Friday, November 03, 2006


Glamour and Amplified Virtue: Fumbling Towards a Thought

One of my favorite writers noted, back in the late 1940's, that when 'glamour' attaches to a phenomenon, we can expect two simultaneous and seemingly-contradictory developments: greater attention paid to those who do it 'well,' and fewer people doing it. The higher levels of performance to which we're exposed as spectators actually work to discourage participation, since most of us don't sound as good as Pavarotti or look as good as Angelina Jolie.

I'm beginning to think there's something to this.

Start with the increasing distance between what celebrities look like and what the rest of us look like. At a time when Americans are, statistically speaking, fatter than we've ever been, our celebrities are almost scarily thin. At a time when Americans are less physically active than we've ever been, our athletes are becoming freakishly large and strong. (During the World Series, which the wrong team won, I saw a few clips of games from the 70's and 80's, and was struck by how much smaller the players were then. And it wasn't all that long ago, evolutionarily speaking.) It's like we outsource our physical pulchritude to a small cluster of people, at whom we spend much of our time staring.

Now comes a study showing that dramatically-increased access to porn, especially for teenagers, brings dramatically decreased incidents of rape. (Intriguingly, weekends for which the highest-grossing movie was especially violent had lower rates of violent crime than weekends for which the highest-grossing movie wasn't violent. This strikes me as much the same phenomenon.)

If anything, I think the study stops too soon. Rape isn't the only variable that's dropping. Teen pregnancy rates, early first marriage, abortion rates, and single-parenthood rates are also dropping. More strikingly, the more 'secular' the state, the greater the decline in each of these categories. 'Blue' states have lower divorce rates than 'red' states, with 'liberal' Massachusetts among the lowest and Bible-belt Mississippi among the highest. With greater toleration of different choices comes fewer bad choices. It's almost as if forbidden fruit is somehow harder to resist.

I've noticed, anecdotally, that preachers' kids and psychologists' kids are usually messed up. The kinkiest sex scandals almost always happen to family-values Republicans. (Compared to Mark Foley, Bill Clinton was almost pedestrian. And check out Pennsylvania's Don Sherwood!) In the early 90's, something similar happened in England, with some really weird sex scandals breaking out among the most self-righteous Tories. You know who our only divorced President was? Reagan.

Even on a much more quotidian level, I've noticed that the people who bloviate the loudest about 'integrity' are almost always the most malicious practitioners of office politics.

It isn't just the greater appeal of 'man bites dog' stories, either. Any particular celebrity might be explained that way, but statewide statistics can't be.

Thinking about the people I've known whose morality or ethics I've most admired, I don't think any of them ever got on a high horse about it. Those who walk the walk seem to feel less need to talk the talk. Those who get swept up in the talk usually need to be.

I think this is why I react so negatively terms like “values voters” or “people of faith.” It seems to me that someone who has to identify as a “person of faith” is compensating pretty hard. There's a brittleness to that kind of amplified virtue, which is probably why it's nearly impossible to engage folks like that in actual debate. The slightest attack, and the whole edifice crumbles.

There's a wisdom in a certain kind of liberalism. It's easy to have self-control when there isn't any other option; the problem is that temptations always manage to sneak around corners. Real self-control consists in maintaining your balance when temptations are plainly present. Balance isn't the same as total purity; I try to eat reasonably well, most of the time, but I'll admit to a sweet tooth. The trick is in not fetishizing sweets as The Devil, because once you do, it's just a matter of time before you cave completely and wind up like Kirstie Alley. (For present purposes, I'll draw a distinction between the devil and Kirstie Alley.) If eating a cookie is falling from grace, you can bet that you'll scarf the whole row. Sometimes a cookie is just a cookie.

It takes a certain maturity to accept that there's an admirable and worthwhile space between 'abstinence' and 'Keith Richards,' but there is. And in real life, that space is where most people are, most of the time. Values, to me, consist in acknowledging the reality of temptations, negotiating one's own way through them, and maintaining one's own integrity all the while. Faith consists in believing that you'll make it through, and/or that your kids will. Wisdom consists in still going to the gym, even after accepting the fact that six-pack abs simply ain't gonna happen. In a values-voter mindset, if I don't look like Brad Pitt, there's no point in exercising at all. In the real world, that's crap. In a values-voter mindset, it's a fast slide from seeing porn to committing rape; in the real world, the correlation is actually negative.

It's hard to embrace the messy and uncertain real world over the clean and easy prepackaged virtues. I can see the glamour, the temptation, of certainties, and yes, sometimes I fall prey to a few of them myself. (I can be quite dogmatic about driving techniques, say, or getting places on time.) But resisting the siren call of certitude takes a kind of faith, one more demanding than just passing judgment on other people. It involves being willing to exercise when you know you'll never Be Like Mike, being willing to look the other way when people make what seem like glaring mistakes, and taking comfort in knowing that you can, and often will, be wrong about what won't work. Celebrities can be fun to watch, but there's work to do.

In German, there is actually a proverb about Preacher's kids not turning out well. Nor Miller's cattle, for some reason.
"I think this is why I react so negatively terms like “values voters” or “people of faith.” It seems to me that someone who has to identify as a “person of faith” is compensating pretty hard. There's a brittleness to that kind of amplified virtue, which is probably why it's nearly impossible to engage folks like that in actual debate. The slightest attack, and the whole edifice crumbles. "

A couple of days ago, over at Bitch, PhD, one commenter made a point that struck a chord. This person said, approximately, that based on an encounter with some monks at a monastery, these men, who prayed five times a day, were not especially holy. Quite the opposite; these were people who really, really needed to pray five times a day. I sorta suspect that's the case for lots of "values" proponents: they want everyone to walk the straight and narrow because they don't trust themselves.
Dean Dad, this is a wonderful post, thank you. It reminded me of two things, very different from one another:

A dean of a college dismissed an entire excellent teaching strategy because one idea in the package was hard to implement. He glommed onto the one thing that was unworkable and ditched the good idea. I suppose it's a very common human failing to throw the dishes out with the dishwater!

Alexander Solzhenitzyn (I think it was he) wrote that at one moment a man is a saint and the next he is a devil; our lives are spent pushing at this line in our hearts, trying to have our hearts be more saint more of the time. It takes a lot of work, constant, individual work, and we can't do it if we are watching other people out of the corner of our eye.
Having gone to college with a strong religious presence in it, I noticed a similar problem. Among a great many of the pious students were people of low character. Since they defined themselves by their faith, and their faith was, to them, by definition good, they understood themselves to be "good people." Therefore, whatever they did was good, since they were "good people."

Those of us who had to put up with them quibbled on that point. To paraphrase a bumper sticker, Jesus may have loved them, but everyone else thought they were buttholes.

"Lying? Cheating? General disinclination towards charity and kindness? Hey, I have Christ in my heart! Those things don't matter! I'm a Good Person!"

The pious student population split pretty neatly between those jerkoffs and the genuinely nice people who actually tried to live up to the example set by the faith, rather than take it as a blank check for behavior. A strange and enlightening conflict to observe from the outside.

It seems that to a lot of folks, talking about being good "counts." That if you flap your gums about virtue enough, you don't have to actually be virtuous (e.g., "Gamblin'" Bill Bennett). As DD points out, the virtuous people we've known never talked about it, and were forgiving of the faults of others. They understood how hard it is, and how often everyone falls short.
As much as I loath to disagree with Dean Dad I've got to say that this is where a firm distinction between causation and association needs to be made.

The current rise in the level of obesity is thought to be caused by changes in the types and quantities of food people are eating, the decrease in the number of jobs that require movement, the increase in the amount of time people spend at work (mostly sitting) and the increase in the amount of time people spend watching TV, playing video or computer games, and driving in their car. Strong arguments have been made that TV time especially has exacerbated the problem because ads encouraging people to eat junk appear and influence them to eat more while engaging in sedentary activity.

I think the drift towards more slim models and larger athletes is a different phenomenon - one I would call run-away selection. In both fields, you need to be the next "big" thing - the one who is more beautiful, faster, stronger, can break last year's record for (fill in the blank). Given that that's the case, there will be an increase in the desirable trait annually.

Another example of this: There's an experiment going on somewhere in the Midwest where they are trying to see how big corn can get. Each year, they plant a field. When they harvest, only the corn in the top 10% for height are used for seed corn the next year. The average height keeps increasing (and has for the last 20 years), indicating that because of mutation and natural variation corn the potential for height is increasing with each generation.

As for the whole "people of faith" issue that one surprises me because in my mind, Dean Dad falls in that category. He goes to church and takes his kids there. Presumably there's some kind of religious instruction going on in the family (answers to questions like "How did he escape?") That's sort of the basic definition of a faithful person. I'm not trying to offend by calling names but the negativity in this post surprises me.

C.S. Lewis had some great advice on how to mentally deal with people who were ostensibly Christian but seemed not to live up to the "standard" you might expect for someone of faith. He encouraged everyone to consider the possibility that people were doing the best that they could at the time. In other words, it might not be reasonable to expect that someone can be as even-tempered, polite and kind as you are. They may have started out more bent than you and thus can't be expected to live up to your standards of acceptable behavior - they had further to go - and we all have feet of clay.

I would also consider the fundamentalist / evangelical group as a different culture within the American milieu - so expecting to have a visceral understanding of why they do the things they do is a waste of time. It's irritating to feel judged but I wouldn't pay it much attention - you're right in thinking you won't change their minds about things - it's also the case that they have not impacted you. So I think it's a draw....
I think that DD is right on the money when it comes to the "siren call of certitude" and its relationship to many of our current cultural conflicts. I think that many people use practices like rigorous religious observance, virtuous eating and exercise habits, and hard working as certainty "drugs." They can give you a control fix. As with many drugs, small doses are beneficial; too much and you are a junkie. Religion is not the problem, certainty-addiction is.

I mostly agree with ivory's comments about run-away selection; however, I would like to add that we change the characteristics for which we select as each new fashion comes along. So maybe fashion is what really sets us apart from the other animals. :-)
"Religion is not the problem, certainty-addiction is." Well said. My issue is not with people who live their faith, as I do, in my way. It's with people who proclaim their faith as the way others should be, even as they violate its substance egregiously in their own lives. There's a difference.

Although I go to church and take The Boy there, I don't identify as a "person of faith," because to me, that term is code for "right-wing fundamentalist." The term "values voter" is even worse, since it implies -- falsely and slanderously -- that those of us who vote differently lack values. These terms function to designate the 'special' and set them apart from the common herd. They're elitist and judgmental, and therefore alien to my understanding of what it means to live an ethical life.
Great post! My only quibble is that unquestionably the right team DID win the World Series this year!! Go Cards!
I have always held a secret conviction that people often talk about:
* things they want to happen but aren't (think locker room banter)
* things they are attempting to keep themselves from doing (think religiousity)

I have also held that people go into certain professions in order to self-medicate (psychology, medicine, law, etc.).

Taken together, I think I have your post. :)
Two words to confirm the previous comments:
Ted Haggard.
Two words to confirm from the other direction: Mr. Rogers
I agree that most people who talk about faith are preaching to themselves. And I think an addict is an addict, no matter what the drug. As a former barista, I can say my most loyal customers were former alcoholics. They replaced alcohol with coffee. The same is true with religion. They replace "bad thinking" with "good thinking."
And another issue this brought up was the recent Talk of the Nation about women who wear the niqaab, or the veil that covers their entire face. One male Muslim caller commented that men forcing women to wear it is like saying that men are incapable of self-control, and so the "forbidden fruit" must be hidden. I wonder what the differences in incidences of rape are in Muslim countries where women do/do not wear the niqaab.
Again, it seems that religious fundamentalism conceals mistrust of oneself.
More anecdotal than statistical, but the BBC recently had an article on street violence against women in Egypt that would appear to link "restricted access" to "bad behaviour".

As to moral protestations, hand up anyone who remembers the "Moral Majority"...
Ahh well, it's time for me to "jump back in..." and I figured why not THIS topic! LOL

I was intrigued... Dean Dad summarized his views by writing in the comment section:
My issue is not with people who live their faith, as I do, in my way. It's with people who proclaim their faith as the way others should be, even as they violate its substance egregiously in their own lives. There's a difference.

What I really am reading Dean Dad say is that he doesn't like hypocrites. But then again, who does?

I was struck by another point he makes, when he writes:

The term "values voter" is even worse, since it implies -- falsely and slanderously -- that those of us who vote differently lack values.

I have to ask that we be more specific here. It could be seen to imply that there are things that drive your vote more than a perception of "moral values." Some people vote pragmatism. Some vote loyalty to a party or a person. Some simply vote out of a sense of duty without paying much attention to the issues at all. Yes, these are all indications that voters value these things, but I suspect we are not likely to refer to these as "values."

So, if you are liberal, proclaim proudly that you are a values voter, voting to value the rights of women, to value social justice and equality. Proclaim what it is that you value, as a "values voter." And then, when they ask your religious affiliation, tell them that honestly as well. Of course, I will also as a conservative claim that I too hold these values, and the difference resides in our efforts seek these, but that's a different discussion.
What a wonderful and interesting post - just a quick "well done".
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