewers seem intent on propagating.  It’s a solid performance, but hardly revolutionary.  And the film is not without its flaws.  I was especially disappointed in the script over all.  Despite some nice moments of dialogue and character interaction, the story is slow to get started, keeps wandering off into side stories that are never adequately resolved or clearly connected to the main thrust of the narrative.  And the resolution at the end of the film seems hurried and not well developed.  The final decisions of everyone involved seem nearly a deus ex machina rather than a clear consequence of the characters’ earlier choices.

But the larger objection I make to the film is not about the quality of the production.  In fact, the quality of the production actually exacerbates the problem I have with it; for the higher the quality of the art, the easier it is for us to overlook the cultural issues it raises and the problematic norms it reinforces.

The film’s characters, who are faithfully and authentically portrayed, represent a privileged masculine norm that goes unrecognized and unquestioned.  The men are uncommunicative, shallow and misogynistic.  The female characters are all treated badly, either directly abused, or ignored and dismissed, or left hanging in unfinished side stories.  The 15 year-old boy, Patrick, is sleeping with one girl and plotting to sleep with another; and his uncle blithely and without comment agrees to keep everything a secret so that the girls’ parents don’t find out about the sex and the girls don’t find out about each other.  Patrick’s mother is presented as unfit to raise him because she is portrayed as a frightened, somewhat dim-witted and hysterical woman under the sway of a “Christian” fanatic in a side story that is unnecessary, stereotypical, and unexplained.  Lee Chandler blows off his ex-wife’s attempt to come to terms with the past in a particularly cruel way and the whole thing is just passed over, providing no closure and no attempt at understanding.  Several smaller female characters are introduced for a moment to offer criticisms or critiques or some small incident, but their contributions are either ignored or trivialized.

And the men don’t fare much better from this version of what it means to be a guy.  Lee’s brother apparently never told Lee just how close to death he was, nor asked his permission to assign him as guardian for Patrick, nor provided any clue as to how that could be managed.  Given Lee’s emotional state and the conditions of his life, those failures are cruel to both Lee and Patrick; and have the potential for absolute disaster.  While that is part of what creates the core conflict in the film, it is never addressed honestly for what it is.  Lee and Patrick communicate mostly through grunts and shrugs, although Patrick often seems the closest to an adult in the room; and most of the really consequential communication Lee has with his brother’s friends and associates seems to take place off-screen, while the on-screen exchanges are fraught with unspoken emotions.  This, we are to accept, is how these men communicate.  And that’s true, but the possibility that that might just be the real problem here is never explored and nothing about it ever changes.

I bring all this up not because I want anyone to not see the film.  As I have said, it is over all a well-made film, with much about it that is worth seeing.  And the characters, however flawed, are portrayed honestly by talented actors.  I am really talking here about culture and how norms are established and reinforced.

Day by day, we all encounter situations where we are presented with examples of cultural norms in action.  We see advertisements all around us for cosmetics for women and power tools for men.  We see magazine articles that propose to tell men and women separately what the other really wants and how to “win” them.  We click on a FB link because we are teased by a sexy body or a provocative headline.  A co-worker tells us a joke involving a dumb blonde woman or a grotesque caricature of a “Mexican.”  And we hear people “man-splaining” and “white-splaining” and “straight-splaining” why things are as they are.  And if we do not, whenever possible and safe to do so, point out the cultural norms inherent in those things, or fail to say why they are a problem, then the normalcy of them is reinforced.  Every time we fail to question the logic in the ads, every time we buy the magazine and read the articles without response, every time we click on the link or smile politely at the joke or fail to see things as they really are, the norms are reinforced.

I know that movies are fiction.  I know that they are portraying real things.  And I know that we are all capable of convincing ourselves that we have the maturity, the insight, and the self-awareness to consume these things without being corrupted by them.  But cultural norms aren’t fixed by our opinions of our own virtues.  If there are things about the culture that you feel need to change; if you believe that women, non-whites, people of other nationalities or religions or ethnicities, the disadvantaged and disenfranchised need to be included, given equality of representation and opportunity, and given a chance for economic equity; then the culture will need to change.  And cultures are most permanently changed by the small, everyday reactions we have to the constant onslaught of normative messages.

Do you think that our culture is too violent, too warlike, too quick to attack and too slow to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems?  Then look for the violence in your own life, in your entertainments, in your myths and heroes.  Acknowledge that it is there and question its place in your life and in the culture.  And look for the opportunities you are given to choose the peaceable route.

Do you think our culture makes second-class citizens of our women?  Look in your own life for the small things you do or fail to do that are consistent with that.  Recognize how your own life has reinforced those things in you.  Know that you are not immune, and that changing the culture requires constant checking in with ourselves to see how we are falling prey to norms we claim to disdain.

Do you want to support equal and fair treatment of non-whites, non-Christians, and the LGBTQ+ community?  Take note of your own internal reactions.  Do feel you afraid, even slightly, in encountering the other?  Can you acknowledge that the racism or xenophobia or homophobia of the culture that has raised you has affected you, that you are not completely free of its influences?  Can you recognize and own those times when you have behaved badly, perhaps without intent or awareness, but badly all the same?

And did you go to see a film like “Manchester by the Sea” and not at least make note of the fact that what you just saw was filled with misogyny and male privilege and a cultural perspective that is exactly what we need to change?  And did you say anything?

Art is one of the most powerful purveyors of cultural norms.  Film has a way of drawing us into the reality it seeks to portray.  Indeed, the suspension of disbelief, the acceptance of the terms a film sets for itself is central to its success.  But after the viewing, take the time to talk about more than just whether Casey Affleck is the best thing since Brando, or who might get the Oscar nod, or how interesting and beautiful the cinematography was.  Talk about what the film has to say about all of us as human beings, and what it has to say about what is normal in our culture.  Then ask yourself what you want to do about it.

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