Thursday, December 22, 2016

For Christmas: the gift of perspective. On glass houses.

I posted a shorter version of this item some years back, when SHAMblog was still very much "a thing," and the reception was not warm. Apart from criticism in the comment section here, I received wide-eyed emails (now there's a visual) from the colleagues in writing and editing I then had. People accused me of moral relativism, which I found odd and ironic (and telling, since that is exactly the phenomenon I'm targeting in this post: the moral certitude so many of us feel in acting holier-than-thou, in launching stones from our own glass houses). I ask you to read this and think about how it applies in your own life. We can argue about the danger of the implications of this school of thought...but...dangerous or not, I don't think I'm wrong.
A vignette. I know any number of people who drive fast on the highway. (Sounds vaguely Rain Man-esque, no?) These people appear to have an inner clock about how fast is "just right," and they expect to be able to drive at that speed without being impeded by motorists cruising at, say, the speed limit. Regardless of traffic conditions. Take my wife, for example. (Please.) Her comfort zone is somewhere between 75 and 80. So she'll come up on a car doing 68 in the left lane and begin to display annoyance. She'll grumble through the windshield at the woman in front of us: "Why are you in the left lane? If you're going to go that speed, move over, lady!" So eventually "the lady" moves over, and my wife proceeds along at 78. Then, a few minutes later, someone comes up on my wife's tail, and now she's annoyed about that. This time she's talking into the rear-view mirror: "What, 80 isn't fast enough for you, buddy? Get off my tail." Sometimes, at her passive-aggressive best, she'll slow down (or even briefly brake-check) her tailgater. One time she slowed down so much that we ended up getting passed on the right by a motorist she'd coaxed out of the left lane moments earlier.

With that in mind, here's a funny postscript that goes back some years. My father was a tailgater, too. One time we were zooming along in the left lane on Brooklyn's notorious Belt Parkway until we found our progress blocked by an old Dodge ambling along at 50 or so. Dad gave the guy his brights a few times then passed him on the right and, noticing a SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT sign ahead, honked his horn to get the Dodge driver's attention, pointed to the sign and yelled its instructions out the window. We then zoomed past him. A mile or so farther on, traffic crawled to a halt due to construction. Suddenly the Dodge was again alongside us. Now it was his turn to honk. He got my father's attention, pointed to a different sign on the highway shoulder and yelled its instructions: SPEED LIMIT, 55. I thought that was damned clever, though Dad did not concur
There's a point here, and it's not just about driving. 
If there’s a single human trait that bemuses and at times enrages me more than any other, it is the tendency to rationalize and excuse whatever degree of larceny or sinfulness we find in our own hearts, while pointing an accusing finger at someone else whose own degree of larceny or sinfulness extends a hair beyond our own, or merely differs from our own. We get comfortable with our personal foibles, or the degree of our personal foibles, despite being irate over the foibles of our neighbors. Thus people who break the law by driving 78 grow apoplectic over people who break the law by driving 83. But it hardly ends there.

The woman who's had an abortion will have all kinds of nasty things to say about another woman she knows who's had two abortions. Or the woman who has two children, then has an abortion next time around for matters of convenience, demands justice after a gang member accidentally kills one of her first two kids in a drive-by shooting.

The guy who overspends on an Audi costing $56,000 gets pissy about his neighbor's $98,000 Benz.  

The guy who enjoys farting around his girlfriend when he knows that she hates it gets irate over the guy who smacks his girlfriend now and then. 

The man who cheats on his taxes scorns the man who cheats on his wife. 

The woman who engages in an adulterous affair with a married man scorns the same married man who then cheats on her with someone else.

The president who sends troops off to die in some foreign land is "doing his job"…but vilifies the Mafia don who took matters into his own hands during a local turf war.

The boss who treats all of his employees in dehumanizing (but legal) fashion shakes his head and grows indignant reading the story of the (jovial, generally good-guy) boss who groped some of his female employees.

The bar bully who likes to pick on the weak thinks the Jerry Sanduskys of the world should all be shot. 

The black guy who hates white guys scorns the white guy who hates black guys. 

The man who hunts deer for sport condemns the man who hunts humans for sport. (Oh, that's not the same thing at all? Bill Maher, among others, would disagree.) 

The venal corporate executive who sacks his company feels no qualms about prosecuting the “young punk” who broke into his house to steal a stereo. 

The Pope who kept silent about the Nazi outrage during World War II now tells millions of Catholics how they need to take a stand against evil when they encounter it.

The U.S. politician who deplores the killing of innocents in Sandy Hook favors greater trade relations with nations that use children as slave labor in dangerous working conditions.

Really, who decides what’s worse than what? Is it worse to rape a woman—or shoot ten bison grazing peacefully in a field? To rob a bank? Or set fire to a puppy? Is it worse to tell a lie that you think is small (because you never see the end-term consequences that your lie sets in motion, which turn out to be catastrophic) or to kill one person without whom the world would be better off anyway (though the world may not know it at the time you kill him)? There is no way to know the answer to such questions. Certainly not here on earth. 

A man cheats on his wife, that’s immoral. A woman makes a man feel small every day of his life, treats him like a piece of furniture with a checkbook—and that’s "just marriage"? 

We also tend to discount sins of omission. The rich woman who wears a $2500 designer gown to a social event where she will be greeted like royalty has probably killed people in doing so—she just doesn’t know it. She could’ve worn a $200 gown and donated the rest to prevent African children from starving. Is what she did—wearing a pretty gown to a social event—better or worse than the crime of the impoverished inner-city husband who ends up beating an elderly woman for her purse, so that his pregnant wife can eat?

And as I've asked before—also inviting condemnation—is what Charlie Manson did worse than what the boys at Enron or Goldman did? Tell me why.

I've tagged this "hypocrisy," but that's not the deepest explanation for what's going on here. We label it hypocrisy only when the sins are analogous—when, say, you point fingers at someone else who got caught doing the same thing you’ve been doing in secret. But we somehow manage to avoid seeing the parallels between the things we do and the different things others do. We see it as apples-and-oranges, when in fact it's apples-and-apples at the core (ahem). We excuse the code by which we live, the Faustian bargains we make, while excoriating others for their codes and compromises. In truth, all sins are analogous and to some degree created equal. We each have degrees of sin we can live with, within ourselves. We each have our own mostly hard-wired capacity to avoid sinning, or certain types of sinning. This is especially the case if one views life through a deterministic lens, as I do. 

The first time I posted something like this, one of my critics accused me of doing the devil's handiwork...I was attempting to undermine the (high) standards by which we all should live (which of course just happened to coincide with my critic's own high standards). I prefer to see this as a call for understanding. Take a second look at the people you've been judging. Give a bit more thought to the traits you find so "wrong" in others. Then take another look at your own glass house. That's all I ask.


Anonymous said...

It's Rodg, as you call me. Pretty sure I'm making the same comment I made last time you posted something along these lines.

This is very disturbing, Steve. Also hard to reconcile with the guy who wrote SHAM and who writes so many strongly opinionated op-eds! How do YOU reconcile it?

Jenny said...

Nope! Not disturbing, Rodg. Honest. Where's your blog, by the way? Let's hear your take on hypocrisy and sin. What's it all mean to you?

Steve, thanks for posting this. Wishing you health and happiness, today and always.

Laurel VanWilligen said...

Amazing post Steve. Full of issues that made me think. And cringe. And question myself for how easy it is to rationalize my behavior as normal and those who think like I as mainstream. Everybody else must be 'out there' somewhere. At the high or low end of a bell curve. (Unless we're talking about qualities for which I WANT to be known as an outlier, of course).
It may smack a bit of something called moral relativism, I guess. I'm just not sure anymore. The older I get, the less comfortable I feel about being stridently ANYTHING. I was an Objectivist (a follower of Ayn Rand) for so long, but having read books like 'Outliers' by Malcolm Gladwell, I've concluded that the saying "But for the grace of ___(providence, whatever), go I" is more true than I ever wanted to believe.
So again, thanks for the spiritual snack cakes. Much appreciated.

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Laurel, for your ongoing support. But whaddya mean, snack cakes? You mean this isn't beef tenderloin?? ;)

I have spent my life questioning the Givens, not just in theory but in practice, and it has cost me dearly in all phases of life. No pity party intended; it's simply true.

No small part of the impetus for SHAM was my skepticism of the culturally ingrained notion that the more self-esteem you have, the better off you are. Yes, the self-esteem movement has done some good, for some people--notably helping women of a prior generation free themselves from disastrous relationships--but as a social prescriptive the movement also has done a tremendous amount of counterintuitive damage. Related, we have this exhortation to "Never let anyone take away your dreams!", to which I would respond, (1) maybe your dreams suck, and (2) maybe you're not just cut out for your dreams. I suspect that "following your dreams" helps explain why so many millennials are sleeping on their parents' sofas at age 33. My rebellion at that invited a lot of ire, as did my vocal cynicism about one of my employer's attempts to institute a "positive thinking will carry the day" campaign. (That was the beginning of the end of a six-figure managerial job.) Then a few years ago I questioned one of academia's core latter-day Givens and basically was purged because of it. I posted and tweeted to the effect that if both a man and a woman are drunk, and sex occurs, it is no one's fault (unless a group of frat boys held the woman down and poured booze down her throat). I opined that if a woman can be held responsible for drunk driving, we can hold her responsible for drunk fucking, pardon my language. I don't know your feelings on the matter--and I am open-minded enough to allow that others may differ with me. But a cadre of SJW women on twitter were not open-minded, and they sent all sorts of dire dispatches to the dean, talking about how they "wouldn't feel safe" with their daughters in the class of a man who "enables rapists"... Long story short, I was not invited back to teach the next semester, even though I'd been assured I was in the mix just prior to the eruption of the controversy. So be it. I'm nearly 67 years old... I'm gonna start being a Good Little Boy now?

Laurel VanWilligen said...

I have to ask, What price, conformity? If 'getting along' involves not voicing your doubts and skepticism for fear of a backlash, them what is it worth?
I have so much admiration for what you endured to speak out. I have fought a battle or two, even paid a stiff price for taking on the IRS.
But the kind of forces you took on are daunting to me. Even your post 'On Glass Houses' just boggles my mind. I would be mincing my words and second (and third and...)-guessing myself until what I wanted to express would be so diluted that it would have lost meaning even to me.
In the long run, I think the strength and courage you showed and continue to show is a badge of honor. You're an inspiration to me. Thanks.

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you so much for your kind words, Lauren. My (late) sister would tell you they're probably undeserved, because I'm blessed (cursed?) with a contrarian streak, a hatred of conformity, that has been there since I was small. So she'd say I write such things mostly in attempting to validate, or at least come to terms with, my own self-defeating behaviors. She could be right about that. (And Ginny, wherever you are, I hope you can read this much-belated admission from your stubborn younger brother.) But that doesn't mean I'm philosophically wrong in what I say in this post.

A person can be a little bit broken--as I probably am, and always was--and still look at life through seeing eyes and make sense of what's around him.

Laurel VanWilligen said...

As a rebel and contrarian myself, I tend to look for the positives.
No disrespect to your sister, and not to draw a direct comparison, but we would still be part of the United Kingdom without rebels and contrarians.
We need generals and inventors as much as we need school teachers and police officers. I don't look down upon conformists. I just can't be one myself and find no shame in that.
We're all a little bit broken--just in different ways.

Jenny said...

P.S. Who doesn't feel stung by the pain of some terrible truth giving you a big ass-bite? Someone I love recently stood up in a room full of people and said on camera — and now it's posted online — how hatred has been normalized because of the current political climate. When I heard it, my mind went straight to thinking, "what a hypocrite," because she has shown immense hatred toward me, way before the political climate supposedly made it okay. But once you go pointing out other people's hypocrisy, you are faced with the stark reality of your own: I am a hypocrite, too. The only way to normalize hatred is to be hateful. When you hate, you're normalizing hatred. You can scapegoat politicians all you want by accusing them of doing what you yourself, in fact, do; but you can't do it without hypocrisy. And when you talk about this out loud, in public, people who don't want to hear it (because it's a terrible truth and it hurts) heap aspersions like hot coals upon your head to shut you up. Author Stephen King summarizes this human tendency well when he says "there are lots of would-be censors out there, and although they may have different agendas, they all want basically the same thing: for you to see the world they see... or to at least shut up about what you do see that's different... they are agents of the status quo, not necessarily bad guys, but dangerous guys if you happen to believe in intellectual freedom."

Steve Salerno said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Salerno said...

Jenny, your comment is a wonderful addendum to the post, but also very sad to me because I know how personally invested you are in the background situation you describe.

But to get back to your point, as I tweeted this morning, we've come to a place in America where there seemingly are no more (mere) differences of opinion. It's all personal and tribal. You either accept what I say or in refusing to accept what I say you reveal yourself as damaged and/or evil.

While there are aspects of Trump's formal agenda (such as he has one) that trouble me greatly, I hope we aren't in for four years where Democrats hate and obstruct everything Trump says and/or does simply because he's the one saying and/or doing it. We saw that in the GOP's treatment of Obama, and if anything, the climate today is even more polarized. Still more troubling to me, as a peripheral member of the media, is the roster of publications who make no bones of the fact that their ONE OVERRIDING RAISON D'ETRE right now is to despise Trump and serve as a venue for their audience to do likewise--to comment and otherwise participate in the loathing of Donald Trump. In so doing, they not only cheapen themselves, in my view, but they cheapen the whole idea of what journalism is about.

Anonymous said...

There is a right and wrong, Steve, and I'm with Roger, for you to hold otherwise is dangerous and irresponsible. As for Laurel, people need to learn conformity to the ideals and habits that make for successful living. We as a society have a pretty good idea what those ethics are, and being committed to being an outlier is pretty childish once you're past a certain point. Adulthood is about recognizing the paths in life that take you to a good outcome for yourself and the people who count on you.

Laurel VanWilligen said...

HaHaHa. Wow, those are good ones. Do you have them printed on banners and hung on your walls?
"People need to learn conformity to the ideals and habits that make for successful living." Or....what? You're going to bust them in the face? 'My way or the highway' kind of thing?
"We as a society have a pretty good idea what those ethics are,.." Your 'pretty good idea' may not be anywhere close to my pretty good idea. So reminiscent of Justice Stewart's inability to define pornography but assuring us that "I know it when I see it." We'll just come to you when we need to know what the 'correct' ethics are, I guess.
"Adulthood is about recognizing the paths in life that take you to a good outcome for yourself and the people who count on you." Yuck. I'd rather be a childish outlier any day than take on (and pass on) that aspiration-crushing mantra.

Anonymous said...

Laurel, why you're a nasty one, aren't you? This is Anonymous again. I guess I should've figured I'd get that level of response from a woman who thinks morals are completely arbitrary and optional. I've actually been reading Steve's blog for years, long before you showed up and I recall he used to have a stern policy against personal attacks. Clearly that's gone by the boards now. So desparate for comments that you don't enforce your own rules anymore?

I don't know if you use twitter Laurel but I can only imagine how joyfully snarky you must be on there, one of those people who made this last election cycle so much fun.

Laurel VanWilligen said...

How was my response personal? I have things plastered all over my walls. One of them says, "When the ablest men turn into cowards, the average men turn into brutes." I consider Steve one of the more able writers I've read lately and I applaud his courage in asking questions that others find uncomfortable. You essentially called him dangerous and irresponsible, yet he published your comment.
So if you asked me if something I wrote was on my walls, I could answer 'yes' or 'no', but I wouldn't take it personally. And if you challenged one of my statements, I might or might not think I needed to defend it....still nothing personal
I think your statements were akin to platitudes that one segment of society tries to force on everyone. And as one of those other 'everyones', I resent it and will fight against the notion that you know better than I what's good for me. I'm not hurting anyone with my morals, whether you agree with them or not. And I don't think morals are optional.
Nope, not on twitter or any social media really. So imagine how joyfully snarky I am/was 'on there', you'd be wrong. But don't take it personally.