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.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful appeal for open-mindedness and tolerance. Thank you for this, and for fighting the good fight-- from one Filipina to another. Will share this on FB and Twitter.

-- Pinay Observer

Anonymous said...

"But those of us who are hoping to live happy lives in a just society must find it in us to face our limitations."

very well said. found my way here via fb link. with people like you, i can have a little more faith that Filipino society is not lost...yet. :)

Sylvia Estrada Claudio said...

@pinay observer and fairycakepiece: thanks so much. :) we can do it. we can build a democratic. tolerant and socially just Philippines!

Anonymous said...

Hi Dra. Claudio, got this link from Leloy. As a practicing Catholic, it dismays me that other Catholics have not studied their faith enough. It honestly pains me that it is usually the dissenters and agnostics - no offense meant - who understand the scope and limits of Catholic teaching better than most Catholics do. I certainly hope that the young woman took something useful away from your discourse, even if she still chooses to disagree with us pro-RH'ers.

Carolina S. Ruiz Austria said...

I agree with your son's take on the matter. She, indeed, got 'owned.' hehe As somebody who has been 'flamed' by the anti-RH too, I am totally sympathetic. But perhaps it was better for her to stop tweeting if she did not have any good faith to tweet out of any way... (Chinese proverb: when you have nothing good to say, don't say anything) LOL

acced_2002 said...

We can't fathom the universe.
Know thyself.

Sylvia Estrada Claudio said...

@raggster and @karol: i think it takes a lot of open mindedness to get around to knowing the limits of your belief.
All philosophies (even the philosophy of science and empiricism) have limitations.
It would seem to me that this insight should be the mark of being a mature citizen in a democratic state.

Anonymous said...

I think the girl you were debating with ran out of arguments. But then, it can be very challenging to debate on twitter with its word count limitations per post. Your post was very insightful. Uncertainty is an uncomfortable emotion. A lot of times, I would prefer to go back to the moral absolutes of childhood ("eh sabi ni mommmy/or ni God/ or ni Jesus mali daw yun" etc etch) if only because they give me comfort and when I was too lazy to think, it was a nice cop out. But then we live in a complex and democratic society. You can't appeal to authority all the time. My pet peeve is when the anti-RH people would cite "scientific authorities" from outdated books who say that life begins at fertilization and then pass this off as FACT, as if everybody in the scientific and medical community today accepts that.

Sylvia Estrada Claudio said...

@manangbok I worry about the intersection of blind religiosity (as opposed to real spirituality which can exist regardless of whether you believe in a God or not)and scientific ignorance. If you start from a given truth, then all you have to do is find the merest scientific study for it, no matter how outdated or singular to argue your point. Real spirituality tempers harsh empiricism and truthful empricism must temper moral reasoning so that our best intentions are matched by enlightened action.

Anonymous said...

"I worry about the intersection of blind religiosity (as opposed to real spirituality which can exist regardless of whether you believe in a God or not)and scientific ignorance... Real spirituality tempers harsh empiricism and truthful empricism must temper moral reasoning so that our best intentions are matched by enlightened action."

I think it takes a disciplined heart and a generous mind to be able have a real spirituality that is mindful of organized religion; does not cower in front of it, but does not feel superior to others who appreciate its significance in their lives.

You once mentioned the words "fractured empiricism" (sa isang Filipino Freethinker's forum yata). I think a lot of people with organized religion also feel this, however, like good soldiers, they must toe the line and not be overly vocal about their ideas that are not in consonant with their church.
I read somewhere that Mother Teresa had doubts about the existence of God, but it was only publicized after hear death.

People who can be truthful to themselves and to the world are very fortunate. They are either very strong or they live in in a society that appreciates pluralism. (Ewan ko lang kung magiging ganitong society ang bayan kong sinilangan.)

But back to RH...Hurray! It has been passed into law, although may TRO pa yata ng Supreme Court?