We used to get out moral guidance from religious leaders, now we get it from social media.
There was a story going around Facebook recently about an elderly woman who refused to sit next to a black man on a flight. The flight attendant sympathised and went in search of another seat. The story contained other narrative to dress it up a bit with the upshot that the flight attendant returned to say that they don’t normally offer upgrades to business class but in this case they would make an exception as they didn’t expect people to sit next to objectionable people. (I’m sure you can see it coming.) So the attendant moved the black man into business class to the sound of cheers from the other passengers. Morality had been saved, a point had been made and everyone felt good, so long as you are not a racist and in that case you deserve it.
The thread that followed contained various comments of ‘well said’, ‘well done’, ‘that stewardess deserves a medal’, and other such backslapping self-congratulations. At the same time there were comments on the thread that claimed that it was racist against white people to tell the story and other self-justifying bigotry that I can’t remember and, frankly, don’t want to.
Another one doing the rounds over recent years is the university lecturer who holds up a large coffee jar containing golf balls. He asks the students if the jar is full. One assumes the jar is pretty large and that the students are not very bright as they, clearly, don’t suspect a trap and declare the jar full. The smug lecturer then goes on to confound the students by adding increasingly smaller granules into the jar, pebbles, sand and eventually water. Somehow the students continue to insist that the jar is full at each successive addition. If that’s that state of current undergraduates then no wonder the world is going to the dogs.
Now you would image that by now someone would have punched his lights out for being such a smart-arsed, patronizing, bastard of a lecturer but it seems he was allowed to deliver his punch line, so the story must be made up. Still uninjured by the students he delivers the moral that the big things, the golf balls, are your family and friends; the medium things, the pebbles, are your job, house car etc.; and the small stuff is just small stuff, whatever that is. He then explains that if you put the sand in first you’ll not have room for the important things. (Leave aside the fact that this story makes judgmental assumptions of value that may be different across populations or cultures and that it’s basically a restatement of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs but strangely in a different order of priorities.) One imagines the students are studying something that makes all this relevant or they’d all be wanting a refund on their student loan.
If you really want to know the moral you can Google it. Just search for ‘lecturer golf balls jar’ The point is that the story has a moral as do many of the stories we see on Facebook, Twitter or wherever.
So what’s going on? When I read the bigot on an airline story there were people who got into complicated critiques of the encounter assuming that it really happened. I’m sure when I first read the golf ball story it was attributed to Albert Einstein, although I get the impression he didn’t really teach much. Einstein gets attributed all sorts of words of wisdom and, while it’s apparently true that he was a fan of thinking styles that broke conventions, I wonder if he ever uttered any of the quotes that you see on Facebook typeset against pictures of beautiful forests, mountain ranges or spiral galaxies.
We don’t go to church any more, we haven’t done so in numbers for a couple of generations. As I grew up I felt convinced that, with the ever continuing march of reasoned thinking, we would cease to believe in religious ideas and become overtly rational. The sixties looked towards a future where the rationalist was headed for a Mr Spock existence. (It’s more complicated than that as the sixties was also an irrationalist revival with the hippies but I’m talking about the trend that started with the enlightenment.) Mr Spock became more analytical and struggled with the issues that arose from his situation. Twenty years later in Star Trek The Next Generation there were no Vulcans (at least at first) and Mr Spock’s place was taken by an android that struggled to become more human.
Whatever the case it seems that, as we’ve left religion behind as a culture we still need to examine ideas of what it is to be human and discuss morality. I just wonder if previous generations would have had these conversations in church, explored by religious teachers, perhaps attributed to Jesus, Mohamed or Abraham. Today we have them on social media and attribute them to great thinkers of our time or tell the story that it happened to the elusive FOAF (friend of a friend) so common in urban folklore.
If the smart-arsed lecturer never existed and the black man on the plane never got upgraded, because these are parables after all, I wonder if the biblical stories we learned as children ever happened. These stories could just be a phenomena circulating in the mimetic soup that is our culture and these things have been going viral since the beginning of time.