To wear an undeserved dignity

 

Lately, I’ve been worried about dignity -not my own, you understand, although I’m sure that could use a little work. I’m more concerned that what I assumed was an inherent quality possessed -if not always demonstrated- by us all, may not be as innate as I thought. An essay in the online publication Aeon, by Remy Debes, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis entitled Dignity is Delicate, helped me to understand some of its issues: https://aeon.co/essays/human-dignity-is-an-ideal-with-remarkably-shallow-roots?

The word itself is derived from the Latin dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, but as with most words, it can be used in different ways, each with slightly different meanings. ‘Dignity has three broad meanings. There is an historically old sense of poise or gravitas that we still associate with refined manners, and expect of those with high social rank… Much more common is the family of meanings associated with self-esteem and integrity, which is what we tend to mean when we talk of a person’s own ‘sense of dignity’… Third, there is the more abstract but no less widespread meaning of human dignity as an inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally.’

This latter aspect, which Debes calls the ‘moralized connotation’ ‘is the kind of worth everyone has, and has equally, just because we are persons.’ As Immanuel Kant wrote, in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785: ‘ whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.’ He also argued that we have a duty to treat other humans ‘always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’ -with respect, in other words. Unfortunately, ‘the Groundwork wasn’t professionally translated until 1836. And even that translation wasn’t easily available until a revised edition appeared in 1869.’

So, in terms of its moral and ethical aspects, the concept of dignity is a recent one. ‘[U]ntil at least 1850, the English term ‘dignity’ had no currency as meaning anything like the ‘unearned worth or status of humans’, and very little such currency well into the 1900s. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) used the terminology of human dignity to justify itself, this turned out to be a conceptual watershed.’

What am I missing here? As Debes illustrates in his essay, ‘the idea of human dignity is beset by hypocrisy. After all, our Western ethos evolved from, and with, the most violent oppression. For 200 years, we’ve breathed in the heady aspirations of liberty and justice for all, but somehow breathed out genocide, slavery, eugenics, colonisation, segregation, mass incarceration, racism, sexism, classism and, in short, blood, rape, misery and murder.’ So what is going on? Debes thinks ‘The primary way we have dealt with this shock and the hypocrisy it marks has been to tell ourselves a story – a story of progress… the story’s common hook is the way it moves the ‘real’ hypocrisy into the past: ‘Our forebears made a terrible mistake trumpeting ideas such as equality and human dignity, while simultaneously practising slavery, keeping the vote from women, and so on. But today we recognise this hypocrisy, and, though it might not be extinct, we are worlds away from the errors of the past.’

Of course, a still different way of explaining our abysmal lack of dignity is to suggest, not that we are getting better, but that we are getting worse -that there was a time when it was not so, and we need try going back to that ‘better time’.

Uhmm, they can’t both be correct. Perhaps, like me, you have noticed the presence of gerunds (verbs functioning as nouns with –ing endings), or implied gerunds, in the description: from the Latin gerundum –‘that which is to be carried on’. In other words, that which is not yet completed, or is in the process of happening, and hopefully will be so in the indefinite future.  As Debes writes, ‘facing up to the hypocrisy in our Western ethos requires resisting the temptation to scapegoat both the past and the present. We must not divorce ourselves from the fact that the present is possible only because of our past, the one we helped to create. Likewise, the existential question isn’t, are we really who we say we are? The question is, have we ever been?’

But why is everything so viscid? Humans have always been seen as valuable -the concept evolving through time. ‘The chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone, for example, praises man as the most ‘wondrous’ thing on Earth, a prodigy cutting through the natural world the way a sailor cuts through the ‘perilous’, ‘surging seas’ that threaten to engulf him.’ The word ‘dignity’ was not used, but it seems to me he was on the right track, although perhaps not in the sense that mankind’s value was incommensurable and couldn’t be exchanged for other kinds of worth as Kant had concluded.

Or how about Aristotle: ‘Dignity does not consist in possessing honours, but in deserving them’

Even Shakespeare’s Hector says to Troilus about whether Helen of Troy is worth going to war for: Value dwells not in a particular will; it holds his estimate and dignity as well wherein ‘tis precious of itself as in the prizer. In other words, value -dignity- isn’t subjective, it’s intrinsic.

So what has kept us from believing in that ‘inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally’? Admittedly we are children of our era, and very few of us can escape from the Weltanschauung of our time, let alone the political and social ethos in which we find ourselves embedded. There is much that conspires to homogenize and temper our views, I suspect.

Maybe it was as simple as a fear of the unknown, and fear of disruption, that kept the lid on the pot -better the devil we know than the devil we don’t. Moral dignity –ethical dignity- did not accord with the status quo: keeping slaves, or a class system that offered wealth and status to the powerful; women were trapped in a never-ending cycle of pregnancies and children, and so were themselves essentially biologically enslaved… A clock will not work unless all of the parts are in their proper places.

So many levels: civilization -well, at least culture– has always been a matryoshka doll –‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, as Winston Churchill so famously said about Russia. But maybe, concealed inside the innermost layer, the sanctum sanctorum of the inner doll, a flower lives, not a minotaur.

We can only hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Fake Views

Don’t you think we try too hard sometimes? And yet, in our zeal to project minorities, or those less favoured in our community in a more favourable light, I suppose we could be forgiven for cherry-picking examples of their accomplishments, or glossing over issues in which they do not excel, so long as there is no attempt to deceive. No serious effort to hyperbolize. All of us are multitudes, and usually only context decides what face we show. And that can be a problem when we judge the past by current standards. The danger is, as Shakespeare’s Antony explained about men like Caesar, ‘the good is oft interred with their bones.’

We all do it, although often unconsciously. We pick situations from the past like apples from a tree, and assume that old flavours should accord with current tastes. They seldom match, of course, so the past risks being disappointing unless we paint it differently and demonstrate its relevance and connection to the present.

Usually this involves investigation, verification and interpretation -it is seldom possible to understand a novel by picking a page at random and drawing conclusions about its contents. Especially if the story is one that hasn’t even been written. An article in Aeon, an online publication, delves into the distribution of fake miniature paintings that purport to represent aspects of Islamic science that may be misleading: https://aeon.co/essays/why-fake-miniatures-depicting-islamic-science-are-everywhere

The essay was written by Nir Shafir, a historian of the early modern Ottoman Empire, at the University of California San Diego. And as he says, ‘The irony is that these fake miniatures and objects are the product of a well-intentioned desire: a desire to integrate Muslims into a global political community through the universal narrative of science. That wish seems all the more pressing in the face of a rising tide of Islamophobia.’ But he wonders just what science the counterfeiters hoped to find. ‘These fakes reveal more than just a preference for fiction over truth. Instead, they point to a larger problem about the expectations that scholars and the public alike saddle upon the Islamic past and its scientific legacy.’

But, Shafir does raise an important question of whether the ends justify the means. ‘Using a reproduction or fake to draw attention to the rich and oft-overlooked intellectual legacy of the Middle East and South Asia might be a small price to pay for widening the circle of cross-cultural curiosity. If the material remains of the science do not exist, or don’t fit the narrative we wish to construct, then maybe it’s acceptable to imaginatively reconstruct them… However, there is a dark side to this progressive impulse. It is an offshoot of a creeping, and paternalistic, tendency to reject the real pieces of Islamic heritage for its reimagined counterparts. Something is lost when we reduce the Islamic history of science to a few recognisably modern objects, and go so far as to summon up images from thin air. We lose sight of important traditions of learning that were not visually depicted, whether artisanal or scholastic. We also leave out those domains later deemed irrational or unmodern, such as alchemy and astrology.’

‘Perhaps there’s a worry that the actual remnants of Islamic science simply can’t arouse the necessary wonder; perhaps they can’t properly reveal that Muslims, too, created works of recognisable genius. Using actual artefacts to achieve this end might demand more of viewers, and require a different and more involved mode of explanation. But failing to embrace this challenge means we lose an opportunity to expand the scope of what counted as genius or reflected wonder in the Islamic past.’

It’s an interesting point that he makes. I wonder how many other things are slipping beneath our radars -information we never had occasion to investigate. We still use pictures to disguise our own histories, of course -to freshen them up, and portray otherwise mundane realities in rosy lights. It’s not the same as adding colours to improve an already vaunted past, I suppose, but we often try to dandy up what we’ve boasted about. And the pictures that we take usually seek to portray things as we promised they’d be. Confirm what we want people to think about our lives. A vacation that we hope others would envy, we picture in glowing scenes, that disguise those moments of disappointment in the sites we visited or the food we ate.

My grandfather used to describe his early years in glowing terms, and every photograph depicted triumphs or events that made me envious. But for some reason, my father saw them differently. Life was hard for him, and there were few luxuries when he was growing up. Clearly, history is contextual, and there are as many pasts, as there are participants in it.

But because there are discrepancies in its telling, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate what we’ve tried to illustrate in selected photos. True, it’s unlikely we’ve Photoshopped the pictures, or staged them whole cloth like the Islamic miniatures, but we’re still trying to sell an image of the past that embodies the story we want believed. A story that casts us in a favourable light despite the way our circumstances may appear today.

And yet, the camouflage itself can be a façade. It hides some things merely because there is a belief they need to be disguised -veneered. But it is sometimes the perspective itself that is deceptive -or, perhaps more accurately, selective. None of us see the world through the same eyes; ‘vanquished’ and ‘victorious’ can both describe the same event, and yet colour it with different adjectives.

I have to wonder whether, in the long run, it really matters. Once it is history, it is up for grabs anyway because there is no one, lasting view of anything in that dark and smoky room. As Shakespeare’s King Henry says, ‘Presume not that I am the thing I was’.

The Centre Cannot Hold

Turning and turning in the widening gyre the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…  Remember that poem by Yeats? I thought he was exaggerating. Using poetic licence to make a point. But sometimes things can feel like that. Sometimes the world turns on its head and the expected order is reversed.

I dread the tidal bore of malls, the rushing mass of strangers pushing and shoving, strutting and fretting their times upon their internal stages; I hate the food ‘courts’ in malls even more, though. I’m not sure if it’s the smell of cheap food, or the Brownian movement of those who treat the ceremony of meals with disdain -but, like some parts of the city, they are places in extremis. Waypoints for some, perhaps -abrasions for others…

And yet, when all the usual shopping center seats for tired old men in the busy causeway are occupied, the courts are a form of sanctuary, if not salvation, I suppose. At any rate, the other day, exhausted by an already hard swim against an increasingly turbulent current of shoppers as noon approached, I found myself beached on the shores of a particularly chaotic food court.

I tried not to examine it too closely -I was only seeking temporary refuge, after all- but it is difficult not to be drawn into the drama constantly evolving all around it. Like the old woman with the grocery bag precariously balanced on the seat of the walker she had wrapped in front of her like a shield. She pushed it in little steps, presumably intent on threading her way through the roiling masses to one of the food stalls, but with little progress through the flotsam that surrounded her. People all around her waded past, seemingly blind or just indifferent to her distress, and I could see the frustration on her face as she made it beyond the boundaries of my seat.

Dressed in purple pleated slacks, and a white frilly blouse, she had draped a long black coat over a portion of the walker near her groceries. I imagine she was hot, because I could see little beads of sweat glistening on her forehead but her short silvered hair was still neatly combed and barely disturbed, and she continued pushing her way through the crowd with arms of steel.

I was about to offer her my seat, when an unexpected space materialized in front of her and she jogged into it like being sucked into a vacuum. Suddenly, someone else with the same idea knocked the groceries off the walker and the contents rolled onto the floor in all directions. A few feet noticed and hands picked up an apple here, or an onion there, but by and large, things disappeared like mice in a forest. The person who’d caused it, a middle-aged woman with in jeans, and a soiled grey sweat-shirt, was clearly embarrassed at blundering into a frail old lady in a walker and dropped to her knees to retrieve what she could, apologizing profusely.

The table right beside mine cleared, and the two of them sat down at it as the older lady restocked her bag and the younger scanned the floor for remnants.

Still concerned that she might have injured the elderly woman, she blushed and seemed uncertain how to make amends. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I…” she stammered.

“Leslie,” the older lady interrupted. “It’s Leslie, and thank you for your help. Some of these walkers have design flaws, don’t you think?”

“Mine’s Denise,” the other woman responded, obviously relieved. Then she looked at the walker and laughed. “I’ve never really seen one of these up close,” she added. “Quite the invention, eh?”

Leslie glanced at her new friend and smiled. “The physios put you in one of these if you break your hip and they figure you’re too old for crutches. They think everybody over eighty has balance problems… Anyway, I only use it when I come to the mall.”

Denise looked at her with new respect. “You broke your hip?”

Leslie shrugged. “Stuff happens, eh?”

“Look, you stay right here and I’ll get you something at the counter.” She rummaged around in her pocket with a worried look on her face. “What do you want?”

Leslie smiled, guessing her friend was probably between pay cheques. “Oh thank you,” she said, in obvious appreciation. “I was just going to have a cup of tea,” she said and pulled a $20 bill out of the little purse hanging from her shoulder. “And you get yourself something, too, Denise.”

I watched Denise thread herself expertly through the tumultuous crowd like an otter weaving through storm-tossed seaweed. I thought Leslie was being a bit too trusting, but then again, I was interested to see what Denise might buy for herself -if she returned.

She did return, though, and she made it back to the table in record time, balancing a cup of tea with its little tale tell string hanging from the lip, a soft drink and two huge slices of pizza on a tray. Impressive really.

Leslie reacted to her arrival as if there’d never been any question of return. As if she’d merely sent a friend on a mission.

“Thanks, Denise,” she said as the tray arrived.

“I… I didn’t know whether you liked pizza…” She looked down at the two slices, and handed Leslie the change. “I got two different kinds, so you could choose,” she said hopefully.

The smile on Leslie’s face grew. “Thank you dear. That was sweet of you, but I had a big breakfast this morning before I left. You go ahead and eat them both if you’d like.”

Denise was obviously hungry, but I could tell she was trying to pretend she wasn’t. She gulped down the soft drink, though -as if she couldn’t really help herself.

Leslie sipped her tea, pretending not to notice her friend’s discomfort. “Please eat. Don’t mind me. I’m just enjoying my little rest.”

A little hesitantly Denise chose the lumpy slice, but once it neared her mouth, she couldn’t restrain herself, and it quickly disappeared. She was about to repeat the performance when she suddenly gasped and her face began to turn blue. Her eyes looked as if they might even leave their sockets as she fought to take a breath.

Leslie was on her feet in a moment, and dragged Denise upright from behind. She reached around her waist, compressed her abdomen just below the ribs and squeezed. Denise coughed once and took a deep, stertorous breath.

By now, people had gathered around them, not certain what to think, but it was a classic, perfectly executed Heimlich maneuver. I could see the onlookers glance at each other in admiration.

When Denise had recovered enough to breathe normally, and the people had dispersed, she stared at what she had thought was a frail old woman with a surprised look on her face. “What did…?”

“Once a nurse, always a nurse, Denise” she interrupted, as if it didn’t really require an explanation.

“But…”

Leslie stopped the question with a smile. “She hath borne herself beyond the promise of her age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion.”

“What…?”

Denise seemed confused, but Leslie merely shrugged and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Never mind me, dear -I’m just misquoting a line from Shakespeare…”

Denise thought about it for a moment, and then a smile suddenly appeared on her face.  “It’s from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, isn’t it…?”

The two of them giggled like little girls.

I couldn’t help but chuckle with them, and I remembered another line from that poem of Yeats: the ceremony of innocence is drowned

Nobody in Particular

Why do we believe something? How do we know that we are right? When I was a child, I was certain that the Fleetwood television set my parents had just purchased, was the best. So was the make of our car -and our vacuum cleaner too, come to think of it. But why? Was it simply because authority figures in my young life had told me, or was there an objective reality to their assertions? For that matter, how did they know, anyway? Other parents had different opinions, so who was right?

I was too young to question these things then, but gradually, I came to seek other sources of knowledge. And yet, even these sometimes differed. It’s difficult to know in what direction to face when confronted with disparate opinions. Different ‘truths’. Everybody can’t be right. Usually, in fact, the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle of it all, and it becomes a matter of knowing which truths to discard -choosing the ‘correct’ truth.

Despite the fact that most of us rely on some method like this, it sounds completely counterintuitive. How many truths can there be? Is each a truth, or merely an opinion? And what’s wrong with having a particular opinion? Again, how would we know? How could we know?

Nowadays, with social media algorithms selecting which particular news they report on the basis of our past choices, it’s difficult to know if we are in an echo chamber unless we purposely and critically examine whatever truths we hold dear -step back to burst the bubble. Canvas different people, and sample different opinions. But, even then, without resorting to mythology, or a presumed ‘revealed’ truth that substantiates a particular religious dogma, is there an objective truth that somehow transcends all the others? Conversely is all truth relative -situationally contextualized, temporally dependent, and ultimately socially endorsed?

Should we, in fact, rely on a random sample of opinions to arrive at an answer to some questions that are only a matter of values, but not about realistically verifiable facts -such as the height of a building, say, or maybe the type of bacterium that causes a particular disease? Would that bring us closer to the truth, or simply yet another truth?

Well, it turns out that the average of a large group of diverse and even contrary opinions has some statistical merit: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140708-when-crowd-wisdom-goes-wrong  ‘[T]here is some truth underpinning the idea that the masses can make more accurate collective judgements than expert individuals.’ The Wisdom of Crowds ‘is generally traced back to an observation by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1907. Galton pointed out that the average of all the entries in a ‘guess the weight of the ox’ competition at a country fair was amazingly accurate – beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. This is the essence of the wisdom of crowds: their average judgement converges on the right solution.’

But the problem is in the sampling -the diversity of the members of that crowd. ‘If everyone let themselves be influenced by each other’s guesses, there’s more chance that the guesses will drift towards a misplaced bias.’ Of course ‘This finding challenges a common view in management and politics that it is best to seek consensus in group decision making. What you can end up with instead is herding towards a relatively arbitrary position. Just how arbitrary depends on what kind of pool of opinions you start off with. […] copycat behaviour has been widely regarded as one of the major contributing factors to the financial crisis, and indeed to all financial crises of the past. [And] this detrimental herding effect is likely to be even greater for deciding problems for which no objectively correct answer exists. […] All of these findings suggest that knowing who is in the crowd, and how diverse they are, is vital before you attribute to them any real wisdom.’

This might imply that ‘you should add random individuals whose decisions are unrelated to those of existing group members. That would be good, but it’s better still to add individuals who aren’t simply independent thinkers but whose views are ‘negatively correlated’ – as different as possible – from the existing members. In other words, diversity trumps independence. If you want accuracy, then, add those who might disagree strongly with your group.’

Do you see where I’m going with all this? We should try to be open enough to consider all sides of an argument before making a considered decision. Let’s face it, you have to know what it is that you’re up against before you can arrive at a compromise. And perhaps, the thing you thought you were opposing is not so different from your own view after all.

Even our values fluctuate. Unless we are willing to be historical revisionists, it’s obvious that people in the past often assigned values differently to how we do today -sexual orientation, for example, or racial characteristic and stereotyping. And who nowadays would dare argue that women are not the equal of men, and deserve the same rights?

There are some things about which we will continue to disagree, no doubt. And yet, even a willingness to listen to an opposing opinion instead of shutting it down without a fair acknowledgment of whatever merits it might have hidden within it, or commonalities it might share with ours, is a step in the right direction.

I’m not at all sure that it’s healthy to agree about everything, anyway, nor to assume we possess the truth. It’s our truth. I think that without some dissenting input, we’d be bored, condemned to float in the increasingly stagnant backwater we chose, while just beyond our banks, a creek runs merrily past, excited to discover another view that lies beyond and behind the next hill.

After all, remember what happened to Caesar after Shakespeare had him boast: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.”

Just saying…

 

Make not your thoughts your prison

 

What can we do with those who flout the laws of the land or openly disrespect the prevailing mores? The usual answer is to punish -to retribute, either by restricting the offender’s rights, or their freedom. And sometimes, depending on the crime, even ending their lives.

Prisons have traditionally been the means to rid ourselves of the problem -out of sight, out of mind. Until they’re not, that is -because unless we intend to keep convicted offenders incarcerated and off the streets forever, there will come a time when we will have to deal with them again.

Of course, this uncomfortable inevitability was not lost on everybody, and through the ages there have been sporadic attempts at rehabilitating people once justice had been seen to be done and they were scheduled for release -more recently, things like parole in which the prisoner could be conditionally released into the community before the sentence had been fully served; or even indeterminate sentencing where the duration of incarceration lies somewhere between a minimum and a maximum time, depending upon the behaviour and signs of presumed rehabilitation exhibited by the prisoner.

Unfortunately, recidivism rates have been high and this has frustrated continuing reformation in various countries. So many things are not as they seem, not as we would hope. Even in this age of algorithms and Wikipedia, the reasons are not always forthcoming -at least, not the ones we expect. Maybe that should not be a surprise, though: we are not omniscient, nor, more importantly, are we prescient.

An article in BBC Future series on criminal myths addressed an aspect of the problem that had not occurred to me. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180430-the-unexpected-ways-prison-time-changes-people  As the author, Christian Jarrett, put it, ‘Day after day, year after year, imagine having no space to call your own, no choice over who to be with, what to eat, or where to go. There is threat and suspicion everywhere. Love or even a gentle human touch can be difficult to find. You are separated from family and friends. If they are to cope, then prisoners confined to this kind of environment have no option but to change and adapt. This is especially true for those facing long-term sentences.’

‘In the field of personality psychology, it used to be believed that our personalities remain largely fixed in adulthood. But recent research has found that, in fact, despite relative stability our habits of thought, behaviour and emotion do change in significant and consequential ways – especially in response to the different roles that we adopt as we go through life. […] Particularly for anyone concerned about prisoner welfare and how to rehabilitate former convicts, the worry is that these personality changes, while they may help the prisoner survive their jail time, are counter-productive for their lives upon release.

‘Key features of the prison environment that are likely to lead to personality change include the chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, frequent fear, need to wear a constant mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid exploitation by others), and the requirement, day after day, to follow externally imposed stringent rules and routines. […] [T]here is widespread recognition among psychologists and criminologists that prisoners adapt to their environment, which they call “prisonisation”. This contributes towards a kind of “post-incarceration syndrome” when they are released. […] The personality change that most dominated their accounts was an inability to trust others.’

The article reports on a large number of interviews on prisoners done in the UK by Susie Hulley and her colleagues at the Institute of Criminology. The prisoners described a ‘process of “emotional numbing”. […]  “As the long-term prisoner becomes ‘adapted’ – in the true sense of the term – to the imperatives of a sustained period of confinement, he or she becomes more emotionally detached, more self-isolating, more socially withdrawn, and perhaps less well suited to life after release,” they warned.’

In another paper, led by Jesse Meijers at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, it was felt that ‘the changes they observed are likely due to the impoverished environment of the prison, including the lack of cognitive challenges and lost autonomy.’

So, what are we to do with those individuals who have broken the law and for whom society demands retribution? Does the loss of freedom and privacy necessarily engender adaptive personality changes? ‘The current evidence suggests that the longer and harsher the prison sentence – in terms of less freedom, choice and opportunity for safe, meaningful relationships – the more likely that prisoners’ personalities will be changed in ways that make their reintegration difficult and that increase their risk for re-offending.’

Well, from a distance at least, it seems to me that prisons should be the solution of last resort -merely getting offenders off the street has consequences. Some, no doubt, would be a continuing threat to public safety if they were to remain at large, but some -maybe most- would not, and they are the ones on whom changes in our idea of retributive justice should perhaps be focussed.

The very idea of ‘punishment’ needs to be revisited for many crimes, I believe. But the strange need for vengeance is so thoroughly stamped in our minds, that even the idea of anything other than the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ code of Hammurabi, seems unthinkable. Unjust. Of course there should be consequences for actions -but commensurate ones. Prisons and jails have too long been places where troublemakers could be warehoused and essentially forgotten. But, as we are realizing to our dismay, the problems do not go away -they often merely fester, albeit out of sight. For a while…

I don’t have any truly heuristic solutions to crime, or the wages of evil that seem to follow us through the ages. I was not granted an epiphany in my long journey amongst the ever thinning years, but I do suspect that the answer does not lie in punishment alone. We are missing something that perhaps our genetic atavism will simply not allow us to see.

And yet, perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of it, however opaquely, those many years ago: The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.

Beggaring All Description

Beauty is many things, I suppose, and attempts to define it are fraught. It seems to vary between societies and eras, with some cultures deciding it is appearance, and some opting for demeanour. One such view, influenced by the Greek diaspora following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Koine Greek, used an adjective for beautiful: horaios, which derives from the word hora -or hour. There was a delightful description of this in (sorry) Wikipedia: ‘In Koine Greek, beauty was thus associated with “being of one’s hour”. Thus, a ripe fruit (of its time) was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful.’

I find this useful, because it suggests that beauty -at least in a person- resides in being recognized for what one actually is -not what artifice may try to disguise. Admiration, in other words lies in more than appearance. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.’

And yet, whose eyes -one’s own, or that of others? How we see ourselves is almost as important as how we are seen. Think of the agony than can be inflicted by acne in the teenage years -a time when self-identity is often linked to group identity, and self-esteem is dependent on the approbation of one’s peers. It is a time when we are defined by others, because we have not yet defined ourselves.

Memories of my own speckled past were awakened, Phoenix-like, by a short article in the Conversation on the beauty -or not- of skin: https://theconversation.com/beauty-is-skin-deep-why-our-complexion-is-so-important-to-us-91415?

As the author, Rodney Sinclair, Professor of Dermatology, University of Melbourne observes, ‘We’re all attracted to a beautiful face. We like to look at them, we feel drawn to them and we aspire to have one. Many researchers and others have investigated what we humans identify as “beautiful”: symmetry, large evenly spaced eyes, white teeth, a well-proportioned nose and of course, a flawless complexion. The skin is of utmost importance when people judge someone as beautiful.’ There may be an unintended bias on his part, of course. A dermatologist would see the world through a lens of pores and complexions, but I suspect he is merely tapping into the current ethos -one that seems characteristic of an era of Snapchat, and Facebook posts where ‘Even the best facial structure can be unbalanced by skin that is flawed.’

I’m not certain I agree with some of his views about how much we value complexion. For example: ‘When choosing a mate, men rank female beauty more highly than women rate male appearance. Female beauty is thought to signal youth, fertility and health. Beauty can also signal high status. People with “plain looks” earn about 10% less than people who are average-looking, who in turn earn around 5% less than people who are good-looking.’ I suspect there has been a bit of cherry-picking of studies that bolster his opinions, although I suppose we all do that.

But his point about the importance of the cosmetic industry nowadays certainly seems spot on: ‘People spend a lot of money in attempts to regain their youthful appearance. The global cosmetics industry is worth about US$500 billion. Sales of skin and sun care products, make-up and colour cosmetics generate over 36% of the worldwide cosmetic market. We use foundation makeup to conceal freckles and blemishes, moisturisers and fillers to hide dryness, concealers to disguise broken capillaries and pimples.’

And yet, I find myself inexorably drawn to that Greek idea of beauty residing more in ‘being of one’s hour’, than in forcing one’s time. Accepting the ineffable allure of the moment in which each of us lives.

Many years ago, I met Dora, a woman with quite visible facial scarring from long-ago acne. She was probably in her early thirties, and was employed as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. But she was so gregarious and friendly, I had ceased to see her face whenever I had occasion to visit. A warm smile would emerge like a puppy bounding from the woods and greet me from across the room. Her eyes were alive, and sparkled even under the unremitting glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. But she would have lit a path to her desk even in a power failure.

So overwhelming was her presence that I would never have remembered what she was wearing, had I been asked. Everything was subordinate; she ruled the room like a queen and the radiance lingered even when she was on vacation, or had taken a sick day. It was as if the empty the space was holding its breath. Or so I thought.

One day, when I arrived for my appointment, the office seemed smaller. Duller. It had been more than a year since I had been there, and so I couldn’t immediately decide what had changed. Dora was not there, unfortunately -I had been looking forward to seeing her again, but I assumed she had taken a few days off.

As I approached the desk –her desk- I was tracked by a set of razored eyes as if I had inadvertently chosen the wrong door. The wrong office. There was a smile, of course, but it was cool, and applied like the makeup on the rest of the obviously impeccable face. Long blond hair fell in ringlets to her shoulders onto a dark blue silk blouse -a very attractive person to greet the entrant, I suppose. But it was not Dora.

I forced a smile onto my lips and introduced myself. The woman immediately checked her computer screen and her face marginally softened at what she found. I took this as an opportunity to ask about Dora.

I could see her pupils momentarily contract and something tensed in her cheek.

“Dora no longer works here,” she said with a forced affability, and as if she were tired of having to explain.

I couldn’t hide my disappointment, I’m afraid, and the woman noticed.

“The doctor thought she was a bad advertisement for his practice,” she said with an obviously rehearsed face.

“Oh…” was all I could think of to respond.

The face perked up briefly. “He did offer to help…” she stared across the empty room for a moment. “But she said she was happy with who she was –‘with who she’d always been’, was how she put it…”

And then, although she tried to disguise it, she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Anyway,” she said, unrolling her eyes and resting them on my cheeks, “she decided to resign.”

But when I continued to stare at her, she shrugged, as if everybody was better off with Dora gone. “He gave her a good reference, though,” she added at the persistence of my disappointed expression, and shifted her attention back to the screen in front of her with a little smile.

 

 

 

 

Should You Wish Upon a Star?

I’m of two minds about magic. On the one hand, it seems too good to be true -too naïve and unexamined, too much like Santa Claus; but there’s a part of me that wants to believe in another world where faeries dance on dew-soaked blades of moonlit grass, and bird song fills the dawn forest as a paean to the aborning light. In a place -or was it a time– where anything was possible, because no one had proven that it wasn’t.

Unfortunately, I grew up and found an adult proof -or thought I had. I suppose most of us do, though. It’s not even a choice -as we wend our ways through the interstices of everyday life, we shed those things which impede our progress -like a shirt on a hot day, unregarded magic is in corners thrown, to paraphrase Shakespeare. Our route is littered with it, if we cared to look. But we don’t anymore. We can’t be bothered.

And yet, in my darker days, when I find myself staring into the ordered chaos that encloses me like a cape, I sometimes wonder if it was all a mistake. Perhaps we were meant to keep a little in reserve. A curtain we could peek behind in times of need. In times when we realize that what we have is not enough… or, rather, too much.

In one such mood, I happened upon an article written by Frank Klaassen, an associate professor of History in the University of Saskatchewan, entitled The Magic of Love and Sex, who characterizes himself as a scholar of medieval magic. I have to admit, that anybody who purports to be able to unmask the most mysterious trappings of an enchanted, faraway age has got my ear -or in this case, at least, my eyes. https://theconversation.com/the-magic-of-love-and-sex-91749

He says that ‘[…] passing the magazine stand at the checkout counter is like stepping back in time.’ Both the men’s and the women’s magazines promise to divulge secret methods of procuring unattainable things we all want, yet could only dream of: sex, power, influence… ‘Bronislaw Malinowski [a Polish-born British social anthropologist] says that the function of magic is to ritualize optimism, to enhance “faith in the victory of hope over fear.” By this he means that when we perform magic, we ritualize our hopes, even if that ritual itself produces no effects.’

‘There is a massive modern industry that leverages our vulnerabilities. Hundreds of scientifically unproven techniques offer not only power over love and sex, but health, wealth, good luck, influence over other people, improving appearance, intelligence and public speaking, assuring happiness and protection of self and family.

‘Modern books on magic like Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and New Age handbooks like Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization have become classics over the past 40 years and have sold millions of copies. They cover pretty much the same ground. With few exceptions, the goals of medieval magic were identical to these personal growth manuals from the 1970s, and fulfilment in love tops the list.’

But interestingly, similar to today, Klaassen says that scholars back then were also critical of magic and superstition. ‘Medieval philosophers expended a lot of ink demonstrating how seemingly miraculous things were just natural effects […] To respond to these attacks, writers of medieval magic books often did exactly what their modern counterparts do —they tried to make them look like they were scientific. They used scientific ideas and language.

‘In comparison, one would think that modern people would be far less interested in magic, particularly given our advanced sense of how the physical world functions and the scientific educations we all get in public school.’

But, I think the crux of his point is to compare the two modes of thinking, and whether things have changed all that much over the years. ‘[…] it challenges the idea that scientific thinking somehow banishes magical thinking. Clearly, it doesn’t.’

‘[…] Modern science may have helped us live longer but it hasn’t made illness and death any less inevitable. It certainly hasn’t made it possible to make ourselves more wealthy, desirable, charismatic, intelligent or successful in love.

From one perspective, love magic is biological. We are biologically programmed to try anything that might help us reproduce ourselves. Skepticism would just get in the way of that. Hope, on the other hand, keeps us creatively trying things out and doing whatever it takes: The perfect clothes, the right music, giving flowers, perfume, beautiful words, … or magic.

From another perspective, as Malinowski suggested, magic springs from human qualities that we all value very highly: Optimism, hope and creativeness. Where would we be without those? If our ancestors only stuck to the tried and true, things they knew would not fail, we’d still be in the trees. We’d certainly have no love songs.’

I like the idea that magic is hope. And hope is no less real because what we wish for hasn’t yet happened; there may not be faeries dancing on the lawn at night, but if I want to believe that if I hid out there under a blade of grass one night I would see them, should you lock me up? Or put me on medication? All of us hear stories, some more fanciful than others -and not all of them are as we remember. We colour our narratives with almosts and often sneak in a few might haves to spice the tales. The rest of us wink at the clever interpolations, and then add our own when it’s our turn to speak. Who’s to say what really happened -what might have happened?

There is a ragged border between fact and fancy sometimes, and maybe your misspeak is my magic -or at least my hope. Would you really want to take that away from me… and should you? Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I want to believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies…