Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Psychology of Moral Certainty

It has happened again. Someone begins a debate with me on my statements on the reproductive health bill, and then just drops me.

A young woman, a graduate of the university where I teach though never my student, tweets me. She is reacting to my proposition made during one of the televised debates that those who oppose the passage of the bill are seeking to impose one set of moral beliefs on the rest of the country.

The exchange below happens over a couple of days. I reproduce it below, edited slightly to make reading easier.

She: "Respect for diversity and opinion" of @seclaudio is standard relativist statement =no single truth

Me: Not relativism but the Second Vatican Council on ecumenism and religious freedom If I am wrong in assuming you are Catholic, I can send you literature from other religious traditions.

She: Nowhere in Vatican doc says "respect for diversity of opinion". Opinion is not truth.

Me: Many times. section 2 para 3, whole of sec 4 latter part sec 7, etc. Demand for exact wording is bad argument. Tweets can be harsh. Do not mean to be disrespectful or hurtful but do think your demand for exact wording unfair. I am only asking for fairness. Long encyclopedia section accusing me of relativism doesn't say those words either.

She: Ma'm I didn't mean to be harsh & I wasn't looking for exact http://wording.But you're misreading a Vatican doc. Your camp's been asking for respect for opinion. We respect your opinion,your freedom, no coercion http://there.But ours is to http://truth. And RH Bill does not promote the truth about man.
CBCP only promotes what for Catholic teaching is right in fighting against this bill. If you're Catholic I suggest you try to study their matter closely.

Me: you can't just say I misread without explaining, that you agree with my call for respect while accusing me of relativism. As to truths, the Vatican statement is that each one may have his or her own perception of truth and we need to talk our truths and not claim that only one of us has commitment to the truth. sorry dear colleague, but your last few arguments seem to me like argumentation that tends to "lay down the law" to me, rather than meet me in good faith. this lessens the room for dialogue when you argue like this.

I have waited 2 weeks since my last tweet. I guess I will no longer get a reply.

Being a person whose formative years happened before the internet, I asked my 15 year old what this might mean. Have I offended? Am I being an old fuddy-duddy? In the good old days when we wrote snail mail, we broke off correspondences with proper goodbyes---even if “proper” could go like this:

“Dear John: I can no longer write you love letters. I heard you have taken Don into your bed. I am not homophobic, but you never said you were bisexual. The diamond engagement ring will reach you by courier.”

My 15-year-old says something like, “ask her if she needs a a mechanic. Looks like she got stopped in her tracks.”

Another young one says to me, “she got owned.”

For these young ones, failure to answer implies defeat. But I have no desire to treat twitter exchanges as contests.

As a teacher, a nerd and a psychologist, I feel only frustration and concern. Yet another person who thinks that, “because my God (or my Marx) says so,” is an acceptable form of engagement in democratic and secular society.

I am treading carefully here. Not all Marxists or religious people resort to this argument. Not everyone who has a religious or political belief finds it necessary to cling to the idea that his or her belief is the right one, regardless. I am not also certain that the young woman who had an exchange with me is one of these. I wish she kept engaging me, perhaps I could have known for sure.

But I am certain that the psychology of the ideologue permeates the views of the religious right that has gone all-out against the RH bill. This is also why, I get hate mail and hate tweets after each televised debate. The comments can be quite mean, making me wonder what it is that I have said, no matter how scandalous, would make them feel so threatened that they would lash out with such anger.

I have been challenged often too about my agnosticism. Even the nicest ones seem to think that being uncertain is some kind of a defect. But there is to me, a spiritual gain to be had by accepting ambivalence, ambiguity and uncertainty. For one thing, that is how things are. The truth about what those who believe in a God call “creation” is that it is ever-changing, immense and un-graspable.

Perhaps there is a Truth (yes, with a capital T) out there. But it is not something, little-old-me can ascertain. I remain humble about the presence and laws of what a horoscope writer I follow calls, “the Divine wow”. God is not my FB friend. I ask Her often enough if She is out there and She does not answer. When I die I may dissolve and lose the consciousness that will say that the atheists are correct . If I am wrong and I awake---ooohlala---I will have more questions than a curious 5-year-old.

But for now, I have no need for grand answers in order to lead a harmless, happy and hopefully meaningful life. It is a comfort to me that I do not need ultimate guarantees. I am not a high maintenance child of the universe. I have a brain and enough energy to keep on figuring things out as the need arises. I plod along and get by not having yet committed things like abuse, theft or murder.

On really good days, the idea that no one can know for sure when human life begins really makes me ecstatic.

The psychology of moral certainty is the psychology of fear and/or laziness. Maybe when they were growing up, the parents who nurtured those who are morally-certain-Dr. Claudio-is-wrong-on-RH (and therefore we will never yield her a point, besides she is a lackey of the big pharmaceuticals and the imperialist population controllers) laid down the law about what to do, what is right and what is wrong. That can be comforting when one is little.

Simple and unquestionable rules can be comforting while parents can control the external environment against the views of those who disagree or the harm brought by those who are mean or criminal. Perhaps the very young ones need not be asked for the courage to face the immense unknowable.

But those of us who are hoping to live happy lives in a just society must find it in us to face our limitations. Parents must change the parameters of what they teach as a child matures morally and intellectually. Children must be taught not to be afraid of heterogeniety, diversity and uncertainty. They cannot be afraid of difference. Fundamental differences.

If we are afraid to be unsure, to accept that perhaps we and our family, religion, tribe, institutions, science, political party can be wrong, then we will be unable to accept when we are defeated on twitter or we will lash out in anger against people we only see on television.

And I am frightened indeed by the man who is so angry at me because of what I have said on television that he takes the time to tweet me venom. My heart goes out the woman who cannot find the grace to end a debate she started with some decorum.

Perhaps someday, we will raise all our children with enough moral courage so that they can face profound uncertainty with good cheer. At least we can rejoice that there are enough brave and moral people out there such that the scientific surveys show that the RH bill has wide support.