Integrity

I’m not lying when I say untruth has been on my mind a lot.  A few days ago I posted on freedom of speech and how it’s an ideal rather than an actuality.  What with lies being lobbed at us daily, I got to thinking about the ethical implications for honesty.  Integrity.  The freedom to state what we actually think is something a little different.  How often in daily life do we act authentically?  And when we’re with others we act differently than when we’re alone.  Which is truly us?  Someone pointed out to me recently that if you walk with someone your body language is different than if you walk alone.  Even walking alone your body language shows your interior frame of mind.  A sad walk isn’t the same as a happy walk.

As social creatures, the ideal of being forthright all of the time would lead to chaos.  All of us lie, one way or another, at times.  That’s where integrity comes in.  Integrity, it seems to me, indicates someone who is honest, all things being equal.  I once noticed a politician who blinked every time he said the word “God.”  That blink, I believe, was a form of “scare quote.”  I don’t know, but I suspect said politician didn’t have any strong belief in a deity.  Some circumstances require that you pay lip service anyway.  Ethics dictates that we try to be honest, but even keeping secrets is a kind of lie of omission.  Our own personal wants—which are honest—often have to be suppressed for the sake of fairness.  Again, we live in a situation where the most powerful pursue their own desires while neglecting the needs of others.  Is this then integrity?

Often I ponder what it means to be social creatures.  Some of us are naturally introverts.  We nevertheless rely on others because society is too complex.  What any one person could build an iPhone single-handedly, and then set up the 3G, 4G, or 5G network on which to use it?  Could that same person grow their own food, manufacture their own automobile, and construct their own house?  The self-made rugged individualist is a myth we cherish, but it too is an untruth.  We rely heavily on others and we count on those closest to us to be honest.  When lying becomes a lifestyle integrity lies in tatters on the floor.  Just three years ago I wouldn’t have been having such thoughts, if I’m honest with myself.

Now You Don’t

Quite some time ago I realized I should read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  What put me off, as usual, was length.  Long books take a real time commitment, but since Black History month is coming up, and we’ve just celebrated Martin Luther King, I planned ahead and read.  A profound book, at several points I felt like a voyeur reading it.  The African-American experience of life is something I always feel uncomfortable approaching.  I’m afraid of appropriation, and I’m afraid of not paying attention.  I grew up not having a sense of racism, but nevertheless am implicated in the whole.  Maybe that was intentional.  As a story Invisible Man is often described as a picaresque, but having an unreliable narrator who was a victim of my own culture was difficult to countenance.  It was hard to know what to think.

We never understand another person’s experience of life.  We sympathize, we empathize, but we can’t really get inside the head of even our best friends.  I can’t help but think we’d all be better off we recognized that race is a social construct, and a potentially evil one at that.  We are all human beings and we should act that way.  But this novel left me wondering if it’s really possible.  Good novels will do that to you.  So I’m sitting here scratching my head and a little bit flummoxed by what I’ve just experienced.  Was it authentic or can I not help but project my own experience as an non-minority upon someone else’s writing?  Even questions like this are socially conditioned.  I too am trapped in my own mind.

You might think that by this time we would have evolved beyond our distrust of those long separated from us by natural barriers.  Homo sapiens are distrustful of strangers, and even the internet hasn’t brought us the understanding we require.  Not yet, anyway.  The background to “race relations” in the United States can’t be separated from slavery and the attitudes it engendered.  On almost every page of Invisible Man its traces can be seen.  That kind of cultural memory, and other cultural memories such as Jews being routinely castigated by Christians, or monotheists being raised to combat polytheism, are deep dividers.  Our cure for these evils is understanding.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of literary fiction.  It rings true, however, and although it represents a world I do not know the fact of its publication invites  those of us outside the tradition to read.  Indeed, doing so is one way of attempting to reach understanding.

Truth, Justice, and

Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Boston University School of Theology long before I did.  We remember him today as a great leader, a man willing to die for what he believed in.  And all these years later we’re still struggling to find some semblance of racial equality.  We can’t seem to admit that race is a social construct and not a scientific category.  Indeed, the only race is the human race.  King saw that, and staked his life on it.  Today we’re ruled by politicians who, when faced with the truth immediately shout “fake news!”  “Liberal!”  They may stop short of using some words not because they don’t want to, but because they could cost them at the polls come November.  America is watching.  I’m sitting here thinking how Martin Luther King died when I was just five.  He’d started something righteous and just.  And millions were out marching in the cold on Saturday to say we still believe in justice. 

I didn’t pick Boston University School of Theology just because King was its most famous alum.  The other day a guy noticed my BU stocking cap and asked if it was “Boston University.”  This wasn’t an educated person, but I’m guessing that most school paraphernalia has to do with sports and the game was on in the background, so the question was logical.  I told him it was Binghamton University, a school with which I also have an intimate connection, one step removed.  He said, “Binghamton!  I saw your cap and thought Baylor?  No.  Must be Boston.”  But ironically he ended up with the right school for me, but the wrong school for what I was wearing.  I did pick BU because I realized that strong academics are nothing without social justice.  Of course, academia wanted nothing to do with that.

Recently I read how Republican resentment towards liberals has very solid roots in racism.  Oh, they will deny it—their “fake news” trigger-finger is very itchy—but the whole package is tied up with anger that an African-American was elected president.  Follow that up with an old, white racist.  How will history look back on this insane era?  I think we already know.  While the privileged are trying to build their own legacies, I ponder an African-American preacher with clear vision as the one we remember today.  I went to Boston University naive and full of hope.  I heard a lot about King when I was there.  I knew something of dreams and how costly they could be.  Today I sit here and cuddle the epithet “liberal” and think how it’s become a swear word for some, while its real meaning of “justice” continues to go unheeded.

Poe’s Demons

In Nightmares with the Bible I use an idea penned by Edgar Allan Poe as one of the threads holding the book together.  One early reader complained that Poe didn’t write about demons, so the use of the great man was inappropriate.  That reader misunderstood me.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  As I think about the influence a writer can have on a young mind, I come back to this reader’s comments.  I can’t think of my book without Poe.  No, Poe did not write about demons, but he set the stage for what I’m trying to do in my book.  I’ve read analysts who claim Poe wasn’t a horror writer.  Certainly in the modern sense that’s probably true.  Still, he, like many others, was brave enough to suggest the tenebrous side of life was worth exploring, even if you only had a candle.  

Poe’s monsters were often interior.  They were psychologically probing, and although Sigmund Freud had not yet been born, it’s not inappropriate to say that Poe explored psychology.  Writers, I suspect, often deal with things they can’t name.  This is the way knowledge moves forward, even with fiction.  Especially with fiction.  As I’m reading books by academics who’ve done well for themselves, I often reflect how their legacy will remain within their field only.  It’s the rare nonfiction writer who manages to reach a cultural status that will find readers from other disciplines.  Most of us, however, will admit to reading a novel or two now and again.  Fiction writers, such as Poe, can claim things without backing them up with footnotes and citations.  That doesn’t mean they were any less astute at observing the world than academic writers are.  Often they’re more so.

I didn’t put Poe into Nightmares to show off.  His work has long been in the public domain.  I don’t cite him to claim that he would have agreed with my use of his insights.  No, I cite him because even if he wasn’t a horror writer my early encounter with him started me on a path of exploration.  Poe had trouble getting along in a literary world where rejection was endemic (it still is, I know from personal experience) and making a living as a literary person was unheard of.  He nevertheless knew that fiction was more honest than the alternatives, at least for some of us.  If we wish to face the world with integrity, we should admit that our heroes may have been made so in our own minds.  That doesn’t make them any less authentic, just because we’ve appropriated them for our own purposes.  We borrow what we find meaningful.

Protest Day

Today should be known as Protest Day.  Three years ago with over a million others I marched in Washington.  The media still routinely underreports the numbers there, despite the metrics used on the ground.  “They’re only women,” it seems to say.  I marched the last two years in New York City.  The protest can never stop.  Once a democracy has opened the door to evil, it can never rest again.  It’s cold outside.  There’s a winter storm in the forecast.  Women everywhere are out marching.  This mansplained world must come to an end.  We must hear all voices.  Despite having control of all branches of government, the Trump message isn’t being heard.  Perhaps there is justice in nature.  I like to believe it, even when it’s hard.

Patriarchalism wears many disguises, such as biblicism.  If all you take from the Good Book is the idea that men are more important, then you’ve missed the point.  The Bible is a book with a context and those who can quote it without knowing what it originally meant are left wondering why so many other Christians disagree.  The message must be heard.  Liberation theologians long ago realized that Jesus’ gospel had been drowned in the voices of legalism.  They did what we all should be doing today; they protested.

Signs of national and international weariness are everywhere evident.  Trump-supporting senators strike out with ad hominem attacks for all reason has failed them.  Used to be if you aided and abetted a criminal you’d get in trouble.  Now you just get bumped to a more influential committee.  So we protest.  History hasn’t forgotten Watergate.  It will never forget the disaster of 2016 when a political party sold its soul.  

A restaurant not far from here is owned and operated by a young woman.  A sign on the register says “The Future Is Female.”  I hope it’s so.  Our hunter-gatherer sensibilities have been suborned by the possibilities of agricultural surplus.  Where there’s surplus there’s mammon to be made.  In the Middle Ages mammon became the name of a demon.  Today it’s inscribed on the hearts of those who follow cash, no matter where it may lead.  Once upon a time a man from Galilee said the wealthy wouldn’t inherit the kingdom.  Like Caesar they dedicate the temple to themselves.  We may not all be able to get out to march today, but we can make our consciences heard.  Women deserve every right men have.  It’s time to learn to share.  Until that happens, we must protest. 

Morality, by Contract

So, maybe it’s the crazy wind that was blowing around here all day yesterday, but I’m beginning to wonder about corporate sanity (if there is such a thing).  Specifically, I’ve been hearing about more and more contracts with ethics clauses written into them.  This is downright weird.  Does the signing of a contract make one ethical?  It’s like that silly page that comes up on some workplace servers saying you’re very naughty if you’re not the person you’ve logged in as.  We all know that.  That’s why hackers hack and the rest of us comply.  But legislative morality?  Via contract?  The notion is strange because ethics relies on an agreed-upon set of standards.  If Trump has taught us anything it’s that there’s no agreed-upon set of standards.  Some of us can honestly say that we weigh our own ethics every time we do anything.  Send me a contract and see!

The first time I saw an ethical behavior clause it was in a contract from a Christian company.  They wanted no business dealings with the corrupt, misbehaving, and one might guess, pagan sort.  When such a contract is sent to a business, it means that said business will monitor the morality of all its employees.  That’s something I certainly wouldn’t want to be in charge of.  Rationalization is too easy and far too human.  Let the one without sin cast the first whereas.  Well, one would think that a Christian company might take that point of view.  The way some Christians have treated me over the years makes me shudder at the advantages taken.

This idea seems to be spreading out to secular companies as well.  You read about contracts with ethical clauses in them—anyone who’s not ethical will have no qualms about signing a contract stating s/he is!  Why offer a contract at all if someone’s morals are in doubt?  One of the things you learn from taking ethics courses (of which I had several) is that, beyond widely agreed-upon standards (it’s wrong to kill, for example, or take something that belongs to someone else) the details quickly fade to gray.  People find ways of living with themselves while trying to survive in society.  An ethics clause in a contract suggests I should live by the standards set by the issuer.  It attempts to vouch for my future behavior without knowing my future circumstances.  I’m all for ethical behavior, and I try to abide by my own moral code daily.  It’s just that putting morality into contracts implies thinking poorly of the party of the second part.  Better to add a sanity clause.

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Amendments

Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.