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Heroes, Victims, and Heroic Victims

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I thought about starting this blog post by pointing out that what we usual call a True Believer is much more likely to be a Sadist than a Masochist.

But I think that, right now, I’m going to take that as read, and go back to Socrates, or at least the Socrates of our imagination.

Let’s start here:

My best guess is that, although most people are neither Sadists nor Masochists, almost all people are hardwired to acquire some form of morality.

I think of this as on the same terms as the way we are hardwired for language. 

None of us is born with an innate ability to speak French, but we are all born with an innate ability to speak.

If we weren’t we’d never learn to speak anything at all.

I think that in the same way, we are born with an innate ability to form and conform to moral codes–not any one particular code, but SOME code.

We have an innate sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and evil, and we hang the details on the framework.

I’ll leave something else up for grabs, since I’m just speculating here.

Noam Chomsky, back when he was doing actual academic work instead of making a career of foaming at the mouth in a hail of cultural cliches,  posited that our hardwiring for language came with something he called “deep grammar.”  “Deep grammar” was suppose to be a bare-bones skeleton of linguistic structure that all languages share because they must share it.  It’s how our brains  understand language and how our brains make it.

I am aware that in the years since, there has been quite a lot of criticism of this idea.  It’s an idea that has always appealed to me, though, because it always seemed to me to be logical.

And such a concept for moral behavior and moral ideas would at least explain why every known moral code on the planet shares at least a small set of moral rules.  And that’s in spite of the vast variety of other rules, some of them downright perverse.

That being said, I think that if we look around at how people grow and behave, we can see that they learn what is moral and what is not not so much from a set of rules we are given in Sunday School or at the dinner table, than by example.

I don’t mean here that we tend to follow the examples of our neighbors and friends and families, although we do.   I think we model our behavior on such people.

But the examples I mean are larger cultural ones.  And they’re not specific in the ways you would think.

Every society, every culture, every civilization has a set of heroines and heroes, villains and traitors, whose personal stories provide us with the pictures of what it means to behave well or badly.

But the pictures they provide are deeper than superficial.  When we see Socrates dying by drinking hemlock, or Christ dying on the cross, what we get is not necessarily the specific moral codes these two men operated by, but the fact of their martyrdom.

We don’t take away “standing up for your ideas is good” or “promoting peace and brotherhood is good” although we may take away those, too.

What we take away first and foremost is that martyrdom is good.

And, to take that even farther, that victims are good.

Both the highest expressions of human morality this civilization has are images of victims. 

That’s interesting in and of itself, because the idea that being a victim made you holy or righteous was not one the Greeks held in any esteem, and the Romans would have found it completely laughable. More than laughable.

It can be a hard idea to take even now.  Paul Kurtz, founder of what is now the Centers for Inquiry, once opined that if Jesus had really been God, he wouldn’t have come to earth as a poor carpenter and he wouldn’t have been executed in a shameful way by the forces of Rome.

And, yes, I do realize that Kurtz flamingly missed the point.

Still, it was an idea that the followers and friends of Socrates promoted after his death, for obvious reasons. And it was an idea that was accepted, about Socrates, by many literate people in Greece and Rome.

But the idea only really got going with the rise of Christianity.

The skeletal structure of Christianity presents us with the example of the Victim as Lord, and the Victim as Good–the Victim who is blessed and sanctified by his victimization.

Being a victim makes you good.  Being the champion of victims makes you approach the good. 

Being not at all a victim makes you–what?

I think the answer is: fair game.

I think that’s what ties those two articles together, the bullying one about Paula Deen and the masochistically self absorbed one about the young woman and her encounter with racism at the bike stand.

Large segments of this society have stripped away all the particulars from Christianity.  They don’t believe in the virgin birth or the substitutionary atonement or the resurrection of the dead.  They  have jettisoned most of the basic moral details of Christian life.  They’ve got absolutely no use for chastity and they’re not much interested in living lives of poverty and obedience, except insofar as they can recast their comfortable middle class amenities as “poor” next to the “one percent.”

But one thing they have kept is that image of the Victim as righteous–not because of what he is a victim of, but because he is a victim at all.

A victim is good by definition.  His victimhood gives him the only moral authority available to anyone. 

And that’s what I meant when I said that it doesn’t really  matter what really happened to lead Socrates to execution, or even what really happened to lead Jesus there.  More people remember the whys and wherefores of the Jesus story than remember the story about Socrates–but they don’t care, and it doesn’t stick in th eir heads.

What sticks in their heads is that image.

And that is why this civilization is not modern or secular or whatever.

It’s specifically and ineradicably post Christian.

And I feel like I’m blithering.

Written by janeh

July 20th, 2013 at 9:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Heroes, Victims, and Heroic Victims'

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  1. Well we COULD be programmed for morality. My take would be that if you don’t teach and enforce certain behaviors, your culture is going to be extremely short-lived. That’s also why pre-Christian morality tends to be about what one doesn’t do to other people within the culture–no good Samaritans. Anyway, I’m not prepared to raise, say, 10,000 children without teaching them morality to see how they behave. The times we’ve come close to that have not been encouraging.

    I understand the point you’re making about victims and others, but I never understood the thinking. Maybe it’s the history background or possibly just the military history background. Lots and LOTS of people are helpless and brutally slain, just like lots of people are poor. Many of them, being human, were pretty miserable specimens. Being killed doesn’t make you virtuous–just dead. And being poor doesn’t make you honest–only broke. Now, going deliberately to one’s death in support of one’s beliefs is something else–like giving everything you have to the poor to go and follow Christ. But those are real martyrs and saints, and they’re quite rare.

    Post Christian, perhaps–but the important thing is anti-Christian. I could fill a column with statements and actions from the Gospels which would get Jesus boycotted on good liberal campuses. But Judas, who wants everything given to the poor while he keeps the purse, would be the perfect Secretary of Health and Human Services. Being a traitor and possibly a thief would only improve his chances.


    20 Jul 13 at 2:08 pm

  2. I’m not sure that’s all there is to it, but I need to think about it more. Sure, probably the idea that being a victim is OK, even a Good Thing, was spread by Christianity (although there’s also the idea that we don’t need to be victims because Jesus did it for us, and that giving up the world to follow him isn’t being a victim because you’re giving up the world for something that is ultimately infinitely better). But I think a lot of the current attitude towards being a victim comes from much more modern ideas of ’empowering’ the less fortunate, and is based on political thinking – often, very fuzzy political thinking. Personally, I think that being encouraged by the more fortunate to define yourself by your victimhood – your poverty, illness, social status etc – is the exact opposite of empowerment, but a lot of people would disagree with me.

    There are certain people – maybe they’re the ones you are calling masochists – think that if they’re willing to suffer or die for a cause, that means the cause is a worthy one. This is, of course, totally irrational – you don’t determine the moral worth of a project by your willingness to suffer for it. I don’t think they’d consider themselves victims, though. There’s something helpless about a victim, and they’re being proactive, not passive.

    Whether a certain level of morality is genetically encoded, I don’t know. I expect (I think with Robert) that societies which tend to survive are those with people who (or whose ancestors) have figured out that without certain basic restrictions on behaviour they’ll all suffer when their society collapses. Whether this is genetically encoded, I don’t know. Maybe a certain need for social interaction and cooperation is genetically encoded. Something at the level of avoiding murder or robbery, I don’t know. It seems unlikely to me, but I don’t know enough about the subject to be sure. I’m not sure anyone does yet. They keep discovering new things about genetics and biochemistry and behaviour, but I think even the experts are just beginning to collect basic data, and not yet at the stage of understanding what’s going on.


    20 Jul 13 at 4:59 pm

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