The Eleventh Commandment

 

THE ELEVENTH COMMANDMENT

I ‘d had the idea of this essay before the Aurora, Colorado, shooting. But that shooting makes it seem even more immediately necessary for someone to float the idea, regardless of his or her personal moral stature. I imagine that a lot of people act on the principle intuitively, but perhaps it should be stated as clearly and plainly and absolutely as possible.

The effort is to enunciate a principle that all can agree on in good faith, whether they are followers of a distinct creed or complete nonbelievers.

The principle is this: No matter what your spiritual convictions—whether you associate yourself with an organized religious group, whether you are individually religious but not keen on institutionalized creeds, whether you are agnostic, or whether you are atheist—you agree that no belief, none whatsoever, justifies killing or even injuring another human, or destroying anything beautiful (as a man, thinking he was Jesus, once took a sledgehammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta). If you think God or the nature of existence is commanding you to kill or destroy, you are wrong. Just flat wrong.

That’s it. No matter what you fear or feel, your convictions do not justify damage to another human or to the beautiful.

There are a number of facile arguments people use to get around the principle, and those arguments should be addressed.

By “beautiful” I do not mean merely what you yourself argue is beautiful. I mean what a great many people consider beautiful. I am not much moved by Bach, though many lovers of music are (and many physicists and mathematicians especially. Whether this is a flaw in my own appreciation or not, I have no right to attack his music. (Actually, I never would attack it, since I mildly enjoy it, am just not transported by it, except to memories of Vacation Bible School in Southern Baptist Churches. But even if I were to develop a conviction that I was a fated actor and that Bach was the devil, I would have no right to attack it. That’s my point.) With regard to the concept of “the beautiful,” some might argue that the blown-apart body of a perceived enemy is “beautiful,” but that’s pretty obviously self-serving, and is not what I’m talking about at all.

And by damage, I do not mean putative or theoretical or syntactical damage. Argue as meanly as you wish to, and live with how you are seen as a result. Words don’t count, no matter how vicious they are. (I’m speaking of strictly of physical damage. Of course words can do terrible damage, and I’m not excusing abusive or dangerous or misleading speech. I’m just saying that it’s impossible to devise an absolute code of conduct for argument which will not eventually prove to be as harmful as the damage done by the nasty words themselves. This is why, in my opinion, the writers of the Constitution of the United States described free speech as a right, and did not try to circumscribe that right with law. We must each, on our own responsibility, decide what sort of language we will allow ourselves.)

There are also plenty of situations in which it might be argued that this principle does not hold. I will not discuss war, in which the whole point is the slaughtering of other humans and the destruction of what they hold dear. I will not discuss it, in spite of my own horror at war, because I don’t want the issue to be muddied with sophistical debate., the pretense that the existence of war implies that how we treat our fellows does not matter. I will not discuss the eating of meat, although I feel strongly that those humans who are capable of empathy for other humans are much more likely to feel empathy for other creatures, and that to damage any living creature or the Earth itself is wrong. I eat meat myself. I’m not saying I ought to. I’m just describing my own actual behavior.

It’s my sense that if we could agree, perhaps just in civilian life, and just with regard to humans, that violent and damaging behavior is never permissible, we would do ourselves a great deal of good.

We could also help soothe the fury-ravaged minds among us if we would simply adopt this practice, adopt it on the level of truth and commandment.

No exceptions.

It is not permissible to argue that other humans are trying to infringe on your rights or destroy your government and that therefore you must take pre-emptive action, that you must defend yourself by killing others.

No. We must agree that such arguments are not sane.

If you are under direct and lethal physical threat from another, you may of course defend yourself as necessary, and keep your honor.  I’m not talking about a law.  I’m talking about a species-wide way of looking at things.  Only by accepting such refusal to cause harm as a norm of behavior will we survive.

That’s the key. I call it a commandment, by the way, only by analogy with the Ten Commandments. Actually the idea has no force unless we accept it as individuals. It isn’t really a commandment, then, but in the word I have already been using, a principle.

We must refuse to engage in supersophistical theoretical dilemmas, from pretending that the imagined dilemmas of philosophy can excuse the actual behavior of individuals. The Joker is not acceptable. The fact that he thinks he is exemplifying philosophy with his murders is not proof that our moral underpinnings are false, but proof that he is wrong.

For a long time, in our culture, some of our artists and writers and philosophers have allowed themselves to imagine the horrible as defensible, under the illusion that they are exploring the profound paradox of morality.

It is true that artists and writers and philosophers (and preachers) cannot and should not be barred from an open look at horrible facts.

But really that excuse applies to very few works. Are we really arguing that our best-selling fiction, every single book of it, is conducting a profound investigation into the depths of human nature? Isn’t it obvious that the violence in our movies and stories and television is there almost entirely for entertainment value, that it vaunts itself as serious stuff merely as an excuse?

Dexter is not just like us. He’s wrong.

So the high school chemistry teacher on Breaking Bad shows what terrible deeds any of us are capable of. So? Is that the whole of the effect we receive? Are we not actually identifying with him, enjoying the frisson?

Our “detective stories” have become bloodier and bloodier. The detective stories I read, the Reacher novels and the Prey novels among them (I like the Letter from the Roman Alphabet Is X books a lot, too) have become hardly more than flimsily justified explosions of gunplay, the reader enjoying a momentary release of apparently justified blood-lust: These hard men are only being so murderous because we need them to, because there are terrible people out there, and those terrible people deserve killing. That excuse is endemic.

I love the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels, a sort of fiction it’s no longer possible to find. I need to read what I used to call “mysteries.” (They’ve all turned into gunfests now.) It may be a poor excuse, but I would not read the bloodier stuff if there were any sufficiently intelligent writing of another sort.

Surely it’s obvious that in a story an author can arrange cause and effect any way he or she wishes to, and thereby appear to “prove” his or her case? Oh the hero is so violent because he or she is “haunted.” Doesn’t matter by what. Drink or the murder of someone beloved or war. Oh, well, then, that’s okay.

The question is not how things go in stories, but how we want them to go in life.

“Red Mist” has become such a joke that the villain’s son in Kick-Ass adopts it for a name when he pretends to be a super-hero. It seems to me many think to prove how much sturdier their perceptions of reality are, how tough they are, by laughing about the corrupt and the horrible. I keep coming back to our artists and writers and philosophers, who seem to be outdoing each other in how far they will go, how much more and how much nastier slaughter they can portray.

Sort of like an aesthetic arms race, and with the same inevitable spiral to unbearable excess and destruction as its ultimate result.

Who do you think you’re proving things to? Do you not know who you are and what you stand for? Do you really think, somewhere, on some level, that by creating such violent characters and giving them excuses, you are partaking of the “toughness” you portray? Do you think we readers imagine you as the hero?

Really?

There is a famous Batman story in which a “good” guy does one totally evil thing, assassinates Batman with a long-distance rifle, and then goes back to live his “good” life. The point, I think, is that our labels, “good” and “bad,” are arbitrary. (And that the author is a deep thinker?)

In actual life, however, there are no such characters. The kind of being who can commit such murder is not the kind who can otherwise live an entirely blameless life. It will not happen. The assumption is specious, and can occur only within the bounds of a narrative.

It has become common to put on philosophical airs, to imply that you are a serious and unconventional thinker by embracing wholesale brutality. It has become fashionable. As with happens with most philosophy, the attitude has percolated gradually through the awarenesses of even those among us who are least capable of or least fit for philosophy.

Yes, morality is provisional. Nothing in nature demands it. That does not make it a less useful way of looking at things. It is a provision we make in order to have civilization, in order to benefit each other.

Since morality is provisional, we must be very careful what we represent to ourselves as acceptable behavior. We say what goes into it and what does not.

My suggestion is that as many of us as are capable adopt what I am referring to (though I am unlikely to be its initiator, am merely attempting to be one of its conduits) as the eleventh commandment.

It isn’t covered by the already existing commandment not to kill. That has gotten tangled in our concepts of war, and everyone makes far too many exceptions to it in their personal behavior. It’s also identified very strongly with a single type of religious behavior, which makes it very difficult for agnostics or atheists to accept. They may not reject the idea, but they do reject the source, and so the idea comes across as truism, preachiness, cliche. It’s implied that you must accept the system that created the commandment if you accept the tenet.

What I’m proposing is a way to limit the damage done by murderous beliefs, whether philosophical or the result of self-absorbtion (not that philosophers are immune to self-absorption). We must say, Such behaviors are not acceptable. Not for ourselves, not for others. For individuals, the “commandment” is a way for a mind to test the quality of its belief and thought. If the belief and thought urge to killing or damage, they are wrong. It’s that simple. No conviction, no matter how intense, is justified if it urges damage to another human or to the beautiful.

The “eleventh commandment” doesn’t address thorny questions like what level of force the police may use in what situations. In such matters, we are dependent on our laws, on the justice of our system. But most of us are not police officers, and do not want to be. Why pretend that our moral behavior depends on an impossible general answer to such specialized questions?

No one is trying to regulate thought or art. I’m just suggesting an individual standard that we may each use to judge our own notions. A standard that’s absolute, but absolutely voluntary.

No matter how angry you are, how frustrated, how passionate, or how convinced you are that you are in the right, If you kill or injure other humans, or attack the beautiful, you are, quite simply, wrong.

 

A Letter to the Rulers of the World

(This essay appears in my book, Practicing Zen without a License, but I decided it needed exposure here.

A meme is an idea, but an idea with a difference.

We normally think of ideas as creations of individual minds. Some modern thinkers have engaged in a viewpoint shift (ok, paradigm shift, if you insist on the word) in order to see if there are productive results. They see ideas as independently-existing entities, and our minds as the cultures in which these ideas grow. They call such ideas memes, by which they mean to imply a genetic quality to the propagation of ideas. That is, there are ideas which can reproduce. These ideas have built-in structures to ensure their survival and propagation, much like viruses or other invading organisms.

It is not necessary to demonstrate whether or not memes “actually” exist. It is sufficiently informative to assume their existence, and see whether this method of analysis yields good results.

It develops that the meme approach is very fruitful. Nothing about it tells us whether a given meme is beneficial or harmful, but once you begin to look at an idea in this fashion, you remove all its emotional coloration, and you begin to be able to see the functional structure of the idea.

Any idea may be viewed as a meme.

How do you stop a bad meme? This question occurred to me while I was imagining myself the ruler of the world. My ministers came to me and described the intolerable situation with a certain bloody religious sect. This sect had instituted cruel punishments for trivial things, including widespread capital punishment. This sect felt itself persecuted, though the leaders of the sect were among the richest people on the earth, and though their internal politics swayed all the world. This religious sect fostered a murderous fervor on behalf its believers and directed against all those who did not believe. Clearly this sect was a cancerous meme.

(Note: the foregoing was written before 9/11, and is intended to describe what I perceive as a universal human condition, not any one group.)

As ruler of the world, you understand, I had responsibility not primarily to individuals, but primarily to the health and well-being of the species, and only secondarily to individuals and groups of individuals. It is plausible to imagine but not possible to demonstrate that the greatest possible health for the species entails the greatest possible health for each contributing member in most conditions. (Questions of absolute survival may overrule this attitude in moments of crisis, as when the mountaineer sawed off his own arm.)

As ruler of the world I imagined saying, Kill all the males who will not renounce. I was not being Old Testament, I was minimizing the damage. This particular meme was much more virulent in males because it appeared at first to reward their systems preferentially. I thought I could let the women live, and those males who would renounce. That way I would not be obliterating a race. I would be like the surgeon removing no more of the organ than I had to in order to be reasonably sure of having gotten all the cancer.

But we all know that if I had really been ruler of the world, I would have said no such thing, I could have said no such thing.

Why? Because I’m a nice guy.

No, seriously folks, because we can’t be sure it works that way. We can’t prove that the health of the species entails the health of its individuals, but we can’t disprove it either. It might actually work that way.

And since it might, we can’t take any chances.

We can’t find a moral justification for genocide, even partial genocide such as I in my benevolence would have imposed.

You got that?

We can’t find a moral justification for genocide.

Which is to say war.

There isn’t one.

The only conceivable moral justification for imposing harm on individuals is to foster the well-being of the species, or of something greater than the species but which includes the species, such as the many-branched and highly-contradictory Will of God. Most meme-gone-cancerous beliefs however include just such a moral justification. It would have been ironic. As ruler of the world, I would have been engaging in the same behavior as the religion I sought to stamp out. The meme would have conquered me.

That’s a hell of a strategy for survival–to make death and propagation identical. Burst the cell wall of the bad-meme belief in order to kill it and you spray genetic copies all over the place.

It’s a good thing there are no rulers of the world. For our species, that would be like having a one-celled brain.

So how do you stop a bad-meme belief (a BMB if you will)?

Friends and neighbors, you laugh it out of court. You just refuse to take it seriously. And why not? Nobody says you have to take it seriously. Do you take nuclear physics seriously? Ok, I saw the hand over there in the third row, but the rest of you, you see what I mean. Nuclear physics can turn you to vapor in a millisecond, but you don’t take it seriously. So who says you have to take a BMB seriously? Oh it can make you roast in hell forever. Oh really?

You let the professors of the bad meme prattle on, but you don’t listen long. You excuse yourself politely because you have some interesting things to think about. You invite them to the parties, but you know they won’t feel easy, they’ll be self-conscious and defensive and mean if they get drunk.

In other words, you don’t shut them out, quarantine them. They do that to themselves. They have special products only the faithful can use, special observances that “prove” their faith, usually by means of spectacular oddity or uselessness or actual difficulty. Why else would somebody do this?

You may feel pity and you may try to help, but in essence you’re letting the disease run its course, knowing that in the long run it weakens those who have it and that eventually the species will develop resistance and throw it off.

You can do all this because you’ve got a resistance to the bad meme. A natural resistance. Perhaps we are beginning to develop workable inoculations as well.  Education appears to help, at least when it contains some information on how to think for yourself.  Cleansing the individual in a bath of love has shown some good results.   Encouraging the physical well-being of the individual, ditto.  None of these methods are sufficient in themselves, and the difficulty of application has so far interfered with treatment for a good many people.

We all know that as a matter of practical fact, we do, each of us, all the time, make decisions that balance the well-being of the species against the well-being of the individual. Each of us as rulers of the world.

We continue to save lives with antibiotics even though we know that we are breeding stronger disease organisms and, by failing to let natural selection take its course, weakening the resistance of our gene pool to those diseases.

We continue to take dangerous people out of circulation by means of prison or execution. It isn’t a very good solution, and our methods of evaluating danger are all screwed up, but we haven’t figured out anything better yet.

And so on.

Fine, as a matter of practical fact. What else can we do? But not fine as a religion, gussied up with orthodoxies and threats. That’s like letting the knife decide what to cut. BMBs exist, and we need to quell them.

I suppose there’s one other question we ought to deal with.

How do you tell a bad-meme-belief? Aren’t all beliefs equally valid in the scheme of things? Oh come on, folks.

Use your brains.

Addendum: On further reflection, I would say that all BMBs contain hooks–structures that attempt to damage the host if that person attempts to remove the bad idea. Usually the hook is in the form of a prohibition–you cannot question the the idea itself, usually on pain of being sentenced to hell, frequently on pain of being ostracized by other holders, and not infrequently on pain of mental trouble, since the idea has invaded your self-esteem and restructured it as cancer cells organize a blood delivery system within your body.

The simple rule, then: All bad memes have hooks.

GENIUSES, HEROES, WARRIORS, AND SARAH PALIN

 

 

This was written some time ago, in the election of 2008.  I’m trying to get back to this blog, which I have been neglecting.

No doubt because I’m a writer, I first noticed the trend on book jackets.  Suddenly every flyweight scribbler who showed the least flash of talent was being hailed as a “genius.”  Well, no.

Geniuses are rare. The very root of the word implies someone of extraordinary and inexplicable abilities, someone who can do what no one else is capable of. Geniuses are people like Buddha, Jesus, Shakespeare, Renoir, Einstein, maybe Alan Moore. They seldom occur as often once a century. Quick wit and a modest flair are estimable, but do not a genius make.

Maybe it began as a marketing ploy. Reassure the customer that the item in question is not merely a flashy expo of the latest fashions, but a work of enduring genius, and maybe you have the next summer blockbuster on hand.

However it began, the style percolated rapidly through all literary strata. Contemporary poetry has become the most solipsistic and monumentally boring enterprise possible to a wordsmith, read by none and practiced by thousands, but if you believe the blurbs (akin to believing Goldman/Sachs on finance or HCA on health care), these poets are, each and every one, geniuses.

The next inflated term I noticed was “hero.” Suddenly all you had to do to be a hero was enlist in the military. Of course there are heroes in the military, as there are in almost every human endeavor, but surely even the most hawkish of generals will concede that not every enlistee is heroic?

My standards for heroism are perhaps less stringent than my standards for genius. Heroism is attainable for almost all of us, whereas genius shows up capriciously. It is, in a sense, unfair. It cannot be acquired by means of any amount of earnest effort or any degree of sacrifice. (Though it may certainly be developed to highest effect or shamefully wasted.)

But my standards are nevertheless stringent. The hero, according to Joseph Campbell, ventures into unexplored territory and brings back something of value to the tribe, an idea or freedom from the dragon’s depredations, usually at great personal cost, always by means of enduring forbidding difficulties. Often the tribe initially disdains the hero’s achievement, only later realizing how magnificent the gift has proven to be. Martin Luther King, for example, was a hero.

At first I thought this degraded usage was confined to home-town newspapers, boosterish forums eager to foster local pride in the way the pep squad pumps up the high school for the big game. Every returning enlistee, no matter whether he or she had spent his or her enlistment stateside in the motor pool or as a mess hall cook, was hailed automatically as a “hero.”

(I do not look down on enlisted service of any sort, incidentally. But isn’t this a bit much? No action required, much less courage under fire.)

Later I began to see it everywhere, in wide-circulation papers, on television, on the internet. “The troops” were “heroes,” simply by virtue of wearing the uniform. No doubt there have been many brave soldiers in our (necessary and unnecessary) wars but surely there have been as many thieves, cowards, bullies, and butt-lazy jerkwads as well. Are they all “heroes?”

Do you see the common thread? Achievement has been replaced by the label, in the way that “organic” foods may contain corn syrup, in the way that no one posts a personal romantic ad who is not “sexy,” “creative,” and a lover of long thoughtful walks by the ocean.

The next inflated term I noticed was “warrior.” Perhaps because I read too many graphic novels, I attribute the term’s current popularity to Frank Miller. The Nietszche of the comics, he is to them as Harlan Ellison was to science fiction. (I’m strongly against cockfighting but might pay money to watch Miller and Ellison in a pit together.) His Dark Knight shrugs off heart attacks and various broken or dislocated limbs by means of sheer willpower, is more muscle-bound than Arnold but capable of incredible acrobatic feats even at the age of fifty, and crashes his speedster in flames but wins the race anyhow.

My son-in-law and I tried to watch 300 on video the other day. We were prepared for death and mayhem and a ceaseless display of sixpacks (apparently no male in Sparta ever wore a shirt) but the constant flatulent oratory defeated us. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Athens, that city of boy-lovers, as Leonidas snidely refers to them, whip the Spartans’ butts a few times? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Sparta more about Conquest than Freedom?)

Whoever originated the usage, it’s everywhere now. I don’t know whether the burgeoning of the martial arts in the U. S. is cause or symptom, but I do know that samurai have become the contemporary models of perfect warriors. The myth-making may be seen at its most preposterous extreme in the two Kill Bill movies (which could have been one if the dialogue hadn’t been so comically portentous and slow). I enjoy Ken Chi as much as the next fellow, but surely the disaffected samurai are our latter-day equivalents to the lone horseman, incredibly quick on the draw, who rides into a lawless Western town, and, though he despises gunplay, shoots all the bad guys dead?

Let’s take a look at those samurai. Warriors they were indeed, superbly trained in swordplay, taught to eliminate fear from their reactions. But as models of human behavior? The very same virtues that made them fearsome made them morally neutral. They fought for whichever noble they served. If we are to believe the romance of the samurai (which I’m no more inclined to do than I am to see Billy the Kid as the embodiment of the noble gunslinger), their code was the code of honor. Self-described warriors are always keen on “honor.”

The samurai, in essence, transformed themselves into weapons. The weapon may be beautiful, the weapon is certainly deadly, but the weapon has no conscience. The “honor” of the warrior is like the curving gleam on a samurai sword. Everything depends on the character of the person swinging it.

The romance of the warrior is that the true warrior is invulnerable. Even a brief glance at history shows this to be total fallacy at best and more probably total lunacy. In a video game you may trounce all the bad guys (unless you have chosen to play the bad guy). If you get “killed” while you’re learning, you can resurrect the character and try again.

It ah, you know, it doesn’t work that way in real life. I would guess that at a minimum a hundred wannabes must die for every surviving true warrior. Somehow I don’t really like those odds.

Okay, fantasy is fantasy and reality is reality, and most people can tell the difference. It wouldn’t matter except for the rhetoric. Far too many personal and policy decisions treat this “warrior” nonsense as genuine thought. We have the spectacle of self-described “warriors” who instigate wars though they themselves fled from any possibility of exposing themselves to battle.

Again, perhaps because I am a writer, I locate the common flaw in the inflation and degradation of the language. Quite a few good people have referred to Orwell’s warnings in this matter, and rightly so. The basic principle is less seldom mentioned: The proper function of language is communication. We use it to convey information from mind to mind.

The fine and underappreciated poet James Whitehead had a character in one of his poems declare, “The end of style for honest men is clarity.” (By way of full disclosure, Whitehead would caution that the man on whom the character was based wound up in a mental institution.)

Dissimulation is a perversion, not a function. In the same way that an invading micro-organism will destroy the health of its host, evasion and deceit destroy language. Dishonesty has a characteric and unmistakable sound, and doesn’t take much training to recognize. Hemingway, himself quite a purveyor of bovine ordure, famously stated the necessity for having a good bullshit detector. Anyone who listened to one of Nixon’s campaign speeches knew without a doubt, long before he swore to the contrary, and regardless of whatever arguable virtues he may have possessed, that he was a crook.

When a dissembling politician (I will entertain the notion there are other kinds) emits clouds of obfuscation and double-speak, phrases lose syntactical connection, grammars go haywire, and words lose their meaning.

How could it be otherwise? The speaker does not respect the language, but views it as merely a tool to further his or her own devices. If you do not respect the instrument, you are unlikely to master it.

There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in this country, as if the choice were between education and honor. I remember an equally misleading choice being offered in previous elections. The candidate, we were told, was the kind of fellow you would like to have a beer with. Are there no intelligent and principled people to have a beer with, I wondered?

More often than not, this rampant anti-intellectualism (someone more cynical than I might suspect the existence of wide-spread inferiority complexes) has taken the form of disdain for true eloquence.