The loss of redemption and the judgement of worth

woman in dress holding sword figurine

We were watching the documentary Uncle Tom. I don’t remember exactly what the timestamp was, but at one point I said “hold on”. We paused the documentary, something we do a lot to discuss the topic. Most striking parts of the documentary: first, the stories of experiences that all the interviewees had of being called names for voicing their thoughts and beliefs; and second, people who are financially well-off (i.e. rich) telling their poorer peers “we’re victims and we’ll always be oppressed”. At some point in the documentary I realized: there are underlying issues that are not limited to the heated, polarized political debate. It’s an issue in many facets of our society. And it has to do with something deeper, something subconscious. We don’t believe in redemption anymore.

In our minds, we don’t believe anyone, not even ourselves, can be redeemed. We’ve lost important concepts and this is one of them. We don’t even know what it means anymore.

woman in dress holding sword figurine

Why are people today telling each other that they’re assholes or pieces of shit? I can’t see my grandfathers having displayed any of this rude behavior. Some actions, when undertaken willingly, truly tarnish your soul. I’m not talking about the obvious ones like murder. I’m talking about acting like you’re the rightful judge of someone else’s character. Who the hell do we think we are? We would never do that if we felt the other person could reasonably undertake some virtuous action to make life, on the whole, a little better.

I’m not writing this because I believe in an afterlife or any God as an anthropomorphic being. Redemption, however, is the only word I can think of to express the thought I had.

Is the internet the cause or only the arena?

One of the arenas in which we act out our loss of redemption as a concept, is the internet. Anything you wrote online years ago can be dug up, pulled out of context and twisted and warped. We’re slowly becoming (willfully) context blind. We’re looking for the next one-liner to latch onto to prove that the other is not worthy. The other must be told how to speak and what to think, for they are dumb at best, evil at worst.

I recently replied to an Amnesty international ad on Facebook and wrote that I disagreed with a law proposal that would, in my opinion and that of quite a few lawyers here, weaken the legal system rather than strengthen it. My words ran against the righteous narrative of the post and my pointing out the weak points that I feel the proposal has, received a lot of replies along the lines of “So you think crime is good?!!?”. I was told that I was “being difficult” when I countered what ifs with my own list of what ifs. Someone pulled the “if you’d been on the receiving end of [that crime], you’d speak differently” card, which is not in any way healthy discourse. A common tactic is to imply that they are the personal judge of who can or cannot speak their mind.

After a back and forth in which I explained which parts of the proposal I thought are untenable, four or five people joined in on the conversation and supported me. (Before that, my posts were among the most liked comments under the advert but it took a while before people who agreed with me came out of the woodwork with comments.) The last post in the comment chain was a message directed not at me but at someone else who agreed with me. The author repeated and insisted upon the utopia they wanted, once more, again ignoring any critiques that were made by me and others of the actual proposal itself. I think by then the point was made and we didn’t feel like going round and round in that dance again.

What’s up with all that outrage? It seems like discussions like the above are, to some, a battle to declare yourself on moral high ground. I only listened to one podcast from Sam Harris, the one titled “Can we pull back from the brink?” with the following brilliant quote.

This feeling of not liking, this feeling of outrage, this feeling of disgust—this feeling of “Sam, what the fuck is wrong with you, why are you even touching this topic?”—this feeling isn’t an argument. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the basis for your believing anything to be true or false about the world.

Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that I or anyone else needs to respect. Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that you should respect. In fact, it is something that you should be on your guard for. Perhaps more than any other property of your mind, this feeling can mislead you.

Podcast #207 – Can we pull back from the brink?

In this podcast, Sam points to social media as the cause of the unrest. I think social media is not the cause. I think it’s merely one of the arenas in which the illness comes to light. Sam states that we were “enrolled in an experiment we didn’t give consent for”. I disagree. We participate willingly. Nobody put a gun to your head and made you sign up to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it’s not an experiment. However, if we call it an experiment, it’s not the only experiment we’re subjected to, we did sign up for it and lastly whether or not we “signed up” for it is irrelevant. Our current school system is an experiment nobody signed up for. The work force is an experiment nobody signed up for. Hell, having hot water coming from your tap is not an experiment anybody signed up for. We just wanted to have it, en masse.

people watching game on field

Now, like I said, I only listened to the one podcast and perhaps Sam gives solid arguments for his implicit claim that social media is a direct cause. I am more and more convinced that the origins of current day problems go back multiple generations. It’s a deeply felt truth by many people who have dug deep in themselves to become better people that we carry remnants of the lives of our ancestors. (Epigenetics is a branch of science that has ideas along the same vein. However, epigenetics doesn’t look at stories, culture, tacit knowledge.) Few people would openly admit that they’re carrying trauma from past generations. Yet, you will find this idea all across the globe. I think our lives are hugely influenced by those of our ancestors.

Why I think we’re restless

Knowledge, if not passed on, is apparently lost in three generations. That means that after three generations, if you weren’t told your great grandfather fought in a war, you may never discover that you’re, in part, a product of that war.

I think the reason for our unrest is that more than three generations ago, we killed God. We stopped seeing the point of having the concept of God and so we have no clue what God even represents or why we told certain stories. The funniest thing was when I read Dave Rubin‘s book titled “Don’t burn this book”. In it, he mentions: “Could we humans leave it to our intellect alone to come up with a timeless moral code, as Sam [Harris] would argue…?” A giddy feeling came over me. I would argue that using our intellect is exactly what we did and it resulted in religion and holy scripture. You can’t reason your way through everything from scratch. If you do that, you forget that building on what others did is what we’ve been doing for generations. We had to, because one single person cannot rebuild the body of all human discoveries single handedly. I think we will have to end up making a U-turn toward religion. We used to have a separation between law and morality, the state and church. We used to know that there was a higher being who was the only one who could truly judge us. With the death of God, the church’s influence has declined. Where does that leave morality? Exactly. We’re trying to make the law encompass morality. How you should act in social context is now being coded in law. The same problem we originally had – lack of distinction between thou shalt and thou shalt not – is back, but now approached from the other side.

Ideas that are true, in the sense that they are useful for survival, will survive. We are, as Terry Pratchett pointed out, Pan Narrans, the storytelling ape. Without the anchor of stories that are true, in the sense that they have the highest utility a culture has been able to achieve so far and have therefore been preserved and passed on, without this foundation, you have to start over, from scratch. Instead of having a pool of stories you know to be useful, which you can use as a baseline to compare new stories against, we now have the universe of all possible snippets of thought to contend with. We’ve lost a ground truth and now we’re adrift on an ocean without shore. We’ve cut ourselves loose and now we don’t know how to determine “this idea has merit and that one doesn’t”. We never had to do this from the ground up when we still had holy scripture. Of course it wasn’t perfect, but it helped us. It gave us heuristics to choose our behavior in the world. Now, we have to inspect every thought ourselves. Most of us can’t do this. So we try to find new words to hang on to.

The internet, with its fake news, is not the cause, it’s only the place where it has become visible how many, many people don’t feel metaphorical solid ground under their feet anymore. What is a solid idea you can hold on to that will give you a sense of stability? It’s the people who scream the loudest, who are actually screaming their scre existential dread “I seek a higher purpose”. Give me back something to believe in. How can I feel secure again?

How do you feel secure again? Well, you do what people have always done: you look for a prophet. How do you find one? The narrative dictates that prophets aren’t created or tracked down. First, they find their god. Then, they face trials and tribulations under their god. Next, they show by a miracle deed that they are a true prophet.

Anyone who shouts anything can get “followers”. We’ve got that bit down. It only goes to show: We haven’t removed religion from our culture. We just removed the word. I’m reminded of the documentary “the red pill” where Karen Straughan points out that feminism sounds like religion to her. I think that without knowing it, the west has now got more ‘gods’ than it ever had in the past. With the death of one large god, a hoarde of Small Gods fought to fill the gap and obtain followers. Religion has always been fragmented. But it’s never gone. We might not like this conclusion, but we need gods. I don’t think we can do without. We need a spiritual parent to run back to when the world becomes frightening. We need reassurance that we’ll come out on the other side a more whole person. We need to place some things outside ourselves, into a higher power.

When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing: they believe in anything.

often attributed to G.K. Chesterton {true source not certain}

Three examples of “no redemption”-stories

One of the wisest things said to me in the past year is by the trip sitter who sat by me as I embarked on a psychedelic trip in the hope to heal my pain. At the end of the day he said “You are not your trauma”. He pointed out (in his own words) that I talked myself into stagnation. I have/had a fixed mindset when it comes to trauma. You are not the story you tell yourself. I’ve written about it before. Figure out the real story. I’m trying to do this and reexamine what I believe, in order to find some solid ground.

There are many stories we tell ourselves, and allow others to tell us, that are not true. A very harmful one is this “I shall never be redeemed”. A close second is “people get to judge who has worth”. (This is what we have gods for, to outsource that kind of thing, the judging and redeeming, to them.)

Have you ever Googled for “Can PTSD be cured?”. If you do now, I want you to notice this: The reply that is most optimistic is “No, it will never disappear, but all the symptoms can go away”. Wait. What?

Anna Runkle, a woman who shares how she cured her childhood PTSD, received affronted messages from therapists insisting you shouldn’t process trauma without a professional. (I gladly refer those therapists to Sam’s quote above.)

In a famous TED talk by Nadine Burke Harris, titled “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime” she explains how health is dramatically impacted by adverse childhood experience. I thought this message was insanely important when I first watched it. But there’s a catch. Nowhere does she say that it’s a direct link! A high ACE score increases the odds for “binge drinking, heavy drinking, smoking, risky HIV behavior, diabetes, myocardial infarction, coronary heart disease, stroke, depression, disability caused by health, and use of special equipment because of disability“. Those aren’t exactly unrelated to begin with, are they? Further more, the study examined correlations, not direct causes. I missed that all the previous times I watched it. The Uncle Tom documentary made me trace back my steps. In fact, I exclaimed something like: mental healthcare is a leftist lie! Lynch me if you like, I got the best mental healthcare when I paid out of pocket.

The message of all of the above is: you will forever be defined by this and we will be the judge of that. No redemption and humans judging humans. (Side thought: Maybe the definition of an institution is a religion where the institution itself is the god…)

It’s a nasty trick. I didn’t see it for a long time. Those who are vessels for these ideas, the idea of no redemption and the idea of worth bestowed by humans, might not recognize it either. It’s an uncomfortable message: disadvantage stays with you forever and ever and ever and your life shall forever be miserable because of it… It’s so uncomfortable that it must be true, right? The brain is weird. If you look no further, if you believe the lie, then of course it’s unfair that you are in this eternal state of damaged goods. If you follow the line of thinking, you’ll notice you quickly reach the point of self-righteous, but passive indignation. There is despair, but there is also anger: someone or something must be to blame.

The loss of a certainty that redemption is possible not only shows up as fatalistic “I / you can’t fix it, ever”, it encompasses the loss of certainty that you can become a complete, worthy human being.

The “virtue signaling” that is rampant, shows what we know about ourselves to be true: we need a place where we can confess our true sins and be really and truly forgiven. This is what happens when we don’t have such a place. Those who “virtue signal”, do not confess true sins. (After all, there is no place to do this.) But the energy, the urge has to go somewhere. So this is what you get. We need a way to atone and a higher something that declares us flawed but whole and worthy. As much as we wish to wrest this certainty from the world, as much as we might try to give this to ourselves, I think we need this basic safety to be a given. I don’t know what shape it should take, but we need religion. Maybe the first step is calling it out when we see it.