Saturday, December 5, 2015

Some Adults Are More Adult than Others

I got bogged down in a post I was trying to write about the current fuss over Political Correctness, especially the Political Correctness of young African-Americans which supposedly threatens to bring down the Republic by attacking Freedom of Speech.  Then someone linked to an article that suggested another approach to me.  Rather than add it to what I'd already written -- the subject could and should be a book, rather than an article -- I decided to explore it separately.

First the writer, one Ryan Holiday, invokes and quotes Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451; it's a stupid book, and I've discussed it before, so I won't cover it here.

Then Holiday quotes a saying of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (ca. 55-135 CE): “If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.”  He concludes,
Control and discipline of one’s own reactions make for a successful person and a functioning society. I don’t think you want to live in a world where that isn’t the expectation of each of us. I don’t think you want to see the things that will need to happen when the burden of making sure everyone is happy and not offended is put on the government—or worse, a corrupt and bitter blogosphere.

But that seems to be the road we’re going down. Even though we’ve been warned. 
I was about to say that this is incredibly dishonest, but unfortunately it's all too credible.  Anyway, I decided to track the saying down, because it sounded like the sort of thing that is made up and attributed to some famous thinker; I'd already seen it by itself in a meme that was going around Facebook.  It turned out be genuine, it's Saying 20 from the Enchiridion or Handbook.  Then I noticed that Holiday had taken it out of context.  Here's the whole passage, in another translation.
Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be hurried away with the appearance. For if you once gain time and respite, you will more easily command yourself.
I'm not entirely unsympathetic to this, but as I noticed even before I tracked it down, in use it tends to exculpate and erase the person who gives "ill language or a blow" -- he or she is also complicit in the provocation, no less than the victim.  That generally is forgotten when someone is telling someone else that the insult is all in his or her head.  As Epictetus says, it's "the principle which represents these things as insulting."  He who gives ill language or a blow is also trapped by "the appearance."  Epictetus was born a slave, and before he became a freedman was owned by a secretary of the Emperor Nero, so he had plenty of occasion to experience insults and abuse, and to learn to master himself for merely prudential reasons.

Leaving out the reference to being struck also makes things too easy for Holiday and others who cite this version of the saying.  Very often it is the better part of valor for anyone who's hit by someone who has power over them to control their emotions.  The assailant in such cases is probably using the blows to assert his or her status and remind the slave who's boss.  That doesn't mean that the slave is mistaken about the message being sent, even if he or she decides not to collude with it; nor does it mean that anyone who objects to being struck has no valid complaint and just needs to man up.  There's also a world of difference between my telling myself to practice control when someone insults me, and the person who insulted me telling me that self-control is good for my soul.  When today's straight white males are whining about the misandry of feminists who joke about subsisting on male tears, shouldn't they also take Epictetus' wisdom to heart?

That being said, let's stick to speech.  If someone calls me "faggot," I don't react by bursting into tears or clubbing him down.  I'm not even insulted, since I am indeed a faggot.  But I also recognize what the epithet means.  That is also part of what Epictetus meant, I think: the "principle which represents these things as insulting" is the system of male supremacy, in which men have power over women and not-men.  The same principle is involved in a man randomly calling a woman a "slut," or a white person calling an adult black male "boy."  The word is used performatively, to assert and assign status.  I don't take the insult personally, but I do want to challenge the "principle."  To do that, I must think about how best to do it, which will probably include joining with other fags and sluts and boys to change our society.  Meanwhile, I may respond by calling the person who called me "faggot" a bigot; he or she should, of course, take the same advice he or she would give to me, by refusing to be complicit in the provocation.  But generally they don't: their feelings are delicate and must not be bruised; I must master myself, but they need not.  I consider this a test of their sincerity.

Many of the insults that people like Ryan Holiday want to minimize and protect aren't delivered face-to-face, one-on-one.  Athletic teams with names or mascots invoking American Indians are an example of this.  I can't help wondering how American white males would react if an historically black university were to name its team the Greyboys or Rednecks or Honkies; I don't think it would go over well, especially if the mascot wore a culturally-insensitive costume. (It's entertaining to imagine what one: a backwoodsman in whiteface and bib overalls?)  At any rate, that an individual isn't being targeted specifically doesn't mean that no insult or derogation is intended.  As Joseph Heller's Yossarian says in Catch-22, just because anti-aircraft fire was trying to kill all the Allied bomber crews didn't mean they weren't trying to kill him too.

Noam Chomsky's metaphor of stepping on ants is relevant here.  He says that Americans (that's just an example, since it applies to all imperial or ruling groups) don't necessarily harbor murderous hostility to the people our police and military kill or torture, we just don't think of them as having feelings we need to respect.  (Unlike our own -- nobody's more obsessed with cultural sensitivity than an American Christian throwing a tantrum because some Muslims on the other side of the world burned a US flag or called his country "Satan.")  Analogously, Chomsky doesn't worry about stepping on ants when he walks down the street.  So the little kids whom a friend once observed Trick-or-Treating, one of whom was dressed in KKK robes, and led the other, in blackface, with a rope around his neck didn't necessarily hate African-Americans; nor did their parents, who surely approved and probably helped make the outfits.  I'm being way too generous here, because southern Indiana is Klan country.  A better way to put it is that it doesn't matter what they felt, or thought they were doing; they were embodying the principle of white supremacy enforced by racist violence.  That this implementation didn't involve overt violence doesn't change the "principle" that gave it meaning.  The ants I step on thoughtlessly are no less dead because I didn't mean to harm them, and the dusky people killed by American bombs around the world are no less dead because it never occurred to most Americans that they were people.  (No one else is allowed to kill those dusky people -- they belong to us.)

There is an issue that needs to be explored here, which is the principle of non-retaliation.  That a person who feels himself insulted by words is justified in striking back is a widespread, longstanding principle of human social life, known as "honor."  (Women are not supposed to protect their honor with violence -- the men who own them are supposed to do it for them, because a slight to one's woman's honor is a slight to one's own honor.)  It's so widespread that it might well be part of "human nature." Yet the contrary -- that one should not retaliate -- is also ancient and found all over the world: not only Jesus but Plato's Socrates and the Buddha, among others, declared it.  Yet, though it has an equal claim to being natural, it's one of those principles that is generally honored only in the breach.  In practice, only the poor and relatively powerless are seriously exhorted to live by it.  When someone is excused from that duty, it's because someone more powerful is willing to grant them something like full human status.  An example would be the sympathy expressed by many about the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  I overheard a gay Christian male I know saying in connection with that attack that while he didn't condone violence, you'd better not insult his mother and expect him not to do anything about it!  I wouldn't blame him for being angry if someone insulted his mother, but I would blame him if he hauled out an automatic weapon and shredded the offender.

Holiday wrote:
Real empowerment and respect is to see our fellow citizens—victims and privileged, religious and agnostic, conservative and liberal—as adults. Human beings are not automatons—ruled by drives and triggers they cannot control. On the contrary, we have the ability to decide not to be offended. We have the ability to discern intent. We have the ability to separate someone else’s actions or provocation or ignorance from our own. This is the great evolution of consciousness—it’s what separates us from the animals.
Here's a perfect example of the patronizing attitude I'm talking about.  By telling black students at Yale not to make a fuss over racially insensitive Halloween costumes and the whole structure of white privilege and supremacy they invoke and support, Holiday tells them they're acting like children, even like animals.  The protesters did not claim that they were "ruled by drives and triggers they cannot control"; on the contrary, by organizing a protest they showed that they were in control of their reactions.
What also separates us is our capacity for empathy. But how empathetic the speech we decide to use is choice for each one of us to make. Some of us are crass, some of us are considerate. Some of us find humor in everything, some of us do not. It’s important too—but those of us that believe it and live our lives by a certain sensitivity cannot bully other people into doing so too. That sort of defeats the purpose.
Revealingly, he doesn't really believe that the black students' protest was a choice for them to make.  They should respect the right of white students to be "crass," but they have no correponding right to be crass themselves.  Even speaking out is "bullying."  It's a fascinating repudiation of freedom of speech by Holiday. White men, unlike minorities, are entitled to panic when their conduct comes under criticism.  Seeing them as adults who can be reasoned with is bullying and shows lack of empathy.  Notice his complacent certainty that he's one of those who "live our lives by a certain sensitivity."  Notice also that he speaks of the crass and the considerate as though these were acts of God -- the crassness that falleth like rain from the heavens -- instead of choices that people make, at least when they're white males.

Notice too that Holiday, like others of his viewpoint, equivocates -- or in plainer language, plays fast and loose with -- just what is happening in this controversy.  Are the insults real, or do they exist solely in the imagination of childlike minorities who lack empathy?  If they are real, are they unintended, or is that just a defensive excuse made by people who live their lives by a certain sensitivity when they're caught exploiting their status?  Now you see the insult, now you don't.  How I'll react to various expressions of antigay bigotry depends on my assessment of these and other factors. But I'm reminded of Dorothy Dinnerstein's remark in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976) that for women to be
ready to collaborate with men ... is to have been given to understand, much more often than not, either [a] that they had no idea what you were talking about, but in any case it seemed irrelevant, or [b] that they could do the imporant part of it without you, but loved to have you around helping, minding the kids, cleaning up the shit, and looking pleasant.

This response in new left men was part, I think, of the ordinary human moral laziness that made them falter in the face of other challenges too.  But to face the narrow unintelligence of such a response, its complacent ungenerosity, is to give way to ordinary human rage, murderous rage, which one tries to handle, if one is not a murderer, by withdrawing from those who evoke it.
This doesn't solve the problem of offense and people's reaction to it; that is for the other post I'm still bogged down in.  Nor does it mean that every action by minorities is wise.  As I've said before, while overdogs are not entitled to lecture underdogs on what should offend them, those of us who are underdogs in some aspects of our lives can't take for granted that simply being underdogs gives us wisdom and discernment -- if only because we disagree with each other about which battles to take on. At some point we all need to address each other as adults.  But that's not made easier by people like Ryan Holiday.  The last thing he wants is for straight white males to be addressed as adults, because that would imply that the childlike minorities are not children but his equals -- not animals but human beings, with whom he can be expected to empathize.

No matter how empathetic and adult one succeeds in being, those who are used to privilege do not give it up easily, and will happily counsel their status-inferiors to be adult, empathetic, and above all, patient.  To take Epictetus' counsel is not to forget that abuses are happening, but it may give the abused breathing space to think how best to counter the abuses.  No effective action to do something about abuses will be acceptable to the abusers and their apologists.  But that shouldn't intimidate those who seek change.  If anything, it's one sign that the struggle is having an effect.  As the sociologist Philip Slater wrote, all real change produces a backlash; if it doesn't, it isn't real change.