Greatness: “Othering”

In college, I took a class called “Search for the American Identity: Race, Class, and Gender.” It may have been called “Quest for the American Identity,” (that’s how I remember it), but that’s probably just my Fantasy Lit slant on things. Probably “Search.”

Anyway, as part of the “Race” segment, we read several articles on the topic of “Othering,” that is, pursuing cultural practices that isolate the participant’s community from another community, preventing integration and emphasizing differences between the communities. The ancient Greeks were experts at this — y’know the word “barbarian” which we use to this day? It’s from the Greek meaning, “Someone who isn’t Greek.” But they applied it in exactly the way we do today.

“Othering” is the concept behind the phrase, “those people,” as in, “you know how those people are….”

It is, of course, highly poisonous. It teaches us to think of ourselves as real people, and Others as not-quite-real-people. Whatever it is that makes them Other is also what keeps them from being real people.

Interestingly, the Covenant of the Old Testament sort of inverted Othering, providing the Hebrews with a set of cultural practices specifically designed to set them apart from the communities they encountered. From within, the Jews were just as racist as the rest of us, looking out at the Gentiles in precisely the way the Greeks looked at the barbarians, but looking back on the Old Testament, many of the cultural laws seem specifically designed to promote Othering by Gentile communities, which may well have been a large part of God’s design for the establishment of a chosen people.

That’s not my point, though. That’s just an aside.

One of the many articles we read in that section focused on Othering in Hip Hop music. Specifically, that Hip Hop is published, promoted by, and consumed by the White Man, as an Othering form of entertainment that allows us to look down on black culture even as we are creating it.

I’ve been thinking about that more and more lately — mostly because I finally have a significant commute to work, which is the only time I actually listen to music of any sort. I have been listening a lot to Hip Hop (okay, it sounds silly, yes, and it looks silly in type, especially capitalized, but that’s the name — I don’t really listen to Rap), and I’m seeing more and more what that article was talking about.

I keep thinking of the Eddie Murphy sketch where he went in full costume as a white dude. Near the end of the sketch, he’s sitting in a bank talking with a loan officer, and they’re both laughing, and Eddie says, “Hahaha! Silly negro!” That’s kinda the effect you get sometimes, listening to Hip Hop. That, or, “They really are a vicious people!” That’s Othering. That’s bad. And we need to be careful about it, otherwise we’ll end up like those Muslims, condemning people based on their cultural traditions, rather than their individual vices….

Greatness: A Story Idea

A long time ago, I had a dream in which I was reading a short story by Zelazny, and when I woke up I remembered the story that I had been reading. It was a good one (and very Zelazny-esque), and I made some short notes to myself, in the hopes that one day I would write it up.

Then, of course, promptly forgot all about it.

Bruce wrote me the other day, and mentioned in passing the AA phrase, “fake it til you make it,” which reminded me of my own comment recently on the issue of lying, concerning pretending to be something better than you are, in order to become that (and the difficulties associated with that).

Also, for some completely inexplicable reason, Toby has been inundating my poor GMail with countless (read: “two”) articles concerning mind-controlling parasites.

And thinking on these things reminded me, across time and space, of the story idea I’d had long ago.

It goes like:

Somewhere in space, on some out-of-the-way planet, there is a parasitic creature that is capable of mind control, that enhances its victim’s aggressive instinct.

Another advanced race discovers the parasite and cultivates it, using it as a form of rehabilitation on truly horrible criminals, enemies of the state, and conquered enemy soldiers, turning them into state-sponsored assassins and soldiers. Eventually that race’s entire standing army is peopled with zombies controlled by these parasites.

Generally the life-expectancy of one of these zombies is pretty short, given its reckless charge into danger, but one particular criminal is so incredibly lucky and talented, that she lives for years longer than any other. She is quickly promoted from soldier to assassin, and becomes feared through the galaxy (style of thing).

Finally she shows up at some out-of-the-way bar and sits down across the table from some wanted fugitive, who recognizes her and knows that he’s dead. He strikes up a conversation, trying to buy time, and most of the actual story takes place within their little dialogue. And over the course of the story, you discover that the mind-control parasites themselves only live a couple of years, and that this one woman’s controllers died more than a decade ago, but she had become so much what the parasites made her, that even after their influence was gone, she just kept it up.

Then I suppose she kills him, because why not?

God and Government: The Cartoon Thing

Have you heard about the whole Muhammed cartoon controversy? Every other blog in the world is talking about it as though everyone is entirely up to speed, but I can’t really trust you people to read the news, so let me summarize.

Islamic tradition (law?) holds that it is wrong to draw images — particularly cartoons — of the Prophet. This seems to be akin to the “using the lord’s name in vain” thing, but I’m no expert on Islamic tradition (law?). No, really.

Well, anyway, last December a small Danish newspaper printed a series of comics depicting the prophet, the most notable one featuring him wearing a turban that looked like a bomb. For some reason, it took a long time for anyone to notice, but sometime last week a lot of Muslim nations and organizations began creating a huge stir over it, demanding an apology and organizing a widespread boycott of Danish projects (that actually severely hurt several Danish organizations in a very short period of time). The government and the editor of that paper both offered a…sort of restricted apology, but then newspapers throughout Europe picked up the cartoons and started to run them in a show of solidarity for the little Danish paper, and for freedom of speech in general.

The argument seems to be this: that the Western world is not subject to Islamic law, and shouldn’t be expected to operate under it. Furthermore, that the Western media has long used political cartoons to attack Western political and cultural icons, as well as (of course) Christianity and Judaism. When “they” start to cause a ruckus over this, try to tell our media what it can and can’t print based on their religious doctrines, we have to remind them that most of what makes us separate from them is the sort of freedom that allows our media to print stupid political cartoons.

(That is, as I understand it, the basic argument in favor of the cartoons — not necessarily mine.)

And then, on the other hand, the big point is, simply, “Well, yes, sure, you can print anything you want in your papers, but why would you choose to print something viciously offensive to millions and millions of people?”

And whoever is asking that question has never really paid any attention to Western media….

But all of that is background. As I was driving to lunch yesterday, I was listening to a story on the topic, and I was thinking, “If I were a cartoonist, I would draw one showing Mohammed rolling his eyes, with a little chat bubble that said, ‘Stop killing people!‘” And I thought about it a little and decided that, for historical reasons, I’d probably go ahead and throw in Jesus there next to him, and the two of them together reprimanding their audience.

So that got me thinking that, really, it sounded kind of like a message incompatible with my own beliefs. The actual line running through my head was, “No religion has any good reason to go killing people.” That’s the line that got Jesus added in, actually. But, then, it comes across as kinda pacifist, which I obviously am not.

So, pondering these things, I came to this conclusion. “Every government has good reason to kill people.” It goes without saying, really. Doesn’t necessarily mean they will, or should (after all, there may very well be better reasons not to), but they’ve got a vested interest in making some people dead. Religions don’t. Religions benefit most from living people, although all of their offered rewards tend to be for the dead. It’s an odd situation.

But here’s what I’m saying: if the United States is in a war because of Christianity…that’s an atrocity. If the United States is in a war for territory or resources, well, that’s a practicality. Such wars have been the foundation of most every nation you could name today, the United States very much included. If it’s in a war to protect its citizens from an external aggressor (even, yes, preemptively), then it’s serving the interests of the citizens which is, in fact, a state’s first responsibility. States have good reasons to go to war, but religions don’t.

So, yeah, I stand behind my cartoon. Any decent Prophet would stand up in front of his followers, and roll his eyes, and just shout in exasperation, “Stop killing people!” He’d be right, too.

Looking Ahead

These are some topics I’d like to write about at some point in the future. I’m mostly posting them here as a reminder to me (in case I lose the little scrap of paper I scribbled them down on), but if any of the titles particularly piques your interest, I suppose you could vote for it in the Comments. Or, y’know, beg me to please not drone on about one of them, if you’d prefer that….

The Meaning of Life – The Dynasties – paradise without Construction
Absolute Time
Meeting God
Negotiating with God (Sodom and Gomorrah)
Defining Magic – Technology as Magic
Science vs. Scientific Culture
Christian Education
Cannibalistic Science
Reality vs Imagination
Keynotes (I don’t know what I meant by this phrase, but it was on the list)

Greatness: Self-Determinism and the Nature of Reality

One of the most fascinating aspects of human history has been the remarkable success of the human species. Man, pitted against all Nature, has been able to thrive in nearly every climate. Man’s dominance over his environment can be seen in every aspect of his life. Man acts as Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer, building environments to suit his needs, maintaining them according to his expectations, and destroying them when and where they no longer suit him.

Man exerts his control over his environment in many ways, from metaphorical response to concrete pragmatism. From his earliest days, Man has used storytelling to create meaning and understand the world around him. By interpreting natural events in mythical ways, early Man was able to conceptualize the complexities of his environment in his own terms, and then respond to the story, rather than the base environment, in a way that allowed cultures to unite and prosper in pursuit of common goals. By sharing stories, individuals were able to share their interpretations of the world in which they lived. While the creative story defines the meaningful world in which Man lives, his interaction with that world tends to take a concrete form, in the use of tools and technology. From the crudest axe to the particle accelerators and nuclear reactors we see today, Man has long sought to use the elements of his environment to shape it into one more suited to his desires. Whether building structures for safety or damming rivers for power, whether moving mountains for easier travel or developing medicines to double his lifespan, Man uses technology to shape the reality he encounters into the reality he desires. Even within his own communities, Man creates reality, building up social structures to define the roles of community members, and manipulating expectations so that the creative energy of a multitude might work together to strengthen their shared environment. This last process can be most clearly seen in any established institution, from the covenant of marriage to the culture of Western Science, societies work together to construct shared systems of control on their environment.

Of course, these institutions are as much devoted to sustaining as they are to creating, and this can be seen clearly in the tendency of such systems to incorporate a great degree of tradition and respect for history. The base concept of “culture” — that is, the collection of human creations that most clearly illustrates a society’s constructed environment, most commonly in art and stories — is a maintenance force. That is, the cultural works of a society are valuable precisely because they are able to illustrate aspects of the society’s constructed reality, and encourage an audience to continue to construct for themselves a similar reality. By “constructed reality,” I mean those aspects of a society’s environment that are not inherent, not absolutely natural. This extends to every manufactured good, every built structure, but also to ephemerals that factor — in a very real way — into the lives of the society’s members; ephemerals such as morality, covenant relationships of any sort, and higher-level constructs such as worldview that, though based on the natural environment, will not naturally occur in precisely the same way from individual to individual, or society to society. Whenever a society agrees to share a constructed reality — again, from a similar architectural style to a generally compatible worldview — the society tends to devote itself to the maintenance of this constructed reality. On the most practical level, this is seen in Man’s animal instinct to survive, as the individual seeks to maintain a reality that includes him, rather than accepting nature’s proposed reality that…doesn’t. This same practical survival instinct echoes through all levels of a society’s constructed reality, as people strive to maintain what they have built, encouraging others to accept their own creations, and defending them against outside threats. Just as Man’s creative aspect can be found in the tools he uses to create, so too his sustaining aspect can be seen clearly in the tools he uses to measure and to record. Man’s clear desire to ever-more-perfectly measure and describe the world around him arises out of a desire to defend that world, to replicate his reality as faithfully as possible, whenever it is threatened.

Any force capable of creating and sustaining, must necessarily be able to destroy, as well. Consider the example of Man’s animal desire to survive, used earlier. This very basic sort of sustaining can only be achieved through the act of destruction, whether of plants and animals used as nourishment or of enemy creatures competing for resources. In the same way, Man’s power over nature includes a powerful destructive aspect on every level. Just as story and myth are used to create a meaningful worldview, there are methods of philosophical and rhetorical speech that can be used to destroy constructed meaning, from Nihilism to parody and satire. Furthermore, some methods of constructing meaning, such as Rationalism and Western Science, simultaneously construct meaning while destroying any other constructed systems that might rely on the same source material. Of course, Man’s destructive nature is not limited to his own constructions, but can also be bent against his base environment, destroying aspects of it that stand in his way (such as a mountain demolished to clear a path for a highway). Naturally, such destruction must also extend to those competing with Man to define his environment — namely, other societies of Man. Thus we have seen, throughout history, the violence and brutality of war, the viciousness of execution and murder, as Men ultimately destroy those who would challenge them to define the environment in which they move.

It is easy to focus on this last aspect of Man’s power and despair. It is equally easy to look on great works of art from time gone by, and regret what has been lost, or to consider Man’s wondrous accomplishments and marvel at the greatness of Man’s spirit. It is most important, though, to consider the whole aspect of Man’s power, to see clearly the ways in which Man builds environment (and maintains it, and destroys anything that would challenge it). It is important to understand the whole picture, to consider the parts together, so that we can more wisely interact with our fellow Man, and more powerfully, more perfectly shape an environment that will benefit us all.

(Click on Comments for links to previous posts on this topic.)

Government: On Self-Government

One of the most bitterly fought debates in human history is the nature and extent of a state’s authority over its citizens. The histories of all cultures are filled with stories of rebellion, revolution, and contention between the citizens and the state, and yet every culture in history returns to government authority in one form or another. In fact, it is by organizing into States and submitting to government authority that Man is consistently able to overcome his Natural environment and prosper in strong communities. Just as individuals learn self-control, submitting the demands of their animal selves to the authority of reason, societies must submit the demands of the individual to the authority of government in order to reach their potential — greater potential than any individual could achieve.

Throughout history, individuals have demonstrated the basic human need to organize into groups for greater strength. Whether motivated by fear of an outside force or desire to accomplish a difficult task, communities form when Man tries to overcome his base potential and become something more. (The philosophical term “State” refers to any relatively persistent, organized community of individuals. The term “Government” is used to refer to a state’s organizational structure, whatever it may be.) States emerge from individuals’ need for greater power, and States are consistently more powerful than individuals for some very simple reasons. When individuals collect into a State, they are able to pool together their various resources, creating (for the State) more opportunities than existed for any individual within the group. Furthermore, the increased number of workers (and, therefore, man-hours available per daylight hour) create more productivity — the State is able to get more done with the resources available than any individual could. Also, and not the least significant, each individual within the State brings his own point of view and his own educational background. Faced with any given problem, the State can consider it through many points of view and thus has greater available creativity than any individual considering the problem through his own narrow focus.

While these benefits obviously provide States with immense potential, the realization of this potential is greatly limited by the very individuals that create it. While individuals provide a State with the resources, labor, and insight to meet its goals, these same individuals will naturally tend to want to spend their resources, labor, and insight on tasks of personal (not State) benefit. It is natural for a person to want to spend his own resources (and, in fact, any available resources) on himself. Similarly, he will want to work toward his own goals, not (necessarily) those of the community. This selfishness can be mitigated to some extent by homogeneity within the community — that is, if all of the State’s individuals have the same resources available, they are less likely to be jealous of others’ resources. Similarly, if they all desire the same goals, the community can more easily work toward those goals. However, the greater the degree of homogeneity within the State, the fewer benefits arise from community, particularly because of the loss of points of view. In other words, States with high degrees of similarity among their citizens will tend to have the easiest time remaining incorporate, but the least reason to do so. Meanwhile, States of highly diverse individuals will have the most difficult time remaining incorporate, but will achieve the greatest potential.

Government, then, should not be the method of oppressing individuals, but the organizational method that best balances the tension between majority rule and individual freedom. That is, Government should use the resources of its citizens, not only to satisfy the needs of the State, but also to satisfy the needs of individuals. Similarly, Government should organize the efforts of the many, not toward any individual’s goals, but toward projects that expressly improve the welfare of the State (including its individual citizens). Similarly, Government should encourage the exchange of ideas for the good of the State. It is never the right role of Government to protect the rights of individuals against the State (that is, in ways directly harmful to the State). Rather, in all things the Government should seek to protect the whole, never its individual parts. Bear in mind, though, the distinction between Government and State. It is expressly not the Government’s role to protect the Government, but to protect the State — that is, the whole community of individuals. Inasmuch as the Government promotes the interests of governors above other citizens, it is no longer protecting the State, but subverting it for personal gain.

Such abuse, of course, creates the rebellion, revolution, and contention that have plagued every State ever born. In spite of such turmoil, though, Man’s greatest potential can only be found within a community; and so men have continued throughout history to organize into powerful States. The most powerful have been those best able to harvest the abundant resources of a diverse population, while maintaining the singular identity of a community. This unnatural complement, this amazing construct of the hearts and minds of Man, has defied nature and allowed Mankind to overcome extreme adversity and accomplish extraordinary goals.

(Click on Comments for links to previous posts on this topic.)

God: Interaction with the Father-King

One of the most compelling aspects of the Christian concept of God (borrowed, as it is, from the Jewish tradition) is the image of the Creator as a Father-King figure. This is not, by any means, an image unique to the Judeo-Christian religion, but its role within the religion is, at the same time, one of the most comforting and one of the most challenging aspects of the religion. The God-as-King image establishes God’s dominion over Man (and, in fact, all of creation), as an active and concerned observer. Meanwhile, the God-as-Father image establishes God’s direct relationship to Man, and this relationship gains its greatest strength in the tenderness of the relationship — God is portrayed as a kind and accepting Father, mitigating the distance of authority through his personal concern for individuals, and his constantly accepting (and even longing after) his children. Moreover, the teachings of –and, in fact, the very existence of — Jesus, supported by the letters of his followers included in the New Testament, establish these two aspects of God as a single, complete descriptor of his relationship to Man. This relationship clearly establishes God’s intent for Man, Man’s responsibilities toward God, and the proper manner of interaction between the two.

Although the New Testament sees frequent references to the “Kingdom of Heaven,” the God-as-King image within the Christian community derives primarily from his portrayal in the Old Testament. The Old Testament tells the story of the Creator God, who built reality from nothing, forming it by the force of his authority. Man, a part of that Creation — albeit a special part — was likewise a creature crafted in submission to an all-powerful lord. Through the Covenant with Abraham, then later the establishment of the Law through Moses, God established a ritual-based relationship with Man, in which he clearly defined Man’s position as a subject of the King. The Old Covenant included rules and regulations that clearly showed the difference between Clean and Unclean, and revealed the vast distance between Man (the Unclean) and God (the Clean) — a distance that could be bridged through rigorous adherence to the Laws of the King, but these very laws emphasized the distance.

Christ, however, defied that distance when he prayed, “Abba, Father,” speaking to God as a little boy speaks to his daddy. God established, through the presence of Christ as well as through his teachings, that his intent was for a closer relationship with Man. Christ shows us an image of God that is not the tyrannical rule of a distant king, but the kind attention of a loving father. Jesus stresses this image with references to God’s providence, speaking of his concern for his children. This is particularly clear when he speaks of prayer, encouraging his followers to pray to God just as a child asks his father for something, and emphasizing that God will give in abundance. Of course, the greater significance of this image is not the change in God, but the impact it has on Man’s self-image — through Christ, Man is given the opportunity to see the divine within himself. The distinction is no longer between Clean and Unclean, but between Adult and Child. While Man is still not-God, it is not a difference of being, but of becoming — that is, Man is not inherently not-God, but rather not-yet-God. God testifies to this in two ways: the perfect life of Christ shows the capacity of man to live like God; furthermore, in Christ’s death, God offers perfect forgiveness to Man, dispelling the constant attention to Cleanliness that maintained a distance of degrees from God and replacing it with a system of Absolution that brings Man, in one step, into God’s presence.

Christ does not abandon the old image of God, however, and neither should Christians. Although Christ goes to great effort to establish the God-as-Father image, he frequently refers to the Kingdom of Heaven, and so reinforces the authority of God. Rather, once he has established the God-as-Father image, he returns to the God-as-King image to show the significance of Man’s adoption by God. Although it can be found throughout the New Testament, Paul states this concept most clearly in the book of Romans, stressing how God-the-King — that is, the very Creator God, who holds dominion over all Creation — has not only shown loving concern for Man, but has brought Man into his inheritance, establishing him as “heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ.” Through this act of adoption, God made obsolete the Old Covenant, the system of rituals and Laws by which Man defined his relationship with God. Instead, Christians are all promoted to Priesthood, are all welcomed into the Holiest Place. As heirs of the King, Christians are welcomed into the Lord’s throne room, where before they came only with fear and trembling.

The relationship of Man to God expresses itself in the interaction between them. The God-as-King relationship demanded complicated rituals that reinforced the difference between God and Man. The very act of worship — an ancient term referring to the debasement of courtiers as they approached a king — has been done away with, replaced with a personal interaction that allows Man to approach God directly, to speak with him as a loving, caring audience. And this honor is extended not to some (as the old Priesthood implied), but to all of the Children of God — that is, to all Mankind. And with that change in relationship comes a change in responsibility. It is no longer the role of Man to recognize his difference from God, and live according to it, but to recognize his proximity to God, and live in accordance with the gift he has been given. It is not the call of the Christian to live as one condemned, but to live as one given life. Moreover, it is the responsibility of every Christian to recognize the great wealth that is his inheritance, and to spend it responsibly. It is not enough to recognize that God is better than Man, it is not enough to recognize that God has shown his love for Man — rather, a Christian must recognize that God has made Man like-God, and therefore live as though he is already a Prince in the Kingdom of Heaven. This recognition is, at the same time, one of the most comforting and one of the most challenging aspects of the religion

(Click on Comments for links to previous posts on this topic.)

Government: The Cycle of Revolutions

I actually wrote up these ideas for a paper my junior year in high school. It fits into the conversation very well, here, given that I just posted my views on relationships and society.

It goes like this:
When people work together, they become more than the sum of the parts (as I said a couple days ago).

People do not naturally work together, though. Also as I said, it requires some external force to keep them together.

Moreover (with regard to government at least), the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts aspect can only be achieved when the community is, to some extent, working toward a common goal or in complementary manners. (Not to be confused with “complimentary manners,” which are also helpful). In a family or group of friends, they will generally be working toward common goals (maintenance of the family, maximization of opportunities to get carefree-drunk, that sort of thing), but a government based simply on linguistic or geographic similarities generally will not have that sort of natural symmetry of purpose.

In times of wealth or general prosperity, a community can afford a great degree of inefficiency, thus it will tend to operate on a natural, ungoverned level. This encourages the diversity within the group, but the group also acts less and less as an effective whole.

Eventually, times of prosperity will be challenged. It is the Nature of Things. It’s practically what they do, when you get right down to it. Golden Ages End. Write that in large letters.

When the community is faced with hard times, its inefficiency becomes a great weakness. In order to succeed, the community will seek out efficiency. This is the role of government. Government organizes and orders the diverse elements of a community to act toward a common purpose, using coordinated efforts. You can see this build-up very clearly in the conversion between a peaceful state and a wartime state, but it can happen in any event that threatens general prosperity.

In order to eliminate the threat, the community provides for itself powerful leaders. This is equally a description of the processes that established King Saul, King David, Julius Caesar, George Washington, Hitler, and G. W. Bush — most powerful leaders, good or bad, democratically elected or not, gain their prominence when their community feels threatened and helpless. If the leader that emerges is ineffective, the community will either find a stronger one, or suffer further hardship.

If a successful leader is found, that leader will guide his community through adversity. This can only be achieved by maximizing the community’s efficiency, as I said before. Maximizing efficiency is a process of oversight and organization. Again, consider any historical example you care to. I like Charlemagne and Caesar in particular, but take your pick.

Once the leader has attained success, you will find a nation of extraordinary capacity, given its organization and efficiency. Consider the post-war boom in America during the 50s, or the decadence of the Roman Empire following Caesar Augustus’ consolidation of power.

This level of success emboldens the members of the community who, no longer faced with an external threat and clearly aware of their own power, resent the oppressive regime that dictates (that is, organizes and oversees) their lives. As the community achieves a greater degree of general prosperity, the efficiency provided by strong government becomes less necessary, and the people, in one way or another, pull down their leader, preferring to operate on a natural, ungoverned level.

Now, if the community has long been accustomed to strong leadership, they may immediately feel a sense of fear and weakness following the overthrow of their leader. In such a case, they may immediately restart the cycle, by seeking out a strong leader to comfort them. This may also happen if the process of removing the previous leader is drawn-out or exceedingly difficult. Consider the French revolution as an example of the latter (and the terrible Robespierre), or the tyranny of Cromwell on the overthrow of King Charles I in England.

On the other hand, the revolution may go peacefully, and the people are left with relatively impotent government, and a period of general prosperity. They will be happy in this natural state for a while.

But remember: Golden Ages end. It seems to be the nature of man to promote tyrants in times of need, and detest them in times of prosperity.

Greatness: Irreconcilable Differences

There’s this proposition that…err…proposes… that all Men are created equal. I am dedicated to this proposition. Now, when, in the course of human events….

Beh. Whatever. Here’s the point: every person has within him the ability to become anything any other person can become. Yes, that includes Wolverine, but if you really think about it, really, would you actually want to be Wolverine? Or Wolverine’s wife, ladies? Sheesh. No, no you wouldn’t.

But that’s beside the point. Every person has within him the ability to become anything any other person can become. And, as we have seen in history and legend, a person can become some pretty damn impressive things.

More importantly, people become pretty impressive, over the course of time. Here’s a thing: two people can do more than one person can. Again, more importantly, two people working together can do more than two persons working individually can. That’s an important distinction. The very foundation of all Society, all Community, all Civilization, is that a group of people banding together becomes more than just the sum of its parts.

There’s a reason for this. While every person has within him the ability to become anything any other person can become, most don’t. That is, we all take our beginning, our infinite possibility, and through environment, education, training, and choices, we all tend to become somethings unique. When we pool our resources, then, those who have trained for physical strength can offer their physical strength to the community. Those who have trained for mental prowess can offer their mental prowess to the community. And lazy bastards with a knack for spelling can get a surprisingly high GPA pursuing an English Major. Har har.

But I’m working my way toward a point, here. Gar, and it’s going to sacharrine, so there’s your fair warning. It’s the differences between people that make communities stronger than collections. It’s the diversity of a community’s membership that provides the community’s strength.

I think this is one of the reasons families work so well. Bruce and I have discussed the…unfairness of the way families work. That is, without choice, without apparent reason, by an accident of genetics you are irrevocably tied to a particular group of people. Nothing you can do in your life can change who your family is. However, families remain an incredibly successful and powerful social structure. I think the “accident of genetics” is a very important reason for this.

Friendship communities, and even professional communities, will tend to bind together because of shared traits. Naturally, there is a significant degree of deviation from person to person even within a similarity-based community, but within a family you’re going to get a significantly greater degree of divergence of interests and specializations. The family bond itself binds these divergent elements together, and allows them to become the sort of successful, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts community I’m talking about.

So. That explains families, but we really do have little control over the shape and membership of our family, so through life we create other communities around us — we bind ourselves to other folks, adding our resources to theirs (and theirs to ours) and all of us growing together.

And here’s how relationships work (from a pragmatic standpoint): Similarities create the bond that keeps a community together. Differences create the strengths that make a community effective.

Remember what I said earlier, that two people working together are stronger than the same two people working individually? This is only true inasmuch as there are differences between them. Two people, perfectly identical in ability and disposition, would work as well apart as together. There are some flaws with that claim, but on close consideration I think it really holds. The significance of a relationship comes from its diversity.

What, then, is a marriage, but a constructed family bond? That is, the whole point of a marriage, as far as I can see, is to create a community of two bound together for the sake of becoming greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts. There’s the strong force and the weak force, though. The very thing that lends significance to the relationship (difference) creates a constant pressure forcing the people apart. It takes something stronger than that to bind them together, so that the individuals can act as a community. In blood-relationships, it’s the genetic bond that overcomes the repulsive force. In made friendships, it’s similarities (and often these similarities have to be so overwhelming as to practically smother the differences, limiting the ultimate effectiveness of the relationship).

I can’t quite seem to get to my punchline here. It sounds something like this: “irreconcilable differences are what make a marriage worth having.” I’m not trying to be trite. Sincerely, if a couple could reconcile its differences, it would cease to matter as a couple. It is the difference between who you are, and who I am, that makes us, as a couple better than just a couple of people.

That goes beyond marriage, obviously, but marriage is the most powerful illustration of this basic core of all human relationship. Marriage is the idea that a custom, a ritual, and a vow can create a strong enough tie to overwhelm that repulsive force. There are, naturally, other elements at play, but in the end, it is staying together that makes a marriage work. Every relationship is constantly under pressure to fly apart. Always. All the time. Staying together is the ultimate, constant challenge of any relationship, and it’s the only thing that makes the relationship matter at all.

God and Greatness: Honesty and/or Truth

This is a bit of a puzzler….

Y’see, I’m a fantasy writer. I write fiction. Not, y’know, professionally, because apparently it’s not good enough. Pah. But deep down, that’s who I am. A storyteller. That’s quite apparent to all of you, of course.

And in the course of becoming that, you have to confront the possibility that making up stories is the same thing as lying. In fact, that’s a popular way of describing little children who tell lies — “he’s telling stories again.”

But at the heart of all good art is a lie. Every piece says, “The world is this way.” And the world is not that way. The world is more complex, or uglier or, in some cases, much prettier. Art is not reality — it’s an expression of reality.

And unless you’re growing up in an extremely fundamentalist household (which I wasn’t), it’s pretty easy to realize that our culture recognizes the value of a story as literature. So that little moral qualm quickly passes.

(Note that this hasn’t always been so. You may be aware that theater still has a lingering reputation of being a little skanky, for some reason. There was a time when the Church — and, for reference, this was a time when the phrase “the Church” could only refer to one institution — made it very clear that telling fictional tales was the equivalent of bearing false witness, and pretending to be someone you weren’t was nearly as bad. Morality plays got by, because they were a method of teaching Bible stories to the illiterate masses, but drama was strictly forbidden.)

Anyway, the point I’m getting at is this: from a very early age, I’ve been wrestling with the difference between truth and honesty. And I’ve generally been losing that match, too. When I was in middle school, I told some laughably ludicrous lies about my own past, about who I was. It made sense to me — I had just moved to a new state, and a new school, and none of these people knew my story, so when they started asking about it, why tell them a boring tale? Y’know? So I made up something with some flash and dazzle.

My whole life I’ve lied, to be perfectly honest.

(Yeah, that line made me smile.)

And this post comes from several discussions I’ve had with all of you, and those with Daniel and Toby particularly. There are clearly times when telling not-truth is okay. There are times, at least according to social convention, when it’s actually good. But, clearly, there are times when telling not-truth is quite destructive.

What’s the line? When is honesty right, and when is it just anti-social? Daniel and Toby have both, at some point, come to the conclusion that our society is far too comfortable with untruth — that what we need in our lives is a great deal more honesty. Instinctively and intellectually, I disagree.

There’s a thing I know. I’m not quite sure where or when I learned it, except that it would’ve been sometime before high school. See, the Ten Commandments include that one rule, “Do not murder.” Well, in Aramaic (that’s right, isn’t it?), there are several different verbs for “to kill.” There is a generic word that means to end another person’s life. There is a word that refers to killing in battle, and another that refers to a judicial execution. And, finally, there is the word that we would translate “murder.” It doesn’t necessarily imply specific circumstances, but it states that this killing is socially and legally forbidden, and therefor a criminal act.

The commandment against murdering is precisely that. I know people who are against the death penalty on the grounds that the Ten Commandments forbid killing. That’s what I’m getting at. The commandment specifically doesn’t forbid execution, it forbids the act that the person is getting executed for. (And, since I’m here, I should pretty much state that I don’t think the Ten Commandments should be considered the primary deciding factor in decisions concerning present-day American judicial policy. Just that I know people who do.)

But, back on topic, I wish that I knew the relevant Aramaic to let myself off the hook for the lying thing. That is, I kinda wish I could appeal to some higher source, and get those boundaries of what’s wrong, what’s okay, and what’s right.

I guess since we’re at the Ten Commandments, I’ll glance at them real fast. The phrase there is, “bear false witness,” and I get that the phrase is not just referring to witnesses in criminal proceedings. However, it does imply a certain degree of specificity that I’m comfortable with. Telling a story for entertainment purposes is not the same as claiming, “and because Superman did that, you have to vote Republican.” That is, claiming that the implications of a fictional story impact the hearer’s (or reader’s) life in a compelling way.

Hmm…I think I’m back to Christian Leadership here, in a way. I guess I feel that the difference between a story and a lie is that a lie is forced upon the hearer (or, presented in such a way that it will be taken as forced), whereas a story is presented as an opportunity for the hearer, to take or not at his discretion.

That’s a fairly vague line, though, and it doesn’t cover nearly enough of the ground I need to cover. What about self-image? People have this amazing tendency to become what they believe they are. Tell a child that he’s a genius, and you’ll be surprised how smart he turns out. Tell a child he’s an athlete, and he’ll be incredibly apt. Tell a kid he’s an idiot and a bum, and he will be. There are limits, naturally, but a person’s self-image clearly and consistently guides his future development.

Given that, there is value in telling un-truth for the sake of growth. It’s what our myths are all about. We say, “a man can be like Hercules,” not because anyone ever particularly was like Hercules, but because focusing on that potential encourages us to grow toward it. That’s the beautiful value of ideals. Ideals are not real (and therefore not true). They are better than true. They are honest.

Then again, a dishonest person could use that very line of reasoning to destructively conceal his own failings — to justify a lie, in fact. Sure, I’m an alcoholic (not me — this is just an example), but I don’t want to be an alcoholic, I know I shouldn’t be an alcoholic, and so I will claim not to be in the hopes of growing into that potential. I will sneak and hide what I am, telling a lie for the greater good.

How is that different from telling your child that he’s a genius, in the expectation of him becoming one? To bring it into closer parallel, let’s talk about playing along with someone who’s pretending not to be an alcoholic. Believing that he can become sober, you pretend, with him, that he already is. How is that different from encouraging your child toward a potential he has not yet indicated? How is it, fundamentally, different from saying, “No, honey, that outfit does not make your butt look big”?

Honestly, I don’t know. I recognize that it’s a real problem, because a broken person’s best hope of getting fixed, is in his recognizing the break. However, I also believe that a person’s best chance of becoming something incredible, is in convincing himself that it is perfectly credible.

Hmm…I’ve come to no conclusion here — just raised some issues. Please feel free to carry on the argument. I look forward to the discussion.