Friday, January 30, 2015

Third World Green Daddy 57: Moral clarity

Raising bilingual kids has been fascinating for me, bringing up questions, lessons, triumphs (and frankly not too many difficulties, thus far) that I never would have even anticipated.  Here are two great blogs on raising bilingual kids, and here is an insightful op-ed on the schizophrenic way we in the US and many other countries see bilingualism--as a useful resume-padder for the bourgeoisie but a deplorable deficiency among the immigrant proletariat.  This has manifested itself in our parenting environment of Arlington, Virginia, where Anglo parents wish their kids would learn Spanish, at the same time as they disparage Latinos in their words and attitudes!

One of the joys that I've discovered is my son Sam's acceptance of different procedures and rules when he's with Mom or Dad.  He sees no inherent problem in stopping, dismounting his bike, and holding my hand to cross the street when he's with me, while when he's with his mom he can just wait for the all-clear from her and cross the street on his bike himself.  There are a number of examples like this, where Sam very consciously differentiates between how something is done when he's around different people.  He is also aware of, and open to, his own evolving tastes and ways of doing things.  He used to be reluctant to try broccoli, but now it's one of his favorite things.  It's normal for kids' tastes to change, and often as not this is due less to anything inherent about the taste itself and more to the social factors that tell them what it says about them to like or not like a particular thing.  What is different with Sam is that he can give the whole narrative with broccoli or with any number of things about how he used to act a certain way and now acts another.  I wonder if this comfort with duality and change has to do with his being bilingual.  From his birth we've always made it clear that he should speak one language with Dad and another with Mom.  Even before he could name them as Spanish and English, he maintained the languages very neatly segregated, and now he consciously enumerates who he speaks Spanish with, who English, and who speaks other languages altogether.

At the same time, he doesn't seem to have lost clarity on moral topics; his relativism is limited to certain spheres.  He knows that certain airplanes and rockets are for killing people, which is bad, and certain ones are for transport or research, which are good.  If a kid takes something from him, he is usually willing to lend it, and if not, he'll try to discuss reasonably or make a fair trade.  But if the other kid admantly refuses, Sam will resort to accurately, forcibly ripping the offending toy from the kid's hands, and leaving it at that.  No more nor less than his just claim.

I, on the other hand, am not always so adept at balancing the relativism of a multicultural existence with the moral certainty required for an ethical life.  Specifically, I feel that my time in Colombia has left me more operative in my ethics, more of a Third-World hustler than a US Puritan insisting on what should be instead of what works.  On a base level, this comes from my sympathy with the person who is trying to get by in the world against sizeable odds.  A more noble way of looking at it is that perhaps I've come to take into account not only the angle of individual ethics but also the overarching fairness of society's structures, such that a thief may not look like a thief if what he is "stealing" was in fact despoiled from him by the prevailing social arrangement.

This pragmatic ethics contrasts with a book I read recently, The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux.  It's a good read, but beyond that it's a profile of a man who insists on doing things the complicated, "civilized" way instead of adapting to his surroundings.  After uprooting from what he regards as an immoral and decadent society in the US, the protagonist sets up shop in the Honduran jungle.  He applies his Yankee genius to build a successful residential compound, vegetable garden, and even an ice factory, but he refuses to adopt or even consider the "primitive" arrangements of the natives.  At first this goes well, but when he runs into certain inherent characteristics of the environment like the wet and dry seasonal fluctuations (precisely the inherent characteristics that the "primitive" practices are responding to), he is at a loss.  He plants high-yielding hybrid seed brought from the US instead of the cassava and plantains that are adapted to local conditions.  He mounts a quixotic project of digging a deep well instead of using a nearby spring that runs even in the dry season.  The epitome of this attitude is on a journey through the jungle, when he would rather sit out in the rain than build a functional but conceptually imperfect lean-to.  I see a lot of myself in this character in his inventiveness, his confidence in his own unorthodox solutions, his derision for the prevailing order of things (both in the US and in the Honduran jungle).  But I encountered my first dry season long ago, and I hope that I don't resemble him in my hubris or my rigid insistence on inappropriate ways of doing things.  Actually, I worry that I've gone too far in the other direction, of simply adjusting to whatever the prevailing situation, values and dreams be damned.

At any rate, a more pragmatic moral outlook allows me to operate in the world, adapting to a new job environment with its own codes and ethics, diving in the dumpster or offsetting my family's food bill through other unorthodox means.  In today's dog-eat-dog economy, I even take pleasure in (and derive some economic benefit from) accepting the scam offers of different credit cards and discount membership clubs, then scamming them back (always within the bounds of the law, of course).

But at the same time I wonder about my moral clarity.  Is all this adaptation, all this subjugation of lofty moral values to the base considerations of what is possible and/or necessary, taking a toll on what I truly believe in or stand for?  I remember this spring I was buying some trees to plant at my family's house in Wisconsin.  At the warehouse the saleswoman pulled us aside and offered us some worm compost that she was selling out of her van (I didn't buy any because I didn't need it).  I thought nothing of it, but then the guy I was with, a surrogate father to me, commented on the way back that he'd lost all respect for her when she did that.  She was using her paid time as a saleswoman in the employ of the tree store owner to peddle her own product.  I'd just regarded it as someone hustling nobly in the face of hard economic times!  My companion said, "Come on, you wouldn't do that if you were in her position."  I replied that these days, I'm not sure what I'm capable of! 

Who knows if the woman was underpaid, in which case the boss is doing a bad thing and doesn't have the moral authority to denounce the saleswoman, or if she was decently paid and just being greedy?  Probably something in-between.

This summer there were a few cases on the news of kids who died from being left in a hot car.  Of course the news coverage centered on how much was the parent's negligence, and how much his malice, namely the nuances of guilt and blame.  But all I could think about was that kid in his last moments, suffering, feeling confused and abandoned and betrayed, wondering why this was happening and where the parent was.  Did the kid call out?  Did he cry?  Did he just lose consciousness gradually (and mercifully)?  My wife's thoughts were of how the parent must feel now.  At any rate, neither of us did much moralizing about right vs. wrong, or assigning blame for the situation.  I realize that for a court or a police officer such a position isn't tenable, but I think it's our right as bystanders to feel compassion more than vengeance.  In this case I think that less morality (understood as the classification of things as right or wrong) and more human sympathy would do us all well.

I've also noticed an unhealthy moralistic tone in many discussions about economic development.  Often we (at least in the US international development sector) dwell on what is theoretically or conceptually right, and will insist on doing that, even at the expense of approaches or solutions that are less internally coherent but more feasible in the real world.  On the same note, I have found that sometimes critiques of a given position are seen as advocacy of a particular opposing position, when often the critic simply doesn't yet have a position or is not sure.  There should be a larger, more respected space given to uncertainty, skepticism, and relativity, because these things are at the root of changes for the better.  Criticism of current shortcomings should be seen as a good thing, an opportunity to improve, not as a threat.  However, if the people hearing a critique have a purely moralistic vision of right vs. wrong, they are not able to process whatever might be valid and useful from that critique.  A critique of today's economy isn't an argument in favor of Soviet-style Communism, but rather a call to consider the shortcomings of the current economic order, and attempt to rectify them.

At any rate, I'm not sure where I stand these days.  I worry about drifting away from solid moral positions, but at the same time I see the utility of adaptation to the practical values and constraints of a given context.  Above all I see the danger of petrified morality.  The field agronomist and anthropologist in me is a true relativist, but then I worry that I'm not moral anymore.  I see the reason and right in both sides of many issues, and disagree with many of the absolute claims of the powerful.

I blame much of this impasse on Colombia, on the way my eyes were opened to complexity and ambiguity by living there.  Living amid the murky Colombian conflict has impaired not so much my ability to see things clearly, but perhaps simply my willingness to blind myself to the complexity of the world.  In a country at war with itself, there can be no true "them" vs. "us"; everybody is part of the same society, and presumably most are working toward their vision of how the society should change for the better.  Who's right and wrong in that?

When I was in college I often grappled with the question of how much I should or should not moderate my strident advocate for certain positions, and now I'm faced with the mirrored question of how much adaptation to or tolerance of the existing order is too much.  I recently read Gustavo Gutierrez's masterwork on Liberation Theology, and one thing that jumped out at me is his argument tha the true measure of a Christian life is to what extent your actions bring about the Kingdom of God.  This is not exactly clear-cut and unambiguous, but I take it generally to mean that, if we are fighting against oppression, injustice, and exclusion in the world, then we're on the right track, and if not, we are heading in the wrong direction.  It still doesn't answer how you fight against these things, whether through sympathy and love or through blame and punishment (following Gutierrez, I'd opt for the former, since the idea is to emulate Christ and recognize Him in all humans, as opposed to emulate those who castigated Him and recognized no humanity in Him).  But for now it's about as morally clear as I can get.

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