Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Morality is a skill, not dogma

For the past few weeks, I've been watching "The Untold History of the United States", a documentary series on Netflix produced and narrated by Oliver Stone. As I saw this alternate history of the United States stream before my eyes, I found myself working hard to break it down to one simple idea. What I see is the United States caught in a war of morality. The United States is and has been for much of our history, waging a moral war against the world and many of its own citizens.

With each passing episode of Mr. Stone's version of our history, I found myself trying to put all that I have seen in context of what I know today. I have been trying to see all that history through a lens that says, "people would do better if they could". And throughout the history lessons presented by Mr. Stone, I could not help but think that these United States, acting as one, have been attempting to get the entire world to accept their notion of morality, without making any effort practice or to teach the skills required to achieve that morality.

The United States, and the people who claim to lead it, seem to think that people are bad because they want to be bad. So, when other people and other countries do not act in accordance with the moral code held by the United States, we have responded with furious, vindictive punishment. From the atom bombs we dropped on a country tired from war and ready to surrender, to a merciless war on terrorism perpetrated on countries that had nothing to do with 9/11, we have relied upon our power as justification for our morals rather than demonstrating that morality ourselves.

One cannot claim to teach morality without teaching the skills required to achieve that morality. Morality is not a question of motivation, morality is a skill. The skill of morality cannot be taught with a stick. Morality is a skill that must be demonstrated and taught with empathy and compassion through collaboration.

The United States has been trying for more than a century to convince us that capitalism has greater morality than socialism or communism. I have suggested in the past that it's not the form of government that matters so much as whether or not people treat each other with respect and compassion as a part of, and while living within the culture the government supports. The form of government we choose matters less than whether or not people are mature enough to treat each other with respect and kindness.

The leadership of the United States have been trying for more than a century to teach the world that Christianity is morally superior to any other religion, despite the fact that the United States was not even founded as a Christian nation. How have they been doing this? Mostly, through wars, military intervention and economic intervention. This hasn't been going well for America, either.

I am not saying that Christianity is a bad religion, rather, that there are a few people who claim to be Christian that are treating at least some other people very poorly. This continuum of good to bad behavior can be found in any group of people, in any religion. I've known as friends very moral atheists, Jews, Buddhists and Christians. But in its continual quest for dominance, the United States has not demonstrated the "Christian" morality that it seeks to impose upon others nor the compassion and empathy required to teach it.

This is not to say that we are a bad country, this is to say that if we want other nations to respect us, we must respect them. Just because we have the world's largest military force does not mean that others will respect us. That military force does not give us the right to topple other governments, to interfere with their economies and to foment wars in other countries. That kind of behavior breeds terrorism. 

How else can we explain the United States as the world's largest and greatest police state? How else can we explain the continual reliance upon a war time economy? To have peace, we must be peaceful. To teach peace, we must be peaceful, too. We must start that as a nation right now.

Great teachers are not worried about their security and they have no need to make war. They are entirely concerned with making sure their students learn the skills they sat in class for. Great teachers demonstrate the skills needed to live and prosper in peace, with compassion and empathy for their students. They do not punish their students for getting it wrong. Great teachers collaborate with their students. When a student goes astray, they attend to that student to determine what skills are missing and needed to learn the lesson and they teach those skills, verify that the skills have been learned and move on to the next lesson.

A great teacher is not concerned with motivation. He knows that the motivation is there. Even if the motivation appears absent, he knows it will appear when the skills are taught, learned and demonstrated by the student.

I can recall sitting in class as a child and a young man, and looking back, I now realize that the only real skills I was taught in school were reading, writing and arithmetic. They did not teach morality as a skill. They taught morality as a fact, as something to be accepted at face value without ever considering the skills required to achieve it. I now know for myself that morality comes from the chest and gut, not from a book.

The closest I think I ever came to learning life skills in school came when I took classes in home economics, auto shop, machine shop and electronics. The rest, history, social studies and even some science, were all about memorizing facts. They taught facts not skills. If they taught morality, they did not say they were teaching it. The morality they did teach was how bad socialism and communism were.

Our leaders continue to perpetuate the war on terror. They continue to allow frauds on an enormous scale to go uncorrected. With a real unemployment rate of 9.4%, they allow millions of Americans who want to work, to go wasted, with no job, no prospects, and no hope, while the wealthiest corporations in the world are allowed to park $2 trillion and more in tax shelters overseas. That's just the shortlist on my mind right now, and maybe yours, too.

This is not to say that our leaders are evil. I don't believe in evil and I'm not sure that I have ever believed in evil. The concept of evil is borne out of religion, a supernatural explanation for challenging behavior in children and adults. I do not believe in evil people. I believe that there are only the confused (who we call evil) and the less confused (the good). I think we can say with a fair amount of confidence that our leaders are really confused, both Democrats and Republicans, together.

Our leaders, intent upon teaching the morality of capitalism and Christianity, seem hopelessly lost because they are not teaching the skills required to achieve the morality they claim to possess. They seem more intent on pursuing money than morality. If our leaders do not possess the skill of morality, then it is up to us to teach those skills if we have them, and learn them if we don't. And when we teach those skills, we must be mindful to demonstrate the skill of morality ourselves, in and out of class, with empathy and compassion, through collaboration with everyone we meet.
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