About that oil spill

This may be of interest, from our friends Upstairs. I think it’s self-explanatory, except for their coinage of the terms person-group and social-group. That’s part of an on-going explanation of the ways in which we as individuals aren’t nearly as individual as we think we are.

The guys had said that condemnation is not the proper response to what has happened, as condemnation merely isolates the person doing the condemning, and one of my friends had challenged that.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

5:30 AM. Okay. Ready to go. But I don’t know the topic du jour.

One of your friends challenged you to ask us why the attitude we suggested in re the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico didn’t amount to letting people get away with anything and everything.

Yes. That isn’t quite what she said, I think, but it was late for me and I just scanned the message, intending to read it more carefully today. I could go read it, I suppose.

Go ahead, if you wish. The day is young, your coffee is un-drunk and your vision is blurry anyway!

I expected you to say, “oh, don’t bother, we got it the first time.”

And so we did. We can continue either way — but if you know, you won’t spend energy worrying and not-worrying.

You’ve got me smiling at myself. Okay, I’ll go fire up the machine and have a look.

6 AM. All right, I am back. To my surprise I didn’t get too lost in incoming e-mails, either. I’ll patch Sue Ellen’s e-mail in when I read this into the computer.

[Sue Ellen said: “Would you please ask TGU how they differentiate between what they have said below and apathy; and anarchy? Are they saying that no action should be taken in such circumstances? Usually, when no one is held responsible, people (usually the poorest and most defenseless) suffer. In this country, we have a system of rule of law. That requires discrimination and judgment on the part of the members of a jury to bring justice to the injured and responsibility to the perpetrator. I don’t know about anybody else, but I am not in favor of anarchy.”]

Is always helpful to hear how what we say is heard, as it allows clarification. You might consider posting this entire correspondence — call it that — to that same list, which could understand.

I’m already posting it on my IOMOK blog.

Yes, one session per week, when you are doing six sessions per week.

Touché. Well, maybe I will.

Your friend’s question could be rephrased, and interpreted, as something like this: If person-groups were to live without condemnation, how could social-groups protect themselves from irresponsibility and crime? Perhaps re-stating it that way will clarify the difference between condemnation and discernment.

The theory of your particular social-group (your country) is that the political mechanism acts as a sort of impartial enforcer of rules mutually agreed upon. We’re not going to examine how far this promise is rooted in fact and how far it is an ideal and how far it is in fact an illusion that itself helps prevent the closer realization of itself. (That is, one’s motivation for improvement is reduced if one thinks the improvement has already taken place, or if improvement is not needed.)

Given that promise, there are rules and there are mechanisms to enforce the rules, and of course there are penalties that can be imposed when a person-group or social-group is convicted of violating the rules. As your friend points out, in the absence of judgment of responsibility there can be no rule of law, no justice or even approximation of justice or even hope of justice. We agree with all that, given the system you are living within.

But if we agree with that, how can we hold to our previous statement? Let us see if we can clarify the difference between discernment and condemnation by a few examples that may or may not make it easier to see the difference between the two.

Suppose you were a Union soldier in the Civil War, fighting as you believed to save the Union. Would it be necessary (it might be a temptation) to condemn the members of the opposing army that you were shooting at? That is, because that person-group you were taking a bead on was a member of a social-group you were utterly opposed to, if only because you saw it as a matter of “them or us,” did you have to condemn the individual person-group within it? Historically, the answer is, no you didn’t have to. Some did, some didn’t. Some did sometimes and not other times.

Say you’re a cop giving out a ticket for speeding. Do you have to hate the person-group who was breaking the law, regardless who or what s/he is? Or do you just write the ticket?

Suppose you’re involved in a dispute — even a bitter dispute — with another person-group over property. Do you need to hate and condemn that other person-group in order to maintain what you believe are your rights?

Thus, — a serious, a rather trivial, and an entirely personal example of the distinction we would draw.

Now — look at the situation in your larger social-group (and we don’t even need to define which one: Make your own definitions). The coming of mass-communications and of instant perception (cameras on the Gulf floor) has led you all to broaden your perceptions — your virtual perceptions, call them, since they are filtered through so many human and technical intermediaries — far beyond your immediate sensory world. Don’t suppose that this is “by chance” — and don’t suppose, equally, that you are already accustomed to it. What are a couple of hundred years in the life of the species? The result is that familiarity tempts you into thinking you understand the name or the situation or the event that has become familiar.

But — if you are dealing with matters that you cannot judge out of your experience and knowledge, you can judge only out of intuition, feelings, and analogy to prior events (which themselves may not have been understood, only made familiar).

This doesn’t mean you should (or could) avoid forming opinions. It means you must recognize that your opinions cannot be grounded as much upon fact as more personal opinions could be. How are you to obtain the data, and the meaning of the data? So, your judgments even of what is “obvious” ought to be tempered by your reminding yourselves that you’re working from what has to be a pretty superficial impression. Eight hours of staring at a monitor showing oil spewing out of a hole would not improve your understanding of the situation, but it would harden your emotional reaction. That same eight hours spent investigating the technological, legal, political, economic, and human factors that went into the spill might leave you more aware of how much gray there was in the picture. The oil is still spilling out. The devastation is still taking place. The grounds for lawsuits and prosecutions are still accumulating, all the time you investigate — but look at the difference within you if you just condemn or if you try to understand. Condemnation is an easy and superficially a satisfactory response to a situation that is one of these external-awareness events. But — is rage, is hatred, good for you? Does it help you actually see what is, rather than a cartoon view of what is? In other words, does it allow you to see straight, or does it provide a cartoon image for instant gratification?

What is worse — condemnation usually assures that the true systemic causes of disasters such as oil spills or mine fires or building collapses or whatever go unnoticed. Instead, some person-group or social-group is condemned — made scapegoat — and the context goes uncorrected, only to provide more disasters and more scapegoats in the future.

Now, understand this. To say that some person-group or social-group is made scapegoat is not to say that the scapegoat is necessarily innocent! (Although, relatively, often enough it is.) It is to say that as soon as a scapegoat has been selected, the pressure is off all the official-non-scapegoats, and the pressure is off that would have spurred further investigation into the peripheral and subtle, or perhaps merely well-concealed, unidentified contributions to the situation.

So, even on a practical level, condemnation does not serve the social-group. It assures that the causes will go un-redressed, because some particular person-groups or social-groups have been identified and punished.

It amounts to saying, we don’t know and don’t want to know why these things happen. It’s enough to know how, and to find someone to blame.

If you will look at it, nothing we have said here would lead toward anarchy or apathy. It would lead toward calmness, clarity, cool-headed calculations of cause and effect, and intent to correct the cause instead of cursing the effect.

It is as Mr. Lincoln did. He never hated, he never condemned, but he was implacable in doing right as he saw the right, and in pinning responsibility as best he could.

Yes, and so was Robert E. Lee, who prayed for his enemies every night of his life.

Well, thank you for all this. I think it makes your point clear. But then, when I’m bringing something through, it always seems clear and obvious at the time.

Oh, do you think so? That’s not always our impression! Anyway, thank your friend for her question. Clarification is always good.

Feels like a short session today — it is only 6:45 — but this feels like a place to stop. Thanks again.

10 thoughts on “About that oil spill

  1. We should condemn—ourselves. There was a teachable moment, as they say, way back when. I remember well the gas lines in the 1970s. Carter responded with relatively modest energy conservation measures (55 mph speed limit, daylight savings time round the clock, lowering/raising building temperatures, etc.) that could have been the beginnings of real alternate energy development, energy independence, and going Green in a deep and sustained way. If we had forced Detroit to build more energy-efficient cars they would have kicked and screamed—and not become ghosts of their former selves. The oil companies would have kicked and screamed—and we would not have had our foreign policy remain hostage to middle east politics as well as avoided environmental disasters such as the Exxon and BP catastrophes. Instead we collectively chose to believe that it was “Morning in America”, that “Big Government is the problem, not the solution”, and that all regulation is evil. We thus rolled back the modest conservation measures, strangled the Green baby in its cradle, and instead put our SUV pedal to the metal, so to speak, and floored our way to a de-regulated, oil-besotted, macho-swaggering “prosperity” that was as illusory and phony-baloney as the Hollywood back lot where it was hatched and incubated. We chose the comfortable lie rather than the hard truth. “Green” today is a mere brand, a focus group identifier, not a real social policy. Politics is more corrupt than it ever was, and public service is simply a path to self-aggrandizement, attracting the very worst and most hypocritical types, since the very notion of government as a worthy enterprise has been discredited in the minds of most people. So it is. We chose this path, however. And now we’ll have to walk it to the bitter end.

    1. Well, Joe, I have to object to this on two grounds:

      1) You seem to have missed or dismissed or objected to their main point, that condemnation has NO productive results, and only serves to isolate the person doing the condemning.

      2) There used to be a joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto being surrounded by hostile Indians, and the Lone Ranger’s “well, Tonto, looks like this may be the end for us” was met by Tonto’s “what you mean US, white man?”

      What you mean “we,” white man? It is one of the unfortunate effects of the theory of representative government that that government’s actions are supposed to be “our” actions and thus represent what “we” want. Ho, ho, ho! You may take responsibility for the decisions and actions of Reagan and his corporate mob if you wish. I do not. I didn’t approve then, and didn’t approve subsequently and don’t now. So I should feel guilty?

      In my private life I have lived pretty frugally, out of choice and taste as much as out of any economic necessity, so I don’t even feel guilty of living off the fat of the consequences of other people’s actions.

      You might as well feel personally responsible for the invasion of Iraq. No, I intend to save my judgments for things I did myself (and I intend to be mighty sparing of my condemnations in any case).

      Thanks for providing the excuse for this. 🙂

  2. Glad to provide grist for the mill! I never voted for Reagan—but I didn’t vote for Carter, either. In 1980 I smugly pulled the lever for John Anderson, the erstwhile Republican who ran as an independent. I had never liked Carter, and I believed that my original judgment of him in 1976 (that he was arrogant, self-righteous) had been vindicated by his performance in office, which (like most of his critics) struck me as hapless and ineffectual. So while I can claim to be pure of heart (and hand), I also know down deep that the real net effect of not supporting Carter in ’80 (I was strongly for Ted Kennedy) was to elect Reagan, though that was not my conscious intent or desire. That is why I include myself in the “we”. I understand that this is not the same as having actually fallen for (or personally profited from) the Reagan phony-baloney and its profligate progeny (paging Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, et. al.). But it was Nathaniel Hawthorne, was it not, who said, “Man must not disclaim his brotherhood even with the guiltiest.” I feel a modicum of guilt and must atone for my venial sin. As for the ones who committed the mortal sin, may they fry in Hell! (Oops–I am backsliding, alas. Sorry, Nathaniel.) But the sense of “condemnation” that strikes me as most relevant here isn’t the moral or legal judgment aspect, but rather the sense of being declared unfit for use, as in, “This building is condemned.” The “Shining City on the Hill” rhetoric, and the quasi-religious doctrine of American Exceptionalism that most Americans lap up like Mother’s Milk, is, I would say, but poisoned Kool-Aid (paging Pastor Jim Jones). I’ll pass—but there’s plenty who don’t (and won’t).

  3. I don’t know why the friends upstairs use “hate” and “condemn” together. Obviously a scapegoat serves no purpose. But I don’t see what’s wrong with condemning BP, not to hell perhaps, but condemning them to pay damages, condemning their practice of unsafe deepwater drilling, condemning such practice for all oil companies, and maybe condemning BP execs if they are found to have broken the law. I like Joe’s use of condemned as no longer fit for use. It implies that we can realize that we are changing, and old ideas might be best discarded.

  4. This sort of misses the point. The guys upstairs aren’t worried that you’ll hurt BP’s feelings. They are saying that the practice of condemning others is always counter-productive for the person doing the condemning.

    Our language confuses the difference between condemnation and discernment by using the same word, “judgment,” to refer now to one, now to the other. In life we have to discern; as social-groups, we have to enforce whatever rules there are. But the self-righteousness that sneaks in through the back door when judging is being done has many ill effects, and results in those doing the judging isolating themselves — as the guys said.

  5. I know this is a tough one, because it is current and appears both intractable and preventable. But I think the point is, there can be no alchemy, not any level, if there is self righteous condemnation. We feel angry. The best case scenario is that anger leads to awareness which leads to right action. This is a case where right action seems out of personal reach, as far as the oil spill, and the danger is that anger can generalize and fester. That’s where it does damage to the individual. How many political revolutions started out with a generalized condemnation of the government and ended with a revolution that did not improve circumstances, just created more disruption?

    1. That’s right. Let me add again that as far as I can tell, the guys upstairs are concerned about what such condemnation does to the person-group (the individual) more so than about what political effects it causes. I know that for some people this is a hard point of view.

  6. The closer you are to a pelican, the harder this point of view, I suppose….

    Look, I hear the guys loud and clear “don’t hate”. But it’s not like none of us have ever heard this before, if you’ve ever spent even an hour in Sunday School. Whether we’re not to hate because it’s “bad” or “bad for you”, it’s not a radically new idea. I just haven’t learned how to do that yet, and in this case, as Jim Price says, when “right action seems out of reach” that void of feeling helpless can easily get filled with strong emotion, if not “hate”, then anger, maybe a mix of “righteous” and “self-righteous” anger. If anger is an emotion to be avoided, I wish Frank’s guys could provide some techniques for some of us first-graders. I could never figure out how Jesus did it.

    Happily, John Michael Greer posted part two of his post “Magical Thinking” yesterday while I was struggling with this post, and it helped shed a bit of light for me. Thanks Frank for pointing to the Archdruid Report; other readers might want to go see if the post (and comments) there are useful.

  7. I don’t know what kind of spiritual and developmental problems pelicans may have. But if you’re sitting there with oil on your feathers, I’m not sure it’s going to improve matters for you to concentrate on hating those whose negligence and/or other flaws caused the problem.

    And as for people, it seems to me that a first step toward getting control of anger and hatred and self-righteousness is to realize that although they may be natural, they aren’t “justified.” It is a sad fact that our politicized society seems to think that fixing blame is better than seeing the multiple roots of any problem. And it is even worse when individuals choose the same response, knowing that they are on the side of the angels.

    Just because learning a new control over one’s emotions may be difficult doesn’t make it the wrong course, just as saying “that’s easy for you to say” doesn’t have anything to do with whether the advice is correct or not.

  8. I wonder if it would make sense to use the analogy of a young child who does something wrong, even though he or she knows it’s wrong. The parent gets angry and institutes corrective measures, but the anger that is felt is not self-righteous or condemnatory. It’s a normal emotional response that doesn’t “stick” to the child the way our anger at a corporation like BP seems to stick. We don’t use the anger to generate feelings of self-righteousness. I often wonder if, at least in my own experience, I don’t indulge in feelings of self-righteousness because I feel inadquate in some way and the self-righteousness allows me to prop myself up inside. Also, a feeling of self-righteousness seems to be assuring us that there is a reassuring clarity in a situation that in fact might not be so clear. (I am not specifically talking about the BP situation now.)

    (One problem I have, shared with Joe, but not necessarily with Frank, is that as a consumer of oil I feel like I contribute in a small way to the problem at hand. Now, of course I didn’t say, “Sure, BP, that sounds like a great idea, go drill 5000 feet down”. Even my guilt is reflective of me and not necessarily appropriately applied in this case. But in my case anyway, at least some measure of anger I feel towards BP will end up being directed at myself.)

    A couple lines really stood out for me above:

    “Eight hours of staring at a monitor showing oil spewing out of a hole would not improve your understanding of the situation, but it would harden your emotional reaction.”

    This makes perfect sense. Watching the monitor is not fact-gathering; it is emotion-generating. The quote shows a couple things: 1) The damage to self when focusing on the intractable horror of the situation at hand, and 2) The role of the media in generating that inescapable sense of horror (I know this point is a little removed from the discussion at hand, but it does play its part, because it serves as a constant, nagging reminder/admonition that we MUST find someone to blame – that’s always part of the story in our retributive society; there’s almost an emotion-fueled non-sequiter stating that we can somehow ‘solve’ the problem by blaming someone or something.)

    “That same eight hours spent investigating the technological, legal, political, economic, and human factors that went into the spill might leave you more aware of how much gray there was in the picture.”

    This quote seems to hint at the truth behind the “easy” anger. It is of course easy to feel anger at this situation, but allowing it to overwhelm us (easy enough to do with the media barrage) really does seem to obscure the larger picture that has yet to be made clear.

    For the record, I’m benumbed by the situation and the only hope (in material terms) is to apply some kind of accountability in an effort to fund restoration of people’s lives and the life of the Gulf.

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