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Microaggressions and moral condemnation

If my mind was a storage house with a lot of smaller storage rooms, it seems like some of those rooms are fully packed with stuff I seldom use. But, once a door is opened, the things pour out of the door, spilling on the floor. So it takes a while to sort through the mess of spilled-out ideas. A few of those storage-rooms are labelled "philosophy", and a while ago I accidentally opened one of the 'philosophy'-doors, aiming to write just one blog post. Here I'm tidying the mess of spilled-out ideas, hoping to finish this stream of philosophy which grew to be a trilogy of blog posts. To do this, let me again start with a story, this time illustrating an old Finnish folk wisdom.

Imagine you are standing outdoors in the winter, maybe on a bus stop waiting for a bus to come. It is freezing cold, very very cold. Standing still you start to feel cold and it still some time until the bus will arrive. What would you do to help yourself to stay warm? There probably would be a lot of clever and realistic solutions, but just for the sake of the story let us assume you thought that it would be a good idea to pee your pants. That's an instant relief, the warm liquid evicts the feeling of coldness! Unfortunately, the warming effect only lasts for a while, as soon your wet pants start to freeze and you'll find yourself increasingly suffering from coldness. In Finland this is a widely used metaphor to describe a situation where someone hopes to remedy a problem with such means that would yield short-term relief but inevitably lead to the situation becoming worse after that. This is not portrayed as a moral dilemma - it is just a test of rationality; would you choose an easy answer which gives instant relief with the cost of things becoming even worse in the long run; or would you look for a solution which would give sustainable long-term benefits with the cost of that solution being more slow and laborious?

Well, in Finnish cultural context no-one would seriously believe that peeing ones own pants would be a viable way of fighting coldness. But, again for the sake of the story, let us assume there was a smaller population of people who had a tradition of using this method. Among their population it would be the grandparents who told their grandchildren than whenever they feel cold they can just pee their pants and feel cozy, happy and warm. And if, afterwards, they start to feel cold again, they just need to repeat the hack. That's why it is advisable to drink a lot! Now, let us assume that among that population there was a rebel young lady who had this radical idea that traditions can be changed - if some aspect of the tradition doesn't work, it should be replaced with something which works better. The others would call her 'progressive', and accuse her of wanting to destroy the entire tradition. Well, but she insisted that peeing ones own pants is a bad idea. The others would be upset: "What! So you say we should do nothing, and just suffer from the cold! We are not sheep, we can't just passively suffer the pain - we must take action, we must fight the coldness!". She tried to explain that peeing ones own pants isn't the only solution available, and that it actually just makes the things worse, and that other methods could work better. But her explanations are long and unheard of, and a lot of folks would feel uncomfortable with the idea of abandoning good old traditions. After all, the traditions are backed by generations of experience, and the new ideas proposed by that young lady are just utopian dreams!

No, I don't mean to say that all traditions are bad and should be totally abandoned. But I do think that sometimes it could be a good idea to critically review certain aspect of traditions and other core beliefs, no matter how self-evident they feel to be. And I think this also goes for the habits and beliefs of such groups and people who identify themselves as 'progressive', 'tolerant', 'liberal' or 'leftist'. For I have been enjoying my semi-hermit lifestyle protected by the Finnish woods, I haven't been actively involved with any sphere of a (counter-)cultural movement for ten years or so. But, what little I've been following the discussion on the internet and reading some articles, to me it seems like some of the ancient tribal moral beliefs have found a new home in some of the 'progressive' cultural movements.

I'm talking about a vague phenomenon sometimes referred as the concept creep. A lot simplified, a core example of concept creep is that several decades ago the concept of harm was used primarily to refer to physical injury or pain, or (severe) economical loss (caused by actions of others) - but that nowadays it seems that the concept of harm is used more broadly, including also things like feeling oneself insulted or humiliated by others. This, among other things, is connected to the idea of microaggressions. Those subtle little ways of showing that the other is inferior, not a real citizen, not fully sane etc. I must admit that I've been rather baffled seeing that the good old categories of guilt and moral blame have been summoned to battle against microaggressions. This, combined with the ancient idea of moral purity, seems to sometimes produce a cultural context where you get morally condemned, punished (and excluded from the group, for the group of morally pure people can't touch anything impure, otherwise the whole group becomes filthy) if you 1) are found guilty of a microagression, no matter if you did that unintentionally or by mistake, or 2) you don't get furiously offended when you see another person committing the crime of a microagression - if you don't condemn the evil behaviour, you are an evil-sympathizer allowing evil things to happen, so you need to be punished by being evicted from the lands of the holy.

Then, it also seems that there are people who are not happy about being morally condemned for committing the sin of a microaggression. And people who maybe haven't been personally condemned, but who aren't happy to see their fellow in-group members condemned. People who feel uneasy about the phenomenon. Some of those people reject the whole idea of microagressions - suggesting that other people should just tolerate all the subtle insults, and not get upset for being ridiculed and humiliated by the others, just relax and don't take it so seriously! (Do we see some hypocrisy hidden here? The logic seems to be 'There are those others who do thing X and it makes me feel bad - therefore I insist that those people shouldn't do the thing X and X should not exists! Here this thing X was that those other people said that me and my fellows did something which made them annoyed so they insisted we quit that. Oh that makes me annoyed! I want THEM to quit doing things which make ME annoyed!')

So, where do I stand? Do I think that microaggressions should be condemned, or do I think that the whole idea of microaggressions whould be abandoned? Or, do I happen to be a lousy centrist in the middle, failing to condemn moral wrongdoings just repeating "maybe, uh, depends on context, what if I just look the other direction and the problem goes away.' - Well, Erkka, what is your position? Hmmm, I think my own opinion is that in questions like these the habit of moral condemnation is a lot like peeing ones own pants - it might appear as yielding short-term comfort, but in the real world it will also lead to (longer term) ill effects. The same goes for a toothless centrist position, for it doesn't help to solve the problem. So how do we solve a problem, if not by ignoring it, by denying it, nor by morally condemning wrongdoers?

If a man wields a rock to hammer nails, the best thing probably would be to show him how to use a hammer. Of course, if using a rock would be a core belief in the tradition he identifies himself with, he probably won't be that open to off-group people suggesting him to change some aspects of the sacred tradition. This is even more likely to happen if the out-group people bring their new teachings with a tone of ridiculing the primitive habits, with an arrogant preaching attitude portraying rock-wielders as inferior people who need to adopt an alien habit of using a hammer if they want themselves to be treated as real people. All of these - subtle or overt ridicule and humiliation - seem to be persistent gut reactions, often subconsciously adopted and applied. But what does this metaphor mean in this context?

Well, the way I see it, the credible idea of microaggressions is to make visible those subtle forms of ridicule and humiliation which might go on unnoticed, yet constantly working towards marginalizing this or that group of people. A likely (longer term) effect of constant ridicule and humiliation is that some groups will feel themselves increasingly marginalized and disrespected, which then leads to the distance and tensions growing between different groups. If we portray this as a phenomenon of tension between the majority and marginal groups, then the more the marginal groups distrust and disrespect the majority, the more likely they are also to fight back, to throw slurs and insults at the members of the majority, or, in the extreme cases some individuals who can't bear the load of constant long-term humiliation might go amok. If the majority don't want to see this happening, and if they'd prefer to see the members of the minority groups living peacefully together with the majority, then abandoning both the overt and the subtle forms of humiliation would be a good way to proceed. If you want to build long term peace and prosperity, you probably need to seek to establish and to strengthen mutual respect and equality.

But, again, using moral condemnation to battle microaggressions is a lot like wielding a rock to hammer nails. Or, a lot like applying ridicule and subtle humiliation trying to teach rock-wielders to start using a hammer to hit nails. The intention might be good, but the real world consequences probably are not so good. Also, I've heard several persons, who are members, friends or allies of this or that progressive leftist group telling that they have grown to be afraid of openly expressing their own opinions, or taking part in the group discussions - for they are afraid of accidentally and unintentionally using some bad word which the others would feel offending and then there would be strict and strong moral condemnation. This, to me, seems a perfectly understandable psychological consequence of such a culture where minor stuff are faced with major condemnation. Of course, in no way is this a phenomenon of some 'leftist' movements only - I have equally seen conservative, right-wing, religious, atheist, patriot, pacifist, centrist, anarchistic, tolerant, talerant, bebbicuggibabborant and jellyfishoguzorazorant -identifying individuals (and groups of individuals) doing the exact same thing - seeing a single word, or a single symbol, or a single gesture as a sign signalling that someone is either Evil or Evil-sympathizer and deserves to be attacked, mocked, ridiculed, humiliated, condemned and - most importantly - evicted from Our Group of Morally Pure People forever banned from walking on Our Holy Territory. Another of those ancient gut reactions which probably dates back to the stone-age and beyond, a group-behaviour instinct which once helped small packs of hunter-gatherers to survive and to fight rival packs. There is no denying it - these gut reactions once were good and served a purpose adequately, and in some limited circumstances they still do. But, generally speaking, I feel that in the global world of the 21st century we would be better off with a little bit different kind of gut reactions. And that I do believe that it is entirely possible for these gut reactions to change and to adapt, both on the personal- and group-level.

Wait a minute, what did I say? Did I say that after centuries of enduring long-term severe oppression this or that minority group should do something different to help the majority to change their ways? Did I say that after being beaten up, the victim should evaluate his behaviour to see if he could do better to help the perpetrator to mend? Isn't that a clear case of victim-blaming? If person A does something bad to person B, surely it is person A who needs to be fully responsible of fixing things, to compensate for the damage done, to show some effort in learning not to do that bad thing again? And, if a strong strong person A does a bad thing to a weaker person B, then what can person B do? B doesn't have power over A, so how can we even suggest that B could do something to guide A to change her ways? The only thing B can and should do is to complain to someone who is stronger that A and has a power to set A straight. That could be the community - as a lot of individuals grouped uniformly together are stronger than any single member of the group. Or, that could be the boss of A, or some other authority figure who has power to punish A for doing a bad thing to B. Yes yes - I think this is pretty much how the ancient tribal moral system works. Well, I'd guess by now you'll already anticipate what I'll say next.

The way I see it, the ancient tribal moral system isn't the best possible way to address the social problems of the 21st century. And that the very system itself is very likely to have consequences no-one likes. So, to avoid those ill consequences, and to seek better ways to really solve the problems, I personally prefer to seek and to explore new ways. Instead of vaguely talking about 'new ways', let me talk a bit more about the victim - perpetrator -divide.

When I was about 15 years old I had already seen a whole deal of undesirable behaviour. I had been physically hurt so many times over a longer period of time, so that a few of those cases were severely life-threatening. I had been systematically humiliated, ridiculed and mocked for a long time. I had developed a range of emotional problems because of that stuff going on for years and years. There was a time when I felt 'why me?' and felt that those other people doing those undesired violent things are morally guilty. But, since I had a plenty of opportunity to familiarize myself with those people, I kept on asking myself 'what makes these people behave the way they do?' - also, over the course of years I noticed how my own emotional problems led me to occasionally behave in a violent or abusive manner. I started to think that even though we are human beings making conscious decisions, in each given situation we typically can only choose from the options we perceive to be available to us. And, what options we perceive to be available, that seems to heavily depend on the models, concepts, ideas and gut reactions which we have adopted in our lives and which shape the way we see and experience the world. That the persons behaving violently towards me are most likely doing so because of their own set of problems, because of their own limited and somewhat twisted set of gut-reactions and emotional/behavioural models which leave them with only a range of violent options to choose from. So, morally blaming, condemning or punishing those people won't help. What would help would be that those people found ways to re-shape and to heal their own instinctual gut reactions, together with their emotional/behavioural models maturing and growing to be more detailed and more adequate.

Well, it is worth noting that at the same time I more or less abandoned the sense of being a victim, I also let go off the ideas of moral blame. Which, the way I see it, means that I also let go off the idea of victim-blaming. I didn't blame myself for failing to educate those people around me. I didn't feel that it was up to me or in any way part of my responsibilities to help those other people to learn to behave differently. Mostly, I realized that because of my weak position, and hindered by the emotional problems I already had developed, I lack the means to educate those other people. So, what I can then do is to educate myself, to develop ways not to feel offended when insulted, to develop ways of maintaining my own peace of mind in the middle of all that raging, or - at least - to develop ways to help me survive until I can escape somewhere safe where I can lick my wounds and heal. So that is what I did, and that quest led me to feeling my personal consciousness blend with the Beauty of The Cosmic Unity.

The bliss of the Cosmic Unity sure helped me to survive, washed away all the last remains of emotional blame I had, and I felt full of unconditional Love and Beauty, so that I could not see anyone as 'an enemy', but I saw and felt every detail of the Total of Existence as worth of love and care and benevolence.

Yet, that wasn't an once-and-for-all total Enlightenment - it didn't make me forever immune to the suffering of the daily mundane life. And the following years I spent a lot of time thinking, philosophizing and trying to make sense of such mystical spiritual experiences. For example; even though such an experience comes with a strong first-hand sense of 'seeing the Absolute Fundamental Reality The Way It Is, Unveiled and Uninterpreted, Beyond Doubt', the very total nature of the experience means that no conceptual belief can be justified by a total spiritual experience. And, critically thinking, it should be noted that the feeling of 'Directly Seeing The Unveiled Reality' is, after all, a human feeling, and afterwards there is no absolute evidence to claim that it was an uninterpreted perception of the fundamental reality. Sure, such a spiritual experience appears as fundamentally different than our ordinary mundane reality we experience through all the filters and the concepts of the human mind - but, again, as the Total Universe is so vast and the human mind is so small, maybe a human experience of The Totality is also just an another way the limited human mind interprets and makes sense of the Unlimited Totality. Well, among other things, this line of thinking meant to me that there are different ways to interpret the world and the existence. That my life so far had equipped me with a certain set of models, concepts, feelings and gut reactions which I fluently used to interpret the world; and that a change in those models will make the entire world, life and the existence to appear afresh to me.

So off I went with an inner creative process of finding ways to help my gut reactions to mend and to mature. As the persistent violence in my childhood had left me anxious and quick to feel myself threatened, I sought ways to calm down and to feel ultimately safe in this world. The more I could remember that my personal existence is a lot like a wave on the surface of the great ocean, the more I felt the peace and the strength of the ocean inside me - so that petty human insults did only that little to hurt the might of the great ocean. The more I let go off the victim / perpetrator -divide, the easier it was to see that we are in this together, all just perplexed minds trying to do our best with the models and ideas we have inherited or developed in our lives.

And, to be more precise, when my own son was smaller, I often reminded myself of the impact of the parents' instant first reaction. When my little son did something 'bad', I did my best to stay calm and to guide him with a warm, gentle voice. (I felt that as a parent, if I get upset because of my own child not yet knowing how to best navigate this world, it only serves to show my child that it is okay to get upset when things don't go the way you want them to go - but if you stay relaxed and calmly sort through the situation, that might also offer the child a model of how to handle conflicts.) Well, but I have a feeling that I don't like to go into details of my ways of being a parent - that is because I'm writing with my real name, and my own son is a grown-up independent adult; I don't feel like exposing the details of our private family life as some sort of public display for anyone reading, for it might be my son's neighbours or employer or whomever reading. I mean, I have an instinct to honour my son's life; he isn't a product of my ways of parenting, his years of early childhood aren't just some general raw material to be utilized for my blog writing.

Oh well, so, to conclude this post; the way I feel and think, yes there are some social, cultural and political problems. But, the way I see it, strong moral condemnation would help only in a very few situations, and in most cases the habit of moral condemnation leads to growing separation, growing tensions and more intense counter-reactions. I don't mean to say that we should just ignore or tolerate all that what is wrong in this world - for I think we could use some more sophisticated means of solving problems. And at the same time I'm perfectly aware of the fact that so many individuals feel hurt and hindered and lack the power or an opportunity to affect the behaviour of others. Moreover, even oneself affecting ones own behaviour is often a long slow process, for most of the time even our most deliberate decisions are heavily affected by all those subconscious models, processes and gut reactions which we can't deliberately control. But we can seek to heal, to grow, to change, to see and to experience the existence in new ways - more detailed, more precise ways which might also work better, yielding more sustainable long-term effects.

Hehe, but this is me - a semi-hermit independent non-academic philosopher living in the Finnish woods. Since I don't identify myself with, nor don't feel myself being a part of this or that social sphere, group or movement, I often choose not to express my ideas of how to solve social problems. I think such stuff makes most sense when there actually is a social group, and the group members discuss among themselves how they prefer to run the routines of their group. Being outside of any group, I don't aim to tell others how I think they should arrange their group. For I don't fully believe in the concept of 'should' in the classic sense of the word. Also, I think these spiritual ideas of seeking-to-self-educate-oneself-to-maintain-the-peace-of-mind-and-not-condemning-but-universally-promoting-the-process-of-inner-maturing have probably been around for a few thousand years if not longer. Instead of trying to preach my inner truth to the world I prefer simply to live true my own ideals in my own life. Which, among other things, could mean dancing in a bar or whatever simple little ways there are to celebrate the endless flow of the Cosmic Beauty.

tags: 
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spirituality
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