What the Heck is Going On in our Society?

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Candlelight Vigil in Isla Vista Copyright © 2014 Getty Images. All rights reserved.

Candlelight Vigil in Isla Vista Copyright © 2014 Getty Images. All rights reserved.

With this weekend’s new massacre in Isla Vista (they had one in 2001 too), we must ask ourselves… What is Going On? Almost weekly here in North America we hear of shootings, stabbings, etc. connected to our schools, at all levels, Grammar School to University. And there are more around the world.

Violence, of course, is endemic in our world as it always has been. Wars, terrorism, genocide, hate crimes, murder, as well as rampant white collar crime (which may actually hurt more people than all the others) rage on.

An Aside on White Collar Crime

As an aside on White Collar Crime, Attorney General Holder, then Deputy AG, enunciated the policy in 1999 that prosecutors could “go easy” on some white collar crime to preserve Corporations too big to fail. This of course was not original with him. It has clearly been the operating policy for some time in Washington.

This is one of the reasons why Corporate Personhood is a bad idea and must be eliminated. Individuals who break the law within corporations LLE_Corporate-Personhood-as-meat-grinderoften escape prosecution because the Corporation as a whole pays the fine and shields them behind its “personhood.” What should happen is that the Corporation should be fined appropriately, and the people responsible for the crime should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Every time. If there is a reason for leniency, that is the job of the judge and jury to decide.

And of course, as we know, if you are poor or middle-class and break drug laws, etc., you will get the book thrown at you. If you are wealthy or notable, you might fare better. There are exceptions (Martha Stewart, Paris Hilton). However, “Prison isn’t right for some people. Do you know what it’s like in there?” the refrain usually goes. I am, of course, all for reasonable and alternative sentences where appropriate. Again, that’s for the Judge and Jury to decide.

School Violence

Back to our subject at hand. A climate of people getting away with White Collar Crime, does generate a general moral poison which infects all, including young people. “Getting away with it,” has become a favorite pastime.

Poster for The Bad Seed

Poster for The Bad Seed

First, we must rule out sociopathy. When parents see the signs of incipient sociopathic behavior in their children, action must be taken at once to treat this, and limit the potential for the child to act out on this disorder. So too, we must be very aware of other mental illnesses and not be afraid to treat them effectively in our children. They won’t go away on their own.

But what is at the roots of this tragic rise in school-related violence in seemingly nomad kids?

It is a cancerous culture we have allowed to form, and the cancer has infected many many people. It is the culture of “Might makes Right.” There are many subsets of this, “Greed is Good,” “Winning at all Costs,” “Winning through Intimidation,” for example. But the basic principle is: if you are strong enough, do anything you want. President-for-Life Putin certainly acts on this principle.

When I say “Might,” I am not exclusively referring to physical strength, although that is one component. It is any kind of power:

  • Physical
  • Intellectual
  • Emotional
  • Social
  • Economic/Entrepreneurial
  • Social
  • Political
  • Religious
  • etc.

It is quite natural that those who have these strengths will rise above the competition, and that is just fine. I am too much of a friend of C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters) to endorse a false egalitarianism that brings down the best to mediocracy. I have no problem with competition. “Without contraries there is no progression,” says William Blake, and it is the Law of the Triangle.

Noblesse Oblige

The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defines Noblesse Oblige as, “Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.” Christians would say “The Kingdom of God is at Hand…act like it!”

But what do “The Best” (οἱ ἄριστοι—hoi aristoi) in each area above do today in the modern world we have built, once they have achieved well? Mel Brooks’s quip as King Louis XVI in History of the World Part I is the key “It’s good to be the King.” Step on everyone, use your Might to dominate. Bask in your superiority.

Our media are full of this principle. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the Reality Series, Survivor. In to win in this competition, everyone else must be eliminated. Many Video games have a similar theme. Be the last person standing. This is called Zero-Sum or Win-Lose thinking.

St. Macrina from St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

St. Macrina from St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

What if we turned this concept on its head. It would still make good drama, actually even better. What if in order to win, the whole group had to survive. Not one could be lost. The fate of the weakest was of vital interest to the strongest in the group? This is Non-Zero-Sum or Win-Win thinking.

This is not new. The Late Antique Christian teachers Cappadocians, Sts. Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian, along with Gregory of Nyssa, and Macrina (the teacher of all of them) explained that, for example, that (what we would call today) the skill of entrepreneurship is a Divine gift. If a person is good at creating quality goods and services at a reasonable price, employing many at fair wages, that is just fine. He or she can make money at this too, and live decently.

What the entrepreneur must realize and act on is that he/she is obligated to keep the goods high quality and fairly priced, to keep his/her employees fairly paid and cared for, and he/she must generously support the poor. The entrepreneur was given this talent to serve the whole community. So too the metalsmith, the athlete, the artist, the politician.

Enlightened Self-Interest

We must therefore have enlightened self-interest, a concept I was first introduced to by Yale President Kingman Brewster many decades ago. It is in my best interests for everyone else to succeed too, to be healthy, educated, well housed and cared for, and to be good citizens. I am better when my community is better. I know we all give lip service to this concept, but it is not practiced in our society today. Instead we have created a “Dog eat Dog” culture.

My parents (and my father was no liberal—a Dixiecrat) both often said that, while they paid to send me to Catholic Schools, they had no problems at all paying property taxes to support the public school system. They knew it was in their best interest to have an educated citizenry.

Calvinism and Social Darwinism

What we have instead is deeply ingrained in the foundations of the United States. Many of the Northeastern States were populated by Calvinists (Puritans). In Calvinism, God creates some Saved and some Damned. There is no way out. He (it is clearly He in Calvinism) hates the damned and loves the Saved. The way you can tell which is which is by worldly success. Wealth and Power are a sign of being Saved, while Poverty and Weakness are signs of being Damned.

Current right-wingers (you know who you are, Koch Brothers, Fox News, et al.) are firmly Calvinist and Social Darwinist in their thinking (even while they reject Evolution!!). It is the survival of the fittest. As Scrooge says:

[The poor are dying and] “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Geniuses like Lincoln, however, know that “the better angels of our nature” can rise above the horrors of Calvinism and the Lex Talionis (The Law of the Talion—an eye for an eye) and Homo homini lupus (People are like wolves toward other people). (The latter is first seen in Plautus’s Asinaria, 195 BCE, “lupus est homo homini”). We, like some of the other higher animals (apes, dogs, cats, horses, cetaceans) can be altruistic and sacrifice ourselves for others, sometimes not even of our own species. Even the lower creatures, such as many group-mind insects (ants, bees), understand self-sacrifice in a way, too.

The Ideal of the Round Table

Arth_tapestry2What is the concrete and practical way we can reverse this cancer on our society, and restore sanity to our schools (as well as other venues)?

Tolkien knew that it is in our Myths and Stories that we can find the most important “applicability” to our lives. One of the great Mythic tales of our culture is that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. T.H. White, in his magnificent re-mythologizing of this tale in The Once and Future King has the key. (The title comes from Thomas Mallory’s 1485 Le Morte d’Arthur, which relates that many said that Arthur’s tomb had the inscription Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus – “Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future King.”)

Merlin explains to Arthur that while all around us, including the Knights, it appears that “Might Makes Right” (if you are strong enough, do anything you want), the ideal should be “Might for Right” (using Might to serve the right way). Arthur founds the Round Table on this ideal, and leads his Knights in implementing this policy.

In Greek literature, the adjective πρᾶος (práos) is translated Meek, but I was taught that this is only the tip of the iceberg. More deeply it means, strong, but placing one’s strength at the service of another, and therefore, domesticated. Dogs and horses, while strong, are práos, and the two main people having this epithet in Greek are Hercules, and Jesus. Hercules put his might at the service of his father Zeus, and Jesus humbly placed himself at the service of His Father.

Implementing Might for Right

What would this mean in practical terms, at first, in our child-rearing and schools?

From the earliest ages, the child must be thoroughly inculcated, by deed more effectively than word, with the ideal that whatever strength a person has must be used not only for her/his own benefit, but for the benefit of those weaker. After all, this is exactly what the parents are doing for their child.

The familiar parental corrections “You’ll do it because I’m the parent and your’re the child,” and “As long as you’re living under my roof you will obey my rules,” need to go away for good. They can be replaced by explaining why the action is good for the child, whether or not they agree. I’m not suggesting giving in to bad behavior, but explaining it differently, not in terms of raw power. Punishment is sometimes necessary, but never in anger or revenge. Always for correction.

In school, from the beginning, all teachers, coaches, at al. must make sure that the kids know that whatever strength they have (see the list at the beginning for some ideas of different kinds of strengths), they must use it, not only to succeed, but the help those who have less of that strength than they do.

This becomes increasingly important as the students mature, and their real strengths become more and more evident. That perennial bastion of physical strength and discipline, the football team, can take a leading role in this. Coaches should make it second nature for their athletes that off the field, their role is to protect the weaker students from bullies, encourage those with lesser abilities to do the best they can. All other athletic teams must do the same. The same with the intellectually gifted. And those who are beautiful, socially adept and wealthy must understand that their job is to help the less attractive, less socially skilled, less affluent.

Like the Knights of the Round Table, all the students of a given school must come to realize that it is better for all of them if all the students can succeed. Of course some may not, but it should not be from lack of trying. While it is natural that human beings, and especially kids, will gather in common-interest groups, they must not be allowed to become cliques. The Glee Club, the Dungeons and Dragons Club, the Socialites and the Sports teams must be taught that they are all important to the school’s success, and each participant is equal in human worth.

When we magnify this attitude, we understand that each American is better when all Americans are better, regardless of race, creed, color, language, family, gender, orientation, etc. And finally, we are all better in the world when all succeed. And Humans are better when our companions on this planet fare well. We are all in this together.

I should note here that I am not opposing fair,  equal-playing-field competition. I was a debater in High School, and served as a debate coach at Brophy Prep in Phoenix and Loyola High in Los Angeles. Many of my close friends have been competitive athletes. These are the right arenas for competition, just as Knights jousted.

Can you find me in some of the black and white photos in this next youtube video? The President, Fr. Greg Goethals is a dear old friend, and Fr. John Auther (in another black and white) is also a dear friend and classmate in the Novitiate! In the second black and white of me, is also Mr. Robert Ng, whom I took to the National Tournament in San Antonio his Senior year!

Is this feasible to implement Might for Right? Is it practical? Of course it is. All we have to do is start doing it. There is no expense attached to this, no committees needed. just a change of heart (μετάνοια—metanoia).

Here is my prescription to those who are practicing Social Calvinism, Social Darwinism, and Might Makes Right. It comes from a famous sketch from MAD TV:

Just Stop it!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

2 thoughts on “What the Heck is Going On in our Society?

  1. Pingback: Practical Steps to Get Us Out of the Mess We are in | Language For You!

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