Years ago, I lived in an upstairs apartment above a family with two children. Sometimes, while visiting in their living room, we’d see their youngest child emerge from the kitchen with a handful of cookies en route to his bedroom. He imagined that since he was walking in front of us with his free hand covering his eyes, we couldn’t see him and that the cookie theft never occurred.
I read an article in the New Yorker today, “Has Self-Awareness Gone Too Far in Fiction?” in which author Katy Waldman wrote, “These self-conscious times have furnished us with a new fallacy. Call it the reflexivity trap. This is the implicit, and sometimes explicit, idea that professing awareness of a fault absolves you of that fault—that lip service equals resistance.” While, as she says, she confines her comments about this fallacy to books where she says that “Increasingly, characters seem to be rewarded for the moral work of feeling bad,” the message covers a lot of the self-examination speeches, essays, posts, and other confessions we’re seeing these days in the news and on social media.
Perhaps it’s the slip side of burying one’s head in the sand or covering one’s eyes while participating in a riot or watching a riot on the TV news. One form of covering one’s eyes seems to be saying, “I don’t live in Portland, so I don’t know anything about the nightly riots there, so none of that is my responsibility or problem.”
You can either say, “I wasn’t there, so I can’t help fix it” or “I was there and threw bricks through a few windows and torched a few police cars, but in admitting it to you, I’ve cleaned my plate, conscience, and soul, and am now a good person again.”
Actually, I remember another approach from the 1960s and 19070s: A discussion group that focuses on the ills of the world meets once a week at a member’s house where people have cookies and coffee or cheese fondu and Scotch and talk about the negative issues of the day. Everyone chips in, says how terrible it all is, complains that the government or the church or somebody or other needs to do something about it, and then they leave the house at the end of the evening with a feeling of accomplishment. That is to say, the members believe that talking about a societal ill is the same thing as working proactively to get rid of that ill.
I can’t quite decide which approach is worse. I hope that the discord flowing through our society is a realization that none of these approaches is healthy or humane–much less, a solution.