Rethink Your Righteousness

Have you ever gotten into a political argument with someone on the other side of the aisle? With the 2016 tire-fire-election still burning, I can guess the response to that question. Liberals think Conservatives are uneducated and unsympathetic. Conservatives think Liberals are bleeding-hearts and unpatriotic. Around and around we go till Uncle Fred is blue in the face and millennial Sally is red with furry. Growing up I was more conservative because of my parent’s love for the Republican party and in my college years, I swung more liberal because of inequality enlightenment. So what are my views now? Well, that is complicated because I just read an excellent book by Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt is a moral psychologist and has made it his life’s work to figure out what defines personal, community, and world morality. Let’s test your own morality…

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They have heard that dog meat is delicious, so they cook it and eat it for dinner. Is this wrong? Why?

Or how about this one…

Julie and Mark are a brother and sister who, one night on a vacation together, decide to make love. Julie is already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. Was it wrong for them to have sex?

One more just for fun…

A woman cleaning her bathroom decides to cut up an old American flag and use it as a rag to scrub the toilet. Is this morally wrong?

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So what do you think? Is it OK that the brother and sister have sex or the old lady scrubs the crapper with the American flag? Some may say that if the actions are not harming others, then there is nothing immoral being done. Others would say that there is a sanctity to specific objects and the human body, so those previous scenarios are entirely immoral. Haidt found that these questions are answered very quickly by people based on their intuition or “feelings”; reasoning in morality is an afterthought and falls short of ever explaining a knee-jerk reaction. Put in another way, we are tiny riders on large elephants. The elephant is our moral and emotional intuition that is powerful and somewhat wild. The rider is our reasoning and rational brain that tries to steer the elephant in the right direction but does little of the actual legwork.

Riding The Elephant

Our elephant is an amalgamation of life experiences, evolution, genetic predisposition, and worldviews. Haidt discovered through years of research that there are six “taste” buds of morality: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. People have different moral tastes just like they have different tastes for cuisine. Liberals are concerned with the care and fairness tastebuds and are much more likely to accept the above questions as moral because they do not harm others. Conservatives actually have a wider moral palate with the proclivity for liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. This is why historically, conservative candidates receive more votes because those politicians can run on a wider platform. In general, worldviews outside of the West focus more on the last four moral tastebuds because the social fabric of society is far more important than self-expression or “American Individualism.” The point here is not that Conservatives are better than Liberals or more righteous. The point is that both sides of the aisle have legitimate moral concerns that complement the spectrum of human good.

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So what should we do with all this information? First, we need to train our rider to control the elephant. Realize that your beliefs may not always be 100% correct and that listening to others is an excellent exercise in understanding. Realize that your liberal/conservative foe is not someone to defeat but actually someone to embrace – a ying-yang effect that covers the entire moral spectrum. Realize that there are many worldviews out there and that yours is only one type of lens. Hadit makes this recommendation for liberals – progress is good, but it must be taken with caution to protect the traditional pillars of society (Hadit is a Liberal). Hadit makes this recommendation for conservatives – use the liberal  “care and fairness” attributes when businesses prey on others with entrenched interests. Overall, the point is that both sides have important things to offer and neither is entirely righteous. Let’s control our elephants and steer our beliefs from their normal head-on collision to a more amicable side-long saunter.

The American Dream…Nightmare

What is the American Dream? Is it a dream of opportunity and wealth? Is it a dream that is still attainable? Is it even a dream and not a nightmare in disguise? I always saw the American Dream as the ability to reach any goal in life. America was and still is the land of entrepreneurship, innovation, and Cinderella stories. Great men and women came to this country for a better life – many times from places where dreams were never mentioned. My wife and I are blessed to be on the right side of the American Dream (read on to know what that entails), but many people do not have the same position. For a majority of Americans, the dream is no more realistic than an episode of Leave it to Beaver. 

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Everyday people struggle to meet their bills, pay for food, find employment, save for retirement and notice optimism in the nightly news. It is even worse for minorities who not only struggle to find well-paying jobs but also worry about harassment and unfair treatment on an institutional level. To better understand the nightmarish side of America, I read Death of a Salesman by Arthur MillerDeath of a Salesman won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949 and is one of the greatest American plays of all time. It follows the downfall of Willy Loman – an exhausted salesman who is losing his mind in the rat race of business. It is a gut-wrenching ride that requires you to question the very foundations of success.

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On the surface, Willy Loman looks like a prime candidate for the American Dream: He has a beautiful wife, two sons, a suburban house, a successful traveling sales job, and friends who admire him. These surface level attributes quickly fade away with reality: He regularly cheats on his wife, his one son is a womanizer while his other son is a wandering thief, his house constantly requires repairs, his job no longer pays the bills, and his supposed friends are nowhere to be found. By the end of the play, Willy is completely lost in the past reminisces of “better” times and his dreams of being a respected businessman. Arthur Miller paints a sad picture of what the American Dream can look like – a lifetime of sacrifice only to be fired and thrown to the curb of American capitilism.

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In the end, Willy kills himself so his family can collect the life insurance – his funeral is only attended by a few people. So what should we take away from this anecdote of the American Dream? I think Arthur Miller was pretty spot on. The American Dream is not for everyone and success is as elusive as a fleeting mistress. We should reframe the American Dream from one of material/prideful success to one of relational/altruistic success. Let’s not dream of being loved by everyone and impressing others with our possessions. Let’s dream of lives filled with close relationships that are synergistic – fostering self-actualization. A life well-lived is in our grasp, but we have to reframe our dreams – less external pridefulness and more internal peacefulness.

“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”
-Arthur Miller

An American Geisha

In one month Christina and I will be in the land of the rising sun – Japan. We will be visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Mt. Fuji, Hiroshima, Osaka, and Yakahana; all of this in 15 memorable and most likely exhausting days. Several city tours are scheduledalong with days for relaxation and days for cultural experiences. One of the most quintessential components of Japanese culture is the Geisha. When we are in Kyoto – the cultural center of Japan – Christina is going to get to experience what it is like to dress up like a geisha. She will get to pick out a kimono and wear the traditional white makeup and black wig. I almost even signed up for the “samurai” experiencebut thought $150 was overkill to hold a sword and wear a robe.

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It’s funny to see pictures of white tourists dressed as geishas – it’s like a culturally insensitive Halloween party. Even though it looks odd for a white woman to be a geisha, there was actually an American woman who entered this veiled world back in the 1970’s. Liza Dalby was the only foreigner ever to become a geisha, and she details her experience in the Nonfiction/Memoir-Geisha. Dalby became a geisha as an anthropologist researcher; she wanted to accurately understand and dispel the myths associated with this secretive world. If you ever go to Japanread this book because the world of a geisha is a microcosm of Japanese culture.

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The first geishas appeared in the 18th century and were actually male entertainers. Eventually, men were replaced by women and by the beginning of the 19th century, the job of a geisha was seen as a female occupation. Geishas were revered in society as fashion forward and socially influential, like we see celebrities today. The role of a geisha was to entertain male patrons through witty conversation, dancing, singing, and instrument playing. The white makeup that a geisha wears initially accentuated their expressions and performances in dimly lit rooms before the advent of electricity. As time went on, the geishas maintained their makeup and kimonos because their traditional look was a sacred treasure to a nostalgic Japan. Before WWII, it was common for rural families to sell their daughters to geisha houses. These young girls would apprentice for several years before mastering all the artistic skills of the profession.

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With modernization, this practice stopped and the geisha of today join the business in their 20’s – the artistic requirements are not as strenuous due to changing tastes of clientele. The geisha’s job is to provide men (sometimes women) with a relaxing atmosphere where they can laugh, discuss, and enjoy picturesque entertainments. Japanese culture is very different from western culture in respects to the role of the wife. Wives in Japan are seen as modest mothers who are masters of the house – interactions with husbands are usually more serious and formal. The role of the geisha is to provide the other side of femininity – gracefulness, joking, and innocent flirtation. Geisha are not prostitutes and rarely have sex with their patrons. Of course, geishas can have sex with their clients, but it would be like visiting a bar expecting to have sex with a bartender.

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Geishas usually live together in a tea house which is led by a “mother.” The mother is a retired geisha who trains, mentors, and organizes the various patron requests. The profession of a geisha can be lucrative and long lived for women in Japan – geishas can work for decades if they choose. Many Americans see the career of a geisha as demeaning towards women. In reality being a geisha in Japan allows women the rare opportunity to run their affairs and escape the restrictions associated with raising a family – when they interact with men they are respected to a much higher degree compared to other service jobs. Geishas are revered as talented artists, stewards of culture, and educated conversationalists.

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There is no equivalent occupation in America. An American style geisha would probably be a well-educated woman who lived in a sorority house and entertained (maybe with a fiddle) while wearing high quality “wild west” garb. Making comparisons is impossible, but it allows one to understand the true idiosyncrasies of the profession. While in Japan I want to see a geisha, and hopefully, we will witness some walking in the streets of Kyoto; it costs $450 per person as a tourist to be entertained by a geisha. I’ll just try to sneak a dance with Christina after her transformation 🙂