October 27th, 2005

operesque

Seven deadly sins

Looking back over the past year or so of Click Opera, I notice that many of the most telling, interesting and provocative entries have been ethical ones. I suppose it's inevitable that when you set forth opinions every day some kind of ethical profile will emerge. And while ethical ideas are personal (everyone develops their own particular sense of what's right and wrong), they're also, to the degree they're shared, bound to sound prescriptive. You cannot outline the good life without creating—if only by implication—its shadowy inverse, the bad life. Every ethics is, in a sense, a machine for creating new sins. Even the most sybaritic of us create new sins. They hover between the lines, between the colour photographs. Sometimes we make them explicit.

Of course, although I've been accused of being a "minor cult", I don't have any sort of church behind me, or any sort of Inquisition. There's not much I can do if anyone disagrees with me except shrug and say "Thanks for your comment, this is just the way I see it." But I thought it would be interesting today to make a sort of ethical self-stereotype, a compilation of my ethical Greatest Hits from the past few months. I thought I'd make a list of The Seven Deadly Sins of Click Opera.

Looking back, my main ethical belief seems to be that the most dangerous things are the things everybody does, the things that have won and become dominant. It's success and the mainstream which are the breeding grounds for evil, not failure and the margins. (This separates me sharply from high priests like Bush and Blair, who condemn "failed states" and a marginal "axis of Evil".) Therefore, for me, America (or, sometimes, Angrael, an imaginary imperialistic right wing alliance between the US, UK and Israel) is the most dangerous country, male the most dangerous gender, Christianity the most dangerous religion (although any form of monotheism is bad), driving cars and having children the most dangerous behaviors (although clearly someone has to have children otherwise all human life will cease).

Since I'm a bit of a post-Marxist, I occasionally complain (but not always — just the other day I wrote in support of Tokyo's wealthiest property tycoon, Minoru Mori) about private property. And since I'm a bit of an Orientalist, being Western is something inherently guilty, and virtue has a distinctly Asian (and specifically Japanese) feel. Other virtues are playfulness, creativity, art, ecology, nomadism, and a certainly modesty of lifestyle. But let's save the virtues for another day, shall we? Because today we're going to get all Gothic and evangelical and talk about The Seven Deadly Sins. Here they are. Roll the tin thunder!

1. Pompous Universalism. This is the belief that, as Paul McCartney sings in Ebony and Ivory, "people are the same wherever we go". Because I'm big on cultural difference, I see this stance as a denial of difference based on fear of seeing The Other in all her Otherness. Pompous universalism thinks of itself as benign, whether it's bringing democracy to the Middle East at the point of a gun, market liberalisation to countries with centralised state control, or human rights to China along with a stack of Bibles. Above all, Pompous Universalism sees itself as neutral, standing head and shoulders above all specific, situated, contingent, culturally-rooted circumstances. If you believe that it's impossible for anyone to transcend their specific culture, you therefore have to see Pompous Universalism as a form of Cultural Imperialism. If I tried to tell you that my Seven Deadly Sins could and should be applied in all ages and across all cultures, for instance, I would be a Pompous Universalist. Which would be a bit embarrassing, obviously, since it's my number one deadly sin. I should mention a risk associated with the condemnation of Pompous Universalism, though: if you make any attempt to characterize differences between races, genders and cultures beyond the McCartney-esque statement "people are the same", you'll be accused of another grave sin: essentialism. Politicians will also call you "divisive" and will accuse you of hindering their attempts to integrate everybody.

2. Guilty Pleasures. This is obviously a legacy of the teachings of monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam, which condemn and forbid stuff that everybody loves. As a result, we learn to hate the things we love and consider them toxic. Therefore, if we love women, we learn to hate women and love them in a self-hating (and woman-hating) way. If we love food, we learn to consume nasty sweet or salty food, food that makes us fat and wipes years off our life expectancy. We not only develop an appetite for all sorts of things we know are bad for us, like cigarettes and drugs, we love them specifically because they're bad for us. "This will kill me," we think to ourselves, "but I deserve to die because I indulged in pleasure". In an interview in The Guardian appropriately illustrated with a cigarette in the shape of a cross, for instance, artist Sarah Lucas spoke about her drug use and said "I sometimes wonder how long I've got... everybody, to a certain extent, will be a victim of what their life has been". There it is: pleasure as toxic, and self-injury as a kind of karmic punishment for its enjoyment. A complete failure to consider the idea that pleasures might actually be good for us. Which brings us to...

3. Moronic Cynicism. I have nothing against healthy skepticism; science is based on that. What I object to is the lazy reflex we have to look immediately for some low, ulterior motive in everything, some grubby bottom line. And the main reason I object to this is because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and starts a sequence of vicious circles. We don't trust or respect anyone, and so all our relationships get tarnished by lack of trust and lack of respect, and that spreads corrosively through the whole society. My belief is that even if you trust someone who doesn't deserve it, your trust in itself may change the situation for the better (though I make no money-back guarantees on this).

4. Moronic Irony. There's nothing wrong with ambivalence, of course. It's fine to feel five different ways about something; I both love and hate capitalism, for instance. I also think it's fine to use irony as a way of expressing ambivalence: whether we call irony a "laboratory" or a "theatre", it can provide a space where we suspend judgement, brainstorm, try on costumes. However, irony shouldn't be a place where we hide indefinitely from ethics, and it shouldn't be a slippery slope towards reactionary views, an insurance policy we invoke to restore lost credibility when people call us out. "Oh, for heaven's sake, I was just being ironic! It was a joke!" We also shouldn't use irony as a cloak for personal ambition, as a way of having our credibility cake and eating it too. And we should be aware that when ironic mainstream values begin to appear in indie media outlets (radio stations, record labels), it may signal a collapse of confidence in the inherent validity of alternative values, and the beginning of the end of pluralism and real choice. And I don't want to scare you by sounding cranky, but it's not just a matter of choice diversity (in itself a rather Milton Friedmanesque virtue). It's also that unironic alternative or indie media provide a whole set of spiritual values which are more wholesome and sustaining than those which dominate the mainstream. Because I'm not a moronic cynic, I really believe this. And this is the reason why I hate to see alternative culture summed up by a skull on a t-shirt. Which leads us to...

5. Fashion Goth. Why abandon Christianity without also abandoning its demonology and its panoply of death rites? That would be like throwing away the fruit and keeping the peel. And why dress only in black, when there are so many other colours? Isn't that chromophobia? My vilification of fashion gothdom clearly relates to my rejection of Christianity, and post-Christian attitudes like the "guilty pleasures" mindset. I just hate this idea of a Christian culture where you have, in the mainstream, evil people who think they're good doing evil things in the name of Jesus (you know, "Bush denies that God told him to invade Iraq") and, in the subculture, good people who think they're evil dressing up as flesh-eating zombies. Come on, people, evolve! Perhaps if you stop thinking of yourselves as evil, your evil rulers will stop thinking of themselves as good.

6. Boastful self-effacement. You might notice a pattern emerging in these sins: I have problems with some aspects of low self-esteem. That's because at heart I'm a bit of a Renaissance humanist. What a piece of work is Man, and all that. I'm always ready to forgive people who really believe in themselves, even when they're narcissists and prima donnas. It's the people who wallow in negativity and self-hate who are the really irksome ones. Self-hate is a big sin, and what's more it makes you very high maintainance for your friends, very difficult to live with. So love yourself better and you might become a better person. The thing about low self-esteem is that it so often hides its opposite; behind the inferiority complex there's a superiority complex that tells you all your vices are virtues, really. So the last thing you're going to do is eradicate them. This is the difference between true humbleness and boastful self-effacement: when a humble person admits to failings, it's in order to correct them. When a boastful person does it, self-improvement is the last thing on his mind. It's more of an individualist manifesto: "this is how I am, love me warts and all".

7. Why do there always have to be seven sins? I feel like I've run out after six, and several of those could probably be collapsed into one big sin, like "thinking mankind is inherently evil" or something (which would make it a sin to talk about sin, I guess). But if there has to be a seventh sin, let's make it something to do with woman (we need women and snakes in every breviary of sins). Woman and sex. Let's make it the sin of raunch we discussed yesterday, and particularly the idea that raunch is empowerment. First of all, I like how making raunch a sin is close to making rock a sin, because they go well together, rock'n'raunch. But raunch-as-sin relates to many of the other sins here; it's basically a post-Christian idea that sex is evil (dress those girls in devil costumes!), and it's also a corruption of an alternative political movement (feminism) which could, if it really applied itself to the deconstruction of patriarchy, be incredibly radical, and make the world a much better place. Raunch short-circuits the subversive potential of feminism by telling women that there are short-cuts to power, and they come mostly in the form of short skirts and tops. But the resulting "power" is nothing more than a very limited share of the power men already enjoy, and are already abusing horribly.