Archives for category: Social Criticism

When people think of Canada, they think of hockey, needless apologizing, and Tim Horton’s coffee because associating national identity with a corporation couldn’t possibly be the worst idea ever. None of these are things I would call “values,” however. Canadian values are a funny thing. Mostly because Canada is an abstract social construct that only has the meaning humanity gives it, and as a social construct, cannot actually have values. It’s like saying money has values. Usually this is why the concept of Canadian values doesn’t come up very often. The only people silly enough to consistently ascribe values to their nation are Americans, and that’s mostly due to the fact that America has been desperately trying to anthropomorphize itself throughout its entire history.

crying eagle

Things Americans value, as depicted by this image: weeping openly, nature, and destroying their own flag

But north of the border, we do try every now and again. Our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to dictate “shared values” that supersede any nationalistic urges, claiming that, “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice” are what unite us, rather than any hard-line Canadian identity. It sounds nice, right? I’m not Canadian because of any geographic truth about my birth and current living locale (the traditional construct of nation being the socially agreed upon borders drawn haphazardly across the globe which demarcate which laws you are compelled to follow), but now I’m Canadian because of my patriotic adherence to this list that Trudeau made up… or had written for him. Either way, it’s essentially nonsense.

However, when most people think about Canadian values, they think of Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s “Canadian Values Test” which would forbid any incoming immigrants and refugees from entry lest they agree to certain “values;” values presumably widely contrasted to any Liberal leader’s version of them. The lunacy of pan-Canadian values aside, people were mostly in favour of broad, incredibly vague, yet still hypocritical values being enforced at the border.

border crossing

We are open, compassionate, just, and respectful people. You need to be just like us in order to come in. (Yes, I know this is the American border under Trump. We have our own hypocrisies, they’re just more difficult to find in a Google Image Search relevant to immigrants or refugees)

Why is there pressure from political organizations to promote absolute values within the citizenry? It makes no sense from a practical viewpoint. Laws are the enforceable side of values, but nobody is going to go beyond that to enforce “openness” and “respect” as laws because more often than not those spouting these platitudes are those most likely to disregard them. They’re also impossible to define. Is it respectful to respect a woman’s right to choose, or to respect the life which began at conception? Values are individualistic and subjective to the point where they are entirely meaningless on any kind of macro scale.

Politicians and their pundits aren’t actually speaking about values when they discuss values because, as discussed, that is a meaningless prospect. What they are talking about is purity. Values aren’t the thing; everyone being the same is the thing. We want a country that is untainted by foreign aspects that will defile the sanctity of our nation. We only want those who are like us. We don’t want to be infested by those… types. If this sounds like dog-whistle racism, well, who can say?

purity

Can you imagine some foreign elements contaminating this water? Society is just like that. If anything foreign is introduced, it poisons us all. It’s not racism. This metaphor is incontrovertible.

Purity has its defenders. Jonathan Haidt suggests that the divide between conservatives and liberals is predicated on their different moral foundations. Liberals predominantly adhere to a creed of reducing harm and emphasizing fairness, while conservatives focus on harm and fairness as well, but introduce respect for authority, in-group coherence, and purity into their moral baseline. This is why the harrumphing about “values” usually comes from conservative talking points.

Except coming up with something that conservatives typically agree on and deciding that must make it “moral” (a surprisingly relativistic understanding of morality, considering the accusations of relativism usually come from the conservative aisle) isn’t ethically valid. Morality is the systemic regulation of our relationship to the Other. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas states that our individual freedom must justify itself in the face of the Other. “Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent.” All alone, morality cannot exist and our actions are infinitely free, but when we come across someone new, we realize that our actions mean something in a relationship, and the ignorance of that relationship can only be exploitative. Purity is the necessary exclusion of the Other. It literally cannot be a moral foundation because it precludes the very existence of a moral relationship.

people interacting

In order for me to interact morally with you, I need a “you” to interact with

Unfortunately, politicians bring up values to pander to immoral standards of social purity because they don’t want to talk about the stuff that actually matters: policy decisions. The more we’re all talking about abstract, unfounded notions of pan-national values, the less we’re talking about taxes, environmental policy, and the housing crisis. I don’t have to promise something that you can call me out on when I fail to deliver; I just need to stroke your underlying xenophobic fears, and I’ll get elected. All I need is the right kind of rhetoric. If my polling numbers go down, I can just ramp up the rhetoric because rhetoric doesn’t require any kind of meaningful follow through.

So. What have we learned. Purity is the opposite of morality. Macro-level values are meaningless. And if anyone ever brings up these things in a political debate, it’s because they really don’t want to be talking about the concrete things they’re actually planning on doing. Also they’re probably a smidge racist.

Famed existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was all about dat ass. I mean, not really. Only for about half a book. Within that half a book he created a philosophical outlook that drew its inspiration from Don Juan, the eternal seeker of dat ass. The aesthete, personified by Don Juan, is compelled to constantly seek pleasure; an unquenchable hedonist lifestyle. This is not an obsessive addiction to poon under which Don Juan suffers, it is an authentic choice made with genuine intent. This is how Don Juan chooses to live his life. This authenticity manifests itself when Don Juan continues to chase tail even in the face of fatal consequences. It’s not that he can’t stop, Bro just won’t stop.

kierkegaard

I use the misogynistic manipulation of hundreds of women to make a point. 

The aesthete is not limited to lethal amounts of promiscuity. Sex is just an easy metaphor for any kind of pleasure. Kierkegaard follows up the story of Don Juan with a series of diary entries by a man who meticulously creates a scenario where a woman falls madly in love with him toward the ultimate aim of marriage. Of course, he leaves before the wedding because love was the conquest to be won, and must be won yet again in the next town. Settling down is antithetical to the aesthete who must repetitiously manifest their pleasure until, presumably, the happy ending.

Which brings us to Meredith Grey. Meredith Grey can never settle down. Meredith and Derek Shepherd are constantly on again and off again because they are not allowed under the premise of the serial drama to have functional peace between them. She and Doctor McDreamy are faced with an impossible relationship goal because they live in a universe built on the principles of the aesthete. Never settle. Always seek new pleasures. If it seems like things are on the verge of structured and maintainable happiness, BAM! Car crash! Meredith must begin anew.

greys-anatomy-meredith-grey-750x522-1453493365-e1530361335898

ANGUISH!

It is the same with every serial. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby would never be able to actually meet “The Mother” until ratings began to drop. The promise of the show needed to be constantly pushed back in order for the hedonic loop to continue. It’s not that the characters themselves are modern manifestations of the aesthete, but that the nature of the show itself builds those principles into the foundation of the universe. No character is immune because they exist under the scripted laws of serial television where stability is seen as stagnation and stagnation means cancellation.

The aesthete is not condemned as a morally reprehensible lifestyle choice. It is an option among others on how to live life in the face of existential dread. One cannot sink into nihilistic despair if they never stop gamboling around long enough to pay attention. Kierkegaard would certainly not place it at the top of his list as far as options go, similarly to how the Hindus do not admonish those on the path of desire despite its own lower status. It is a way of life to grow out of, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it.

Hot-Dog-Legs

Hot dog legs may be a smidge immature, but condemnation just seems a bit pretentious

There is still a problem with the television serial as a manifestation of the aesthete. It’s not necessarily its celebration and propagation of the philosophical aesthetic lifestyle, as its immaturity is not a serious enough criticism of its value to dismiss it. The problem arises in the vicarious living that television encourages. Our Don Juan hopefuls may never reach even the fairly low peak of the aesthete lifestyle if they spend their time sitting and watching Barney Stinson live out Kierkegaard’s guilty pleasure on their TV set.

We can understand Kierkegaard’s aesthete through our television screens, but we can’t live it. We get sucked into the hedonic loop without even the benefit of the hedonist pleasure that would otherwise accompany it. We escape nihilistic despair through distraction, certainly, but we escape it without doing any actual living. We escape through death.

You gotta love charity, right? I know it’s my favourite. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. You know that feeling? I get to feel, deep down, that I’ve helped some miserable wretch. These people certainly can’t help themselves, so it is up to me to wander in and solve their problems for them! I’m better than them, and I am graciously spreading my goodness, not to necessarily elevate anybody, but to alleviate suffering. Temporarily, of course, because eliminating the problem so that nobody needs any kind of condescending “help” would mean sacrificing some of my own privileges. I could never do that, because then how would I know that I’m better than other people?

homeless

One above, one below. The very image of giving to a homeless person belies the hierarchy the act places each into.

That warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from being charitable appears to be unique among traditionally moral behaviours. Telling the truth, for instance, kinda sucks. It sucks when it’s a moral action, that is. If someone asks you about the weather, and you answer truthfully, it’s not really a moral action. If someone were to lie in that situation, it would invoke concerns of pathology. Telling the truth is moral when it generates personal consequences. You tell the truth when you leave a note with your information on the windshield of a parked car you dinged. You tell the truth when you slip after a few years of sobriety and call your parents to admit your transgression. Kant’s killer at the door is a test of morality because it calls into question one’s commitment to their own values.

It is not just honesty. Loyalty really only matters when temptation is present. Temperance only counts when anger is deserved. Forgiveness only makes sense when there is something to forgive. Jesus told his followers to turn the other cheek only after the first had been struck. The entire point of morality is to regulate relationships and situations that might otherwise escalate wildly. It’s not to feel great about how swell of a human being you might be.

office-space-fax

Moral temperance would be recognizing the context that leads to violence, but choosing an alternative. Even if the violence would end up being hilarious.

Which brings us back to charity. Giving a few dollars to a local non-profit is about the equivalent of telling someone that it’s raining when it’s raining. In short, it is not a moral action. What would be the charitable equivalent to telling your girlfriend the truth about how her butt looks in those pants?

There is the Peter Singer option, to start. Singer invites us to imagine having just bought a $100 pair of shoes. We’re walking home in our new shoes, and we see a small child struggling to stay afloat in a pond. The child goes under the water. What do we do? Singer suggests that there are few people who would even hesitate to jump into the pond to rescue the child, the status of their shoes be damned. If most people would save a child, despite the loss of their purchase, then why is it that the status of our charity is so pitiable? Singer wants charity to take on a much more extreme role, where individuals donate all their income minus enough for their own basic needs, and argues that this is our basic human drive anyway based on how we would approach these life or death situations if we were ever faced with them in person.

drownin-babby

Do you offer a receipt for tax purposes?

Redistribution of wealth is certainly one way to address poverty, but it is not the only way. Another might be to restructure the current system that stratifies people into class hierarchies into one that allows people to take care of themselves (such as through communal ownership of property), which eliminates the need for charity entirely. If everyone has their basic needs met, then poverty will have become inconsequential.

There are probably more moral ways to address poverty, but charity certainly isn’t one of them. From my arguments, you can join the fight to implement social policies that will help the working class, or you can start a revolution. Neither of them will give you any warm fuzzies, in fact, they’ll require great sacrifice, but at least you’ll be behaving ethically.