Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Discussion of American Culture

The following is the reproduction of an e-mail discussion I had with a friend recently. I thought that the subject matter would be both appropriate to this site and interesting in that the two participants hold almost diametrically opposed viewpoints on morality, religion, and politics. I've edited the e-mails so as to remove any personal references, but I've left the greater part intact so that both viewpoints can be presented as accurately and fairly as possible. How fairer than to place them in the original wording? I hope you find the discussion as interesting as I, and I would welcome any comments you may have on the topics involved. American Anti-theist will be green and T will be blue.

First of all, here's the e-mail that got the discussion started:

Love him or hate him, he sure hits the nail on the head with this! Bill Gates recently gave a speech at a High School about 11 things they did not and will not learn in school. He talks about how feel-good,politically correct teachings created a generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept set them up for failure in the real world.

Rule 1: Life is not fair - get used to it!

Rule 2: The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up,it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.

If you agree, pass it on.
If you can read this - Thank a teacher!

And now the discussion:

T: Thanks for the Bill Gates thingie-majig, though, as I'm sure you might have assumed, I disagree with the man on principle. Some of the things he said were good, and things that people, especially in our cry-me-a-river-and-you-get-a-cookie society, need to hear (such as "it's not your parent's fault" and "be nice to nerds"). I felt, though, that those eleven things really exemplified the failings of our society. The American culture, at least as it is rather apparent on the east coast, is very dog-eat-dog, do it yourself or else you'll lose, and shut up and take it. In Japan everyone was pretty hyper-society and many Japanese think of others, and not just their family, when making decisions. You'll probably have more input here, since you're living closer to the culture than any of us did, though it seemed that, in general, Japanese thought more about the society around them than Americans do. It was an interesting thing to see for me, because it was a system that wasn't American individualism and it worked. Not perfectly, but, then again, how can a human system be perfect.

Anyway, I wanted to see what your argument is on one of the arguments I had for the first things Gates said on the list (or, at least, the first thing listed): Life isn't fair. First of all, saying 'life" is generally saying "American culture." I personally think he's also saying "the way things are going to be for everyone," but that's a different story. The thing about this argument that I never understood is how does anyone know about fairness if there isn't anything that set that fairness. I'm sure you've heard the argument, as it's a rather standard one for the religious-minded, that if there wasn't a God to set down what things are fair, or good, for that matter, then we wouldn't have this overwhelming sense that things really should be fair. As much as people are told that life isn't fair, no matter how many times that line is spoken, people don't stop feeling like things ought to be.

So, I thought I'd ask your opinion and jump off from there, if you wouldn't mind starting another discussion.

American Antitheist: Aside from the "Life isn't fair" one, I would have to say that they're just statements of reality. There doesn't seem to be a moral imperative in the other rules. They're basically facts of life that we have to learn eventually. No matter what society we would live in, we would have to adjust to the reality of the human situation. Let's take them one by one. I'll leave "Life isn't fair" till the end, cause it's the weird one, and you have some good points on that.

#2 "The world expects you to accomplish something before you feel good about it. " That's the simple cause and effect of self-esteem. If you feel like you should be treated like the most important person in the world, yet you haven't done anything significant to justify that, then it's not self-esteem it's self-deception. I think that's where a lot of people mistake pride for arrogance. What people normally think of as arrogance is unjustified self-esteem. Pride is justified self-esteem.

#3 "You will not make $60,000 a year out of high school. You won't be a VP w/ a car phone til you earn both." Another statement of fact. Of course, if you don't want $60,000 and a car phone, then I don't see anything wrong with that. But if you do, you have to earn it that's all.

#4 "If you think your teacher is tough wait until you get a boss." Well, it depends on the teacher, but there are less second chances in the workplace then there are in the classroom. Another fact.

#5 "Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity." Been there done that. While it's not the best thing on an academic resume, it helped me survive and get me to a point where I could actually start to think about going to college. I've never relied on the dole, had to make my way from scratch. And I feel the accomplishment of that effort every time I cash a paycheck, every time I look around at the life I've constructed. I know that it's mine, because I earned it and nobody will ever be able to take that feeling away. It's something worth fighting for.

#6 "Parents being boring.." Well, I don't think that necessarily has to be true, but parents should be more level-headed than a child. I think it's really just common sense. And when we're younger we do tend to chafe at the bit to slip the leash so to speak and be able to challenge our parents thereby proving that we're adults. Of course how much is a question of degree and a question of how different parent and child are ideologically.But all this is saying is not to be too quick to judge our parents before we think through the choices they perhaps have had to make in their lives.

#7 "If you mess up, face it and learn from your mistakes." Just a fact of reality. We are all ultimately responsible for our own lives, for the content of our minds, and for the actions we perform. At the end of the day, we only have ourselves to look at in the mirror to be the final judge of who we are and what we have done. There is no one to listen to excuses within the walls of our own mind. Our only option is to try and not make the same mistake twice and try to become better people every day.

#8 "Life has winners and losers" Another fact. But the standards for success of course ultimately rest with yourself. Do you consider yourself a success? Or a failure? Some people fail at their life goals. But I often think that this is because either they're not willing to put in the effort to actually accomplish their dreams, or they set their goals way beyond the realm of what they can expect realistically given their skills and qualities. I think most people have constant opportunities to be a success. Sometimes it means changing your goals, reassessing your motives, and setting new objectives. When I realized that I was not going to be a famous guitarist, or even have a successful music career, my confidence was shattered, yes. But I reassessed my skills, my dreams, and my nature. I set new, more realistic goals, and I now consider myself on the road to a successful and rewarding career. Life has winners and losers, yes, but only in a specific frame of time. As time moves along, those people may find themselves switching places. But it doesn't happen naturally. It of course requires constant effort on the part of losers to become winners and for winners to stay winners.

#9 "No summer breaks, and find yourself on your own time." Just another fact. It's not the business of your employer to nurture your spirit. That's each and every individual person's responsibility. Or your pastor's. Or your family's and loved one's responsibility. Time doesn't stop. We just have to accept it.

#10 "TV is not real life. We have to leave the coffee shop and work sometime" Just a fact of reality. I suppose people who marry rich don't have to. And if by chance they met their benefactor in the coffee shop, then they really might never have to leave, but that would be an exception I think. For the most part, we all have to do something to pull our own weight. Except perhaps in socialist systems where people can actually get away with getting paid for doing nothing.

#11 "Be nice to nerds" I think we agree on that one.

Anyways I don't see what's wrong with any of these sentiments. I fail to see how they "exemplified the failings of our society."

Now, as for the dog-eat-dog mentality in the states, I tend to agree that it's not what I would call an ideal state of humanity. But I don't think that rational selfishness = dog eat dog. I think desperation and panic leads to dog-eat-dog. The desperation is seeded in the conditioning of people to accept only two alternatives to existence. They are told that they are either 1. a sacrificial animal to be consumed by the stronger, or 2. they are a cannibal whose destiny is to consume their fellow humans in order to survive. This is completely false, and the dichotomy is one of misdirection. The third option is that we can of course, work together freely through self-organizing cooperative groups in order to pursue various common goals. In short, working together to mutual advantage. This, not dog-eat-dog, is the very essence and heart of capitalism. People who have choice, are not forced into a violent and desperate struggle over limited resources. People who have choice realize that all values are developed, all resources created by humans. And that only by allowing humans to generate the resources that keep people alive and distribute them to those who desire them will people be free to minimize their suffering and to reap the benefits of that collective and voluntary distribution of labor.

You may have been impressed with Japan's government, which is thoroughly dedicated to socialist protocols, but you also witnessed first-hand the real life consequences of socialist methodology on the education system, the complete lack of local flexibility, the waste of children's creative potential and the mindless drilling of subjects that have been decided to be important for the students rather than allowing them the freedom of personal development and choice. Yes, Japanese social groups are very cohesive. But what happens when people slip through the cracks? "The nail that sticks out gets hammered in." That's an attitude which would be morally incompatible with a society built on respect of individual life. Only in a society where social cohesion is valued above human life, where people are considered expendable, could such a tenet adhere as a social norm. Perhaps, they don't have as much dog-eat-dog, but it make me seriously question which culture is actually more brutal at its heart. Perhaps in free capitalism there are no guarantees, but that also means that there are no guaranteed sacrifices either. People remain free to find the path which is most suitable to them, regardless if it is in the mainstream or not. And as they must reap the consequences of their failures so they may enjoy the full reward of their successes in whatever way and in pursuit of whatever goals they see fit. Especially if that means helping people charitably and ensuring that the community around you is one that will continue to be one that is civil and respectful of human life. But if that is not what one wishes to do with their resources, then none should have the right to force them.

Perfection, is a matter of definition. If the goals that you set for society are unrealistic ones doomed to failure, then yes, such a society will never be possible, and society will never be perfect. But it is only doomed to be so by definition. If your definition of perfection is something realistically attainable, then a perfect society is possible. I would argue that any definition of an ideal society which is impossible, is not worthy of being set as an ideal mainly due to the fact that it makes no sense to strive for something which is impossible to attain. I think the key involves looking at acceptable bounds of the oscillation of variables rather then at predetermined fixed values. Once again, free capitalism allows people to oscillate according to their personal beliefs with the only bounds on that variability being other people's freedom to do the same. The fact that it does not fix the values of the society to be constructed allows it to optimize itself in accordance with the cumulative effect of millions of individual dreams. Like any self-forming autonomous chaotic system, life and society should be chaotic systems allowed to breath, expand and contract naturally. The more rules and barriers and commandments affixed to society, the more and more people who are caught under the blade. I will always be an advocate of freedom as the best policy.

I'm sorry I've rambled on so long, lol, but finally I think I can talk about the "Life isn't fair" one. I agree that the sentiment there is pretty cynical. But it is a cynicism bound to reality. No matter how attainable or unattainable our ideal worlds may be, the fact is that none of us live in that ideal system. Because of the incongruence between our ideals and the present state of the world, we have to accept that things will happen which will rankle our nerves and frustrate our concept of proper behavior. Things which seem to be unjust from our relative points of view will happen in a world that does not prescribe to a person's sense of justice. No matter what world we live in, there will be acts of injustice which will stoke our indignation. For instance, if the world was completely in line with a socialist methodology, I'm sure socialists would see much less injustice, and I would see more. Whereas if we were living in a truly capitalist society, I would see less injustice but they would invariably see more. Life isn't fair in that the life in our world is not bound to our expectations of it. One person may have to work harder to get to the same place as another. One may have to be smarter to survive at the same level as another. These are unfortunate if unavoidable facts of our existence. The reward is not something guaranteed, because the rewards of effort and devotion to a goal are not things which are dispersed by a conscious agent. The reward is the use of what has been created. The reward is continued sustenance and the enjoyment of life's pursuits. But it is in our chemistry, I suppose, to think of life as having a conscious agent, a God, a corporation, the big cheese, whatever you like. Somebody who dispenses the rewards of life's effort. And I think this is where we get the idea of life not being fair. Because we think that it should be obvious to the Great Dispenser in the Sky that two people should get equal rewards for equal effort. But this isn't always how it works out. More often than not, our rewards equal the best deal we can get for our effort. And the dispenser is not a mysterious agent in the sky, or a vague concept of the Big Boss, the dispenser is the shopkeeper down the street, or the HR director of your company for whom you agree to work and with whom you reach an agreement for a certain wage.

I hope that I've adequately addressed your concerns. I didn't really expect to see any objections with the e-mail. But I'd be interested in hearing the rest of your ideas on the matter.

T: Reading through the list again, taking away the first (I haven't read all your mail yet, so we'll save that one for later here too), you're right, they are basic facts of life, and the youth in high school today (saying nothing about when we were that age) needs to hear that things aren't all happy with flowers and roses when they have to get a job. The key word in that sentence, though, was ALL. Not EVERYTHING is happy and good, but there are a lot of amazing things in the world. Gates wasn't saying that life is tough as nails and that we should suck it up, but I wondered when I read his list how much 'tough talk' perpetuates bad opinions on life. Don't get me wrong, like I said, tough talk is needed, but even headed tough talk is important. Telling a kid "you're going to have to get a job" and not explaining that finding one the kid likes is not only a good idea, but possible, is a damaging thing. Multiply that by the number of teenagers we have in our culture and you get an apathetic generation. I don't think we disagree here, though I'll throw in an example because we're both linguists here, and you might find it interesting. Have you noticed that words have been losing meaning? Not changing meaning, but actually losing it? I saw a commercial the other day for a woman's shaver called Venus that asked the viewer "What type of goddess are you?" Really? Does the word goddess no longer refer to the extensive (and vastly important) meaning it bore half a century ago? Words are used in advertising for affect, not for their actual sense, and I'm rather disturbed. And these aren't simple words like tree or green, but culturally and historically necessary words. Redeem is now something you do when you've won a contest and you want to give your ticket it for a prize. A lot of these examples that I have are religious, and you may have a different take there, but I'm sure there are some other examples there too.

Alright, sorry about that rant, back to your email: I agree on your take of dog-eat-dog, and I agree on your opinion of what capitalism should be. But the American culture is not purely capitalism. I'm not up on political philosophy, so please forgive me bumbling around the definition, but it seems that the commercialism in American has grown to such a height that it has become the culture's source of morality. Where do we get our views of right and wrong? Religion is either seen as the work of the violent or the stupid in our country (thanks Bush for helping Christians out there). Hyper-individualism focuses oneself on oneself alone, and a blatant disregard for the past (or, rather, looking upon the new as good and past as bad) casts out any lessons learned from those who have lived before us. Capitalism, in my opinion, has a few things to tweak out, but it requires a rather firm morality system to really get off the ground. American capitalism has Dancing with the Stars and Sport stars with Steroids.

Forcing opinions, I will whole-heartedly agree, is wrong, but human beings need guidance. Whether that comes in the form of an old man who went through two world wars or an organization that tries to instruct those in the way of goods found in almost all cultures, people need something. Most people, when it comes down to it, can't get to a place where, left to themselves, they'll develop well and healthily. Kids need good parents or at least a good role model. Forming (and formed) governments need this too. Interestingly enough, this is mirrored in nature as well: plants need nurture from a stronger source (i.e. the sun) just as us humans do.

You wrote: "I think the key involves looking at acceptable bounds of the oscillation of variables rather then at predetermined fixed values." and I can't agree more. When making tall buildings above fault lines, allow for that building to sway and shift; rigid structures will fall down. Those bounds being set still calls for something though: what sets them? And who teaches them to the younger generations? Left up to general people who toil their lives away doing something OTHER than teaching and thinking about teaching morals, very few of the ideas will get through. Thus the reason for religion, or at least schooling. Unfortunately both have a rather bad track record of actually coming through, but still the essence of religion and education is what I'm talking about, not the practice (which can always be worked upon).

Fairness, to me, is the interesting point in all of this. Fairness, and connected with it an image of what is good and what is not, is the key. We feel a requirement of the world to be fair, and yet it isn't. Why? Why should we expect something we all know well and good to be something horribly unfair to be completely against its nature? I think my opinion is because, really, it is fair, but that we're not looking at the big picture. Humans are biological beings regardless of what anyone says about us, and I think we confuse our sense of fairness in spiritual affairs for fairness in biological affairs. Really I think that's one of the main problems with things. Doing good things are innately good and we understand this not because of some...well, what? A want to feel safe? Why should we want to feel safe? Maybe we think we should be dealt with fairly because we want to have enough to be self-sufficient. But why do we need to be self-sufficient? To survive? Why, in the end, is survival important? It's an instinct and we listen to it, but instinct is a suggestion, not a demand. We don't have to listen to it, but everyone, save for those who are seriously ill, listens to the will to live. To get back on track, I think we want things to be fair in the biological world because things are innately fair in the spiritual. You know the Christian story, as well as most other religions I can think of for that matter, and in 99% of them humans are treated fairly. If you leave the path, you left the path, and it's the abyss for you. If you screw up being a human, you're a bug. And even if all these are simply stories, still, where does this sense of fairness come from?

Well, gotta get my head warmed up for future debates, but it's always good hearing an opinion other than mine. I've been reading a bit of CS Lewis lately (I'm sure you're a rather big fan of him), and every page I stop and think "What would [you] say to this one?" This email, though, I've mainly agreed with you.

American Antitheist: I have to agree that telling a kid to just "get a job" as in any job could be misinterpreted. Of course a kid should aim for a job that they like, and I agree they should be encouraged to work towards that goal. I think that the point was more that they can't expect to walk into a job they like at first. Most of the time, we have to work our way up to the job we actually want. And that means starting in the fast food restaurant sometimes. Hell, I'll never go back to fast food again if I can help it. But if I found that there was nothing open to me in a field I desired, then I would be back in a second. The reason being that I will do whatever it takes to support my life and the life of those I love. And the reality of the necessities of life often outweigh our desires. As much as I think that I deserve a position of privilege, if such an opportunity doesn't exist, then I must use what opportunities are available to do the best I can.

I agree that some words are losing meaning. Although it's hard to say whether that is a good or bad thing. In general, the evolution of meaning in language would seem to be a natural process, not unlike biological evolution. Words and meanings acquire significance or lose it based on the values of the period and the social and intellectual pressures of language use. The trivialization of words like "goddess" is an example of how the once intensely significant concept of polytheistic religions with female deities or monotheistic matriarchal religions have faded from relevance in the mainstream culture. The words linger in our vocabulary, but the significance is something which has eroded. I would argue that the erosion is due to a lack of relevance in modern society. Almost noone believes in goddesses anymore. And, although I would need to do a corpus study to verify this, I would think that the modern usage of the term is more in line with a label characterizing an ideal state of womanhood, more than a theological distinction. If that is indeed the case, then the ad's usage is perhaps more in line with the actual modern intent of the word than as a reference to spiritual phenomenon.

Redeem would be another candidate for an interesting corpus study. How do we actually use the word nowadays? Is it really more common in references to prizes, or the process of atonement for moral transgressions? I don't honestly know. But it is an interesting question nonetheless.

I also agree with your observation that capitalism needs a moral basis to get it off the ground, so to speak. Actually, Ayn Rand argued that the reason the American system has steadily been collapsing into socialism has been because although the founding fathers created a revolutionary new governmental system with an inherent political philosophy, there was no explicit moral system which was consistent with the philosophy implicit in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and consequently with Capitalism in general. The ethics of her philosophy of objectivism form a pretty strong argument for the shape of a capitalist ethics. If you haven't had a chance to read her arguments, I highly recommend them. Even if you don't agree, I would be interested to see where you object. Of course, I'll warn you, she's an atheist like me and she unilaterally rejects altruism as a moral ideal.

On the issue of people needing moral guidance, I will also agree. People need a framework, a rationally coherent model of not only what is right and wrong, but why something is right or why something is wrong. We need something more than a threat of punishment to choose the moral course. We need rational arguments to provide an explanation of why something is wrong, objectively. Objectivism would hold that "every is implies an ought." And I'm inclined to agree.
The problem with religion and education both, is that neither has tried to help people understand the why of morality, only the what. Both hold fast to the notion that indoctrination = moral behavior. Whereas this is simply just not true. If the only reason someone has to be moral is that it is a mandate from God or society, then there will inevitably be situations where that person feels that it is acceptable to act in an immoral way to achieve some short term objective. If somebody knows why something is wrong, then they will rebel against the very notion of breaching the moral precept in question and furthermore they will actively work to anticipate such situations so that they can avoid placing themselves in moral jeopardy. That is why rational ethics will always be stronger than ones which work primarily from a punishment motive.

I agree that the perception of life not being fair is due to a misconception of what fairness entails. I agree that most people have a skewed expectation of fairness which usually works out to saying "things should be good for me because I'm me and not because of anything I've done in particular." I will take exception though to the notion that Bible stories, or the religious texts of any religion have any bearing on modern ethics at all. We can, of course, select the nice bits from those texts. However, that means that we are using a morality outside of the literal depiction of religion to select those stories which conform to our independent sense of morality. If we are using a system independent of the literal teachings of religion to find moral justifications of our belief system, then we cannot be truly said to be basing our morality on religion. We are instead using our religion, selectively, to justify our morality. Where that morality then comes from is a matter of debate. I don't think that it comes innately, but I do think it is a function of values encoded in our society. Of course that is a recursive process, for who encodes values into our society if not for ourselves, and the institutions we erect. Ultimately that comes down to the ideas that were accepted in the generations before and the philosophers that the founders of those institutions adhered to.

A very pressing question that a friend recently brought up and to which I cannot find a satisfactory answer is, "Since all religious texts of the big 3 monotheistic religions are generally xenophobic, resistant to change and promote the use of violence against non-believers, why is it that the Christian religion evolved to be more permissive of dissent and to be more "selective" while Islam has instead retained it's non-selective literal interpretation?"

I used to more a fan of C.S. Lewis than I can currently find myself capable. After being exposed to Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy and listening to Youtube interviews with the author, I've come to have a slightly different perspective of Lewis's work. If anything, I find myself more on the side of Milton than ever. "Better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven." And as I think more and more about religion in general and moral issues specifically, I could honestly say that even were I to face some God after death, I think I would disown him for the insanity of his demands on the beings he created.

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