Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Somewhere, Luigi Pirandello is smiling.

Through the years I've met any number of people who were once liberals and, by the time I got to know them, were more likely to describe themselves as conservatives. This was quite noticeable during the Reagan era, and then happened again, overnight, around the time of 9/11. (Apropos of which, you've probably heard the old joke: "A conservative is a liberal who got mugged.") In more recent times, of course, I've known any number of people who were once conservatives and now are far more likely to vote Democrat. Me, for instance.

Both groups are wont to describe their respective journeys to wherever they are now as a "search for truth" and/or "progress" to a better, more intellectually and sociologically sound position.

But how can that be? How can two groups of highly functioning (or at least mentally competent) people, working from the same basic data, switch sides—and both events be "progress"?* (This also suggests, as I've said before, that it isn't the conscious mind that's calling the shots here but rather something deeper, more visceral.)

We always think that where we end up is somehow a wiser place than where we started out. In part, this is one of those observations that you might file under "duh." We think what we think
and we're stuck with it. So if you thought something on Monday, and now think something totally different on Friday, you no longer think what you thought on Monday, ipso facto. Your belief system has changed; your Friday thoughts are not only what you do think, but what you must think. It's really out of your hands...if you think about it. :)

But my own feeling is that it really comes down to the human need to validate whatever we think, feel and are at the moment. It is very difficult to believe something fervently while at the same time understanding that you could well be wrong. We need to feel that if we believe something, we're right about it; this often entails believing that if we were passionate about so-and-so on Monday, and now we're passionate about an opposing belief on Friday, well, we've realized the error of our ways, and we're happy and proud that at least we got it right in the end. You don't meet too many people who'll tell you, "Yeah, I used to support John McCain, but now I'm 100 percent behind Obama, but I'm wrong about that. I should still be supporting McCain." That doesn't make sense...or even sound sane. Yet it could easily be true (assuming there is such a thing as ultimate objective truth—not that we humans will ever know it).

Another part of this syndrome is that when we encounter people who think the way we once did, we often feel compelled to "educate" them; you know, to bring them to the same higher plane we now occupy. "I was just like you, once," we'll say smugly, not realizing that maybe they were just like us, too. This is one more excellent reason for promoting humility in disagreement.

We think that age figures in all this as well. We assume that if we saw life a given way at 20, and now we see life in a wholly different way at 40, we've "matured." We have "gained the knowledge and wisdom of experience." First of all, as suggested above, that surely can't be true in a political sense. If Joe, a raving liberal when he's attending college, gradually morphs into a staunch right-winger at age 40, while Jill, a staunch right-winger in college, becomes a liberal by 40, they can't both have "matured" into their current belief systems. Can they? But even in the broader sense of personal development, I'm not sure that the traits we identify with maturity are necessarily that (if we're using the word maturity as a positive). Sometimes we just give into (or, less charitably, get beaten down by) life. We concede defeat or sell out. A young man may have a hair-trigger temper in defense of his ideals; he may be willing to burn bridges, to put everything on the line. Later in life he becomes calmer and more conciliatory, and we'll say he's "grown up," as if that's inherently a good thing. Me, I'm not convinced. There's something to be said for the willingness to go to the mat, to risk it all. We tend to risk less and less as we get older, which sometimes strikes me as Prufrockian and sad.

By the way, this phenomenon isn't limited to matters of opinion. As the ever-changing news from the world of medical science suggests, facts are malleable and evolutionary, too. Think about what they've told us about caffeine, chocolate, wine, eggs. They're bad for you, they're good for you, they're bad for you again, they're good for you again, they're not as bad as we first thought, they're not as good as you've been led to believe.... Each time this happens, they tell us they've got it right this time. Of course, in the case of testable health-care matters, I don't expect this ambiguity to go on forever. As medical science lurches forward, such that the samples become larger and the technological methodology more accurate, we should edge closer to permanent, reliable truths, as we already appear to have done in a number of health-related realms; I don't think we'll be seeing a press release from the AMA headlined, "New Research Shows That Smoking Actually Cures Cancer." And yet even there, realize that medical science traditionally has been premised on the pursuit of longevity for its own sake. If it could be demonstrated that, yes, smokers as a class die 10 to 15 years sooner than non-smokers
but they also place much higher on the "subjective well-being"** scale while they're alive...? I don't know. Who's "right" then? I think a lot of people would take that deal.

At least while they're still young. They might want to renegotiate as they move into the death zone.

Oh, about the title. Pirandello was a playwright and author who tackled many topics related to the nature of identity and the individual's relationship with the external world; he is loosely lumped together with the existentialists. Among his works was the play, Right You Are...if You Think So.

* unless one takes the omnipotent, highly judgmental point of view that only a certain belief system represents true “highly evolved” thinking.
** That is the phrase that folks in the formal mental-health arts use in discussing what you and I call happiness.


Dimension Skipper said...

I just put a comment on the hip-ocracy post where (as I mention there) I was getting bogged down in all sorts of tangents and ended up just discarding much of it. Now I read this post and it's amazing how much of it aligns with what I was trying to express there. It's the sort thing that I could whirl round and round just in my own brain for days on end if I wanted to go down that road. But I really don't.

I just want to say that more and more (or maybe it was just an illusion of the election season) it seems to me like I encounter (or hear, or read) so many people who apparently think they have life figured out, that there are simple basic answers, and they are convinced that their views are so obviously the right ones. And yet more and more I seem to be finding myself becoming less sure of so many things, maybe even to the point of being somewhat jealous of those assured people. After all even if they're wrong (if right and wrong can even potentially be determined), they are (outwardly, at least) confident and highly functional, very possibly because of their self-assurance at being right.

It's very much like some people I know who seem* to have a deep abiding faith in their particular religion/God. They may be right or they may be wrong, but I imagine it must be wonderfully freeing simply to have reached the point of such acceptance/confidence of the rightness of the premise that you can then tend to other more mundane life issues more easily.

Being an independent voter I could also make the same statement about Democratic vs. Republican ideals. There's just something about my brain that tends to make me want to try to see both (or all) sides of an issue. There's times that's a good thing, of course, but times when it seems to be just as much a bad thing.

* Maybe they're not really so confident and self-assured, but some people sure seem to be and I do envy that at times.

Elizabeth said...

Me, I'm not convinced. There's something to be said for the willingness to go to the mat, to risk it all. We tend to risk less and less as we get older, which sometimes strikes me as Prufrockian and sad.

Hm, yes. But what's the all that one -- or you -- would be willing to risk?

Cosmic Connie said...

Another good post, Steve. I'm reminded once again of my own vacillations over the years. When, for example, I discovered feminism as a teenager, I really got into it, and I saw sexism around every corner. That got old. I never went to the other extreme and became anti-feminist, but let's just say I've tempered my opinions a lot since those early days.

But the changes that I think have engaged me the most during my adult life are my vacillations between various forms of belief and skepticism regarding New-Age/New-Wage matters. At one time I was really into New-Age/self-help/recovery, which was refreshing to me after years of being a smug, agnostic intellectual. Gradually I became annoyed and then disgusted with many aspects of the New-Wage/selfish-help subculture, and was more than ready to embrace skepticism when I discovered it. I probably became a little obnoxiously skeptical, but over the years I've tempered that quite a bit. Nowadays, although I still probably weigh in more on the "skeptics" side, I've retained enough of my old longing for the mystical that I still have to consider myself a fence-sitter of sorts (albeit a snarky one).

Is this progress? Is the view really clearer from "up here" on the fence, or am I just afraid to make a commitment? I'm still trying to find a balance. I wrote a piece about it a couple of years ago:

Over the years, I've changed my mind many times about many things, and I don't feel any wiser today than I ever did. The depth and breadth of my ignorance sometimes appall me. (As the saying goes, "the more you know, the more you know you don't know.")

Curiously enough, however, my discovery and acceptance of my own relative ignorance has made me a little bit smug.

I guess I'm going to have to work on that.

Steve Salerno said...

DS et al: I think Connie offers the key takeaway here in that one phrase from her comment, which my father told to me in slightly different form: The more I learn, the less I realize I know.

Eliz: When I was a younger man I had a very bad temper and, in my wilder moments, was willing to "risk it all." (Maybe I should say I don't know how "willing" I was, but I constantly put myself in situations where risking it all was a too-real possibility.) Certainly, even as an older, supposedly wiser man, I have self-destructed any number of times in 9-to-5 settings by being pig-headed and--I'm told--arrogant. Which is why I have concluded that a 9-to-5 setting is a place that I should never, ever be.

My youngest son has shown a willingness throughout his life to quite literally risk it all, by doing things like starting fights with six black gang members in jail. I would say he is of the belief that there is nothing so valuable in life as a man's pride, and his concomitant refusal to back down. Fortunately nowadays he's seldom in situations where he's forced to put that belief on the line.

RevRon's Rants said...

When we were younger, and untouched and unschooled in the harsher (and more mundane) realities of life, we were all about passion. Unbridled, demanding its freedom to run its course in search of truth, justice, and getting ourselves laid and loved.

I think as we gathered more and more experiences, that passion became weighted somewhat by discretion, and our objectives began to shift from exhilaration to comfort. And for some, the passion dissolves completely, replaced by routines and all the minutiae that both support and are dependent upon those routines. Our priorities shift to and fro as we go through ideological cycles, yet I do think that somewhere deep inside, we tend to cling to the same basic hope we felt when our passion was all we knew. And sometimes, we rage (or weep) at what we perceive as the death of that passion.

Just as in the sciences, as we learn more, we discover details that had eluded us in the past, and are forced to re-think our previous conclusions. That's not to say we're necessarily more "right" than we were before; only that we've discovered broader realms of rightness and wrongness. If we find ourselves patting ourselves on the back for our greater insight and wisdom, it probably means we've stepped off the train of progress. And if we put our energy into belittling others for their obviously misguided ideas, I can't help but believe that we're really acting out of a fear that our own "wisdom" isn't quite as profound as we'd like to think.

Perhaps the "balance" I tell myself I seek is really a nonexistent state; merely the transient waypoint between passion and comfort. Then again, maybe I'm just full of it. For now, anyway...

Stever Robbins said...

This election cycle, several of my Republican friends have been explaining to me that Obama is going to revoke the constitution, declare martial law, and sell us into slavery. (Yes, literally, they've said this.)

I've been challenging folks: if you believe something will happen, write it down. In two years, we'll review your list (and mine, for that matter) and see if it was right.

If it was, or if it wasn't, we will examine which assumptions you were making, which data sources you were using, and which logic you were binding it all together with. Then we'll try to improve your decision making process so next time, you make a higher-quality decision.

That is my definition of how one grows over time.

I did this in 2000 after looking at Bush's history when he had budgetary responsibility, death penalty appeal review, etc.

My doomsday predictions turned out wrong. I vastly underestimated the death toll from the wars I thought he'd start, the size of the deficits he would run up, and the income gap he would produce with so-called "trickle down economics" (which is not the name of an economic theory; it's a PR term invented in the mid-80s to justify a policy of tax cuts favoring the wealthy. Paul Krugman documented it all in Peddling Prosperity, written in the early 1990s).

With Obama, my jury is out. I strongly suspect he'll be unable to take the decisive, strong actions I believe the country needs. Even if he will do it (and I think he's too centrist to do anything bold), it's hard to imagine Congress being willing to endorse bold steps.

Anonymous said...

There are things I know and I have no problem with that. I am not going to say at my age I am stupid and ignorant, because that is a lie. I have no problem changing my mind, but leave me alone to do it and let me be who I am. My biggest problem is when a person does not accept my opinion or view on an issue and tries to change me in the process. That is beyond insulting and quite vulgar.

I am an Independent voter and I know what that means to be one. It is not because I am stupid or clueless about issues. I do not like political parties and groups. I think they bring out the worse in people, when it comes to politics. I fall between liberal and conservative. It all depends on the issue. Yet how many times has some right or left yahoo tried to change me and insult me in the process? Why can't we let people be who they are? If they are not hurting you, why not leave them alone? Maybe they know themselves better than you know them? Just a thought.

Yekaterina said...

Loved the post!

Sure I've "grown" over the years. Can't say that this growth has made me a better (or happier) person though. And just to be clear, I was a fearful wimp who grew into a go to the mat and risk everything person. Would I change back? Not on your life! Still, I can't say with any certainty whatsoever that the change was a step in the right direction.

P.S. Word verification was canvi, which means change in catalan (I live in Catalunya) second word verification is kalma...calma means calm in Spanish. Hmmm...someone trying to tell me something here?

Liesl said...

DS: (If I may call you that in my newness here)

I think those confident people, the ones who are sure of their beliefs are the most unhappy. They know on some level that they are human and cannot have perfect knowledge, so doubt must creep in. Imagine constantly having to batten down the hatches against new information and new feelings that probably contradict what you think you know. No wonder those people also tend to be judgmental assholes!

Elizabeth said...

It seems to me, Steve, that part of what you describe as the willingness to risk it all earlier in your life, as well as in your son's, has to do with the BYIMS (Being a Young Italian Male Syndrome :).

When you are young -- and male, especially (not to mention Italian, and no prejudice intended*, btw) -- it seems that life does not have much value to you, there are much more important matters for which you're willing to risk it all ("all" being "only" your and/or others' life).

But as we age, we understand better, I think, how fragile, unique and irreplaceable life is, so we are less cavalier about giving it away. And as we age, we have more things to lose, apart from life itself -- our family and our relationships in general, for one (and the most important one, too). It's no longer just your own life to sacrifice or throw away.

So that brings me to my nagging question: at what point does that willingness to risk it all become less of a courageous stand of principle (as it may be) and more of the incorrigible pig-headedness you mention? Or is our willingness to risk it all, especially when we are older and indeed have so much more to lose, ever a sign of courage at all -- or perhaps it is just an expression of our selfishness and unwillingness to compromise?

*As if one ever intended prejudice, LOL. But I hope you know what I mean.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: But see, once again, you're giving me the well-mannered, chai tea, 21st Century take on all this. We sometimes forget that this nation was founded by men (and the remarkable women who supported them) who manifestly believed that some things (notably freedom) are worth dying for. Let me put that another way: The Fathers of the American Revolution believed that there are worse things than dying, per se--as embodied in that seminal rallying cry, "Give me liberty...or give me death." It's true that one can easily get carried away in that regard, applying the same anthem to situations that seem way too small to be framed in terms of life and death, defending one's honor at all times and at all costs; I am mindful of the Latino gang members in nearby Allentown who kill each other over careless slights and the wearing of the wrong colors in the wrong places. And it saddens me, to think of the waste, the shattered families left behind.

And yet I say again (as I've said so many times): Who gets to make those calls for everyone else?

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: Incidentally, though my father did have many stereotypically male traits, he was not, by any means, macho in the rugged sense. He was a more cerebral type of man, quiet and thoughtful and--I realize this more and more as I reflect on things--very sensitive. I was much the same as a boy and teen; you never would've imagined that I was Italian. I sat in my room, reading encyclopedias, practicing my music and writing poetry, and I was far more disposed to tears than fisticuffs. Somehow, I managed even to avoid having a Brooklyn accent. I think I always sounded pretty much like a generic, waspy newscaster.

The bravado and--really--borderline violent nature only kicked in some years later, after I went to college and (for whatever reason) underwent an almost wholesale personality metamorphosis in the span of about two years. I'd be a lifetime project for a shrink. ;)

Rational Thinking said...

Really got me thinking with this - your article, Steve, and the comments too. I think mainly it's about validation. If there's one thing that most people want, I'd say it is to be right. To be right, and to have others agree that we're right. In a way, until others agree we're right, we're not entirely sure we're right! And for us to be right, others are wrong. Getting to a point where we accept that others can hold opposing views and still we can get along with them, is one hallmark of wisdom, I'd say. Early in life the desire for acceptance is possibly stronger than it is as we grow older. The herd mentality is there - we humans tend to be pack animals - but once we build our own little family pack, perhaps we find it safer to be more discriminating in our acceptance of the norms we had previously swallowed whole.

Being prepared to think and re-think previously automatically-adopted positions is surely an attribute of wisdom. Being open minded, but - and this is the kicker - not so open-minded that our brains fall out!

Steve Salerno said...

RT (et al): Here's a question--or maybe more of a thought--I would pose to anyone who has embraced a fixed position on anything. You do realize, don't you, that once you take a decisive stand, you're incapable of evaluating the merits of that position objectively?

Rational Thinking said...

There was an interesting study done last year which appears to confirm that we are all biased one way or another. Some of our bias is conscious, which we can tackle - if we're so inclined - but some of it is unconscious. I'm beginning to wonder whether an objective viewpoint is even attainable.

Dimension Skipper said...

Liesl... Yes, I've wondered about that at times too. But it doesn't generally show in them and I can't know, so who knows, yanno?


Apropos of nothing (or everything?)... My mechanic many years ago once said to me something very, very profound and I'd like to take this opportunity to share it with everyone now. He said:

"Yanno, ya never know, yanno."

I think that should be a quote of the day. Couldn't have said it better myself and I've never forgotten that wisdom nugget.

WV: gulti... What judgmental dylsexics feel.

Dimension Skipper said...

A serious P.S. here if I may...

I just wanted to take a moment to say, Steve, that yes, you really do get us thinking. And most of the commenters around here do as well.

Thank you for that!

I'm glad I found this place a few months back. So I guess I can say that, personally, at least one good thing came out of the election season. (...Even though I found this blog via Google searching on something so completely NOT election-related. And I'm really not normally very political-minded, at least not in the all too common us-vs-them way anyway.)

Elizabeth said...

Steve (with mild exasperation) -- what's the chai tea that I'm serving "once again"? (No, seriously, I don't even know what that means, other than it's not good, no?)

And, OK, scrap the Italian part, fair enough. However, sensitivity and thoughtfulness notwithstanding, I have yet to meet a young man who would value his life more than his ideals (or his ego masquerading as ideals, as it may be). Such is my experience.

So back to my (very serious) question: how do we know -- how can we tell -- when it's not ideals anymore (if it ever were) that makes us want to risk it all, but just our selfishness posing as such? Or does it not matter?

Steve Salerno said...

DS, look, I'm just glad there is an "us." Readership has grown substantially in recent months; we've managed to keep a fair number of the people who came here during political season, and the recent articles in the Journal and elsewhere have helped, too. There's more fairly ambitious stuff upcoming in Playboy and Skeptic (and how's that for a quirky mix?), so we'll see what the future brings.

But trust me on one thing: I have no illusions about the fact that anyone would stay with the blog if it were just me doing the talking. What makes this work is the "community of ideas" that underlies it. Everybody brings something valuable to the table--and I think we've finally reached the point (though I hate to jinx it) where we can disagree emphatically and yet do so without wholesale character assassination.

Elizabeth said...

OK, Steve, you are far too modest. Honestly. It is your blog -- your posts, your talking -- that draws people here again and again. And as anyone who has a (conversational) blog, or has contemplated one, knows, it's not an easy thing to keep it up providing consistently thoughtful and entertaining content.

Of course it helps that you have some marvelous people coming back to comment (I hear that God herself has stopped by ;), but if your blog were not so good, the commenters would not be here (I hope this is grammatically correct... I'm in a hurry!)

So yes, take the credit already, will ya? ;)

WV: omsister... LOL

Elizabeth said...

P.S. That's not to discount the 'community of ideas' that you mention, Steve, to be sure. I too look forward to reading what the regulars and newcomers here have to say. And, dare I say, I've grown fond of "us." :)

OK, now back to our previously scheduled arguments... er, conversations. ;)

P.S. DS, yanno, sometimes ya just dunno... :)

Jen said...

Steve, you wrote: "Here's a question--or maybe more of a thought--I would pose to anyone who has embraced a fixed position on anything. You do realize, don't you, that once you take a decisive stand, you're incapable of evaluating the merits of that position objectively?"

I think a decision has a lifespan that ends at the time another decision begins. My mother told me that, or something like that. She was quoting one of the surgeons who operated on my father. Wish I could remember the exact quote. He didn't use the word "lifespan," though. I chose that to illustrate his point that a decision is only good until it is time to make another one. That is a little closer to what he actually said.

In any case, the thought of embracing a fixed position is sort of amusing!

Is nice to come back to your blog after staying away for awhile.

Happy New Year, Steve!

Steve Salerno said...

Jen: Did we depress you so much that you needed a break? ;)

I think that whole decision thing is more of a continuum--I don't see the moments as being quite so defined as your Mom seemingly does/did. But then I'm a determinist anyway, so what the hell difference does it make?

Anyway, glad to have you back. Even if you're just here for the day.

Jen said...

Did you all depress me? Heavens no! I came back because I needed cheering up. Good decision, no?

Thanks for still being here. :)

Elizabeth said...

Good decision, no?

Always, Jen.;) We does our melancholy/ruminative/combative bestest, y'know. And then some.

Good to see you again. Hope the exam went well. Nice new pic, btw.

Liesl said...

Steve: "...that once you take a decisive stand, you're incapable of evaluating the merits of that position objectively?"

That depends on what you're idea of a decision is. If you decide that rape is categorically wrong does that mean you cannot ever admit new evidence? I know that one is a hard nut to swallow, but if it's true that our knowledge is ever changing, how can we understand a decision as something that is final? Even if you get in your car to go to Starbucks, you don't actually go there until you do. So, the finality of it only exists after it is finished (dur) and in no way exists in the process. That would make a decision something that is fluid and changeable until it no longer exists.

Good lord, I hope this makes sense to others. Don't you just love it when a wordy, full of herself philosophy professor finds your blog??

A Skeptic Mag article? I swoon.

DS: Yanno, that is profound, indeed! Or, so say I, categorically, for now.

Steve Salerno said...

Liesl: This is actually my second long piece for Skeptic, the other one being on the foibles of latter-day journalism, which ran some months back and generated quite a bit of reader mail etc.; it should be findable on the site (or though this blog) if you're of such a mind, and it looks at journalism in a quasi-metaphysical way...ergo, a full-of-herself philosophy prof might even enjoy it. I've now got a third one in the works, on the criminal-justice system. Or maybe it'd be more accurate to leave out the hyphen.

Actually I agree with you about the nature of decisions, on a theoretical plane. If one takes a deterministic lens on life, as I do, everything is evolutionary, and there's really no such thing as a discrete moment known as a "decision," per se. However, speaking in common usage, I think most people who form decisions on major issues are fairly inflexible. The fact that they're "married" to their feelings, as it were, prevents them receiving new evidence objectively. Their knee-jerk response is going to be, "No, no, this can't be true, because if this is true, then I'm wrong, and I can't be wrong. Especially given all the time I devoted to getting where I am now."

RevRon's Rants said...

"If you decide that rape is categorically wrong does that mean you cannot ever admit new evidence?"

I don't think so. I doubt you'd get many people (other than sociopaths or psychotics) to disagree that rape is wrong. It is. However, there is - and will likely always be - heated debate as to what actually constitutes a rape.

To wit, take the case of a 17 year old male who is convicted (as an adult) of rape for having "consensual" sex with his 15 year old girlfriend (who actually initiated the interlude, I might add). I'd be willing to bet that the young woman more closely fit the definition of an adult than did her boyfriend, yet she was successfully portrayed as the victim. There was even one case where the girl initiated oral sex, and the boy (again, she was 15 and he, 17) was convicted of rape and sent to prison. In my perspective, neither case constituted rape, and the resulting legal actions caused significantly more damage than did the initial acts.

Having been raised by a strong southern woman, I still carry the "chivalry gene," and am admittedly more prone to come to the defense of a woman than a man. But that tendency must be tempered by a willingness to look at context, rather than judge a situation in terms of black vs white.

My own virginity was taken at 12 by one of my sister's 16 year old friends. Somehow, I can't find any evidence of being emotionally scarred as a result. On the contrary, it was probably one instance that didn't contribute to the pathology that has defined my adult life. :-)

Bottom line: There are some things to which a clear-cut judgment is applicable, such as rape. But we need to be careful about making the umbrella too wide in defining what constitutes a rape.8791

Liesl said...

Steve: I, too, am a determinist, but only after years of attempting to deny it. Actually, I am only convinced of it after more and more brain studies show the truth of it and I can no longer hide my head in the existential sand. Funny story: The Godson of a presidential candidate from Texas (not naming names but his name might rhyme with "long haul") took both my intro and ethics classes. When we studied determinism he was, well, determined to find an argument against it. He left class, drove to Houston for the weekend and thought about it all the way there, 4 hours or so, and all the way back. He got back to class on Monday so excited to tell us all about this slam dunk argument against determinism. He set it up, told us how long he had worked on it then laid it out. With 5 words or so, I had to crush his spirit and destroy his argument. Poor kid looked like I had killed his grandmother! But he's a good egg and took it in stride.

I agree with you, of course, about the way people marry themselves to their ideas. Hey, I am a liberal living in Dallas, the future home of dubya and his library.

RevRon: I also agree with you. I have yet to think of a situation where rape is even slightly justified, but I also have to force myself to admit that I have imperfect knowledge.

OK, another anecdote: I had one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" in my ethics class a couple of years ago. He had been forced into combat as a child after he had made the horrible trek across Sudan, twice. I was using the example of the beating of a child to demonstrate an absolute principle, something I thought was a slam dunk like my determined student above. The student in my ethics class objected and told us that if a child in his group was acting up, refusing to do as his captors commanded, he could get them all killed by their captors or worse, tortured. He justified the beating of this child, perhaps even the killing of him, to save the rest of the children. While I would like to think that even in that situation it is wrong, I know that practically speaking, idealism only gets you so far in life. So, I have to wonder if someone will ever present a scenario to me that indicates a justifiable sexual assault. I can't conceive of one and don't truly believe one exists, but don't I owe it to my imperfections to admit that I do not know for certain that it is absolute? As repugnant as that idea is, and it is utterly repugnant, I wonder if it's possible to state it categorically since it is still a value judgment. *shudder*

RevRon's Rants said...

"Actually, I am only convinced of it after more and more brain studies show the truth of it and I can no longer hide my head in the existential sand."

Gentle reminder: One person's "truth" may well be another's lie; ultimately, we speak of our *perception* or *understanding* of truth, which is subjective, rather than absolute. If only for that reason, disagreement with another's perspective does not necessarily constitute "hiding one's head in the existential sand." Steve & I have gone 'round and 'round on the determinism subject, and I think we each came to the conclusion that while the other was wrong, we recognize that the possibility exists that they aren't. We each "see" through our own individual filters.

Jen said...

Liesl wrote: "Hey, I am a liberal living in Dallas, the future home of dubya and his library."

Girl, we need to talk. I live in Garland!

Liz, it's great to see you again, too. I postponed the exam until winter session. The class starts next week. This is going to be an interesting year.

Steve, I've spent a few hours sitting here (compulsively?) reading your latest postings. I can only say "wow" at your energy, keeping up with this blog plus your writing jobs.

One thing that comes to mind about the whole addiction versus character flaw saga is the notion of "process addiction," which is defined as "addiction to certain mood-altering behaviors, such as eating disorders, gambling, sexual activity, overwork, and shopping," basically, things that are not physical addictions. I have an active process addiction to reading blogs. But could it also be said that friendship is a type of process addiction? We need our friends and are compulsively drawn toward them. It's something I've been thinking about lately, how relationships affect us.

Steve Salerno said...

Jen: You best be careful here, girl. You may be accused of deep thought, which is always damaging in conversations that try to pigeonhole complex phenomena into neat little corners.

Elizabeth said...

Jen, congrats on your decision to postpone the exam. I always believe it the wisdom of the old adage, Don't do today what you can do tomorrow. (Or the day after. Or after.)

Good questions on friendship and other life necessities as possible addictions. Really. That's the thing with those process addictions, as Steve provocatively put it forth in his post: either everything is -- or nothing. (Which may not be entirely true, of course, but what a can of worm to open!)

Blogs (some of them, at least;) can be addictive -- but is it friendships (if one can call it such) that we are after, or the distractions from the realities of life? Or a bit (or a lot) of both, perhaps?

Compulsive blog usage would easily fall under the Internet addiction, I imagine (not that I would know anything about this first-hand, mind you).

And as luck would have it, I got this ad for a workshop in the mail today from the Academy of Addictions Treatment Professionals (I'm not one of them, but I do get their ads) that says the following:

As we continue to focus on the treatment of chemical addiction, such as alcohol, meth, cocaine and heroin, process addictions are on the rise. This workshop will focus on the assessment and treatment of a number of process addictions including: sex, religion, spending, shopping, money, workaholism, and cyberspace addiction.

This is followed by a list of specific topics to be discussed during the workshop, including the addictive personality, how society fosters addictions, the link between shame and process addictions, relapse and prevention, etc.

The guy who runs the workshop is "a dedicated helping professional who continues to inspire us with his energy, warmth and humor. (His) most recent seminar (...) is on Anti-Social Personality Disorder (...)."

I gotta say I'm a bit confused as to why "spending, shopping, money" are listed as separate addictions (though "money," as in compulsive money-making, etc. I can understand, I suppose); but anyone who does Anti-Social Personality Disorder with "warmth and humor," not to mention inspiration, deserves brownie points from me.

Yekaterina said...

Re: rape. I'd have no problem if the punishment for rape was in turn to be raped. (I'm talking of violent and brutal rapists here, not the 19 year old guy having sex with his 15 year old girlfiend.)

Steve Salerno said...

Yekat: I know what you mean, but it strikes me as a strange way of putting it. I assume you support the idea of having no rape in the first place, right? ;)

As to parenthetical comment, I have a number of problems with the current system insofar as its interpretation and rulings with respect to the more "gray area" types of rape--e.g. date rape and statutory rape. Not to open a whole can of worms about this, but I'm with Bill Maher, for example, in the argument that most of the time--unless you can truly prove some egregious circumstances--it isn't any kind of rape, statutory or otherwise, when an older female teacher has sex with a younger male student. I don't know precisely what it is, and I suppose it should be discouraged...but it isn't rape.

Is that a double standard? (I still believe in the enforcement of laws the other way around, at least between teachers and students. Not sure how I feel about ordinary relationships that just "evolve naturally" between, say, a 23-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl.) Yes, it is. Because--as Maher pointedly puts it--"it's two different things!"

Elizabeth said...

Because--as Maher pointedly puts it--"it's two different things!"

It is, what can I say...

Elizabeth said...

This I gotta comment on, 'cuz it strikes such a familiar chord:

I sat in my room, reading encyclopedias, practicing my music and writing poetry, and I was far more disposed to tears than fisticuffs.

You sure you are not describing my childhood? To a T! :)

Yes, reading encyclopedias and dictionaries, with all the excitement and trepidation it entailed. Music came later, with piano lessons for which I begged my parents (and they, bless their hearts, scrimped to give me), and it sustained me for years. And, oh, I started my first novel at 7, but of course never finished it (a sign of things to come :).

Can't say I had a belligerent macho period in my young adulthood, though I had a unique (or maybe not so much...) share of challenges at that time too. (But who doesn't?)

And as to your last sentence there:

I'd be a lifetime project for a shrink.

Well, maybe. But isn't it true of each one and all of us? :)

Yekaterina said...

I'm a strange gal Steve, what can I long as I'm understood.

And yes, I support Utopia wholeheartedly.

Yekaterina said...

I agree that what is called rape nowadays, consensual sex between two youngters (and yes, a twenty-three year old guy is still a youngster in my eyes) is anything but rape, but I don't get why you think it's okay for a female teacher to have sex with an underage male student but not for a male teacher to have sex with an underage female student. Why the, as you called it, double standard?
Personally, I don't think either the male or the female teacher should go to prison (as long is the child is past the age of consent) but they should both be fired from their jobs.

Steve Salerno said...

Yekat: I know this is going to sound terrible and sexist, especially in capsule form, but again I fall back on the wisdom of Bill Maher, who basically said--of the idea of being "raped" by, say, Debra Lafave--" 'Traumatized'? Are you kidding me?! It'll be the pinnacle of the kid's sexual career! He'll be bragging about it for the rest of his life!" I'm sorry, but I just don't think that it does any harm when a female teacher has sex with a male student. Whereas I think the other way around--especially when you consider the idea that where women are concerned, the loss of virginity is tangible--it's a different story.

In short, a girl may well come away from such an encounter thinking, "My God, I was abused. I was victimized." Whereas a boy is more inclined to think, "Abuse me, baby! Victimize me again soon! And do it twice, next time!"

Now if I'm way off base here in any deep-seated psychological sense, someone should enlighten me. But please don't enlighten me on the basis of some imperative that has its roots in social engineering.

Yekaterina said...

I meant to write "as long as the student is past a reasonable age and able to consent." Any teacher (any adult for that matter) having sex with a twelve year old should go to jail.

Steve Salerno said...

But bear in mind--you're getting this from a guy who once told his employees that it was OK if they had sex in their offices during lunch, as long as they were reasonably quiet about it. My basic attitude towards sexuality has always been, if no one's being hurt, butt out. No pun intended.

Elizabeth said...

Check this out:

Obsessed (female) teacher raped student

Also see this -- a (long) list of female teachers sexually abusing their students (prepare to be shocked -- I think...):

Anonymous said...

'Now if I'm way off base here in any deep-seated psychological sense, someone should enlighten me.'

It's generally accepted that the sexual act itself is not necessarily damaging in the cases you describe--what is considered damaging is the abuse of power. The female teacher is in a privileged position of authority, she is essentially shaping the minds of her charges. When she shapes/manipulates these vulnerable minds purely to use her charges for her own sexual gratification that is a deeply damaging interaction.

Incidently, most paedophile apologists claim that the very young children that they manipulate and use for their own gratification also initiate the contact.
What they fail to report is the intensive grooming process which precedes this--the paedophile manipulates the young child's naivete, lack of power and lack of knowledge to teach the child to accomodate to the paedophiles wishes. This is what creates the appalling, lifetime damage on a young psyche, not necessarily the bare act.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 6:18. Fair enough...I think. I still say that your response begs the question, and I'm made somewhat more confident in that intuition by your use of terms like "abuse of power." That strikes as more of a social construct, rather than a provable fact. How is it abusing one's power if both parties benefit? Explain that to me. I can understand, more, the situation you describe with pedophilia, especially in the context of, say, a male-on-male setting in the Catholic Church, IF (a) the person being "made" to have sex is not naturally homosexual, and/or (b) the person being "made" to have sex is quite young (and don't ask me to specify an age, because I can't. I'm not sure anyone can).

Look. If we can assume that boys, in their natural state, pretty much want to nail everything that walks by from the age of puberty on, I don't know why this is "abuse." I honestly don't. Now, when you talk about "grooming," and the psychological manipulation that occurs, long-term, prior to The Act, that might be another story. But if it's a basic matter of saying, "Hey, Josh, I think you're really cute. Want some extra help with math later? [wink]," then--seriously--who's being hurt? Josh has probably been fantasizing about doing exactly that since the school year began.

Anonymous said...

"How is it abusing one's power if both parties benefit?"

Imagine that a horny mother has sex with her horny teenage son. Both parties "benefit," yet it is an abuse of power and a profound betrayal of trust.

Anonymous said...

Steve, it may help you to consider your son being seduced at a young age (14?) by his teacher. Would you be OK with that?

Steve Salerno said...

As to the example of incest: If the kid wants to have sex, the kid wants to have sex. Again, I'm not sure that "betrayal of trust" and "abuse of power" aren't social constructs.

Bringing up my son throws us into the realm of the personal and anecdotal. (It's in the same category as the death penalty supporters who scream, "Oh yeah? Well wait till somebody in your family is murdered, and then talk to me!") But since you asked, he happens to be a bad example, as he was openly coveting his teachers at 14. Besides, I'm not sure it's up to me to be "OK with that." This gets into a whole litany of laws that are designed to control sex and sexuality.

But let me add as a disclaimer that these topics are way too complex to be treated via comments and quips. So please don't take one or two lines that I write and draw any huge global assumptions about me.

Liesl said...

Jen: Cool! I think I remember reading that you're in school; undergrad or grad?