Monday, October 22, 2012

The Buck Stops Here

I wrote "I find this offensive" as a comment on my friend's repost of this meme on Facebook today.  Not just because she herself posts lots of material that is offensive to various people -- it goes without saying that what is meant here is "Speak without offending me; if I offend you, you deserve it for not sharing my opinions."  Not just because being offended is one of the inevitable consequences of freedom of expression.  Not just because I think it is important to offend many people, nor do I break when I'm offended.

But the other principles here strike me as no less wrongheaded.  Pretending, for example, is an essential part of human life, from childhood to adulthood.  We pretend by imitating what we imagine adults do; we try on various selves and possibilities; and among the harder forms is trying to put ourselves in others' shoes -- which ironically enough, is another platitude beloved in these memes.  Or one might pretend to be a sane, rational, healthy person and try to become that person by practice -- another popular meme.  I suppose the meme-maker had some more specific and limited sense of "pretending" in mind, but I don't know what it was.

"Love without depending" is tricky.  Children, of course, depend on others simply to survive.  It's an unfortunate fact that many people can't be depended on, as we find when we become adults, but we still find people we can and do depend on . For many people (especially, I suspect, women) the dependable ones are friends.  Still, letting others -- and by extension, ourselves -- off the hook for keeping their word and their commitments is not a good way to live.  Here again, a reasonable caution is universalized until it becomes a counsel of fear.  To say nothing of blaming the victim: you broke your promise to me, therefore I was at fault for believing you.

"Listen without defending" is another exhortation that has limited value but shouldn't be universalized to every situation.  The other day I was seated in a restaurant next to a table where two heterosexuals were having their lunch.  The butch one was haranguing his femme for various failings; she was mostly weeping, but quietly.  This is a pattern I've seen too often over the years.  One complaint he kept repeating was that she insisted he should accept her as she is, which for some reason offended him greatly.  I only eavesdropped intermittently, but it was hard to ignore them altogether.  It is important to be able to listen to another person, but not to make yourself into a passive vessel with no needs of your own.  Especially when someone is criticizing you, it's necessary to be able to evaluate the criticism, and defend yourself if necessary.  A few years ago I realized that under attack I first apologize, then realize that I've done nothing to apologize for, and go on the offensive against the criticism.  I suppose that's not such a bad approach, but I'd fallen into it without thinking about it, too ready to assume that I was in the wrong.

One of the really hard parts of becoming an adult, I think, is that you have to learn the necessity of judgment.  You have to learn that no principle or rule fits every situation, and that you have to decide for yourself whether a given rule fits a given situation.  And the decision is yours -- one (but only one, and not universal) of the functions of religion is to enable the believer to pass the buck of moral responsibility upstairs to the higher power.  But this meme is just wrongheaded all the way.