Saturday, March 07, 2015

Pedestals Not Required - Human Nature Past and Present, Heroes and Flaws.

If you can, please spare a few minutes to watch
"Ballad of Billy John" :

The song is probably fictional in its detail, but exploring any comment thread just about anywhere on the net will reveal content not far from that described.

Ironically enough, I watched the video straight after having read an essay by Dan Falk at Salon. The essay contains, as a kind of side issue, some theories that we humans are now more moral, sympathetic, empathetic, ethical than we were in the past. Hmmm.

You would’ve hated your heroes: Why history’s great people seem so morally deficient. Winston Churchill was racist. Albert Einstein was a chauvinist. And that's not even the half of it!

The title tells enough about the essay's content for the moment. We've all, at one time or another, come across similar discoveries about our "heroes", even about our friends and families - and ourselves: i.e. we and they are simply humans with human flaws. With regard to those who lived in a different era from us, they were humans living in a world with different cultural mores and norms, it's not logical to compare their mindsets and values with just isn't!

Snips from the essay:

It is tempting to dismiss such examples of jerkdom by noting that “times were different” back then. But why were they different? Why are they better today? One bold hypothesis is that we have become, objectively, increasingly moral over the course of time. Several prominent thinkers, including Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, have argued in favor of this idea. Singer in particular spoke of an “expanding moral circle”: While we once only cared for those in our immediate tribe, we now interact with (or at least, are aware of) people from around the world, from many different backgrounds. We have come to care about those who are outside our group, to feel their pain, to object to their suffering. (This is, arguably, the territory that Shakespeare was exploring with Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech in “The Merchant of Venice.”)

In Pinker’s 2012 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence had Declined,” the focus is on the decline of violence over the course of history. But running in parallel to this decline in violence, he argues, has been a rise in moral virtue: Pinker suggests there may be a “moral Flynn effect,” akin to the rise in global IQ scores over the last century described by James Flynn. The two effects, incidentally, could be linked: As we get smarter, Pinker argues, we’re better able to imagine ourselves in the positions of others, and thus more likely to sympathize with them, and recognize their right to well-being.

Oh my! We feel their pain and object to their suffering do we? That's questionable! I suspect Iraqi civilians and Afghan peasants will feel differently, as will the loved ones of those in countries caught in US drones' "collateral damage". I agree with commenter "happyhaze" ~
I don't see the point of rooting around in the past to find SOB's that were not all of a piece, considering that we got a peace prize winner living in the here and now who believes it is fine to kill by remote control anyone deemed enemy, along with whoever is in range of the drone blast. Might makes right is one hell of a foundation for ethical conduct.
As for Churchill, he was a racist, a reactionary conservative, true enough, and the British people booted him out after World War II ended - they had the good sense to realise that it was time for a different approach. "Horses for courses". A brilliant wartime leader and orator is a brilliant idea for the people, but only in times of war. He remains a hero to me and thousands of others for what he achieved. A comment among the many following the essay:
"Even a-holes can be heroes when we need them."

As to the question of whether we humans are more moral, ethical, empathetic now than humans were in the past, I think not. In a small way, think again of those cruel comments appearing online day by day -with no cause other than mean, negative intent...and worst of all, they are contagious

We look at the past, and present, through our own lens, that's all we possess, and that lens must inevitably colour our view. Our education, experiences, lifestyles have formed us, and our lens; the people of the past, their education, experiences and lifestyles formed them and provided the lens through which to view their their present, and past. We are on different turns of the spiral of time/space, the view varies with each turn. I suppose "deep thinkers" and authors such as Messrs Singer and Pinker are wearing glasses with rose-coloured lenses, with sincere intent to make us feel better among the ongoing chaotic idiocy and calamity of this world.


mike said...

We're all animals, Twilight! This reminds me of the Victorian era, where heightened cultural and social graces were the desired mask covering the antithetical core. The covering was used to promote one's self and camouflage the inner brute.

Take away the firewall of identity and all hell can break lose, as so often occurs on the internet or social media. Not much different from the Roman entertainment at the coliseum, except words are used now rather than swords or lions.

Two of my favorite quotes apply:
"There's some of the worst in the best of us and some of the best in the worst of us." (several sources)
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars." Oscar Wilde

LOL to "Ballad of Billy John"!

mike (again) said...

Sonny - if you pop-in today, I left you a message in Thursday's "Cartoon Appreciation" post.

Anonymous said...

All the world old is queer save thee and me ...
... and even thou art a little queer.

- Robert Owen


Twilight said...

mike ~ I like "firewall of identity" -good expression! And yes, once inhibition and risk is removed all hell can be let loose - stomping through internet land incognito, is similar to having had too much to drink - result: loosened tongue (or typing fingers).

Nope, we rally haven't changed that much from Roman times have we?

Twilight said...

Anon/Kidd ~ old favourite - best savoured, I always think, when proclaimed with a thick Yorkshire accent:

All't world's queer save thee an' me - an' even thee's a bit queer!"

LB said...

Thanks, Twilight. That first video has a worthwhile message to share -especially the ending- though I wonder how many will get it or agree.

A few years ago, after yet another failed attempt to join with fellow seekers, I left a bible study class (taught by a very progressive minister) because she and several members of the group thought I should retaliate against upstairs neighbors who were keeping us awake at night.

It all began when I made the mistake of sharing with the group how tempted I was to blast the stereo or hammer on the ceiling or walls early in the morning, just to get even . . . but said I wasn't going to do it, though I acknowledged those (lower) impulses were there.

That was when the group, led by the church's young, liberal pastor began to 'challenge' me to rethink my strategy. Trying to convince me to fight fire with fire, one of them reminded me how Jesus wasn't a coward. That was the last class I ever attended.:)

It's not a Christian issue, we're all capable (or culpable) to some extent. I've heard and read lots of folks talking about justice, equality, love, etc., who engage in the same kinds of behaviors and thinking.

It's a challenge to be human. Most of us have forgotten what it means.

LB said...

"Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected." Carl Jung, "Psychology and Religion"

Twilight said...

LB ~ Yes, the ending of the song struck me as being most significant. Infection spreads, and even to Billy John. Nobody stops to THINK, while clambering onto the bandwagon of bullying and hatred, each trying t outdo the last one.

"If you can't beat 'em join 'em" is tempting, hard to resist at times, but gets us nowhere.

Carl Jung knew us well.

LB said...
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