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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

That Sense Of Wrongness

I was going to title this one "Our Silliness", but that doesn't capture the depth of the issues. Ilona of True Grit has captured that depth in her Townhall post Evil - Getting The Best Of Us. She is writing about the Amish schoolhouse shootings primarily, but it doesn't end there:
So talk of the loss prayer in schools and abortion effects, these are simply outcomes... outcomes of something else that is gone very wrong in a big way in our entire society.

People like to reduce it to politics. Right..Left... But I think we are seeing, more often, that the problems are more fundamental and mere political solutions are not going to be enough for the pervasive problems. As fractional a percentage as these events are, they are striking deeply into the way people live, and I think some of the reason for that is the breakdown in trust that our society is able to get things right.

Get what things right?... and what fundamentally is going so wrong? As with the talk of school prayer, etc, lots of times we see it as just a generic loss of faith, of the sense of God, and at its deepest roots I suppose that is the truest way of expressing it, but not too helpful in understanding what has gone so wrong and what to do about it. Because, rationally, we can't just make people start to believe in God and respect His order for the universe. Which is why looking at matters piecemeal, such as attributing the proliferation of abortion to the lack of respect for life isn't really of much usefulness. It could be just as much the other way around in cause and effect: maybe it is the loss of respect for and understanding of life which has led to the horrendous abortion situation.
I think that last sentence sums it up perfectly. We have lost our respect and understanding of life. Our society suffers from a learned ignorance about life. We want to remake the whole deal to our satisfaction - just smooth out the troubling corners. We want to bang those nasty square pegs of life into our neat little round holes which we have so carefully arranged in a pattern pleasing to us. Unfortunately, they don't fit, and splinters are flying everywhere.

Ilona goes on to make some other extraordinarily acute points, and therefore painful points:
I realize the discussion on moral relativity is an old one, and merits a yawn, but that is why I think it is the more dangerous: we have become so inured to it, and so caught up with the various battlegrounds on specific issues that it is as though we were mired in quicksand of abysmal moral decay. Fighting the issues allows our greater society to slide ever more easily and ignored, while Left and Right duke it out on their preferred platforms.
...laws don't mandate morality... it is rather the opposite. And that is where our work is to be done.

I think Americans in their love for and sense of individuality forget the power of the group, of peers in moderating behavior.
Her points here are really not debatable, but they are generally ignored in the "preferred platforms" of Left and Right. SC&A has a somewhat more male version of the same observations up today:
Many on the Right (and as with the Left, not all), would best allow God his primacy. In other words, we would best focus on our relations with our fellow man as our principal concern. Let’s allow God to deal with man’s relation with Him.

Not everybody is religious- or of one single religion- and religion holds no ownership over meaning and morality. If it did, we’d live in a perfect world.
This is not a statement about relativism - it's a statement about the need to return to first principles. Or, to put it another way, the James vs. Paul argument is never-ending. Is it conduct or faith? I have always tended more to James; his argument is by far the more difficult, but by far the truer to Jesus' statement that he has come to fulfill the law of Moses. It's way too easy for the average Christian to change the idea that grace is bestowed so that we can stop doing damage to the idea that because we believe we have grace and so we don't need to worry about doing damage.

Don't forget SC&A's statement that "we would best focus on our relations with our fellow man as our principal concern." I'll be getting back to the importance of it.

But for now, back to the screaming truth of Ilona's assertions. First, all behavior that is morally wrong should not be illegalized. Social disapproval works better, and it is cheaper too. I regret having to mention Foley's name again, but his behavior and our response to it is the classic indicator of our moral confusion. First, he's hardly unique. WND published an article reviewing the treatment of some cases of female teachers who had sex with actual minors, and the light punishment:
A popular middle school teacher, 43-year-old Pamela Diehl-Moore, had tearfully pleaded guilty to having sex with a child – a 13-year-old male student who had just completed 7th grade – and now stood before a Hackensack, N.J., judge awaiting sentencing.
"I really don't see the harm that was done here," the judge proclaimed, "and certainly society doesn't need to be worried. I do not believe she is a sexual predator. It's just something between two people that clicked beyond the teacher-student relationship."
"Maybe it was a way for him, once this happened, to satisfy his sexual needs," the judge added. "People mature at different rates." Gee thanks, Judge.

According to court transcripts, Gaeta summed up his shocking judicial leniency this way: "I don't see anything here that shows this young man has been psychologically damaged by her actions. And don't forget, this was mutual consent. Now certainly under the law, he is too young to legally consent, but that's what the law says. Some of the legislators should remember when they were that age. Maybe these ages have to be changed a little bit."
In yet another recent court case, U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten in Kansas also questioned whether sex with kids was really bad.

"Where is the clear, credible evidence that underage sex is always injurious? If you tell me because it is illegal, I reject that," Marten said, according to the Associated Press.
A lot of people were provoked by these judicial pronouncements, but let us not forget that one of our Supreme Court justices favored lowering the age of legal consent to 12. These judges are by no means out of the mainstream. Now the above examples are much more serious misbehavior than Foley's, and the conduct is absolutely illegal, but in absence of the moral disapproval, even the laws will not be enforced.

We have two different views of sex in this society. One axis forms around the idea that if the person truly wants it, and truly consents, nothing is wrong. Taken to its logical conclusion, this means that if the most dedicated masochist meets the most enthusiastic sadist, the resultant corpse is nothing more than the product of a mutually satisfactory, consensual and fulfilling encounter which is nobody else's business. Such cases do come to courts, btw. This is no hypothetical.

The other view, at its most basic, is that any kind of sexual conduct with another person cannot be conducted as if that other person is an inanimate object. In this view, both persons involved in the encounter are responsible for the outcomes for both persons, and responsible to society as well. This is a moral position, and it does basically stem from Ilona's "the respect for and understanding of life." This axis would view the dead body resulting from the S&M encounter as a grievous abuse of life, and thus a moral crime, and a moral crime so serious that it should be illegal.

To me the second position is the only possible one, and all efforts to dodge around it lead us rapidly into dysfunction so severe that large numbers of deaths and injuries result. We're all going to fall short of the level of personal responsibility mandated by the second view, and so this is also the less smug of the two views. If you hold the first view, on one level or another you somewhat enjoy hearing about another person's bad sexual conduct, because it justifies your own. If you hold the second, hearing about other person's bad sexual conduct is bound to make you uncomfortable, because it reminds you of your own. For examples, please see these posts by Assistant Village Idiot and Kobayashi Maru.

There are other implications to holding the first view. Since moral disapproval really doesn't come into play, the actual laws are constantly hardened. Ages of consent in the US are rapidly being revised upward, and this is why. If one has nothing to lose in society as the result of bad sexual behavior - if one can't lose respect in the community, if one cannot be ostracized, if one cannot lose a job - then the only hammer left is the law. However, that does not last long. If you hold the first view, the battle then becomes a clash not on the basis of outcomes, but on the basis of disapproval. We shift the debate from objective standards to feelings, and debates conducted on the basis of feelings are exceptionally passionate and nonsensical.

I hate to do this, but here I am going to call out Andrew Sullivan, who closed his comments on the Foley affair with this:
What I do know is that the closet corrupts. The lies it requires and the compartmentalization it demands can lead people to places they never truly wanted to go, and for which they have to take ultimate responsibility. From what I've read, Foley is another example of this destructive and self-destructive pattern for which the only cure is courage and honesty. While gays were fighting for thir basic equality, Foley voted for the "Defense of Marriage Act". If his resignation means the end of the closet for him, and if there is no more to this than we now know, then it may even be for the good. Better to find integrity and lose a Congressional seat than never live with integrity at all.
First, let's be honest about this. It seems beyond question that Foley was over-friendly with the pages and pursued those acquaintances beyond work for the purposes of fulfilling his sexual interest in teenaged boys. Andrew seems to be conceding that this is wrong behavior, but he also seems to be implying that it was somehow caused by being in the closet.

But if this behavior was indeed wrong, and if the revelation of the behavior rightfully caused Foley to lose his seat, then Foley was doomed to be in the closet regardless of whether he was in office or out of office. On the one hand, Sullivan is insisting that gay people aren't automatically kid-chasers. But if they aren't, than the sexual orientation that Foley is battling is not same-sex. It's something quite different. It's not as if Foley couldn't get adult sexual partners. It's not as if sleeping with a 25 year old was going to get him tossed. Barney Frank's escapade with his pro boyfriend kind of removed the blackmail potential. Regardless of what Andrew thinks, the majority of Republicans really are not about harassing gays for being gay. Foley wasn't in a pretend marriage or anything like that. He wasn't in a conservative district. He probably could have gone and gotten civil unioned or whatever in Vermont with no restrictions. For that matter, I believe Palm Beach offers a domestic partnership registration. But I very, very much doubt that they extend that to 16 year olds, so that wasn't an option for Foley.

What Foley was in the closet about was his interest in very young males. Now, that interest is either wrong or right. I think it is dead wrong, because I am a second view sort of person. A relationship with such an imbalance is not healthy, and it never will be, and I don't need any tablet of stone or voice from heaven to tell me that. If you believe the only standard for sexual relationships is mutual gratification, then you don't see a problem with this behavior. Sullivan needs to make up his mind as to what he believes, and stick to it. I'm really irked by Sullivan's blurriness here, because I do believe that living a life of lies is unhealthy in most circumstances, and I don't want gays or lesbians forced to live sneaking lives. I don't want them publicly mocked. I don't want them tossed out of jobs.

I also don't want anyone forced to publicly endorse their behavior as being wonderfully healthy if they don't believe it is. It's a subtle little thing called freedom, which always and forever will cut both ways. If you claim the freedom to do it publicly, then you have to be prepared to deal with the fact that people may express their disapproval publicly. It should not extend to harassment, but no one is guaranteed endorsement for everything they do. In writing about McGreevey, Sullivan makes it quite clear that succumbing to a sense of shame is the real sin as far as he's concerned:
In so far as someone like Jim McGreevey has, for whatever reason, overcome his shame, then I have no interest in judging him. I feel glad he has found some happiness at last, despite his past corruption, human flaws and past opposition to marriage equality.
Oh crap! I darned well hope that McGreevey does have some sense of shame for putting his lover or victim on the public dime, and I darned well hope that McGreevey does retain a sense of shame for cheating on his wives. Furthermore, that snotty, oh-so-difficult little line in the Lord's Prayer asking God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us means that our forgiveness may not be conditional, unless we want God to forgive us conditionally.

What Sullivan really means here is that he thinks having moral doubts about being a gay male is unforgiveable, and since he has managed to step over that boundary he feels no need to get forgiveness. Unfortunately, those Amish families taking up a collection for the shooter's kids are way better at understanding this mandate of God's than Andrew. It's not "forgive others for your sins, but forgive others for their sins against you." I cannot let such bad theology pass, because it's too dangerous. Sullivan is pushing a fundamentalism of his own on this topic. He may be right about the danger of shame about same-sex orientation, but if so this righteousness is producing a remarkably confused expression of his thinking.

According to the Pope, the pathology is not in having a same-sex orientation but in acting on it. According to Sullivan, the pathology is not the act but being ashamed of it. I feel utterly unqualified to judge the whole matter, and it's the least of my worries, frankly, although I do think anal sex is so unhealthy that it's a sinful act, just as smoking is. And it's kind of like smoking around someone else, isn't it? (And btw, I do smoke. And I do think it's morally wrong, although I don't think it causes global warming. I do feel that I am committing a sin by doing it, because it's a destructive habit. I am working on stopping. Evil M_O_M is not feeling very righteous in herself. Having thought it over, I feel as if there are several extraordinarily good reasons why this habit of mine is much more wrong than it is in most people.)

And I do think promiscuity is so unhealthy that it's a sinful act, because all I have to do is look at the STD stats for kids to see the type of damage that sleeping around is doing. But I don't think that romantic love between people of the same sex is inherently sinful. I'm - too Jewish in my understanding of the Old Testament for that. I don't think the Ten Commandments were a bunch of silly random rules handed out by a capricious God for his own viewing pleasure as he watches our contortions in some game of cosmic Twist. Instead, it seems to me that they are guidelines for avoiding human suffering.

I have yet to see two men turn green and drop dead for holding hands, or two lesbians cough, choke and collapse from staring into each others' eyes. When I do, I'll take a firm position on the matter. On the other hand, making the sexual rounds does seem to produce a whole lot of disease and death even today with modern medicine. If same-sex attraction becomes a barrier to forming real relationships, then I guess it is sinful, but that, to me, is something that people have to hash out for themselves. There are such things as natural hermaprodites; I see no reason why that condition couldn't occur in the brain, the most basic sexual organ. On the other hand, that can also be an experience-produced condition, as Gaghdad Bob remarks in a rather tragic aside in this post and the comments:
For example, I once had an elderly patient with a shoe fetish. His entire sex life revolved around fancy high heeled shoes--wearing them, having sex with them, wearing them while having sex, etc.
In his case, his mother died when he was around five years old, and he remembers caressing certain objects of hers for comfort, especially her shoes. Very sad, really.
This makes utter sense; here a natural mating drive has been mapped onto an inanimate object through a collating error. It's very similar to the phenomenon of imprinting, in which a hawk which has never been around another hawk will get romantically attached to his keeper's hat, or a turtle will become passionately involved with his attendant's shoe. The tragedy lies in the fact that shoes are, quite literally, cold comfort. The barrenness, both psychic and sexual, often produced by such a situation is a real human deprivation, and so is the lack of meaningful relationships induced by grab-n-go sex. Many people want to split the sex from the relationship, but I think this is unlikely to happen successfully, since sex is deeply related in most of us to our instinctual mating drives.

I will point out that my basic standards are hardly exclusive to gays, or for that matter, lesbians, and that the reason society no longer expresses disapproval of promiscuity is simply that it is too painful for heterosexuals to confront our own failings in that regard. On the other hand, homosexuals often seem to want to have it both ways. It's not about the romantic love, but also about the fidelity. It's not, in other words, just about feelings for each other, but also in your conduct to each other.

So I really don't agree with the standard that Sullivan is setting forth in this post, because I am quite sure that he would agree that doing harm to each other in the context of a sexual relationship is not healthy. Otherwise, he wouldn't be advocating for gay marriage, now would he? Sullivan's "shame is sinful" thing might work for him, but it doesn't work for Foley. Foley's got another problem. Now, I would guess that Foley's drive to pursue boys is at least as deep as my ahem, less than spiritual appreciation for men. Probably deeper, because I have never run such risks to satisfy it and I wouldn't. Not that I'm boasting, because I still haven't quit smoking.

So no matter how you slice it and dice it, for at least some people a real and deep desire is going to be frustrated if we apply the "don't destroy" standard not only to smoking but to sex. This, I think, is what has Sullivan tied in knots in this instance. This is what has our entire society tied in knots. We really know that falling deeply and romatically in love with a person other than your spouse is something that could happen to any of us. We really know that it's a betrayal if we act on it. Accepting that the interests of other human beings sometimes conflict with our deepest desires and that we will have to set our deepest desires aside is a very hard and painful thing to do. No matter how you play with the pegs, someone always is going to be faced with deprivation of a real and painful sort.

We really do know. We just want to pretend we don't. And here is where I come back to SC&A's statement that "we would best focus on our relations with our fellow man as our principal concern." If we do, a whole lot of dodging around our own willfully created blind spots is eliminated. We all know we shouldn't smoke around our kids, because it's not good for them. We all know we shouldn't betray someone who relies on us. We all know that we shouldn't be agents of destruction in life. It's just that we want to claim that in our own cases, the whole standard is just to difficult and therefore unfair. But if it is an objective standard, it isn't unfair. It isn't any unfairer than a doctor having to look you in the eye, tell you that you have cancer, and proceed to discuss the necessary loss of your leg.

If you want to gripe about the unfairness of life, feel free to do so to God, but I still don't believe that it allows you or me to be reckless with the lives and needs of other human beings. The idea that we have the right to transmit our misery to other human beings is at the root of that "loss of respect for life and understanding of it" that Ilona names. We do not have the right to inflict suffering upon others because we suffer. Sullivan's confusion is our confusion; we have lost the ability to say "that's wrong", because at heart we are somewhat fair or somewhat cowardly. If we are fair, we do realize that we should try to live up to our standards before handing them off; if we are cowardly we simply want to impose the "no criticism" rule because we don't want to be criticized ourselves.

We have to recover that respect for life and understanding of it before we can transmit it to others. The Amish shooter is reported to have said that he molested young girls when he was young; according to press accounts he went into the schoolhouse with KY jelly. He clearly lost his battle not to be destructive. The Amish are trying to stop this train of suffering by forgiving and so allowing God's grace to work in them; their actions in trying to help the children of the shooter recognize the pain this sinful act inflicted upon innocent lives. Tragedy need not turn into an endless parade of sorrow and destruction. It's not necessary.

When we pray "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses of others" we are claiming a promise, which is that if we can fully renounce our sense of grievance for one moment, we can harbor something beyond human reach. That something is grace. That something is the Spirit. That something is so totally beyond our human categories that we cannot fathom it. The price for grace is simple. It is to acknowledge that absolute lines exist and that we have stepped over them, and it is the willingness to acknowledge the basic humanity and reality of others who have also stepped over them, and, in light of that, to renounce our right to personal retribution.

It is, however, a brutal and perverse act to pretend that the lines do not exist.

There is a currently a terrifying perversion of Judeo-Christian doctrine which wants to eliminate the necessity of forgiveness by eliminating the line and so the responsibility for stepping over the line. Our feebleness against evil of all sorts is produced entirely by our unwillingness to grapple with our own sins. We may have the best of intentions, but reality will trump intentions every time. A shoe is not a mother and not a mate. Nor would not have been wrong for the sheriff in Lancaster County to take a clear shot at the shooter in an attempt to prevent the shooting of the girls. Forgiving sins committed against us is not the same as saying that bad conduct is not harmful, and we really cannot dodge the sin bullet by forgiving sins committed upon others, especially when we do so preemptively and so let them continue. One thing I have noticed is that those who espouse this doctrine of forgiving sins committed against others seem to have a terrible, terrible problem with forgiving sins committed against themselves. It's only another way to avoid our obligations to fellow human beings, and we cannot behave better until we once again acknowledge our debts to another.

Note: I learned this version of the Lord's Prayer:
Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the Kingdom, and the Power and the Glory, Amen.

However, the rendering of trespasses is not quite accurate. Using the word "debt" induces considerable confusion to most modern English speakers, but is truer to the essential meaning. The Catholic Encyclopedia has a pretty good explanation of the text derived from the Latin version:
That which is owed or due to another; in general, anything which one person is under an obligation to pay or render to another. In a wide sense of the word this obligation may arise from a variety of sources. Thus we say that one who has received a favour from another lies under a debt of gratitude to make him some return for it. The superfluous wealth of the rich is due to the poor; it is a debt to the payment of which, according to the expression of many Fathers and theologians, the poor have a right, not of justice but of charity. We here take the word in the ordinary and strict sense, according to which it signifies something which is due to another in justice. We treat the matter, too, from the ethical rather than from the legal point of view, and so we consider debts of honour as true debts though they cannot be enforced in the civil court.

A debt arises not merely from a contract of borrowing; something may be due to another in justice for many different reasons, but all these may be reduced to two. When one has wilfully caused unjust damage to another, he is bound to make good the loss which he has inflicted, and when he finds himself in possession of what belongs to another, he must restore the property to its owner. Justice requires this, that each one should have his own, and one who has suffered loss unjustly at the hands of another has not his own, as long as the loss is not made good, any more than one whose property is unjustly detained by another. A state of indebtedness, then, of one to another arises from either of these two roots, as theologians call them. A debt must be paid to the owner of the property or to one who has the right to receive payment for him.
You don't have the right to forgive my debt to another - to say to the other "M_O_M doesn't owe you anything any more" if it is a true debt. Atonement for our sins is a debt. We can never fully atone for our sins, so we are left with an unpayable debt. Matthew makes it quite clear that our sins won't be forgiven unless we forgive those who have sinned against us. This explanation comes right after the Lord's Prayer:
6:14. For if you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offences.

6:15. But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences.
This is not debatable unless you want to dump the Bible altogether. I only stress it because of the truly horrendous misinterpretations now being taught in, cough, churches such as The Once And Future King aka The Episcopal Church of the USA, aka The Episcopal Church (TEC). As its membership shrinks, its delusions of universality are reflected in its name. In another decade the seven hundred remaining members will be referring to themselves as THE ONLY TRUE CHURCH (TOTC), and the theory will be that only when you sin are you truly demonstrating your openhearted love and acceptance of humanity.

Good title choice;) You have really dug into this, like a forensic scientist to discover why so much of our society is faltering. I'll spare you contorted analogies..just suffice to say images of CSI are in mind.

You made some really important points on forgiveness -esp. concerning the example of Sullivan. We don't forgive wrong by erasing sense of wrong, we face up to all its ramifications and we sacrifice something of ourselves. It keeps justice in tact.

And that brings me to this..."If one has nothing to lose in society as the result of bad sexual behavior - if one can't lose respect in the community, if one cannot be ostracized, if one cannot lose a job - then the only hammer left is the law. "

You know it goes further than that, which is why it so needs to be taught and preached and debated, and firmly installed in society that moral standards are necessary. the way it goes further is that it isn't the law with which we are left, but the shell of law- the enforcer part of it... as I put it in one of my essays: all that is left is "do what we say because we have all the guns". Mere enforcer mentality. That is what tyranny is made of, and there is no recourse in such oppression.

It is also the explanation for why "toleration" politics become the intransigent "PC" pressures to conform. Morality is gonna getcha one way or another.... I'd rather it was a rational standard of justice with mercy. But as you say- that takes the moral judgment sort of view.
"You know it goes further than that, ... we are left with the shell of the law - the enforcer part of it."

YES!!!!!! The law is really founded on a set of positive beliefs about what our behavior to each other should be. If we lose that underlying set of beliefs, laws lose their meaning. The law itself can't save us from societal disintegration. Only the positive beliefs can.

That's what the Amish know, genuine believers everywhere know, the nuns and monks know, the ministers know - that's what we all really know. You can't build a workable society out of a set of sanctions. You can only build it based on a set of ideals. Sanctions should only be for the most extreme behavior. We cannot allow ourselves to adopt the standard that if it's not criminal it's not wrong.

Okay, okay, so we will all fall short of those ideals. But knowing them and falling short of them produces a much better outcome than just trying to conform to laws designed to prohibit the very worst of human behavior.
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