May 13, 2003
I would wish the world and everyone in it happiness -- but increasingly it seems to me that what most people seek is not truly happiness but control over others, for the purpose of keeping others from gaining control over oneself. Such control is frequently insidious in the guises it takes: it might well be most frequently encountered as the desire to remain within comfortable and familiar environments (and consequently to continually attempt to mould one's surroundings and one's neighbours according to that familiar model) -- perhaps to preempt our own potential unhappiness, perhaps to preempt another's before it makes us unhappy. (After all, since we must imagine others in our own image, such imposed control over others only preempts their own determination to do the same.) Occasionally this drive to control others first so that they cannot control oneself has been labelled "freedom".
It seems to be more important to us as human beings to hold power over another than to be co-equals with another. Yet conversely (and perversely), we far more frequently tend to compare our current status always to those higher than us (what we don't have that they do) rather than to those of less (what we have that they do not). Thus that most common of justifications: "But just look at what they are getting away with!" Thus those of us who are not near one of the extremes have an extremely difficult time estimating our real level of wealth. Ironically, some studies have suggested that degree of personal job satisfaction is highest where there is least variation between co-workers within the entire job field: ie. where radical changes of skills and lifestyle and "sideways" transfer would be required to enter a job field within which there was a greater variation of relative status.
It is one of the wonderful irrationalities of the human being that so many of us are so determined to place another person in a position of authority over ourselves -- and at the same time resent that authority. It is an extremely fine line between worshipping the crutch, and resenting it, and finally hating it.
Even more dangerously, there seems to be a growing actual confusion between the determination to control others and the determination not to be controlled by others, perhaps precisely as a result of the above-mentioned perception of an apparent need to control in order not to be controlled by others. Thus, as simple an action as saying "No (thank you)" to a demand (tacit or explicit) or a theory or a way of life is increasingly interpreted as a threat to or even a personal attack upon the proposer. Any such threat must at all costs be discredited or removed. A friend of mine interpreted this as
when you say "I don't accept the theory" they hear "You are wrong"
which I would qualify as: "the theory as it touches anyone other than the proposer". What touches the proposer only, be it a demand (tacit or explicit) or a theory or a way of life, is a pure extension of the proposer: as such, there can be no challenge to it which is not also an (implicit) attempt to control the proposer, to exert power over the proposer. Yet the moment its relevance or effects touch anyone other than the proposer, saying "No (thank you)" to that demand (tacit or explicit) or theory or way of life becomes a rejection of (implicit) control by the proposer.
This applies equally, I think, on a national basis: the manner of international interaction echoing exactly the manner of individual interaction.
It is possible that this confusion arises directly from the tight relationship between perception of control and perception of power. As with control, power is perceived to be taken -- but is in reality ceded by the one over whom power is exercised. To begin to truly know a person, give them power. No individual can truly begin to understand themself until they have held power over others, and recognised the effects upon themselves of their having wielded such power. No one can even begin to know another unless they have seen how that other holds power. Occasionally the exercise of power has been a freeing action. More often, it enslaves the person wielding it: because the single most common outcome of power is to use that power in order to preserve and/or increase that power.
Power inverts! No government can long stay in power without having been granted power by its people. Reputation, appearance, possessions: all represent a form of power granted by the possessor to those who observe. What can I not bear to live without? To what extent am I the slave of my possessions? Owning extreme amounts of money allows one to shape environment to conform to one's own image: but not only amputates ability to survive outside that environment and creates or augments fear of its loss, but also sublimates personal perception of worth to the observer. To what extent am I the slave of my current freedom of movement? I lose a leg, hand, eyes, freedom of breath: do I lose myself thereby? Appreciate, certainly! but what is taken for granted becomes our sole, self-defined value in life. Lose it: and what remains? Goldfish bowls.
And yet, once entered into: a vicious cycle. Fear of loss of power demanding its continual use to consolidate power and to increase power. Occasionally preservation/increase of power is accomplished through brute strength in the appropriate field; more common and more subtle is gradual selective disenfranchisement. The first is readily recognisable. The second can be nearly invisible.
Is there still any interest in the common good? Can there be, in a society which promotes the ideal of (enlightened?) self-interest based primarily upon appearances? Should there be? I would think such interest cannot exist without translation into some degree of responsibility by those designated equally by society and themselves as élite to those not already selected as its own successors. (For every society, as every person, seeks to perpetuate itself. A responsibility only to one's own class is nothing other than investing in the continuation of the familiar.) One argument in favour of such responsibility borrows from the idea of genetic diversity ... yet without continual input of fresh but compatible thought, stratification might become stagnant and ultimately unstable: thus an interest in the common good, by creating an environment from which an occasional isolated recruitment might be possible from 'outside', might actually serve to preserve the existing structure by allowing, even encouraging, the possibility of movement within it. Related lines of speculation also argue in favour of social programmes by way of reducing the social instability likely to arise when stratified polarity reaches critical levels.
From this pov, self-interest arguments, power arguments, control arguments all would seem to translate into a continual reaffirmation and self-justification of the existing structure.
This is where the Nietzschean interaction with postmodernism falls short: where all things reduce to power, equally all things reduce eventually to being oneself in the power of another. It is the exact opposite of the freedom Nietzsche sought! Where morality is based on freedom of the herd as defined by relative power, one's ability to be free must be limited by one's ability to take -- and that ability invariably must be fenced in by everyone else’s equal demand to take take take.
No one else can limit one's ability to give.
What is given, is faith in others.
Detachment and compassion (empathy, generosity of spirit, love) are the two parts of faith. Detachment is the anchor. Compassion is the compass. Caring is the glue that binds a disparate humanity -- that grants immortality. Without compassion one must work to care. Without detachment it becomes only too easy to become overwhelmed by surrounding and immediate pain and suffering, especially of those considered closest, most familiar -- and compassion which is forced by its environment to begin to close off, to shut away, has precisely the same value as a set of core beliefs sidestepped at every difficulty in following them. (Personal core beliefs have a personal value precisely equivalent to the degree to which one is willing to give of oneself in order to transcend obstacles rather than compromise those beliefs.)
Compassion is precisely that greater responsibility implied by a true interest in the common -- in the greater good. Responsibility implies neither blame nor credit. The first states only that some action or lack of action contributed to a specific event; the second and third give moral weight to that action or lack of action -- and morality, as a societal construct, cannot be absolute outside an all-encompassing society. Yet any cause-effect or even catalyst-effect association seems to evoke not only the question of responsibility but also, immediately, the question of blame and/or credit. Thus I find it personally more useful to think in terms of symptom (expression), syndrome, primal force: this combination of these trends within this environment following this series of events expressed itself through this person's actions, be those actions as common a thing as to use birth control or not, or as unique a thing as to clone a sheep. Choice? Influence? The person did personally take the action, and thus the person does bear responsibility for that action and its foreseeable consequences (and responsibility also for preempted foreseeable consequences as a result of that action, eg. not contributing to a possible undesired pregnancy by using a condom): but someone, somewhere, was going to take that action simply as an expression of the underlying syndrome. How, then, to assign a moral value to the isolated individual action? Would we not have to begin by assigning a moral value to the underlying syndrome first? And if to that, why not ultimately to the primal force of which all else is expression? The person took the action. They are responsible for its foreseeable consequences, both actual and preempted. Leave it there.
Detachment allows the potential to know and understand and appreciate without being drowned in the knowing -- for it is absolutely, absolutely imperative that faith see clearly, both the strengths and the vulnerabilities. Flaying truths, sometimes. But faith without seeing even the most unwanted vulnerabilities is blind: true seeing will shake it to its foundations. Faith does not subrogate the possibility of criticism and even flaying criticism: only the determination to act on that criticism by taking control, taking power. Every human being does what they do for a reason. To take control, even out of love ("I know better than you what is best for you"), is to abrogate faith in that person by sublimating their own (probably even unknown!) motivations to one’s own superior ones.
And yet: another may give over control out of their own faith in the person to whom the control is being ceded. I trust you. You know my vulnerabilities, here. I trust you to help me through this rough patch. I trust you not to take advantage of my trust. And the one being given control, if they have faith in the giver: they will know to give what is needed and only what is needed. They will be able to step underneath and support when support is needed – and they will also know to step aside when that support is no longer needed, or when that support is in danger of becoming a crutch. Consider how many teenagers at one and the same time resent the limitations being drawn -- and yet seek of their parents that limits will be set, trusting the parents to do so out of love and a true awareness of the teen's limitations of knowledge, and not out of a continued need to control the no-longer-child. Faith is not only refusing control for its own sake, but knowing how to use what control is given such that it corresponds to the known limits of the other -- and faith staggers where either party comes to realise that the limits which are being set correspond not to the ability of the one being limited to deal, but to limitation of knowledge by the one setting the limits or, more dangerously, to determination to subordinate the other within one's own need to control.
Flaying truths, sometimes: but you will know the difference between those given in a generosity of spirit and those given out of seeking to retain power. Power when those truths seek to limit and bind the other into control. Faith when those truths seek only to free.