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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Internalizing the Rules

Yesterday was a good day for me in terms of Google earnings, largely due to an upswing in traffic to my hub on Lelouch of the Rebellion. Here's how it happened: some guy from an anime BBS board got upset at my references to WWII on that hub. Specifically, he was upset because I compared the Japanese to the Italians and concluded that while the Italians were fake fascists, really valuing personal comfort and well being over conquest and valor, the Japanese were, by and large, true fascists. This upset him, because he saw my statement as praise of the Japanese. Now, of course, in most circles, calling someone a fascist isn't taken as praise. It really all depends on your system of values, but many people aren't aware that there could be more than one set of values. This guy told me that I should not be taken in by the mystique of anime; the Japanese were butchers who committed atrocities of the grossest kind against civilian populations and helpless prisoners. When I told him that I already knew that, and that it in no way contradicted what I said, he started quoting Bushido at me.

What does this have to do with Bow? you are probably wondering. He is neither Japanese nor Italian, was born long after WWII, and doesn't even enjoy watching Lelouch of the Rebellion. Well, oddly enough, the problem I was having communicating my position to the anime critic relates directly with the problem I am having getting Bow to adopt my system of values. Bow keeps promising to "be good" and he is "good" as long as I am right there, but the moment I turn my back on him, he breaks all the rules. This happens time and time again, and when he is caught, he is sorry, but not contrite. He is sorry about the consequences, but he is unabashedly proud of himself for not internalizing my rules. He is proud of his own indomitable spirit. You can see it in his eyes, his posture, his swagger. It is also reflected in the things he says. "Don't be angry. Try to forgive." It's all about how I should behave. He's not planning to change anything about himself. He's just perfect!

Contrast this with Brownie, our Chocolate Lab. Like Bow, Brownie knows the rules. Like Bow, he occasionally breaks one of them when he is left alone, and the temptation is too great. But Brownie has a conscience, and Bow doesn't. When Brownie is caught violating one of the rules, he is sorry. His posture, his gaze, his every motion says: "I'm so disappointed in myself. I'm so ashamed." Brownie has internalized my rules. Bow hasn't.

"Why is it bad to pee on the floor?" Bow occasionally asks me. "It's bad, because I have to clean it up. Look at my hands. See what you've done to my hands? Aren't you sorry you hurt Mommy?" I have delicate skin, and it reacts harshly to cleaning products, even just soap and water or diluted vinegar. After a series of such cleaning episodes, my hands get raw and red, and there are cracks, and I bleed.

Bow looks at my hands. He tries to groom them, to peel away the dead skin. He licks the raw parts. He gestures for me to suck on the broken skin, as he does whenever he hurts himself. He is sorry that I hurt. But he is not sorry about what he did. He promises to be good, but he doesn't really mean it. He thinks the rules are stupid, and he isn't being untrue to himself when he breaks them.

This is the case with so many people I know. People of many different cultures, who give lip service to one set of rules, while they live by another.

The man from the anime BBS thinks the Japanese in WWII were guilty of moral cowardice when they abused civilian populations and prisoners. But the charge of moral cowardice only applies if you subscribe to a morality that says you shouldn't do such things. That might be true of some of the individual Japanese soldiers in WWII, but not all of them, and maybe not even a majority.

Didn't the Japanese swear to abide by the Geneva Convention? Didn't they promise to honor international law? What if they did? The morality that a person espouses isn't the one he formally agreed to abide by. It's the set of rules he believes in, in his heart of hearts.

Torture takes place, more often than not, because people who promised not to do it hold some other value to be higher. A little old lady friend I know from the great State of Texas supported torture for terrorist suspects under the Bush administration, because she believed it was the right thing to do. She even hinted to me that the way we won WWII was by torturing captives for secret information about the Axis powers. "You should be grateful there are people who are willing to break the rules to keep us safe," she said. I was shocked.

No morality has any power unless it's internalized. My challenge with Bow is to somehow reach him in his heart of hearts. Getting him to give lip service to my rules is not going to change anything. It's the same challenge that all of us face on many different fronts.

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