Thursday, July 29, 2010

Beware Collectivism, Part 3

With a four-alarm fire under his collar, a poster on a conservative website declares, "Women put Barack Obama in office!' Of course, since he's a conservative, he's saying this like it's a very bad thing. In his mind an entire gender -- half of humankind -- bears equal responsibility for the election of a politician he dislikes.

If I could meet the man face to face, I might point out to him that I am a Libertarian, not a Democrat, and I did not cast my vote for Barack Obama. Therefore, by no logical standard can I be held accountable for his election. However, I suspect that I would be wasting my breath. That man has drunk the logic-killing hemlock known as Collective Guilt, the notion that an entire group of people should share the blame for the actions of some.

By the logic of Collective Guilt, I should also feel ashamed of the drowning of Susan Smith's and Andrea Yates's children, the false accusations of rape leveled against three Duke University lacrosse players, and the popularity of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. But I refuse to acknowledge responsibility for crimes, wrongs, and misjudgments in which I played no part, simply because I have certain reproductive organs in common with the responsible parties.

Collective Guilt cannot take root in common sense. Anger is behind it -- the kind of blind, unreasoning rage that, in the early '90s, looked at a white truck driver and saw the four white policemen who were acquitted of the charge of brutality against Rodney King. This rage can't content itself with homing in on one or more guilty individuals. It must target a larger share of humanity, sometimes seeking to hold them accountable for atrocities committed before they were born.

As a student of history, I do think it important to examine the weakness in our human nature that made possible such great crimes as human slavery and the Holocaust. Only by knowing how such things happened can we ensure that they never happen again. But I am too young to have owned a slave, or to have given tacit permission for the murder of millions of men, women and children in concentration camps across Europe. While these crimes may have stemmed from weaknesses that all humans (not just select groups of us) share to some degree, and we owe it to ourselves to examine and understand those weaknesses, I should not be punished for them, in the form of either reparations or some angry man's scorn.

A quick look at those very crimes that make us shudder in horror reveals Collective Guilt at their heart. The Nazis sold the German public at large the idea that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ and the failing economy, and so all of them, down to the tiniest infant, should pay for those crimes with their lives. Ministers in the pre-Civil War South declaimed that an ancient curse against one of Noah's sons extended to all blacks, and therefore American slavery was justified. And because huge numbers of people bought these lies, American slavery persisted for decades, and over six million people died in the Holocaust. The individuals caught in these turmoils were never given a chance to defend themselves; they were punished for wrongs, real or imagined, committed by people they had never met.

Why are we so quick to believe in Collective Guilt, when it goes so clearly against anything and everything resembling logic? Simple -- it's an easy way to avoid looking at human guilt, our own imperfect nature. Rather than examine head-on the flaws we all share, we invent a guilty "Them" to stand against a blameless "Us." We can hug our own righteousness if we can heap blame on "Them," and hugging righteousness is, of course, a favorite human pastime.

Each one of us is a member of the flawed human family. In our lifetime we will accumulate a vast store of mistakes, misjudgments, and wrongs for which we must one day be called to account. But each one of us has sins enough to bear as an individual, without adding the additional burden of crimes committed by those who share our gender, race, ethnicity, or nationality. When I stand before my Maker, I will accept the responsibility for my own bad choices, not for my race or gender.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Five Signs That Much Is Right With the World

Reasons for despair are always abundant. You won't have to hunt hard or far to find them. It's Election Year, so campaign ads are infesting our television screens, some promising miracles and quick fixes to complex problems, others savaging other candidates; both types of ads have an equally shaky relationship with the truth. Meanwhile, our economy continues to struggle. Joblessness is unacceptably high. Arabs and Israelis are still dedicated to destroying each other. Women in the Muslim world are still too often shrouded in identity-effacing robes. If that isn't enough to depress us, we can always talk about the weather.

But if we look a little harder, we can still find signs that, on occasion, Life and the World work just as they should. Here are five signs I've found that God is indeed in his Heaven, and on the job.

1. Lindsay Lohan is in jail.
I used to like Ms. Lohan. While her fellow Disney alumna Hillary Duff busied herself with portrayals of characters whose brains are made of fluff (Lizzie McGuire being the most famous example), Lindsay tackled more intelligent characters in movies like The Parent Trap, Freaky Friday, and A Prairie Home Companion. Since then, however, she's displayed a horrifying lack of judgment in both career (Georgia Rule?? I Know Who Killed Me??) and life. Her real-life misjudgments seem centered around the notion that because she's a sparkly celebrity, the universe owes her something and other people's feelings matter not. Granted, she's been cursed with a reprehensible mother who has taught her just about every wrong lesson a mother can teach a child, but it's nonetheless time to hold her accountable for steamrolling over other people. Locking her away is a blow to the eye for Entitlement. Now, if the public would just lose interest in those skanky Kardashian sisters, our popular culture would be substantially cleaner, purer, nobler...

2. Inception is No. 1 at the box office.
I haven't yet seen Christopher Nolan's paranormal thriller, so I can't speak to its quality first-hand. However, in a summer that kicked off with the mediocre Iron Man 2 and has slogged on through the likes of an unadventurous Robin Hood, a tacky Sex and the City 2, a much-better-when-it's-only-two-minutes-long MacGruber, and an A-Team that illuminates near-Shakespearean qualities in the original 1980s TV show, a thought-provoking drama that needs two viewings to be understood is a breath of fresh air. This summer just about every mainstream film is some sort of rehash; even the marvelous Toy Story 3 is a sequel. Kudos to the moviegoing public for showing some love for what we've been missing: a truly original film.

3. Georgia's fountains are working again.
I have a love-hate relationship with rain -- mostly hate. Rain would be all right if I never had to drive in it, run through a parking lot in it, or take my dog for a walk in it. But as much as I loathe rain, even I have to admit it has its uses. Georgia has recently suffered through a long drought. In such conditions, every drop of rain is needed for drinking and bathing; superfluous aesthetics must be ignored. During drought days, few sights are more disheartening than a dry, deserted fountain. Now, thanks to the rain's return, Georgia's fountains look as they should, gleaming in their rightful beauty. The whish of the water whispers to us, "No drought here." Long may the fountains flow.

4. Georgia's rigid sex offender laws are being relaxed.
Pedophiles and other such deviants are human garbage, but the laws put in place to deal with their crimes, like schools' zero-tolerance policies under which heroin and Tylenol are equally banned, are based on a one-size-fits-all principle that only works in retail, and very rarely then. Under these laws, a sixteen-year-old boy who sleeps with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend would be subject as an adult to restrictions that prevent him from living too close to a church or school, as if he were no different from a kidnapper or molester. Now our legislature has finally realized this may be a tad on the unjust side. About time.

5. I have nerds in my classes this quarter.
As a teacher, I am obligated to help all my students as they need it and treat each one with the respect that one human being owes another. But as a nerd, I can't help smiling inside when I encounter fellow nerds in my classes. By "nerds," of course, I mean people I can imagine running into when my husband and I make our yearly pilgrimages to the Georgia Renaissance Festival, DragonCon, and Anime Weekend Atlanta -- people who know what a Tardis is, who can talk about the differences between J.K. Rowling's and J.R.R. Tolkien's novels and their screen adaptations, or who have a favorite film made prior to 1970. I appreciate the assurance their presence gives me of the wideness of our nerdy tribe. They don't get extra consideration on essays and tests, but I like knowing they're there.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Beware Collectivism, Part 2

At the end of my last blog on this subject, I left you with a question: what can we do about the human tendency to think of ourselves and others in collective terms? If we all think collectively on occasion, if we can't help ourselves, why should be bother trying to do anything about it?

Becuase collectivist thinking threatens constantly to compromise our belief in God's most precious gift to humankind -- free will.

Our relationship with free will is ambiguous. On the one hand, free will means we have choices, and we like the sound of that. on the other, it means we are responsible for those choices and must bear the blame if they lead to bad outcomes. We don't care so much for this. So we manufacture collectivism, one of our most effective and convenient little devices for relieving ourselves of this responsibility. If certain virtues and flaws are programmed into our group identity, they are neatly beyond our control.

I should note that not all collectivist thinking is created equal. It's all flawed, but some more seriously than others. Often we make judgments about individuals based on a group affiliation they have chosen -- profession, political party, etc. "Lawyer jokes," for instance, are quite common. Greg Smith may not conform to all these negative stereotypes, but his choice to enter the legal profession may indeed say something important about him. Likewise, when we find out Betty Jones is a Republican, certain assumptions about where she stands on the economy, the war on terror, or abortion might not fall too wide of the mark. Of course, not all lawyers or Republicans are alike. No group, even a chosen group, thinks entirely in a monolithic block. But these judgments based on chosen group memberships are not as threatening to the concept of free will as those judgments we base on gender, race, age, or nationality of birth -- matters in which we have no say.

If we do not choose our gender, age, or race, we cannot be blamed for them, and it makes no sense whatsoever to hold an entire gender, age, or race accountable for the misdeeds of a few or even a majority. Likewise, we cannot justly be credited or praised for our gender, age, or race, and the virtues of a few or even a majority cannot be attributed to all. Why should anyone expect to be rewarded or honored for something he or she neither earned nor accomplished?

We expect it all the time. We seek out that cheap rush of pride that comes with the accomplishments of "someone like us." I'm as guilty of this as anyone. It delights me to see women nominated for Academy, Emmy, or Tony Awards in the writing or directing categories and winning Nobel Prizes for science and literature, confirming that women can and do excel in these areas -- as if I had any claim to their brilliance. How often do we settle for this cheap pride, rather than making the effort to accomplish something of our own?

Similarly, when we decide that gender, age, or race are somehow blameworthy qualities, we can let ourselves off the hook. The most dangerous negative stereotype is the one we believe about ourselves. Young men who convince themselves that Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods committed adultery not because they are flawed individuals but because they are male and "that's just what men do," no longer have to make the effort to be faithful; they've decided that their "playing around" is a foregone conclusion. A young black woman who believes that people of her age and gender are "naturally" bad at math need not put time and energy into her math homework; when she fails, she can always claim that being black and female, she couldn't help it.

With every such notion, we kill our belief in free will by degrees. We don't even realize that at the start of it all, we chose to believe the collectivist lies, and afterwards we will reap the negative consequences of that choice.

The best way to start combatting collectivism is to own our choices, good and bad. We can claim both our accomplishments and our mistakes, without seeking to pilfer other people's. When our achievements reap reward, we can tell ourselves and others, "I did that -- not because of any gender or race I happen to belong to, but because of the individual I am, with a mind and soul unlike any others."