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    And if I decide / to step aside

    So I’ve kind of had a post brewing for the last week or so. I keep seeing people writing about similar things and then wondering whether the topic has already been attended to: Connie du Toit wrote about giving children guidance rather than being a dictator, which is part of it. Today, Boi from Troy has been involved in a back-and-forth about what qualifies as oversensitivity–it called to mind a priceless post of Agenda Bender’s a while back. Rosemary Esmay’s patience finally ran out on a particularly long-winded troll, with predictable results. I myself recently linked to news about a school killing here in Japan this week. And Baldilocks responded to a thread at Dean’s World about single parenthood among black women.

    Maybe the connection isn’t obvious here–in fact, it’s not obvious to me, but I sense one, and it’s like an itch at the back of my mind, so I’m running with it. What I think most Americans want is a society in which several things are in the best possible balance:

    (1) People whose idea of pursuing happiness is non-conformist are free to act on it to the extent that they aren’t demonstrably infringing on the rights of others.

    (2) The accumulated wisdom of the ages that some non-conformist behaviors have less benign possible consequences than others needs to be signaled to the young and inexperienced so that they don’t make irreversible choices before they know what they’re getting into.

    (3) The society full of strong-minded, free people that results from (1) and (2) has a shared set of signals that allows everyone to, as accurately as possible, distinguish respectful people with opposing arguments from those of plain old ill-will.

    (4) The society full of strong-minded, free people that results from (1) and (2) has a shared set of signals that allows everyone to live in overall peace with other citizens without forcing him into postures of approval that he cannot make in good conscience.

    Obviously, if these problems were truly solvable, they’d have already been taken care of by a greater mind than the one that belongs to this little white boy. It does seem that we could do somewhat better than we are, though. One thing that springs to mind is that in this transition period back to civility, jumping to conclusions is even less useful than it would otherwise be. Who knows anymore what someone means when he uses the word homophobia or disrespect. Contexts for social interactions having been mashed together over the last several decades, it often takes quite a few exchanges to be sure where someone is coming from.
    Along those lines, there’s a lot of amnesia about the last several decades of American social history going around, and I wish people would knock it off. The cultural upheavals of the ’60’s did not begin because two students at Wesleyan suddenly woke up one 1963 morning in an innocent world and said, “Hey! Suppose we just, like, threw all the rules away!” The stigma on children born out of wedlock punished them for behavior they did not have a say in and worked against the American belief that you can achieve things beyond what the circumstances of your birth dictate. Adulterous men were often dealt with severely by others in the community, but it was also frequently the case that wives got the message that marital problems were always their fault and theirs to fix. Gays were given to believe that their attractions could not rise above the level of carnality. The ’50’s were an understandable and psychologically necessary breather after two world wars and the Depression, but they couldn’t have lasted in existing form. Attitudes did need to be changed.
    The problem was the way they were transformed. It’s one thing not to shut non-conformists out of society, and quite another to encourage everyone to believe that non-conformity is the solution to life’s problems. Now everyone is free to take the Zsa Zsa approach to marriage, many young women do not believe you need to be particularly strong-minded to rear a child out of wedlock, large numbers of ethnic minorities see systemic racism as the major impediment to their progress, and gay men of my age hear older buddies talk about countless colorful friends that we’ll never get to meet. (Aside: I know that many people don’t see liberty for women or racial minorities as analogous to liberty for homosexuals. That’s a topic worth debating, though it’s more specific than what I’m talking about here. I might mention, though, one way that those groups are related in practice if not in theory: Whatever the loudest, dumbest feminist or minority activist is saying today, the loudest, dumbest queer activist will be saying tomorrow. So very disheartening. Anyway….)
    For quite a while, I’ve wanted to write something about what I think America should and should not learn from Japan. I still don’t have a fully worked-out answer, but I really don’t think it comes down to much more than two things. One is that people here assume that you are going to treat them respectfully and will work overtime to interpret your behavior that way unless you cross the line in a big, bad way. The second is that, for all the mutual dependence and 甘え encoded in Japanese social forms, people go out of their way not to burden others unnecessarily. Each of these takes work, but in my experience, neither is all that hard for people in normal circumstances. While we Americans are sorting out what we want to retain and what we want to leave behind from the last forty or so years, I hope we find a way to start thinking in that vein again.

    I realize that this post is disjointed, even for me, but it’s not coming together any better right now. If the usual suspects have any input, I’d be glad to hear it.

    2 Responses to “And if I decide / to step aside”

    1. Auntie Mame says:

      Difficult subjects, albeit I agree it is one BIG SUBJECT, with all sorts of offshoots which are difficult to sort out.
      I think (*I think* correct me if I’m wrong) that you are talking about a “Live and Let Live” approach that the Japanese and densely populated countries learned to deal with. It is a state of being where solitude is found inside your own head, not in the traditional wide open spaces or tucked far away in some shed in Idaho.
      In order for that solitude to work, the society had to learn to be respectful of individuals.
      In America, for example, people will greet strangers on the street (this happens more in the South than up with those Yankees, as you know). They’ll say “Good Morning” and make eye contact with you. While endearing, it breaks the code of solitude–it interferes with the feeling of being alone with oneself, even if you’re in a crowd.
      To be fair, however, it is critical to remember that we are not all the same. We come from different places and the old techniques of recognizing friend from foe, by racial or facial oneness doesn’t fly here–and it may still work in Japan.
      Multiethnic cultures had to come up with another way and one way is the practice of these informal “stranger” greetings. You could gauge a lot about the danger/risk you faced when greeting a stranger by how they’d respond in those small encounters.
      I know it seems like I’m over analyzing something so trivial, but it is in the trivial where we often see answers.
      Regarding the non conformist attitudes: I think it is important to recognize that many of these things we now find ourselves dealing with are not accidental. That is not to suggest that there is someone holding the strings and directing this as some Great Puppeteer, however, to exclude “willful meddling for a particular goal” simply because it wasn’t one person’s Grand Plan doesn’t make it outrageous.
      I strongly recommend, if you have not read her: Burden of Bad Ideas, Heather MacDonald. Many of her essays are on City Journal. What she does in the book of essays is describe where and why things ended up the way they did (the mess we find ourselves in now). Many of the things you mention: the desire to remove the stigma of the “bastard child,” the appearance of a double-standard of “shamed” women, etc. It is not what we think and many of the players who were part of these initial changes were VERY much aware they were pushing that snowball off the slippery slope*. It is important to understand the players, because it helps untangle the mess.
      *hehehe I know how much you hate mixed metaphors.

    2. Sean says:

      Well, as Miss Manners is constantly pointing out, it’s a build up of little abrasions that often makes people lash out; you’re right that the little things add up. Heather MacDonald I’ve read and liked in individual essays, but no, I haven’t read anything collected into a larger work.
      I’m not, however, sure that I was just talking about live-and-let-live. That’s a big part of it, but I think another part, paradoxically, is providing outlets for aggression, if not downright hostility. America would be ill-advised to start valuing surface behavior with the single-mindedness that Japan does, but I think the simple recapturing of the sense that social interaction is a kind of theater would be very helpful. I always find it fascinating that Westerners who write about Japanese politeness always talk about the pressure it puts you under but not how much Lewis Carroll-ish fun it can be. But maybe that’s just my temperament….
      Obviously, this isn’t gelling for me. Maybe if I take a few days for an impromptu break. 😉