Maintaining Modesty

I awake yesterday morning with the startling resolution that my life has been a long dogmatic list of uncompromising stubbornness, and it could easily be improved through a healthy does of inoffensive moderation.  Which I immediately set out to follow, but then stopped myself just in time to wait a good 15 minutes; just for modest measure.

As I boarded the bus to work, I decided that since both the 6:24 am & the 6:31 am bus can get me to work on time, a healthy compromise would be to walk to the next bus stop down from where I usually wait, for a refreshing walk and to catch the later of the two.  The 6:31 am bus was running 15 minutes behind schedule, and I was 10 minutes late to work.

At lunch I decided instead of having my usual combination of donuts, fries, and soda, I would substitute it with a moderately healthy diet of apple, mashed potatoes, and green beans (note to self, fruits and vegetables make for powerful laxatives).  After lunch, two coworkers asked me to settle an issue of the utmost importance:  Who would win in a fight between adult Simba from the Lion King and adult Baloo from The Jungle Book?  Although I am convinced that Simba would shred Baloo to pieces (he took down Scar for goodness sake), I instead opted to spare both person’s feelings with a humble, “I don’t know.”  A compromise that satisfied no one.

On the way back home from work (taking the earliest bus I could catch this time), a man told me that he desperately needs money to buy himself new pants for work.  I humbly gave him $40, and advised him to get a new shirt too, so he can also cover up the needle marks on his arms.  Then I slapped his face as compensation (it was the modest thing to do) and got off the bus.

Once home, I informed my spouse about my new found insight and suggested we appreciate it through a moderate dose of coitus.  Since it would be unfair for both of us to expect an equally thorough performance, I suggested that we compromise by deciding on who would be climaxing tonight, and then we’ll rotate on a weekly basis; so as not to exhaust ourselves with too much wasted energy.  We mutually decided that the most modest compromise would be for me to sleep on the couch tonight.

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A Word on Assisted Suicide

The desire to both alleviate suffering and protect life are two ethical principles upon which much of modern society shapes its moral values around.  However, there are several situations that present a clear conflict between the desire to alleviate suffering and the desire to protect life.  The debate over assisted dying is probably the most difficult of these (from a moral standpoint) because it involves a person whose suffering is so great that she or he wishes to just end her/his life as a final recourse to the pain, often even if there exists the possibility that medical attention can either save or prolong her/his life.  The ethical dilemma of whether such a person’s wishes should be respected, or whether the ability to save a life at all costs ought to take precedents is not a simple issue to resolve through purely philosophical musings.

Just about everyone can image a scenario in which an individual’s physical pain is so great that it would seem downright cruel to force her/him to continue to be tormented just to appease our collectively idealized standard over the sanctity of life.  Certainly one could make the case that even a painful life is better than no life at all, but the caveat that cannot be ignored is the question of by what right any one of us can demand for a person to continue to live in agony to preserve our ideals about the greater value of life.

“What if the person’s pain is causing them to speak from hysteria and fear?  What if they would have changed their mind about wanting to die?”  What if is a line of reasoning that though interesting is destined to remain unresolved by virtue of its phrasing.  Case and point, what if the person ends up living only a few months longer, all in agonizing pain, only to die anyway?  You could have spared them these final moments of unspeakable pain, but didn’t.  Does that seem more morally sound than letting them die?

A conflict does arise of whether anyone else’s opinion besides the suffering individual’s should be considered (such as family members not willing to let their loved one die at any cost if it can be avoided).  This is the part of the assisted suicide debate where it becomes difficult to insist on a clear course of action.  It’s redundant to state how almost no one wants to see someone they love suffer.   Now add on the caveat of not just having a loved one die, but to actually assist in the process.  I recognize that this is undoubtedly too great a burden for many to go through, seeing as how I, too, would no doubt be torn to my core if such a decision faced me.  However, I still have to maintain that, as heartbreaking as it is to consider the torment that someone will suffer at losing a loved one, I still don’t see how the alternative is any better (i.e. how much the individual her/himself is currently physically suffering, and how s/he must continue to do so partly because I cannot take the mental anguish or moral burden of assisting in her/his death).

Being a person who does feel a great deal of empathy for his fellow man, I see the many moral difficulties that arise from the debate over assisted dying from both sides of the argument.  I also understand that many such cases will have different circumstances that call for different considerations.  But I simply cannot bring myself to insist that a suffering person (whether their pain has a physical or psychological source) must continue to exist in torment in order to appease any personal moral hangups I have on the topic.  And I find it hard to see an intellectual means to get around this problem without descending into gross oversimplifications on a very sensitive issue.

Nationalism vs Patriotism: A Challenge to George Orwell

In one of his essays, titled “Notes on Nationalism”, George Orwell drew a distinction between nationalism and patriotism by defining the latter as a passive adulation of one’s national/cultural heritage, and the former as an active attempt to enforce the will of one’s national/cultural identity onto others.  In other words, the patriot may look on his country of origin as the greatest place on earth, but he will do so with no interest to convince anyone else of the fact.  In contrast, the nationalist feels compelled not just to convince others of the greatness of his homeland, but to bring about the capitulation of all other nations under its great power.  As much as I respect Orwell as a writer, I find this attempt to conjure up a distinction between underlying mindset characterizing the two concepts unconvincing (to say the least).

If you hold the opinion that the country you happen to be born in (or identify with for other reasons) is the greatest in the world, then by logical extension you have to also hold the opinion of all of the other countries, in which all other persons reside, as simply subpar in comparison to your own.  And if you believe that other countries are substandard to your own, then you must also believe that the nation you identify with possesses something (strength, character, wealth, power, a particular model of governance, etc.) that makes it worthy of reverence.  From here, does it also not logically lead you to infer that whatever it is that makes your nation greater than every other, all the other nations who currently fail to measure up to its greatness would benefit if they too were to possess this particular trait/characteristic/resource/ideal/whatever?  Moreover, in this mode of reasoning, would you–the patriot– not be justified to believe that a great contribution your nation could do for the rest of the world is to bring it as close as possible to the better model under which your superior country operates under?

All else aside, affirmative responses for the above statements and inquiries would still place one merely as a patriot by Orwell’s criteria because one has still not taken an active step to impose one’s national will onto other states; hence, by the writer’s terms it would be incorrect to ascribe to the hypothetical individual the label of a nationalist since, up to this point, he displays no active desire to secure more power (presumably at the expense of other nations).  But to me this seems like a very flimsy distinction to be made, designed primarily to absolve patriotism from the ominous history created by 20th Century nationalism.  Yet, the reality remains that one cannot honestly have nationalism, sans the basic ingredient of patriotism.  And–following the conversation in the preceding paragraph–the factor that would separate a patriot from a nationalist appears to be more situational than ideological (i.e. it’s not the individual worldview that needs to change to lead a person from patriotism to nationalism, just a particular set of environmental circumstances; namely, how passionate, threatened or confident one feels about the current state of one’s country of origin).

If the redeeming distinction between patriotism and nationalism rests on the basis that unlike nationalism, patriotism has no desire to force itself on other people/nations, I have no choice but to protest the very premise on which such an argument is founded, on the grounds that the underlying reasoning in favor of patriotism are largely indistinguishable from the underlying reasoning applied by the nationalist.  The fundamental mentality–“my country is greater than your country”–is the same, and drawing distinctions of passivity vs. aggressiveness seem more aptly as representations of differing modes of expression of the same ideology, rather than opposing sides of differing/contrasting ideologies.  The simply truth (as it seems to me) is that, for the sake of consistency, whatever points one finds praiseworthy about patriotism, these same points can easily be extended to argue in favor of nationalism.  And whatever one finds undesirable about nationalism, one can just as easily extend to a critique of patriotism.  To split hairs between these things, just comes across special pleading.

Thought-Crime is Imaginary

Every person of a halfway sound mind can distinguish between her/his fantasy life and the real world.  We all occasionally ponder away, daydreaming about a fictional version of ourselves, doing things we know we couldn’t possibly accomplish in reality; that’s why it’s called fantasy, where our minds offer us an escape from the limitations of our daily environment.

We know that we will never start a rock band; we will never write a bestselling novel; we will (probably) never get the opportunity to do something extraordinary in the face of human history; people will not travel far and wide seeking our grand wisdom when we are old and “wise”.  And none of that matters.  Because when we are daydreaming about the alternate us–the us we can imagine ourselves being–the fact that we recognize the futility of the scenarios created by our minds is a non-issue.  In this regard, fantasizing about oneself as more accomplished, more polished, stronger, and in other customarily decent settings, is perfectly acceptable and expected to just about every person (because, as already stated, we all do it).  However, from what I can gather, this reasoning also appears to completely negate itself when our fantasies go out of the acceptable fold of social decorum.

We find it disturbing when we hear that someone is having impolite thoughts on a topic, or about a person.  Thoughts of violence, sex, and misconduct, are seen as more threatening in comparison to the more positive-minded daydreams we occasionally indulge in.  Unsurprisingly, we grant more validity to people’s thoughts when we see it as potentially harmful to ourselves (and others), even if the source of these threatening thoughts is the same as the source of the uplifting thoughts.  And the fact that there is as much of a chance of any person acting on their indecent thoughts as there is of her/him acting on their decent ones, does nothing to the way we reason that the potential for harm is far too great to leave it to pure chance, causing us to respond with due repulsion towards the originator of the bad thoughts–the person having the indecent fantasies.  Moreover, our behavior towards said individual is such that it makes little distinction between someone having thoughts about an action, and actually carrying them out (after all, it is true that the first step in committing a crime, is thinking about committing the crime).  Hence, despite the low probability that anyone who has ever thought about doing something horrible to someone else (be it a fantasy about committing assault, murder, robbery, etc.), one never knows whether or not the person doing the thinking is simply soothing their frustration through daydreaming, or seriously plotting to make good on their unsavory fantasies.  Although all of this is completely noncontroversial, there is one fact that needs to be addressed on this topic; namely, that thought crime is imaginary.  And it is imaginary in the literal sense of the word, in that it occurs solely in a person’s imagination.

Now, the question becomes how exactly can one be held accountable (or be treated as if to be held accountable) for actions that, at the core of it all, never happened?  For example, if someone has a fantasy about physically hurting me, but never acts on these thoughts, why is it that (were this person to reveal these thoughts to me years down the road) I would instinctively behave as if an attempted crime has actually been committed?  No harm has actually been carried out against me, and more importantly no harm will be carried out against me; the offense was, quite literally, completely imaginary.  So, why the moral indignation on my part?  Of course, it should be mentioned that this is solely a hypothetically generic me, I personally don’t think I could care less if anyone is daydreaming about hurting me, as long as they don’t carry out the act (to be honest, I’m fairly certain that more than one person I’ve known has thought about punching me in my face on more than a few occasions).  But that’s not how we collectively react to hearing about someone else’s repulsive fantasies, even more so if these fantasies are about someone other than ourselves (in which case we will gasp in union at the plight this innocent person has suffered for being the subject of the potentially-dangerous thought-criminal’s mental trespasses).

At the base of it, I think the lack of control we are capable of exercising in regard to any other person’s thoughtful offenses against our person is what motivates the knee-jerk repulsion we fell towards any criminal fantasies someone might daydream about against us, or any other individual; since we do not have direct access to any mind other than our own, we reason that we can never be completely assured of the daydreamers true intent.  This is all understandable, and most of us recognize the threat associated with criminal thoughts, even if no actually desire exists to follow through on said thoughts.  And this is the reason why most of us choose to never share our darkest, indecent thoughts with anybody, lest we risk being ostracized from social discourse.

The thing that is left unanswered for me, though, is the reason for the inner guilt a person feels for having thoughts that might verge on the criminal, despite being fully aware of never actually wanting to carry them out.  Most don’t really need other people scolding them for their “wicked” thoughts, they do a fairly decent job of performing the mental self-flagellation all on their own.  I understand feeling repulsed at the knowledge that someone else has been having uncivil thoughts about a third party, since you don’t have any way of accessing someone else’s mind to truly confirm just how serious the potential harm is, but you do have access to your own thoughts; you can know how dangerous your crime-infested daydreams are to others.  And if you can say with reasonable certainty that the indecent things you have fantasized about have little to no chance in manifesting themselves in your real life interactions, then why engage in this immense grief over your imaginary crimes; at least in the case where you yourself are the perpetrator, is it still inappropriate to say that thought-crime posses of no real danger?  And if not (and you fear that to accept your indecent thinking would desensitize you to actually doing indecent things), how can you carry on contributing and interacting with a society, when you can’t measure or control the seriousness and danger of the mental concepts that you have created?  And how badly does it speak of a society that has taught you to fear the thoughts in your own head as being so lethal that you should internally apologize and repent for any impolite/uncustomary thought that pops into your mind?  Or can society even be blamed for a reaction that is so fundamentally human(e)?

Trumping All Codes of Conduct for Presidential Candidates

Many businesses will go out of their way to have a signed document explicitly stating that if you, as an employee and representative of their company, are caught behaving in any way that is unbecoming of a sound moral character, and can be identified as a representative of said company, your employment can (and most likely will) be terminated.  If you are a cashier at a burger joint, a janitor at a hotel, or a teller at a bank, chances are you know what I’m referring to when I talk about this very specific part of a code of conduct agreement you sign upon employment.

I’ve know people who have been at the receiving end of this strict code of conduct policy, and while all of them readily griped about it, they all begrudgingly accepted it as a standard procedure of how employers taking no chances when it comes to associating with any potential negative publicity.  It is fortunate for us all, however, that we need not surrender to this sort of ethical dictation in our professional lives, for there is one job where such things are of no concern whatsoever; namely, being a presidential candidates.

Donald Trump has mocked people’s physical appearances, berated a handicapped man, asserted that a whole nationality is composed of rapists and murderers, and wants to potentially exclude an entire religious demographic from entering the country.  Imagine if their was footage of the lowly bank teller, or the Burger King cashier saying any of that, while wearing the name tag linking them to their respected places of employment?  I imagine that they would not be employed for too much longer.  Yet, the guy running for president, who–if elected–will be the public representative of you and I to the rest of the world, is judged by a lower set of ethical standards than the guy who takes your order at the drive-thru.  This should be an astounding realization, but it’s not.  Nobody really cares.  Even people who genuinely dislike Trump still treat him with a level of seriousness he has not earned.

Simply put, the man is an asshole, and people can better relate to assholes than straight-arrows.  They forget about the fact that nothing about Donald Trump is actually relatable to them personally.  You weren’t born rich.  You don’t get to walk away happily from one bankruptcy, after another, after another, after another, and still be called “financially savvy”.  You don’t get to insult people on a deeply personal level, and still be seen as anything other than a sour old crank.  You are, in every way imaginable, living in a different reality than Donald Trump.  And, no, by associating with his name–his brand–you will not be granted access to it, either

I’ve heard it said that the appeal stems from our natural disposition to be attracted to Alpha Males.  The problem is that, unlike Trump, Alpha Males don’t cry at every slight and retort that’s directed at them.  I don’t think that there’s a man in recent memory, who has taken the public stage, who exhibits a thinner skin than Donald Trump.  (Not to mention his fear of germs, and paranoia about people “being fair to him” when all he does is behave like a total jackass towards individuals who haven’t even provoked his ire.)

So am I saying that he should be disqualified from the presidency on account of being an incompetent, thin-skinned, pompous, insulting, crybaby, bloated simpleton, wrapped up in a narcissistic package of a special kind of clueless buffoonery?  Actually, no.  He’s a US citizen, who fits the minimum prerequisites to run for office, thus to exclude him from participating in the process would be a breach of his protected civil rights.  What I am saying is that the questions posed to him should address the separate standards he’s been able to enjoy, which someone in a less prestigious position  in society has not.  Or, put more eloquently:  “Why do you get off behaving like an entitled asshole?  And do you think that an entitled asshole is the sort of person we ought to have representing the United States to the world?”

Trump, being a weakling of man who has never come across a negative comment directed at him he could not hysterically bitch about long past its point of expiration, would probably respond predictably to such an aggressive question.  But hopeful the rest of American will break out of the spell, and ask itself how it came to be such a simple, simple man is being considered to ascend into the same league as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.  Despite what many liberals want you to believe, shame has a place in society, and this may very well be one of them.

The Value of Life, & How We Prioritize Some Lives Over Others

Occasionally I like to write things that make me somewhat uncomfortable.  I think of it as a cerebral enema, to cleanse by mind of sinister cobwebs that, from time to time, start building nests in it if not cleared out.  The topic concerning the value of life, and the fact of how–since we can’t save all lives–we prioritize some over others with partly reasonable, partly arbitrary justifications, is a discussion I find simultaneously disturbing and necessary to have.

The initial instinct for most of us is to vehemently maintain that all lives, regardless of mediating circumstances, ought to be seen as equal to one another, and thereby equally deserving of consideration and protection.  That if we are to have a truly just society we should focus on forwarding this simple principle because it is a primary means by which to preserve impartiality and reduce disparity in the legal system, as well as reduce our personal biases on matters of moral dilemmas.  Historical events, like the American Eugenics movement of the early 20th Century, are a clear example which we can point to as an obviously immoral/unethical breech of the egalitarian mindset we strive to (albeit, not perfectly) construct our society around today.

All this is well and good, however, I’ve noticed in these sort of conversation that we tend to also leave the specific details concerning the practical application of this egalitarian principle intentionally vague and open for interpretation, primarily because by dwelling too deeply on the finer points of this moral principle we promote, we might uncover a number of factors that would reveal the ideal to be both unattainable and undesirable in reality.

Although we might say (and truly believe) that all lives are equal in worth and deserving of protection, we hardly ever hold this moral principle to be absolute.  For instance, what happens when a group of people are stranded at sea, on a sinking ship, and they need to prioritize who gets into the lifeboats first (because it’s a simple fact that somebody will have to be the first one in).  The most fair thing to do would be to let people in on a first-come-first-serve basis; however, the problem then arises as to the inevitable fact that this sort of laissez-faire approach to the dilemma will create a situation in which a disproportionate number of people saved will be those most physically capable of getting to the front of the line.  In other words, just about all the children on the boat will potentially be left behind to sink.

“Fine, so let the children on first,” you might say.  But why is the life of an 8 year old worth more than that of a 20 year old in this scenario?  The latter hasn’t lived long enough to truly grow-up and experience life yet, either.  S/he might even be on the path to achieve something unimaginably beneficial for all of mankind?  So why would it be right to rob her/him of a chance to accomplish something in life simply because s/he had the bad luck of being born a few years before the prioritized group?  And what about the parents of the children who get priority–do they get a seat because their children depend on them for survival?  Does that then mean that the life of a parent is worth more than the life of a childless person?  By what right is this a fair system?

The point of the scenario described above is to illustrate that often situations arise that require us to prioritize one thing over another, which unfortunately can include prioritizing one life over another.  As much as it might go against our deepest moral inclinations, we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that we do in fact place more worth on some lives over others and see them as being deserving of greater protection; often depending on the situation we find ourselves in.  While the motivation and mentality of this truth is quite dissimilar from that which inspired the eugenicists of the early 20th Century, the underlying reasoning is certainly comparable.  And, to put it a bit controversially, this underlying reasoning does have a line of rationality behind it.  When it comes to the sort of dilemma presented above, one is faced with the harsh fact that to stubbornly hold on to the ideal of saving everybody, can yield a situation where you save nobody.  In which case, regardless of your good, sound, moral intention, it would have been equally useful if you had done nothing at all.

Everyone’s Free to be a Comedian, Just Don’t Pretend It Matters

Conversations have become a contest.  People will talk to each other, and quite often it seems the only thing carrying the discussion forward is the participants’ interest in being the one who will espouse the wittier sarcastic comment for the evening.  Which among us will be the first to point out a fellow commenter’s inferior tastes and ridicule her/his personal interests for sport?  “Pff, you actually listen to that?  No, no, I’m sure it’s great.  As long as you enjoy listening to mass-produced, watered down crap, I’m sure it’s just amazing. Hahaha!”  We are a generation of Jesters, and sarcasm is our native tongue.

It goes further than just a humorized pissing-contest to determine who is the most nonconformist of us all in regard to pop-culture trends.  Being the better joking cynic is, in and of itself, a very coveted role nowadays.  Is there anyone around who doesn’t see her/himself as the silver tongued renegade, putting those around her/him to shame with one clever phrase or pun?

Thus, the role of the Jester is romanticized as the stalwart, nobly standing for truth against an authoritarian regime.  (I believe the reminder most thrown around is how, in centuries past, it was only Jester who could mock the follies of the King.  A nuance that I have become keen on pointing out, however,  is that, no matter how clever a Jester’s words may be, they have never, and they will never, do anything to overthrow the authority of the King he mocks.)

The reason all strive to be the witty cynic, is that cynicism is at this point in time the absolute laziest form of passive resistance to whatever ills one might recognize in society.  Because it’s relatively easy to tear something down, but unfathomably hard to build anything worth looking at up in its place.  Yet, shouldn’t this last bit be the most important component of any legitimate social commentary?  If you notice that the foundation to a house is faulty, doesn’t it do more good to roll up your sleeves and think of a way by which to replace the rotting structure?  Does mocking it with your cynical wit do anything at all to point out solutions to the problem at hand?  Perhaps it gives you satisfaction, and those around you a jolly laugh, but that doesn’t change the fact that the house you’re in is sinking into the ground.  You claim you don’t care about the issue at all?  Then why bothering giving it enough of your attention to seek out and comment on at all?

When you talk to people, are you really engaging them in a conversation?  Or are you partly listening, partly waiting for a mishap on which to pounce on and demonstrate your clever wit?

What I fear is that if we become the generation that speaks in fast-paced, sarcastic soundbites, how will we communicate when the times calls for us to talk through issues which demand for us to expand our attention span past ready-made slogans, chants, and punchlines?

Jesters may be suited at pointing out problems, they are hardly fit to reason out solutions for them.