Tuesday, June 14, 2016

But Enough About You

The advice columnist Miss Manners made a curious and, I think, revealing misstep in answering a question on Sunday.  The questioner asked what to say on "learning that a friend has stage 4 cancer," if not "You will be in my prayers."  What if you're dealing with a selfish, unfeeling cancer patient who is "not of the same religious beliefs or is an atheist"?

Miss Manners suggested a good alternative -- "I am terribly sorry.  I'll be hoping for the best.  I hope you know how much I care for you" -- but framed it oddly.
There is the religious angle that you raise, though Miss Manners would think that a nonreligious person could appreciate a religious person's seeking the solace in which he or she believes.
I've read this and its context several times to try to be sure I understand it.  So, when a religious person's friend is terminally ill and the religious person promises to pray, it is for his or her own solace, not for the solace or benefit of the sick person?  I wouldn't be surprised, but I thought that there was usually at least a pretense that the prayer is offered on behalf of the other, not for oneself.  You learn something new every day!

Another of my Facebook friends and I have been disputing something related.  She's about my age, we went to the same high school, she's nominally liberal politically, she hates Trump and likes Hillary.  She likes to post feel-good memes, and last Saturday night she posted one that said "Do good and good will come to you."

We've had some exchanges about karma and related doctrines before.  I commented that I disagree. There are no payoffs, there is no karma. If you do good hoping to receive good in return, you'll soon be embittered. If you don't expect it, you'll often be pleasantly surprised. (And this leaves aside the very difficult question of what "good" is.)

My friend initially replied, "Oh, there IS karma, but you shouldnt liken karma with a fairy godmother.....it doesnt work that way, but there are times when there is such karma with others that its a delight to know about."  This was odd, because the whole point of the meme she'd posted is that karma (or whatever) is like a fairy godmother: do good, and you'll receive good.

We went back and forth a bit on whether "there IS karma," and a mutual FB friend admonished us that no one knows with 100% certainty what happens to us after death.  First, we weren't talking about what happens after death: the meme promises reward in this life.  Second, and more important, we do know with close to 100% certainty that bad things happen to good people and vice versa, because we can see it in the world around us.  That's what's known in philosophy as the Problem of Evil.  People have been grappling with it for thousands of years. To promise blandly "Do good and good will come to you" is to lie.  Even my friend recognizes this on some level, since she tried to backtrack a bit with the "fairy godmother" move.  But she continued to insist that karma is real, and that it works.  Maybe I should press her more to explain how karma works, if it's not a "fairy godmother," but I don't think she could articulate it; her idea of reasoned discussion is to report what a distinguished psychic told her.  Maybe I should press her on it anyway.  

After all, the Buddha is reported to have told a professional soldier who consulted him "that if the latter were to die on the battlefield he could expect to be 'reborn in a hell or as an animal' for his transgressions" (Brian Victoria, Zen War Stories, Routledge, 2003).  The Buddha took the safe path by threatening post-mortem punishment; Jesus of Nazareth, less cautiously, warned that "All who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52), which is as transparently false as "Do good and good will come to you."  Many professional soldiers have died in bed, and many if not most people who've been killed in war were non-combatants.  But both of these teachers presented karmic justice as a "fairy godmother," if a highly punitive one.

That good people do sometimes flourish and bad ones sometimes suffer isn't evidence for the meme's truth.  The distribution of good and bad fortune could just as easily be random.  I think it probably is, once you look beyond face-to-face personal relations, and even in that very restricted realm, there are no guarantees.  What this means is that pointing to "karma" or "You reap what you sow" (to which I'll return presently) or similar doctrines is not a fact about the world, but a person's interpretation and judgment about the world.  This is of course true of everything we say about the world, but I'm stressing it here because my friend, like so many people who share her attitude, loves to invoke karma when she's feeling Schadenfreude because someone she dislikes has taken a pratfall.

A few months ago while I was among a small group of people waiting for a bus, a young woman began talking to no one in particular about a former boss who'd treated her badly (I don't remember the details). After she left that job she saw in the newspaper that her former boss had been physically attacked for being Muslim. "I guess it was her karma," said the young woman complacently.  No one said anything.  I considered suggesting that working for that woman was her karma, but I chickened out.

Since then I've begun commenting when people on Facebook invoke karma in connection with other people's misfortunes.  None of them have done a good job of justifying their highly selective use of the concept; as with Christian belief in Hell, they don't seem to like to think about the possibility that bad karma might catch up with them, or with people they like, and they consider it very bad form to remind them of it.  Like Hell, karma is for other people, bad people, for Donald Trump -- not for good, nice people like them.

But if "there IS karma," it is no respecter of persons.  But as I've said before, it would be highly offensive to apply it to the drowned Syrian toddler who washed up on a Turkish beach last year.  Or to the victims of the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the morning after my friend posted her meme.  Which wouldn't mean that bad karma wasn't involved, only that people are often unwilling to follow their own logic to its unpleasant conclusion.  And there's nothing unusual about that.  I think that people talk about karma or "You reap what you sow" (and Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick did just that when he quoted Galatians 6:7 on his Twitter account on Sunday morning after the massacre) or other similar proverbial bullshit, less because they mean it than as a warding-off of the evil eye, to try to distract karma from their own doorsteps.  It's often women who sniff "What was she doing out alone at that hour anyway?" when a woman is raped, for example.  (The Stanford rape victim must have had bad karma too.  But then so did her rapist, whose apologists whine that his life is ruined by the notoriety he received and the judicial slap he was given on his lily-white wrist.)  My mother used to harumph, "Where are their parents?" when juvenile delinquency was reported on the evening news; if my brothers and I misbehaved, though, it wasn't her fault, she'd done her best with us, etc.

Magical thinking is something we fall back on in situations we can't control or make sense of, as Bronislaw Malinoswki found of Trobriand Islanders who had rigorous, practical, rational lore for sailing in the relatively safe inner lagoons, and magic for sailing on the more dangerous open sea.  But I think we must challenge magical thinking when it takes inhumane forms like belief in karma and "You reap what you sow."  I don't think that the Problem of Evil, insoluble though it is, is too complex for most people to understand.  Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for expecting my less-intellectual friends to inform themselves and learn to think about these matters.  Critical thinking is not just for academic elites; I once disputed with a nice liberal fellow who said that ordinary people don't need to learn to think critically.  Excuse me, I replied, but ordinary people are expected to vote, which requires critical thinking if it's to be done responsibly; just shopping at the supermarket, let alone for a car or a house, involves considering and weighing alternatives.  Ordinary citizens cultivate thinking skills in dealing with spectator sports; as Noam Chomsky has observed, they are often very well-informed and won't defer to the authority of coaches and team owners.  This is permitted because such knowledge and skill has no real social consequences, while thinking about politics and morality might lead to restiveness and rebellion against the legitimate rulers of society.  I don't know how well most people can learn to think critically, but I don't trust the elites who prefer that the proles leave the thinking to them.  After all, the elites have shown consistently that they aren't smart or rational either.