Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Unnaturalness of Virtue

We listened to most of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink on the way up to my parents home in Brevard. I had listened to it before, but Janet needed to cram for a book club session she was leading in January. "It's pretty depressing, all that stuff about hidden racial bias," she said.

Yeah, I agreed, on the face of it, it is. None of us want to believe that we are racists, or bigots, or that many attitudes that we hold can be beneath our conscious and even contrary to our conscious beliefs and values. And yet that's exactly what Gladwell is showing.

On the other hand, it helps if you consider that the entire history of civilization is a long upward climb of conscious values that flew in the face of natural temperaments. Think of all the things that we consider "civilized" behavior: tolerance, the rule of law, equality under the law. Think of even the most basic social skills we try to teach our children: waiting patiently, taking turns, sharing. It's all un-natural, directly contradictory to our base instincts. We may consciously believe that a secular society in which people can disagree is a good thing . . . but every once in a while you'll hear a radio commentary or radio essay in which someone fantasizes about being "king for a day," and when people dream about having unlimited power they want to repress those things they find strange, unpleasant, or wrong about their neighbors. "Those guys with the boom boxes on the bus, they'll be the first ones up against the wall."

So I don't think the tests of which Gladwell is speaking are only applicable to racial bias. I think you could take almost any aspect of the things we value, and find out that our hearts are not completely into it. But that is only a failure if you are a liberal -- that is to say, if you judge yourself and others according to your intentions. The absolute triumph of civilization is that our conscious minds can rule our unconscious urges. We are not born knowing how to share, but we can learn to do it.

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