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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Defined by morals, not memories

This article popped up in my FB memories from last year, and I was moved again by it.


This is an article from Scientific American about how patients with Alzheimer's disease (which affects memory) but not dementia (which can affect moral traits like honesty and compassion) continued to be perceived as "themselves" by their loved ones, and maintained close bonds with caregivers. Statements like "The patient seems like a different person" were rarely endorsed by caregivers unless moral changes came about.

"Efforts aimed at helping sufferers to understand themselves in terms of their moral traits—characteristics like altruism, mercy, and generosity—can restore their sense of identity and control as memory fades or cognition declines. Simply knowing that others continue to perceive them as the same person, even when they feel that their own identity is changing, can allow them to securely protect their sense of self."

As someone with a...well, "poor memory" might almost be understating just how fuzzy my recollection tends to be...I find this both reassuring and intuitive. And, of course, from a metaphysical perspective we are ourselves regardless of age, condition, disability, or other changes.

There's a lot of focus sometimes on "making memories." And experiences do enrich our quality of life. But perhaps more important is that we understand that we are, every day, making our selves. Who we are affects our choices, but our choices also shape who we are. Our moral choices mark us more deeply and more legibly than the things that have merely happened to us.

And there's a kind of peace in this for me. Whatever storms come, I will always be able to choose to live from my values, my faith, my center. It might be difficult--it might sometimes seem unfairly difficult--but it is in my reach always to be a moral person.

And if I break and fail to be my best self, there is always another moment, another choice, another chance to begin again. To be someone who loves. To be someone who is constant. To be someone true.

To be, not a collection of skills or abilities, or a collection of memories, but a person striving to be ever more fully whole.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A defence of earthiness

*This post was originally meant as part of a two-part post. I hit a mental block with the second part, however, and so never posted this part. The recent firing of the brilliant Simcha Fisher from the National Catholic Register, when Simcha was one of the targets of the original debate about "raunchy" speech that prompted me to write this, has motivated me to post this as a form of apologia for earthiness in Catholic writing. I am saddened and deeply disappointed that the Register was short-sighted enough to fail to see the deep need for Simcha's voice within the Catholic community.

The question of whether it is good or right for Catholics to engage in raunchy humour seems to me to be one that eludes a simple answer. In some contexts and from some people, raunchy humour may be entirely appropriate and even virtuously motivated. When discussing the often sensitive topics of marital relations or family life, a certain amount of raunchiness can serve to alleviate bitterness or resentment by alluding to the often ridiculous and absurd elements of embodiment. There is something sublimely silly about immortal souls walking about united to flesh such that the flesh can and does fall short of the will, all of which makes cracking jokes about small boys and their preoccupation with their penises or grown women trying (and failing) to stay awake for a romantic interlude with a spouse both near-universal and extremely cathartic. Raunchy humour is earthy, embodied. When used to express something about the common experience of embodiment, it can be a good that draws persons together and teaches them perspective and tolerance towards their own physical nature and that of others.

Of course, like anything, raunch can be and often is misused. Raunchy humour can be directed at persons in an objectifying way, as many women have experienced. It can serve to cheapen or expose another by reducing them to their physicality and neglecting the value of the whole person.

It can also be used to intentionally cause offence to others, capitalising on differing cultural expectations and standards to create scandal for no purpose but to take malicious pleasure in causing scandal. There are many innocent things that shock or scandalise the tender of conscience, and while we are not abjured to cease to eat meat sacrificed to idols, we are abjured to avoid making a show of it around those who feel genuinely conscience-bound to avoid it. St. Paul (the original moral relativist, by some standards, it seems) cautioned the Corinthians not to embolden other believers to act in ways that they (mistakenly) believed to be sinful, for "since their conscience is weak, it is defiled" by following the example of those whose knowledge renders their conscience clear.  "Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know," says St. Paul, "But whoever loves God is known by God." So we are to "Be careful...that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak."

Obviously, this is easier to apply when our audience is clear. If I am speaking within my house, I'll naturally guard against overt sexually-based humour around my children, since they lack the context for it and are not an appropriate audience. If I'm talking to someone I've just met, I won't make the same jokes I might with someone who knows me well. If I know my audience, I can choose words that will speak to that audience.

Online, however, audience can be hard to judge. There's often a difference between the intended audience, the potential reach of a piece of writing, and the actual readership. If I've found a particular audience who responds well to raunchy humour, and if my use of it is appropriate and person-affirming rather than objectifying, should the reality that my writing is accessible to a larger readership prevent me from writing with that particular subset in mind? Do I have an obligation to write for every person who clicks on a link or visits my page, when writing online?

My concern is that if every Catholic writer restricts themselves to the linguistic common denominator to try to write in a way that will communicate equally to every reader, we are likely to fail to communicate well to any audience. Conversely, if I fall into the habit of writing to please a handful of individual people already known to me, I may find myself falling into lazy habits, using shorthand labels and expressions and failing to explain my premises or qualify my statements, and effectively reaching a much smaller audience than I might hope for.

I don't, however, think I have a responsibility to write with every possible audience in mind. If a mode of writing can be appropriate and even virtuous within the context of a particular audience, as I've argued that raunchy humour can be, it remains appropriate even if others might see and misunderstand it. I am responsible to the person or people to whom I am speaking and to those who make an honest effort to understand me within the context in which I move and write. If I do become aware that someone has been scandalised because of differences in conscience, I should in charity both attempt to explain myself and encourage that person to follow their own conscience and not my example. I think the obligation to avoid scandalising others goes that far.

However, when potential readership extends to anyone with an internet connection, it no longer becomes clear which person is owed the greater care--the person who might experience my language to be a stumbling block, or the person who is in need of the communion and commonality that language could provide. To that end, the discernment of which audience to serve and reach out to is one that can only ever belong to the individual, in accord with his or her own understanding and conscience, and within the context of his or her own calling and journey.

So, here's the TL;DR summary, what I want you to take away from this:
Sometimes, you're not the audience. Sometimes, the audience is one that needs to hear embodied language appropriate to the ridiculous sublimity and sublime ridiculousness of embodied souls and ensouled bodies. Sometimes, the words that offend you are the instruments that edify and heal another. Sometimes, you need to consider that you might not be the audience, and that's OK, because God loves a lot of other not-you people too.

(For more, see my earlier two-part piece at the Personalist Project on the purpose of language.)

I'm adding this relevant quote here, so that I can find it again. From St. Josemaria Escriva:

What conversations! What vulgarity and what dirt! And you have to associate with them, in the office, in the university, in the operating-theatre..., in the world.
Ask them if they wouldn't mind stopping, and they laugh at you. Look annoyed, and they get worse. Leave them, and they continue.
This is the solution: first pray for them, and offer up some sacrifice; then face them like a man and make use of the 'strong language apostolate'. — The next time we meet I'll tell you — in a whisper — a few useful words.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Modesty and Avoiding Scrupulousity

The question of modesty has come up again at Aleteia. In the ensuing discussion, a commenter asked me how someone with a propensity to scrupulosity can "err on the side of mercy" as the blogger recommended when it isn't possible to know what might provoke a sexual response in some other person.

Of course, I don't believe modesty requires us to mindread, so this is my response:

I argue strongly against a definition of modesty that requires trying to anticipate others' inward responses. I do think the question of modest dress has gotten more complicated as our social "language" has become more garbled, precisely because it is harder to figure out what your clothing choices communicate in a pluralistic society in which the answer can vary wildly between families within the same community, let alone between different communities and demographics. When Wojtyla argued that modest dress is culturally determined, he compared cultures on different continents as an illustration; we could compare cultures in ZIP codes within the same country.

If you examine instead your own interior attitudes in how you present yourself to others--which includes body language, behaviour, and demeanour, as well as dress--you are looking to something you CAN honestly assess.

Did you put on that shirt because it is comfortable, suitable to your day, aesthetically appealing, or simply because it is beautiful and fills you with joy? Or did you put it on to show off how much weight you've lost in front of someone you dislike, to make them feel inferior? Did you pick it to try to get attention from men by manipulating their sexual responses (Notice: this doesn't ask whether you succeed in provoking sexual responses. Even if every man around you is chaste in his responses, or if you're not nearly as sexually irresistible as you think you are, it's still immodest to *try* to flaunt your sexuality in order to wield some power over men)?

Are you wearing the shoes appropriate to your day, or are you wearing the expensive brand-name shoes that you know will demonstrate your status and provoke envy in women who can't afford them? Did you buy that purse because it is really practical/beautiful/well-made, or because it is a status symbol?

If your intentions are modest, appropriate, humble, then more often than not you will tend to dress and behave in ways that end up being easier and more comfortable for those around you, both men and women. It's possible to be immodest in "modest" dress, if your intention is to show your moral superiority--but if you are at peace in your mind and your intentions towards others, I think you will find you have a great deal of freedom to enjoy self-expression in dress and presentation.

If you want more specific advice to relieve your scrupulosity, there's always the classic spiritual advice which really won't ever steer you wrong (Francis de Sales said something of this sort): Wear what other people of your class, situation, station in life are wearing, but a notch less ostentatious or showy. Wear the fashion of the day, but a slightly more conservative version. Let others shine; step out of the limelight, but not in that dowdy, radical way that would be as ostentatious and showy as being a fashion-plate.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Binge drinking is not rape

The Stanford rapist, Brock Turner (and there you are, may those words accompany that name on Google for far, far longer than the measly 6-month sentence the man will serve), has promised to speak to youth about the dangers of "binge drinking and promiscuous sex." 
His father begged for mercy in sentencing because digitally penetrating an unconscious woman behind a dumpster was just "20 minutes of action" out of 20 years of life, and also echoed the line about the dangers of drinking and promiscuity. 
I want to say this:
Binge drinking is not rape.
Promiscuous sex, as dumb and dangerous as it is, is not rape.
Penetrating a non-responsive stranger with your fingers, shoving pine needles and dirt inside her while you dry hump her body until someone notices you you and scares you off---whether or not the law recognizes digital penetration as rape, THAT IS RAPE.
Drinking does not explain or excuse what Brock Turner (and seriously, doesn't that name sound like a parody of privilege? Could you think of a more privilege, WASPy name?) chose to do that night. 

Drinking to excess can remove inhibitions. It can make a person suggestible. It can injure judgment. But none of those things will turn you from a decent, caring, empathetic human being into someone who would drag an incoherent woman behind a dumpster to get in her underpants.
A decent guy gets drunk and makes embarrassing passes at attractive women, and is ashamed the next day. A decent guy doesn't get drunk, separate a woman from her friends, and stick his fingers inside her as soon as she is incoherent or unconscious enough not to be able to protest.
Promiscuous sex can spread disease, make people vulnerable to exploitation, hurt hearts, and create drama. It cannot, however, take a non-violent person and make them commit acts of violence and violation.
Did drinking have a part in Turner's actions? Sure it did. It gave him an excuse.
Did the current age's obsession with no-strings-attached sex have a part in Turner's actions? Maybe. It may have been part of his sense of entitlement. 
Did either cause him to rape a woman behind a dumpster?
He did that himself. Edited to add this cogent observation, from friend Christina P.:
You mean to tell me we live in a country where the top medical authorities advise "women shouldn't drink any alcohol unless they're on birth control," but men can do this shit and get off next to Scot free because of alcohol?
Y'all, until alcohol is not a viable excuse for rape and assault it should be illegal for a man to even get wasted.
Saturday, March 19, 2016

On strawmen, privilege, and the "deserving" poor

If you want to look down your noses at people who rely on government assistance, I don't want to be treated as exempt from your disdain simply because I don't fit the image in your mind.

I don't want to answer your (rhetorical, I guess) question about why poor people do or don't do something and then be told that you don't mean people like me, you mean those other people.

I don't want to be excused because I come from an intact family, I grew up on a farm in the country, I'm white and well-educated, attend church weekly, because I had my children within wedlock, or because I express myself well.

Here's how I see it, when I step out of my subsidized-rent home and see the other "poor" people around me. I see that with all of the advantages listed above, many of which, yes, my economic peers do not have, we are all at this moment in the same place.

I have incredible, incredible respect for men and women who keep striving in the face of no advantages, few privileges, less education, and/or dysfunctional family dynamics. I am in no way superior to them. I didn't earn any of my advantages.

So stop telling me that you just mean those *other* poor people, the ones who aren't trying as hard as I am. Because I can assure you, nothing I have came from "trying harder." 

And maybe, maybe, you might consider whether poor people might not mostly just be...people...doing what they know to do, trying to get by, some virtuous, some silly, some selfish, some amazingly generous, no different in essentials from any other segment of society.

Maybe they aren't so alien after all.

(Originally posted on FB, in response to some interactions there.)

ETA: Related reading from Melinda Selmys. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/catholicauthenticity/2016/03/youre-not-pro-life-if-youre-not-pro-child/