Sunday, June 17, 2012

God's QC 8.8: Who's Better? Boys or Girls?

Here I continue my thoughts on Jesus and ethics, although we'll skip the Jesus part today.
Let's try another case study, this time from a real-life experience. Not long ago there was an "Occupy the Courts" day. I wanted to be a part of the gathering in Sacramento, but it was also my girlfriend's birthday. To my surprise, she didn't think of political protest as a fun way to celebrate. I'm assuming that most of you have had, at some point in your life, a conversation at least somewhat similar to the following:
  • Girl: "My birthday is more important. You should skip this one."
  • Boy: "America is more important than one person."
  • Girl: "You don't care about me."
  • Boy: "I rub your back every night until you fall asleep."
  • Girl: "I did that thing you wanted me to do, and I hated it! You owe me!"
  • Boy: "That was different."
  • Girl: "If you knew how important this is to me, you wouldn't hurt me like this."
  • Boy: "I'm not doing anything to you. I'm just living my life. I'm sorry it hurts you."
  • Girl: "You don't get to kick me in the leg and say you're sorry it hurts."
  • Boy: "More like you're chasing me with a knife and hurt your leg on a tree stump. I'm sorry it hurts you."
Again, I imagine that this exchange will seem familiar to most of you. Consider a couple of different interpretations. She says that I was being selfish, callous, intentionally obtuse, avoiding the fact that most reasonable people would actually want to spend that day with, as she emphasized, their primary provider. I say that she was trying to bully me, to grind me into compliance. You might have completely different interpretations, based on your own life experiences and intuitions.
What does invitational ethics have to say? First, the whole conversation boils down to "Fuck your feelings." She wanted me to count her feelings as more important than mine, hoping that I would respond by staying for her birthday. I wanted her to count my feelings as more important than hers, hoping that she would just leave me the hell alone and let me live my life. Second, consider some of these charged words we used, such as selfish and bully.
When I say that she was bullying me, I mean that she was making arbitrary and unfair demands, trying to intimidate or humiliate me in order to gain better control of my behavior. Was she doing any of these things? Probably not. Why would I think that she's doing these things? Because my default world, the world I see when I'm stressed or tired or depressed or just not paying close attention, is all about people dominating each other in exactly these ways. Why does the world look that way to me? Because we're set up by evolution to learn the basics when we're children, and that's how my family operated. Her word selfish comes from the world she knew as a child. Her dad was an emergency worker, almost never at home because he was forever out saving lives, but he always made it a point to be at home for her birthday and Christmas. In her world, the only kind of partner who skips her birthday is a selfish partner.
Some of you aren't sure what I mean when I talk about coercive words. Labels such as selfish and bully are coercive, in that they both refer to a personal--possibly fundamental--character issue that calls for change. She believes that I would behave properly if I weren't being selfish, that is, if I were to suppress my selfishness, which all good people should do, I would stay for her birthday. I believe that she would behave properly if she weren't a bully, that is, if she were to stop being a bully, which all good people should do, she would leave me alone. Every one of us learns the doctrine according to our own denomination of coercive ethics during childhood. Then we go out into the world and argue with each other over the meaning of important but entirely subjective words like deserve and justice and selfish. We're like Christians arguing over whether it's possible to lose your salvation. These are imaginary concepts, components of a religion, no longer worthy of our study.
Finally, what was really going on in the conversation? Her disappointment about my decision is unsurprising, but entirely blown out of proportion by the violation of fundamental rules of her universe, causing her to fear the stability of the relationship, creating a need to enforce better and safer behavior on my part. For me, well, I get fixated on things, especially the notion of trying to be useful in the world. One of the ways I got approval at home was by being useful.
Now, for the grand finale. What was the conclusion of the argument? Who was right? Who needs to apologize? Who gets to gloat? What delicious forms of disincentive shall we apply? Given some of the comments I've seen, I get the impression that many of you still think I intend to answer such questions. Invitational ethics is not about right and wrong, and especially not about who wins the argument. It's about getting at the truth. For us to argue about right and wrong would have been a waste of time, yet that's exactly what people do, interpersonally and as a society.
The conclusion is this: naturally, she wasn't happy with my decision, but after stripping away the coercive elements of the conversation, we could both at least see clearly what the conversation was about. Rather than getting into a serious but fruitless argument and incurring all the associated relationship costs, we were able to see each other as human beings, able to have a little bit more compassion for each other. It's a lot easier to have compassion for someone when you recognize the coping mechanisms of a little kid who didn't know any better, rather than spending all your energy defending yourself against someone who is telling you that you are faulty, that it is your moral duty to change.
That's 8.8. Thanks for watching.

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