Posts Tagged ‘Confucius’

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Addendum

August 21, 2018

As I was replying (in my usual verbose way) to Nemo, I got to thinking about an event in popular culture that maybe helps make a point about civility and humor.

The event is the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner and Roast, and the Republican reaction to it.  In this, the host, Michelle Wolf, made a comment about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, saying she burns facts and uses the ashes to make the eye shadow for her “smokey eye” look.  “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies,” Wolf said, in a parody of the classic “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline” slogan.

The first thing I would say is that settings matter.  It was a roast.  That means that people are expected to use humor to mock others who are “big enough to take it.”  Traditionally, groups like The Friars Club used it as a form of honor between comedians.  Comedians are not eulogists; they are expected to mock others.  Wolf mocked her hosts, the assembled press, as well as political leaders.  That’s her job and her social function.  Anyone so thin-skinned that they can’t take this yearly ritual should get out of public life.  It’s like going to church and announcing publicly that you’re a worthless sinner in need of forgiveness; if you’re too self-centered to accept the idea that maybe you’re not perfect already, you shouldn’t go to church.  In Roman times, whenever a person achieved real greatness, he would be honored with a parade, called a “triumph,” with marching troops, musicians and all sorts of grandeur; but riding in the chariot beside him was a slave who would whisper repeatedly, “Remember you are mortal.”  THAT’S what a comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner is supposed to do:  remind those in the press, in government and others, all who would walk with the gods and receive admiration and authority above all others, that they are mere mortals.

Second, the point of the attack was to accuse Sanders of routinely and casually lying.  Since her job is to speak for the President of the United States, it is deeply self-contradictory that she often makes statements that are provably false.  Her ostensible job is to keep people informed; in fact, she misinforms.  The joke was that she was “burning truths,” not that she wears too much make-up; the “smokey eye” reference turned her signature style into a metaphor for her misdeeds, a true incarnation for her sin against truth.

Third, Republicans immediately denounced what they said was an attack on Sanders’ looks.  Given that their leader routinely goes on Twitter to attack “Sloppy Steve” or “Little Marco,” the outrage seems even less than hollow.  More importantly, it misses the point, either deliberately or stupidly.  Some undoubtedly want to deflect attention away from the fact that Sanders’ relationship to the truth is like a Trump marriage:  fleeting, unfaithful and mostly centered around money.  But others may have been genuinely offended at making fun of Sarah’s looks, and thought that was mean-spirited.  To that I would say, again, it’s a roast.  You attack the ones you love, or at least the ones who are big enough to take it.  More to the point, that wasn’t the point.  People who were offended by the joke probably didn’t get the joke, so they’re attacking what they don’t understand by focussing on something tangential.

When Michelle Wolf said Sanders was a liar, she went after someone who is in a prominent social position and who has nothing to lose by such mockery.  When Rush Limbaugh, a prominent, powerful and rich person, attacked a private citizen and called her a “slut,” that was simple bullying.  It was also stupid and false, since his mockery revealed nothing deeper than the fact that he doesn’t know how contraception works or he’d have known that a woman has to take the pill every month regardless of how much sex she has, so a person in a committed relationship spends just as much money as one who isn’t.  It isn’t, like the condoms Limbaugh used in his trip to enjoy the prostitutes of the Dominican Republic, something that you spend more money on the more debauched you are—and I can only hope Rush did indeed use condoms in that well-publicized trip, since I’d hate to think of those poor sex workers catching STDs from him.  After all, many of them are children with their whole lives ahead of them.

See, that’s how it’s done.  You don’t beat up on people smaller than you, like Rush does and Trump does; you beat up on people who are big enough to take it, preferably whose egos are also puffed up even larger than their natural size.

“Civility” does matter.  What is “civility”?  Presumably, it is behaving in a civilized manner, as a member of a civilization.  And a civilization means there is some sort of a hierarchy, with division of labor, differing social functions and so on.  It’s one thing when a comedian makes jokes about the assembled guests at a roast; it’s another thing when a politician uses insults and deceits to dehumanize and belittle critics.  One is to entertain and, at times, to speak truth to power; the other is an aggressive self-defense, speaking power to truth to prevent legitimate critique.

And perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing socially destructive about a comedian telling jokes.  That’s what comedians do.  It doesn’t overturn the social order, at least not when it’s done in its own settings such as late-night television or a comedy club, or a roast.  But when the President of the United States abandons the dignity of that civilized office to become just another internet troll, it is as socially destructive as when Emperor Commodus took on the role of a slave to fight as a gladiator in the Arena of Rome.  It undermines the dignity of the office more thoroughly than anything any jester could possibly do.  Nietzsche said that anarchists are no threat to monarchs; if anything, the crown sits more securely on their heads due to the occasional bullet shot at them.  Likewise, authority is not threatened when a comedian lobs a couple jokes at elected leaders.  There was nothing “uncivil” about Michelle Wolf’s behavior; in a civilized society, a professional comedian telling jokes at a roast is not surprising.

From the authoritarian perspective, subordinates like us owe respect to our betters; authoritarian conservatives thus are more inclined to be offended at the disrespect of a person in authority than they are at the borderline sadism of a powerful, rich public figure tormenting and belittling a private citizen.  An authoritarian is more inclined to think that the strong person has a natural right to slap down others in order to defend the status quo.  That’s at least what psychologists like Steven Pinker have discovered:  conservatives tend to react much more negatively to jokes made at the expense of people they regard as authority figures.  It is said that conservatives have five “moral colors” with which they paint their moral landscape:  Harm, Fairness, Community, Authority and Purity.  These are instinctive moral values, coloring how an individual reacts to the social world.  They are facts of existence, and thus you cannot really say someone is “wrong” for thinking this way.  But the other fact is that liberals seem to only have three of those principles.  They agree with conservatives that it is wrong, generally, to harm others, that it is important to be fair, and that communal life and harmony are valuable; but they don’t care very much if at all about Authority or Purity.  Those values, the desire to maintain the status quo and to maintain firm boundaries between “insider” and “outsider” lest the outsider contaminate us insiders in some way, are inherent to the conservative mindset.  To liberals, the conservatives seem to be narrow-minded bigots; to conservatives, the liberal seem to be anarchists who threaten the very group (nation, family etc.) that sustains them.  But the fact is that some people see things one way and some the other; some get upset at challenging or mocking an authority figure and feel it is immoral, while others feel no discomfort so long at the mockery seems “fair” and does no real harm.  There is little sense in denying these facts.  However, it is reasonable to ask for consistency and perspective.  The people who are furious about Smokey-Eyegate are likely the same ones who laughed when Obama was President and elected Republican officials passed around e-mails with pictures of the White House garden planted with watermelons, or who agreed when an elected GOP officeholder said Michelle Obama looked like an ape in heels, because they didn’t regard the President they didn’t like as an “authority” and thus their automatic defenses against assaults on authority figures weren’t triggered.  Liberals, on the other hand, are psychologically less likely to divide the world into “outsider” and “insider” and thus were more outraged at the racism, and if anything more rather than less outraged that the racist humor was coming from elected authorities.  You can’t necessarily demand that others feel the way you feel about jokes about “your” President; but you can at least demand fairness, and say that if it was acceptable for them to laugh at your authorities then you get to do the same to theirs.  Thus, psychology tells us that what one person feels is “uncivil” may feel perfectly civil to another, and perhaps both are being honest in their judgments.  In that case, both have to also recognize that the other has a different take, and resist the temptation to see themselves as the only righteous ones.

To wrap up this already prolix essay:  Civility is, and is not in the eye of the beholder.  Often what one finds “offensive” will not offend another, sometimes simply because one respects the target of the “incivility” in one case but not the other.  But that is not what matters in the cultural debate over civility.  It matters a lot more whether the alleged incivility is a violation of social norms.  As Confucius would point out, the noble person should behave nobly, the authority figure should behave with dignity and humaneness, and the person with responsibility should behave responsibly.  This is the source of moral te.  Kierkegaard would add that the responsible person also deserves to be treated with the respect due to a responsible person—no more, but certainly no less.  If a politician holds a town hall meeting in our society, those attending have a right to speak out and air their grievances.  They don’t have a moral right to refuse to let the politician speak at all.  During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, there was a lot of incivility, and many people who objected refused to even listen to their representatives; they counted shouting him or her down as a victory.  It is no surprise that incivility has continued to spread.  And, having attended a Bush rally in the 1980s near my college, I can attest that liberals were equally disruptive and uncivil towards conservatives trying to speak their minds.  These are bad and disruptive to our political order; communication and understanding are essential in a democratic society, and you can’t have communication and understanding without basic civility.  But these are not as disruptive to our society as when authorities, who expect others to treat them with the dignity due to their office or their social status, will not themselves behave like civilized men and women, but instead turn from civilized humans into trolls.

As to Michelle Wolf:  a comedian doing her job is not disruptive to the political climate or social cohesion; if anything, she or he reinforces it.  Besides, it was a damned funny joke.

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Philosophers Discuss Civility: Confucius

July 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Confucius

 

The Master said, Yen P’ing Chung is a good example of what one’s intercourse with one’s fellow-men should be. However long he has known anyone he always maintains the same scrupulous courtesy.

—–Confucius, Analects Book V, #16

 

 

It would seem there could not be more difference between Cynicism and Confucianism. The Greek Cynics, like the Taoist philosophers in China, embraced the natural and unsophisticated. Good manners, social status, rituals—-all of these the Cynics mocked.[1] Confucius taught in opposition both to the Taoist drop-outs and the unscrupulous, often brutal rulers and politicians of his day. Little regarded in his lifetime, his philosophy became the moral foundation for the Chinese empire that stood supreme for two thousand years, and still provides much of the ethical philosophy for East Asia.

While Taoism treated the natural order and the social order as different and in a sense opposed, for Confucius the social order, moral order and cosmic order were all part of the Tao, the Way, Goodness itself. Goodness inheres in right relationships, and right relationships are expressed through right rituals. In the family, each member has duties and responsibilities to the others depending on their place: the parents are to provide for and teach their children, the children are to respect and obey when they are young, to care for their parents when they are old, and to properly mourn them when they pass away. The rituals that guide the family relationships can include wearing certain clothes when mourning the dead, giving a proper greeting upon entering a room, or much of what we might call “common courtesy.” Other rituals cover the respectful way to approach a social superior or ruler, or how a social leader is to interact with the spirits, and so on; so “rituals” can include things like the equivalent of saying “God bless you” after a sneeze all the way up to the nation’s leader laying a wreath at the tomb honoring the nation’s war dead. The Chinese did not distinguish between “religious” and “secular” rituals; they didn’t even have a word to distinguish “religion” from other rituals until European missionaries started arriving and asking them to describe their “religion.” Spiritual, social and familial rituals were all part of the Way, or Tao, and all had real power to affect the world.

The first and most obvious function of these rituals was to show respect for the other. To speak with appropriate politeness to a guest, parent or teacher, or to someone on the street, was to show respect for the dignity of that person and that person’s particular relationship to you. It is written that once a man came to Confucius and complained that the traditional three years of mourning for a dead father was too much; he couldn’t pursue normal career activities during that time and he thought it was too great a handicap. Confucius told him that if he thought he’d shown proper respect for this father, then fine; but after the young man left Confucius remarked on how ungrateful he was. After all, he said, for three years he had been the apple of his parents’ eye; the least he could do was mourn for that same period. But Confucius also knew that ritual should express and guide the true feelings of the heart; it should be more than just going through the motions. If we have the humaneness that a good person should have, we will want to express it by treating others well and not offending their dignity; so we will diligently fulfill the proper social rituals and courtesies.

Ritual also structures and limits how the powerful should act, and thus gives some distance between leader and led, some protection for the powerless. Confucius stresses that the “gentleman,” the noble person fit for public service in the government, should praise and support those with less status. “The demands that a gentleman makes are upon himself; those that a small man makes are upon others.” (Book XV #20) A good person will criticize his (or her) own faults, but look for the good in others; a small-minded person will look for the failings of others. (Book XII #16) “To demand much from oneself and little from others is the way (for a ruler) to banish discontent.” (Book XV #14) Or to say it in more detail:

 

            Jan Jung asked about Goodness. The Master said, Behave when away from home as though you were in the presence of an important guest. Deal with the common people as though you were officiating at an important sacrifice. Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no feelings of opposition to you, whether it is in the affairs of a State that you are handling or the affairs of a Family. (Analects book XII, #2

 

So strict adherence to courtesy and other ritual is important when dealing with someone of higher rank or power, but also in dealing with the “common people.” Even in this highly hierarchical society, the most important thing is to treat others, all others, as you would wish to be treated. Ritual is there to govern the expression of this goodwill towards others, and the teachings of Confucius are primarily addressed to those who have the power (or seek the power) to lead others; we are not merely to show respect for those in authority over us, but to all people.

This passage points to a third important element in Confucian thought: that strict observance of ritual by those at the top of society will have “moral force,” and this moral force is a much more stable and effective method of leadership than is physical force and fear. If people have trust in their leaders and see that their leaders strive to fulfill all their ritual responsibilities, they themselves will be moved to obey. When leaders rely on moral force, the commoners will spontaneously love their country; but if they rely on threats and punishments, the people will think only of how to evade them. (Book IV, #11) When the leader loves and strictly follows ritual, Confucius says, the State will be well-ordered even if he issues no orders; people will see him, know that he loves the nation and people, and be moved by his adherence to his duty to in turn love the nation and work for its welfare. Or contrariwise, if the people see their leaders care more for themselves than for others, more for pointing out their own glory and the faults of others, and show contempt for others and for the nation by neglecting rituals, the rest of society will follow this bad example and become disordered, resentful and selfish, distrustful of their leaders and with no strong loyalty to the nation.

Diogenes and Confucius do seem to agree on some points. Both think our actions should reflect our hearts; showing “courtesy” without real human concern is pointless and hollow. Confucius says, for example, that some would say a good son makes sure his elderly parents are fed and sheltered, but we do that much for a dog; if care is given without respect, he asks, of what value is it? The difference between them is that the Cynic, or the Taoist philosopher, would say that getting rid of rituals would make for more natural human relationships and a more natural, and thus morally better society. For Confucius, the moral world is created, structured and sustained by rituals. To be “civil” towards others is to live in and to help sustain an ordered universe. And Confucius supports a hierarchical society, where duties to others are defined by their relationships and status.[2] Presumptuousness is frowned upon; Confucius even goes so far as to say that those who are not part of government should keep quiet about political affairs. Clearly this is inconsistent with a democratic society, although it seems not too alien to some of our leaders today in our supposedly democratic republic.

To put things in today’s words, to the Confucian, civility matters a lot. The people should be civil towards each other, to show they respect one another as human beings. They should be civil towards those in authority, to express respect for that authority, for the institutions and for the knowledge of those above them. But more important, the leaders must, absolutely must show civility in all they do. When the leaders speak and act with civility, the people will themselves imitate this; they will respect their leaders and from that learn to love their society and thus their neighbors as well. But when the leaders fail to show civility, the people will feel the same contempt for their leaders that the leaders show for the institutions and traditions of the nation. In that circumstance, demanding civility from your underlings while refusing to demand it of yourself is simply to weaponize it, to turn what should have been an engine for moral force into a mere exercise in power; and when the people are governed by power, they naturally resist and rebel.

 

To be continued….

[1] and Chuang Tzu was not much more impressed even if he was a bit more light-hearted about it

[2] I had an experience as a teen that suggests that this notion is present, to a lesser degree perhaps, in Western culture as well. In France I made the mistake of using “vous” when talking to a child; the French seemed to find this hilarious. I had been taught it was the “polite” form, but not that the adult-child relationship requires “tu” even when being “polite.”

A Thought for This Day

December 3, 2016

Once Confucius and his disciples on the side of Mount T’Ai heard a woman wailing in mourning.  Confucius approached her and asked the reason why she wept. She replied, “My husband’s father was killed here by a tiger, my husband too, and now my son has met the same fate.”

“Then why do you stay in this dreadful place?” Confucius asked.

“Because there is no oppressive ruler here,” she replied.

Confucius turned to his disciples and said: “Learn from this that an oppressive ruler is crueler than a tiger.”