Hello Out There

Melissa ended this encouraging post last Friday with the following words:
I believe that the vast majority of people are good—or would be, given the opportunity and the inspiration and the expectation that they aspire to kindness.

I frequently say of ugly things that nothing happens in a void. But decency doesn't happen in a void, either. There are good people doing good things all over the place, and that goodness has the capacity to be infectious every bit as much as hatred does.
I may be somewhat less generous than Liss; I might say that many people are good, and the vast majority of people have it in them to do good. But I am very sure that she makes an essential point when she says that what good is done, as well as what evil is done, are very much influenced by what is being done by others, and crucially, by what people feel is expected of them - by their families and friends, in varying proportions, but also by the surrounding culture.

Most people, those who are not true sociopaths, need some permission or even encouragement to do evil, and they get it in many forms from the society around them which devalues many people, which says those lesser people deserve ill-treatment because they threaten all that is "good" merely by being who they are. That is a powerful statement that it's okay to attack some people. If it were true, abusing and even killing those people could be considered by some a public service, even if it is illegal. Heroes are not necessarily expected to be bound by convention, after all, and heroes are most typically presented as men who use violent means to destroy the enemies of good.

But what Liss is saying here is something that I think many of us, even those of us who are aware of how society encourages evil, give less thought to: that a lot of people do less good than they are capable of because they encounter less active, urgent, specific encouragement to do so. We are given rather rote encouragement to certain kinds of charitable acts, generally giving money to very mainstream causes, particularly following disasters, but people have much more to give than just money, and some do not have that.

The media often shows us heroics in mirror form to evil - designated good guys blowing up designated bad guys who are trying to blow up designated good guys. But "do-gooders" on a more human scale are often derided. Individuals becoming activists are painted as cranks, especially if their activism is seen as primarily benefiting those about whom we have already received the message that they are unworthy.

At best, there is a strong cultural narrative encouraging a shrugging, "What are you gonna do?" about correcting social ills, and yet, in the U.S. anyway, when it comes to individual achievement, we are told you can do anything you set your mind to, if you try hard enough. The corollary to that, of course, is that anyone who lives in poverty or almost any other form of misery, just hasn't tried hard enough to overcome it.

So as individuals, all on our own, we can achieve anything which advances our own well-being, but any attempt to improve the way your organization, community or nation works is naive, at best. Ordinary people cannot achieve meaningful change beyond the purely personal, although confoundingly, if they should foolishly make the effort anyway and begin to achieve some measure of success, they may be told that their efforts could destroy society, or the family, or apple pie, so powerful are they. Examined critically, none of that makes any sense. But unexamined, it creates a powerful disincentive to choose to take on responsibility for making your patch of the world a better place.

Most people will largely live up to, or down to, the expectations of those around them. Yes, there are individuals who hold themselves to a higher standard, but chances are they didn't dream up that higher standard entirely on their own, but initially came across it somewhere outside themselves, and adopted it because they found it so much more attractive than the lesser one they saw everywhere else. Chances are, too, that they encountered a great deal of pressure to reduce that higher standard to the local norm. For most of us, it takes a strong, ongoing exposure to a higher standard than we already hold to move us to adopt it, because most of us don't have as great an imagination as those uncommon individuals. Our understanding of how we should act tends to be based on what we see around us. Genuinely believing that we, individually or collectively, are capable of things we have little direct experience of may require uncommon courage, but first it requires a more active and vivid imagination than most of us have, or again, are encouraged to have.

Our human sense of ethics is highly instinctive. We tend to arrive at it by consensus, without directly examining the process. That sensitivity to the group is good and useful in many ways; there can be no altruism without it. It is the lack of examination of the process by which we arrive at our sense of what we should and shouldn't do, of what we should and shouldn't expect of ourselves and one another, which is treacherous. The messages we get, especially from a vast, highly commercial, highly homogenized mass-culture propagation machine about what is of value and how we should act, cannot be assumed to be in our own, much less the larger community's, best interest.

We could balance that innate tendency to align ourselves with the herd by building a consideration of the ethical implications of our actions into our everyday decision-making but most of us don't learn to do that. Many parents, and other adults who have children in their care, who believe themselves to be teaching kids to do the right thing are instead teaching them to do the expected thing. Children are not often encouraged to think ethically; rather they are encouraged to learn to please the authority figures in their lives, having been told that that is doing the right thing. We arrive at adulthood after years of training toward that end. It leaves us terribly vulnerable to doing terrible things while believing we are doing the right thing (even if it doesn't feel quite right), because it is what our boss, our church, our family or friends, whatever social or cultural team we've given our allegiance to, expects of us. This focus on pleasing authority also does not encourage us to consider the effect of our actions on those with less power than we, or even the effect (especially long-term) on those - including ourselves - with less power than that authority.

This is where the heart of Shakesville beats most strongly, in examining the messages being driven at us by the larger culture - from the media, from politicians, from religious institutions, from corporations, from the educational system, doing so always through an ethical lens shaped by feminism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, anti-disablism, anti-fatphobia; providing a place to discuss those messages, and how they affect our lives; encouraging one another to re-examine assumptions we may have based on them; providing encouragement that may not be available elsewhere in our environment to expect more, and to do more, because this is a community which supports and encourages doing good.

I have lived largely apart from other people for a long time, by circumstance rather than by choice, but isolation has nevertheless become my accustomed habitat. I tend to look at the "world of the humans", as I sometimes think of it, as a place very far away. The internet has become my telescope for peering into that world, and has served to draw me back in, in thought if not as an actual, physical presence. I have wandered around the tubes for nearly eight years now, and this is where I have pulled up a chair and made myself comfortable. I have done so because this is the place whose raison d'être makes the most sense to me, and whose company I enjoy keeping, and because Liss has been so welcoming.

I have hesitated somewhat about taking the additional step of becoming an official Shakesville contributor, wondering whether I'm really fit for it. Like many hermits, I'm cranky. Unlike many hermits, I'm also very lethargic. I am not your hardy, wilderness-dwelling hermit, chopping her own firewood and cultivating her own sustenance. I am the less-celebrated mattress-dwelling hermit; on a good day I may manage a little onion-chopping in the pursuit of sustenance before succumbing to fatigue. Both doing and expecting have become foreign to me. I do, however, in my more alert moments, still talk - or type - a good game. The fatigued part of me doesn't want to do more. The cranky part of me doesn't want to expect more. I've done some mild to moderate expecting in my time, and it hasn't gone well.

But doing more and expecting more are contagious, it turns out. Hang around long enough, even virtually, with folks who do that, and you may find yourself doing rather more of whatever it is you can do. Like I said, I intermittently type a good game. So I am doing more of that here at Shakesville, and to save the length of the comment threads, Liss has invited me to start writing my own posts. (Liss didn't actually say, "You know, as long as those comments of yours are, you may as well write your own damn posts." Liss is very polite. But you've seen my comments, right?) So while the idea of being anyone's ally is still strange to me, the idea that neither I nor anyone else has the right to expect better treatment from others than we are willing to extend to them remains the basis for my understanding of all human relationships. I will endeavor to keep that understanding at the fore, and the crankiness aft, in all my participation here.

ETA: Not Quite Daily Teaspoon Report links (also a missing quotation mark).

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