September 9, 2010

Just Words?

"Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me". Who hasn't said this at least once on the play ground? Saying words will never hurt me is the premier way to tell someone the mean things they are saying does not matter to you. Of course if I had to guess I would say 8/10 times this rhyme is rattled off the words are in fact hurting you. They are cutting right down to the bone and you yelp out this little mantra to keep from crying as you run off. We all learned by the time we were 10 that words matter, and there is little comfort in the phrase 'they were just words'.

Words matter. Words have meaning. Words communicate. Words have impact. Nothing is 'just words'. However saying they are 'just words' is become popular off the playground as well. Right, wrong, good, evil have been relegated to being just words in popular discussion.

I admittedly have always found the idea that right and wrong are only words odd. And I don't think I have ever talked with a person who truly believes it when they say it. The truth is we seem hardwired to think somethings are wrong and somethings are right no matter how hard we try to think otherwise. Call it a bit of a twisted sense of humor but I laugh every time Metallica and other like bands complain when people illegally download their music. You can almost hear the whine in their voices when they say it is not fair, that it is not right for people to steal from them. They were one of the voices of my generation saying do whatever you feel like, disobey authority, drink in excess, use whatever drug you like, indulge in sex with whoever whenever, take whatever you want. I guess I along with thousands of others missed the subtext; 'do whatever you want but don't steal my stuff because that's wrong' .

You really can't have it both ways if right and wrong, good and evil are just words than there are no actions that are off the table. No behavior is condemnable. We might as well throw open the doors of every prison and let everyone out. Because if there is no right and wrong all we can say if we dislike the action they took, but how can we punish? So you took my ipod, well that is just you living life as you see fit. So you robbed a banking killing 2 people, boy I wish you had chosen another action but hey to each their own. So you want to kidnap and rape children I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

While there are a few die hards out there who really do stick to their guns and say since they do not believe in an overarching good and evil there is no action they can call wrong, most do not. Most people refuse to live in that world. I don't blame them I know I don't want to live in a world where people can simply do whatever they feel like whenever they feel like. I like living in a world that has stop lights. I like knowing that as I approach an intersection if I have a green light I can go, and the people traveling the other way have a red light so they stop. The last thing I want is to discover that hundreds of people don't believe in red lights, or that they have decided to throw off the archaic traffic laws that subjugated their forefathers.

But we don't really get to pick the world we live in. It is not about preference it is about reality. The real question put before us is; are right and wrong, good and evil just words or are they more? Put another way is right and wrong something independent from humanity, something that we discover instead of something that we create? It is a hard question to answer. And it is not one that is likely to ever be answered conclusively. But there are some hints that right and wrong might be independent of us.

One such hint is that what is right and wrong is for the most part universal. This likely a controversial statement; but think about it. Have you ever heard of a society that values cowardice over bravery or chaos over order, that killing babies for fun was the norm, or that theft was acceptable. We have all heard of individuals who think these things but they tend to be considered criminals, not revolutionary thinkers. A common myth is that cultures vary greatly in norms and values; which is not exactly true.

Cultures vary greatly in their expression of common norms and values, and on who those norms and values are extended too. Cannibals ate people from other tribes not their own people. Most Societies would never dream of killing their own children or raping their own women but they have no problem killing their enemies children or raping their enemies women. That doesn't mean they value killing children or raping women it just means their values are not extended to people outside their tribe.

We also disagree on what exception clauses are attached to our norms and values. I just said most tribes would not willfully harm their own children. But some have. Even the bible describes cultures that sacrifices children to angry gods. This should not be seen as an example of a culture that does in fact kill children for fun. Instead this is a culture that attached an exception clause to the moral norm do not harm children. If it was written out it might say something like, it is immoral to harm a child, unless Moloch demands it to make the crops grow and our boarders secure. If I had to guess I would say that whenever it came time to appease Moloch there were lots of crying families.

Our culture and theirs does not disagree on whether it is acceptable to kill children for fun, we disagree on whether there exists a reason for ignoring that norm. For the most part we all have the same values we just disagree on how broadly they should be applied and when they should be ignored.

I think right and wrong are more than just words. But does that mean that everything we call right is right or everything we call wrong is wrong. No. Undoubtedly things we label right and wrong get mislabeled. For much of our history slavery was labeled right, that was a mislabel. For a large subculture of Christians playing cards was labeled as wrong, that was a mislabel. But we need to ask ourselves does labeling things incorrectly really tell us there is no right way to label? Or does it simply tell us to try harder, look closer and listen better? Saying that we have gotten something wrong assumes that there is a right we can be.

More than words.