For those of you in the Comox Valley area who are not averse to getting up on a Sunday morning, I’ll be speaking at this forum this Sunday. The details are on the website. I’ll be talking about morality and poverty among other things. I have 20 minutes like the other presenters…but for those of you who know me, I could go on for hours! Should be an informative morning…which you could then follow up with lunch somewhere like the Atlas Cafe or the Wandering Moose in Cumberland!
Interesting take on the issue of widespread disrespect for people who we consider dis-abled. The author rejects the pity response to disability he says is encouraged by ‘spend a day in a wheelchair’ initiatives. He advocated for guided tours that point out structural blocks to accessibility in architecture and public works.
Sometimes I get very frustrated writing about this issue. It’s difficult to find adequate and respectful descriptors for the ‘disabled.’ I balk at using this word ‘disabled’ or words like it. Virtually every word that we’ve ever used to describe disabled people focus on their limited mobility, including the word ‘disability.’ I’m not too crazy about the term ‘differently-able’ either. I understand the intent behind it, but I find it too much of a reaction to the word ‘disabled.’ We need descriptive terms to communicate and we generally focus on the normative (cow, for example) in creating descriptive terms that are not specific to place or location as in Wolf Beach. When it comes to people who have lost mobility in whichever way, I feel we haven’t gotten very far in coming up with adequate descriptive, non-judgmental terms.
Of course, we tend to judge people generally by their level of mobility. If we are immobilized by poverty we do everything we can to hide that fact from others, to ‘fit in’ by whatever means we can. Someone with a physical mobility issue cannot hide the fact so judgment by others is much more transparent. Some people in wheelchairs, etc., have very ‘mobile’ minds but that’s not a visible part of what they are. Our judgments tend to focus in first on what we see. These judgments can change and often do once we get to know someone as an individual.
I guess what I’m advocating here is that we reject first impressions and reserve judgment to a time when we have enough information about a person to make a reasonable judgment. This isn’t always easy but we can strive to reserve judgment and keep our minds open to learn about a person before leaping to conclusions about that person based on first sight impressions. Can we do that? Yes, we can.
Escape 28: What is the heroic society?
So, I’ve come to the last chapter of Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil in this series of posts I’ve come to refer to as my Becker marathon. In this post and the last 2 to follow in the next couple of days, I work through this last chapter called Retrospect and Conclusion: What is the Heroic Society? It’s divided into 4 sections, History, Psychology, The Science of Man and the Conclusion [to this last chapter] Today, I take on his section on History, tomorrow, the section on Psychology and on the last day, this Thursday, The Science of Man and the Conclusion.
In this last chapter, it’s clear to me that Becker is grasping at straws. He has produced this mind-boggling analysis of what drives us and has driven us throughout history, our fear of death and our fear of life. Now what? How are we to suddenly lose our fear of death and put down the weapons we’ve used in their increasingly terrifying effectiveness in our determination to eliminate evil on the planet in the form of the ‘other’? We’ll get to his final thoughts on this in the last post in this series, but for now, History.
In the opening three paragraphs of this chapter Becker notes the emptiness of a classical Marxist analysis for the ‘liberation’ of humankind, which it claims will come after capitalism has run its course. I don’t think Becker is correct in his analysis of Marx because the only foray into utopianism that Marx attempted was in his book The German Ideology and he regretted that for the rest of his life. After he got over his youthful enthusiasm and humanism, he sat in the British Museum and studied until he got bum boils and concluded that the only thing he could say for sure about the fall of capitalism was that there would be no more exploitation of labour by capital because capital will have virtually eliminated labour in successive waves of overproduction. Becker wants to see Marxism as a failed potential immortality ideology for the masses. So, what is to be done? [Yes, that’s the title of one of Lenin’s books]
Well, we now know a lot more about the psychodynamics of history. It’s…
From the outside a saga of tyranny, violence, coercion; from the inside, self-delusion and self-enslavement.
If we didn’t have transference, we wouldn’t be able to stand life. We localize our fear and terror, make it manageable all the while exchanging our freedom for life. We are sorry creatures indeed, because unlike other animals we have ‘made death conscious.’ (p.148) Evil is in anything that makes us sick, wounds us or even ‘deprives us of pleasure.’ (p.148)
The result is one of the great tragedies of human existence, what we might call the need to ‘fetishize evil,’ to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled. It is tragic precisely because it is sometimes very arbitrary; men make fantasies about evil, see it in the wrong places, and destroy themselves and others by uselessly thrashing about.
We do this so much it’s quite pathetic, really. Note what the Ugandan government has just done. The Ministry of Ethics and Integrity there is charged with seeing gays and lesbians punished and outlawed. Several US states would do the same and some are actively pursuing action against gays and lesbians. They see gays and lesbians as threats to their values. Wow, they obviously have very weak and precarious values to see gays and lesbians as a threat to them. As Nietzsche concluded, ‘all moral categories are power categories; they are not about virtue in any abstract sense.’ (P. 149)
Purity, goodness, rightness – these are ways of keeping power intact so as to cheat death; the striving for perfection is a way of qualifying for extraspecial immunity not only in this world but in others to come. Hence all categories of dirt, filth, imperfection, and error are vulnerability categories, power problems.
You can see why Tea Party Republicans and their counterparts in Uganda are so intent on persecuting gays and lesbians. They are vulnerability categories in their world! They need to be eliminated. Of course, we all need to individuate ourselves, to feel that our lives are meaningful. What better way of showing that we are special and deserving of power and life is to dedicate ourselves to eliminating dirt, filth, imperfection and error? Now that’s a heroic thing to do.
In other words, man is fated, as William James saw, to consider this earth as a theatre for heroism, and his life a vehicle for heroic acts which aim precisely to transcend evil…To be a true hero is to triumph over disease, want, death.
Even better sometimes, to be a true hero is to lay down one’s life to secure the lives of others. Think here of Jesus and scores of other heroes in history who died to secure mankind…‘by their blood we are saved.’ (p.151)
Freud was very pessimistic about the future of humankind. For Freud we humans are doomed by our own instincts for evil. Becker doesn’t buy that. For him, we are born hunters so it may seem that we ‘enjoy the feeling of maximizing [our] organismic powers at the expense of the trapped and helpless prey.’ (p. 152)
The tragedy of evolution is that it created a limited animal with unlimited horizons. Many is the only animal that is not armed with the natural instinctive mechanisms of programming for shrinking his world down to a size that he can automatically act on…Men have to keep from going mad by biting off small pieces of reality which they can get some command over and some organismic satisfaction from.
The thing that feeds the great destructiveness of history is that men give their entire allegiance to their own group; and each group is a codified hero system. Which is another way of saying that societies are standardized systems of death denial; they give structure to the formulas for heroic transcendence. History can then be looked at as a succession of immortality ideologies, or as a mixture at any time of several of these ideologies.
And so it came to be that we could only become heroic by following orders. Oh, I’m really summarizing Becker here and doing him an injustice in the process, no doubt. He seems most comfortable when he is chastising our species in a sense for a history filled with greater and greater paradigms for death denial, ones that expect us to be heroes as individuals, all right, but by ‘following orders.’ This is as true for Christianity as it is for Capitalism. Follow orders and you will be saved. The word ‘orders’ here may seem a little harsh and arbitrary because this is not a military type order. It’s a prescription for salvation that does not tolerate defiance. In capitalist terms, the ‘order’ means to consume.
Now a new type of productive and scientific hero came into prominence, and we are still living this today. More cars produced by Detroit, higher stock market prices, more profits, more goods moving – all this equals more heroism. And with the French Revolution another type of modern hero was codified: the revolutionary hero who will bring an end to injustice and evil once and for all, by bringing into being a new utopian society perfect in its purity.
In Canada.com, Laura Strapagiel writes on September 18, 2013,
Although there is no evidence that student leaders were directed to lead first-year students in a chant endorsing rape, it was part of the oral traditions of UBC’s Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS), according to a report released today.
The University of British Colombia tasked a fact-finding panel with investigating an offensive frosh-week chant recited during bus trips by first-year Sauder School of Business students and activity leaders.
The chant, which also caused controversy at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University, went like this: “UBC boys we like them young. Y is for your sister. O is for oh-so-tight. U is for underage. N is for no consent. G is for grab that ass.” In some variations, “G” stands for “go to jail.”
In addition to releasing the panel’s report, UBC announced Wednesday that CUS will be making a voluntary contribution of $250,000 over three years to help fund a “professional position to provide student counseling and education on sexual abuse and violence.”
“After serious consideration, we believe it is essential that the C.U.S. and all FROSH leaders make tangible amends,” said UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope in a statement. “At the same time, the whole UBC community needs to embark upon deeper, transformative and lasting change that would make such chants entirely and obviously unacceptable in our community.”
So, can we come to some (sociological) understanding of what this is all about? Yes, we can, but it’s not simple. First thing, there is the chant itself and it’s two variants. The first variant must be considered as an outright invitation to first year male students to go find an even younger female student to rape. The second variant is more complex and can be read as a cautionary tale as in ‘if you rape my underage sister you will go to jail.’ Second thing, there is the issue of the UBC administration’s reaction to the events. Punish the students and embark on a “deeper, transformative and lasting change that would make such chants entirely and obviously unacceptable in our society.” I’d like the reporter who wrote the piece in Canada.com to follow up in a few months to see just what UBC’s president has come up with to undertake this “deeper, transformative and lasting change.” I’ll bet nothing comes of it. I’m sure the UBC administration is hoping the whole thing blows over and soon. Well, there may be a token attempt at something, maybe a forum or some workshops, but nothing more. Frankly, I expect most people will forget about this within a very short period of time.
So now what? Well, the social dynamics that underpin this whole scenario are really quite fascinating. There are a number of avenues of investigation here. For instance, the chant itself and its implied assumptions about the nature of sex between young men and women, that is, that men must overcome, forcibly if necessary, a young woman’s need to protect her virginity. Then there’s the fact that these are young people and young people have always done things that piss off their elders as a way of ‘carving their own path’ in life. Any talk of rape, especially in a tight-assed university setting is bound to piss off a lot of older people, especially ones with young daughters (I’m still one of those). Mission accomplished here as evidenced by UBC’s response, which is another issue all in itself. Using the chant to ‘do something naughty’ and create solidarity among students is a related issue and an important one. I’ll address these issues in blog posts over the next few days. I’m not offering any solutions here, like Toope is, but rather observations on the nature of morality, ours and others, as it relates to sexuality, in particular, but also to business in a limited sense. However, this is not a rant about the evils of capitalism, of business or about the evils of anything else. What I want to do here is comment on the moral context in which such events can occur and how they are treated by the ‘morally upstanding’ among us. It’s just a bonus for me that the students in question at UBC are business students because today business and the market occupy the moral high ground in our world. We judge so much of what we do by its effects on the ‘bottom line.’ So, I’ll start with the nature of sexual relations in our world and then move on to other issues like the need for students to stand out yet fit in, and the need for those who occupy positions of moral ‘leadership’ in our world to make sure our world is morally clean and upstanding allowing no breaches of the moral wall that surrounds us all.
Sex. Much has been written about it. Confusion abounds. Procreation by the process of coitus is fairly straightforward to understand. We ‘have’ sex, we may very well make babies, that’s if we’re a male and a female. Sex between gays and variations thereof is not procreative sex. That’s pretty clear, I think. Procreative sex is about biology, penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs. That said, procreative sex is regulated in very complex ways and has been ever since we’ve been writing things down and probably way before too. We’re not the only sexually reproducing species that regulates sexual behaviour, that is who can have sex with who, when and how. Many species have mechanisms for regulating sex. We speak of ‘instinct’ when we refer to sex among non-human species, but nonetheless, sex is regulated. Often, the physically and socially dominant individuals of a species are the only ones to procreate as in wolves and African wild dogs. Among primates, sex generally goes to the dominant members of the troop, but there is a lot of sex on the side type behaviour. Among Bonobo chimps, sex seems to be recreational but it also serves a purpose of keeping peace in the troop. It also serves a procreational function, of course, but paternity is not an issue among bonobos.
There are many problems that arise with human sexuality. One is that we have a long gestation period and it takes a very long time to raise an infant to self-determination and adulthood. Procreative sex has its consequences and can be very expensive in time, effort and resources. That problem is compounded by the fact that men and women can be attracted sexually to a number of other men and women. There’s no evidence to suggest that human beings are naturally monogamous and a lot to suggest otherwise. Another thing is that closeness, physical contact, nasty experiences with members of the other sex, neurological wiring and many other factors mean that humans, like bonobos, are often quite happy to have sexual relations with members of the same sex or with whatever comes along, animal, vegetable or synthetic. Some of the most popular porn sites on the internet are bestiality sites. A popular practice among some men is to have life size sex dolls. Is sex with a sex toy still sex? Well, we sure talk in those terms. So, humans are, let’s say, open to possibility when it comes to using their sexual organs. I coined the term ‘monosex’ when I taught a course on love and sex a few years ago, to describe masturbation and the fact that many people prefer it to anything else. Apparently we don’t even need partners.
Of course it’s very important here to separate love and sex. Love is a sentiment of emotional attachment that can, but needn’t have anything to do with sex. Romantic sex is not always loving sex, although we generally think of romance and love as intertwined. Love can exist in many social situations and describe relationships between mothers and children, men and women, men and men, women and women, men, women and flags, football, sausages, cars, sunsets, pets, forests and a pretty close to infinite number of other things. We ‘love’ all kinds of things. Sex describes one way of expressing love, but it also goes way beyond that and often has nothing to do with love.
So, sex is all over the place and procreative sex is a particular variant that ends up producing offspring and those little guys are essentially considered property. Randall Collins in his book Sociological Insight refers to offspring as generational property. Other forms of property he identifies that are regulated by marriage contracts are domestic property and erotic property. Erotic property is exclusive rights over another’s body for sexual purposes. Domestic property refers to pots and pans, houses and cars. The point here is that sex is regulated in our world or rather what derives from sex is regulated. For as long as we know, sex has been regulated to achieve certain social ends. Who one can have sex with, when, where and how are all regulated by mores and laws in our society and in one way or another in all societies now and historically. Morality is the context in which sex is regulated. Although it’s clear that sexual mores are broken all over the place all the time, we still feel the pressure of sexual ‘propriety.’ Although things are changing we know that extramarital or extra-relational [my new term, I think] sex (cheating) is bad. We know that pre-marital sex is bad. We know that children are not supposed to be sexual, neither are old people (yuck!). Most important, we know that children and adults are never to engage in sexual relations under any circumstances. We know that sex in public is bad. We also know that people do it for the ‘thrill’ of it. We know that both parents have a responsibility to raise their offspring. We all know these things but we also know that these things don’t count as much in real life as they do in ideological terms.
So, I’ve put this off long enough. Young men and women are sexual by nature. Biology gives them the tools to have sex pretty early in life. In our world, however, it’s not morally acceptable for them to engage in sex until they’re told it’s OK. We have rules around how young people are to behave sexually and celibacy is it! We don’t know when exactly it’s ok to have sex as a young person. Waiting until marriage doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s now a matter of ‘let’s discuss it when it happens.’ We’ll make the best of it.
However, the crux of the situation for me is the moral responsibility that is placed on young women to protect their virginity at all costs or at least to avoid the label of ‘promiscuous’ or ‘slut.’ Young women are supposed to suppress their sexual drives and be ‘responsible.’ This automatically sets up an adversarial relationship between young men and women. Women must protect their virginity. Young men must respect that and suppress their own sexuality. But, for many young men, the challenge is that of a safe-cracker. Conquest is big on their minds! They’re supposed to be real men, after all, aren’t they? Can I get into her pants? Young male bodies are telling them to carry on, get it going. Damn the torpedoes!
I can’t imagine how rape and other variant of sexual assault are not more common under these circumstances and why young people in the prime of their youth at university would not want to challenge the moral prescriptions that define their sexuality. Young men and women chanted the Y.O.U.N.G. chant at St-Mary’s university and at UBC (and on many other campuses, no doubt). This is, in my mind, a protest against contradictory social mores. The reaction of the university administration as protectors of the dominant moral code in our society underlies the seriousness of the proscriptions we impose on young people and their inherent sense that there are serious issues with them.
Obviously not all young men and women are conflicted about sexual mores. Some of them are staunch defenders of social proscriptions against extra-moral sexual relations. There is a lot of diversity in the population. That said, all youth are pressured to conform to social mores under the threat of rejection, opprobrium and shunning. Young people have a strong need to ‘fit in.’ That may mean going along with the Y.O.U.N.G. chant or opposing it depending on what group is strongest in its pull to conformity. But I’ll leave that to another time.
 There are porn sites dedicated to public sex.
So, we had a big party at the homestead recently and I was lovingly described as a communist by my son-in-law. I appreciate the sentiment behind this remark. For him, it’s a term of endearment. There were many ‘left-leaners’ in the crowd who would have appreciated the comment because in some senses we share many moral precepts. Oh, I’ve been described as a commie before. It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last in all likelihood. I really don’t mind all that much. Whether or not people actually believe that I’m a communist is another matter and I hope to set the record straight here for anyone who cares. If people read this blog posting, and few will, they will know my position on the matter. For my own sense of self, for myself, I want to set the record straight once and for all.
When I state that I’m not a commie, that doesn’t mean for one second that I’m a proponent of ‘capitalism.’ Many people see communism and ‘capitalism’ as opposites, as alternate ways of organizing ‘the economy’ and ‘society.’ I don’t, nor did Karl Marx when he got old enough to think straight. As an aside, Harold Adams Innis, the brilliant Canadian political economist and historian said, in a moment of particular lucidity, that one cannot make a contribution to the social sciences before one reaches the age of 50 and he’s probably correct. He was 58 when he died and his best work happened in the last 5 or 6 years of his life. Marx was born in 1818 and died in 1883. It wasn’t until the late 1860s that he really got his shit together, hunkered down in the British Museum and started writing Capital. Yes, yes, he wrote the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts earlier, but he really got serious later.
The reason I say I’m not a communist is that I’m not a proponent of communism. For me, or anyone else, to be labeled a communist or anything else for that matter implies a certain level of advocacy, of ‘proponency.’ It’s not necessary to be proponent of something that will eventually happen no matter what we think or wish. It’s like being described as an old-agist. I know that old age will happen to all of us, but that doesn’t mean I’m a proponent of old age. I’M getting old, but that doesn’t mean that I advocate old age. That would be ridiculous. A communist mode of production will inevitably replace the capitalist one because the internal contradictions within the capitalist mode of production dictate it in the same way the feudal relations of production replaced slave based ones and the capitalist mode of production replaced feudal ones. The change will happen gradually, just as old age creeps up on us. Before it’s clear what’s happening, the old bones get brittle, the arteries plug up and the organs just can’t cut it anymore. The resiliency of youth is past, old solutions no longer get the same results they used to. Life inevitably brings on death, they are different sides of the same coin. What that means for me as an individual is clear, what it means for ‘society’ or for the ‘capitalist mode of production’ is also clear. Nothing is forever, nothing. Not the capitalist mode of production, not our beloved countries, not our cities, not our towns, not our fabulous wealth. The question is not whether or not the capitalist mode of production will live on forever, but when it will die. It’s not even a question of how. That’s also been clear for a long time. Still, classical economics is still in classical denial over the whole thing, a fact which is made clear on virtually every page of The Economist which is a proponent of capitalism.
For what I’ve written above I could be branded with the sin of determinism, one of scholarship’s seven deadliest. If saying that one day I will die makes me a determinist, well that’s ok by me. Call me whatever name you want. Furthermore, what I write above does not mean that life is completely meaningless to me. We live life on many levels, a day at a time. My life is full of activity and that means that every day I make many moral decisions most having nothing or little to do with my eventual death. I don’t live life as though my life is about to end (I didn’t do that even when I had cancer and the possibility of my quick exit from this life was very real). I DO things, there is nothing else to do. I read the papers, listen to the radio and watch TV. I play with my grandkids. I can’t help but get outraged by the blatant bullshit and crap that comes out of the government in Ottawa on a daily basis. Yet I understand the role that national governments play in the capitalist mode of production and their essential collaboration in making it possible for capital to flow with greater and greater ease globally and for controlling labour by keeping tight reins on migrations and regulation. I haven’t lost my moral compass. I even get angry on one level…say, at incivility, at stupid driving, at poor highway engineering…while understanding that at other levels, the picture is much different and anger makes no sense. As I write above, we live life on many levels, many planes. They are all connected although not always in obvious ways. Even otherwise highly educated people don’t see the connections. The connections, interconnections and interweavings become visible only after a sustained gaze upon them. To see them requires special training. Somewhere, Norbert Elias got that training, as did many other thinkers who have had a sustained influence on me over the decades.