P R I N C I P I A T R I O O N I C A
The Better Bozos of Our Nature
I was born in the late fifties and went to elementary school in the sixties. Back then, a public school's efforts were split between preparing us for the future and preparing us for the end of the world. We enjoyed the diversion of a fire or tornado drill but it was clear to our young minds that the adults were worried about scarier things than a tornado. We knew all about H-bombs, mushroom clouds and radiation from TV. In any home with a television, children would sooner or later stumble into some frank talk and searing imagery that stuck with us. We actually grew up in one of the safest places in the world at a time of runaway prosperity without any of the previous generations' experience of war on one's home turf. Yet there was a gloom that fed our imagination right along with all the rockets launching astronauts into space. We could understand that was how the H-bombs could get us. They would come on rockets. We could skip war altogether and go straight to its aftermath. Everyone knew it would be the end of the world. We learned math and stuff just in case the world doesn't end. We might even get to be astronauts. Outer space looked like the safest place on earth.
Schools held atomic warfare drills when I was very young. Instead of that tired old duck and cover stuff, we learned to crouch under the windows because the adults figured that is where the least amount of flying shards of glass will land. Everyone knew the drills were pointless. Everyone knew if you're close, you're toast. I mention it because it is the first lie I can remember. The first official whopper. Everyone had to tell it because it served a greater purpose. No one had to believe it as long as we were willing to pretend it was true. I wondered how many more whoppers were waiting to be discovered. I was hooked.
Along with crouching from the Bomb, my earliest memories of school are standing for the Pledge and learning about George Washington. I remember them because they seemed like a good place to look for whoppers.
For first year students, the subject of history begins with the Father of Our Country's exploits before puberty when he was too young to have a country yet. George's defining moment came when, it was alleged, he chopped down his father's cherry tree. When George was confronted by the Grandfather of Our Country, he is reported to have said, "I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree." There was no further explanation but questions were raised. Why couldn't young George tell a lie? Was there something wrong with his brain? Or was this story like the Bomb drills? Everything will be fine as long as we all pretend it is true. This whopper makes a point and we got it. Us children cannot tell a lie until we grow up. We either had to be good or our lies had to be really good.
Every school-day morning, we would rise from our desks and face the flag with a hand over our heart. Speaking as if to the flag, we would recite the awkward string of words at a steady thumping tempo. We learned the Pledge when we were very young. The vocabulary was beyond us but that didn't matter. If we do the right syllables in the right order at the right beat, we were pledging. We pledge to the flag because we too can stand a republic which is located under God somewhere near the Statue of Liberty. Just ask for Paul.
Why did the adults think we needed to do it every day? Was it so we could say goodbye to the flag just in case this was the day the bombs came? We all knew there was some connection between why we pledge and why the bombs would come.
These were all important whoppers. There is a greater reality with a greater purpose that cannot be described without whoppers. Not because it's a lie but because man is imperfect and the complete whopper-free truth is beyond our reach. Choosing the proper whoppers is best left to trusted adults. This was my first glimpse of morality. It is a truth that must be told with lies.
The handiest example is story-telling. In books, comics and on TV, a made up story can bring a distant truth within our reach. If I made up a story about what happened to dad's duck tape, the only distant truth I was bringing within reach was man's imperfect nature. Proper story telling was best left to trusted adults. A story had a moral and put together, stories told a morality. I can remember a moral clarity that grew with each story as if all were reaching for the same truth. Just beyond our sight, the adults were having a big fight about who gets to tell the stories. The adults were concerned about improper whoppers reaching for distant truth at the wrong angle of perspective.
We must see through a lens of moral clarity to peek at the most distant truth. At the point where the view begins to blur, we can know that our moral clarity ends and man's imperfections resume. For example, when we looked through the lens of a telescope to peek at distant galaxies, there was clarity that no one had the slightest idea what was going on. What is all that vastness for? It didn't fit into anyone's story. Moral clarity was surrounded by cosmic puzzles. The adults scrambled to find fresh whoppers big enough to cover the expanding universe. This was a chance to observe the formation of new whoppers out of the dust of collapsed fabrications and lies.
The best whoppers were found in science-fiction. I was hooked on made up stories that happened in outer space or any story that acknowledged the latest reality of the universe. The moral of many of those stories was that the distant truth was much further away than most adults wanted to know. Usually, humans of overlapping generations would not hold wildly differing views or live vastly different technology-based lifestyles. It is normal for each succeeding generation to believe they have better priorities and are better prepared to fulfill the lives they watched their parents struggled to lead. It is less normal to have so much change that parents can offer no relevant assistance in preparing their children for it. New technology and new stories about it can fracture families. The resulting fissure in co-living generations can sever the continuity of less tangible elements of social cohesion. You know… whoppers.
To my mind, and being new to the scene, a better morality meant starting from scratch with an updated angle of perspective on the distant truth. That was the moral of many science-fiction stories or, speculative fiction as Mr. Ellison preferred to call it. It was a rebellious pursuit of moral clarity that demanded everything be reviewed. I wanted to start with my stupid short haircut. What truth was revealed by shaving behind my ears? Battling those whoppers prepared me to take on racism, patriarchy and zealotry. Elementary school never mentioned them but sci-fi stories did. That looked like the path to a better morality. I knew I wanted to be on it. Not that anyone asked me.
My idea of becoming a moral citizen meant gaining an understanding of why and what's in it for us. It seemed simple enough. A slightly longer toil or sacrifice can lead to a slightly delayed but greater reward. Or, extreme toil or sacrifice can lead to an extremely delayed reward. Morality shows us how to toil and sacrifice slightly or extremely or somewhere in the middle. Moral clarity comes when we know exactly how much toil and sacrifice is needed to earn society's rewards.
As I kept reading and watching, the scariest whoppers of all began to appear in the distance. The moral of some stories was that there was nothing in the distance but more distance. The distant truth recedes from us and is laughing at our efforts to reach it. Truth is so dim and so far away it is like when your parents are at choir practice. They'll never know what happened. The entire cosmos will never know. How things happened recedes into the distance. All we have and all we need is an immediate clarity about who is winning and who is losing.
Everyone knows what it is like to win. It tickles. No one will forget what it is like to lose. It stings. What is it like to be moral?
It neither tickles nor stings. Morality isn't like anything at all. It isn't alive like winning and losing. We were told morality can make you a better winner or a better loser. Better how? We can pretend that we don't feel the tickle. Is that so we don't get our ass kicked by stinging losers? We can act like we don't feel the sting. Is that so no one will have to feel sorry for us? Do adults feel the tickle of winning when they watch us do the pledge? Are there stinging losers who want to kick our ass with H-bombs?
I said I wanted a moral path. All I have to show for it is some whoppers. Any truth they could point to is fleeing at an ever-increasing speed. It leaves a dark reality in its wake. So dark that it's hard to find any whoppers in it. I remember wanting to believe they were in there somewhere. The moral abyss was filled with dark whoppers. I imagined the tickle of finding them.
The first step is to embrace the darkness. It is no lie that we do not need to be moral. We don't have to learn anything. The universe is nothing more than a contest of elementary forces. Life is what it looks like- a contest of competing urges. We don't need to understand the forces to know what they are like. We don't have to know what we are to know what we like. We can leave it all to Nature. We can do nothing and watch what our nature would have us do. We can be a contest of forces. Everyone knows what that looks like.
Large numbers of humans like to clog together into societies. A large mass of society has a pull on people. It looks like a randomly formed heap at first but quickly, interaction with the tickle force and the sting force will reorient the heap and give it a top and bottom. At the bottom of the heap, everyone is crushed by the total stinging force of all losing interactions. Winning interactions rise to the top of the heap where the tickle force keeps all winners oriented away from the losers.
Those who avoid either winning or losing interactions cannot hold their place in the heap. The surrounding forces of upward mobility will cause an inescapable subsidence for those who don't or can't win at least some of the time.
Eventually, all the tickle force works its way to the top of the heap where it forms a thin membrane of intense hyper-tickles. The stinging force increases on the rest of the heap until there is simply no longer enough losers to sustain the growing demands of winning. This causes the normally weak and self-annihilating angry force to align against the stinging force. The heap explodes violently sending its participants in all directions. Some will drift forever in the abyss and some will become rubble-rabble in the formation of a new heap.
Back in elementary school, we could go though two or three heap-formations in a single recess. We knew there was morality whenever an adult was peering out the window at the playground. We recognized morality when we heard it shouting at us. We recognized the footsteps of its approach. Once morality had stormed off, it was back to the heap for us. There was no such thing as morality-at-a-distance.
No one has to grasp morality as a set of guiding principles when it looms out of reach like a security camera. Just know when you need to look good so morality won't come after you. Make sure all is back in order before your parents return from choir practice. If cornered, don't tell sloppy whoppers. That is what our nature would have us do. We can have a morality if we really want one. Why? So we can evade it when we don't want it? Morality is what we hope other people believe in. Don't you believe it. We all know we have a delicately balanced economy of whoppers. Right?
I was as morally conflicted as a science fiction anthology. Emersion in the heap wasn't what I wanted to do. I had a diminishing enthusiasm for what life in the heap was like. Winning and losing were clearly substantive, but they alone seemed like an incomplete source of being alive. There was some other urge so dissatisfied it could allow only so much tickle or sting before an uncomfortable chill set in. The chill was tangible and dulled the tickles and stings. Another elementary official whopper said that feeling was an urge for righteousness. No it wasn't. Chasing righteousness is just more winning and losing dressed up in a sport jacket with a fresh haircut, a clip-on tie and shiny shoes. In the age of sci-fi, Pascal's Wager was as tired as Duck and Cover.
I thought I could walk in anyone's shoes if I just examined them and their choices closely enough. There is always a reason beyond the obvious that takes reasoning to find. You know you've found it when you find yourself imagining making the same choice. There is something it is like to do that that is neither tickle nor sting. It warms the chill away.
What if there were four forces that were what-it-is-like to be alive… winning, losing, anger and empathy? In the old stories, empathy was always hidden behind the shadows of dark whoppers. An urge for the warm force could be the why behind why anyone would want a morality. The heap is a very cold place. The warm force can be exchanged only at close range within the heap. Those in the heap who wish to examine further will be met with a chill. This is the basis for an often told sci-fi whopper.
We watched and read gobs of stories about dystopian societies empowered by a cold and shallow scrutiny of everything. Great Leader decides who tickles and who stings. Innuendo and suspicion block any transmissions of empathy. Joyless citizens listen for morality's approaching footsteps. The moral of these stories is the same. Any half-baked authority can enforce a fear and dread of a made-up morality. Is that the future we're stuck with? What about a society based on a common desire for a deeply reasoned morality with guiding principles that show the path to satisfying our common craving for the warm force? It sounds fanciful but it's a good start for what might be a better whopper.
Imagine a mirror universe with a dystopian society empowered by a warm and detailed scrutiny of everything. Here, any examination of any person is incomplete until it reaches the threshold of empathy. Only then is any judgment rendered. The scrutiny needed to get there must not only be unchecked, it must be guaranteed to every citizen. Everyone knows that surveillance is empathetically looking for opportunities for the empathesist on duty to spring into compassionate action. Everyone involved has too much mutual sympathy to allow any abuse of the system. Everyone knows scrutiny is a sacred trust and a source of everyone's social and political empowerment. Wait… there's more.
Leaders have to regularly demonstrate feats of extended reasoning that lead us to undiscovered opportunities for empathy and unleash enough warm force for everyone. Scientists will discover the empathon particle and table lamps will light up when hugged. Scores of alien people come together in a Federation of Feeling Sorry For Each Other. Adults no longer fight wars about who gets to make who happy. Children don't worry about rockets during recess. It's a mighty whopper but one I can live with. It points to a not so distant truth.
There is no beyond among the stars. There is no beyond beyond the physical world. Don't be too disappointed. There is still a vast other realm that our nature makes us fit to explore. It lies beyond the obvious.