Poem: Eternal Recurrence and Damnable Regrets

It was a misunderstanding, really,
or a slip of the tongue,
or maybe he really was
just a major asshole.

Whatever, he felt the rising burn
in his cheek and the glow of his ears
whenever he thought of it,
and it played on an interminable
loop in vivid detail in both
waking memories and lucid dreams.

There’s nothing to be done now, 
he thought, no exit from past decisions.
Redemption is impossible and
Salvation a mere myth of mortals.
He would always be what he always was.

As he stared at the fan on the ceiling,
he only wished he had chosen his
words more carefully. 

Poem: The Shame of Engine Sludge (#napowrimo)

I always dread this task,
emptying the oil and
replacing with clear and shiny
fluids flowing through fresh filters.

I should say I don’t mind
most of it—it’s refreshing
to screw on sparkling protection
and fill the block with lubrication.

It’s the old detritus that vexes me.
I’ve done this thousands of times,
but I still leave spots on the pavement,
evidence of attrition and abuse slowly
wearing away the efficiency of my engine.

I know others see the harm I’ve caused,
and neither power washer nor industrial
soap can spare me the injury of a shameful past.

Photo by Malte luk on Pexels.com

Poem: Signs and Signifiers

I like being out
in the world with
Deaf people.

In a crowd,
they are always first
to pick out friends
we hope to meet, or
find the exit signs
and the rest rooms.

At the grocery store,
they have no problem
picking out the right spice
from a crowded shelf.

And shame shrouds me
as I enviously imagine
how my hearing is
my disadvantage.

Photo by Philip Boakye on Pexels.com

Wittgenstein, Shame, and the Nazi Problem

“Hate between men comes from cutting ourselves off from each other. Because we don’t want anyone else to look inside us, since it’s not a pretty sight in there.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 1945)

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein hated himself. If you described him as a self-loathing ludwig-wittgenstein-2aristocrat, a self-loathing Jew, or a self-loathing homosexual, you would probably be right, but it is anyone’s guess which of the three descriptions is most accurate. He gave his money away, responded ambiguously to race and religion, and necessarily kept his sexual and romantic inclinations as private as possible.

Ludwig was reared in a Roman Catholic home and did not have a strong Jewish identity as a young man despite having three Jewish grandparents. By coincidence, Ludwig and Adolf Hitler attended the same grammar school; although they were about the same age, they were two years apart as Ludwig was advanced a year and Adolf was held back a year in school. Some believe Ludwig is the Jewish boy who first provoked Hitler’s anti-Semitic rage as described in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Others point out that Hitler probably wouldn’t have known Ludwig was Jewish at the time. Either way, it is likely Ludwig would not have thought much of his less accomplished contemporary at the school. If they met, it is doubtful Ludwig would have shown any sort of camaraderie to the young Adolf, and Adolf probably would have resented Ludwig on reflection even if he did not during their time at school together. Throughout his life, Ludwig could be brash, even to his friends, so it is easy to imagine how he may have treated those he saw as his inferiors. Bertrand Russell once wrote that Ludwig could be “destitute of the false politeness that interferes with truth.”

Regardless of whether Ludwig provoked Hitler, we can’t help but wonder the source of Ludwig’s own anti-Semitism. He identified as a Catholic but also deprecated himself in terms of his Jewishness, saying, for example, “Amongst Jews ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man. Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented. (Myself for instance.)” (Culture and Value, 1931). All writers and thinkers are plagued by self-doubt, and sometimes a free-floating anxiety seems to just hover around us waiting for a place to land. Perhaps this was a convenient way for Ludwig to explain his doubts and insecurities to himself, even if his assertion is demonstrably false, but he certainly had a complicated relationship with his own racial identity.

Ludwig similarly seemed to feel guilty for his staggering wealth. Thanks to his father’s ruthless business strategies, Ludwig was one of the richest people in Europe. He seemed to find his wealth problematic. Perhaps he believed money itself is corrupting or maybe he was ashamed of how his wealth was acquired. Whatever the case, he gave his money to his siblings and lived in famously stark accommodations.

His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was a wealthy industrialist who amassed much of his wealth through aggressive business dealings during the war between Russia and Turkey in 1878 (my info here is largely based on an essay by Jorn K. Brammann and John Moran, which can be found here). He emerged from his war dealings as the leader of the iron and steel industry with one of the greatest fortunes in Austria. Once established as a leader in industry, Karl pursued greater power through vertical integration and control, establishment of cartels, and gaining influence with financial institutions. Karl opposed government protection of consumers but sought government protection of entrepreneurs from foreign competition. His strike busting activities were described in Arbeiter-Zeitung, by declaring that the director evicted workers “with a lot of policemen, and the latter began the expulsion. The head of a family with four children was expelled late at night, when the children were already asleep in their beds. Sergeant Werner, a well-known enemy of the workers, mercilessly dragged them out of their beds, and they were made homeless.” Karl’s only apparent political ideology seemed to be to promote policies that would aid industrialists like himself in the search for wealth and power.

As an ostensibly Catholic family with seemingly limitless wealth and power, the Wittgenstein family might understandably feel insulated from the effects of world affairs. They may have felt that Hitler’s advance was no threat to them personally, but their safety was more precarious than one might expect, and protecting the sisters from Nazism required a significant bribe. In 1939, Ludwig and his only surviving brother, Paul, managed to convince Hitler to grant half-breed status to the daughters of Karl Wittgenstein in exchange for the gold and foreign currency held in Switzerland by a Wittgenstein trust (for more information, see here). At the time, Ludwig and Paul were both safely outside Austria. The amount of money transferred to the Nazis was significant and surely aided the continued advance of the Reich to one degree or another. Ludwig distanced himself from his own race, used his extreme wealth to buy privilege for his family, and likely helped the Reich survive, and perhaps we do not blame him for it.

Ludwig’s brother Rudi committed suicide, it is thought, after fearing he could be identified as a homosexual in a published study.  Rudi left a suicide note that referred to his “perverted disposition.” Ludwig had every reason to hide his own homosexuality. It was illegal, and the punishment could be devastating. Ludwig was a contemporary of Alan Turing, who was subjected to “chemical castration” by the British authorities, and his “treatment” led inexorably to his death by alleged or supposed suicide.  Ludwig’s own sexuality was secret and remains a source of speculation. Depending on who is telling the story, Ludwig falls somewhere on a continuum between being a homosexual who almost never engaged in physical sex to being a promiscuous gay man scouting about for anonymous sex. Each of the most extreme descriptions seems motivated by homophobia, and his sex life was probably much less interesting than either virtual celibacy or promiscuity would suggest. The existential threat to gay men was real, though, so being homosexual robbed one of any sense of safety and security.

Given the circumstances and the fact that he contemplated suicide often, it is amazing that Ludwig did not kill himself. Bertrand Russell wrote of Ludwig: “He used to come to my rooms at midnight, and for hours he would walk backward and forward like a caged tiger. On arrival, he would announce that when he left my rooms he would commit suicide. So, in spite of getting sleepy, I did not like to turn him out. On one such evening, after an hour or two of dead silence, I said to him, ‘Wittgenstein, are you thinking about logic or about your sins?’ ‘Both,’ he said, and then reverted to silence.” We might be tempted to say that philosophy saved Wittgenstein, and perhaps it did, but his philosophy offers little comfort, frankly, for his followers who read him with the hope of alleviating their own discomfort. Believe me, I would know.

Wittgenstein’s shame was ambiguous. We can’t fault him for the behavior of his father, his inherited wealth, his desire to save his sisters, his Jewishness, or his homosexuality, but, still, we can understand his shame. Wittgenstein finds expiation in the same evidence that condemns him. He devoted much of his life to trying to overcome ambiguity and paradox and to atone for his stained being, but declared that nothing unambiguous could be said about ethics. In his “Lecture on Ethics,” he said, “Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.” Ethics could not ameliorate his torment.

Despite his despair regarding both religion and ethics, one of his most trusted, and arguably more accomplished, students was Elizabeth Anscombe, a Catholic and dedicated ethicist who saw ethical rules as both absolute and universal. Wittgenstein named Anscombe as one of the literary executors of his estate. In responding to Oxford University’s decision to award Harry Truman an honorary degree, Anscombe wrote an open letter denouncing the honor. After the bombing of Japan, she argued that the intentional killing of innocent people is never justified, even if it results in some good. She asked, “Come now: if you had to choose between boiling one baby and letting some frightful disaster befall a thousand people—or a million people, if a thousand is not enough—what would you do?”

Wittgenstein’s entire life was a kind of penance. He was rich but gave his money away to avoid its corruption. He taught school. He was a gardener. He worked in a hospital. He served in the military. He tried to guide and protect the ones he loved. In the end, he aided the Nazi apparatus, brutalized children, and made those around him miserable. Describing his own life, he said, “I sit astride life like a bad rider on a horse. I only owe it to the horse’s good nature that I am not thrown off at this very moment.” (Culture and Value,  1939-40). He spent his years on earth devoted to determining what can be said precisely or how it can be possible to communicate, but he left us only with the same ambiguity he found so tortuous to begin with. When we study Ludwig’s life and words, we see no way forward. As such, Ludwig’s shame seems to serve no purpose.

Then again, perhaps Ludwig leaves us with some comfort, after all. We all carry our private shame, but that may be exactly what connects us to the rest of humanity. Ludwig wrote, “Of course, you must continue to feel ashamed of what’s inside you, but not ashamed of yourself before your fellow men” (Culture and Value, 1945). We need not be ashamed before our fellow humans because we are all flawed and seeking our own redemption. Some people run from their shame, some try to suppress it, some try to atone for it, and some, like Ludwig, do all three, but everyone has to manage it one way or another.

Hannah Arendt, who infamously had an affair with her Nazi professor, Martin Heidegger, said she was tempted to respond to people who were ashamed to be German by saying it made her ashamed to be human (see “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility”). Surely, Arendt had to manage her own shame, but she wasn’t paralyzed by it. She went on to say, “For the idea of humanity, purged of all sentimentality, has the very serious consequence that in one form or another men must assume responsibility for all crimes committed by men and that all nations share the onus for evil committed by others. Shame at being a human being is the purely individual and still non-political expression of this insight.” In the end, Ludwig’s shame was a political act, even if unconscious.

As human beings, I’m amazed we can live with ourselves at all. For a moment, in the late 20th century, some of us were able to convince ourselves that humans were evolving to a better state. We thought humans were becoming increasingly humane. Ludwig and Arendt both lived in times of terror, and both engaged with evil in one way or another. Against terrifying odds, the holocaust eventually ended, and we slowly came to believe we would not make such mistakes again. However, nothing exists in the world now to remind us of our optimism. We must rely on our old crutch, hope, so that we can do better in the future. Arendt urges us to feel shame for all of humanity because if we feel no shame, we also lose hope. Those who are shameless will seek to destroy our world, and only those of us filled with shame can save it.

Our shame, like Ludwig’s, may be ambiguous, but it serves a purpose. It is the source of our humanity and our only hope for salvation.





Why men don’t speak out against sexism and misogyny

When we feel ashamed or judged, we have several possible ways of responding. One IMG_0516method of dealing with shame is to defend yourself vigorously, to deny anything is wrong, and to attack those who might think differently. We can imagine the loud protests of Hamlet’s mother, though perhaps Hamlet’s attack on his mother is equally revealing. A second method, which is my preferred method, is to try to suppress it, hide it, and pretend it does not exist, and I think I have plenty of company with millions of people struggling with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and a myriad of shortcomings. This kind of shame destroys you from the inside out. The third and most difficult method of dealing with shame is to acknowledge it, confront it, and try to resolve it in some way. When we meet individuals who can do this, we admire them, praise them, and exalt them, which is as it should be. Think of a former member of the KKK who becomes a civil rights leader, for example.

In the aftermath of Elliot Rodgers’ mass killing, pundits, analysts, feminists, psychologists, and just about everyone else has jumped to understand and explain what may cause someone to want to kill with such intensity and drive. It appears that Rodgers dealt with feelings of deep shame and inadequacy because he felt he failed as a man because he couldn’t convince women to have sex with him. Many men, even those who have had their share of sexual encounters, share his shame, but fewer question the assumptions that create that shame. Men are expected to be on a constant mission to prove themselves through sexual conquests, and most men internalize this to one degree or another in the same way that women internalize attitudes toward body image.

It isn’t surprising, then, that many men reacted defensively to discussions of sexist attitudes and their dire consequences. Who is going to say, “I see now that I’ve bought into a dangerous belief system. I see that my way of thinking leads to mass murder.”? Not many, which might explain the emotional and unrelated defenses of Glenn Beck, Seth Rogen, and all the men who reacted negatively to #yesallwomen. Beck went on a long tirade against the idea that sexual assault and harassment is prevalent and suggested that people are calling normal, consensual sex rape. Rogen responded to Ann Hornaday’s critique of media that depicts women as trophies by tweeting, ““How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.”

These men want to make clear that they are not part of the problem. They recognize that their attitudes and maybe even their actions are now being criticized as part of the problem, and they are saying, “Hey, don’t point the finger at me.” They may also realize they have internalized the values that oppress and torture men. We may want to respond to #yesallwomen with #notallmen, but the fact is that all men, at least in my culture, are familiar with the beliefs and attitudes that shame men for “purity” and women for “sexual prowess.” We feel it deep in our bones, and it makes us uncomfortable.

In the next wave, many women wonder why more “enlightened” men don’t speak up and stand with them. To be fair, many men have shown the courage to do this, but doing so requires us all to look inside and examine what we may prefer to hide and suppress. You don’t have to be a rapist or a murderer to recognize common feelings or assumptions you may have or may have once had, and it can create a kind of soul-burning shame.

Few tasks in life are as difficult as confronting our own shame. The attitudes and beliefs that define us as men and women touch us at the core of our being. A thoughtful, honest, complex, and courageous discussion of how to liberate and protect men and women will be lengthy and arduous, but a better world is possible.

PS: And let’s have a discussion about access to guns as well.

For more on shame, see the work of Brené Brown.


Teaching Ethics to Greedy Bastards

When a corporate executive, high-powered lawyer, or well-funded medical researcher is exposed for egregious unethical behavior, we often say it would have been a good idea for that person to have had a class in ethics with some follow-up training. We’d like to think that with the proper ethics training even the most heartless sociopath could be encouraged to at least follow some of the rules.

And if we can’t (note: we can’t) encourage bad people to be good people, what are ethicists worth? Well, our roles fall into several categories: 1. Providing ethical answers to dilemmas. 2. Offering ethical analysis of a particular problem. 3. Teaching ethical decision-making, which makes a good-faith assumption that the decision maker is sincere in wanting to be ethical. 4. Holding wrongdoers accountable for their behavior.

The first category is offered to clients who don’t want to take complete responsibility for their ethical decisions. Once a professional ethicist has offered an opinion on whether something is above board, an organization can say, proudly, “All our policies and procedures have been reviewed by someone with extensive training and expertise in ethics and found to be compliant with all ethical and legal codes.” Indeed, it can be a very good idea for an organization to get an outsider to review policies for possible ethical problems.

The second category is related, perhaps a subset of the first. When institutions encounter a particularly sticky issue, they might ask an ethicist to help them work through all the ethical considerations and explore how various ethical theories can help them solve the dilemma. Again, a useful role for the ethicist.

The third category involves training. Rather than giving answers to ethical questions, the ethicist can teach motivated individuals to analyze various conflicts on their own. Most people know how to think ethically, but they sometimes forget some of the considerations that professionals might find to be second nature.  Developing a more thorough approach to ethical approaches can benefit individuals and organization alike. It cannot, however, turn a bad person in to a good one. Evil people don’t lack ethical tools—they lack a conscience.

So, what do we do about the evil people? An important role for ethicists, in my considered and passionately held opinion, is to cry foul when individuals and institutions engage in egregious behavior. And when ethicists disagree on what is an egregious action, fervent debate erupts in the public sphere, benefitting the public and everyone involved, or so it should be. When ethicists sound the alarm that some behavior is abhorrent and shameful, a public chorus against such actions can at least ensure that the bad actors confront public scrutiny.

Think it doesn’t work? Remember in 2011 when executives at Transocean received bonuses for their safety record after the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 and sent millions of gallons of oil streaming into the water? After public outcry, the executives thought better of keeping those bonuses and donated them to the Deepwater Horizon Memorial Fund. Social regulation pushes and pulls behavior through honor and shame. In responding to abhorrent behavior, Kwame Anthony Appiah says, “Shame, and sometimes even carefully calibrated ridicule, may be the tools we need. Not that appeals to morality—to justice, to human rights—are irrelevant.”

Most of us evaluate ethical theories in the following way: Knowing that I am an ethical person, which ethical theory best fits my behavior? Following this method, we can all justify our actions through theoretical ethics as we simply seek out the theories that validate our behavior. Given that we all have justification for our behavior, public outcry is not likely to immediately shake our perception of what is appropriate, and, indeed, the public rarely speaks as one voice. Further, the common view is often wrong, or so I judge it to be. Bertrand Russell once said, “In view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” Indeed.

Many people, especially those in power, feel their behavior is beyond reproach. They seem to think they could not have gained power if they were not deserving of it. Public outcry and public discourse, can remind them that they are, in common with the rest of us, flawed and fallible human beings. What this means is that we must raise our voices, express what we find shameful and honorable, and join or create a conversation over morality, dignity, and justice. Only when we suppress our voices do we lose. Only our common humanity makes our salvation possible.

We are flawed. Redemption is possible.

This week a proposal to discredit the Occupy Wall Street movement was leaked to the public. The consulting firm (Clark, Lytle, Geduldig, and Cranford) would charge the American Bankers Association $850,000 to develop a campaign to destroy OWS. Included in this service is a search of OWS “leader’s” civil and criminal histories, including bankruptcies, tax liens, judgments, litigation history, and “other associations.”

Many people support the OWS movement because they have lost their homes, are bankrupt, have lost their jobs, and face a multitude of financial and social problems. Discovering that they have such problems should not take much work. All one has to do, really, is read the heart-breaking stories on We Are The 99 Percent. We are all leaders of this movement, and I hope we will continue to embrace the imperfect, the vulnerable, and the tarnished.

Everyone has problems, and everyone has a past, and everyone is human. As long as we are human, dignity is possible. As long as we are free our voice matters. I read a column today expressing sadness for Lt. John Pike, who pepper-sprayed students at UC-Davis. Indeed, he is a human being, and anyone one of us may have acted the same way in his circumstances. If he can speak as a human, flawed and vulnerable, I feel sure he will be forgiven and embraced. It may take him years to be able to face what has happened to him and express it.

Oddly enough, the CLGC proposal also paid a compliment of sorts to the OWS protesters. It says, “It may be easy to dismiss OWS as a ragtag group of protesters, but they have demonstrated that they should be treated more like an organized competitor who is very nimble and capable of working the media, coordinating third party support and engaging office holders to do their bidding.” They are certain that OWS is much like the ABA, a centralized and powerful organization looking out for its own interests. They don’t imagine that citizens may be motivated by a sense of justice and fairness. In their amoral world, they cannot imagine people who operate within a moral framework.

Also in the proposal, they mention that both the Tea Party and OWS supporters are angered by the bailouts of banks and the irresponsible behavior of the financial industry. It says, “This combination has the potential to be explosive later in the year when media reports cover the next round of bonuses and contrast it with stories of millions of Americans making do with less this holiday season.” No suggestion, of course, that executives should perhaps hold back on bonuses. Rather, they will simply find ways to manage public anger over their own greed, rather than curbing their greed the least little bit.

I said any human is worthy of dignity and respect and that redemption is always possible. It is clear that the financial industry is nowhere near redemption. They are not even near recognition that their own behavior is immoral and intolerable. They do not have a sense of shame. It is our job to show them that we have a sense of justice and a sense of honor. We must let them know we find their behavior shameful.