A Sign of the Times or The Problem with Moral Judgements*

I have a problem with labeling something good or bad. Or progressive or regressive, or evil. Then again, I also have to restrain myself when I hear anyone say “I am doing good,” so this may be a personal issue. But beyond even the simple imprecision and ambiguity (if not outright inaccuracies) inherent in such statements, moral judgements are more indicative of the speaker than of what is being spoken and, in reference to history, tend to change with time.

This is hardly a revelation for me. I wrote a college entrance essay on good and evil people, arguing that there was “evil” in the best person and “good” in the worst. Claiming that there was “good” in Hitler is neither an easy nor a popular stance, but I pointed out the likelihood of “good”–I mean, Luke Skywalker succeeded in redeeming Darth Vader (though he never bothered trying with Palpatine). My point is merely that reality exists outside the human moral categories and to realize this you do not even need to resort to semantics. Since the perception of the world is relative, what is bad or inappropriate (the mild forms of evil) to one person, is good or even necessary to another. After all, the truths we cling to depend a great deal on our points of view. And here I am deliberately invoking Star Wars rather than bringing about explicit examples since (for the moment) I would rather not get mired in any sort of political debate.

None of this is comfortable for my students. Much as when I was younger I wanted to know whether the Chechens or the Russians were the good guys, they want to know the hero and the villain at each point. We are hard-wired to find the easy answer preferable even though it is rarely the right one. For one thing, have a simple good-bad dichotomy provides an easy answer to understand who to like and who not to like. Why that person is good or why that person is bad is almost secondary. These same students harbor an intriguing combination of American exceptionalism and white guilt. When presented with Mary Rowlandson, they call her an arrogant bigot who should use her time in captivity to learn about the native culture, but when asked what they would do in the same situation, they maintain that they would not do that because they are American.1 Rowlandson was the most glaring example of this thought process, but it was far from the only one. As a rule, my students did not like any of the white founders of America, then sided with the founding fathers in their revolt against England. Slavery is not something they like, however the slave owners among the founding fathers are alright. For those keeping track at home: slavery, Mary Rowlandson, England, and White colonists (besides the founding fathers and Thomas Paine), bad; founding fathers, Thomas Paine, Native Americans, good.

Objective history is a fallacy, but writing viewing history in moral terms is problematic. The context in which the events happened is generally not the same one in which it is being studied, and it cannot be understood without that context. Moreover, villainizing or heroizing events automatically twists what actually happened. History classes have come a long way, but in order to convey the importance of various events there is still a tendency to use exemplary models and reveal certain events and peoples favorably. Though I often find myself playing devil’s advocate in class, I often do not need to make an intellectual stretch to find arguments in favor of the unpopular side during class, since that is often the side I support. The big issue I am encountering is that there are the two divergent beliefs that my students hold: a certain superiority on account of being here in college in America, and the condemnation of all evil, but only in the most superficial way.2 The two are apparently mutually exclusive, since very often the students will condemn things their ancestors did to produce the society of which they are so proud, and entirely overlook the ways in which they are no different.

I have no solution.

* This post has a large number of currents running through it, so rather than having any particular foundation, it (to me) seems to simply emerge partially formed from the swirling thoughts inside my head. Influences on it include teaching nearly 80 freshmen, literary theory, personal anecdotes, and the present political and paedogogical mileiu. If it seems disjointed, I apologize in advance.
1 I actually did this during class and the exact response I got was “Of course not. I’m American.”
2 This is something I refer to as the Beauty Pageant approach. You know the answer you should say (e.g. “World Peace”), but not how to accomplish that goal or anything beyond how it is a good thing.

There are even fewer edges than there were before

It is the price of civilization and, perhaps, safety. Some people would even characterize this as “good.” I would rather get lost in a strange place where I do not speak the language. Provided, anyway that I see a very small number of guns and those that I do see are being responsibly handled and not pointed at me.1 Sure, getting dropped off at a stoplight in the middle of nowhere in August in Greece is a little bit nerve-wracking (particularly if you had already spent hours lost and aren’t sure how to get back onto a bus), but there is also something exhilarating about it. The same goes for sitting in a rural town square surrounded by children on bicycles, or sleeping beneath the Blue Mosque, or on a bench in Delphi where you learn about the multiple uses for your towel. Wandering in forests holds much of the same thrill, but city parks where the nature is “tamed” hardly counts.

According to Stephen Pinker organized violence is at an all-time low (based on percentages), though individual homicide may be up. I would hope, anyway, that the latter is largely preventable. I have not read Pinker’s latest book, but I do understand the logic behind his argument.2 The idea is the civilization limits people. In theory the government will regulate businesses so that the rich and powerful do not prey upon the weak. The rule of law, and the law for the people seems to be spreading around the world as technology brings people closer together and brings people closer together than ever before. Imagine. Anne Frank’s diary run through multiple routers to mask her location and the tribulations of being a Jew in Europe during world broadcast daily via a blog or twitter. Photos posted to Facebook, and a series of innocuous cameras broadcasting Nazi activity from Paris, Brussels, and Munich around the clock. A contraband cellphone into Auschwitz. It is likely a false hope, but I would hope this would stir the world to outrage.

In no way do I want a repeat of World War Two. I reflect on it now in large part because of the historians (in particular) who fought and died during the war. Marc Bloch fought in both World Wars and after joining the French Resistance was caught, tortured, and killed. Nicholas Hammond served as a commando in Greece. War is terrible and it certainly cannot make someone into something he is not. Nonetheless there is no motivation like necessity. People have phenomenal capacity, but I feel that many are not tested. When they are, the tests are muted.

I do not mean to insult anyone with this statement. People need to find their own way in life and do what is fulfilling for them. Raising children is a monumental task and one that (at the moment) I do not wish to undertake. That is because I can and want to do more. Yet we are trained to be interchangeable parts in a factory or business setting. Slaves to the clock, move with the bell, travel in a pack largely passive to the leadership figure at the front. Sometimes this is for the best. In a factory, or a business meeting, or the military. Survival in many instances requires knowing how to follow the leader. It also requires knowing how and when to take control and that is not something that schools teach. In fairness to the schools, though, leadership is not something that can be taught–only encouraged. Certain aspects, techniques, and ideas can be taught, but when it comes to actual leadership, the only way to teach it is to experience it. The opportunities to lead need to be provided, the same way as opportunities to think, problem solve, and, yes, memorize. The validity of the sole authority figure does need to be challenged to some extent, at least. I don’t think revolution is the answer, but placing more responsibility on the pack is a must.

Of course the problem with this demand is that the institution is designed to turn out a particular model of human being–a trained, if not entirely mindless, automaton. And by making it a requirement for people to attend school, there is an institutional imperative to make sure that people will not, ultimately, fail. Nor do I want them to. Not truly. The problem with edges is that sometimes you fall off. You may not ever reach your full potential without them, without the push, the adrenaline, the challenge. Edges still exist, they are just harder to find. So go, find one. Look down.

There is always that danger, the chance of falling. Depending on translation for both Suleiman and Ivan, their honorific may mean “terrible” or “great.” Awesome and Awful may as well mean the same thing. Mr. Kurz did not reach his full ability until he was loosed of the bounds of civilization, but simultaneously lost everything. Civilization is supposed to be safety, and perhaps it is. But there is a price.3

1 When I was in Istanbul and lost in a neighborhood I did see a kid with a gun, but he was using it for target practice under the supervision, it seemed, of adult relatives.
2 My only logical quibble is that if the percentage overall is down, the population has risen exponentially in the last century, while the crowded nature of the world makes it easier to kill the same total number of people. Furthermore, technology makes genocide ever more possible in limited situations. I suppose I could add to this that it may be the calm before the storm as we are beginning to see more and more unrest with governments around the world and more people scrambling for dwindling resources. If people are willing to literally fight for an x-box on special, what will they do for the last bag of flour? But it has not come to that yet. Not here, anyway.
3 This post serves no real purpose. It is collected thoughts about an issue that is very, very old. For my part, I find myself needing to find some more edges. I can do more, I know it, but only by breaking free of the institutional restraints, even just a little and for a little while. Periodically I made a few unnamed references. They include: Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and one episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.