The gospels as murder mysteries

The value of a metaphor is that it opens up a less known idea by comparing it to a better known idea. [1] I have never been to Greece, but I have been charmed for years by stories that Greek moving vans are called metaphora and that in English, metaphors do the same work. They deliver the contents of one site to another.

I have been talking with a group of friends recently about the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke and in those conversations, the metaphor of the murder mystery has seemed useful. Here, I would like to wonder why that is so.  This is someone’s notion of what St. Luke looked like.

Åâàíãåëèñò ËóêàThe first point to make is that watching murder mysteries, particularly good murder mysteries, is something we all do. Reading the gospels to appreciate the inner connections is not something we all do. We are tuned, as experienced watchers of murder mysteries, to notice what the camera shows us. In that, we are helped by cinematic conventions. [2] And the more confident we are about those conventions, the more they help us see clearly what the director wants us to see.

The gospels use a similar sort of system of clues, but no one in my group is experienced in following those clues. There are, in the gospels, lots of veiled quotations or allusions that a good clue follower would pick up, but they are not within the meaning of the text. We read the gospels only for their meaning, not for their art, so we miss a great deal.

Here are a few examples. Matthew places the collection of Jesus’ sayings we call “the sermon on the mount” on a mountain. [3] He is calling to the minds of his hearers the picture of Moses going up onto the mountain to receive the Law from God. So, like Moses, Jesus goes up onto a mountain. Jesus is the new Moses. And the New Moses says, “You have heard that it was said (and gives a passage from the Law), but I say to you (that more than that is required).”

If we were as good as seeing the significance of the mountain in making this comparisonagatha 1 as we are in seeing that the cigarette pack is or is not still on the bar, we would be much more acute readers of the gospels.  Here we have St. Agatha Christie.

A second example—a more difficult one—has to do with where a verbal allusion comes from. That might seem difficult, but it isn’t so hard to do if the words are contemporary. In trying to make this point, I devised a completely phony “quotation” that went like this.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, therefore, workers of the world, unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains.

You could argue that this is a meaningful sentiment. [4] I wish you the best of luck with that. My own experience with using this bogus “quotation” is that people go immediately to the sources of the two elements and proclaim it, on the basis of the incompatibility of the sources, to be ridiculous. “You are joining,” they ask incredulously, “the Declaration of Independence” and the “Communist Manifesto? Really? That’s ridiculous.”

And it is.

But “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” joins a “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah with a royal psalm and we are not at all distracted by the sources of the quotations. This combination of sources has as its goal the idea that the royalty of Jesus, revealed at his baptism, and the inevitable suffering portrayed by Isaiah, are part of the same picture and are, in fact, part of the life of the same person. The royalty and the sacrificial death are at least as far apart as the Declaration and the Manifesto, but we are more alert to some discrepancies more than to others.

It is worth pointing out that the hearers of the gospels were also more alert to one of these discrepancies than to the other (especially since the second discrepancy had not yet happened) so they are, in that sense, in the same boat we are.  And St. Robert Parker, author of many American mysteries.

agatha 3One more quick example. This one fits the murder mystery metaphor more closely. Luke tells us that Elizabeth’s husband went home, after his vision in the temple, and impregnated her. Fine. This union produced John the Baptist. But then Luke pauses to say that Elizabeth then went into seclusion for five months (Luke 1:24b). If we had our murder mystery sensibilities available to us, we would wonder why he bothered to tell us that. And if we were seriously wondering, we would be more ready to notice the payoff, just a few verses later, when Gabriel uses the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy as the guarantee of his message to Mary.

We don’t catch that, as a rule, because we didn’t notice that Luke told us about Elizabeth. And had we noticed, we may not have wondered why he did that. And had we wondered, we might not have allowed it to make us more sensitive to Luke’s use of this small item in the next scene. But the fact is, if Elizabeth’s pregnancy were common knowledge; if Mary could have overheard it in the marketplace, then this revelation by Gabriel would have had no meaning at all. It could certainly not have functioned as a reason why Mary should believe all the other preposterous things Gabriel had just told her.

And it is connections like this that make me think that “the murder mystery” is a good metaphor for a discerning reading of the art of the gospel accounts. There are clues. We need to get better at knowing what they are and where they lead us. Practice, practice, practice.

[1] This from a Scott McLernee column in Inside Higher Ed. “I remember him telling me,” writes [Charles E.] Reagan, (author of The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language) that, after he [Paul Ricoeur] had completed the book, he and his family went to Greece for a brief holiday. He said that everywhere he went, he saw trucks with ‘Metaphora’ painted on them. There was no escape from the philosophical theme which had dominated his life for the preceding three years. Then he realized that ‘metaphora’ literally meant ‘moving truck.’”
[2] One such convention is that if the director wants you to know that a character saw something, the camera shows him or her looking at it. She looks at the bar where he prominently left a pack of cigarets and it is not there. We are to understand that she sees that it is not there; that is now something we may be sure she knows.
[3] As a mental discipline, I have taken to referring to this collection of sayings as “the sermon on the mountain” just so it will remind me that the expression has some significance—it points to something.
[4] The imputed status “equal” is in tension with the status “worker” and the proposed action—unite!—is a step in the direction of dealing with that tension. As a set of ideas, leaving the sources (in this case, “the art”) alone, they are not incomprehensible.

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Paying attention to Christmas

In her New York Times editorial, Tish Warren cites an “old saying” I never heard before: “Hunger is the best condiment.”  I’d like to think about it a little, using the same context in which she uses it, which is how to live in the season of Advent.

It is impossible for me to consider the word condiment anymore, without considering the much less familiar word, “aliment.”  My brother Karl introduced me to that word and when I asked him what it meant, he gave me a very clear answer: an aliment is what you put a condiment on.  I think it is really true that being hungry makes the food you eat taste better in more or less the same way that ketchup makes the fries taste better.  But hunger is a terrifying aliment.  Imagine eating hunger.

tackylights12Ms. Warren makes a point about the relationship between Advent and Christmas that is often made for the relationship between Lent and Easter.  Prepare for the light and the celebration by facing the darkness and the sorrow.  There is no question that that increases the contrast and increasing the contrast increases the power of the experience.

On the other hand, the more you think about what Christmas means—not the commercial extravaganza, the religious extravaganza—the clearer the meaning of Advent becomes.  Let me give you two examples.

Psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote a very influential article in the Psychological Review in 1957.  It changed forever what I understand a “category” to be.  That might not sound all that religious, and, of course, it need not be, but “messiah” is a category and so is “redemption” and so, crucially, is “expectation.”

Since I have used this article in classes for decades now, I have devised a quick and dirty way to get to the point of it.  This is the quick and dirty way: if you are out looking for fenceposts, any object that might be a fencepost is referred to your conscious awareness for further examination.

I am going to put the full paragraph is a footnote [1] but look carefully at this one sentence: 

It is in this general sense that the ready perceiver who can proceed with fairly minimal inputs is also in a position to use his cognitive readiness not only for perceiving what is before him but in foreseeing what is likely to be before him.

The purpose of Advent is to give us a chance to be “ready perceivers.”  That will require attention, of course, and in our present circumstances, it might require dogged attention.  As Ms. Warren says:

Even among observant Christians, the holiday season has often been flattened into a sentimental call to warm religious feelings…

And allow me to point out the -tension part of “attention.”  That is not accidental.  Nor is the “pay” in the expression “pay attention” accidental.  “Paying” attention costs us and “tension” is a big part of what it costs.  We are looking here at what we get from a willingness to do that work and to be open to receive the gift we cannot receive unless we are willing.

But in the simplest sense, Christmas is just like a fencepost.  If you are ready to see anything that might be a fencepost, you can be ready to see anything that might be Christmas.  Advent is all about things that might be Christmas. [2]

What happens here?  A lot of the things you “see” are not things you really see.  You just expect them to be there and your eye and your brain check them off if they are as you anticipated without your actually seeing them.  This “checking for normal” is not part of your conscious awareness. [3]  But looking again to see “what that was, really” truly is part of your conscious awareness.  You catch yourself in the act of looking back and checking to see what that really was.

Understanding Christmas—which is what Advent is for—is the time for catching ourselves in the act of beginning to pay attention.  Frankly, you can’t pay attention to everything all the time.  You can’t even pay attention to the important things all the time.  But at Advent, you can become the “ready perceiver” Bruner talks about and you can not only “see what is before you” but understand “what is likely to be before you.”

Bonding with the darkness is not going to get that done.  But investing your mind in Christmas can.

I believe in allowing my mind to marinate in the story of the birth of Jesus and for me,15-daily-dependence-shepherds-1 that requires investing my imagination in one or the other (but not both) of the two stories we have: Matthew’s and Luke’s.  This year, it is Luke.  And this is why I separate them.  Here we have the shepherds following the Star of Bethlehem.  Really.

That means that this year I get the gospel of the humble shepherds; the free revelation of God to people no one would believe anyway.  And the angelic announcement is given in language borrowed imperial Rome.

Thus Luke, writing from a later period in the Roman age, associates the birth of Jesus with a famous Roman emperor and suggests that the real bearer of peace and salvation to the whole world is the one whose birth occurred in the town of David and was made known by angels of heaven. [4]

Those are two small parts of the story that defines my advent this year.  So the shepherds and the angels and the tongue in cheek twitting of the emperor are this year’s fenceposts and anything that looks like it might be a fencepost, catches my attention and makes me look twice.  What is called to my mind by the shepherds, who, being told of a stupendous event in a nearby town, said, “Let’s go look.”?  And who, having seen, rejoiced?  And of the snarky little aside to the Caesar, “Savior of the world?  That’s not you.  That’s him,” pointing the the infant son of two poor travelers.

By Christmas day, I will be hungry.  That is, after all, what Advent is for.

[1]  It follows from what has just been said that the most appropriate pattern of readiness at any given moment would be that one which would lead on the average to the most “veridical” guess about the nature of the world around one at the moment—best guess here being construed, of course, as a response in the absence of the necessary stimulus input. And it follows from this that the most ready perceiver would then have the best chances of estimating situations most adequately and planning accordingly. It is in this general sense that the ready perceiver who can proceed with fairly minimal inputs is also in a position to use his cognitive readiness not only for perceiving what is before him but in foreseeing what is likely to be before him. We shall return to this point shortly.

[2]  And, of course, there are false identifications too.  My readiness to see “a Christ story” in even the most un-religious narratives was a scandal and a cause of hilarity among my children.  One would nudge the other, when watching…oh…The Frog Prince, let’s say, and say, “Dad’s going to say it’s a Christ story.”  I did and it is.

[3]  Joan Emerson’s well-known article “Nothing Unusual is Happening” makes that point abundantly and hilariously clear.

[4]  That paragraph from Joseph Fitzmyer’s commentary in the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary.

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Metabolizing the minutes

Neaera H.

It used to be that I stayed up till all hours and still felt time-starved, none of the day seemed to be metabolized into living.  Now the minutes make me strong.

Here is my text for the day.  I am not entirely sure why it had such an impact on me, but I am sure I would like to think about it a little and what better setting than a blog?

Russell Hoban wrote Turtle Diary in 1975 and divided it into chapters given alternately to the two main characters, William G and Neaera H. [1]  William G. and Neaera H. “tell the same story” in the sense that their alternating chapters cover the same period of time, but their accounts are distinctly different because they are such different people.

Both characters are at a loss in their lives; they are virtually inert.  And, by means of a scheme they hatch and carry out together, they are moved decisively forward.  The scheme is to steal two turtles from the London Zoo and set them free in the Atlantic to go where they need to go.  Neaera also falls in love with the turtle keeper and it is after that, that she says this about the minutes making her strong.

Naera H.I think that will be enough context for a reflection on this text.  Neaera H. is a very successful writer of children’s books about cuddly little animals.  That kind of a vocation leaves her with a great deal of unstructured time, which isn’t that bad when she is writing well and successfully, but she seems to have run out and nothing makes the minutes hang on you like having to write (she has a contract) and being unable to.  Glenda Jackson as Neaera H.

That is why she has been “staying up all hours” and still felt “time-starved.”  We know, because of her description of how wonderful things are now, that none of that time got “metabolized” into living.  To use a food analogy, Neaera H. has been consuming lots of minutes, but nothing has been turning them into energy—nothing has been metabolizing them.

It sounds simple.  Whatever it is that makes up all those dead hours, is turned into energy for living by normal metabolic processes.  Of course, it isn’t that simple because “living” will require that she know who she is and what she needs and also that this “energy” (dead time metabolized) be invested in meeting those needs. [2]

Freeing the turtles meant taking a lot of risks she wasn’t use to taking.  That opened her up to some new things.  One of those things is that her whole professional life has been consumed by writing children’s books about very safe little creatures like Delia Swallow and, as she says dismissively, “that lot.”  She has been part of “that lot” herself, but stealing and releasing the turtles was not safe.

And George, the turtle keeper lives a lucidly clear effortless kind of life.  He “doesn’t mind living,” he says.  Neaera H. may never have seen such a life—ever—and to see it as part of her great and unlawful adventure with the turtles gives her a whole new perspective.

Is is possible, she wonders, to use all that time, for the purpose of living.  She decides that it is possible when she notices that she is actually doing it.  She looks with new eyes at her cluttered and meaningless apartment and throws a lot of her stuff away.  She writes the first fresh and authentic paragraph she has written in many years, looks at it, and calls it “a start.”

It is not quite true, as Neaera H. says, that “the minutes make me strong.”  It is what she does with the minutes that makes her strong.  It is her new focus and her new openness to life that breaks those minutes down and synthesizes them into something meaningful.  A much less interesting way to phase her point would be: the way I use my minutes makes me clearer and living with that clarity makes me stronger.

And put in that form, I know exactly what she means.

[1]  In John Irvin’s film of the same name ten years later, he cast Ben Kingsley as William G and Glenda Jackson as Naera H., so I do know what they look like.

[2]  William G. has the same problem, in a way, but all the outward manifestations of that problem are different than Neaera H.’s.  William G. lives in a boarding house will a bully and, in deciding to confront the bully, he mutters to himself, ”You can’t do it with turtles.”

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The Know Nothing Party, Part II

The Know Nothing Party Abraham Lincoln knew flourished briefly before the Civil War.  They called themselves “the American Party,” but since its inner workings were supposed to be secret, its members were supposed to say “I know nothing” [1]  That is how the party came to be called the Know Nothings.

The modern Republican party is coming very close.  This will be seen as Trump’s signature achievement.  There are four elements to it.

The first is the translation of “experts” into “elites.”  This is a substantial achievement because experts know things; can demonstrate that things are factually correct.  “Elites” by contrast, are “out of touch” because they are not part of “the common people.”  They look down on us and wish us ill, so it it perfectly appropriate that we look down on them and wish them ill.

fake news 1Is the climate of the earth changing as a result of human activity?:  When this question is raised at the local coffee shop or bar, the answer is given by people who don’t know the difference between climate and weather.  A few years ago, Sen. Imhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, took a snowball onto the floor of the Senate to refute the idea that the atmosphere has been persistently warming.

The rejection of the knowledge base of the elites has the very bracing effect of making one’s person’s opinion as good as another’s.  The opinions have the worth, in other words, that the person has, not the worth its would have if it were accurate.

“Fake news” is the next achievement.  Fake news has come a long way since candidate Trump introduced it, adding “they don’t have any sources.”  “They” refers to the owners, editors, and reporters of the major newspapers, which once provided a common source of information to citizens of all sorts.  “They” is dismissive in the same way that “elite” is dismissive.  It means “people on the other side;” people we don’t need to pay attention to.

The flaw in Trump’s notion of fake news is that it implies that if “they” really do have sources, then the news isn’t fake.  He has come up with a safety net for that (the next point) but he really hasn’t needed it because no report in any major paper can be cited to a loyal Republican as worth believing.  “The press” is a hostile force.  Therefore, what they say must be untrue, whether they have sources or not.

Third, the safety net I referred to is that criticisms are “politically motivated.”  This long antedates President Trump, I regret to say, but he has brought it to a new level because his need for it is greater than that of any president since Nixon.  Note that “politically motivated” doesn’t ask whether the assertion is true.  It doesn’t ask whether the sources are credible or whether it is supported by the views of the most knowledgeable people.  It asks only whether the motive is political.  

Rather than what? I wonder. If a member of my party is attacked, it is to be disregardedfake news 2 because the motive is political, but if he is defended, is the motive not political?  As a proposition—this can’t be true because the motive of the source is affected by his politics—it is ridiculous.  People who make their living in politics are going to have political motives.  That doesn’t mean what they are saying is false.  It just means it is political.

So the three elements of Know Nothingism I have looked at so far are: a) the substitution of “elite” for “expert;” the invention of “fake news;” and the wider use of the disclaimer, “politically motivated.”

We have one more.  In the present context, I think this is more important than any of the others, although the others may be more serious in the long run.  The new one is “stand-up guy.”

A stand-up guy is a loyalist.  His/her loyalty is to President Trump. [2]  It is not to the United States.  It is not to the authority of civilians over military control.  It is not to the independence of the courts.  It is not to law and order.  It is not to the Constitution.  President Trump is the “clan chief.” [3]  We do not consider as bad the things he has done or as wrong the things he has said.  And especially the things he has tweeted.

Those four interlocking elements are a large part of our present dilemma.  I think the chances of electing a Democrat next November are pretty good and, depending partly on who that Democrat is, controlling the House and Senate are not out of reach.  Undoing the damage of Know-nothingism is a much tougher challenge.

[1]Probably impossible for a member of the early TV era not to hear Sergeant Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes.“I know nothing” was his signature line.

[2]  Or, in the underworld context, to the head of the mob.  Al Capone valued “stand-up guys” for the same reason President Trump does.

[3]  Earlier this year, on a visit to Scotland, I learned about the history of Clan Donald—that is a real Scottish clan; I’m not making this up—and how crucial unswerving loyalty to the clan chief was to the integrity and success of the clan.

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When meaning gets thin

I have been working for some years now on Ursula LeGuin’s book, The Farthest Shore.Ged 1 There is a lot to like about the book. It is the third of her EarthSea Trilogy. [1] I liked it first because it was a really good story and because I had already invested deeply in Ged, the Archmage of Roke Island. But even at first, I knew there was more. The central myth of this story resonates powerfully with some other, some more central, myth.

Eventually, I came to see that I had fit it into a “sin-and-salvation” framework and that is why it was so powerful for me. You don’t really need to know the plot, except as a framework for today’s remarks, but briefly, it is this.

A proud mage (Cob) who had been humiliated, vowed revenge and in wreaking it, opened “a hole” in the world and through this hole, out into nothingness, flowed light and beauty and meaning. Alerted first by what seem unrelated symptoms of disease—individual, social, political—Ged and his helper, Arren, locate the source of the evil and Ged, by spending all of his powers of magic, closes the hole and restores the world. He empties himself [2] in completing that task and is not longer the Archmage. In fact, he is no longer a mage at all. As a very wise man on Roke Island says of him as a summary, “He is done with doing. He goes home.”

Very early in this story—on page 6 of the volume I have—young Arren is meeting Ged for the first time and is telling him the story that his father, the prince of Enlad has sent him to tell. This is the way it goes.

“Then in the New Year, in the Festival of Lambs that we hold in Enlad, when the shepherds’ wives come into the city bringing the firstlings of the flocks, my father named the wizard Root to say the spells of increase over the lambs. But Root came back to our hall distressed and laid his staff down and said, ‘My lord, I cannot say the spells.’ My father questioned him, but he could say only, ‘I have forgotten the words and the patterning.’ So my father went to the marketplace and said the spells himself, and the festival was completed. But I saw him come home to the palace that evening, and he looked grim and weary, and he said to me, ‘I said the words, but I do not know if they had meaning.’

The two failures—by the wizard, then by the prince—are distant effects of the crack in the world, through which light and meaning escape. The wizard fails completely. He has forgotten the words and the patterning. This is for a spell he learned early and which he has used annually for most of his life. The prince is more powerful and has greater integrity and he can say the spells, but look what he says. Even as he said them, he says, he doubted that they meant anything.

Why might that be?

Of the reasons why it might be hard to do, I have two kinds of reasons in mind. The first is the inner rationalizer of which Jonathan Haidt has written so persuasively in The Righteous Mind. For the purposes of making this point, it might be just as well to imagine that there is some part of you—let’s call it IT—that wants things or fears things and it is your job to make some sense of that. Haidt talks about the rider and the elephant. The elephant goes where he wants to go and the rider’s job (that’s you) is to give a plausible account of that course of action. Problems like that make up the first reason. I have written about those in another context. I just didn’t want to skip over them here without admitting that they exist..

The second reason is another kind of thing entirely and that is the kind I want to deal with here. In this second case, agency is not lost. You intend and choose and do just as you always have. But the sense that what you choose matters slowly decays. At that point, you realize that the choices you made have always required the sense that they took place in a matrix of meaning; the actions you took were the right actions, given the larger context of meaning.

I had my first small lesson in this important truth when I broke up with my first girlfriend. It was near the end of the term. We both knew the relationship didn’t have a future. We decided—oddly, it seems to me now—that it would make less of a mess if we just pretended to continue the relationship for the last week or so of the term.

That was when I learned how much of the excitement of the relationship had been borrowed from a projected common future. We, as a relationship, were “going somewhere.” We were “becoming something,” we thought.  That gave the things we did together weight and significance. I learned that because as we continued to go through the motions of “still being together,” it was a chore. We did what we chose to do, but it was a long slog without the meaning that had given it life.

That was when I learned that “the larger context of meaning,” which I referred to above, didn’t deny agency at all. It just made it pointless.. That is when you realize that there is a feedback function. The actions not only produce effects, but they produce the emotions that belong with those effects. It is not that the emotional resonance is the reason you are making the choices, nor even that the emotional resonance is necessary to your continuing to make those choices. But without that feedback, your sense that what you are doing matters gets…faint.

This is clear in the case of the prince of Enlad. Unlike the mage, he could remember the words of the spells and the gestures of the patterning. But always before, doing those things connected him to the intact order of the world, of EarthSea, which is founded on magic. This time, he sensed no connection at all. That doesn’t mean, as I noted above, that the connection was not there, but the automatic reassurance that it was there—the taken for granted assurance— was missing this time.

In EarthSea, these early failures are the result of the seductions of the world-destroying mage, the one who opened the hole in the world and who calls people to come to him, to deny death, to “live forever.” Arren falls for that enticement, not because he has doubts, but because he is young and vulnerable. Ged feels the pull too, but he is old and wise and strong and recognizes it for what it is. It is false; he knows who is offering this “live forever” message. [3] And it is wrong. Living forever is wrong and so wanting to live forever is wrong, however natural it might be as a desire.

“How is it,” Ged asks of Arren (page 208), “that he does not call to me? It is because I will not listen. I will not hear that voice again.” And then, in summary: “…I who am old, who have done what I must do, who stand in the daylight facing my own death…I know that there is only one power that is real and worth the having. And that is the power, not to take, but to accept.”

And that is how Ged is able to operate by duty so he is not as dependent on the emotional feedback that resonance that tells us even as we are doing them, that our acts have meaning.. For Ged, that is the whole answer. For many of the rest of us, including the prince of Enlad, we need to know that the “good things” we are doing, have meaning. We need the confirmatory feedback without which only the heroes among us can manage at all. [4]

[1] This “trilogy” now counts four full length books, several novellas, and some short stories in the tri- of trilogy.
[2] People with my kind of background will hear the kenosis passage in Philippians 2 lying behind that word.
[3] I mentioned above “a proud mage who had been humiliated and who had vowed revenge.” Ged is the one who humiliated him and the one on whom the mage seeks revenge.
[4] Mother Theresa of Calcutta is a good example. She received “a calling” to serve the poor of Calcutta from a source that was wholly persuasive and from which she never heard again. She prayed and pled for “confirmatory feedback” and never got any. So she continued to do what she knew was her duty. A hero.

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What is “carn-ism?”

The only people I know who are writing and talking about eating meat are people who are treating it as a moral matter or who are allergic to it.  I make an exception, of course, of the American Beef Council, which for years ran an ad, the closing line of which was: “Beef.  It’s what’s for dinner.”

Here is a passage from Melanie Joy, founder and president of an organization called Beyond Carnism.

For example, carnism teaches us that eating certain animals is normal, natural, and necessary, a belief that makes little ethical or logical sense, but which sufficiently disconnects us from our natural empathy toward “edible” animals.

The two words that are of interest to me in this paragraph are “carnism” and “beyond.”  

I was not surprised to see that none of the dictionaries readily available to me has the “word” carnism. [1]  Carnism is a proposed word, but it is a very familiar kind of word.  It refers to an unprecedentedly broad category and it tacks the pejorative -ism on the end of it.

carnism 1And if case you missed any of that, Ms. Joy adds: “The power of the $4.6 trillion global carnistic industry is unprecedented.”  So now, knowing nothing at all about this “industry,” we know already that it is huge (a whole new category); that it is powerful (unprecedented power) and that if works by disconnecting us from our “natural empathy.”  Nothing there sounds good to me, so I would say that this new word is a notable success.

The second word is “beyond.”  Ms. Joy’s group is called “Beyond Carnism.”  “Beyond” is a word that imagines a linear space and that there is some object in this space that is nearer us.  There has to be some such entity for the new proposal would not be “beyond” anything.  It would just be far away.

So Ms. Joy has the wit not to be “against” carnism, but rather to have transcended it as we move naturally “beyond” childish forms of expression or undiscriminating a taste for sweet wines.

So “Beyond Carnism”—apart entirely from what it might mean—gives us something bad (an -ism) and powerful, which we have already transcended.

[1] I was very much surprised, when I consulted the etymology of a more familiar term, like “carnivore,” to learn that the nominative form of all the carno- series is caro-.  With no n-.  We don’t get the n- until the genitive carnis.

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Are we worth saving?

“Let me tell you something, my friend, Red says to Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” And that may be true. Or it may be the only thing that gives the human species a reason to prevent our own extinction.

It seems almost paradoxical.

The most powerful incentive to prevent our extinction of our species is the hope that we extinct 2might be worth saving. That is the take home lesson of some thought experiments reported this week on VOX by Kelsey Piper.

Here is where she comes out.

If people don’t believe there’s a meaningful and good future on the other side of the challenges ahead of us, then it looks like they have a hard time rating our extinction as a uniquely bad thing.

We are, to use Piper’s phrasing, “shockingly blasė” about the end of our world.

Despite many people rating extinction “somewhat likely” in the next 15 years, few people rate the causes of extinction as among their top policy priorities for the next president or Congress. People say extinction is kinda bad and under some circumstances they even say it’s likely, but they don’t take it that seriously.

It seems clear to me that the work to be done to keep the globe from turning into an inhospitable environment for humans is going be really hard work. It is going to require that we change a lot about the way we in the developed world life. It is going to cost a lot of money, It might very well require more authoritarian governments, the kind we accept as a matter of course in wartime. “Shockingly blasė” is not going to get that done.

Here is what would help. It would help if people could concretely envision a good human future. If we had a good clear picture—a picture with details in it—about a good 2100 A.D., we might be willing to do the work and accept the sacrifices that will be necessary.

In the research Piper reports, much of it by University of Oxford scholars
Stefan Schubert, Lucius Caviola, and Nadira Faber, people who participate in thought experiments don’t regard the end of the human species with anything like alarm. Here is the way the research was set up.

Here’s one of the questions they asked of thousands of people in the US and UK:

Compare three futures for humanity:
(1) There is no catastrophe.
(2) There is a catastrophe that immediately kills 80% of the world’s population
(3) There is a catastrophe that immediately kills 100% of the world’s population.
Rank them from best to worst.

It turned out that #3 wasn’t much different from #2. When the asked the same set of question about zebras, they got a surprising and different result. People felt there was a big difference between #2 and #3. A world with no more zebras ever again seemed like a uniquely awful thing.

To get a response about humans that was as favorable as the one about zebras, the researchers had to change the question to a catastrophe that renders most humans sterile compared to a catastrophe that rendered all humans sterile. That version got people to rank the future of humankind as high as they ranked the future of zebra-hood.

But to get people to agree in substantial numbers that it would a an awful thing if humans ceased to exist, they had to promise something really big. Here is the way Piper describes it.

Finally, to get the overwhelming majority of respondents to agree that extinction was uniquely bad, you had to be even more direct and tell them to imagine that human civilization will go on to a long, happy, prosperous future — unless a catastrophe wipes us out.Suddenly, almost everyone agreed that human extinction was uniquely bad.

It seems to me that if it takes the prospect of “a long, happy, prosperous future” to get us to value the continued existence of our species, then we ought to get at it. Soon.

If environmentalists had approached me 25 years ago and asked whether I thoughtextinct 1 people could be scared into responsible environmental action or enticed into it, I would have chosen “scared.” If we are contemplating big changes, I would rather rely on sticks than carrots. But this research suggests that it takes some carrots just to keep the question before us at all.

Distant catastrophes can be so easily denied. All you have to do is not bring the consequences forward in a meaningful way. But these studies show that it is the difference between the good and bad scenarios that enables us even to want to choose the good scenario. Something needs to say to us, “Look what you would be giving up if you gave up on the human species!”

Currently, as Piper points out, not many people are saying that. And when I try one or another phrasings in my head, they don’t sound persuasive. Furthermore, they don’t sound like me. It would be very hard for me to say those things to the people I hang around with.

But I think somebody needs to start trying.

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