Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tiger Woods and the Modern Ideology of Irresponsibility

I have said little on this blog about the Tiger Woods situation, largely because I thought there really wasn't much to say. The guy cheated on his wife and she threw him out. There's nothing much to say in terms of what he should do about it other than to stop doing it, say you're sorry, and try to do better.

This process was based on the traditional Christian idea--to put it in technical theological terms--of admitting that you're a dirtbag, asking for forgiveness for being a dirtbag, and changing your cheatin' dirtbag ways.

Now there are other ways, of course, of dealing with shame. In Japan, for example, the Samurai ideal has often been pursued: the person ritually disembowels himself. Tiger obviously calculated that this method had little to commend it in terms of the possibility of long-term rehabilitation.

There are, however, newer means of dealing with shame. I have mentioned one of these several times on this blog, which consists of announcing, at the height of the controversy over your behavior, that you are gay. This method I have labeled "The Gay Pass." This was employed in the case of former Congressman Tom Foley. It was also attempted by former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey. Tiger could simply have come out and said, "I am a gay man." But this would have been difficult to establish, since all of the parties who directly participated in Tiger's infidelity were female. What might have happened if he had run out of females--and reports suggest he may have almost exhausted the available population--is uncertain.

Among the newer ways of dealing with shame is the Therapeutic Method. This is the one more and more Americans seem to choose when faced with public shame, and it was the one utilized by Woods. Under the Therapeutic Method, you wait until you have no choice but to admit your guilt, admit it, and then announce you are going into rehab.

Why has this view become so popular? One reason is probably that we simply view all personal problems therapeutically. We have, in our society, largely abandoned spiritual explanations for things and so, in search of something to replace religion with as an explanation for the way things are, we have resorted to psychology. We dispense with one religion and replace it with another.

But there is another reason we find therapeutic explanations so attractive: they allow us to blame our actions on something other than our own rottenness.

The philosopher Aristotle once pointed out that there are seven reasons people do things: Nature, chance, compulsion, habit, rational impulse, anger, and appetite. The first three of these--nature, chance, and compulsion--are involuntary. The latter four--habit, rational impulse, anger, and appetite--are voluntary to one degree or another. The whole flow of modern explanations of human behavior has, as its, goal, to move as many things from the category of voluntary reasons for behavior to the involuntary.

Let me give just three examples.

The first has to do with the insanity defense in the law. The insanity defense is an attempt by a defense attorney to re-categorize his client's behavior from the column of voluntary actions to the involuntary. If his actions couldn't be helped--if he either couldn't appreciate the criminality of his act or could not conform his behavior to the law--then they are involuntary, and cannot be blamed for them. Nor should he be punished.

If you look around the culture, you see this kind of reasoning everywhere: a persons actions are result of his upbringing, and no more. Movies, television, and books. They attest to the predominance of the view that how we were raised unalterably determines how we will act as an adult. This is one of the reasons, incidentally, that corporal discipline is considered by many today as "child abuse": it can have no other result than the child growing up and beating his own children--or his spouse.

I was beaten as a child, therefore...

In the case of alcoholism, where once an abuser of alcohol was considered a "drunkard," someone with a moral problem, he is now an "alcoholic," someone with a medical problem. Moral problems can be helped; they are voluntary. Medical problems cannot be helped; they are involuntary. To the extent that a person's drinking problem is "alcoholism," it cannot be held against him morally, since, being a diseased person--diseases being involuntary--he cannot be blamed for his actions.

Then there is the case of homosexuality. In order to get out from moral opprobrium for having given oneself over to homosexuality, which is traditionally considered a moral perversion, it had to be re-categorized as involuntary. Homosexuality must now be considered inborn, only then can it be claimed that there are no moral implications to homosexual behavior. "They can't help it," has become the refrain.

What is ironic about the re-categorization of homosexuality as involuntary is that it goes against the almost universal trend in the social sciences to reclassify everything under the voluntary. Everything--gender, masculinity and femininity, even the self--is considered to be socially constructed. To be "male" isn't a function of your chromosomes, but a function of what society has told you you are, an identity you can simply change by rebelling against the social construction that has placed this label on you. Many people don't realize it, but there is a large and vocal faction within the gay scholarly community (a subset of the larger community of postmodern "scholars") that totally rejects the idea that being gay is "inborn." That, they say, is "essentialism," which is anathema to the social constructivism that dominates the postmodernist mindset that, in turn, dominates the social sciences in our universities.

The ideology in the "Women's Studies" department, where social constructivism serves the political agenda, is totally at odds with that over in "Gay Studies," where it doesn't. But they keep the disagreements conveniently behind closed doors in order not to damage the political progress they have made.

But the attraction of blamelessness is strong. The tide of social constructivism has swept everything else away, but the political benefits to be derived from considering homosexuality as involuntary are just too great. This is why Mark Foley and James McGreevey made public statements about being "gay men." Being a gay man is something they couldn't help, and therefore couldn't be blamed for. The behavior they engaged in that prompted them to do it, they implied, was just an aspect of this.

To "go into rehab" is a way of claiming you have a disease that can be "cured." Diseases being things that assail us irresistibly from without, having them is a way of implicitly pointing the finger at someone or something else as the cause of our indiscretions.

How you deal with a problem depends largely on what you think the problem is. And judging from the comments on this story, it seems like the problem the therapists have identified--I'm thinking mostly of the public therapists here: those who have affixed labels to Tiger's problem in the media--is something called "sex addiction."

This term--"sex addiction"--is the perfect therapeutic term. "Infidelity" is an old term fraught with moral implications, useful perhaps in a society in which people are expected to take full moral responsibility for their actions, but which ill serves the modern intent to evade them. Addictions, of course, are diseases, and diseases are involuntary

But didn't Tiger Woods stand up and take responsibility for his actions? What more do we want from him than to stand before the television cameras and say, "I'm sorry," which he did? Isn't that an indication that he is taking responsibility?

The answer to that question is probably, "yes." There's no particular reason to think that Woods didn't really try to take responsibility for his behavior. He didn't create the culture he is in. He didn't invent the idea of "sex addiction." There are others who have done that for him.

Tiger's just a modern guy with modern problems. And he's gone in for a modern cure. Are we blaming him for this? He is, after all, just doing what everyone else does in these circumstances--bowing to the modern therapeutic mindset.

How can it be his fault?


Thomas M. Cothran said...

"Moral problems can be helped; they are voluntary. Medical problems cannot be helped; they are involuntary."

It's a relocation of moral responsibility by creating an interval between the appetites and the person, rather than considering the appetites as a part of who the person is. This a fundamental shift in philosophic anthropology where what a person is gets identified with their will; that is, we are what we choose when we choose with absolute freedom. Since we can't choose in an absolutely free way if our will is bound with the sort of thing we are (nature or essence), nature is likewise excluded from what makes a person a person, and all there is left is a bare will. To ape John Milbank, this anthropology arises out of the theological rescission between God's nature and his will.

Lee said...

A poll was conducted, asking women between the ages of 18 and 55, "Would you have sex with Tiger Woods?"

70% replied, "Not again."