Gongol.com Archives: November 2023

Brian Gongol

November 18, 2023

News Take a deep breath

Jacob Levy, who teaches political theory at McGill University, muses, "I would really like inspirational posters and self-help books and so on that instead of advising boldness and seizing the day and going getting it and so on, advised taking a breath, thinking about other people, lowering your voice a little, waiting your turn." ■ A jest, perhaps, but also not a bad idea. We are sometimes lulled into a fairy tale that we can simply expect people to behave better today than in the past through some sort of automated process, as though manners and grace were dominant traits found on a chromosome. In reality, we have to be honest with ourselves: Humans are at the top of the animal kingdom, but we're still animals nonetheless. ■ That means our instincts aren't to put on pants and write well-reasoned letters to the editor. Our instincts are to fight, to reflexively defend our turf, and to pursue those things that look they'll bring us glory (and thus the esteem of the other members of the pack). That's what nature puts into us. It takes a conscious program of nurture to try to tame those animal instincts and turn us into better beings. ■ So, as quaint as it seems, we really do need to amplify those civilized virtues -- patience, consideration, tolerance, accommodation, and many others. We shouldn't expect them to get transmitted by DNA (they won't) nor for them to be passed along without our help (they can't). ■ Inspirational posters and self-help books really might be a part of the mechanism of transmission, but even more important are the other vectors where they compete with the animal instincts: Cultural artifacts like music and movies, classroom lessons and religious lectures, and all the places in life where coaches, teachers, mentors, guides, and (most especially) parents have options about which behaviors are worth summoning, and for what purposes. ■ If we're not deliberate about which of the civilized virtues we cultivate, we shouldn't be surprised if and when some people revert to animal instincts that are better suited to strife and zero-sum games than cooperation and progress. ■ It's easy for the aspirational virtues to sound cloying, sentimental, or over-earnest, especially if they're framed as a return to some kind of mythical past. There is real work to be done in showing how they are suited to very modern behavior in the face of very modern problem -- which they are, even if many of the authors of culture are out of practice in making it seem that way.

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