Thursday, July 16, 2015

The New Gordian Knot

The rhetoric of morality has been tying us in knots of late, although perhaps people do not notice the dilemma. Think of the way in which specific issues keep getting framed as advancing the goals of equality, acceptance and liberation from social intolerance, while attitudes that appear to run counter to or present as openly resistant to this paradigm of inclusivity are deemed unacceptable. While the old world made its peace with social hierarchies, class divisions and serious inequities caused by accidents of background, orientation and epidermal pallor, the new world has no room for such snobbery. Harboring such prejudices nowadays usually places one (typically an aging stick-in-the-mud) on the wrong side of history. Thus we demand for ourselves - at least rhetorically - a utopia that our progenitors never thought possible...The goal sounds great and is quite simple in fact: it requires that we not categorize or stereotype other people in a way that harms or marginalizes them. Simple - right? Everyone is "equal" and should be viewed as such. Do people have preferences in terms of friends, companions, loved ones? - most definitely - but no one is technically any better than anyone else nor should be viewed as such - in a social manner or before the law. I hope this is a somewhat accurate depiction of the dominant zeitgeist. And yet this cultural shift calls for not a little bit of soul-searching or closet-cleaning - as it were, to the extent that it requires each and every individual living in the present "heartless, cut-throat, take-no-prisoners, dog-eat-dog" world out there to ask: do I truly consider everyone my equal - both "before the law" and "socially" - i.e. according to all the agreed-upon cultural norms and litmus tests?  If in theory - rhetorically that is - all systems are go - as far as granting one's neighbor the same rights and courtesies, the same basic dignity, the same respect, what explains the strange need for enmity, hostility, antagonism  - that animates so many? Why the need for enemies and adversaries? Paradoxically, it seems, the more we attempt to free ourselves from outmoded prejudices, antiquated thought patterns, and backward modes of behavior where unjust social hierarchies and fatuous notions of "supremacy" and "superiority" are concerned, which is to say, the more our egalitarian sentiments and equal-justice-for-all demands come to permeate the modern discourse of "right and wrong," the more perhaps we find ourselves called upon to actively suppress all hint of aristocratic bias - in the form of uppity, conceited, patronizing, snobbish, supremacist, reactionary, exclusionist or otherwise aggressively tribalistic or class-conscious notions of "I'm so sorry my poor fellows, but, we're above you on the ladder of success because we have such and such and you don't..." - feelings that (as some have noticed) do not simply vanish into thin air after we have declared them verboten. To say it another way, very concisely, and in a manner too obvious for today's media to properly digest: while paying lip service to "fairness" and "equality," people do not simply aspire to be the mere "equal" of anyone else, nor do they view themselves as "identical to" or "interchangeable with" their fellow citizens. Is it going too far to admit that some people even want to stand out from their peers just a little, want to feel themselves (dare I say it?) exceptional, outstanding, superior, top-notch in some respect? Does not the entire system of capitalism run on such agonistic, competitive juices? If  it is really true, as Descartes taught us long ago, that the "ego cogito" views itself as no less "sensible" or well-deserving than any other thinking subject, the converse also applies, namely that every restlessly aspiring ego paradoxically by the same token considers itself  "special" in some respect - blessed by its own inimitable, individual stamp. What some have dubbed the incommensurability issue - the fact that no one else can be identical to "me" in my present position with all of its advantages and challenges - represents the other side of the coin. And, as should go without saying, more than a few folks out there (secretly) enjoy a pretext upon with which they might feel some legitimate advantage over another group or individual. (Even though this  be cause for guilt or at least a certain ambivalence in some liberal quarters....) Consider the pride that people take with regard to their exquisite health or their outstanding beauty for example. Consider how external fashion separates one person from another on a scale of merit. Consider how elite educations are still prized for helping to (presumably) identify top scholars and future achievers (?). Consider how proper hygiene is too often mistaken for virtue. Consider how money and property, salary and bank account, still are used to divide us from them. And while we're on the topic, what about the wretched unfairness associated with gold-thumbed financial prowess and good business sense - the talent for making-money - so unevenly distributed - and yet so celebrated by the victors. Granted, there are many pointless and destructive comparisons that people make with one another; there are many unhealthy and uncivil ways in which they relentlessly attempt to gain a "competitive edge" - but can we eliminate entirely this lust for prominence, power, status, fame, wealth and glory? How will all of these forbidden thoughts go underground? Or is this a case - yet, yet again - of the rhetoric not matching the reality?