Friday, November 12, 2004

Baby, Bathwater, What's the Difference?

Thanks to Cockalorum for this link:


Partisan? Moi?

Not really. Just anti-fanatic.

Idealism, Fixation, and Assorted Silly Persons

Nevermind. It's been a slow work day, so I decided to go ahead and write something. Herein I address, to a limited extent, idealism. (Just imagine how nightmarish it would have been if I'd decided to address it thoroughly.)

I like definitions.

Main Entry: ide·al·ism
Pronunciation: I-'dE-(&-)"liz-&m
Function: noun

1 a (1) : a theory that ultimate reality lies in a realm transcending phenomena (2) : a theory that the essential nature of reality lies in consciousness or reason b (1) : a theory that only the perceptible is real (2) : a theory that only mental states or entities are knowable

It's not what you thought it was, is it? I always thought idealism meant a certain naive assumption that perfection was not merely desirable, but achievable.

Evidently, if you look up "idealist" instead, that's where you end up: an idealist as an individual who focuses on the "ideal". Idealism has to do with ideas; idealists have to do with ideals. I find that interesting. I also think that if more individuals could be idealists in the first sense and less in the second sense, idealists would be far easier folks to talk to.

Why should idealists be difficult people to talk to?

I was accused of idealism once (probably more than once, but this is the only case I can think of in which the word was used by name). It was when I was in my late teens, and I attempted to give what was, from my point of view, some much-needed relationship advice. The giftees? My divorce-considering parents. Let us compassionately draw a curtain over the rest of that scene. I assumed at the time, and rightly so I believe now, that the accusation of "idealist" had less to do with any wrong-doing on my part, and more to do with the impulsive gracelessness of the young.

I expect to be cured of attempting to heal breaches between Democrats and Republicans within a year or less. Watch the exciting process as it unfolds!

But that's beside my point, which is this: the ideal-centered kind of idealism is, at best, a phase everybody goes through on the way to adulthood, and at worst, a positive impediment to problem-solving. Idealists are frequently useless, and occasionally dangerous. We have a word for dangerous idealists: fanatics.

The problem is not the idea of perfection itself. I believe that there is such a thing as objective truth and goodness, and that it is a thing worth aiming at, and that it makes us better as human beings.

The problem is not lack of consensus. The more you study the holiest beliefs of all traditions, the more you will find in common between them.

The problem, as I see it, is that we seek perfection imperfectly.

In short, we try to cheat.

I can't speak for philosophies the world over, but in America, it's definitely true. You see it in story after story, legend after legend: the American ideal of the Good Guy is quite simple. Whenever we try to complicate him, we call those complications "flaws" and say that we're being edgy and realistic, as if to imply that in reality, there are no Good Guys. Even in acknowledging the reality of diversity, we somehow manage to reinforce that the Ideal is just that: singular. In actuality, we're vastly reassured by a singular ideal. It's easier to aim at, and it's most certainly a hell of a lot easier to fail at without having to feel too bad.

But, from where I sit, the concept of what is ideal can only ever exist in plurality.

If, like myself, you define goodness as a sort of wholesome holiness, a thing which produces beauty and truth and love and learning, and well, a whole host of other things through which human beings have garnered meaning through the millenia, then the idea of a plural ideal comes easily to you. This is an ideal which has different aims at different times for different people. It's a knottier and more difficult concept than any one single Good Thing; it is the combined force of all Good Things in their Right Measure. How unfortunate for the holier-than-thou among us that it's incredibly difficult to point a finger at someone when you can't even be sure, for yourself, what the Right Measure of Good Things should have been!

I think that theists have an advantage over atheists in this arena. Personally, being a worshipper of a God and a Christ brings the complexity of the Ideal home to me with great force, though many would assume the opposite.

You see, a god is a person. A perfect person, to be sure, but no account of any god in any religious tradition commits the error of presuming perfection to mean simplicity. The Judeo-Christian God calls attention to His own overwhelming complexity again and again. To worship a person, is to worship something that can never be completely known or understood. Even if you were to worship the person living next door to you this would be true; how much more true is it with a gigantic and cosmic person responsible for your own creation?

For a secular humanist, it can be a bit more difficult, I think. I'll admit firsthand that we religious sorts make it difficult, by claiming that we all know what we're worshipping. That's a claim made in pride and ignorance. The fact is, we use the shorthand of calling what we worship a person, in order to avoid talking about how immensely complicated it can get to know what it is we're worshipping. All you have to do is personify your deity, and all of the mystery that comes with personhood is encapsulated. A note to those of you who chastise the various religions for infighting: when was the last time you ever agreed perfectly with another human being on every aspect of, say, even a movie star?

Whereas any good secular moralist has to just come right out and admit it, unmistakably: what you worship is a massive and complex array of things which are good by standards you feel are correct.

Clear as mud, either way.

What idealists (of the "ideal" variety) have in common across all faiths is this: they have found an ideal that they are comfortable with, and are willing to share it with others.

The simple (complex?) fact is, the moment you feel you have discovered the Ideal, you have lost it.

C.S. Lewis spent quite a bit of time talking about this fact of morality... that all you have to do to turn a man into an utter devil, is to convince him that one aspect of morality is the absolute Good at all times. In this way, courage can turn a man into a mindless, blood-seeking tool; chastity can turn a woman into a contemptuous, resentful misogamist; prudence can create either wateriness or arrogance; mildness can create a living waste of matter. Devotion pursued to exclusion is lunacy. Holiness can never be sought without the awareness of its many different faces under many different circumstances.

I can tolerate the fact that an idealist tends to venerate a single concept. What tends to bug me, more than anything, is when said idealist undercuts my own moral struggles by trying to explain to me how simple it really is to be Good!

First of all, no, it's not. Second of all, living by said idealist's standard would make it harder, not easier.

Good is a great and vigorous thing. Complexity does not make it vague; it makes it factual, binding it firmly to reality. I fail to comprehend how someone can travel even a few years through this life and come to the conclusion that there are more forms of bad, than there are of good. Whether you are a theist or not, it simply makes no sense. For atheists, I can say the universe, for theists, I can say God, both or either of them have created a wonderful diversity of creatures to roam this planet. In every instance where strength or growth or progress is desirable, it is achieved through the unity of differences, hybridization. Evolution branches outward, or else God creates a wonderful variety, it makes no difference how it happens; if goodness applies at all, it applies in vast and unthinkable tracts of variety.

Do you remember my assumption that lies start to look the same after awhile? The opposite goes for truth -- and "the truth is stranger than fiction" is not just a tired aphorism. The truth is often the thing you fail to anticipate. But lies are limited by what they are; perversions of truth, and perversity is a limitation.

I believe any perversion of good operates upon the same system. Sorry, balance-theorists; I don't believe in yin and yang, light and darkness, in the classic sense. I believe evil is a far less robust force than good, a parasite of sorts. Something which attempts to turn good things into the much less complicated image of itself.

Hence, whenever someone begins to speak of things in highly simplistic terms, I start to get nervous.

It comes close to my thinking of idealism as an evil thing.

But I wouldn't define it that simply.

I think that idealism is a natural phase that human souls have to go through on their way to wisdom. Like youth; it's not bad, but it's not a place where you want to get stuck, either. Nor is it something you want to leave behind completely.

When idealists get stuck, you end up with the following:
  • picketers standing at the borders of a funeral procession holding up a sign declaiming that "God hates fags"
  • gun control activists defending the lives of deer -- who, for the purposes of this exercise, we shall refer to as "pronged rats"
  • fruitarians, who refuse to even kill a plant to attain sustenance (I challenge you to find clothing or any other necessity of life that is absolutely death-free)
  • pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics
  • gay marriage advocates defending their stance by holding up Vegas ceremonies as an example of how marriage could not possibly become more sullied (wtf?)
  • elitist humanists
  • anti-war activists who wish for soldiers to die
  • religious fundamentalists who only decry theocracy as long as it's in the Middle East
  • people who venerate the sacredness of free speech by defending pornography (look, I like porn too, but it has honestly turned into some kind of flagship -- that's ludicrous)

I imagine you get the point. In every thing, there can be an excess, a perversion. Even moderation can be taken to excess.

There is a Good. And we must strive toward it. But at no point, while we live, are we permitted to sit flat, crush our laurels and say, "Welp, that's it. I've found the good. It's right here, and here I stay." Life is about growth, movement, and change. There will be plenty of time to fixate when you're dead.

ADD Note Upon Visitors; Questions Unasked

I am not expecting to be able to update the blog until tomorrow, and more likely Monday or Tuesday. I have a guest for the weekend, and I suddenly have to recall how exactly to keep my life in order while dealing with the distracting presence of another person in my home. :)

Upcoming topics: creativity and depression, religion and sex, comparing and contrasting optimistic liberalism with optimistic conservativism (and the respective alternatives), wealth and celebrity and guilt, and how all of these things relate to each other. Stay tuned, my new loyal set of four or five readers! It's gonna be an exciting trip!

In the meantime, I leave you with this:

Directly after 9/11, there was a chorus of activist (and mostly liberal) American voices volunteering answers to the question "Why do they hate us?"

Better phrased, the question is, "Why do they hate YOU?" directed at the great silent majority of non-activist Americans.

Post-2004-election, we are now hearing a chorus of liberal voices volunteering answers to the question, "Why do WE hate you?" to Bush voters.

I suspect that if that 51% were to give a voice to their response, it would be something like, "We never asked you either of those questions, and if we didn't care then, we certainly don't care now."

More about why that might be, later.