Friday, May 11, 2012

God's Quality Control 8.4: Hypocrisy

Here I continue my thoughts on the message of Jesus.

Before I start, I'd like to draw your attention to an error in the public-service announcement I made in a previous episode, concerning the video library titled, "The Web's Best Videos on Evolution, Creationism, Atheism, And More." I said that the library is the work of bdwilson1000, but actually it's the work of the YouTuber known as Underlings. I'll put a link to the original video in the Consummation Bar. Don't worry, it's not plagiarism; bdwilson1000 is one of many channels that have mirrored the Underlings video. Thanks very much to Underlings for all the hard work, and to bdwilson1000 and all the others who have mirrored the video recently. Those crazy kids might find a practical use for that Interwebs thing after all.

One of the themes that comes up in all of the examples involving a child with scissors is a concept that I reluctantly call "personal responsibility." I worry about using such a phrase, because its usual use is as a reason for dismantling existing social programs and a tool for discrediting of the idea of social welfare. When I say "personal responsibility," I mean something entirely different from the meaning employed in such arguments. Again, I hope that with some examples I can show you what I mean, rather than overloading you with a complex definition.

If I, as a normal adult, cut myself with scissors, then my suffering is my own responsibility. If scissors fall out of the sky and cut me, then my suffering is not my own responsibility. If you, as a normal adult, cut me with scissors, then my suffering is not my own responsibility. If you are a person who is mentally incapable of handling scissors properly, child or otherwise, and you cut me with scissors that I've allowed you to have, then my suffering is my own responsibility, not yours, even if I've told you ten times not to touch the scissors.

So far, I imagine that most of you would agree with me, and you might expect that if we disagree it would be over the boundaries of the gray area in a child's life between unreadiness and readiness. But here is a point far more important than that gray area: it's not up to anyone but the child to determine when readiness occurs. Your well-being is negatively affected if I transfer responsibility for your welfare from my shoulders onto you before you're ready. If I make scissors available to you and then tell you not to touch them, then transferring the responsibility is exactly what I've done. Naturally, given that invitational ethics cares about flourishing, a seven-year-old who is still unready for scissors would be treated with the same compassion and lack of judgment as a seven-year-old with a speech delay, not as a kid with an attitude problem.

If you are developmentally unready for scissors, and you find some scissors and cut me with them, then my suffering is not my responsibility, but neither is it yours. Responsibility, if there were any, would lie on those whose job it was to make the scissors unavailable. If you are unready, and I know it, and I give you scissors that you then cut me with, then the responsibility lies with me, not with you. If you are unready, but I believe you to be ready, and I give you scissors that you then cut me with, the responsibility is still not yours. It might be mine, or it might be that of whoever told me you were ready, but it's definitely not yours.

Again, just a few examples to give you a sense of where I'm coming from. Let me know if these don't make sense, so I can find some better examples. My reason for bringing up this idea of personal responsibility is that punishment always seems to involve an attempt to transfer responsibility to someone who isn't naturally responsible for the charge being assigned. If you're too young for scissors, and you cut me with scissors that I gave you, then taking the scissors away involves no transfer of responsibility, so it's not a punishment. If, after taking the scissors, I tell you that you're a bad kid, that's a transfer of responsibility. I am making you responsible for my suffering, although you aren't responsible for it. That's a punishment. It occurs to me that perhaps all cases that I would call punishment could always have an element of this kind of transfer. That might help us a bit toward having an intuitive sense about what counts as punishment.

In Matthew 6:5-13, Jesus has some words on prayer. Again, in this series I won't comment on the supernatural element, but Jesus brings up an important point in these verses: hypocrisy. Everyone hates a hypocrite. Every time we hear about a gay-basher who turns out to be gay himself, we express outrage at the hypocrisy. Every time we hear about a socialism-basher whose family business has been receiving government subsidies for decades. Every time we hear a terrible driver complaining about terrible drivers. Every time someone complains about anything, someone hearing the complaint will observe the complainer's behavior and be outraged at the hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is a poorly understood phenomenon. The reason it's so poorly understood is that most of us interpret it in the framework of coercive ethics.

Consider the shape of hypocrisy through the lens of invitational ethics. What kind of talk can lead to the charge of hypocrisy? Basically, any time I use the word "should," I open myself to the possibility of being called a hypocrite. What we seem to overlook is that any time I use the word "should," I'm really talking to myself, even if I think I'm talking to you. Even if I (and you) think I'm shouting at you. In fact, if I'm shouting at you, it's because the message I'm trying to deliver is one that I really, really don't want to hear.

If I frequently advise young people to take basket-weaving classes, it's likely that I have a personal, if unconscious, reason for doing so; perhaps I feel that my life would have been richer if I'd learned basket-weaving; perhaps my mother wanted me to learn it and now I feel disappointed that I never did; perhaps I lost a basket-weaving competition when I was a kid. When I advise you, I'm telling you something about myself, about how my mind works. When I complain about anything, I'm telling you something about how my mind works. When I guess at what you're thinking, or what your motivations are, or when I talk about how people should behave or how the world should operate, I'm telling you something about how my mind works.

A hypocrite is nothing more than a person with an opinion that involves the word "should." If I loudly proclaim an opinion about how people should behave, it makes perfect sense that I don't behave that way. If I were entirely at peace about the behavior, I wouldn't have a strong conviction about it and therefore wouldn't feel the need to announce my opinion about it. Hypocrisy is a perfectly normal behavior, not to be treated as any kind of pathology or error in judgment, and obviously not a moral failing. It's just how our brains work, and has no more ethical weight than our tendency to talk about the weather as a social icebreaker.

That's 8.4. Thanks for watching.

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