The Overflow, Backwash, Backlog, Logorrhea, Ad Hoc, Anyone-Can-Use, No-Word-Limit SPEAKEASY

February 26, 2007

Opinion, Judgmentalism, and Suffering

Filed under: Uncategorized — Nick @ 9:58 pm

1. Lumiere, I’m afraid I don’t quite grasp the first part of your 8:50 PM, Feb. 24th. I do get the second part though: allow me to assure you that I’m not advocating the abandonment of opinion. I’m saying, in fact, that opinion is the dominant form of human understanding, and that ‘objective truth’, if it is even a possibility, is very, very rare. Yet we all too often present our opinions and our wishes (‘belief’ descends from the Anglo-Saxon ‘to wish’) as ‘facts’ – as ‘truths’.
I’ve posted a longer response (which I felt too tangential for posting into this thread) here. Any and all are invited to read it and comment.

Also, you wrote: “one begins with an opinion and through confrontation gains insight” – and I think that’s one avenue toward larger personal knowledge and insight. It doesn’t have to be the ONLY avenue, however. I see now this morning (PST) that you’ve indicated to Allison that you view social interaction as a series of confrontations.
My immediate response (not fully thought out) is that confrontation can be one manner of social interaction, but so can cooperation – even between strangers. I’m quite eager to read Allison’s response to you.

2. Next, Lumiere wrote: “Is being judgmental evil?”
Depends on your morality: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” – Matthew 7:1
You’d think that would shame ‘good Christians’ like Falwell, Robertson, etc., away from their moralistic judgmentalism, wouldn’t ya?

Here’s some pure Nikosian opinion:
Matt 7:1 is my favorite (of a very short list) of Bible quotes. It’s wise, I think, as a variant of “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t accept for yourself.” Judging others (even though we all do it at least a little) doesn’t strike me as a profitable use of mental energy, let alone preferable. At the very least it’s ethically questionable, especially since not only is our judgment itself an exercise in subjectivity, but, and worse, we can’t objectively know the subjective experiences of those we are judging. We might not only be self-righteously mean in our judgments, but our pre-judgment assessment of their existence might be so ignorant that our judgment is flat-out wrong.

I have earlier implied that I’ve first hand experience of having been judged by Christian moralizers. Here’s a bit more detail: my family moved to a working class ‘burb of Detroit heavily settled by Southern Baptists. As a fifteen-year-old just entering the workforce, I had few options, and most of those options were owned, operated, or managed by other residents—notably Baptists—of the neighborhood. Lumiere, you wrote,
“Anyone who lives a neighborhood knows it is always open season on societally-sanctioned moralizing. Hey, I moralize them right back – there is nothing they can do about it – my moralizing is bigger and better than theirs!”

This sounds playful even and fun, but it might not apply to shy teens dealing with very self-righteous adults who hold economic power over you. Not every neighborhood is the same. Not every experience of being judged by the self-appointed neighborhood morality-police is as casual and harmless as yours.

But wait: I’m not asking for or expecting pity. I learned a great deal from the experiences, not least of which was that the Baptists out to covert me were dead wrong about my ‘being miserable without Jesus’. Despite the bosses’ pressure, the peer pressure from coworkers, and the steadily growing social scorn, I knew, even as fifteen-year-old ignoramus and naif, that their Holy Jesus would effectively straightjacket my curious mind. The misery would have come after my surrender of credulity to their beloved mythology.
Besides, I’ve no lasting scars. And I earned a perspective on the real-world effects of religious conceits rather different from the reflexive respect most people afford those conceits. I’ll return to that shortly.

3. First, though, I’ve been thinking about the word ‘suffering’. Like the feel of sunlight-on-skin I wrote about off-site (linked above in this post), suffering is subjective, not objective. But also just like the all the common human sensory experiences, like the feel of sunlight-on-skin, suffering is not hard to detect by observers. Simple human sensibilities can usually detect suffering in others. We all know it, just as we all know the feel of sunshine.
Less readily detected however, might be the chain of influences causing the suffering. In the case of the Nazis and the Holocaust, the causal chain is easy to finger: beliefs we largely call ‘anti-Semitsm’ and the myth of ‘Aryan racial’ superiority, which classed the Jews and Slavs as ‘untermenschen’. This set of influences is easy for us to deem ‘evil’.

But had the Germans won WWII, would the very same massive atrocities be judged ‘evil’ by the subsequently victorious lords of Europe? Hardly. “Untermenschen”, I suspect, would be an enduring and ‘valid’ concept—self-evidently ‘true’ according to Nazi conceptualizations of the world. And no Jews (or Russians, who Hitler intended to starve to extinction after herding them all into a massive concentration area surrounding Moscow) would have survived to test the ‘truth’ of the concepts.
All that Nazi-caused suffering? Meaningless. Ignored, censored out of history, or simply forgotten.

My point, I think, is that for humans to ignore or repress the simple sensibilities that can usually and so easily detect suffering – which is a necessary precondition for the workings of empathy or compassion – something has to occur that alters the natural linkage of intellect and emotion. I strongly suspect that ‘something’ is the acceptance of beliefs—in particular, beliefs that the world we perceive tangibly—empathetically, concretely through our senses alone—is incomplete, and that ‘greater truths’ lie just out of sight.
How do we access those ‘greater truths’? Well, by the One True Way, of course! Be it ancient myth surviving as contemporary religion, or Nazi-like racial fantasias. Or by siding with the ‘good’ against Manichean ‘evil’. (Think about Bush and his comic-book ‘Axis of Evil’.)

Here’s another case: a sixteen-year-old mother—out of wedlock—and cast out of her parent’s home. Or a girl or boy with HIV.
Suffering? Probably—wouldn’t we anticipate it?
Assuming that these children are suffering, what’s the causal chain that helped to create the suffering? We’d have to inquire, case by case—it’s not as obvious as the Holocaust, right? Yet this sort of suffering is utterly commonplace in today’s world, but instead of being a horrific, deliberate scheme by believers of scientifically baseless ‘racial superiority’, it’s a result of millions of simple biological realities, and of accidents…and yet of beliefs, again, too.
Right now in this country, teens are bearing babies, or contracting HIV, not because of ‘evil’ but because of a large politically powerful fraction of the voting citizenry who believe – in contravention of the available scientific evidence – that newly fertilized zygotes are ‘sentient’. That they have, presumably borne on the tiny sperm that penetrated the gigantic ova, a scientifically unverifiable supernatural entity called a ‘soul’.
The suffering of these young mothers shares with the suffering of the young HIV victims another pervasive cause: a reluctance to fund, or sanction, let alone maturely discuss, sex education.
Belief in God, in the Bible, in the Qu’ran, in morality, in evil, and even in the fantastical idea that HIV only happens to those who ‘deserve it’.
In two words: religious fundamentalism.

As concerned citizens of our nations, or, and better, as concerned and compassionate denizens of our world, do we have a duty or responsibility to work against the spread of suffering?
Maybe not. Maybe it’s a subjective judgment call. I don’t know.

I do know that I feel a duty to contribute my own little pittance against the spread of suffering. I’ve had my share of lows and low blows, but on the whole an ordinary, comfortable American life, and right now have the time (a little) to write about the meta-issues – like beliefs – that I suspect to be the actual originators of so much of the world’s suffering.

My argument against religious fundamentalism is simply this: “Your God is the One True Way? Fine, then prove it. Empirically. Otherwise stay the hell out of the public policy debate. Your children and grandchildren will thank you. And so will we non-believers.”

If, as science consistently suggests, sexual activity is normal, healthy, and inevitable, why should we allow moralistic opinions descended from the unverifiable supernatural to argue otherwise? Why do we award equal voice to the unverifable supernatural and to painstakingly verified science alike?

If I’m right that beliefs are straightjackets that impede free thought, and that conspire to cripple empathy as well, and thereby comprise most of the root causes of what we commonly deem ‘needless human suffering’, then calling those beliefs into question shouldn’t be the scandalous taboo it currently is. Instead, it seems to me to be the only decent, responsible thing to do.


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