Monday, December 22, 2008


My internet has been down for about a week now, which leads to a flurry of unabated productivity (there's a message in this somewhere) and contemplative thoughts.

I was wondering about the relative ease in which people get riled up over stereotypes and their application. It occurred to me that this must be a fairly new phenomenon, given the fact that fifty years ago, it was still reasonably acceptable to call an Italian a "wop." What changed? A systematic indoctrination of the consequences of calling someone a "wop" into American society (also, the word fell out of fashion, but that's neither here nor there). Yes, at some point in our recent past, a morality shift was made towards emphasizing empathy as an emotion to consider in social exchanges. Before, sympathy was enough. Being aware of someone's plight and sympathizing with them was enough to make you seem a limp-wristed asparagus-eating pantywaist.

Where did this pogrom of politeness purvey its pantheon? Why, in our schools, of course. At the risk of sounding like a dead-eyed Freud fanatic, everything important in our self definition happens in our childhood. The way people learn to interact, what makes them laugh, what perceptions they have of the world around them are all formed in the first twenty or so years of their lives. School, occupying at least twelve of those twenty, is a major impact on people's lives. If there's anywhere you'd want to go to ingrain a new social order, school would be it.

School is also the first place in which kids end up meeting a vast amount of other kids and interacting with them on a day to day basis. It's where you learn how to (or not to) deal with people and their multitudinous quirks and strange habits, how to leverage your personality on them to gain social standing and so forth. Emphasizing the idealistic vision of "perfect equality" wherein all are treated equal regardless of age, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation in schools is like adding an unwritten set of rules to the already pre-established social order of children, complete with the punishment of guilt or public humiliation for breaking these rules.

So thus people grow up with an efficient set of morals (incidentally, the reason why public schools were founded in America in the first place) that guide them to the path of least offense, and therefore least guilt. Empathy is closest to adding an extra little voice in your head to go next to your conscience. Instead of telling you when something is just plain wrong to do, it tells you what you imagine other people to be feeling in reaction to your actions and adds in a guilt response if those imagined feelings are less than happy. Something that would logically run something like:

Check: action

If public response Happy

Then Cancel: action

Feel: guilt = Happy-1

in the crazy undefined programming language in my head. I digress. My point is: it's a behavioral modification imposed by society. Not inherently a bad thing, as pretty much everything we do outside of sleeping, eating, pooping and mating is controlled or derived from society. Even the four I mentioned, perhaps especially so, are regulated by the people around you and the endless lists of unwritten rules that are insubstantially floating about for you to bonk your head upon, while you remain completely unaware of your transgressions. You may have just completely jumbled the list of rules concerning the level of awkwardness and discomfort of having a member of a party of three tell you to tell the other member all about the wonderful story you had just iterated to the first but hadn't really intended to share with the third in the first place ranked in order by relation of the first to the second, the second to the third, the first to the third and all three taken as a whole. It may take years of hemming and hawing to rearrange such a list. Jobs will be lost, families ruined. I digress.

There is a problem. This guilt feeling (remember, guilt is another word for feeling ashamed) is bad. Doubly so because it is internally generated, and thus seems natural or inherent. Guilt response was evolutionarily created to help create societies and provide feedback for people to modify their behavior to fit that of those around them. However, stereotypes were also created evolutionarily; to provide an instant set of behaviors with which to interact with a person or situation you did not know personally. When guilt is being applied to something that is naturally formed, complications arise. I'd provide examples but I've already expended my allotted quota of digressions here. Two of the reactions to this turmoil are damaging extremes. One extreme is to shut down entirely, going to great, vast lengths to avoid offending others; the other would be to become what some call the P.C. Police, whereupon you travel far and wide searching for transgressions of others to condemn and ridicule. Neither of these attitudes are in any way natural. Both are worrying. One wonders, why can these people not learn to simply relax and go with the proverbial flow?

The darkest side of empathy is the most human. Naturally while there are those who are empathetic, and thus normal or good, there must be those who are not empathetic, who are deviously deviant deviations from the norm. And such begins the intolerance of the intolerant, a vicious cycle of witch huntery and tearful accusations. If you hadn't already heard it a few hundred times from the morality plays they project on to excessively large screens in quiet dark rooms with sticky floors and rude attendants, I'd write something here about the non existence of any real "evil" or "good," only perspectives on the world. But such is life, as all search for purpose or meaning, some may find it in enforcing a relatively recent society shift towards non-offensive practices, while other may see it as their job to uphold these practices to the fullest, becoming a paragon of pleasantry

But I digress.

What is my point that I am so circuitously making? People should love one another without condition. Wielding intolerance as a weapon against the intolerant does not stop intolerance, only foments it.

Just relax, brah. Racist or Anti-Semite, it's all good. We're all still people, despite our failings.

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