"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, November 17, 2017

Moral Robocalls–Persistent And Annoying Just Like The Real Thing

Most Americans have set up a No Call service designed to protect them from persistent robocalls. The service works well enough, although First Amendment challenges have allowed political interest groups and charities to have unrestricted access. 

To most of us there is no difference between selling time shares and vacuum cleaners or membership in Save the Bay or the Smithsonian.  Whether the pitch is for a better world or better home appliances, it is still a pitch for money.

The National Do Not Call registry is a Maginot Line – a last defense against aggressive advertisers but one which will never hold.  The rights of free speech for corporations and businesses, more and more upheld by the Supreme Court, the pervasiveness and general acceptance of advertising as a way of American life, and the canniness of marketers who have always found exploitable cracks in privacy defenses, all militate against the individual. 

Image result for images no call registry

Hectoring, however, is human.  Once is never enough.  Persistence – constant badgering – works.  It takes little to repeat the same request, and the effect – cumulative, annoying, and bothersome – is always the same.  Wearing someone down is easy.  Being worn down is water torture – anything to stop it.

Henry Trumbull could never manage to control his wife’s constant nagging.  If it wasn’t the toilet seat, it was his hairs in the sink, tracking dirt on the carpet, or eating with his mouth open.  She had a delicate, sweet way of reminding him about the trash, the toilet paper roll, and the heat – more cajoling than anything.  She always found the right moment to comment – in his best moods or when he was playing with the children – but nagging is still nagging, and eventually he got fed up with her chirpy reminders and turned a mean streak.  Not only did he try to remember to put the toilet seat down, he deliberately left it up.

Image result for images empty toilet paper roll

There is nothing new in this familiar story of marriage.  Most couples sort out their annoyances one way or another, compromise, or divorce.  What is interesting, however, is the fact that most marital problems boil down the same nagging and hectoring that eventually wrecked the Trumbulls’ marriage.  Marriages do not end so much because of infidelity, spousal abuse, or abandonment.  They end because of robocalls – irritating, minor,  but insistent whiny pestering about nothing.

Nor is there anything new about pestering.  Children pester their parents until they give in.  Students nag their teachers until they add a point or two to their grades.  Politicians nag and pester on the stump.  How are rehearsed sound-bites, repeated over and over again anything less than robocall pestering.  Once a voter makes up his mind and gives in to the blandishments and promises of the candidate, the hectoring stops.  The candidate can be tuned out and shelved until the election.

A Catholic priest once told me that his job was moral robocalling, but that was only the beginning of persistent, pestering calls of conscience that would follow.  It was not enough, he said, to introduce the idea of sin and guilt but it had to become so much a part of the sinner’s psychology that his own conscience would take over.  

“Once you have entertained the idea that you might have done wrong", he said, "you become more and more convinced that you did."

The aspiration of the ascetic is not so much to dismiss the outside world but to shut out the inner.  ‘Contemplation without cognition’ is a way, say Hindu philosophers, of seeing the world as a chimera, an illusory promise without fulfillment; yet it is quieting the pesky thoughts of the internal mind which is the real challenge. It is a relatively easy matter to convince oneself that the physical world and all its temptations are meaningless when considered in the context of eternity; but another thing altogether to be convinced that niggling guilt, shame, and irresponsibility can be ignored without consequence.

Image result for image hindu ascetic meditating

Anyone who has tried to meditate understands the problem.  Conscience never stops annoying.  After all, the abandonment of responsibility and the willing unmooring of attachments and duty is certainly not Christian let alone American.

We live in a hounding world – demands on time, commitment, and patience are universal and unforgiving.  It is one thing to enjoy the take-aways of a pluralistic society; another thing to sort out right from wrong. The more choices there are, the more possibility for error.

The mind has always been a jumble and at best a sortable tangle; but in earlier, simpler days morality was more of a big-ticket item. Innocence and guilt regulated beyond a doubt.  Now there is more of everything, and issues of responsibility, duty, respect, and discipline are not so clear.

Image result for images cotton mather

Of course there are many on the social margins – either in dysfunctional, antisocial communities or above the law in high, derivative-based finance – but for most of the rest of us in the middle, conscience must necessarily be overactive.  Not only does freedom of choice mean freedom to go off the moral rails; but in a highly-charged, divisive political environment, we are forced to choose.  Indifference is the worst sin in an identity-driven society. 

Every cause makes demands, forces commitment, appeals to morality, ethics, and simply doing the right thing.  No one is spared.  There are no Do Not Call registries.

An expatriate living in India a number of years ago was moved by the extreme poverty and often miserable conditions of the poor. Beggars were everywhere.  Sanitation was no existent, water polluted, disease rampant.  It was one thing to simply survive in such an aggressive environment, another thing entirely to adjust to the moral dilemma of a wealthy man in dirt poor place.

He decided to pick an affliction and stick to it.  He gave only to blind beggars, gave generously to schools and associations for the blind, and contributed to Helen Keller International.  Otherwise the hundreds of legitimate demands on his conscience would be overwhelming. 

Robocalls are a nuisance; but they are no different from the importunate and persistent demands made on our privacy, our ethics, our morality, our sense of responsibility, and our conscience.

We would like to extend the reach of the No Call Registry; but we know that like all Maginot Lines, it is not defensible. 

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