Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Script

The particular difficulty in recognizing to what extent our wishes—and our thoughts and feelings as well—are not really our own but put into us from the outside, is closely linked up with the problem of authority and freedom. In the course of modern history the authority of the Church has been replaced by that of the State, that of the State by that of the conscience, and in our era, the latter has been replaced by the anonymous authority of common sense and public opinion as instruments of conformity. Because we have freed ourselves of the older overt forms of authority, we do not see that we have become the prey of a new kind of authority. We have become automatons who live under the illusion of being self-willing individuals. This illusion helps the individual to remain unaware of his insecurity, but this is all the help such an illusion can give. Basically the self of the individual is weakened, so that he feels powerless and extremely insecure. He lives in a world to which he has lost genuine relatedness and in which everybody and everything has become instrumentalized, where he has become part of the machine that his hands have built. He thinks, feels, and wills what he believes he is supposed to think, feel and will; in this very process he loses his self upon which all genuine security of a free individual must be built.

~Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm


We believe that we live in the land of opportunity, that we have the ability to act, react, think and assess in accordance to our will. This is not so. In fact, everyone has been handed a script, or rather, their choice of scripts. They have the ability to act in a way that will determine what their neighbors think of them, and they can choose the script depending on who their neighbors are. We often refer to this script by names such as "box" or something to that effect; we believe that everyone can be fit to categories, boxes or the like, and in part, that is due to the fact that we have these scripts to choose from, almost as though we were actors in a Hollywood movie, and each of us has the ability to portray a particular character.

The only catch? The Script exists in order to characterize us for the sake of itself. If one is a Liberal, he must be liberal for the sake of being liberal. Controversial for the sake of being controversial. Traditional for the sake of being traditional. And there is a core thread or theme that must be maintained if you want to correctly follow the script. The qualifications to being a liberal include acting in a bleeding-heart fashion toward people who want to kill you (aka civilians in Gaza who support Hamas), acting nicely toward LGBT folks, saving the environment and so forth. What happens if someone doesn't give a damn about the environment but does care about LGBT folks? They will gravitate toward the group who holds the script with which they have most in common, and for fear of being abandoned by the core group, will attempt to learn how to care about the other issues they ought to care about, and may even feel guilt for not caring about.

People follow scripts because of the way they want to be perceived. They aren't strong enough to think through the issues and come up with an individual opinion upon each issue. Therefore, they decide to follow the script, whether it be the "Liberal" script, the "Conservative" script, the "Modox" script. Anyone who truly dares to think for a moment will realize that every issue ought to be analyzed and decided upon in its own merit, not taken as part of a conglomerate in order to characterize someone as following a certain script. And yet, that is not the case.

Take the "Modox" affiliation. Can you imagine something more arbitrary? Modern Orthodoxy, in the way it is practiced (and not in its philosophical form) is mostly based on the fact that people decided to throw several issues together, tie it with a bow, and create a script. These issues have to do with believing that a boy and girl can talk to each other without immediately wanting to have sex with one another, one is a religious Zionist and supports the state of Israel, and one learns secular studies. Why are these tenets the script criteria? As I wrote once, "Why choose these factors by which to define oneself? Shall I create a title for myself because I keep yoshon (not eating any new grain before the Omer offering on the 16th of Nisan), do not support the current State of Israel, and eat kitniyos [legumes] on Pesach?" Why not take those factors, tie them together in a pretty bow, and create a new script? Give it a pretty new name, and create a whole section of people who subscribe to it?

What happens if one supports certain tenets of one script, but not those of the other? Issues ought to have nothing to do with one another; each issue ought to be analyzed on its own merit. If I analyze the issue of platonic relationships and decide they don't exist, thus forbidding males and females contact with the opposite sex, but simultaneously believe that one should learn secular studies, what in the world does that make me? Alas! I have dared to break the rules of the script; I've got some of the lines from the "Modox" script and some of the lines from the "Haredi" script; I'm terrifying! And yet, this oughtn't to be the case, where people are trying to create a common theme or bond between issues which in fact have nothing to do with one another.

And so, for someone to be liberal for the sake of being liberal, for the fact that someone supports saving the environment to have to reflect on that person's stance on the LGBT community or Palestinian civilians- is completely preposterous. I say, there ought to be no such thing as liberal, no such thing as conservative! There is only liberal and conservative with regard to each separate issue, each one having been analyzed separately, and a person having reached his conclusion about that topic separately.

What people should do, what they should be taught to do, is to analyze every issue with the information they have at hand, the opportunities and background that they have, and to reach a conclusion based on that. They should be taught that they should be willing to retract their opinions when new information presents itself, or when they realize something they have not realized before. They should be taught there is no shame in that. They should be taught, in other words, to be honest- to analyze each issue separately, without connecting one's thoughts and feelings about one situation to their point of view on a completely different event- and to do what they think is right. One can only do what he thinks is right if he takes the trouble to find out what that is without resorting to a pre-written script, even if these scripts do have nifty labels such as "Liberal," "Conservative," or the like. He has to think through an issue, reach a conclusion, and act on that conclusion. And if new information presents itself, he must think through that as well, and he may very well reach a different conclusion. But he does these things because he believes they are the right thing to do, not in order to conform to a label or keep to a script which in truth is stifling, individuality-suppressing, and entirely ridiculous. Much stupidity comes from these people who are clearly advancing opinions they don't understand simply because they have been taught they are part of the "script" in terms of the life they would like to live. Forget everything, forget being politically correct, forget who you have to please or whose good opinion you would have to have, and focus on the facts, focus on the issue at hand, focus on this goddamned problem without resorting to your pre-written script and its stupid solutions to every situation...and maybe you will surprise yourself. Maybe you will realize that you can support the environment and kill terrorists simultaneously, or alternatively, not support gay marriage and nevertheless buy clothing that was not made in sweatshops. People should not be able to be summed up by scripts. They should do what they think is right, and that may place them in many categories....conservative, traditional, radical, liberal, and so forth, so that they can never be accurately fit to a box at all....depending on the issue at hand.


Stubborn and Strong said...

You go girl! I am proud of you!

Anonymous said...

I love this post! I want to keep in the back of my mind always, as I know there will be times when I wish I could say this as you eloquently as you do. One of my teachers put it succinctly: You don't pick a hashkafa, but develop one.

nmf #7 said...

Echoing other commentators- love this post.
I think we should all invent our own scripts and get rid of the labels that so plague our world. If we did- we might recognize that we are all unique and can't just fit a mold.

Mordy said...

I agree, Chana, that most people ascribe to these scripts. But I think you might be discounting the importance of foundational, or subtextual, beliefs that inform a wide variety of issues. The reason why the "liberal" (as you're using it) script evolved was because there were set beliefs that led to certain conclusions (such as multiculturalism, pacifism as hierarchically superior to force, moral relativity, etc). But if you changed the suppositions, you would easily come to different conclusions (which is why I agree with 75% of liberal conclusions, but strongly disagree on the other 25%).

Similarly, there are common reasons for secular studies, male-female social relationships, and Israel. These tend to do with an openness to modernity (in the face of Reform movements, see: Hirsch, etc), and a particular historical moment when the movement developed. I don't think you're necessarily disagreeing with this (tho maybe you are!) but I think it's important to emphasize. Not only should people analyze the details of their script, they should analyze the preconditions that underline it as well.

Yosef said...

Yay Chana! That's always the way I've felt about things. Glad you wrote it.

Anonymous said...

Take the "Modox" affiliation. Can you imagine something more arbitrary? Modern Orthodoxy, in the way it is practiced (and not in its philosophical form) is mostly based on the fact that people decided to throw several issues together, tie it with a bow, and create a script.
Chana- Can you provide an example of any "box" that this is not true of?
In addition, there are often meta issues that cut across the lines you so neatly draw - for example, people who eat kitniyos but won't eat meat from animals that have certain lesions do have something meta in common - they are sfardim; similarly people who view the state of Israel as reishit tzmichat geulateinu will tend to weigh any issue of individual vs. state obligations differently from one who views it as something else (I noticed you had no pictures of the chasidei friends of Iran at the rally).
Of course we need to think for ourselves (or wait, is that primarily an MO script ?) but if you always try to derive every theorom (forgive the math reference) from basic principles, you will spend a tremendous amount of time at it; time which in many cases would best be spent elsewhere.

Joel Rich

bsr said...

awesome :)

Uri said...

Chana, agreed wholeheartedly!
But, the scripts do come in handy because it takes courage and determination to act upon what one thinks is right. Don't you think!

Gavi said...

An eloquent argument for personal intellectual honesty and responsibility. You set the bar high for the rest of us...

The unfortunate reality is that most of us are not so honest, and prefer to have our dogma answer all our questions, instead of having to do the work to answer them ourselves.

Anonymous said...

No matter what you do, it's a script if you can't TRULY justify every stance, so you follow the script as a safety net. I do it because it feels good, my conscience allows it because someone else does it too. You are just changing it to 'my conscience allows it because that's me', it's still a script.

Anonymous said...

I think Mordy is right. The reason that ideologies form and are successful is because there are certain foundational assumptions underlying the beliefs packaged in a "script" correlate either psychologically or intellectually with each other. Therefore, someone who subscribes to one of the beliefs of an ideology is likely to subscribe to all of them. It's the outliers on the bell curve that don't fit neatly into a little box.

Anonymous said...

Shall I create a title for myself because I keep yoshon (not eating any new grain before the Omer offering on the 16th of Nisan), do not support the current State of Israel, and eat kitniyos [legumes] on Pesach?"

You don't need to create a title - it sounds like a religious Sfardi who the State of Israel mistreated back in the '50's!

Charlie Hall said...


I don't mind being called a liberal, but I don't fit into any box. I support a Jewish State in the Land of Israel but I don't associate it with any messianic redemption and don't say reshit semichat geulateinu. But I do say Hallel on Yom HaAtzmaut. I strongly support secular education (hey, its my living!) but I don't watch television or listen to talk radio. I comment on Orthodox Jewish blogs and get blasted for being too far to the left and comment on and get blasted for being too far to the right. I'm not into bashing the Rubashkins but I've never purchased their product because we have a dairy only kitchen. I sometimes feel lonely following Rambam's middle path.

And this is the perfect seque to mention that I saw the film "Lonely Man of Faith" tonight, with an intro talk by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter. Wonderful talk, amazing movie. I can be alone if it is right. And I will see the film a second time this coming Saturday night at Riverdale Jewish Center at 8pm. (Ok, sorry for the shameless promo.)

Anonymous said...

You might also want to think about the balance between individual and tzibbur - do you identify with a particular tzibbur even though you don't agree with its entire narrative (box)? If not, how does one's scorecard look when evaluated from the involvement with the tzibbur standpoint? Is there a downside to the shteibalization of orthodoxy?

Joel Rich