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"I Am Not Fussy; I Hate Everybody"

By Maarten van Swaay

Today brings our second “My View” entry. As you will find with all “My View” entries, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by this author and forum participants do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of Village Shalom.

“I am not fussy; I hate everybody.”

Thus yelled a bumper sticker I saw not long ago. What might one make of it? It was one of three experiences that set me thinking, and left me with unanswered questions.

On a trip last summer I met Daniel Mendelsohn, a writer and critic with several books to his name, among them “How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken”. It is a collection of essays; in one of them Mr. Mendelsohn makes a distinction between an event, and a book, play, or movie about that event, and notes that a recent event may make it difficult to evaluate a story about that event. A modern instance of this interplay may be the movie ’911′ which focuses, not on the evil of the massacre, but on the travails of two firemen, who are first trapped and then rescued.

Why would a movie such as ’911′ remain silent on the real evil that easily could and should be at the core of any story about the event? Could it be a Hollywoodian reluctance to portray reality as it is – which would force the producer to take a position on it? Maybe so, but then how might one explain movies such as those produced by Al Gore and Michael Moore? Those are by no means reluctant to take a position, even to the point of twisting reality to suit their taste. (Al Gore makes much of the snow loss of Mount Kilimanjaro, even though the mechanism of that snow loss is physically and demonstrably incompatible with his thesis of atmospheric warming.)

The ice caps of Mt. Kilimanjaro are shrinking, but the shape of the ice
is incompatible with atmospheric warming. The enormous surface area of
the observed needle-like ice structures could not persist in warming air.
The needles are shaped by sublimation driven by solar radiation, not
by warming air. Cover photo of American Scientist, jul-aug 2007.

In a very different, yet oddly related, sense ‘the Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins puzzled me. I read the book last winter. It is set in a bleak and cruel bureaucracy located in what used to be the U.S. The title refers to an annual event in which two teenagers from each of 12 districts are conscripted for the questionable honor of fighting each other to death in an ‘arena’ that itself can be turned against the modern-day gladiators by a largely undefined autocratic manipulator.

The book does ‘make a good read’, but only if one is prepared to suppress most precepts of morality. Not all of them: the story does try to promote one-on-one civility and compassion. But that is a tall order: readers, and now also viewers, are expected to swallow the evil of the ‘game-makers’ and their governmental overlords as not merely acceptable but even beyond question. Just as the evil in the 911 movie is kept out of discussion.

What should the intended readers and viewers – young adults – of the Hunger Games make of all that? Might it not anaesthetize them against evil, and degrade thought about morality to the superficial? Yet the book and its sequels, and now the movie, are well entrenched on the current best-seller lists. Admittedly, such lists are strictly based on sales, not on quality or propriety. But that begs the question: what makes the books attractive enough to earn a place on the best-seller list? The movie appears to be well on its way to become one of the biggest blockbusters ever. That can only be ‘public taste’, or, perhaps more fittingly, ‘public lack of discrimination’.

Where do morality, and moral discrimination, come from, and what makes them possible, and also subject to degradation? The context for the Hunger Games effectively amounts to a Hobbesian state in which life must be ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. But the book at the same time appears to attempt to expose the Hobbesian view as flawed; the actors in the story switch – though in unpredictable ways – between Hobbesians and sympathetic cooperators. Admittedly, at the end of the story, the two survivors do expose the ‘game makers’ for what they are by threatening simultaneous suicide – which would destroy the ‘games’. The game makers – predictably, but by no means understandably: they remain anonymous and almost robotic – oblige by changing their rules once again.

Allow me to lay down some premises here:

Opinion, and more strongly, conviction, are undetectable and maybe even unthinkable in the absence of language. Granted, one might propose that thought can exist in the mind. If so, that thought cannot become accessible to others unless, and until, it is exported. For that export, the only tool I can think of is language. Then without language the possible existence of (internal) thought cannot be falsified by experiment.

Evidence confirms that any child can construct the grammar and vocabulary of any language, merely from what he hears. If he hears multiple languages early in life, he will construct multiple grammars and vocabularies. From that, one may deduce that children are born without opinion, and therefor start (moral) life on an equal footing. That view may well sit underneath the Golden Rule, and underneath the thoughts in the Declaration of Independence. Yet the Declaration posits that ‘all men are created equal’; not that ‘all men are equal’. Even though we may take it that all are created equal, that offers no guarantee that they should, or would, remain equal.

Then what makes the vast majority of people ‘grow up good’? For that matter, what makes us take for granted that the idea of ‘good’ itself has meaning? I find it inconceivable that ‘good’ has no meaning: it would fly not only in the face of observation, but also in the face of faith. But if a child does not have opinion at birth, where would he get the understanding of ‘good’?

Gilbert Meilaender argues – persuasively in my view – that ‘good’ is not defined by man-made agreement, but that the notion of ‘good’ has to pre-exist, and therefore can and should be revealed, by observation and education. He developed that argument in a talk about the understanding of morality we find in the writing of C.S. Lewis, who refers to moral precepts as the Tao. Mr. Meilaender submits that the Tao is not, and cannot be, a human creation: it must pre-exist all around us. Mr. Meilaender summarizes his understanding of what Lewis calls Tao:

Thus the principles of the Tao do not solve moral problems for us;

on the contrary, they create, frame and shape those problems. They

teach us to think in full and right ways about them, as we recognize

the various claims the Tao makes upon us.

James Q. Wilson, in his book Moral Sense, argues that the very nature of any ‘bedrock rule’ may well camouflage it for those who seek it: the bedrock rule would be so self-evident that it could be both invisible and beyond dispute or discussion. Wilson then presents the Golden Rule as a possible, though not provable, candidate. That does seem plausible: the Golden Rule is at the core of all known major religions, which leads one to the thought that the Golden Rule is older than any religion. Yet Kant himself recognized that his Categorical Imperative would be ill-suited as ‘moral axiom’. Kant appears to have recognized that his Imperative does not provide any yardstick at all: it proposes a test, against a reference that must then obviously exist, but about which the Imperative is silent. Wilson’s idea of invisibility is quite compatible with the thoughts of Lewis, who himself has Screwtape describe the Tao as ‘those primeval moral platitudes’.

The surprising – and reassuring – observation remains: the vast majority of the human population may indeed be classified as ‘good’, though in no sense ‘perfect’. Moreover, quite possibly that majority has even increased over the ages. I recall reading that until fairly recently, more than half the male population on earth died in combat. But ‘being good’ is almost certainly not automatic, although there appears to be a human predilection toward it. Even so, I submit there is reason for concern about the popularity of books such as the Hunger Games, and movies that suppress recognition of real evil under a superficial veneer of feel-goodism. What else might prompt anyone to put a slogan on his car shouting ‘I hate everybody’?

Granted, under our reverence for free speech, anybody who wants to should be free to act the fool. But should one then refrain from exposing such fools for what they are, under the dictate of ‘tolerance’? And should one applaud productions such as the Hunger Games, or deplore them? These days, much is made of the notion of ‘zero-tolerance policy’. How does that square with the equally loud shouting for ‘tolerance’?

Postscript:

After writing the essay above, I learned that the second and third books of the Hunger Games trilogy place the context of the first book in a very different perspective. That has not changed my views on the first volume, but it will lead me to read the other two volumes as well.

Suggested Readings:

Daniel Mendelsohn: How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken (2009).

C.S. Lewis: The Abolition of Man (1967), That Hideous Strength (1973), Screwtape Letters (1961)

James Q. Wilson: Moral Sense (Free Press 1997)