Saturday, January 05, 2008

AMBIVALENCEblog?

I get a decent number of emails off-blog—in general, a lot more emails about the blog than actual comments submitted to the blog. One of the common themes among people who read SHAMblog as a "body of work" (as opposed to, say, just a random fusillade of observations) is that I'm all over the map ethically, philosophically and politically. "You sound like a die-hard conservative on Monday and a bleeding-heart liberal on Tuesday," is a fairly predictable sentiment, or words to that effect. "I don't get it, Steve. What are you, at heart?"

Or there was this, which I'm quoting explicitly: "How can you be the voice of moral righteousness in one essay [sic] and then a total Bohemian the next time. It doesn't make sense. I don't see how those beliefs could exist simultaneously in the same (sane) person."

We'll leave questions of sanity to the experts. But to take a stab at the former question in the prior paragraph, I'd have to say that "what I am," in most areas of life, is uncertain; uncommitted. At least in my view, SHAMblog concerns itself more with raising questions than finding answers. Yes, there are things I'm pretty sure I believe, based on my analysis of the evidence as I understand it...but I hold those beliefs with humility. I constantly play devil's advocate with myself (and with readers), throwing various ideas into the breech and examining them on their own terms and merits. In the end, I find that—again, in most areas—I'm far less sure of what's true and what's false, what's good and what's bad, than are most folks I know. Or most folks who visit this blog. (Also keep in mind that I'm not the kind of person who believes that what's right for me is, by definition, right for everyone. You'd be shocked at how many people are incapable of managing that simple duality. Or maybe you wouldn't be.)

To take it a step further: I think most of us would agree that the rape and torture of a child is bad, and that going down to the local homeless shelter to volunteer one's time is good. Such extremes in human behavior aren't normally where the problems crop up, however. One's success in life, in both practical and ethical terms, often is built on the skill with which we mediate/navigate the huge mass of gray that exists between the fairly well-defined poles.

Apropos of which, I spent my second cup of coffee today with a column by Rabbi Marc Gellman. I'd like to quote the first paragraph of his reply to a reader's very difficult question. The nature of the questioner's problem doesn't matter that much. It's Gelman's answer that stuck with me, to wit:

"Your heartwarming question should remind us all that the ethical dilemmas we face are hardly ever a choice between good and evil, but more often between bad and slightly better but also bad. The notion that the problems we face are amenable to simple and obvious choices is false to the truth of both sin and repentance."
Amen, Rabbi.

* and even then, we should never forget: The fact that almost all of us agree on something doesn't make it objectively true or inherently "right."

11 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

Well, Steve, though we've disagreed on a number of topics, I get the feeling that in the final analysis, you're reasonably sane. :-)

People who are absolutely certain that they have the "answers" to the complex issues we face generally have a limited understanding of the "questions," and don that certainty as a kind of armor to protect them from things they do not comprehend. While there are, as you point out, extreme cases where the inherent rightness or wrongness is obvious, little in life is that clearly defined.

Perhaps the ability to acknowledge the potential for truth beyond one's understanding is the single most significant landmark of civilization. Throughout history, the most barbaric examples of human behavior have always been borne of the inability or unwillingness to accept that another's perspective might be as valid as our own.

Mary Anne said...

I get that a lot from people, "where do you stand?" I always say, "that depends on the issue and the evidence." I can make a decision once I have been given enough information and I can defend my decisions.

I get your reasoning Steve, but I can also understand the criticism. You don't always answer direct questions. If you do not know something or understand something fully, why not admit that instead of just ignoring the question?

As I have stated before, I think it is a symtom of a very "McDonald's" problem. Making off the cuff comments or regurgitating sound bites and inaccurate information instead of looking at information independently.

You can play devil's advocate, but why not play an educated devil's advocate?

Mary Anne said...

On a side note, I find it interesting that these "e-mailers" don't just blog you their opinions. Are they afraid to stand-up for their positions?

I remember one guy you had on who was going to be a regular to what did he say? "To bring you down," but he disappeared! Shows how much dedication he has to a cause.

I do not place a lot of stock in people who do not want to back up their positions in the open. To me that says they question their own opinions and beliefs.

That is just MY opinion though.

Carl said...

I don't know Steve, I think there's something to be said for consistency. Though I respect what you do here. What is the point of just having ideas but coming to no conclusion? Just a lot of fancy-talk? That was the problem we had in the Jimmy Carter prsidency and that society suffers from in general it seems to me. And come to think of it I think that was one of your premeses too wasn't it? Too much talk and no action?

RevRon's Rants said...

What it sounds like is that you're failing to distinguish between the unwillingness to defend a position and not needing to *impose* that position, mary anne. Steve has been known to make a decision - and to make it clear - in spite of others' disagreement (including my own). While there are any number of areas where it is appropriate to "stand your ground," there are far fewer such areas than most people are willing to admit, and when one's issues take precedence over the topic at hand.

And while I'm disagreeing with people ( :-) ), I hardly think that this country suffers from a lack of action; more accurately, many of the problems we face are the direct result of actions taken without sufficient forethought and - yes - more reasoned discussion. In complex situations, a reasoned and weighed response is almost always more effective than one taken immediately, especially when the more immediate action is undertaken merely to give the appearance of doing something.

Mary Anne said...

Revon said,
"What it sounds like is that you're failing to distinguish between the unwillingness to defend a position and not needing to *impose* that position, mary anne"

That's not what I said and I am not asking Steve to. I said Steve fails to answer direct questions about his ideas. Case in point, a while back he posted about Helen Fisher's appearance on "Good Morning, America." His subsequent comments told me that he was not too familar with her work, but yet he threw it out for debate. I asked him to clarify his comments and he did not.

When I first started blogging on this site, Steve gently told me to be careful about what I blogged. I had made a reference to the high rate of suicides among psychiatrists. I answered by explaining my views and where I got my information. It would be nice if Steve had some consistency with that type of treatment.

My point, as usual, is that if opinions are to be debated maybe those opinions should be better reseached instead of just thrown out. I think Steve gives ammunition to his critics by doing this.

As I previously stated, if one is to play with all sides of an arguement, it would be nice if one thoroughly understood the information.

Anonymous said...

Geez, the good rabbi is certainly finding his glass half empty! Limiting our choices to bad and slightly less bad doesn't give us much reason for hope. Perhaps a better option is to say that most people's choices run the gamut from good to bad (or possibly just stupid), with some making very good, and some very bad, choices, but few actually sinking to the level of evil.

And I agree with you, RevRon, and you, Steve, that people seem to have the hardest time with those of us who can see grey as well as black and white. I would vote for Hillary Clinton--though I don't "like" her--because I think she would make a competent president, and for Ron Paul, because I agree with what he stands for; for Al Gore, and for Arnold Schwarzenegger. All four have something positive to offer this country, though they are very different people and speak from very different camps. I think it is more important to define what matters to you--to define your core values--than to define yourself in terms of knee-jerk affiliations.

Steve Salerno said...

Whooooooa, Nelly. Now wait just a goldang second here, dadgabbit! (I find myself in a Gabby Hayes frame of mind this morning.)

I'm not going to get back into the Helen Fisher thing, but I want to say as a general idea that there's a profound difference between raising a question/noting a problem and thinking you have the answer/solution. There is also a difference between one's visceral reaction to a problem and one's intellectual, more deliberate approach to "what should be done" about that problem--which means, more specifically, that there are many cases where I'm tempted to think I have the answer (and thus, where I'm more inclined to want to "defend" my position), but when I go back over it a second or third (or 58th) time, I realize that my answer is really rooted more in emotion than logic or evidence. I think almost any position can be defended or refuted. I do not believe there are too many (if any) objective truths. Also, we only know what we know at any given point in time, and we're stuck with viewing it (and reacting to it) as it affects our lives in this point and time. We don't know what the long-term impact of things that seem "very bad" to us, today, may be. That's why I said the thing about humility, and why I sometimes will only go so far in defending a position. (Politically and/or sociologically, for example, you will find some very, very intelligent people who work from the same data, yet end up on opposite sides of an issue. What does that tell us? Think about it--and don't give me a cynical answer about how "well, they take the position that they know will get them elected." Assume honesty and sincerity for the purpose of this exercise.)

Also, it depends on the mood you catch me in. ;)

RevRon's Rants said...

In online discussions, there are frequently participants who demand a specific response to their questions, and deem anything else to be a failure to respond. The desire for an "a-ha" or a "gotcha" moment overshadows the interest in comparing different perspectives.

I can't claim that I've never been such a participant, as I've been known to attempt to intellectually corner an "opponent," my own motivation being to get them to admit they're wrong. Such behavior quite honestly speaks more to my own issues than to the topic at hand. I generally do it when someone pisses me off, says something I consider stupid and destructive, or just generally rubs me the wrong way. Mea culpa.

RevRon's Rants said...

"We don't know what the long-term impact of things that seem "very bad" to us, today, may be."

Reminds me of one of my favorite Chinese poems:
The Wind and Rain Bring Love,
by Chang Wu-chien

I cursed the rain for beating upon my roof and driving away sleep.
I cursed the wind for ravaging my garden.

Then you came; and I gave thanks to the rain, because you must put off your wet dress.
And I gave thanks to the wind
That he came and blew out my lamp.

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Ron, for both comments here. You make the point I was trying to make with all my blathering, except you make it in a much more succinct and compelling manner. Especially in the poem. ;)