musings on our moral matrices and self-exceptionalism

As I’m reading Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”, my introduction to moral psychology, each sentence seems more profoundly shattering than the last. I think part of my anxiety and self-inflicted otherness or outsider/observer perspective comes from an entire coming of age riddled with questions about morality. I’m sure most angsty adolescents and young adults can identify with this phenomena – the pang of uncertainty about the origins of our moral matrices. The chaotic yet sometimes rigid moral codes of our families must be reconciled first with the moral matrices of our peers and their families and then our leaders, mentors and partners and now finally with the vast sea of strangers we meet as adults functioning a diverse and expanding globalized world. I remember being absolutely confounded with way in which the ingrained morals (I’ll admit, morals ultimately tied to religion and divinity) my parents professed as natural law collided and complicated the beliefs of those around me.

For example, Halloween, a seemingly depoliticized, neutral and wholesome holiday in it’s modern interpretation – a chance for children to do what I certainly loved most in life, pretend to be somebody/something else. For years my friends would get together in their costumes and spend the late afternoon, early evening of October 31 (often in snowpants over their costumes) and trick or treat. And my parents, although I suspect my mom held the authority on this issue because my dad’s morals/tradition could be easily swayed with a small tug at his heartstrings, were adamant that I would not participate in this holiday. In fact, to avoid trick-or-treaters our family would turn off all the lights and sit quietly in the basement watching a film to signal to kids in the neighbourhood we would be witholding candy that night and unwilling to open the door for those who tried (in retrospect, this was probably the only time all year we would turn off all our lights and “pretend we weren’t home “- perhaps the spookiest part of Halloween for me.) For my mom, I could see that this was a deliberate and deeply significant act of withdrawal from dominant (secular) society.

And that’s where the tension lied – secularism. I remember browsing the CD holder in my dad’s car and finding CDs which he had burnt files from the computer with black sharpie writing across the top: “secular”. I also remember asking what the word meant and he gave an honest answer, something along the lines of “not about god, we want to limit our intake but it’s okay sometimes.” And of course, I began actively searching for “secular” music, movies etc. and vehemently rejecting anything remotely religious. Classic. My point is that I can still remember every October 30th negotiating (or rather me attempting to negotiate only to lapse into desperate and crying justification) why I should be allowed to go trick-or-treating with my friends that year. I really did feel like I was missing out on something special. My friends would reiterate that it was Halloween that was their favourite holiday of the year. Around ninth grade, when I was already 14 years old I remember by mom gave me “permission” to go finally. But I had already been trick-or-treating for the last 5 years or so, and would never venture into the cold as a self-aware 14 year old.

All of this is to say that there is something so alluring and satisfying about reconciling the moral matrices of those who raised us with the expansive world outside of ourselves. The first couple times I got high and still to this day I was overwhelmed with unanswered questions about why do I perceive this person/situation/idea through three separate perspectives and why is it so difficult to figure out which one is truly ‘moral’? Confronted with something unfamiliar or new, I could easily assess the situation from my parent’s suspected interpretation, my own fragmented and uncertain by intuitively driven perspective and from the perspective of those involved or the people who’s moral matrix I was trying to understand. It’s always been remarkably easy for me to identify strongly with anyone who can adequately make a case for themselves – I empathize unconsciously and uncritically and up until recently, I’m hesitant, if not entirely unwilling to question the experiences of anyone. This might explain my brief but intense stint as a convicted, dedicated radical feminist.

I used to excuse this inclination towards dogma or extreme politics as simply all or nothing thinking, which of course it is. But there is also something more to it. With the absence of a stable identity it’s so easy to dissociate from any previous indoctrination and moral commitments. In fact, it goes unnoticed but with each new perspective I’m exposed to, I will almost immediately begin to identify with whoever is speaking with me and begin to adopt or at least consider their ideas obsessively for the next few weeks. I will write more about this later because there is another point I want to make first.

All of this jumping from political faction to political faction may have in fact exhausted me morally. In September, after nearly evicting a close-friend and radical feminist out of the university feminist collective I was president of because of complaints she was “trans-exclusive”, she accused me of “moral schizophrenia.” I couldn’t deny this – there was no consistency in my politics – when people asked me what happened – why didn’t I hangout with ______ (insert names of radical feminist community) anymore I would simply say, “it’s been an ideologically tumultuous year for me” to brush it off. I can’t provide answers, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to stick to what I think I know when I’m being exposed to something somebody else knows. I’m complicating a very simple issue but I think you know what I’m trying to say.

This obsessiveness, this unrelenting desire to somehow access ideological common ground with everyone I meet is both good and bad. The good is that I am not thoroughly and passionately studying social, political and (most importantly) moral psychology. The bad is that I still feel this sense of self-exceptionalism. In reading about the value systems of Western industrialized democracies, I feel enormous dismay at the path we have chosen as humans in celebrating the individual at the expense of community. At the same time though, I am the most individualistic and antisocial I have ever been. See what I mean? Self-exceptionalism. Every ideal moralistic standard I hold exists in direct opposition to the way I live my life in practice. It’s a funny image: a girl, sitting alone on the bus, nobody is talking and she shuts down anyone who tries to make conversation with her because she’s reading something very important – she’s reading about the importance of in-group bonding, collective consciousness and connectedness and the importance of community.

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