Sunday, October 20, 2013

Brave New World?

I was watching The Tempest earlier this morning, and was reminded of the title of Aldous Huxley's famous book title. The line it was derived from reads, in full:

"O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in it!"

The irony appears when one considers that the speaker, Miranda, is a young lady (15 or so) who can count the humanoid acquaintances she's known since she was 2 on one hand. The new people she's looking upon in this scene are not beautiful, or even numerous, but bedraggled sailors who've recently survived a shipwreck and a stressful adventure on the island. When one considers the types of people in Huxley's "brave new world," with the notable and beautiful exception of Helmholtz Watson and arguably John, the irony is doubled back on itself.

The title's more literal and obvious (less literary) connotation was what struck me however. Courage is not the greatest virtue--perhaps one could even say it's not really a virtue in itself--but it is the characteristic necessary for all the other virtues. Philip Zimbardo and Salmon Rushdie, each in their own separate ways, have made the case that the courage of the current generation will determine how things go in upcoming decades. The natural follow-up question is, of course, how are we doing?

On the one hand, we have seemingly fearless whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning dominating headlines, and some politicians putting their necks on the line to try new things. Whatever you may think of Obama's aggressive and successful push for the affordable health-care act, or the Tea Party's extreme response in recent months, it would be hard to deny that they took a big risk in doing what they did, and would count, at least in my book, as courageous. Even the 9/11 truther folks can't be ignored on this issue; when they're willing to come out in the public and state their opinion, knowing they'll get laughed at and be thought of as kooks, it's actually pretty noble.

On the other hand, the number of whistleblowers might not match where it should be, given the extent of illegal and unethical operations in businesses and the government, and the Tea-Party/Liberal-progressive Democrats hardly make up the majority of the government, which carefully and cautiously sticks within its voters defined lines and dares not take a contentious stance, read, "saying what they really think," on an issue for fear of potentially alienating voters. Achilles' retort to Odysseus comes to mind: "More hateful to me than the gates of hell is the man who hides one thing away in his heart and utters another."

Perhaps more importantly, how individual students and youths in their late teens and early twenties measure up isn't very heartening. As part of a film-project for a class on propaganda, I asked a dozen students at Bellevue College what they would think if they found out that the government or the school administration was violating their first amendment rights by limiting what they could say or write, and by extension read or hear. Of the 12, three volunteered that they would rebel. One specified that he would "violently" rebel. Needless to say, when I pointed out to them that this wasn't a mere hypothetical, but was actually happening, there was no subsequent protest, or even a sit-in or petition, let alone a violent rebellion by 8% of the school.

I had the same kind of pay-lip-service-to-one-value-and-advocate-another experience when I first started criticizing Islam in print, namely from my family, but from a few friends and acquaintances too. Even an old girlfriend of mine, when I told her I was joining the military, was extremely upset. When I asked her if she thought that the military should be manned, generally, she said, essentially, "yes, but not by you." Touching yes, but if people make decisions based on concerned family-member's and friends' discouragement of acting on principle, and telling you to keep your head down and your nose clean, then the inner courageous lion within us doesn't do us any more good than being cowards in the first place.

Only time will tell how things play out, but in the mean-time, I would like to advocate two rules of action, if you find this line of thinking convincing. Number one, ask yourself, and others "on what principle are you deciding to do X?" It's a subtly different and more powerful, pointed question than the more basic, "Why are you doing X?" Number two, if someone is doing something principled and noble, don't try to talk them out of it on pragmatic grounds. I'm not talking about their eloquent defense of drunken skydiving, obviously, but suppose a friend of yours decides that the wars in the Middle East are bothering them, and they decide to quit their job, pack up their things, move to the hills of Afghanistan and try to run a school there. An extreme example, sure, but it's a normal, friendly knee-jerk reaction to try to talk your semi-crazy friend out of adventurous ideas like that. Are their lives really going to be better off doing exactly what everyone else does, instead of taking a life-shaping adventure, however risky? If you really want to be their friend, try to help them figure out the logistics, or maybe offer to watch their pets while they're gone, or something like that, instead of talking them out of doing what they think is right for themselves and for the world. The question becomes trickier, of course, when legal conflicts come into play (e.g., whistleblowing), but the thought-process is the same: don't ask "is this the a safe choice?," but "is this a wise choice?" Sometimes the answers are different, and supporting your friends' and family's courageous decisions will be better for you, for them, for your relationship, and for society at large.

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