Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Origins of HEALTH: The Milieu of Modernity

3. The Misanthropic Defense
Somwhat ironically, I had become vegetarian because I cared about the individuality of animals, yet the token environmentalist in me was really just concerned about species—hence the irony in my desire to be a vegetarian hunter. In high school, I tried to rationalize myself out of animal activism. It wasn’t the individual that mattered, but the ecosystem. Thinking about individuals was narrow-minded. The big picture was what was important. These sentiments, however, I do not believe came out of some (ir)rational void; they had emerged from a very particular social milieu. These feelings of detachment from other individuals and the care I felt toward them never existed within the first year or so of going vegetarian.

When I had entered middle school, only a half year after becoming vegetarian, I found myself abandoned by some of my closest friends. While I spent my summer at home, they had bonded with other kids at summer camps. I began to feel alone. Over the next year, I managed to make friends with some others, but nothing that really extended beyond the schoolyard. At one point, my former best friend brought a pocketknife, and another friend had pulled it on me. In that moment I felt really hurt. It wasn’t fear; it was a feeling of betrayal. I had told my mom when I returned home after she kept asking why I was crying. Against my wishes, she told the school, and when my other friends found out they wanted nothing to do with me. My other family members weren’t anymore understanding. They suggested that it was only a “fake knife,” that my friend wouldn’t have pulled a real one. In the wake of all this, I felt completely alone. I had felt betrayed by my friends and family. I had no one left. At least no human someone.

Over the next few years, I had become profoundly misanthropic: nearly all humans were selfish plunderers of Earth who spread just like a cancer across the biosphere. How could people give to famine relief when they were just feeding this cancer? Didn’t they know there were too many humans? The best future scenario I could imagine was the total elimination of our species. It was for that reason, among others, that my favorite Bond film was Moonraker. Any good humans seemed to do was outweighed by their destruction and oppression of Others. It had not occurred to me, and it would not until much later (like half way through college!) that not all humans were the same, that not every human was equally responsible for the destruction of the planetary system, that in fact there were many humans who became oppressed through the very same system that destroyed the Earth. The human that I imagined was really just an ethnocentric construct—the middle-class white U.S. American—and a generalized one at that.

Still, I got together once in a while with some of the guys, but it was never the same. I always felt on the periphery. Freshman year in high school I thought I’d start all over, recreate myself, but that never happened. People were really friendly in the beginning, and there were a lot of new faces, but there was never anyone I could get close to. I wouldn’t doubt if much of this had to do with fear. I was so afraid of rejection I had built a wall up around myself, a fortress of reason to shelter my vulnerability. I instantly identified with stoicism after being introduced to it while reading Julius Caesar. Emotions had to be controlled by reason, I’d tell myself. If only people were rational, we’d live in a better society. Because we could rationally deliberate, we could be better than other animals, but only if treated them with respect, otherwise we were their inferiors. I aspired to become objective, to know Truth, and this conveniently required detachment. Being an independent outsider was a virtue, not a tragedy.

I devoted hours every week to developing alternative worlds and characters. Each of the twenty-some main characters in my story represented a different part of me, but the one’s I identified with most included a cocky deliveryman, a smug lady’s man, the alienated youth, and the stoic. On Krutonx—a world of which I not only wrote about, but also drew extensive maps and charts of—lived the stoic, a character who pent up his emotions and would unleash them in battle to defeat his opponents. At times in high school I anticipated getting into fights, but I never did. I was too much of a nice guy. And as such, people took advantage of me, not caring to treat me with the same respect as I gave to them.

I only was slightly aware at the time how my misanthropy had expanded into a quasi-misogyny. In theory, I believed women should be given equal dignity as men (for instance, I was very conscious of the imbalance of male and female characters in my story and worried that the women were to inline with stereotypes).I’d shun others for insulting my female peers when they called them fat and sluts, yet I myself was perhaps just as judgmental. In practice, I may have made even more (overtly) misogynistic comments than others (something that, until after writing some feminist papers in college, I did not realize). I felt threatened not only by their rejection of me as a friend, but also (in certain cases) as a potential partner. My misogyny had come not from an idea of superiority, but rather the inverse; I judged them more because I often felt powerless—all too vulnerable—before them. As I was frequently under the impression that I was either exploited by others or powerless before them, I compensated by becoming a smart ass. Once a shy guy, I celebrated my individuality and freedom of speech; sacrificing etiquette to the deity of Authenticity and Truth. At one point, my exercise of “free speech” went beyond the appropriate limit and caused quite a commotion in class. Instead of achieving power by centering myself in a network of relations, I had begun to cut those threads, and construct a lonely hierarchy. I felt all the more like the fool on the hill.

It was this sort of powerlessness that I felt—at this point I did not know what “privilege” was--, that allowed me to fall into misanthropy. Although the human was dependent upon the natural and the natural was independent of the human, humans were those with the power; nature was powerless and needed defending. Just as nature and animals were powerless before humans, so was I. Just as they were marginally appreciated and respected, so was I. I’d disparage over belonging to the human species—the cruelest of them all. How I wished I could be a different kind of ape instead. To be identified with the rest of these immoral apes was depressing. Humans having always been praised for their ingenuity never seemed to have a proper place. Unlike other animals, they did not adapt to their surrounding, they adapted their surroundings to themselves. Rather than becoming part of the natural order, they made the nature part of the human order. Not being very pleased with the human order, I wanted little to do with it—or so I’d like to convince myself.

By high school I had already shed my belief in “G-d.” With all the human suffering, nonhuman destruction, and genocide in the world, it seemed odd how anyone could believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good god. If such an entity knew of evil, he had all the power to stop it, so why didn’t (s)he? (S)he must have been either deficient in knowledge, power, or goodness. As I aimed to become more rational, I totally discarded my religious sentiments, yet I could never depart with the idea of wholeness. Without any form of god, the universe didn’t make any sense. What held it together, what created life? Only life could create life, so life must have come from something already living, but if there was no evidence for life beyond us, where did it begin? Life was born because the universe was alive! I named this superorganism, the universe, Gaia. (This was before I learned of James Lovelock’s
Gaia hypothesis). Through pantheism, I could maintain my feeling of connection to the rest of the universe as well as be rational. I wasn’t alone; I was part of a more meaningful world.

4. Fear and Laziness: All Theory and No Action
When I friends how I was in the past, they are shocked that I could have ever been like that. Although people often assume I’ve always been a “hippie” or “liberal” (I’m often asked if my family is vegetarian, ha!) the reality is that I used to identify as a “compassionate conservative. Just as my attitudes toward hunting and vegetarianism were paradoxical, my politics were just as strange. For instance, because I believed that all life was equal, I was moderately pro-life.

In contrast, I had ambiguous feeling on feeding the starving. Out of both concern for the planet and the future generation of people, I concluded that feeding them would only lead to an exponentially higher population and more starvation and suffering. All life was equal, as were all humans; in other words, each could be reduced to a single essence. I never figured in the histories of these cases, how these moral quandaries came into existence, the privilege I granted myself by condemning them to death, nor had it even occurred to me to do so. Yet, in accordance with my value of equality, I was for affirmative action and gays in the military. However strongly I felt on any of these issues, though, my political action never extended beyond an argument. Although it wouldn’t change my position on political issues, a film would expose the agency within me. In the fall of 2001, I’d attend a showing of
Waking Life. By the third monologue into the film, it had already become one of my favorites. It was so dense with profound philosophical ideas that it gave me brain cramps.

There were three scenes from the film that inspired me the most. They have since become eternal reference points. The first involved Dr. Louis Mackey who tuned into my own frustrations about life and my misanthropy.

“There are two kinds of sufferers in this world,” he says, “those who suffer from a lack of life and those who suffer from an overabundance of life.” There was no doubt which type of life I suffered from. But he goes on to say something that can be taken as rather morbid or as a very inspiring challenge: “Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress but rather this endless and futile addition of zeroes?” this question leads him to ask, “which is the most universal human characteristic - fear or laziness?” According to him, it was because of these two human characteristics that “the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human.” Most humans never rose above basic Chimp cognition and values. Only the true visionaries ever did that. I was already a visionary, but had never really accomplished anything of great value to my community. Had I just been lazy or fearful this whole time that my life had been so dull, so meaningless. It was as if the film was asking me to choose whether I wanted to dreamwalk through the rest of life or whether I was ready to take responsibility for my actions and become an active participant.

Later in the film, I learned a profound lesson that seemed to answer why my life had seemed so empty. In the scene, several anarchists walk down the streets expressing their vision to recreate an authentic society from the rubble of the present one.

They come across an old man up a telephone pole and stop to ask him if he wants help getting down. He says no. One of the men calls the old man a “stupid bastard,” but his friend hastily responds, “No worse than us. He's all action and no theory. We're all theory and no action.” It was then that I realized I spent too much time inside my own head. An idealist, I was too concerned with planning out an idyllic future and discovering objective moral facts, and yet I did nothing materially to make these ideas into reality. Theory could not be separated form action. What was the point of all these ideals if none of them would exist outside my imagination? I had to become more engaged with the world, stop complaining about what was wrong, and do something right.

One more scene was nearly what did it in for my misanthropy--nearly. The protagonist is walking down a dark staircase when he bumps into a woman. At first they just say “excuse me,” and go on their ways, but the woman comes back, unsatisfied with their exchange:

Hey. Could we do that again? I know we haven't met, but I don't want to be an ant, you know? I mean, it's like we go through life with our antennas bouncing off one another, continuously on ant auto-pilot with nothing really human required of us….All communication simply to keep this ant colony buzzing along in an efficient polite manner. "Here's your change." "Paper or plastic?" "Credit or debit?" "You want ketchup with that?" I don't want a straw, I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don't want to give that up. I don't want to be an ant, you know?
It was as if she understood my dilemma, my entire existence. There was nothing that irritated me more than being a mere instrument, except, perhaps, being ignored. I wanted to be acknowledged as a person and regarded with respect. I knew after the film I had to renounce my shyness, and become an active participant in my world, to no longer sit idly on the sidelines. The last year and a half in high school, I joined more clubs, even becoming the head of our Philosophy Club and organizing Waking Life showings, and made an effort to get involved in the school community. Little did I know, I was on my way of becoming an “activist.”

5. Colleges that Change Lives
In my neighborhood, children weren’t encouraged to pursue a college education, they were expected to. After watching all the popular films about gratuitous sex and alcohol abuse, I was very cautious in my selection. Although, I did not identify as a straight edge (I hadn’t even heard of such a movement at the time), my opinion on drugs was pretty much inline with their philosophy. The only schools I could imagine attending were the small liberal arts kind where I had the freedom to take the courses I wanted, a community I could participate in (rather than be absorbed into), and professors who actually cared about me as a student and a person. For various reasons, I chose
Beloit College—a school no larger than my high school between Rockford, IL and Madison, WI.

Having never cared much for the community I lived in, I was very enthusiastic to get outside of it. I found my freshman dormitory unusually friendly. I could relate to most of the residents better than I could even an eight of the students at my high school. Though Beloit College had even less racial diversity than my high school, my class had representatives from 48 states and 10 countries. In addition, there was a plethora of subcultures at the school and no social hierarchy. I spent until 2am in the morning most nights debating/arguing over dozens of political issues with the libertarians across the hall, stimulating not only my mind, but also my sociality. The rest of our floor formed a Socialist Republic (one of the residents was a certified member of the Communist party as well as the owner of every episode of Dragonball Z). The rest of us weren’t communist by any stretch of the imagination, but we had fun pretending.

I would not drown in alienation as I had in high school. The second week of school I attended the student activity fair and became a member of six or so clubs within my first semester, mostly those that could bring me more perspective on issues facing non-straight white middle class communities. I attended Alliance meetings throughout the year as well as Black Student United meetings for the first semester (after that the meeting time would always coincide with the Outdoor Environmental Club’s time). Exposed to the individual voices of these members, I learned how individuals within these groups experienced life in our society differently, each having his/her own opinions on various political issues. I also met many international students who I often sat with during meals. A few of them had playful exchanges with me as we shared information about our countries. One student, Jing (from Chengdu) would become a good friend.

The OEC was the club that I’d become most involved with during my first two years at Beloit. There I met many people with like interests in environmentalism and the outdoors. I went on my first backpacking trip with the club to the Ozarks, making friends with the older students whose own socio-economic background was much different form my own. These folks also had much more radical political views, joking how they were “watermelons”—green on the outside, red on the inside. They and their close friends in the Womyn’s Center and Peace & Justice club actually practiced activism, unlike those I knew in high school who just talked about it. These people were not afraid to get dirty. In fact, they loved to. They were dumpster diving freegans! I had never encountered people like them before, and though I was not quite as radical as they, I lamented their disappearance after they graduated. The OEC as well as the rest of the college took on a more apathetic and yuppie façade as Beloit’s nationally renowned financial aid packages were reduced to finance a LEED certified science building.

My first semester I ended up having to research and write a half of dozen papers on gender. One was for our First Year seminar, another one for sociology, and several for my introductory English course. I did not have to delve as much as I did into the gender and sexual orientation issues as I did for these papers, however, getting to know radical feminists, transgendered people, and many open gays and lesbians, I had become interested in their cause—I wanted to understand better and be an ally. As it turned out the papers on feminism were the most interesting. Feminist issues dealt less with abstract analyses as they did with criticizing and solving concrete injustices. As a very critical thinker, the f*word stood not just for feminism, but also fun. What I read and wrote about seemed more relevant than whether I was going to ace a class. Yet, I still found myself in contradiction. Although I had become interested in gender and sexuality issues, I still refused to have anything to do with “feminism” as a movement. It would be over two years before I became involved with the feminist group on campus.


Anonymous said...

you really inspire me

James Skemp said...

FYI, there's conditional comments in your posts that make it some what difficult to read your posts.

In case your visitors are interested by the small bit you gave them, a transcript of Waking Life is available online.