Thursday, December 29, 2005

Our Social Narrative

The moral of the story? That would be the moral of your story. The question is about your life. Forget what you do for a living or how (whatever) you might be; the question is :What is the moral of your story? Why are you alive? What is it about your life, not about you as a figure but as a person, that makes your life important to us who don't even know you? What is it that makes us willing to give up our lives to save yours? It's not because of what you do, not because of who you are. It's something different: it's because you are. And what is that? There is something about you that makes you important almost regardless of who you are and what you do. You have an innate value as you, even to an atheist like myself who doesn't refer to your worth in terms of God. Something makes you worthwhile, even if you piss me off.

In another place and another time I might not feel the way I do toward my fellow men. If I were a Muslim, for example, your life wouldn't mean anything to me, nor would my own. If I were a Spartan I might chuck babies off a cliff if I didn't like the look of them. I will say that I might have done evil deeds if I were the same man in different circumstances. I won't claim that I'd be a good man doing ordinary things if I did things I know now are evil. Call me old fashioned, if you must, but I argue that killing babies is a bad thing, regardless of the social utility. Bad then, bad now, bad forever. A bad thing isn't good just because everyone else is doing it. It's a bad thing.

Some people claim to be moral relativists, which is another way of confessing to be moral idiots and idiots. However, our lovely world is full of idiots, and unfortunately we have to live with them. If many people are tossing babies, they too will toss. There are those who have no moral foundation. those people require a societal foundation based on law to keep them from the worst idiocies they might otherwise indulge in, and still do in spite of it all. Some do not have an innate sense of your right to be, regardless of your being. Those who have no sense of you are those the rest of us rely on the police to protect us from. To have police to enforce the laws against murder and mayhem we have to have laws against it they can enforce, and courts to try those who didn't get it. To have those systems we have to have a society that does get it, and we have to have a society that gets it right, at least mostly.

If we live in a society that is morally psychotic, such as one Islamic, we are more or less lost from the get-go. Rather than morals, they obsess over the minutest trivia of appearances. We who live in the modern West do not forego morality in favor of orthopraxy, the proper practice of ritual behaviour. We do not obsess over the way you shave your heinie. We tend to consider it more important that you don't kill people at random. That could well be different. Without a moral foundation we could instantly change our minds about random murder and find many good things to claim for it. It might still be illegal, though, and rather than go to prison or be sentenced to months of anger management counselling we behave ourselves. But we could, if we wanted to, change the laws so it's OK to kill people who are goofy or creepy. then killing people would be OK and perhaps even good. We don't change our laws to allow for killing creepy people. Something stops us. Something about creepy people still speaks to us, telling us that even they have a right to live. Something speaks to us, and what is that something if we are neither religious nor insane? What is the voice of authority? Where does the authority come from? How do we know? How do we know that we can't ignore that voice or change our minds about what we thought we heard then but don't hear now? If it was OK to kill babies before, maybe it'll be OK to do so later. How would we know? how can we convince others that if it's wrong now it'll still be wrong then? And if it's possible that it's not going to be wrong later, then maybe we're all full of shit today and we should kill babies and creepy people.

If what is true today isn't true for tomorrow, then what is true today isn't worth much now. Facts can change, but not the truth. Our opinions can change but the truth must be true always as it is or it's not the truth to start with, it is a falsity. How do we know the difference if we're not convinced by reasons religious? I might think your life is worthwhile simply because you are Human. But that's today, and I'm checking my watch. If I change my mind about your innate worth, what's to show me I'm immoral? I could become a Muslim in the time it takes to type this line. Then what's the worth of you? Sorry, friend, but you'd become worthless on the spot. Or would you? If your life is worth life in itself right now, then that cannot change. If it can, then I was mistaken and you are counting the minutes.

I got the coolest music toy for Christmas. I also got an electric blanket and a slinky blanket that I use to entice girls to sleep with me. Those things make me a nicer person to be around, but they don't make me moral. Maybe I stole them. Our stuff doesn't make us moral. What does? What makes a person worth living? How do we know? What is so certain that even an atheist like me cannot rightly change his mind about that? Cool stuff helps but it's not quite enough.

Either there is something innately valuable about you as a single person or I am sorely mistaken and soon to be embarrassed. If I can change my mind about the value of your life, I can do that with anyone's life, mine included. So, it's important to understand the worth of Human life if only to keep me from sitting down and starving to death from depression.

Two hundred and fifty years ago Humanity opened a new door into the world of life. No, not everyone, and not even many, really, but the door opened onto a new world of life. Some of us are the children of those who passed through. Some of us who live now in our mental world are unhappy with it and wish to return to the old places of the mind. They don't like our Modernity. They don't like our revolutions. They prefer the old world of Muslims and savages of all sorts. Some of our friends int he modern world want us all to return to the old places and forget about this brave new world of ours. And those in the old place are so flummoxed they're committing suicide in their rages against us. Still, some of us go on into further Modernity. But what are we getting ourselves into? Are we getting anything more than the old stuff with new and better toys? Is our morality getting any better? Our lives might become better from our adventures into Modernity, but are we better? Are we even worth living? Do we have a moral to our story any more? Maybe we are no better than the savages of Islam except that our toys are so much cooler. If that's the case, then I must take back all I wrote above about your life being worth something to me.

Neil Postman wonders about our social values. He argues that we are so obsessed by our toys that we've sometimes lost sight of the worth of Man. I'm going to take time off to finish his book, and I'll leave you with a couple of short reviews culled from

Yes, I still feel and believe, in spite of the evidence, that your life is inherently valuable. No, do not try to change my mind.

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century : How the Past Can Improve Our Future (Vintage)

The problem with the world today, says Neil Postman, is that we've become so caught up in hurtling towards the future that we've lost our societal "narrative," a humane cultural tradition that creates "a sense of purpose and continuity"--in other words, something to believe in. "In order to have an agreeable encounter with the twenty-first century," he asserts, "we will have to take into it some good ideas. And in order to do that, we need to look back to take stock of the good ideas available to us." He finds rich source material in the Enlightenment, the salad days for philosophers such as Goethe, Voltaire, Diderot, Paine, and Jefferson, "the beginnings of much that is worthwhile about the modern world." Yet Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century is a call for cultural progress, not regression: "I am not suggesting that we become the eighteenth century," Postman notes, "only that we use it for what it is worth and all it is worth." Chief among the values Postman cites is the development of the intellect; it plays a part in many of his recommendations, from the cultivation of a healthy skepticism towards overhyped technology to sweeping educational reforms that include replacing grammar instruction with logic and rhetoric and introducing courses on comparative religion and the history of science. He also lashes out at postmodernists who start with the premise that language "is a major factor in producing our perceptions, judgments, knowledge, and institutions" and conclude that language is therefore tenuously connected to reality at best. Enlightenment thinkers knew that language molded perception, he notes, but they also believed that "it is possible to use language to say things about the world that are true" and "to communicate ideas to oneself and to others." Postman is excessively curmudgeonly at times, as in his reference to philosopher Jean Baudrillard as "a Frenchman, of all things," or his remarks on the ancient Athenians: "I know they are the classic example of Dead White Males, but we should probably listen to them anyway." But for anybody with a stake in the culture wars, or who wants to apply the lessons of philosophy to the modern world, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century will make for provocative reading.

From Publishers Weekly
"I am not suggesting that we become the eighteenth century, only that we use it for what it is worth and for all it is worth," Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death; Technopoly) argues in this penetrating, extended essay. Though other periods are rich with learning and wisdom, Postman believes the 18th-century Enlightenment is uniquely valuable and relevant to today's world. It gave us the rationalist notion of human progress expressed and supported by science and technology and the romantic critique, with its idea of inward progress and its suspicion of the machine. It gave us discursive narrative prose as the prototypical model of thought, along with more subtle, less hysterical critiques of language than postmodernists offer today. It gave us floods of new information, yet ridiculed information as an end in itself, urging a healthy respect for context and purpose. It gave us the idea of childhood as a distinct life stage linked to education and nurturance, illuminated by two contrasting visions, Locke's blank slate to be written on and Rousseau's plant to be cultivated. And it gave us representative democracy. All these were expressions of a world in which the dominant media, unlike today, was the printed word. As that environment fades, the complex tensions Postman illuminates are replaced by shallow sloganeering by those who present themselves as the embodiment of novelty and daring. Postman forcefully argues that we can use the complex legacy of the past to resist being swept into a shiny, simpleminded new dark age. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

We are the inheritors of the Age of Enlightenment. It is our privilege to be alive in our time. We have the luxury of being able to think and judge and search for the worth of Man. Who knows what we'll discover when we look. We might not find anything, and Man will be worth no more than the life of a chicken after all. Call me silly, but I still have hope that you are worth while-- if only because you're Human.


Shokei said...

Thank you for posting some Postman.
His common sense writings are very consoling in a frightening time when one's family, friends, and neighbours have been partially lobotomized by meaningless, dangerous hype. What once were considered luxuries are now necessities. The most human act is to offer food from one's home--to friend or stranger--no matter how poor one may be.

dag said...

Every man, as Kant writes, is an end unto himself. He has his innate worth simply by virtue of being one of Mankind. That's my base-line. All else is decoration, and some of it extends to the soul, and some poeple are beautiful. I'm blessed to know some. They cannot rightly be seperated one from another, this man more worthy of life than another for this or that. Every man is worthy. Some are beautiful in their souls, but all are worth while as people.

Postman cuts to the heart of that, and he is indeed a pleasure for me to read as well.