welcome guest
login or register

And then some clarifications

Oh well, today after a full day of work I feel too tired to do anything smart. So I'll just write another silly philosophical blog post. For, after my previous post I was left with a growing sense of uneasiness - feeling that I said too many things which could've used a little more clarification. So allow me this attempt at clarifying a few things;

First, it must again be noted that my writing style is somewhat demanding. For I wander back and worth describing my own views, and describing views I don't personally agree with - it is like having a dialogue, talking with other ideas and attempting to express my own view in relation to some more known positions. But if the reader momentarily loses full attention and only skims through the text, it might be hard to detect when I'm stating my own views and when I'm merely going into details describing a view I don't fully agree with. Sorry about that =) On the other hand, I think that is what reading and thinking is about. To pay attention, to read slowly, to re-read, to raise objections, returning to check if one has misread or adequately understood the text being read. I'm not here to give an easy-to-follow inspirational speech persuading others to adopt my views. I'd rather write in an obscure manner which challenges the reader to think through and to question some seemingly self-evident assumptions.

My previous post was a parade of stories, real and fictional. The way I see it, three of those stories were central, and internally deeply connected - although that connection might not be evident at the first sight. The three stories are; 1) the basket full of wet laundy, 2) a man punching random by-passers on the street, and 3) dancing with Litku Klemetti. Now, if we are speaking about moral philosophy, only the second story appears relevant, yes? Well, before diving into the philosophical connections between stories one, two and three, let me start with yet another story, which is a classic of Western moral philosophy.

18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant didn't like relativism. Whether deed X is right or wrong, that can't depend on context, he thought. He was on a quest for absolute, unwavering moral principles. One of his prime examples was demonstrating that "lying is wrong" - for to lie is logically incoherent idea, the idea of lying contradicts itself because if it was okay to lie you could never know if other people are telling the truth or lying, and the whole point of making promises or trusting others would lose its meaning - and the very idea of lying assumes that by default others trust what you say, and you then make use of that trust by telling them something what you know not to be true. But to do so is to contradict yourself, and no rational being should do that. Kant's line of thinking has been challenged by this story:" Imagine you are at home. One night there is a fierce knock on your door. You go open the door, and in rushes one of your friends, Matt. He whispers 'a murderer is chasing me, I need to hide!'. Your friend hides in one of your closets. And soon there is another knock on your door - you open the door and see a man wearing a black cape and a black hat, with a pistol and a dagger in his hands, and he asks: 'Do you know where Matt is?'" - what would you answer? You know if you tell the truth, the murdered will kill your friend. If you lie, you can save your friend's life. So is it right to lie in this situation? And if yes, does that leave the door wide open for an endless relativism, where things are right or wrong depending on the context, the culture, the point-of-view?

To be honest, I'm not so good in the history of Western philosophy, for I don't remember if and how Kant replied to that kind of objection. So I go on trying to think with my own brains only, not quoting any past masters. I'd assume that many people would be tempted to say: "It is okay to lie to save your friend's life. But that is not relativism, that is merely a hierarchy of moral values. Saving a life is a major value, whereas not-to-lie is only a minor value. There might be situations where you have to choose to violate a minor norm in order to honour a greater norm." Good, let's continue with that. Let us assume that there is something like a hierarchy of moral principles and values. And that sometimes the right thing to do is to violate a lesser norm to honour a greater norm.

I'd guess that gives us a lot of tools to understand the moral controversy we see in the real life. For, suddenly, what is right and wrong becomes a question of establishing a hierarchy of values and evaluating an unique situation according to that general hierarchy. This is when we start to have divergent views, a myriad of interpretations. Situations where the subject honestly believes he is doing the right thing, but gets punished by the community who things he committed a crime. Or, moreover, what appears as the right thing for a community A appears as biased thinking for community B, if A and B perceive the hierarchy of values differently. (That kind of phenomenons and the underlying psychology and philosophy is rather well described by the book "Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt.) In this post I won't go into details, but I'll just thow in an example;

Suppose you are an unseen observer who witnesses an event, and then has to decide if what happened was right or wrong. A thumb up or a thumb down? What you see is this: Person A walks on a peaceful city alley, there are no other people around. Person A is peacefully minding his own business, it is early morning and he is on his way to his office to do his job. Hiding in the shadows there is person B, who has never before met person A. Person B carries a sniper rifle with a silencer, aims at A and pulls the trigger. As soon as A has collapsed onto the street, B runs to him, pulls a pistol with a silencer, fires another shot at the back of A's head, then grabs his briefcase and runs back into the shadows. - What is your moral judgement? A thumb up or a thumb down for the person B?

Wait, what? Did I hear someone saying "depends on the context?" - ah, sorry, I forgot to mention the context, which is this: The country and the city has been occupied by an enemy army. Person A is an officer of the enemy army, at his office his job is to sort through old and new social media posts of the occupied country, spotting rebels and resistance figures, red-haired people, people who like jazz music and such other kinds of people considered mere sub-human scum by his victorious army. He then sends death squads to find and to field-execute those bad people who like jazz music or have committed other crimes against the holy values of A's nation. Our B is a native to the occupied country, a member of armed resistance, who aims to defend what little is left of the freedom of their country, disturbing the enemy army aiming to lower their morals, stealing their plans so that they can sabotage their evil plots. Given the context, a thumb up or a thumb down for our person B?

Even though one of the most commonly agreed moral norms across all cultures is "don't murder other people!", there are situations and contexts where killing people seems like a heroic deed. Or, to put this in other words; seems like a lot of people would agree that 'to commit a treason' is a worse crime than murdering a human being, especially if the murdered fellow is a member of the enemy tribe - and that murdering an enemy is a heroic act if it serves to defend ones own tribe. This is one way to arrange a hierarchy of values. What about the moral weight of other values? Is respect the flag of your nation! a higher value than the freedom to express one's opinion? How does Don't suppress the freedom of other people compare with Allow two people to marry each other if they love each other, no matter their sex or gender - and don't allow others to suppress their freedom to do so? What about There needs to be transparency, ie. the people have right to know what their government is doing vs. In order to protect the nation the government needs to carry on secret missions, including mass surveillance? Suddenly we are buried neck-deep in a bog of moral controversy, where seemingly irrevocable moral divides clash, there is no room for compromise, and the battle for Right and Wrong rages on. A lot of philosophers might have attempted to formulate a correct hierarchy of moral values, hoping that if every rational being eventually adopts a rationally grounded hierarchy of values, the moral divides will fade away and everyone would be happy with a shared set of moral values arranged in hierarchy respected by everyone. A grand idea, but personally I'm not that convinced =) And that's why I need to return to the story about the laundry basket.

1. The concept of 'all', and some other tools we use to make sense of the world

I was a small kid, I saw a basket full of wet laundry, and I learned that not only a first piece of laundry, but also the second and the third one had got wet in the washing machine. And there was this radical idea, I started to assume that what goes for the first three pieces probably is true for all the rest. Instead of seeing a lot of individual pieces of clothing I suddenly saw them as a group, so that it is possible to assign an attribute, or an explanation to the whole group at once. This idea of all probably was so self-evident for my mother that she didn't even think that her son wouldn't innately master the idea. Well, then, my mother didn't need to explicitly teach me how to grasp the idea of all - that probably comes rather naturally in the process of child's cognitive functions (and brain connections) growing and maturing. If you are okay with the idea of evolution, I think it would be safe to assume that the evolution has equipped us with an innate tendency to learn this kind of concepts, a lot like baby lambs get born with an innate ability to quickly learn to stand up and to run for that is a necessary skill for any animal of prey. And what the ability to run is for sheep, the ability to think is for humans.

So, I assume that the idea of all is something what an average human child learns naturally at early age. And once learnt, the idea becomes so self-evident that it starts to feel like a logical part of the reality itself, it is hard to imagine otherwise, there is no cognitive effort nor conscious decision involved when we use the idea to make sense of the world around us. If asked to rationally define what all means, or to prove the concept, we'd probably fall short of words. The very idea of all is so fundamental it is needed to define a lot of other concepts, and it itself is hard to be defined by even more fundamental concepts. (I think there is some academical philosophy, logic and theoretical mathematics about how to best define the concept of 'all', but I always found it boring and never read too deeply into that literature.) What I mean is that we all are able to use the idea of all, without being able to fully remember how we learnt it, or what exactly the thing is. A lot like the concept of time. We know what a clock is, and that 4pm comes some time after the high noon - but going into the theoretical physics or philosophy of time the layman runs out of explanations. There are ideas we fluently use on daily basis without consciously even noticing it, even though we can't consciously explain those ideas - we just assume them to be self-evident for that is how they appear to us.

Now, what I feel was lacking in my previous post was the question: "Okay, so that's about the concept of all. Then, do we have other similar ideas, that appear ridiculously self-evident to us, that we use to make sense of the world, and which we learn at some point of childhood without a conscious effort?". I think there is empirical research into this topic, but I won't clutter this post with references to scientific articles. Also, I might take a bit of freedom to express some of these ideas the way I have observed them - for already in early childhood I developed a habit of observing how people think and what happens when we interpret the world we live in. Only later on I've seen that my observations were in line with the scientific research which I didn't know about at that time. Also, I believe anyone can notice these things by just observing ones own thought, and the thinking of others. Here are a few observations, in no particular order;

Agency, moral responsibility and worth. We experience a freedom of will; we can choose and make decisions. And those decisions have consequences - if the consequences are good we are entitled to enjoy them for we made the right decisions. And be the consequences bad, we ought to admit we are responsible for we made a bad decision. Together with this goes the moral guilt - we blame equally ourselves and the others in case we see a bad decision was made. This also leads to a distinction between things which happen out of a responsible decision, and the mindless things which just happen. If a storm cuts a tree and the tree falls down smashing your parked car, it is of little use to blame the wind or the tree. They were mindless objects, they didn't make a moral decision to intentionally damage your car. But if it is a street punk smashing your car with a sledge-hammer, then moral responsibility is applicable, and you want the person to face the consequences and to compensate for the damage done. Okay, it should also be noted that the line isn't always that clear, and especially in a more traditional cultures moral agency is seen widely. There are religious preachers who say that if a falling tree smashed your car it was a godly punishment for your earlier sins. In the old Finnish pagan folk culture it was often thought that accidents and misfortune was because of evil neighbours casting malicious spells to harm you and to steal your luck and fortune - if a bear killed your cow, it was probably because someone had wished that to happen and cast a spell of bad luck on your cow. What I mean is that the idea of moral agency seems to strongly self-evident that people have wished to use it to explain a lot of phenomena. And, in a way, the advance of modern science can be seen as the decline of agency; more and more of natural phenomenons get explained by cold hard laws of physics, and eventually it seems that what our limbs make is dictated by electric currency running in our brains and all of that is governed by the laws of physics so that some people feel shocked - if I don't have moral agency, I am a mere mindless piece of worthless dust of the mundane world! All in all, the idea of moral agency seems to elude rational explanation, and it seems to define our instinctual sense of worth, doesn't it?

Me, us and them. Earlier in this post I used the concept of 'enemy'. That seems to be one of the ideas a lot of people grasp intuitively. It means those other bad people who wish to harm us. Also, to me it seems that there is a hidden but strongly assumed connection between 'us' and 'all'. It has been said that in the ancient Greek, when the idea of Democracy was shaped, the idea was that no-one should be governed by a leader, but that all should be equally able to participate in the process of making decisions. And that there the concept of 'all' refers to all free men living in that city - it doesn't mean wives, soldiers, artisans, workers, slaves nor the barbarians of the foreign tribes. Oh well, I know that is a somewhat provocative statement, and a justified subject to educated debate backed by rigorous history of philosophy. I won't go into that now =) Instead, what I want to point out is that we have a habit of talking in general abstract concepts. We say things like 'it is wrong to', and 'property rights' - as if these were some objective entities existing out there independent of any human opinion or thought. Huh? I think it is more honest when religious people say that moral truths are backed by the opinion of a supernatural deity. But in a secular context, what does 'rights' or 'ought to' mean? To me it seems that these ideas refers to moral feelings shared by all of us - ie. every member of our tribe - everyone we consider to be part of 'us', that is. And then there are those who aren't 'us', but their opinions don't matter that much - either they are our servants or ignorant barbarians, or our moral enemies. Enemies need to be crushed, the servants need to be obedient and we need to remain morally pure and glorious, don't we?

The perpetrator / victim - divide. Given that there are moral agents making decisions which they are responsible of, it follows that there could be innocent victims suffering the consequences of a bad decision made by a perpetrator. And, to me it seems that this divide is classically a binary one, fully either / or with no shades in between. A perpetrator is the one to blame, and the victim is all innocent. The victim deserves to be helped and is entitled to a compensation for the unfair damage done. The perpetrator is the one who needs to pay for the compensation and then suffer a punishment or face some other form of shaming. This, I'd guess, reflects the more general The Good vs. The Evil -divide. The dual opposites are either / or. This, then, leads to a whole variety of phenomena we see so often. Let us imagine a completely fictional example; a person A is blamed for doing a bad thing X. Person A doesn't agree that she is fully and completely evil. She also supposes there must be an opponent B, and she wants to shift the blame. So she makes a lot of noise about the crimes of B. "So much GUILT on the group B!". As if directing the attention to the mistakes of B would make it so that the B is the perpetrator, clearing A of all the blame. It is either / or. If I can prove that my opponent is BAD, it means that I'm not bad. If I can prove that the other side did something bad, it means that I can't be blamed for anything. Or, at least, given the supposed hierarchy of values, there is a wish that my minor crimes were only necessary and heroic actions to fight against the major crimes of my opponent. If the victim fights against the perpetrator, the sympathy of the general audience is on the side of the victim. Therefore it is a good strategy to aim to appear as the victim. "The carnage of OUR GROUP needs to stop, we are the victims and now is it the time for us to FIGHT BACK and to make THE OTHERS PAY!"

Them bad. Yes yes, these ideas are not clearly separate, but an interwoven bunch of intuitively clear ideas. And there is this fallacy known as 'no true Scotsman'. It goes about this; Donald, a Scotsman, says: "We Scotsmen are honourable people. No Scotsman back-stabs - be it a fight and we fight honourably face-to-face!'. A day after that it so happens that Angus, an another Scotsman, sneaks on a dark alley thrusting a dagger into the back of his rival Duncan. Duncan is dead and Angus is found guilty of back-stabbing. Donald defends his initial position by saying: "Phew! Angus never was a real Scotsman!". Or, more generally - if there is a perpetrator doing something bad we generally speaking don't want to associate with that person. Or, even more generally; as we identify ourselves with a gang / group / company / tribe / nation A, we'd like to see that every member of A is good. If any member of A (or a tribal symbol of A) is insulted, every member of A feels personally insulted and charges to defend their honour. If a crime is committed, members of A are quick to find reasons to believe that it was not one of us but one of them bad. The threat comes from outside. Traitors aren't tolerated. (If, within the tribe's territory, there are individuals who don't respect the holy symbols and the sacred values of the tribe, those individuals need to be kicked out of the tribal territory and never allowed back again. Build that wall again and again!). If a Windows-user calls Mac a piece of crap, an unified group of Mac-enthusiastics will emerge, launching a furious counter-attack against the obvious faults of Windows. (Personally, I don't take sides for I'm mostly a linux-user.) About the same with any other thing people tend to identify themselves with. Meat-eaters vs. Vegans. Libertarians vs. statists. Progressives vs. Conservatives. Us Rational Ones vs. Them Barbaric Idiots. You name it (or, rather, you grow to identify yourselves with one of these groups, and then just adopt the ideas and values portrayed to be self-evidently true by your group tradition. Defend the tradition or be a traitor, an easy choice, isn't it?)

Them mass. It seems perfectly fine to assume that what is true for the first three pieces of laundry drawn from a basket, is most likely also true for all the other pieces of laundry in that same basket. But, later on in my life I noticed I had been using the same tool to make sense of Them Swedish Speaking People. I had heard two or three people saying that 'Swedish People are arrogant elitist. They are idiots who deserve to be ridiculed.' That made sense to me. If an arrogant person is ridiculed (s)he might eventually understand that (s)he is no better than the others and learn to show some respect. Although, I had never encountered a Swedish person myself. But, on the other hand, I had never tasted certain lethally poisonous mushroom myself, I just believed the others when I was told not to eat those mushroom. Instead of assigning individual attributes to individual members of a foreign tribe, it is far more easier, quicker and convenient to assume that they all (or at least a vast majority) of them are the same, essentially defined by the same few attributes. (And that Their Attributes are the dual opposites of Our Attributes. Even better if no attribute is shared. Blonde people are Rational and God-Blessed, while Red-heads are Irrational Lust-driven Animalish Sinners. We are Hard-Working Decent People, They are Mean Free-Loaders and Rapists Who Spread Moral Degeneration.) All of the laundry in the basket are wet. There is no dry pieces of clothes in the basket. All of the dry clothes are outside of the basket. If ten individuals identified with a group C (population ten thousand) do something bad, it is safe to assume that all 10 000 members of C are essentially BAD, and they will always be bad for they want to be bad. They are different from us, all of them.

All Right. Or Left. (who, actually, said that 'being spatially right' is somehow associated with being 'true' and 'morally good'? Does that mean that left-handed people are somehow inferior or something? Well, in case you wonder, personally I'm not left-handed. I just tend to use this example to illustrate all kinds of arbitrary ways people tend to divide individuals into groups of 'us' and 'them'. Skin colour. Religion. Social class. Political orientation. Sexual orientation. The preferred operating system. But if there isn't those 'others' then who are 'we'? - to feel a group identity the group needs to have borders, and when there is a border there are those who reside on the other side of the border. It is Them. Them red-haired. Them Swedish. Them newcomers. Them Muslims. Them Women. Them Russians. Them Westerners. Them Whites. Them Coastal Elites. Them Red-necks. Them Social Justice Warriors. Them Chinese. Them Collectivists. Them-them-thempedy-them-thumpidy-thum-thum-thump that's the rhythm of the human semi-conscious mind singing the ancient tribal chant.)

It is ideas like these most of we learn at some point of our (early) childhood. Just like a sheep mother doesn't need to teach her lambs to stand, walk and to run, no-one needs to put any special effort to teaching us to adopt these ideas. They seem to appear rather naturally as our cognitive and mental capabilities mature, as we interact with our immediate social environment. I think there also is cross-cultural studies, spotting these same categories appearing in slightly different versions in every human culture around the world. One could even say that some general form of these ideas appears so obvious that is is rather silly and boring to even go into this much detail of talking about them. Personally, for me, as I grew up it was more like a question of life and death to learn to better understand this kind of stuff, and how they affect our thinking and behaviour, and if there is anything to be done with them. So let's rock on, those of you who are still reading =)

Is it right to punch unknown by-passers if you perceive them as an existential threat?

What about arming your country with intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads? It is wrong when North Korea does it, but perfectly okay when Russia and USA do it? For the difference is that North Korea is led by a wayward strong-man, whereas the superpowers are led by... oh, well, or at least, the only country who ever has dropped nuclear bombs on civilian cities is... oh, forget it, I mean, the responsible and righteous countries we have seen bombing foreign countries and torturing Prisoners-of-War, them countries are... The heck, I mean, there HAS TO BE some DIFFERENCE, we need to tell RIGHT from WRONG, don't we? Let me guess. The ones who can back their argumentation with the most fierce fire-power, they are the ones who can define what is right and wrong. Just like when the political and economical elite have the power to rig the economy so that lower- and middle-class people can't get any richer, as all the wealth accumulates into the elites' bank accounts in off-shore tax-havens. Don't rebel against that, for the mighty ones define what is right and what is wrong. Oh sorry, I strayed from my main subject, which was moral philosophy. So back to the question. Is it morally OK to punch people who you perceive as threatening your existence?

Given all the above-mentioned tools we tend to use to make sense of the world, I'd guess the answer depends on the context. Inside a small street gang there is a strict moral norm that no member of the gang should ever steal anything from another member of the same gang - but that every member is morally obliged to participate when the gang goes to raid and steal on the territory of a rival gang. Then, the officials of the modern organized society don't respect the tribal territories of those street gangs - the cops and the judges might think that t is wrong to steal anywhere in the nation. (But is it wrong to bomb a foreign government and then install a new government which will make favourable deals on their natural resources with your own government? Grabbing a resource O from their territory is not stealing, it is a heroic act of advancing Our Tribe's Interests, right? After all, all the nations are just rival street gangs on this globe, but let's not just mention it, for our gang is the leading, the dominant one. We can go anywhere and do anything we want to, for the others fear us. That is what power is about. And you either have power, or submit to the power wielded by others - which one do you choose? ... sorry, again I'm straying from moral philosophy into topics which have just that little to do with any morals whatsoever)

Have you seen the movie Chato's Land? If not, I won't spoil too much of it. Chato is half-Apace (and half-white, I assume). He visits a Western town to trade, and stops at a bar. The local sheriff comes into the bar, and tells Chato that the bar is for whites only. Chato ignores the sheriff, and the sheriff gets increasingly annoyed, hurling more and more insults at Chato. Finally, the sheriff draws his gun and threatens to kill Chato. Chato has no choice, he needs to defend himself. It turns out he is faster than the sheriff - the sheriff gets a bullet in his gut. Chato immediately knows that even though that could be considered a honest duel, no-one would believe him. So he leaves the town as fast as possible. And the word gets out - "An apache shot the sheriff and fled the town!". The local people are outraged. Fuelled by moral fury they most able men gather a lynch mob and off they go to chase Chato to distribute some good old Western Justice. How the story unfolds, that you have to watch yourselves. What I mean is that our gut reactions, the tools we use to make sense of the world, they sometimes lead us astray. Innocent people get blamed, for we prefer to blame 'one of them' instead of 'one of us'. Innocent people might get killed for we tend to believe that 'it is okay to commit a lesser crime X in order to defend a greater value Y' . And defending ones own group against Alien Enemies is often considered to be rather high in the hierarchy of the values, sometimes even the top Y of them all, justifying about any means to this noble end (including sending people to Gulags. Or dropping napalm on foreign civilians. Or aiming to build an ICBM capable of carrying H-bomb warhead - it all appears as legitimate justified behaviour if you see it from your gang's own perspective and render the others as lowly Enemies, and don't bother to waste time trying to see things from a broader perspective - that will only lead to weakness. True Strength lies in the ability to crush your enemies, for that will deter them from trying to unfairly bully you.)

What about neo-nazis marching on the streets? What about the filthy old oppressors suggesting that this and that minority group should again be oppressed and persecuted? Surely it is right and a heroic thing to do to defend the universal human rights, fighting against the ones who aim to deny those rights from others? Well, in case you haven't guessed it already - I'm not that interested if it is right or wrong. I'm interested in what works in real life. What would be the best ways to make a neo-nazi to convert into a non-nazi? (A load of public ridicule might work in 1% of cases. The remaining 99% of individual members of all sorts of far-right movements might need other kind of assistance to help them to learn to respect their fellow beings.)

Hey, wait a minute. On which side Erkka is? Against the nazis or pro-nazis? Against USA and pro-Russia? Or, even worse, is he one of those miserable centrists who says that everything should be tolerated? One of the idiots dropping "so much violence on both sides" -kind of lines? Nope. The things is that personally I simply don't see that much use to those old moral categories. I have absolutely no doubt that the world would run better if people would respect each other. I think oppression does no good. I don't like other people being intentionally or accidentally insulted or humiliated. I'd prefer mutual respect. So I am a leftist then? Hmm, I know many of my ideas are in line with the so-called leftist thinkers, but I don't identify myself with any movement, I don't feel a need to defend a group by insulting, ridiculing and humiliating other groups. I'd rather see all individuals elevated and supported on a quest of innate self-education. (Assuming that a lot of people would prefer to learn and to grow, which I - frankly - sometimes do doubt. But these things probably take time. A few hundred years is just a blink of an eye in the time-scale of the cultural evolution of the humankind.)

Back to the original story. It was about a small-town man visiting a bigger city. Walking the streets of a city he felt threatened by some of the random by-passers who looked directly at him a bit longer than he was used to. He felt that staring as an existential threat - surely those strangers are planning to insult, to humiliate, to hit, to kill, to cut him into pieces, right! The only thing to do is to defend himself while he still can. So, as a pre-emptive means he punched in the face anyone who stared at him. He was caught by the cops, and the judges didn't agree with his explanations so he was found guilty of a crime. Okay, in this post I won't go into the practical details of the workings of (Finnish) justice system. But, I think our local system is kind of a mixture of two functions; first - the perpetrator needs to be punished, otherwise the general audience would feel their instinctual moral needs unsatisfied. Second - the law enforcement system ultimately seeks to rehabilitate people, so that wrong-doers wouldn't commit crimes again. What does that rehabilitation or educational aspect mean in the case of our street fighter? If his assaults were motivated by him perceiving himself threatened by people who look directly at him for longer than a second, then we probably are left with two main avenues to pursue; He needs to learn to control his primitive impulses, to understand that no matter how he feels, it simply is not right to punch random by-passers. And / or life would be easier both for him and for the others if he'd learn not to feel threatened merely by strangers looking at him. If you'd ask me, I'd favour the last option. Controlling ones primitive impulses only works that far. Re-shaping the instinctual gut reactions could probably yield a more stable and long-lasting benefits.

So, the question is: Is it possible to re-shape our semi-conscious, involuntary gut reactions? Earlier we noted that we are morally responsible of the conscious decisions we make - so what about the involuntary working of the deep dark primitive areas of our mind? Just like we aren't morally responsible for sweating in hot temperature, surely we can't be morally blamed for our natural gut reactions affecting our behaviour? Uh oh, now guess what? Again, personally I'm not that interested in who is morally responsible of what, or if someone should be blamed of something. Just like I'm not that interested if it is morally right or wrong to pee in your own pants - be it right or wrong, that is anyway something I'm not interested in doing myself. I'm interested in things, stuff and ways which actually, in real life, would yield some long-term viable solutions.

Dancing beyond shame

I used to be a person who felt threatened by others looking at me. I remember the first summer when I had just got my driver's license. I was driving down a small quiet dirt-road in the countryside of Eastern Finland. Then, from an even smaller dirt-road an another car came and turned to the road I was driving. Suddenly I was not alone. There was another car driving behind me. Which meant that there was another person, another pair of eyes looking at me, another conscious mind perceiving my presence. I felt nervous and uneasy. What does that other person want of me? What I am supposed to do? This is probably a challenge! Any minute by now that other driver is going to pick a fight with me, hitting the pedal to the metal, driving past me with such a velocity that the wheels of his car will make small stones fly in the air hitting the windows of my car. I have to be prepared, to stay alert, to react quick, to defend my honour, being quick to deliver a counter-attack! These were the things occupying my mind, and my body was sweating, my heart was pounding with a rush of adrenaline. And what did the driver of that other car do? Well, just to drive peacefully all the way down to the next village where I stopped at. The driver posed absolutely no challenge at me, despite my entire body being fully prepared for a duel.

In that situation my emotional and bodily reactions were beyond my conscious control. They were, so to say, instant gut reactions. Not only that, but those gut reactions also guided my conscious mind, affecting the way I interpret and made sense of the situation. In my rational mind I didn't question the threat posed by an another person driving behind me. There is another person and that spells danger - this was an undoubted truth I had deeply learnt during the first 18 years of my life. Only later on I recognized that those are, indeed, learnt reactions. And that is is possible to re-learn them, allowing the reactions to mature, to re-shape themselves. A lot like I learnt to grasp the idea of 'all the laundry in that basket' - and that the difference of the laundry basket to 'some individual Swedes / all the Swedes'. Oh well - but this story was about dancing, so let's move on;

I've more or less lost my track of time, but that was probably some six or seven years ago, when it still was so that any dance moves sent me into a panic attack. Somewhere in the corner of my rational mind I knew that I would enjoy silly spontaneous dancing, if it weren't those primitive post-traumatic panic attacks haunting me. So what to do? To feel ashamed because of having panic attacks? To try to deny the existence of the panic? To try not to tell stories of my past life when an uncontrolled tide of all-encompassing panic washes over my body and mind making me want to run for my life, for I recognized that panic is merely an echo of past life-threatening situations when I couldn't flee even if I wanted to. Heck no, those primitive reactions they simply don't listen to self-shaming, nor are they born out of stories told by the verbal mind. They are the workings of our pre-linguistic mind, going deep into the evolutionary subconscious shared by all mammals, birds and lizards. Is it possible to change such involuntary reactions?

Well, since my early adolescence studies in Zen-Buddhism I had felt that the path to change starts with (total) acceptance. "Start where you are that day. Not where you were yesterday. Or where you wish you were. Start where you are now. Lean into how you feel now and ease yourself into your practice." as singer-songwriter Anna Kristina said. Or, to put it in other words; if you are going to fix a leaking roof, the first thing to do is to accept and recognize that the roof is leaking - instead of denying the fact, and instead of merely wishing the things to be different. Self-shaming or self-victimization won't help. What helps is to start from where you are now, and then working with what tools and capabilities are available in that moment. And remembering that it all might vary from a day to day, moment to moment. If you felt strong and capable yesterday doesn't automatically mean that you'd be as strong today. If you feel that you need to rest, then rest. If you feel like trying something new, then try - and in case you fail, don't fall into self-pity, but have a break and try something else some other time. Starting with this kind of ideas I first learned to accept my utter tiredness. I could sleep for a day or two, which I did.

And accidentally, a year or another, can't remember exactly, I started trying a few tiny little dance moves in the peace and solitude of my own home. There wasn't a panic attack. Good! From that on I could slowly move on, always talking to myself with a soft accepting voice: "Oh, today you felt clumsy and got quickly tired, instead of dancing you feel like taking a nap, wanting to escape the waking world into the dreamworld? No problem, you feel like that, and we are learning to be spontaneous, so just go with the feeling, that is okay, oh that is all right!". So I went, not knowing if I'll ever learn to dance spontaneously. But I was determined not to give up. If I don't accept myself the way I am, then who will? "Hey Erkka, you are okay the way you are!" I said to myself. Sometimes I hid under a blanket, laying still on a sofa, and gently telling myself: "It is okay to feel this panic, it is okay. Here and now I am all safe, no-one poses any threat, no-one demands anything from me. So it is perfectly okay to let this panic surface, to feel it, to allow it, to accept it, to let it pass." But, to be honest, there were moments when I really wished that the panic would pass a lot quicker than it did. Well, but I didn't blame myself for wishing for an instant miraculous recovery. After all, believing in miracles was one of the things which had kept me alive though all the dark years of heavy depression.

Then it was the summer I went to see Mariska together with my friend. It was a small, strange indie festival deep in the countryside. Before Mariska it was a bunch of smaller bands, and not that many people were dancing. But I wanted to dance, so I went bouncing and leaping around, spontaneously, trying not to care what my moves look like nor if I miss a beat or not. I still felt a looming sense of 'a lot of other people are watching me, they probably think that I'm an arrogant idiot who wants others to pay attention to me, supposedly demonstrating my dancing skills which I don't have'. But, luckily, that feeling wasn't that overwhelming. I recognized it and accepted its presence, but didn't give it a full control over my mind and body. So I went with childlike silly spontaneous playful dancing, enjoying up-beat rock music on a summer day.

So I had learnt to dance alone, mostly in my own sphere. That phase went on for a few years - during which I noticed how easily I still freeze if an another person pays any attention to my dancing. Hehe, another summer on that same strange little music festival, it was Jukka Nousiainen playing a rather energetic solo gig, me and a few other people were dancing around, Jukka jumped down from the stage, playing his guitar and dancing with us. It took me a while to realize that he was actually paying direct attention to me, approaching me with dance moves which signalled a basic intention to establish a some kind of contact. For a split second that sent me back to my old fear; "an another person looks at me, so be prepared for a fight to break out at any moment!" - but now I had already learnt that this fear is often unnecessary, and that it will only hinder my ability to meet other people. Jukka didn't give up, he kept on playing, and I managed to dive back into spontaneous playfulness, inspired by his ongoing guitar solo. So I danced on, pointing Jukka with both of my index fingers, he returned the gesture, the guitar playing on an effect loop, we danced approaching each other and the moment our finger-tips touched I spontaneously acted as if it was a huge load of energy discharged, jumping in the air and landing backwards as if I were blown away by the explosion of that brief moment of meeting the energy of another human being. That was my spontaneous reaction to this unexpected event on the field of gravel which doubled as a dance-floor. Jukka was happy with that, climbed back onto the stage and went on with his gig, eventually reaching a furious peak of improvisation.

So, this is the background for me dancing a moment together with Litku Klemetti, on a bar gig where no-one else was dancing. The old automatic and involuntary "those people are looking at me, this means trouble!"-reaction was past and gone, and I found some free-flowing spontaneous movement, so that some of it could be shared with the artist. See, my old reactions would've told me that the band is annoyed by me leaping around and ruining their show - I would've expected someone to come tell me 'hey sit down and be still, for we didn't come here to watch you, we want to see the band, and your stupid silly moves make everyone pissed off!'. But that didn't happen. Instead, there was a gesture of acceptance from the band. And some friendly smiles from the fellow audience, those split seconds when I dared to look at other people.

It has taken me about ten years (or more) of gentle self-education, therapy, trials and errors, some blog-writing, silly youtube-videos and lucky random encounters with fellow dancers to help me learn that the presence of other people isn't an immediate existential threat, but that it is not only okay but also nice and enjoyable to relax in the presence of others, to let some of the spontaneous playfulness out, to share with others. This is what comes to slowly seeing a gut reaction of primitive fear changing and maturing into spontaneous joy. Same kind of stories could be told regarding all the other themes mentioned earlier in this post. Moral guilt and blame, victimhood, me - us -them. Over the years they've started to feel about as past, gone and unnecessary as that old fear of other people looking at me. But I feel I've already talked enough =) And, anyhow, I don't believe the path I've personally travelled would need to be preached to others. Every individual will and should have their own paths, for we all come from different background and have different histories. All I want to say is that personally I do believe that we aren't necessarily locked up with the set of gut reactions we find ourselves living with. If we notice any, some or most of our gut reactions misleading us, then it is entirely possible and advisable to embark on a personal quest to re-shape those gut reactions. That, I think, will lead to more sustainable and enjoyable long-term effects than merely trying to suppress or control ones gut reactions with rationality and will-power.

2 users have voted.

Add new comment

Please reply with a single word.
Fill in the blank.