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true for you, true for me

This morning I stumbled across a blog post over at The Atlantic, discussing a controversy over in the design online community. In all honesty I probably wouldn't have read it if I knew that's what it was going in, but it started off with Einstein quotes about human nature and society and history, and my mind apparently thought Einstein was always worth a read. It was; some very interesting quotes to mull over.

But apparently the whole thing got started because of a discussion in the design community. I don't really understand the details, and don't think I need to. The pertinent point is that a suggestion was made and other people reacted to it not only by disagreeing but by being very snarky and mean-spirited toward the people who made the original suggestion. And the person who collected the Einstein quotes took issue with that.

When did we, as a community, make this kind of behavior acceptable? I've gotten dozens of personal emails bemoaning these responses, their tone and their intention, but, publicly, we've been tacitly taking it in full stride. This – this bullying, these personal attacks, this sad case of ganged-up mob mentality – is not okay.

Let's say this again. This is not okay.

At least not in my world – I refuse to live my life believing that the capacity for cruelty exceeds the kindness of the human heart.
Allowing such hateful behavior, either as passive bystanders or by responding in kind, which I've taken great care not to do, is as heartbreaking as it is detrimental to the spirit of what I still consider, by and large, a talented, thoughtful, and considerate community.


(emphasis mine)

This actually made me groan out loud, because even if I don't know much about the design community, this is a line of thought I've seen all too often. It's hard to do if you teach the humanities, like I do (as a teaching fellow, I teach a section of the required Philosophy 101 course as part of my fellowship). When it comes to questions of judgment - right and wrong, justice, even beauty - many students are hesitant to say their evaluation of a certain situation applies to anyone other than themselves. I'm not blaming any particular group of students, or even students full-stop; I've seen the same tendency especially in people my age and younger, in lots of different contexts (Thanksgiving dinners, Sunday School discussions, even political blogs. When it comes to morals you get all upset about something, saying it's just wrong, and then try to qualify it as "wrong for me." That quote above is a prime example of this tendency, not because it's so unique, but because you have two statements that turn against each other like that, so close together.

Here's the problem: when most people "That is not okay," they're not just talking about what they would choose to do. In the heat of the moment, most people when hearing about the Lord's Resistance Army or female genital mutilation or the 9/11 terrorists or the murder of Trayvon Martin or whatever, their first-flush reaction isn't that they'd personally never fly planes full of innocent people into buildings filled by yet more innocent people. The unspoken assumption is: and you'd better not, either.

That "you" assumption is critical, and without it, there doesn't seem to be much of a point in going to the trouble of writing out that you disagree, otherwise; after all, if you're writing the sentence you already believe it. And that makes a kind of sense, when you look at a lot of what people believe. Liberty is big these days (between both liberalism and libertarianism, how could it not be?) and to most people my age you're just not supposed to mess with another person's liberty. If I'm going to tell you that you ought to act this way or not, I need a damned good reason.

I believe in a kind of liberty, too. I think that people should have the freedom to make whatever choices they want. But that doesn't mean all of those choices are actually going to be equally good. I am free to choose whether to have a salad or fried chicken for lunch, but my being free doesn't mean that choice won't affect what I see on the scales a few days later. So yes, I'd say freedom of choice is important - without it we're just a bunch of automatons and making the right choice doesn't mean a lot. And yes, that freedom of choice means people get to make the wrong choice now and again, often to bad consequences for themselves or others.

As an aside, when most people think of ethical realism (which is basically the view I hold: that some things are right or wrong, not because of anyone's opinions, but because of the nature of the thing that's right/wrong) they think of religion and want to reject it on those grounds. But ethical realism doesn't have to be religious. My friend Dan Fincke has argued often that atheists can have a morality that applies to everyone whether they believe it or not, but that also doesn't rely on the idea of God. I'll ask him for a selection of links, for people interested in this topic, but in the meantime his dialogue on immoralism gives a good window into this topic.

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