Sin, paranoia, and public opinion

Older Daughter has an Internet Radio show. I tuned in during my evening commute last night, to hear that although her parents would deny it “until the day they die,” we’d given bad instruction in her childhood when she asked how to tell left from right. “Your right is closest to the shed,” one of us is alleged to have explained. I have no memory of that, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have occurred to me to worry that such a reply might saddle her with a shameful shed-dependence she’d one day confess to strangers. “Do you know how many sides it’s possible to place near the shed? TWO!!” Sorry. There are so many ways a parent can sidetrack a kid, no wonder so many of my students say they’re not going to do it.

I also know, now, how Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson must have felt: sheds are irrelevant, let’s talk about something else!
Okay, how about Russell on sin, paranoia, and public opinion?
In chapter 7 he rightly notes the variability of conscience, which “enjoins different acts in different parts of the world” and shows that local custom, not universal commandments, accounts for the sense of “sin” and guilt. We fear the enmity of the “herd” but call it the wrath of God.


But there are real sins too, Russell says: ruthlessness and “harshness” in business, and cruelty at home, spread real misery and chip away at civilization.
Russell would have been a helpful participant in our class at the Beer Pale the other day, when we were wrestling with Hume’s “reason is the slave of the passions” maxim. 

It is not the business of reason to generate emotions, though it may be part of its function to discover ways of preventing such emotions as are an obstacle to well-being. To find ways of minimizing hatred and envy is no doubt part of the function of a rational psychology. But it is a mistake to suppose that in minimizing these passions we shall at the same time diminish the strength of those passions which reason does not condemn. In passionate love, in parental affecttion, in friendship, in benevolence, in devotion to science or art, there is nothing that reason should wish to diminish.

Isn’t that what Hume really meant to say?

The chapter on paranoia, “persecution mania,” is my least favorite. Russell comes off like Ayn Rand, bashing altruism, saying things like “No person should be expected to distort the main lines of his life for the sake of another individual” and “Very often the conduct that people complain of in others is not more than the healthy reaction of natural egoism.” But to his credit, he tempers the selfish sound of those remarks with a Jamesian caution: “remember that they see life from their own angle and as it touches their own ego, not from your angle and as it touches yours.” Right. Mutual blindness requires ego-correction, not more ego-assertion.

Chapter 9, on the stultifying constriction of public opinion, revisits the theme of tribal miseducation. 

A young man or young woman somehow catches ideas that are in the air, but finds that these ideas are anathema in the particular milieu in which he or she lives. It easily seems to the young as if the only milieu with which they are acquainted were representative of the whole world. They can scarcely believe that in another place or another set the views which they dare not avow for fear of being thought utterly perverse would be accepted as the ordinary commonplaces of the age. Thus through ignorance of the world a great deal of unnecessary misery is endured…

…what was good enough for his father ought to be good enough for him. If he shows any tendency to criticise his parents’ religious tenets or political affiliations, he is likely to find himself in serious trouble. For all these reasons, to most young men and young women of exceptional merit adolescence is a time of great unhappiness.  

The straight-jacketing of youthful imagination can crush the “freedom of spirit in which true happiness consists… our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbours, or even our relations.” 

So, parents and neighbors, be careful what you say about sheds.

5:40/6:27, 57/71

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