Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.
– Winston Churchill
Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.
– Winston Churchill
There is an Italian video against domestic violence that has drawn criticism recently from some bloggers, particularly Dr. Rebecca Hains, an expert on children’s media culture. The video begins with a series of short interviews with a handful of boys, aged 7 – 12, who are then introduced to “Martina,” a tall, blonde young girl, slightly older than the boys themselves. They are asked what they like about her and, after answering, are invited to “caress her,” “make faces at her,” and, finally, they are told firmly to “slap her.” Each of the boys refuses to follow the last command for a variety of reasons; “she’s pretty,” “she’s a girl,” “I’m against violence,” “I’m a man.” All valid reasons. The video ends on a heartwarming note that seems to appeal to men everywhere to rise to the level of manhood demonstrated by these young boys in refusing to hit a girl.
Dr. Hains is critical of the video, however, because she believes it is subtly objectifying to women. While the boys are given a long introduction that acquaints the viewer with their personalities, Martina does not speak in the video. Dr. Hain’s argues that this has a dehumanizing effect. Moreover, she objects to the boys being allowed to “caress her” seemingly without her consent, since this allegedly leads the boys (and the viewers) to see the woman as a “prize” or an object to be possessed by them. This attitude, according to Dr. Hains, is only an extension of the attitude which leads men to abuse women and treat them as objects in the first place. I’m not so certain Dr. Hains is correct in her interpretation of the effects of Martina’s silence and the boys’ caresses. The intent of the video is to create an emotional effect which provokes a desire in its viewers to protect the dignity of women and to react with revulsion against domestic violence, and I think the way in which the video tries to achieve these reactions is quite effective. More effective, in fact, than one might expect from a culture which tends to diminish the fundamental differences between men and women, since the emotional effect of the video hinges on just that – the difference between the sexes.
The effect of Martina’s silence is not dehumanizing; I thought it had quite the opposite effect. It sets her apart and brings her femininity to light in a way that would be lost if she were placed on the same dialogical par with the boys. Her silence, coupled with the enigmatic background music and tinkling sound effects, has the artistic effect of emphasizing the difference between her and the boys, and her feminine mystery in contrast to the boys’ louder masculinity. In light of her silence the boys appear rougher and more crude, but in a sweet and playful way that shows the complimentarily of the different sexes.
In fact, their reaction to her entrance dramatizes the relationship between the sexes in a way that reminded me of John Paul II’s portrayal of the presentation of Eve to Adam in the Theology of the Body. When Adam first beholds Eve – a person like himself, but with essentially different and complimentary sexual qualities – he reacts with wonder and innocent desire. The boys in the video mimic the Edenic experience by reacting to Martina with a mixture of shyness and admiration. This reaction is emphasized when the man behind the camera asks them what they like about Martina, and the boys list various physical attributes they find attractive. There is nothing “objectifying” about this emphasis on her physical qualities; the initial experience of the differences between men and women is very physical, and those differences are, after all, first and foremost biologically-based. Their observations of her are not crude or overtly sexual; they notice her natural attributes such as her hair and her eyes as well as the care she has taken to put her outfit together. They admire her the same way one might admire a beautiful painting in a museum.
But Martina is more than a painting. She comes to life in a variety of ways. Although she does not speak, the actress is a young lady who is bright and energetic, and demonstrates vivid facial expressions which the camera emphasizes. Her personality shines through in her face even though she remains silent through the video. It’s clear that she is a very real person of flesh and blood, with a lively soul underneath. Her various reactions to the boys’ awkward attentions to her provokes laughter on both sides; it dramatizes the joy and confusion which characterizes the sexes’ first encounter with each other. This draws a heartwarming emotional response which is healthy and good.
When the boys are told to caress her, they are presented with the first of two alternatives in their treatment of Martina. Dr. Hains objects to the boys’ being allowed to caress Martina without her consent and argues that this sends a dangerous message. However, I think there may be a number of misinterpretations at stake here. The word “caress” has sexual connotations in the English language which may disturb the English-speaking viewer in the way that the Italian producers did not intend. Further, platonic physical affection is much more prevalent in Italian culture than in our own, more private and reserved American culture; it’s not uncommon for friends and relatives to kiss each other on the cheek and touch each other’s arms the way the boys touch Martina in the video. None of them touches her in an inappropriate place, nor do they touch her with sexual relish. They reach out to her awkwardly and uncertainly, and in some cases enthusiastically, as any young boy might when given the opportunity to interact with a beautiful stranger. Martina’s reactions to their caresses are mixed, further emphasizing her humanity and her personality; sometimes she laughs, sometimes she is motionless, sometimes she pulls away. When the boys approach her with too much roughness or enthusiasm, she reacts with playful disgust or gentle refusal. Because of her different responses to each of the boys’ advances, her freedom is preserved in each instance.
There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that these advances are done against Martina’s consent, either. As we have noted, Martina does not speak (an artistic decision with power all its own) and so she does not have the opportunity to give verbal consent. Instead, her consent is implied by her posture. She smiles down at the young boys and stands in an approachable manner, as if to invite them to treat her with the respectful affection which she is owed as a woman. The proper “caress” represents the positive alternative the boys are given as to how they are to approach members of the opposite sex: women are to be treated with care and tenderness.
When the man orders the boys to slap Martina, a second alternative is offered. After experiencing the first, more positive alternative, naturally the boys pause for a moment. They are silent at first. The music stops. Their faces look confused. Some begin to frown and shake their heads. Finally, they each refuse to follow the command with an affirmative “no!” They know they are being ordered to do something wrong by the man behind the camera, however authoritative he might be. Their refusal to comply with this command shows their brave refusal to conform to something they know is wrong, even when they are ordered to do so by the authority of the day.
The main question this video raises, of course, is this: what is it that makes men refuse violence toward women? Where does the dictum “never hit a girl” actually come from? Some moralists would like to believe it’s spontaneously present in nature, and indeed, the demand that women be treated in a certain way (with dignity, care, and tenderness) is present in their biological nature as the softer sex. But kids hit each other all the time before they know any better. The appropriate moral revulsion toward violence against women must be conditioned by good parenting, and reinforced by social standards which represent this violence as something repulsive. The reinforcement of those social standards is precisely what this video attempts to accomplish. It creates a heartwarming emotional experience of the drama of sexual differences, and presents two alternatives as to how women ought to be treated. The artistic presentation makes it clear which of these alternatives is the right one, and the presentation of Martina shows why this is a beautiful thing by surrounding her with effects that emphasize and praise her femininity.
All this being said, of course, the effects of the video are limited. Men who are already predisposed to be abusive are not likely to change their minds and habits upon seeing an emotional presentation. Moreover, abuse does not occur in the context of public social life, but in the home where there is more familiarity. In the heat of the moment, abusers are not likely to be concerned with social norms. That doesn’t mean social norms are for nought, however. What the video does accomplish is the reinforcement of these norms which help boys grow into men who know how to treat women well. The video in itself cannot cure the problem of domestic violence, but it can mitigate it the same way laws against such violence can mitigate it by inculcating healthier attitudes among the general public about the way in which women should be treated.
The positive affirmation of the feminine nature is the way domestic violence can truly be combatted. If women are placed on the same sexual plane as men, what ground is there to profess that it’s wrong for men to treat women violently? All senseless violence is wrong, of course, but if we are to understand why it is especially wrong for men to hit women, the fundamental difference between the two sexes must be understood and respected. This video does a good job dramatizing those differences in a playful, sweet and innocent way.
“Now Christmas day was the restoration of humor, and those who displayed it most were the shepherds and the wise men. They came to this little Babe and “saw through Him” – God Himself. His Flesh was the Sacrament of His Divinity. Christmas then is a romance and a joy only to those who have a sense of humor, whose vision is not opaque when they look at a Babe, but can see through Him all the problems of life answered in the vision of God Who appeared as a Man. They who pass through this life with that sense of humor, which is faith, will one day be rewarded by the one thing that will make heaven Heaven – His Smile.”
– Archbishop Fulton Sheen
This Sunday, December 21st, the Satanic Temple of Detroit, Michigan plans to erect a “holiday” display on the Capitol lawn in Lansing. The display features a black cross entwined with a red snake, topped with a goat’s head encircled by a pentagram. A scroll stretches across the statue bearing the inscription: “The greatest gift is knowledge.” According to the chapter’s leader, Jex Blackmore, the goal is to make citizens and legislators aware of “beliefs that aren’t mainstream,” presumably as a response to the nativity scene which the Capitol plans to install. “We really try to provide rational insight wherever the satanic voice may benefit,” Blackmore told FOX 2 Detroit.
Blackmore’s statement and the cryptic message on the statue’s scroll got me wondering just what kind of rational insight the satanic group had to offer. Unfortunately, their insights sound eerily similar to the kind of mainstream rhetoric we hear from the media all the time. Blackmore emphasized that legislators ought to “make sure that we’re all aware this is a diverse community we live in,” and that families who gather during the Christmas season ought to be engaging in discussions about these “divergent beliefs.” “It’s Christmas, it’s holidays, multiple people celebrate this time because we all have work off and it’s a reason to celebrate,” Blackmore told Fox. “Everybody chooses different ways to celebrate. But having one singular view, especially coming from the Capitol, promoting one singular view is extremely narrow-minded.” These claims don’t sound like witchcraft or sinister, demonic dogmas; they hit home with a lot of the language we’re accustomed to today about accepting all lifestyles and all beliefs equally. But just what kind of “knowledge” is this? What are the implications of these “rational insights” the local Satanic Temple has graced us with this Christmas season? What kind of “reason” is Satan concerned with?
One of the most disturbing parts about this demonstration is that it’s being justified under the auspices of “religious freedom” and toleration. While it’s true that the Satanic Temple technically falls under the category of an organized religion, no one with common sense can fail to miss the chilling irony of the way in which an “anti-religion” which is essentially a rebellion against other religions can claim the same rights as a religion to which it is fundamentally opposed. Next week, passersby will be greeted by two demonstrations with substantially different messages and purposes, placed side by side as if they were qualitatively equal. There is something profoundly unreasonable about this. But how are we to judge the situation on the basis of current political discourse? How do we think of “reason” nowadays?
In trying to figure this out, I couldn’t help but think of the first letter to Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. In the letter Uncle Screwtape denounces rational argument as a method of stealing a soul from the “Enemy” (God); reasoning won’t help Wormwood ensnare his “patient’s” soul. Instead, Screwtape advises Wormwood on the basis of some salutary developments in modern thinking which have undermined the possibility of reason: “Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’ or ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.”
As Blackmore witnessed to Fox News, the “jargon” of mainstream American life is based on this dancing about of divergent philosophies, about which it is impossible to make rational judgments because they are thought to exist equally on a spectrum, not a hierarchy of better and worse accordingly as they are good or bad for human life. This way of thinking is opposed to reason (what Screwtape calls “argument”), because it holds no standard on which true “rational insights” can be formed. The modern creed is based on “diversity” as an end in itself; all beliefs and lifestyles are created equal, and it is heresy to claim that any one belief is better or truer than another. But Lewis points to the fundamental problem this presents, which we plainly see in the competing demonstrations in front of the Michigan Capitol: what if some of these beliefs are incompatible or essentially opposed to one another? By what standard are we to judge which belief will win out in the face of this type of fundamental conflict? How are we to know which outcome is good for human life?
Previously it was understood that the answer could be found in reason, that is, the discerning of a standard of Good which allowed the mind to make judgments about better and worse, right and wrong. But we’ve lost faith in this view of reason these days. I allude to the attitude which we commonly call “relativism,” the notion that all ideas are equal and that no one of them is truer than another. But I don’t know if “relativism” is an accurate description of the phenomenon. There is a clear, moral teaching that is part of the liberal dogma of “diversity;” if you dare to question it, you are automatically and unthinkingly labeled as a “bigot,” “narrow-minded,” “on the wrong side of history,” or some other such sweeping turn of phrase that functions as a convenient excuse to avoid rationally confronting the heart of the issue. This is not reasonable; a culture where all ideas and views are perceived as equal has lost faith in reason as the ability to find the way of life which is best for human flourishing.
What are the practical effects of this loss in civil society? Someone’s rights are going to be trampled. In this case, the potency of the Capitol’s traditional Christmas display is undermined and insulted by the presence of a group whose professed aim is to destroy the Christian religion, which is the source of the holiday which eighty-three percent of the country celebrates during this time. To justify this situation on the basis of “religious freedom” is unreasonable.
The point of religious liberty is to protect rights, not to provide a license for every group that calls itself a religion to do as it pleases at the expense of others’ rights.
John Locke was one of the first proponents of religious freedom in his Letter on Toleration, which was written in the context of religious civil wars in England. He published the Letter in 1689 as an attempt to mitigate the violence caused by conflicting beliefs espoused by the state. But “toleration” for Locke did not amount to blind acceptance of all world views as equal; while he firmly asserted that it was not the role of government to be in the business of saving souls, he also wrote that some religions are not to be tolerated if they are bad for human life and civil society. He used violent examples such as child sacrifice to illustrate the point that religious practices qua religious practices cannot be defended purely and simply; some rituals are fundamentally unreasonable, that is, destructive of human life and productive of disorder. The role of the state was to judge, on the basis of reason, whether some religions were intolerable if they promoted the destruction of society or violated the rights of other citizens.
The implication is that there are limits under which the right of “religious freedom” must operate if it is not to descend into a license for any and all practices which remotely qualify as “religious,” regardless of how destructive they may be. So how are we to prevent the right of religious liberty from becoming an anarchic free-for-all? The answer is that the right must be qualified by reason, which asks the fundamental question of what is good for human life. The proclamation that all beliefs are equal, even the “divergent” ones, is not a “rational insight;” it is an invention of modern society which is justified by the liberal jargon which arose in the 1960s; it is a recent phenomenon, a phase, a trend, a fad that will pass in time. And the sooner the better, because any theory that throws out the possibility of discovering which ideas and practices produce disorder and unhappiness in political society is not a theory we should keep around.
In Lewis’ fiction, Screwtape recognizes the salutary effects of reason and does the best he can to keep his “patient” away from it: “The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s own ground…By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences.” The trouble about our times is that we are preoccupied with things that are immediate and passing; politics is structured around the temporary and shifting demands of different interest groups, and with the loss of faith in reason we can no longer agree on the meaning of universal principles like justice and the common good, by which we can judge which political initiatives are better than others. Screwtape rejoices in this, because evil rejoices in disorder and confusion.
While America was founded on the basis of religious toleration and the separation of church and state, the Founders did not neglect to include Christian elements and allusions in their founding documents and speeches. While the state did not officially espouse one religion over another, they recognized the salutary effects of promoting the Christian religion which was based on the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” that is, a religion which understood the value of reason and the natural law for human life and the political order. This is why it is appropriate for political offices to honor Christian holidays, and why that honoring is not a breach of the separation of church and state; it’s good for the country to come together under one celebration — based on “one singular view” which Blackmore denounces — because it’s unitive, and that unity is the source of the great joy of living in society. Common opinions about what is good and bad are what hold a country together, and Christmas is the time to celebrate one of the greatest traditions which has held human society together for over two thousand years.
God can give us in a single instant exactly what we need. Then the rest of the day can take its course, under the same effort and strain, perhaps, but in peace. And when night comes, and you look back over the day and see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it with Him. Then you will be able to rest in Him — really rest — and start the next day as a new life.
– Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
There’s a RadioLab podcast that profoundly disturbed me the first time I heard it. The topic was the nature of the human capacity to remember, and Jad and Robert’s findings startled and even slightly offended me; the results dared to question our ability to remember things with precision. The experts suggested that while we tend to think of “memory” as a compartmentalized cabinet in our minds where we stash impressions and recollections which we can access at will, it’s actually more creative than that. Every time you remember, you are actually pulling together scattered pieces of sensory impressions and reconstructing an image of what happened. The process is essentially creative. But it gets better – each time you repeat this operation on a given memory, one tiny detail or another is always altered. The “creative” process of remembering actually changes the substance of your memories in subtle ways. The more you remember, over time your perception of memories may depart profoundly from the details of what actually happened in reality. In a word, the memory embellishes. The more it remembers, the more it embellishes.
Like I said, I was disturbed. You mean we don’t actually get to keep our memories? It’s a startling prospect to a sentimentalist. We can never hold onto our memories in their pristine detail, and the more we try, the more we fail.
But then, like a good nerd, I started to think about what this process might suggest about the nature of the human mind, and the way we learn. The idealizing or embellishing tendency of The Memory is a perennial literary theme. It pops up in all kinds of places; one of the lessons of The Great Gatsby, for instance, is that we can never re-create the past exactly, and that the romantic impulse to do so can harm ourselves the the people around us (and you just might end up dead in a swimming pool). Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris recently dramatized the tendency to look to an idyllic past with an unrealizable longing. These depictions are critical of this impulse to embellish and idealize the past, and with good reason; blind veneration of the past devoid of concrete reasons can be useless, unhealthy, or dangerous.
I have a hunch, however, that this natural human tendency has a place in our learning process.
Take the ancient method of writing history, for example. The ancients did not think of “history” in the strict, scientific sense that we regard it today. Ancient historians such as Thucydides, Plutarch, and Herodotus would be admonished by today’s historians for their awful habit of exaggeration. These guys shamelessly embellished their stories. They forged events and people into mythic figures that became the stuff of legend and the substance of tales told for generations – and I’m willing to bet that the tales got taller each time they were told. I suppose this type of history can be described as panegyrical; an embellished portrait intended to sing the praises of a certain person or event which has been deemed worthy of veneration and imitation. In a word, these are examples that can be used for moral instruction. We hold them up as models for how we ought to behave, and to help us understand what human excellence is. If that’s the case, why not exaggerate the point a little?
I’m actually serious. Hyperbolic depictions of things from the past have the effect of impressing a truth into our minds which we might miss if they weren’t highly colorized and lit up with exaggeration. Why is this the case? Think about the way children learn. They are most easily impressed by stories that are fictitious in the extreme. That says something about the way we all think. We learn most effectively through beautiful and moving images that touch our emotions.
I want to suggest that exaggerated, panegyrical history is akin to the embellishing tendency of the human mind in the sense that they both create a longing for something more. They depart from the strict realism of concrete historical circumstances and take us beyond what is here and now; they point to some trans-historical reality that might be an indication of a truth that extends beyond scientific fact. They inspire us to strive for something better.
There is a recent tendency in historical studies to deconstruct the myths that drive us this way, especially in America. Through the means of one abstract theory or another, our heroes are systematically debunked and denounced as racists or imperialists or sexists. Pick your poison. Columbus exploited and ravaged the Indians; the Founders were proponents of slavery. In many cases (including the ones mentioned), these accusations are not even true; the truth is that scientific exactitude about things that happened a long time ago is extremely difficult (as any historian will tell you), and today’s history is dominated by a different myth – the narrative of political correctness. But that is not what I’m contesting here. I am contesting the value of the strict historical “realism” that seeks to find out exactly what happened in its precise detail, the ugly truth of the reality, lest we get caught up in our idealized imaginings and blind veneration of mythical heroes that show us how to live. If the goal is to learn from the past, I want to suggest that the mythologizing tendency is just as valuable as the strictly realistic accounts. Legendary tales of figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have something about them that touches the soul and moves it to strive for greatness, regardless of the real human flaws they doubtless possessed. We can choose to forget these flaws and remember the great things they did, because they teach us something about greatness, something that matters just as much as a perfect account of the historical reality.
Friedrich Nietzsche noticed this problem at the end of the 19th century when this type of history was becoming popular. In On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, he wrote that the modern “historical sense” destroys a certain “atmosphere” which is necessary to human flourishing. “Every living thing needs to be surrounded by an atmosphere, a mysterious circle of mist: if one robs it of this veil, if one condemns a religion, an art, a genius to orbit as a star without an atmosphere: then one should not wonder about its rapidly becoming withered, hard and barren.” Nietzsche’s concern was that the modern scientific emphasis on historical realities had the effect of robbing the human soul of meaning. He was afraid that our way of looking at the past had become so focused on empirical facts that our outlook on life was becoming blase. In order to live meaningfully, humans seem to need some embellishment on life, in one form or another. Embellished portraits provide models that are essential to our moral formation and our ability to live meaningfully.
Does this amount to blind veneration of the past and refusal to acknowledge realities? No. We don’t make up “meaning” out of nowhere, and I don’t believe that embellishing memories of events and heroes diminishes the value of what I am calling historical realism. Precise, scientific knowledge certainly has its place, and reason must be the vanguard of every legend and imaginary tale. I have a professor who likes to complain that we live in a “fact-free world” where people are so caught up in their abstract theories that they do not reason properly about real life. He’s right. I am not questioning the status of reason and scientific knowledge; for the concerns of practical life or statesmanship this type of thinking is indispensable. What I am offering here is simply an alternative way of learning; though they are related, the process of character formation is different than the process of acquiring scientific knowledge of historical circumstances. What I am offering is a reflection on the power and importance of myths, their centrality in the nature of the human soul and the way we learn, and the power of imaginative embellishments for moral and political education. Sometimes reflections of the truth can bring us closer to it than we think.
In light of these considerations, I’m less disturbed by the idea that our memories aren’t perfect. Even if the details aren’t preserved in their pristine condition, perhaps the larger impressions that remain have a value all their own.