On moralising and meaning-making

I’ve been thinking a lot about moralising lately. By that I mean the creating of rules or principles for our conduct. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since reading Brad Blanton’s Radical Honesty.

I do plenty of moralising. (You can find some of the more extreme examples under my Dr Rant category. I’m a bit embarassed by some of it). Lately I’ve seen a large outbreak of moralising in response to my post on Schapelle Corby including some of my own.

Blogs are full of moralising, taking individual experiences and relating them to grand universal principles. All good fun at times, and downright unpleasant at others.

Blanton has some interesting things to say about what he calls the Disease of Moralism.

The passing on of learning from one generation to the next is not a bad design, and as an evolutionary development it seems to have triumphed… The ability to act based on accumulated information, and to pass great quantities of new information on, is the primary survival characteristic of the strongest animal on earth.

But, paradoxically, our survival mechanism has proved to be ultimately suicidal.

He argues that we have taken to talking about rules and principles, our stories about what the world means, and neglecting to talk about our actual experience. For instance, instead of saying “I’m angry with Fred for being late” we moralise about punctuality. We don’t say anything to Fred, of course, though we start acting strangely towards him, and gossip to his colleagues (hoping they will make him change so we don’t have to face up to our urge to control). We make up stories about the sort of person Fred is instead of dealing with our actual experience in relation to him. Similarly, when one country puts one of our fellow citizens on trial in dubious circumstances, we create a huge number of stories about what the country, and all its people, are like.

We perpetuate a kind of anger phobia… indeed a kind of feeling phobia, in which we end up denying our experience and vanish into storytelling, through which our feelings leak out, indirectly. Blanton again:

Adult moralists are always angry people. The more the moralist is confronted with sloppy old experience, the more hysterical he or she becomes. We all get hysterical, but some of us lighten up and come to our senses more often than others. Some of us operate from hysterical moralism most of the time. Famous political moralists like Joseph McCarthy, Spiro Agnew, J Edgar Hoover, and Hitler are great prototypes of the disease in our culture.

One of my interests is branding, which seems largely preoccupied with the making of meaning. I’ve heard humans described as “meaning making machines” – an interesting choice of words. I rather like this counterpoint from Blanton:

We are constantly creating the world by merely perceiving. When we hear, we are creating sound. When we see, we are creating what is seen in our visual cortex… We are… each creators of the world. But since we do it effortlessly, and everybody does it, it doesn’t count for much in our considerations of who we are… We take for granted our function as creators of the world and focus much more attention on creating meaning. We are preoccupied with the power of interpretation. We are much more interested in our uniqueness, derived from what we have worked to learn, than in the source of our power as creators.

Later on he says

We are responsible for cutting ourselves off from experience by substituting our interpretations of reality for reality. We invent some fundamental lies about how life should be and shouldn’t be, how life is or isn’t according to what we have taught ourselves to ignore or deny and what can or cannot be talked about.

There are times in my life when I feel I escape from this kind of laborious rule-making and meaning-making. I experience them in the face of honestly described experience, my own or someone else’s, and I experience them in Improv exercises, often punctuated by uproarious laughter, when someone surprising happens that has not been planned for by anybody. In these moments, there is a spontaneity and a sense of something vital taking place.

We could call this presence. For the not unsurprising reason that it only happens in the present. We like to ascribe it to particular individuals (“he has such presence”) as if it’s a thing to be owned or stuck in a cupboard, but I think it’s an experience available to all of us.

I said that blogs are full of moralising. Fortunately, they can also convey – directly or indirectly – the individual voice behind them. It’s the voice that makes ’em engaging, I reckon. (You see, my Dr Rant posts aren’t very nice but they do at least reveal, albeit indirectly, the author’s frail humanity).

This feels to me like what’s really going on behind the well-manicured stories of corporate success with which our bookshelves heave. Behind the clever storymaking, something much more mysterious, vital and exciting is going on. Somehow, I fear this gets lost amidst the urgent search for “meaning”.

(Incidentally, Jeff Tweedy’s explanation – Music is not a Loaf of Bread – seems to relate to this)

1 thought on “On moralising and meaning-making

  1. Michael Lomker

    Interesting post Johnnie. Struck a chord with something I heard recently in “On Bullshit” (funnily enough not a joke), namely that the meaning you make when you try to sell something (whether that’s products or oneself) is very different from the meaning you make when you try to understand something. Bullshit and phobias vs honesty and voice

    —–

    I’m reading the recent re-release of Radical Honesty, despite having read the original three times already. I disagree with a great deal within the book but other concepts strike a chord with me.

    Your post was insightful–anger is something that is repressed in most contexts in society. All repressed emotions resurface somewhere, whether it be through moralistic gossip or by blowing a future problem with that person out of proportion.

    Reply

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