Incivility isn’t the Problem, Contempt Is

Man yelling into a megaphone

Arthur Brooks writes in the New York Times that the problem in our societal discourse in America today is not incivility as so many have claimed, but contempt. We all know that people are more divided by politics than ever and politics has invaded everything. I’ve written about this problem often on this blog the last couple of years.

Brooks says that most people today suffer from “motive attribution asymmetry,” the assumption that you are motivated in your beliefs by love, while your ideological opposite is motivated by hate. Thus, if a person thinks illegal immigration should be controlled or stopped, someone of the opposite ideology thinks he hates immigrants. Or if a person wants to restrict the sale of guns, his ideological opposite thinks he hates gun owners. Brooks says this is worse than intolerance or incivility:

Motive attribution asymmetry leads to something far worse: contempt, which is a noxious brew of anger and disgust. And not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but also for other people. In the words of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, contempt is “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

The causes are clear. A 24/7 news cycle that must be fed, a proliferation of commentators and pundits, the echo chamber of social media, deceptive and manipulative memes, and so on all create an outrage-industrial complex, which makes us feel superior and allows us to assume the worst of those who disagree with us.
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Separating Art and Artist

Destruction of icons in Zurich 1524.

Over the past couple of years, society has been undergoing a new reckoning that has been dubbed the #MeToo movement. It’s part of a larger grappling with the problem of people who used to get away with abusing and using others for their own purposes and without personal cost.

This reckoning has taken down many famous personages and left us with some big questions, including what to do with the art and other work left behind by people who did bad things.

An illustrative example: The late Michael Jackson had long been dogged by accusations that his behavior with children was creepy and a new documentary has brought forth some men with credible allegations that he had abused him.

In response, the expurgation of the work of Michael Jackson has begun. Radio stations around the world have begun announcing they will no longer play his music–which is a substantial statement given how popular and influential his body of pop music has been.

The producers of the long-running “The Simpsons” have even removed from circulation a 1991 episode in which Jackson guest-starred. Given the longevity of the show and its penchant for celebrity guest stars, you have to wonder how many more episodes will be pulled.

This pattern is being repeated. Comedians, actors, authors, artists, musicians, directors, producers, journalists, chefs, and restaurateurs are all among those who have been accused and forced from public life and whose body of work has now been declared off-limits by those who decide such things for us.

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Bett for Ham

When the Broadway musical Hamilton started becoming all the rage about three years ago, Melanie was immediately hooked on it and started listening to the soundtrack constantly. I resisted at first (“I don’t like hip/hop or rap!”) but I couldn’t help hearing it and the discussing it with Melanie and then before I knew it, I didn’t just enjoy it, I was dissecting the lyrics and exclaiming the musical and playwriting genius of Lin Manuel Miranda.

Soon enough our dream was to be able to somehow go to New York and get the priceless, impossible tickets and see Hamilton with the original Broadway cast. Of course, it was never going to happen. But we consumed all things Hamilton: We watched the #Ham4Ham YouTube videos, read blog posts and articles about it, watched every news special about it, Melanie read the biography that inspired it and then bought the book that accompanies it. We even watched the bootleg YouTube videos of the play itself before they got taken down. In short, we were hooked.

Eventually, as we knew it would, the announcement came that the show was going national. Permanent performances would go to Chicago and San Francisco, too far for us. But the national touring company was going to come through Boston! I immediately got on the mailing list for the local Broadway show promoters. At some point last year, they announced that initial ticket sales would be done by lottery and so I signed up and waited… for months.

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I Am Not My Stuff

Netflix Amazing Interiors

Last night, I was tooling around Netflix for something to watch and happened upon a new show, Amazing Interiors. The promo had that HGTV feel and being curious about how people renovate their homes, I decided to watch. I made it through one and half episodes and turned it off.

The premise of the show is that people have these homes that look ordinary from the outside, but are “amazing” inside, with fantastical decorations or opulence or unusual accoutrements. But what I concluded is that it’s all about the stuff.

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Review: Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization

The thesis of [amazon_textlink asin=’1621640140′ text=’Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’bettnetlinks-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’aba32a9f-faf8-11e7-80e8-5d2bcd877dea’] is that the whole structure of Western civilization, every major institution, all of its intellectual, entrepreneurial, and cultural accomplishments can be traced to the work of innumerable priests over the past 2,000 years, both famous and faceless.

I have to admit that Fr. William Slattery provides a compelling case that the history of the West, in ways both surprising and unsurprising, owes nearly everything to the Church. But that’s my small quibble. In almost every example given, while the contributions of the ordained clergy of the Church was vital, the contribution of laypeople was just as vital.

Fr. Slattery does acknowledge this early on:

Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.

[…]

Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.

I don’t disagree with a bit of that, but I don’t think this book necessarily builds the case for it either. On the other hand, whatever the book’s subtitle or thesis, what it does do is provide a look at the remarkable contribution of the Church in the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, and Renaissance to building a better world that we continue to benefit from today.

What Heroism and Genius does best is to strip away the accumulated cruft of centuries of “black legends” concocted by the Protestant reformers as well as Hollywood inventions that collectively created this image of the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and Martin Luther’s 95 theses as an unrelieved slog through the muck and mire of superstition that left 95% of the populace as virtual slaves serving privileged and backward-thinking robed masters. In fact, as presented by Fr. Slattery, the Church—in her priests, bishops and laypeople—advanced the cause of humanity in great leaps.

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Join Your Local Historical Society

A few months ago, I saw a notice on Facebook about an open house day at our small New England town’s historical society, focusing on the history of the town’s fire department over the last hundred years or so. It would also include a chance for the kids to see our town’s fire equipment and meet firefighters, which I always encourage1, and so we stopped by.

It was a nice little event that only took about 20 minutes out of our Saturday. We met the firefighters and the Boy Scouts who organized it as well as the folks who run the town’s historical society. After chatting with them a bit, I ended up joining the society for a whopping $10 in annual dues.

Lots of small towns have historical societies, especially in the older parts of the country, and I encourage others to join like we did. We get a monthly newsletter that highlights events in the couple-hundred-year history of my adopted (and the kids’ actual) hometown and the knowledge that we are helping to preserve the past. It makes a difference to know that our town has a past as we look to the future.

I love knowing that the road called Johns Avenue is called that because there was a convenience store on the spot 100 years ago owned by a man named John.

Supporting the small institutions of your hometown is a nice lesson for the kids in civic duties and responsibility and community spirit. It’s also a reminder to me that being an American citizen isn’t just about what happens in Washington, DC, or even Boston, but is first and foremost what happens in the little town where I live among the people I call neighbors.

  1. We encourage the kids to get to know and recognize our local emergency services personnel so that they aren’t strangers to them. We also encourage them to pray for them in our bedtime prayers.

That All May Not Be Lost: Considering The Benedict Option

For a number of years now, I’ve been hearing about the Benedict Option—an idea, a movement, a prescription, a diagnosis, and now a book—put forward by the writer Rod Dreher to mark out how he believes traditional and conservative people should deal with what society has become.

I met Rod and his wife more than a decade ago after we’d corresponded a bit online. I was in Dallas with Melanie when we were still dating and Rod was living there with his family. He and his wife graciously invited us to their home and we had a great evening. He’d not yet published his earlier book Crunchy Cons, about the different kinds of political and social conservatives than we usually saw portrayed in the media, but I know he’d already begun exploring the ideas that would result in the Benedict Option.

Around the same time, Dreher had been struggling as a Catholic with the sex-abuse scandal in the Church and how to reconcile the attitudes and behavior of even those bishops we consider the “good” ones in dealing with the crisis with the divine nature of the Church. It’s a struggle that would eventually lead Rod out of the Catholic Church into Eastern Orthodoxy. In some ways, that struggle is also at the root of the Benedict Option.

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Why is Nudity at the Children’s Theatre Okay?

Sometimes you see a news story and you realize that the people involved have their heads so buried in the own worldview that they can’t see how asinine the situation is.

The Boston Children’s Theater–an organization dedicated to putting on plays for children–is doing a performance of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

That’s the first point at which someone should have questioned the artistic director’s judgment.

They included in the play a scene in which an adult man gets naked in front of the audience … of children. Is this not indecent exposure in front of children? This is the second moment someone should have stepped in. Of course, when some board members objected, it wasn’t because of the nudity per se, but because they weren’t consulted first. It’s really about turf, not appropriateness.

Now the artistic director is screaming censorship because he wasn’t allowed to parade a naked adult male in front of children, he’s been laid off (maybe temporarily, maybe not), a board member has resigned, and the cast and staff are on strike.

And those of us who are actual parents are aghast at the whole thing. What kind of parent would take a child to one of Boston Children’s Theatre performances now given their display of an appalling lack of judgement?

Meanwhile the director is defending his decision to include the nudity.

“We do have shows that are much more traditional children’s fare, and we also do shows that challenge the boundaries of children’s theater,’’ he said.

Why? Why do you need to challenge the boundaries? The boundaries are there for a reason, to protect children and their innocence. This part of the wider trend in society to further sexualize children at younger and younger ages. After all, they want to start sex education in kindergarten. I wouldn’t doubt someone is already doing it. By high school, we just assume that they’re having hookup sex and there’s no use expecting them to do otherwise.

Judge a society by how it protects its children. In our society, if they survive legalized abortion, they can expect have their innocence and childhood assaulted well into their extended adolescence in their 20s.

Groucho Was Right; The Club That Wanted Me As a Member

I received a LinkedIn connection request followed by an email from a young woman recently. She works for a “social university” as a city community manager, she said, and would I be interested in becoming a member? She told me that she’d looked at my background and based on it she thought I’d get a lot out of it and would be a good addition.

I’m not a credulous person. I know what a spammer and a scam look like, and this didn’t seem to fit that bill. And while I’m not easily flattered, I decided to look into it out of curiosity. The organization is called Ivy, and it describes itself as a sort of salon of the internet age. Located in 7 cities so far with tens of thousands of members, it’s an elite club that offers intellectual and cultural experiences, an opportunity to network with movers and shakers, and a chance at bonding and friendship through social experiences. Their list of associated “thought leaders” is a who’s who of business, academia, culture, and entertainment. It also feels like a real world response to social networking by those who grew up in the social media age, offering amazing experiences to people in person, and not mediated through devices.

But I don’t understand why anyone would think I’d be a good fit. Granted, the idea of an opportunity to engage in regular intellectual activities with top scientists and academics and artists and business leaders and authors sounds fascinating. Meeting the actor who played Harry Potter sounds like fun. Going to art galleries and plays and operas and concerts, too. But one look at the way they describe themselves on their website and what they show in their photos and videos leads me to an inescapable conclusion: This isn’t for me or people like me. Read More and Comment

Why Fund the Arts?

President Trump has proposed de-funding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other budget items conservatives have been dying to get rid off for decades. Liberals are understandably upset and the debate has centered around the controversial and offensive artworks that the NEA has sponsored in the past, as well as the weird art they still promote sometimes.

Jazz Shaw at Hot Air says this is precisely the wrong argument to have. He argues that the NEA should be done away not because they supported weird or offensive art, but because the federal government shouldn’t be supporting art at all.

The arts, like everything else in society, can rise and fall on their own merit. The reason that we don’t have tremendous federal funding supporting the creation of blockbuster Hollywood movies is that such offerings tend to be popular and the business of making them is profitable. Creating paintings, sculpture, poetry or theatrical performances may not be as profitable, but if it has value to sufficient people, patrons may be found to support the work. If no such patronage is forthcoming then perhaps the “art” is better left to the lonely artist toiling away in their studio.

Unfortunately, Shaw is wrong because this is precisely why we should have public support of the arts, especially those less commercially viable forms. Look, I think NEA funding can be reduced or even eliminated, because I think having a federal bureaucracy as gatekeeper for the arts has been disastrous (cf. Mapplethrope and Serrano as Shaw references them).

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