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

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Se Me Cayó, I Didn’t Drop It, It Fell–Passivity And American Moral Indifference

The passive voice is an important feature of Spanish, at least in its American usage.  One doesn’t forget things or drop them.  They are forgotten or dropped.  The subjunctive adds an additional tempering of duty and responsibility.  ‘Let the floor be washed’ is far more acceptable, less confrontational, and much more polite than ‘Wash the floor’.  The language is gently suggestive rather than forthright.  What does it matter if there is no finger of blame or a direct order if the meaning is understood? Isn’t an accommodating, forgiving language more valuable than one without nuance, subtlety, and especially good manners?

Already polite requests in Spanish are made even more so by the passive voice.  “May I go now?” becomes “Is my leaving possible?”, and by so doing phrasing the request in a more general, less direct, and more universal way.  It is never a question of permission but of context.  Given all the possibilities that might occur – staying longer, too long, not long enough; leaving too abruptly or not quickly enough; lingering the front door or opening it too quickly – no one must assess the request in any other way than generously.  Regardless of the impatience of the host or the impatience of the guest, the departure is made without even the suggestion of ulterior motives.

Of course the passive voice can be a convenient way out of trouble.  American children learn quickly from their Salvadoran nannies that confessing guilt in Spanish is far easier than confessional English.  There was no passive voice used in Salem at the witch trials, and the only true confession before God and Man could be “I did that”.  Catholic priests in an American confessional would never tolerate anything but the truth.  “Bless me Father, for I have sinned’ could never have a passive voice.  Sin could never simply come to one.  Biblical justice has no room for elisions.  A nun’s hand was never stayed by a child’s excuses.  The ruler came down on misbehavior without counsel.

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The cultural divide between Latin and North America could never be more distinctly seen than in this use of language.  Our Calvinist forefathers had an uncompromising view of right and wrong.  A Biblical injunction was just that – an order from God which one obeyed absolutely.  There were no conditionalities in Salem, no mitigating factors, and  no room for temporizing.  The soul would never see God if the pathway were unmarked.  There was no room for doubt or indecision in spiritual matters.  Sin did not just happen, one committed sin.  Regardless of the occasions of sin, the temptations of the Devil, or lack of backbone, a sin was a sin to be confessed. 

At the same time sin in Lazio or Punta Arenas was not the unforgivable lapse it was in Salem.  The Latin Catholic Church has always been more tolerant even of avoidable sin.  Although Jesus’ followers are heir to the sins of the flesh, thanks to his forgiveness and compassion, they are forgiven.  There is always a margin of moral error.  The Mediterranean Church has a far more accommodating view of human behavior and far more faithful to Jesus’ teachings than the pastors of Salem.  Fewer Catholics would have left the Church had they been educated by Franciscans in California rather than Irish Jesuits in Boston.

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Despite this significant cultural divide, the Latin sense of se me cayó has become more and more common in mainstream America.  Evasion of responsibility and the fungibility of guilt are usual.  Mitigating factors are no longer dismissed but deliberately looked for as a way to exonerate those who might have had no choice.  Poverty, family dysfunction, sexual abuse, racism, and economic disruption must all be identified and used as exonerating factors in social behavior.   Psychological imbalance before medication cannot be helped.  Far from a criminal pathology, anti-social behavior caused by a chemical imbalance if not completely excusable is at least understandable; and the punishment should not fit the crime but the psychology of the ‘criminal’.

In a highly complex, information-rich, multi-layered society like America’s, there is more than enough room for moral confusion.  If morality is relative, given cultural plurality; and if ethics are conditioned and mitigated by the bewildering circumstances of post-modernism, then how can anyone be expected to hew to one and only one ethical standard?  American is characterized more by the ease of dissolution – of contracts, marriage, social obligations, membership, association – than the cementing of relationships. Individualism has its merits, but one of its deceptions is the easy slide into se me cayó. With the disappearance of institutional authority – Church, State, and Corporation – no one should be surprised at such moral expediency.

Trust and confidence in Congress, the White House, Wall Street, and Corporate America is receding.  Mainline churches have progressively moved from a Christian moral authority to a secular one.  Where one stands on civil rights, justice, and equality  is more telling of spiritual evolution than more traditional Biblical faith.  Evangelical churches in their emphasis on charisma and personal intimacy have further loosened the tie between traditional moral authority, the logical principles of Aquinas and Augustine, and the authority of institutional Christianity.

Pope John Paul II warned against moral expediency.  Abortion, he said, was not just a mortal sin, but a defiling of the notion of the sanctity of life.  Once a woman chose to abort a child because of work, family responsibilities, money, or position, she indirectly contributed to the general erosion the fundamental principle of faith.  Pope Francis reiterated the theme and went on to suggest that once one rejected the notion of the sanctity of human life, the rejection of the sanctity of all life became inevitable.  In so saying he became an environmentalist hero and a Hindu.

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Every action has moral consequences, both Popes and philosophers have agreed; and without a due consideration of them, the path to moral indifference becomes an easy one. 

It is common to hear excuses from the lectern, the pulpit, and the podium.  Evasion of responsibility seems to be the order of the day.  The complaisance of the public – our ease with moral indifference – makes it easy for those in power and authority to act irresponsibly.  There are good reasons, they say, for their actions; and if they cannot be forgiven, then they should be at least understood.  Se me cayó.

The slide from the pious severity of the Puritans to the moral flexibility of today has been gradual but sure.  Moral relativism seems strict in comparison to today’s moral inconsequentiality. Classical relativists granted that culturally universal moral values did indeed exist. While they granted the validity and significance of their own moral codes among the many codes extant, they believed that no one moral or social code took precedence over or had a higher value than any other.  Most importantly they agreed that the existence of such codes, relative or not, was essential.  Without them only moral befuddlement at best and dangerous amorality could result.

Today’s moral relativism has nothing to do with universal codes derived from schools of philosophical thought, religion, or history.  It is not a question of comparing Hindu and Christian views of life, death, and redemption, salvation, and spiritual enlightenment. It is only a matter of ‘It depends’.  We temporize without considering consequences, avoid the issue of guilt and the corrective step of confession, and ask only to be believed.  Blame is a matter of proven circumstances, not acceptance of guilt.  “It’s not what you know”, says the Denzel Washington character in Training Day. “It’s what you can prove”.  Knowledge, admission, and morality have little relevance in an amoral world where getting caught is the only consequence.

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So, although we have always dismissed the se me cayó culture as intellectual laziness, we have ironically adopted it lock, stock, and barrel.  No phrase nor any cultural marker so accurately characterizes American ‘philosophy’ today.  The culture of expedience that John Paul II so angrily argued against, is here.

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