Sometimes idealization strengthens a value; sometimes it destroys it. The trick is to know the difference.
It gets more difficult to tell the difference when a value becomes central to one’s own life, or if it has become a commonplace theme in the community around her. Failure to follow a given value can become so unthinkable that dissonance reduction strategies simply overtake the effort to apply it to the miscellaneous judgement calls of daily life.
At the extreme end of caring about something, defense mechanisms become so strong that the rhetoric of rationalization simply eclipses the discourse needed to plan effective action. Thus, love becomes a foreign notion to much of Christianity, Reason and Logic brand-names jealously guarded by unbelievers, and self-reliance the hallmark of Americans themselves as dependent on others as any people ever were. In like manner, racism becomes unthinkable to liberals, notwithstanding the prominence of racial categories in our policies, and patriotism goes without saying to conservatives, even when they attack their own nation (literally or metaphorically). It is easy enough to see that talking-up a value doesn’t always mean living up to it; but things are worse than that. Talking up a value can sometimes chase any meaningful effort to put it into practice right out of the building.
I used to think about this a lot when I worked in Navajo country. Out there the value term with the most weight to it was hózhǫ́. This is usually translated as something like ‘balance’ or ‘harmony,’ and for many this is enough to tie the notion to themes better suited to American pop-Buddhism and New Age thought. In contrast to bilagáanas, diné (Navajos) were non-confrontational, at least according to common folk-wisdom on the subject.But it wasn’t merely outsiders that approached the concept in these terms; Navajos themselves sometimes use this approach to explain themselves to others.
This theme always troubled me, because it sure as Hell didn’t describe the people I knew and worked with. Sure I had seen plenty of situations in which I had seen diné show notable restraint or reluctance to engage in confrontation. But I had seen some spectacular confrontations in my days out there. More to the point, it had always seemed to me that conflict rested just under the surface of pretty much every item of business occurring in that area. The question it seems to me is not whether Navajos engage in conflict more or less than the average Bilagáana (white person); but rather under what circumstances will each do so and for what purposes. I think the answer to this question is different for Navajo than it is for Anglos, but I also think this requires a lot more subtlety than the oppositional stereotypes generally allow.
I had a boss out there who used to tell me that the sort of balance implied in the concept of hózhǫ́ actually entailed a trace of conflict. Conflict too had its value in this ideal, he seemed to be telling me, and so it too had its place in the balance people strove to attain. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a layer of conflict in the workings of folks who embraced this value. But sometimes I am a damned slow student. Years after I had moved on from that job, I think I finally got this lesson. I got the point while reading up on Henry Kissenger. Thinking of hózhǫ́ as a kind of Realpolitik is of course little more than replacing one metaphor for another, but I continue to think it is a helpful correction to the cosmic muffin concepts that saturated so much of the public discussion of hózhǫ́, at least when the rest of the conversation occurred in English. Even still, the distance between this value and the practices of those who hold it dear is vast, so vast that it seems often to escape the ability of folks to conceptualize the matter.
Which I suppose puts diné on par with the rest of us.
It used to drive me to tears, back during my brief stint as a moderator on the Internet Infidels message boards, when I would see some fellow heathen lecturing a Christian on the virtues of reason and rationality. Okay, this didn’t always bother me, but it drove me nuts those specific moments when the Christian was doing a damned good job of reasoning about the particular issue and the unbeliever not so much
Yes, that does happen.
I wouldn’t count myself an Atheist if I didn’t think that ultimately the most reasonable thing to do about gods is to just say ‘no’ to them. But the backing of reason needs to be earned in the details of a discussion, and which side will earn it is back on the table every time you decide to take up the subject. Like it or not, in some conversations about religious matters, it is in fact the believer that is doing a better job of reasoning. That really shouldn’t surprise anyone whose sense of human nature hasn’t been completely overdetermined by their sense of the battle lines in question. Yet in such moments, when the compelling argument just isn’t coming, leave it to the rotten-hearted to simply claim the cultural capital of a free thinking rational person and remind the believer that she isn’t in the club, so to speak.
That is the sort of hypocrisy I suppose I should expect in any camp, including my own, but it doesn’t make seeing it any easier. Take any given value, and you will always see a sort of tension between its motivating characteristics, the oughtness it urges on us, and its currency for those with some claim to that value. Ideally, one could expect those claiming the virtue of reason to be those who actually live up to it, but ideological movements and philosophical orientations also generate a degree of association with a given virtue. And for some, that is enough. They are more rationale by virtue of their allegiances; and little else need be said about the matter.
Likewise I will never accept the excuses that conservative Christians make for opposition to homosexuality. It is common enough to hear from folks that their stance on the topic is taken out of love, that they have gay friends, and that they are merely following the word of the Lord on this. (I’ll skip the example of the lady who re-assured me that she had nothing personal against gay people, because she loved Will & Grace. …okay, I didn’t quite skip it, but, well, …I can’t help myself sometimes.) Conservative Christians often cry foul when their position is described as hateful, insisting that we take their own motivations into account.
In my book, you measure goodwill by the way people treat others; and efforts to deprive gay lesbian folks of the right to marry, to adopt, or to security in the workplace make for a straight forward case of malice. Even without these concrete harms, the high suicide rates for those of homosexual orientation speak to the high costs that some folks pay for unwarranted stigma placed on certain sexual preferences. Against all this and more, the oft-repeated claims that one can oppose homosexuality while keeping to the admonition to love others starts to ring a bit hollow. The approach taken by conservative Christians against homosexuality makes of ‘love’ a mere footnote, an intellectual exercise in resolving an apparent inconsistency. It falls well short of living up to a virtue which could well be the shining light of Christian faith.
What has me thinking about this is a recent encounter with one of the ways this sort of problem is commonly expressed in ordinary language. I can’t think of any other way to put it, so I will just call it ‘vacuous Idealization’. What I mean to get at by coining this monstrous bit if vocabulary is a variety of rhetoric that cancels a value in practice by elevating it to a level of abstraction which is utterly meaningless.
Take for example ‘true love,’ which we are often assured isn’t selfish at all. But that’s not all that true love isn’t. It also isn’t carnal, and it isn’t fleeting. It really isn’t harmful to the one who is loved, and it most certainly isn’t conditional. True love doesn’t keep track of the time, and it doesn’t care how much money you have or how tall you are. True love is timeless, and true love is, …blech! I can’t go on.
By the time we get done with all the things true love isn’t, I can’t help wondering if anything is left in the category at all. And that I suspect is the point of ‘true love’; it is actually an empty set, with no concrete members no associated concepts to define it. Instead we get the illusion that true love has been defined by taking ordinary instances of perfectly human (and rather flawed) love and negating each of the flaws. We are left to believe that we still know what we are talking about when all of the frailties of human relationships have been tossed in the trash of love that is merely real, as opposed to that which is
true, …pardon me True.
I call Shenanigans!
Real love looks nothing like this True love that people talk about. You notice when she gets in bed without brushing her teeth. And yes Real Love hopes that her relatives will take care of her when she needs them. Real love may not care how tall you are, but she’s damned glad you don’t have any really ugly birthmarks. And if real love hasn’t made a point of principle out of your race, your nationality, your political party or your religion, then she certainly does have a way of finding people most when they travel in the same circles she does. Real love comes and goes (dammit anyhow) sometimes without warning and without leaving behind any explanation for her visit, or her departure. And sad to say, real love does have her contingencies, much as we might wish otherwise. Real love always comes with the blemishes, and the do matter, and they don’t go away.
True love is little other than the hope of some ineffable residue left when we’ve taken out all the things that come with Real love in our actual lives. But that is a hope hung on an imaginary hook. If you take away enough of the things that come with real love, you end up with nothing at all. Sadly, I am inclined to think that may be the point of this kind of rhetoric. By stripping out the foibles of real human relationships and the attitudes that go with them, one ends up with a value that is whatever you will make of it. It is something that will never happen, a virtue no-one will ever realize, nor will they ever have to.
And being thus emptied of its meaning, True Love is the perfect predicate for an imaginary subject, to wit, “God is love!”
On a side note, and I will just throw it out there, I do think this is one the reasons those who emphasize the divinity of Jesus most seem least likely to emulate his actions and teachings. If he is a human, with real human foibles, then the stories told about him offer a real example of how one ought to live. If he is a God, though, well then who could hope to live up to that example?
Yes, I get that this is generally thought to be a paradox in that Jesus is commonly supposed to be both. And yet it is the nature of such enigma that one can only meaningfully speak of, or think about, one of its axes at any given moment. You can say of a paradox that it is both x and y, but you cannot grasp both at the same time. And of course believers do typically come with a marked preference.
In like manner, I think people often approach issues of objectivity in the most self-defeating manner. It is common enough to speak of a knowing subject and known object when framing different questions about how knowledge works. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, providing one understands the two as part of a relationship of sorts. Once folks start talking about the possibility that a claim could belong entirely to one or the other, the whole model gets rather misleading.
To put it another way, I think we can speak meaningfully about objective features in knowledge, or even of greater or lesser degrees of objectivity, but if objectivity is defined as the total absence of subjective input, well then that is epistemological failure on the horizon. Bringing this a little closer to actual contexts of reasoning, I often hear (or read) commentary in which people compare reasoning with emotion or logic with rhetoric, etc., the implication being that one must choose one over the other. In the popular imagination good reasoning does not appeal to emotion, and rhetoric is always a bad.
But of course the point of much good reasoning is rhetorical; it is an attempt to convince someone of something. Far from requiring an absence of emotion, this kind of project is often enhanced by a display of emotion. If you want people to care about something, then you ought to show them that you do too. Fail to do that and watch them doodle as you talk.
The bottom line here is that the quest for objectivity becomes mysticism when it is conceived in terms of purity. If the practice of careful judgement requires an absence of subjectivity, emotion, or conscious efforts at persuasion, then careful judgement resides in a world we have never been and never will be. In fact, we don’t have the faintest idea how to get there, because the very notion is simply nonsense.
On a related note, let us consider the notion of Truth with a capital T. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I have been told that truth is unattainable, or heard questions such as ‘what is truth’ framed as though it were something ‘out there’, so to speak. Not surprisingly, this approach has the effect of rendering meaningless the mundane truths of daily life. Against the promise of this cosmic Truth, no mere fact could possibly hope to hold our attention. And so the quest for Truth so often becomes an escape from truths.
Countless sophomoric essays have been written about the unattainability of this grand
truth …Truth. It sits like the Kantian thing-in-itself well beyond our mere mortal efforts to find it. Many are the ways people have found to explain our failure to find this elusive entity, hiding somewhere in the mountains of philosophical goodness. But the details are un-necessary, because the failure of this quest begins with the framing of the question.
We use the concept of truth (or falsehood) on a daily basis to help us distinguish between claims we agree with and those we don’t. There is a lot of room for disagreement over the nature of that process, and it’s a damned interesting question, but if any theory of truth doesn’t address that sort of process then it is already headed down the wrong path from the outset.
Ultimately, questions about truth are less a matter of discovering a fact in the myriad lands of facts about the world around us, than it is a question of figuring out what means to say that something is true (and how that possibility relates its alternatives). Questions of truth value often involve great concepts and momentous philosophical questions, but they also occur in the context of topics of little importance, some of them being outright dull. I know that I consider it true that the Dr. Pepper I am drinking is too warm and false that the weather is nice outside. (I live in the arctic; what did you expect?) Any theory about the nature of truth that separates it entirely from such mundane matters is less a theory about truth than a hijacking of the notion for some other purpose.
What is Truth?
If you really must go on a quest to discover the answer to this question, then don’t let that quest
On a related note, and because it fits the pattern, could someone please tell the boys from Chicago what time it is. It is a good song, but seriously, does anyone really know what time it is?
We know what time it is, because time is not a thing to be known independent of human reckoning. If the conventions of human discourse say it is 5:30pm, Alaskan Standard Time, then it is 5:30pm, Alaskan Standard Time.
To make the question more complicated than that is not a quest for something profound; it is a dramatic self-indulgence.
Yes, I’m a lot of fun at parties too.
And with that the rant is nearing its end. If you are still reading this, then you have more patience than I do, and I apologize for tramping through matters both sacred and profane as well as a good many points in between. But of course that is my point, so to speak, that in effect the two extremes may at times prove to be one in the same. When a value becomes too important, even to conceive the possibility of transgressing against it, then people remove it from conscious thought in ways that parallel the treatment of things they abhor. Such sacred values can cease to be an effective means of motivating people, precisely because they mean too much to allow for the full range of human possibilities. Worse yet, people sometimes seem to take a value down this road for the very purpose of cancelling its bearing on daily life. Either way my point is that you should be careful about just how much you care about such things, because somewhere past “a lot” lies “Fuhgetaboutit!