5.26.2005

The Ten Commandments Are Obsolete!

There seems to be an increasing desire amongst people to live in a simpler world and live by a simpler worldview. This is afterall the appeal of fundamentalism, be it Islamic or Christian or Economic, we would desperately like to believe that there is a simple set of rules which we can remember and understand and which will lead us to live a life which is moral and beneficial to our fellow men.

Now yes, I would agree that the ten commandments mostly make a lot of sense, and it certainly won't hurt you or those around you to follow them, but I think they could use a bit of an update. I'm not going so far as to propose moral relativism, all I'm saying is that the cause and effect relationships by which we interact with people today, are a thousand times more complicated then they were in Biblical times. If one were to isolate oneself with a few hundred other people in a river valley with some oxen and mana and maybe a pharaoh or two and swear never to IMPORT or EXPORT anything or send any kind of communication out of the valley, well then, I'm sure the Biblical commandments would still allow a person to live a full and morally upright life. However, these rules are far from sufficient to allow one to navigate the minefield of causality that is the modern globalized economy.

To give you an example of just how complicated things are let's imagine you are giving your old clothes to the salvation army. Helping out the needy AND saving the earth; nothing could be more clearly good for everybody, right? Wrong. In the mid 90's Africa had a burgeoning textile industry. Many people were employed and others were able to proudly purchase and wear clothing that reflected local traditions and aesthetics. However, during the same time the Salvation Army and Goodwill and other groups got better at soliciting donations of clothes, or possibly people began to buy new clothes with increasing frequency. Whatever the case, these organizations could no longer sell as much clothing as they received even at insanely low prices, and so they started shipping it to Africa where wholesalers purchased it for pennies a pound. As a result the African textile industry went belly-up and the factory workers are all now poor and unemployed and clad in either Chip and Pepper or Fido Dido tshirts which are utterly unsaleable here. [Article]

In our complicated world the right thing to do is actually to buy less new clothing, instead of feeling falsely generous after "donating" worthless shit that you would have thrown away anyway.

It's not enough to pick a few simple principles and precepts out of a hat and live by them and assume oneself to be doing right. This is what terrifies me most about the marriage between Christianity and Self-Help that is evident in the Evangelist Mega-churches (which have coffee-shops and movie theatre style seating). These people have genuinely good intentions and they genuinely believe that they are doing the world good by boycotting TV channels with too many cuss-words and holding bake sales for churches that already have more money than Harvard, while the kids of the lower-income families in their city that they've never met are getting shipped off to Iraq, flipping out and torturing Muslims. To love your neighbor isn't difficult or particularily useful if you live in a gated community full of rich, loveable people.

Being good has never been and will never be easy.

We all have a profound moral obligation to educate ourselves on the social, economic and environmental impacts of our actions. Find out where your clothes were made. Find out what's in your food. Find out what specific companies you're investing in when you buy an RRSP. Read the paper. Read a different paper and compare. Yes, it's true, it's impossible to really know for sure what the impacts of all the billions of decisions we make each day are, but you and both know that you could be trying a little harder.

This growing tendency amongst people to embrace a false simplicity is the greatest danger facing the modern world. Fundamentalism is only one example of this trend. Watching television recently I noticed that USA today's motto is "never gray." In the disturbing world of infotainment, this is apparently a selling point! Gray is EXACTLY what a newspaper should be. It should be factual and informative and unopinionated, it should represent the complexity of the world and the fact that there are good arguments on BOTH sides of most issues.

Perhaps the most ridiculous example of this tendency towards the simplification of ethics is the results of the last election. George Bush won because he seemed like a stand-up guy, and a straight-shooter to boot. No one actually thought that much about his policies, they just felt like he was the kind of guy that you would want as a neighbor. And it's true, he'd probably be a great neighbor, he'd greet you with what I'm sure is a firm handshake every morning, and he'd be happy to drive your son to soccer practice when you're car was in the shop. He's probably a good husband and father as well. These are qualities that will make him well-liked by the white house staff and the press corps. They will IN NO WAY help him to make the world a better place. Clinton cheated on his wife and presumably hurt her deeply, but he was an excellent PRESIDENT and certainly did more good than harm further down the chain of causality where the effects of one's actions are multiplied a thousandfold.

And Kerry? What of Kerry? Why was it again that no one would vote for him? Oh yes, he was a flip-flopper. What does this mean exactly? It means that depending on the situation he changed his mind. How shocking! It means that he probably actually read those hundred-page bills all the way through and weighed the over-all impact of the thousands of sub-clauses, instead of just reading the title and voting according to dogma. Isn't this something you would want in a President? Adaptability? Humility? The capacity and willingness to respond to the desires of voters?

In March of 2003, 71% of Americans believed the war in Iraq was worthwhile. A poll conducted by the same group using the same techniques discovered that last month only 41% of Americans thought it was worthwhile and 56% actually thought that it was NOT worthwhile.

What's that? THAT'S A GODDAMN FLIP-FLOP!!! Guess who would have REPRESENTED you best American People? C'mon, take a stab at it.

Boundless fury and rage have once again combined to shatter my monocle and I seem to be bleeding from the nose as well. I'm going to go soothe myself in the bleak, painfully dull and utterly gray mountains of information contained within the pages of the Economist. I might have a tea as well. Although probably not, because Alphonso has yet to get back to me on the health insurance available to the tea farmers who grew it.

14 Comments:

Blogger B. Winters said...

I've never seen it all put so beautifully into perspective and I have no idea how I was entirely unaware of such an obvious answer. I should paint my house and everything in it grey.

12:26 a.m.  
Blogger Matthew Lie - Paehlke said...

It wasn't an answer. It's a problem. I don't offer answers. Only problems. I'm like Lacan. Now that was a man who did not shy away from the complicated nature of life; In fact he was thrown out of the psychoanalytical society because of one of his treatment method -- getting his analysand all lathered up about his or her problems and then leaving.

12:45 a.m.  
Blogger Don Raja said...

That was an awesome blog Matt err I mean Matteus. The message is eye-opening and the delivery is clear and concise.. Well done chap.

ps. I feel embarassed that I blog about my weekend..

2:07 p.m.  
Blogger Matthew Lie - Paehlke said...

Thank you Don Raja; it is an honour to hear such kind words from the inventor of such fantastic terms as "genero" and "weak house."

However, I must protest at how you could have possibly mistaken me for that snivelling feed-bag Matthew. That bespectacled numbskull wears a lens over EACH EYE! How gauche! A gentleman should always have one eye unhindered by lenses in order to transfix ladies with a manful stare.

2:55 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nadeem recommended me to read your blog and its fantastic. Materialism and consumerism were probably issues that simply didn't exist in the B-dot-C.

I think a big part of the problem is selfishness. With the disintegration of the family unit and mass consumerism (and with it mass stupidity), we are taught to only look out for ourselves. From CEO's embezzeling money to asshole drivers on the road, simply put we are all out for ourselves. I think we simplify so that we can lie to ourselves about how terrible we actually do live our lives. We simply so that we can sleep at night thinking we are good people, so that tomorrow we can go out there to cause more damage to others.

4:48 p.m.  
Blogger Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm said...

Excellent social analysis. Thanks.

2:28 a.m.  
Blogger justin said...

One might argue, however, that the roots of our entanglements in this moraly quantum universe are SO deep and SO opaque that we can never, in any true sense, know them.

The example of the used clothing: Imagine that in looking at those clothing manufacturers more closely, it was discovered that they, in turn, inflicted grave harm on the local environment. Or that some small percentage of those who were put out of work managed to get better educations, and then that one of these more educated eventually produced a cure for cancer.

OK. All highly improbable, but you see where I'm going. How can we know the ultimate repercussions of any action? How far up the tree of probability need we look?

Answers are not simple, clearly. They may even be unknowable, but life - morality - requires action. So my argument is that at some arbitrary point, each of us must make a distinction between, to use the unfortunate color analogy, "white" and "black". We cannot decide or act in an infinte sea of gray.

Often, the realities of life are such that we don't, or can't spend time in deep thought and research to determine where these lines must be drawn, and so depend on others to make that distinction for us.

So then, to what extent are each of us fundamentalists? Where and to what extent should we put our trust?

1:39 p.m.  
Blogger Matthew Lie - Paehlke said...

Justin! An excellent comment, which in part amplifies my observations about the imminence of our destruction at our own well-meaning hands. I fully agree with you, and what's more I agree that there is always a point where we must become "fundamentalist" ourselves and take action.

I would just say that they more we know, and the more we are willing to base our actions on complex thought and reasoning, the more likely we are (although certainly not certain) to do right. A pixelated world with millions of tiny bits of black and white, better captures the grey scale of reality than does an 8-bit rendition.

4:43 p.m.  
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