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Issue 93. Best Friends June 20, 2010

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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Nowhere do you find the values of a society so clearly marked as when you look at what educators are trying to teach children. I am still mulling over a recent New York Times article that discussed the efforts of some U.S. educators to discourage children from having just one “best friend” on the grounds that other children will feel excluded. Those from other countries who have puzzled over the seemingly superficial nature of U.S. friendship would do well to read this article and see if it sheds some light on the experiences you have had. Apparently these schools claim to be worried about the nastiness that can take place with exclusive cliques, and don’t want students to be “so possessive about friends” but I am not convinced that their attempt to encourage children to form big groups of friends is a cure for social exclusion or bullying. I haven’t noticed that bullies have a single “best friend.” Yet, according to the Times article, school and summer camp personnel are concerned about children who form a tight friendship with just one other child. The goal is “healthy” (read: not too dependent) relationships with everyone.

The article quotes Jay Jacobs, director of a summer camp where “friendship coaches” have been hired to try to split up campers who become to close to one another:

I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend. If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.

It has often been noted that U.S. culture is highly individualistic, but I’ve never before read such a clear statement of this value as it pertains to friendship. It does, of course, fit with an entire genre of popular songs about the “ramblin’ man” who can’t possibly give up his freedom to commit to a married life with just one woman.

Lest readers from other parts of the world assume that the effort to engineer children’s friendship patterns is unchallenged, the article also cites several U.S. psychologists who believe that this is a bad idea. Many Americans do have long-term best friends, of course, but it is also true that friendships among adults in the U.S.A. are often compartmentalized and dependent on setting appointments and “finding the time” to get together. That time together is usually enjoyed and valued, often with regrets that it cannot happen more frequently. The affection and the pleasure in each others company is real, but for many, it seems, life holds stronger priorities, including a close relationship with a spouse or partner, caring for the children, and a career. These “other options in the world” can sometimes limit our ability to build and maintain strong, close friendships.

Some years ago I attended a training program dealing with stress management. One of the suggestions that I recall well was to put telephone calls to friends on your “to-do” list so that you did not get so absorbed in your career that you neglected your friends. This struck me as funny, but it probably is a decent coping strategy and I have resorted to it myself. If my priorities are to be dictated by the calendar and the to-do lists I create for myself at home or at work, it makes sense to make sure that list includes friendship. I would prefer it to be spontaneous, but instead it is chosen.

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Issue 88. Universal Morality? December 10, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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 Shortly after writing the last post on “What we forget” I came across this article in Edge on psychologist Marc Hauser’s study of the biology of morality.

His results are based on the “Moral Sense Test” which is openly available on-line in English, Spanish, Chinese, Dutch and German. I took the test in English; I recommend taking it before reading the results in Edge, though I read the article before taking the test. In fact, you may want to take it now before reading the rest of this blog. The test is based on unfamiliar scenarios, each laying out a moral dilemma. This is a short test, taking at most 10-15 minutes, depending on how long it takes you to read and ponder the few scenarios presented.

What intrigued me with Hauser’s discussion of the findings to date is that he believes he had found some universal rules for moral behavior across the languages and cultural backgrounds of various people who have taken this test. According to Hauser:

Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life. This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity.

Yet in practice, we find that there are huge disagreements around the world about what is right and wrong. There are, of course, also major disagreements on morality within a national culture. I have even disagreed with myself at times, moving back and forth on some moral issues that strike me as fairly complex. Right or wrong? The answer almost always depends on the context and on whose perspective is being considered. I haven’t seen detailed analysis of the survey’s findings, but the scenarios necessarily limit the available information to what is provided. There is some context, but a tightly controlled one, with only two options and two potential outcomes, both in some way bad. Perhaps it is the control of the context that leads to common responses across cultures. I’m waiting for the respondent who would say, “But see, that could never happen here because….”

Reading the Hauser article in Edge, I’m lead to believe that he thinks emotions are to blame for our moral failings, and our tendency to be “partially educated” to be proud of our in-group and dehumanize the outgroup. He’s encouraged that human beings are flexible enough to change our definition of the outgroup. Along the lines of the contact theory of Allport, Hauser hopes that exposure to diversity will reduce or even eradicate prejudice. He emphasizes the importance of “rational and reasonable” people to achieve the ideal moral life that is in the “universal voice of the species.”

I’m also concerned about discrimination, war and violence, and trying to find some common ground may help start some relationships across cultures. But I don’t believe these common moral tendencies across cultures give us enough to build on. We need those emotions to relate to others, and not just in the ways that they are similar to us. We need to imagine ourselves in different contexts and situations, and see how it feels and what we conclude about right and wrong in that context.   

There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable.

This quote from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe has haunted me for years and has stuck with me like my Catholic school education. Unfortunately I don’t know the full context in which he wrote this. Perhaps it was written as an antidote to self-righteousness: a sort of perverse affirmation of original sin. But it reminds me that I can take nothing for granted about the circumstances or competing realities I will face. 

I suppose there may be some typical human reactions to certain types of moral dilemmas that remain the same across cultures, just as I believe there is a universal human instinct for survival under most circumstances. Yet people will still smoke or resist wearing a seat belt in the car, and on occasion will betray their own moral principles. Perhaps this is as universal as the moral “grammar” that Hauser believes he has found.

Issue 73. Mud July 12, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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ORANGE_BOOKA week ago my husband and I took the dog to the farmer’s market. It was a busy Saturday and a nice day after so many days of rain. But the aisle between the stands was crowded with other people and dogs, and I pulled our dog aside and stood in what I thought to be an out-of-the-way space beside one of the stalls. Something suddenly spooked the dog and she ran to hide between the boxes of the stalls, and with the tug of the leash, I fell backward into the mud: a one-meter square, 4-inch deep (~10-12 cm) patch of pure, soggy, slimy mud that completely soaked the back side of my shorts and the white t-shirt I was wearing at the time. I don’t think I had ever felt dirtier than this. I had no physical injuries, but I had to walk back home like this – a 20 minute walk in our busy neighborhood – and this public exposure of my filthy condition put me in a bad mood for the rest of the morning.

“They are dirty,” is a common complaint people make about foreigners, or about people in the country they are visiting, but it is surely true that people in every culture strive to keep themselves clean according to their own standards, and people in every culture also accept a certain amount of dirt in specific contexts. I don’t always find mud humiliating. There’s a mud I recognize as “clean mud” that I’m even willing to put on my face and let it stay there for a while, and once at a resort in Costa Rica, I was gamely convinced to let myself be photographed with another woman, both with our faces coved with mud. And another time, while part of an Earthwatch expedition in Brazil, I happily pulled on my muddy trousers — the same ones I had worn the day before — early each morning as we all headed out in the jeep to sit in a secluded spot in the rainforest and capture Euglossine bees. In one context, everyone was paying to have mud put on her face; in the other, everyone was pretty much equally muddy and the clothes we would have to hand wash and hang hours to dry would immediately be muddy again after 30 minutes in the field. But at the farmer’s market in Brooklyn, only I was muddy. Though my intellect told me it was an accident, and that people really were not staring at me, my emotions won over my intellect to make me quite wretched. It was the social context and my own state of mind more than the mud itself that made me feel dirty. 

I read recently in the New York Times an article that described how a couple located their clothes washer and dryer adjacent to the front door so that they could strip off their dirty clothes and change to “inside clothes” to try to keep their white furnishings clean. After my fall in the mud, I fully understood the desire to leave the filthy clothes at the door when I entered the house; symbolically if not actually, I needed to leave the dirt at the doorstep. I needed a shower, but I also needed a ritual cleansing to rid myself of the feelings associated with being dragged in the mud.

I’ve always been impressed by the number of issues related to showers and bathing that come up again and again for exchange students and their host families. From the family’s perspective, students take too long in the shower, or don’t bathe often enough, or leave the towels where they don’t belong, or leave the bath dirty for the next person. It’s not easy to share a life. But students — especially teenagers — may face their own emotional needs to rid themselves of the “mud” of feeling strange and isolated in a new place, of feeling embarrassed, or of feeling stared at here because they are different. A little flexibility to allow a longer shower can help, but a ritual cleansing can consist of something as simple as washing her hands and face – absolutely essential after a session of tears — brushing her hair, changing her clothes, or maybe getting a shoe shine. Any small attention that makes him feel cleaner and more presentable can help a miserable student come out from hiding and feel back in the social world again.