Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, March 02, 2015

Born in the USA


So I go to see the "feel good" movie "McFarland USA," not because I want to, but because I know somebody who knows somebody who is related to one of the actors (no, I'm not saying more than that).

And I was pleasantly surprised by the "Pastures of Plenty" vibe the whole story gave off, since it is set in California's agricultural region where Mexicans (by and large) are "pickers" in the field, back-breaking labor that starts at dawn and continues without relent all day.  When Kevin Costner's character joins them for one day (there are reason), he asks if they get paid by the hour.  No, they tell him; by the field.  So the faster they pick, the better.  It's a hard-knock life doesn't begin to cover it.

It isn't long before Costner's character understands that he understands almost nothing about the lives of the members of his track team.  He goes from trying to motivate them with toughness, to realizing nothing could be harder than the conditions they live under.  He finally motivates them from his respect for them, his willingness to acknowledge they are human beings whose lives matter.

But I see this movie about how invisible such workers are (and it's set in 1987; nothing had changed since Woody Guthrie's song, nothing has really changed since), and then I read this:

More recently, writer Michael Shermer has expanded on this idea. In his new book, “The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom,” he argues that “moral progress” can be directly attributed to the values associated with the West’s embrace of science and reason, which he traces to the beginning of the Enlightenment in the 17th century. As an example, he cites the famous “golden rule” — that we should do unto others as we’d want them to do unto us. The rule is hardly new — it’s found in the Bible — but it is no mean feat to actually put it into practice. To fully wrap your head around the golden rule, you have to mentally place yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is a cognitively demanding task, and one that calls for abstract reasoning.

Today we recoil from the idea of inflicting harm on others — but it is far from clear why we would have evolved such a stance. 
Actually what we recoil from is images of harm being inflicted on others, especially when it is done in our name.  Like the Romans, we still prefer to pay people to inflict harm for us:  be they soldiers or police. We don't recoil from inflicting harm; we don't even recoil from the death penalty.  What we recoil from is getting our hands dirty.

Values associated with the West's "embrace of science and reason" led to the near extermination of the natives in this country; to an international slave trade whose fruits our Enlightenment Founding Fathers enjoyed robustly, as well as the industrial scale genocide of the Holocaust and such delights as forced sterilization ("three generations of imbeciles is enough!"  "Imbeciles" was a legal term incorporated from science at the time) and the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the fire-bombing of Dresden.  I don't mean to pick on any particular country in that catalog, but we are so prone to exclude ourselves from such accountings that it bears focussing on our sins.

As for the "Golden Rule," it's quite an old one (it was old when Jesus cited it), and to this day few have managed to "wrap their heads" around it.  I have no idea how science and reason create the abstract reasoning possible to realize the implementation of that rule, but then abstract reasoning is hardly a product of the Enlightenment alone.  If Mr. Schermer, or  Mr. Falk, think it is, then they need to go back to grade school and start over; they really missed something.

What's primarily missing is any respect for the "other."  What's primarily missing is any ability to wrap their heads around the golden rule, no matter now capable of abstract reasoning they think themselves.  No matter what, like Kevin Costner's character, they are reasoning from their experience; and their experience, they think, is both universal, and privileged.  Privileged because it is correct; and correct, because it is theirs.

That Golden Rule really is no mean feat to put into practice, is it?

2 Comments:

Blogger jim, some guy in iowa said...

"what's primarily missing is any respect for the 'other'"

seems like the crux of it right there. also an inability to let go of things

6:59 PM  
Blogger rick allen said...

"To fully wrap your head around the golden rule, you have to mentally place yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is a cognitively demanding task, and one that calls for abstract reasoning. Today we recoil from the idea of inflicting harm on others — but it is far from clear why we would have evolved such a stance."

I honestly don't know quite what to do about statements like this. Some sort of developed scientifically-based rationality is necessary to feel empathy? We recoil from inflicting harm more than our ancestors?

Is this man not aware that we bomb civilian populations without compunction? That we--I know I may offend here--think nothing killing our own children in the womb by the hundreds of thousands yearly, when they are healthy? Create weapons capable of incinerating whole societies? Arm ourselves with little killing machines and murder each other at an astonishing rate? Amuse ourselves by watching simulations of torture? Practice actual torture on prisoners of war?

If this is "evolution," I hate to see what's coming next.

9:41 PM  

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