Wednesday, December 17, 2014

One Blank Page

One of the most influential professors in my life once challenged me (and the rest of the sociological discipline) to do a pretty interesting thought experiment: if you had one blank sheet of paper (or even 10 pages) to write down what you thought was the most important thing that people should either consider or know, what would you write? What should the world, your friends/family, and your posterity understand about the way the world works? He then wished that every researcher, student, professor, etc. would incorporate this into their studies and their work. (Why wouldn't you?) So, I decided that every year I would write my one blank page. And here is the first one. (PS - this is in no way going to be well thought out or well researched...just some thoughts on what is important in life according to me.) I'd be interested to see what others think about what I say as well as see others writing their "one blank page".

My first "One Blank Page":
            Over the course of my undergraduate studies, I was impressed by a particular course/professor studying the sociology of “suffering” and human relationality building off of the works of Weber, Nietzsche, Marion, Levinas, and Slife) . From this course and the many courses I took from Dr. Knapp, I’ve come to think about the human experience that I think the world has lost in modernity.  So, one thing out of ALL the things that I want to write about is our responsibility to others.
            On a personal level, I think it’s imperative that we consider how our actions affect others and at least acknowledge that decisions that may seem personal and individual are perhaps not.  While you get to choose (and no one can really make you choose otherwise), that does not constrict the range of affects to only you. You can choose where to go to college, yes. But what of friends/family you will leave behind and (on the other hand) end up meeting. You can choose who, when, where to marry: but what of the family and friends who like/dislike the boy/girl, have work when you get married, or can’t go to Niagara Falls to watch it happen? To have kids can be quite a personal decision that few can stop. However, you are intimately influencing the child that you will create, as well as all those who will be helping you in her/his care. All these choices are personal in that you get to choose them (or should get to choose them) without outside influence, but they are not personal in that they affect only you. You are not a completely autonomous being. You affect others. You should be aware of that and not let an ‘it’s-my-life-I-can-do-what-I-want’ distract you from the wide-reach of consequences that your actions create.
            On a societal/macro-level, I have some possibly na├»ve desires of how society should work. I feel that society has progressed to thinking about the human condition as autonomous and individualistic. (Critical theorists might say this is coupled with the move from innovative to consumerist capitalism in western societies.) Regardless of where this comes from, I think it is a false human condition. To be fair, this move can also be tied to some pretty important equality movements for races, genders, sexualities, etc. However, I fear that these movements, having a foundation on something that I think is flawed, might push us to a devastating end.
Instead of fighting for individual freedoms and equality under the name of autonomy, I think we should be insisting upon it in terms of responsibility. Levinas argued that the human being should be understood as a being-for-the-other: one that is ontologically (or inherently) concerned with the well being of those around us. I agree with this on various levels, especially drawing from my religious background. Instead of trying to distance ourselves from others by saying “I should be able to do what I want because it does not concern you,” I feel that we should be promoting a feeling of giving people their rights because it is what we should be doing as concerned humans wanting to the best for our neighbors.

            I know that many people would argue that the conception of humanity understood by western society has created many benefits and we might as well push along while we are ahead. However, I think it is a worthwhile endeavor to push for a better framework with which to structure society.  Think of a society in which we didn’t have to push for rights, but where (once we understood they were lacking) they were given. Governments wouldn’t have to say what people could do (vote, marry, etc.), but just delineate personal protections.  We would be less concerned with fighting one another on conflicting moralities or arguing over meaningless semantics, but would be focused on actual well being of one another. Obviously this then would require arguments on who defines what the well being of another would look like (because let’s be honest, isn’t that what held people rights back so often before the progressive era?). However, in my heart, I believe (and perhaps naively) there is a way to make this happen.

Also, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays, etc. to everyone!

(After thought: I wrote a pretty similar, albeit longer, post relating this to some words of Mormon prophets and apostles. To see this coupled with some LDS theology and a slight debate on the feminist "Ordain Women" movement, see Deeper than men v women: for self or for others.)