Archive for November, 2010

The Past and Today’s Repast

November 25, 2010 4 comments

Today, Thanksgiving, is traditionally a day of remembrance, family, and friends in the United States. We celebrate our community, our lives, and our families in repast and a break from work. But, in this day of community and remembrance, we naturally look to the past, and this celebration is stained by the bloody history of its tradition.

In school, we are taught that Thanksgiving is a traditional celebration that began in the seventeenth century when the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock came together with the Native Americans and dined in a multi-day feast. Standing in stark and morbid contrast to this is the treatment the Native American peoples received at the hand of the European invaders and colonizers, with millions slain by direct murder and disease. Entire cultures were absorbed into the American leviathan and have vanished in our relentless pursuit of the manifest destiny of the most powerful nation in recorded history.

And so the so-called intellectuals, the liberals, the culturally-sensitive remind us annually

But those of us who remember that history are not the culprits. It is not ours, as individuals, to make recompense for that sin. These are crimes and actions committed by men in a day gone past. The sins of the fathers being visited on the sons is an ethic of a more barbarous era, neither ethically nor culturally fitting in a world with a more refined sense of justice than “an eye for an eye.”

And so the so-called patriots, the conservative, the nationally-proud retort annually.

Now, perhaps it is the duty of the American government to respond with reparations and apology, with the argument being that the government is a continuously single entity, and therefore is at all times responsible for all crimes it commits in the past. I am, personally, partial to this understanding, but I will leave that to other pundits, essayists, and theorists. Today I’m writing about the people, not the government. And the people are right. Both people. Our national and cultural progenitors fucked up. Big time. Our national and cultural history will forever be marred by the insensitive and barbaric actions of the past. But that’s not our fault, nor is it our responsibility to right the past wrong, and to demand that the people of America, the modern privileged Caucasian, pay the piper any price—be that price material sacrifice or emotional guilt—for this misdeed is a demand unworthy of the quality of the mind that usually utters that demand.

However, being reminded of this past does serve to remind us of a responsibility we do have. It is our intrinsic personal and collective responsibility to refuse to allow those kinds of crimes to be committed again. We have an absolute ethical mandate to never allow ourselves—individually or culturally—to commit such crimes again, and a relative ethical obligation to prevent it from happening wherever we see it.

We must remember, though, that this responsibility does not stem from a reparative sense of justice. We do not have this responsibility because we must atone for the past. We have the responsibility because we inherently have this responsibility, as human beings and as social agents. The past can serve to broaden our awareness of the potential space of ethical dilemmas, but that previous-generational past should not have any moral bearing on our current course of action nor on our own personal emotional states.

We are not responsible for the sins of our fathers. The sins of our fathers, however, can guide us in opening our awarenesses to inform action of the now and teaching of our children.

Today is a day of celebration, of community, and of feasting. Let us celebrate, then, our abundance and our family and our joy. Let us not taint our celebrations with the guilt—either received or delivered—of sins that are not our own, and let us be thankful on this day that we are in a material position to allow us to act and think ethically.

Categories: ethics, philosophy

Sculpting the Mind

November 17, 2010 2 comments

Most of us accept, today, that there is a portion of the mind that the individual does not directly control. We have implicit assumptions, ideas, and beliefs that affect our daily lives, whether we are consciously aware of them or not. Most of us who do not consciously view ourselves as racist or do not espouse racist ideals have caught ourselves making inherently racist assumptions when we see someone of a different ethnicity on the street. Harvard’s implicit racism tests provide a striking empirical demonstration of this phenomenon. Most of us accept, today, that the subconscious maintains a degree of control and influence that is beyond our active, conscious awareness.

But the subconscious is not an independent, freely active beast. Our subconscious ideas are formed by our actions, our circumstances, our experiences. Every datum of input that strikes the mind shapes the mind. These data make often imperceptible (and currently immeasurably small) changes to our psychological makeup, and they become self-reinforcing.

Every time someone uses the phrase “that’s gay” as a pejorative, it reinforces the notion that that phrase is, indeed, a pejorative. And even those of us liberally-minded enough to be believers in equal rights for all sexual orientations, those of us who don’t espouse a conscious homophobia, will use that phrase to express a general dissatisfaction with a situation. Every time we use that phrase, we make homosexuality a deeper insult. The subconscious hears this, registers it, and makes it more valid to use again as a negative. When it becomes more valid as a negative descriptor of circumstances, it becomes more negative as a descriptor of human beings.

But we are not total slaves to this subconscious mechanism. Just because we have this predisposition towards using the word “gay” as an insult doesn’t mean that we must use it or interpret it as such. We are not immutable slaves to the subconscious.

It is possible—indeed, even easy—to use that part of the mind of which we are directly aware and which we feel ourselves to directly control to influence the subconscious. Remember: every datum shapes the mind. When someone says “that’s gay” and we make conscious note of the incorrectness of this descriptor, we reinforce the notion that the phrase is not, as it were, an apt description of the undesirable.

A campaign is running now to fight the use of this phrase because of the way it demeans homosexuals. What is, I think, more important to us as individuals, though, is the way that the use of phrases like this demeans ourselves, regardless of our sexual orientations. When we unthinkingly use a phrase like that, we are handing over a piece of our conscious agency to our subconscious apparatus. We surrender part of our freedom, our will, to a hidden agent inside the mind that acts without our mindful recognition and intention. As such, in order to re-assert our freedom from our own minds we must become mindful and aware of our actions, our words, our predispositions. When our casual language and assumptions conflict with our espoused beliefs, we can change those casual assumptions simply by refusing to allow the act to go unnoticed.

This cuts both ways.

Not only can we, through self-mindfulness, attack our implicit negative assumptions, but we can reinforce our positive assumptions. Every time you tell a loved one that you love them, you are reinforcing that love, and you are reinforcing love in general. This extends to the meta: every time you act in a mindful manner, you reinforce your own mindfulness.

This kind of awareness will not change our implicit assumptions overnight. But it will allow us to slowly take back our agency from the subconscious, it will allow us to slowly regain control over our own minds and our own ideas. Every single time we act to intentionally sculpt our own minds, we make a slight change.

The sculpting is not limited to linguistic actions. Ever single datum shifts the mind. It is well documented that certain postures and physical microexpressions express our state of mind without conscious intent of physical display. It has also been empirically documented that the reverse is true: intentionally adopted physical displays can influence our state of mind. So every time we hold our bodies in a posture of aggression, we reinforce our own aggression. Every time we hold our bodies in a posture of confidence, we reinforce our own confidence. Every time we hold our bodies in a posture of inferiority, we reinforce our own inferiority. And every time we hold our bodies in a posture of peace, we reinforce our own peace.

As we become aware of our actions, our words, and our bodies, we can shape our own minds, and through this we can build respect, peace, confidence, love. We can, if we so choose, cultivate a mindfulness of self that allows us, through sheer awareness, to make ourselves better. But remember: every single datum shifts the mind. So when you cultivate peace and respect in yourself, and your body and words start to reflect this state of being, you project that outwards into the minds of others. Your projection becomes their data, and the subconscious apparati of others are affected, changed, sculpted. Through making ourselves better, we can make those around us better. Through the simple act of being aware of our selves, we can become the change we wish to see in the world.

Categories: ethics, philosophy