Monday, 26 April 2010

Human rights and the ten commandments

In his book, The Fragile Absolute: or, Why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for?, Slavoj Žižek argues that human rights are, essentially, 'rights to violate the ten commandments.' The right to privacy is the right to commit adultery in secret, where no one can see or judge (I guess you could also argue that it's the right to all the other sins that can be committed in the comfort of your own home). The right to pursue happiness and accumulate property is the right to steal (because, pace, Marx, property is theft, and most wealth is accumulated by exploiting other people). Freedom of expression is the right to bear false witness (and is interestingly at odds with the right to privacy, as the recent hoo-haa over Max Mosley's shenanigans illustrated). The right to carry weapons is (duh) the right to commit murder. It's not, says Žižek, that human rights actually encourage people to violate the Ten Commandments, more that they open up a space for people to do so without interference from the state.

You may have noticed already, but some of those rights are quite US specific, which makes it interesting: how many of the people passionately attached to their right to bear arms are also the people who think that the US should be founded on the basis of the Ten Commandments? But it also raises interesting questions about the role of the law: how do you decide whether it's more important to stop people doing bad things than it is to allow them the freedom to make their own mistakes?

Žižek says that the tension between human rights and the ten commandments is rooted in a more fundamental tension between the ten commandments and the injunction to love our neighbour. The ten commandments are all about the rules we have to follow to be acceptable to God and to one another, but loving our neighbour means that we have to love the people around us whether they follow the rules or not, in all their bad, offensive and or disgusting strangeness and sinfulness. 'Love your neighbour' means 'love your neighbour', even if they're an adulterer or a murderer or they covet your ass.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

From Wimps to Wild Men

From Wimps to Wild Men: Bipolar Masculinity and the Paradoxical Performances of Tom Cruise is by Donna Peberdy. She's interested in the stories we tell about the way masculinity changes over time: some people say 'Once men were real men, but now that are soft and wimpy.' Other people say that masculinity swings like a pendulum from toughness to wimpiness and back again. In the early 90s there was a big move to recover 'lost' masculinity, epitomised by the poet Robert Bly, who wrote a book called Iron John: A Book About Men and organised men-only weekends where blokes got together and did manly things like ritual dances with masks (hm). Bly thought that men had been 'feminised' and it was time to take back the manliness. Peberdy thinks that this fear of losing masculinity has been around in American culture ever since the frontier disappeared: men are often thought to stand for culture over and against 'feminine' nature, and if there's no wild nature to conquer, how can men be men?

Peberdy thinks that the basic opposition is between 'hard' and 'soft' masculinity, and she argues that it's not that we've lost one and replaced it with another, or that when we have too much of one we reach for the other. Masculinity, she argues, is fundamentally bipolar: it is both hard and soft, and hard and soft models of masculinity need each other. We talk as though masculine 'wildness' is inherent, natural, and only bad, feminised culture takes men's manliness away from them, but actually the 'wild man' is always a performance: that's why Bly's men wore masks to dance around the campfire.

Peberdy also thinks that we see this bipolarity of masculinity epitomised quite nicely by Tom Cruise, especially in the film Magnolia where he almost parodies his earlier roles: he plays a self-help author of a book called Seduce and Destroy, and when we first see him he is shouting, butch, and hyper-masculine. Over the course of the film, this persona falls apart, as we find out that his character had to nurse his sick mother when his father left her, and eventually he breaks down and sobs by his father's deathbed. This complexity is mirrored by Cruise's real life: he started out playing classically masculine roles, but there were rumours about his sexuality, increasingly viewed as unstable due to his Scientology, and eventually became a figure of fun when he jumped on Oprah's sofa to declare his love for Katie Holmes. Like his Magnolia character, his hyperactive public performances called into question his masculinity. The lines between performance and reality, masculinity and femininity are begin to look blurrier than we'd like to think. Wild men are wimps and vice versa; like the protagonist of Fight Club, all masculinity is bipolar.

It's interesting how these sorts of narratives get translated into Christian culture: Wild at Heart is the obvious example, but Mark Driscoll's definitely in on it (in a much worse way), and I'm sure there are more examples. What would it look like if we let men be a bit more complicated than the Wild Man/Wimp dichotomy suggests? What's going on when we blame the 'feminisation' of culture for the decline of 'real men'? Answers on a postcard.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Joseph Butler on human nature

Joseph Butler was an 18th century Anglican bishop, who was, pleasingly, born in Wantage. He's not very famous these days, but apparently was quite important at the time, and influenced lots of people, including David Hume (philosopher man) and Adam Smith (capitalism's-his-fault-man). He's mostly known for his sermons, including the Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (which we shall, for pleasingness's sake, imagine to be a chapel full to the brim with different sorts of roll: bread, sausage, jam etc), and a book called Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed. He's not quite so boring as the titles of his books make him sound.

In the first of his fifteen sermons, Joe addresses Romans 12:4-5, which goes a little something like this:

For as we have many members in one body, and all members
have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in
Christ, and every one members of one another.

He takes this to be referring not so much specifically to the relationship between individuals and the Church as to the relationship between individuals and human nature and human society in general. He thinks that what's good for the individual is the same as what's good for society, and that we're naturally disposed to doing good. Obviously, people are naturally disposed both to looking after themselves and to benevolence towards others, and these two instincts are complementary: self-love encourages us to behave well towards society, and vice versa. Various other human traits encourage us to love ourselves and to love others: our desire to be liked and respected by other people, our natural indignation when people behave badly and get away with it, our conscience, our desire to avoid disgrace, and our attraction to other people, as evidenced by the fact that even something as insignificant as being born in the same place or gone to the same school can form the basis of friendships even years after those things took place.

But don't we also have tendencies towards things that are bad for us and bad for society? Not exactly, says Butler. Sure, in pursuing our own satisfaction we may injure other people, but just as there is no such thing as self-hatred, neither does anyone really wish other people ill. No one really loves injustice, treachery, ingratitude etc. for themselves; only for the good things they can obtain for us. Sure, some people don't really like other people; some people don't even like themselves, but they're a minority and an aberration. Sure, sometimes people want things that aren't good for them or for society, but that's because they haven't thought carefully enough about what they want, and get carried away in the heat of the moment. We are naturally inclined towards what is best for us.

Quite apart from the pretty dodgy exegesis there, I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that this is a rather optimistic account of human nature, and a rather glib dismissal of sin. It reminds me of a story that Žižek recounts, of a farmer "to whom an angel appeared and told him: 'I will grant you a wish, whatever you want - only, beware, I will do twice as much to your neighbour!' The farmer replied, with an evil smile: 'Take one of my eyes!'"