How Bad Are Things?

I try, as much as I can, to pay attention to the points other people are really trying to make rather than the points I think they should have made — after all, among the most basic differences of opinion are the differences in what issues should take priority. And it’s a simple fact that I am not Scott Alexander’s target audience in his piece “How Bad Are Things?” — he seems to think there should be some natural expectation that happiness will be correlated with wealth, whiteness and a college education, which is a very silly belief that is held primarily by college-educated liberals; and he goes out of his way to describe his social circle in a way that makes it clear that persons such as yours truly are Not His Kind. I don’t mean this critically — he is very much aware that his social circle constitutes a bubble of artificial like-mindedness and is not very happy about it.

So basically his is a post written for a blog audience that consists overwhelmingly of members of the secular liberal elite, by a member of the secular liberal elite who is on terms of intimacy and mutual understanding with pretty much nobody except members of the secular liberal elite. My chances of understanding either the viewpoint he is trying to challenge or the viewpoint he is championing are not very great. So this isn’t an answer to his post nearly as much as it is a post that represents a reaction to his post from a person who probably missed his point.

The core paragraphs in which he spells out the view against which he is reacting is this:

This is part of why I get enraged whenever somebody on Tumblr says “People in Group X need to realize they have it really good”, or “You’re a Group X member, so stop pretending like you have real problems.” The town where I practice psychiatry is mostly white and mostly wealthy. That doesn’t save it. And whenever some online thinkpiece writer laughs about how good people in Group X have it and how hilarious it is that they sometimes complain about their lives, it never fails that I have just gotten home from treating a member of Group X who attempted suicide.

This is also why I am wary whenever people start boasting about how much better we’re doing than back in the bad old days. That precise statement seems to in fact be true. But people have a bad tendency to follow it up with “And so now most people have it pretty good”. I don’t think we have any idea how many people do or don’t have it pretty good. Nobody who hasn’t read polls would intuitively guess that 40-something percent of Americans are young-Earth creationists. How should they know how many people have it pretty good or not?

Look, I don’t know what the people he reads on Tumblr mean when they say the things he quotes. “You’re a Group X member, so stop pretending like you have problems,” does certainly sound like the sort of thing mostly liberals would be likely to say, as it is characteristic of liberals to be so enslaved to group-oriented thinking as to deal with individuals as mere representatives of liberally-defined groups — as if there were such a thing as generalizations, however valid, without exception, or as if it were in any way morally non-contemptible to deal with a conversational partner as a Group X Member rather than as an individual. It may be that Dr. Alexander’s online social circle is as intellectually non-diverse as his real-life social circle and that all he is complaining about is the liberal habit of deciding which groups are “privileged” and which groups are and “oppressed” or “discriminated against” or “impoverished,” and then treating individuals classed by the liberal into different groups the way the liberal feels the group deserves to be treated. “You are a Privileged Person; how dare you pretend to deserve compassion?” And if that’s the case, well, then I don’t disagree with him; but then I’m not part of the intra-liberal conversation and I doubt very seriously they are in the business of soliciting opinions from me.

But I have been part of conversations in which have been expressed ideas similar to those Dr. Alexander appears to be complaining about. Those conversations, so far as I can remember, have not generally involved liberals; most non-liberals have learned that expressing an honest opinion in the presence of liberals tends to get you attacked as a [fill in the blank with your term of abuse of choice: “racist,” “sexist” and “fascist” have long been the sort of holy trinity of liberal terms of abuse but in the past few years “homophobe” has achieved full status in what now is a sort of Gang of Four], while doing the liberal himself very little good as liberals often seem to be much less interested in gaining wisdom than in avoiding having to admit that they are wrong. And so a prerequisite of honest conversation among the 65% or so of Americans who do not think in lockstep with the Occupy Democrats, has regrettably come to be, “Is it safe to talk openly, or is one of a us a liberal?” This means that the conversations in which I have heard these sorts of things being said, being primarily conversations between non-liberals (which is not at all the same thing as “conservatives”), are probably quite different conversations from those in which Dr. Alexander has heard these sorts of things being said, as he is (I gather, perhaps wrongly) primarily a participant in conversations between liberals. And if he were trying to respond to non-liberals who say these sorts of things, I think he would be missing the point rather badly.

You see, when a non-liberal says things like, “Millenials are spoiled and whiny,” for example, he doesn’t mean, “Millenials have no problems.” What he generally means, in my experience, is one or both of two things:

1. From time to time such conversations are sparked by something like the following. An American complains about economic inequality. Or someone like Judy Haiven complains about male monopolization of conversations on college campuses from her seat on this particular panel. Or white women living on college campuses complain that they live in a “rape culture” (rather than in one of safest environments any woman has ever lived in in the history of human civilization) and insist that therefore young black men who are accused of rape by young white women should be condemned and labelled for life not only without any evidence, but actually in the face of such evidence as exists. The conversations, in other words, arise from blatant attempts to hijack compassion by people who are often more sinning than sinned against.

Now there are people who suffer genuine oppression and live in genuine poverty. My Chinese (PRC) wife and her family (the older generation of whom lived through the Cultural Revolution) know what genuine poverty is, as do the four of my children who were adopted after living for years in Kazakh orphanages; an American complaining about poverty — not about unhappiness, but about “economic inequality” — would change his tune on a dime if he were required to live at the standard at which the average non-American lives. I have four (!) female relatives or close friends who have actually been raped, as in they were violently attacked, held down and violated to the fullest degree; and Ayaan Hirsi Ali was genetically mutilated at the age of five. Neither I, nor the rape victims I care about, nor Ms. Hirsi Ali are likely to react positively to women who imagine themselves to have been “sexually assaulted” because a stranger on the street greeted them and said, “Hello, beautiful” — especially not when the woman so “assaulted” has spent ten hours walking around New York for the express purpose of getting “assaulted” and has about two minutes of “sexual harassment” to show for her troubles.

But this doesn’t mean that non-liberals don’t care about the sufferings of America’s poor (or the very real unhappiness of America’s feminists, for that matter), and these conversations don’t, in my experience, reduce to really meaning things like, “Poor Americans don’t have anything to complain about.” The point usually seems to be that what poor Americans have to complain about, is not poverty — it’s not that they have nothing to complain about; it’s that they complain about the wrong things. A high percentage of America’s poor people are, in point of fact, deeply disadvantaged, even in comparison to a sizable percentage of the world’s poor who are economically much worse off than they. But that is because is because there are many kinds of poverty, and emotional and spiritual poverty are far more important than economic poverty. Imagine an American child born to “white trash” — that is, a mother who has provided the child with three other siblings from three other fathers, a father who is never around and pays child support neither for you nor for the five or six other bastards he has scattered around the county, and three generations of cousins and uncles and grandparents on all sides who have for decades been allergic to work and have been in and out of jail for petty (or not-so-petty) crimes. But on the bright side, the child has color TV and an X-box and lives in a (small, admittedly) apartment with air conditioning, central heating, and running water. Now imagine a child in Kenya who has been walking a mile to fetch water from a well twice a day since she was four, and who has never lived in or even seen a house with electricity, but whose parents are honest and hard-working people of fine character who are devoted to each other and to their children. One of these children is very much more likely to be miserable, and very much more likely to need the services of a psychiatrist, and very much more to be pitied, than is the other. And if we ask which of these two is relatively privileged, only a fool would say it was the American.

I personally am a very good example of this principle. If Jonathan Butler (whose father makes upwards of $8 million per year) were to imagine that I had a more “privileged” childhood than he because I am white, he would be an ass. (To be clear, I have no firm reason to believe Mr. Butler thinks such a silly thing and am happy to presume that he does not.) I grew up quite economically poor even by modern American standards. My father was an East Texas farmboy who grew up plowing behind a mule and who before attaining teenagerhood was already working ten-hour days in the summertime fields to get money for clothes. Having been driven out of his job as a young junior high principal in rural East Texas for having dared publicly to say that “separate but equal” was a lie and that justice required public school integration, he spent my childhood supporting our family as a southeastern Oklahoma public school teacher in the days when most men who taught in public school held down second jobs in the summer to make ends meet. My father did NOT have a second paying job; instead he and my mother (and, from the time we could walk, my sister and myself) worked all summer in the garden and the chicken coops and the rabbit hutches to raise and butcher and preserve and can all of the vegetables, and most of the meat, that we would eat all year — that is, when we weren’t out cutting the firewood that kept warm the one or two rooms in our house that we could afford to heat in the winter. By any purely economic standard, I was grotesquely disadvantaged by comparison to Mr. Butler.

But economic standards are the least important of standards, and I would say unhesitatingly that I had a deeply privileged childhood. For one thing, while we were poor, we were not edge-of-starving poor. We were the kind of poor that meant that my sister and I looked forward to the one twenty-five-cent soda pop we got each week, and had to force ourselves out from under the quilts on winter mornings in a room where the indoor temperature was in the twenties — but not the kind of poor that meant we developed symptoms of malnutrition.

But more importantly, we had parents of sterling character. So we learned how little joy and peace and happiness have to do with your circumstances and how much it has to do with character and love. My parents didn’t buy a television; instead they bought enough copies of Shakespeare for the four of us to sit around on winter evenings in front of the fire taking different parts and reading our way through Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My parents were, I suppose, the sort of young-earth creationists that Dr. Alexander appears to hold in contempt, though I doubt they are strict young-earthers anymore (the issue appears to me to be of so little importance that I have never gotten around to asking them about it). But they were Christians (again, I have the impression that Dr. Alexander is an atheist and would not expect to find their company congenial) who lived out their faith on a daily basis and showed me what it means to have honesty and compassion and integrity and unselfishness and a healthy work ethic. My parents taught me everything about success and happiness, and there is no greater privilege in life than having such parents.

In other words, I was not privileged by being white or wealthy; but still I would contend that I have never met anybody whose childhood was more privileged than was mine.

And Mr. Butler, he of the $8-million father? He also had a privileged childhood, in my estimation — but not because his father makes eight million dollars a year. Here is a story about what kind of parents Mr. Butler grew up with. I imagine I disagree with Mr. Butler’s parents on most political issues; and I frankly think that his University of Missouri protest was, to put it kindly, rather misguided and apt to be productive of an increase, rather than a decrease, of injustice. If it was really his father who raised him to engage in that particular sort of advocacy, I don’t think Butler the Senior did Butler the Junior any favors in that one particular respect. But that Jonathan Butler grew up, like me, in a loving and healthy home with parents of integrity and character, is I think undeniable. And that is the greatest of all privileges.

To retreat from the specifics of Mr. Butler’s and my individual cases and return to the general point: what has to be understood is that, outside of liberal circles, when somebody says, “The members of Group X have nothing to complain about,” then when you dig into what they really mean, it often comes down to two things. One is, “The noisy members of Group X have no business complaining about the things they obsessively complain about.” And the other is, “The noisy members of Group X refuse to admit what the true sources of their problems are; so their problems are not going to get solved; so after a while sensible people get tired of listening to incessant and pointless complaining and look for more productive uses of their time.” Now these opinions may or may not be justified even as generalizations, and there will certainly be many individual members of Group X to whom the generalizations, even if valid, do not apply. Any of these points is open to challenge and (depending upon the generalization and who Group X is) may be outright wrong; and even when these points are valid, they may be made uncharitably and insensitively. But those are the two points often being made; and Dr. Alexander’s blog post does nothing to address these particular points. A conversation is there to be had about those points; but that’s not the conversation Dr. Alexander appears to be having. (Which is fine, of course; his blog, his choice of topics.)

2. There is, however, a more fundamental point, and this is the second point I generally hear made in conversations where people feel safe enough to identify as not-entirely-orthodox liberals. Suffering has always been part of human existence. But until fairly recently, parents and society generally set the expectation that children needed to grow up enough to deal with their suffering. Now, however, there appears to be a significant subculture in the West that wants to teach children that their suffering is not a challenge to be overcome by character (the way that Abraham Lincoln overcame a lifetime of clinical depression, for example), but an injustice that licenses and justifies bitterness and retaliation, or at the very least pointless and maudlin self-pity. Of course some suffering is in fact a matter of injustice and some of those who cause suffering are engaging in violence and injustice and must be fought. But there is simply no way that I know of that you can say to these emotional three-year-olds, “The basic solution to your biggest problem is for you to grow up,” without bringing down the Wrath of the Six-Foot-Tall Toddler Tribe down upon your head. Suffering, especially on the relatively trivial level at which it is experienced by most Westerners, does not have to bring unhappiness. But to the extent that any young person’s parents or admired role models or subculture encourages the young person to think of himself primarily as a victim and to wallow in bitterness and resentment towards those he imagines to be responsible — even if his victimhood is real — that young person is being raised up to a life of unhappiness and discontent. “It never fails that I have just gotten home from treating a member of Group X who attempted suicide.” Well, yes, because happiness and misery have very little to do with the objective goodness or badness of one’s material and social circumstances, and a very great deal indeed to do with whether one’s character has been molded, during formative days, to be a character of gratitude and fortitude and joy or else to be a character of bitterness and resentment and self-pity.

I do not deny for a moment that there are a great many wealthy and highly privileged Millennial ladies who despite the staggering array of material blessings in their lives are greatly to be be pitied. But they are not to be pitied because they live in a sexist society that fails adequately to recompense female twenty-five-year-old deconstructionist literature majors in comparison with male math majors. They are to be pitied because their character is such as to make it very unlikely that they will ever be happy and joyful — for they have been trained by those responsible for shaping their character, to willingly imprison themselves in a pit of resentment and unforgiveness. Nobody has ever explained to them (as, among others, Dr. King would be happy to explain) that there is one way in which it is critically important to rebel against your oppressors, supposing that you actually have any: it is critically important to be able to say, “You do not have the power to make me hate you, and I refuse to allow my happiness or unhappiness in life to be held hostage to your treatment of me; I refuse to give you the power to decide whether or not I live in joy.”

I have known many joyful people, and many of these joyful people live in circumstances that “whiny Westerners” of liberal bent would think precluded joy, including circumstances in which they are, unquestionably, victims of open and vicious political oppression (the real thing, not “microaggressions”). But joy does not depend very much on circumstances; it depends on the attitude with which we meet circumstances. And in my experience, there is one characteristic that is universally found among joyful people: joyful people are grateful people. They notice all the good things in their lives (even if there aren’t, objectively speaking, very many) and rejoice in them; and as for the bad things in their lives…well, if they can fix them, great, but otherwise they set them aside. Joyful people simply do not live lives of bitterness and resentment; they live lives of gratitude and emotional generosity. So it often happens that when somebody tries to tell a whiny Westerner, “You have nothing serious to complain about…” what they are trying to lead up to — though the temper tantrum that interrupts them may keep them from ever getting there — is to add, “…and a very great deal to be grateful for — and you will be much happier if you turn away from the complaints and embrace the gratitude.”

But again, because liberals in general treat anyone who dares to disagree with them very badly indeed, these are the sorts of things that tend to be said in conversations where the people involved have first ascertained that none of the participants are doctrinaire liberals and therefore that if you express your true opinion you may well be disagreed with but you are at least very unlikely to be verbally abused. So probably that’s not what’s being said in any of the conversations Dr. Alexander participates in. More sadly, this means that you don’t get people saying this: “You have nothing serious to complain about and a very great deal to be grateful for — and you will be much happier if you turn away from the complaints and embrace the gratitude.” Instead, you get, “Those people have nothing serious to complain about and a very great deal to be grateful for — and they would be much happier if they would turn away from the complaints and embrace the gratitude.” And however true such a statement might be, it doesn’t really do anybody very much good.

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