Saturday, July 23, 2016

Character - in the popular conception and in our own lives

Jeffrey Goldberg had an interesting column, more for how he framed the question than for the evidence he brought to support his argument, though some of the evidence was interesting as well and bears comment here.  He focuses on three high level Republicans: Chris Christie, Tom Cotton, and Paul Ryan.  He asks why each of them acquiesced to Donald Trump to some degree, rather than pushing back hard.  The framing I mentioned notes that each of them are fathers with young children and apparently are good family men.  What sort of lesson does their behavior provide for their kids?  Wouldn't concern for the kids' future encourage them to take the hard line against Trump?  Yet that didn't happen.  What is going on here?

There seem to me to be two different sorts of behavior that get jumbled together when we talk about character.  The first is embodied in the expression, "being a fighter," and deals with the push back I mentioned above as well as perseverance in difficult circumstances.  This sort of behavior shows toughness of the individual.  Angela Duckworth calls it grit.  The other behavior is generosity and kindness.  One of the definitions here uses the word, magnanimous.  A person who exhibits this regularly might be referred to as gentle or warm.

Abraham Lincoln, whom I take to be the pinnacle of excellence in a President, exhibited both of these types of behaviors, which was coupled with high intelligence and a wonderful sense of humor.  We can all aspire to Lincoln's standard though the vast majority of us will not reach it in our lifetimes.  For the rest of us, I'd like to know whether these two different behaviors are opposed to one another, orthogonal to one another, or positively correlated.   Then I'd like to consider what causes failure of character and whether/how we can forgive ourselves afterwards.

My core hypothesis is that one of the two types of behavior is dominant in people of character, that dominance caused by how the person was raised and the person's disposition.  In my case I believe I first explicitly became aware of character through summer (sleep away) camp.  Near the end of the summer, after color war was over, there was an awards ceremony.  Each group, with roughly 30 campers per group, gave out four different awards.  The top one was called all around camper.  The next one was best athlete.  The third was the character award.  (So the all around camper was good both in athletics and in character.)  The last was for most improved. 

Why awards would be necessary at a summer camp I can't say.  What I will note here is the hierarchy of them.  Being a good athlete was more important than showing good character (sports was a big part of camp life) but having them in some mixture was the ideal.  They never spelled out the qualifications that would earn the character award.  But it was a Jewish camp, so I garnered that it was mainly about the second type of behavior.  The kid who won the character award was a "good guy" or better yet a mensch.  Indeed, I'm guessing that this was the norm for good behavior in many reform Jewish households.  I've written about it previously in a post called, How well does my dad's morality hold up?

I do want to note here that it doesn't take hold with all kids even if it is the norm that's presented to them in the family, probably because some other important tension in their lives takes preeminence and that dictates contrary behaviors.  It did take hold of me, evidenced by report cards from nursery school, day camp, elementary school, and some of what people wrote about me when signing my high school yearbook.

The other type of character was harder for me, some of which was about learning to deal with failure in my own thinking, on that I eventually made some progress but it took quite a while, and some of it was about how to deal with bullies, something I've still yet to master.  Persistence of an intellectual kind happens for me because I get bothered about the issue and I've learned not to let go until I am no longer bothered.  That only happens when some resolution has been attained.

I want to distinguish being bothered, which though not a pleasant feeling is not really demoralizing, from feeling dread, already defeated ahead of the interaction, and wanting to run away from the situation, which has been my experience with bullies throughout my life.  Lacking the confidence that I could get the better of the situation, I would simply stress out.  The Darwinian expression is fight or flight.  My flight instincts are innate and well honed.  Fighting for me is a learned behavior and it remains a lesson not yet completed.  Through self-discovery I've come to understand that I don't do well being angry for long periods of time.  I can't be angry and simultaneously maintain control.  Further, persistent anger is the path to depression for me.  So most of the time I'm genial and wanting to engage in intellectual play.  It does leave me vulnerable to those situations when dealing with a bully.

I don't have a good example of somebody else who was raised first and foremost to be a fighter, whether they have the opposite sort of difficulties to what I have, but assuming they do have those difficulties the explanation for them is surely the availability heuristic and their lack of sensitivity to others constitutes a failure of imagination.  In a contrast that is getting a lot of press lately, there is an overreaction to the graphic violence shown in videos on the Internet, precisely because that information is available.  The fear that many people are feeling is well explained by the availability heuristic.

Let me turn to character failures that emerge for other reasons.  People who push back do so either because they have a decent outside option, so if the push back fails they won't do too badly, or because they are willing to go down with the ship as a matter of principle.  It's really hard to differentiate between these two motives as an outside observer.  Further, individuals are not necessarily consistent this way over their own lives, so it s quite possible that at times one is motivated purely on principle while at other times one is motivated by a rationality calculus.

Conversely, if one is rational but without other reasonable options then feeling trapped is a natural consequence.  People who feel trapped don't push back very hard.  In the case of Chris Christie, Goldberg reports that Christie has an insatiable need to be in the limelight and to surround himself with other highly visible people.  Let's take that as a given.  He has a very low popularity rating now as Governor in New Jersey.  Doesn't it make sense that he'd be angling for some high level position in a future Trump Administration, even if that is not as Vice President, and that is his last hope for satisfying his insatiable need?

There may be a different factor at play particularly for folks on the campaign trail.  If you give public presentations once in a while you'll likely know what I'm talking about here.  Public performance gets the performer keyed up.  There is stage fright ahead of time.  During the performance there is a great exertion of psychic and possibly also physical energy.  Afterward the person will be on a high that takes some time to come down from.   On the campaign trail the candidates and their entourages may be permanently keyed up.  Reflective thought is not well served in this circumstance.  Decision are apt to be made in a more spontaneous way.  To the extent that exhibitions of character require some planning ahead of time, being on the campaign trail makes that difficult, maybe in some cases impossible.

Let me close with the other sort of character failure, when usually generous people act in a selfish way.  Undoubtedly this is because they are frustrated about something else and their selfishness is a form of venting.  Fatigue contributes to the problem.  If it is not too frequent maybe the best thing to do is chalk it up to being a human being and learn to apologize sincerely after the fact.   This piece is not bad with some other suggestions for managing the problem when it is more acute.  Obviously, the long term answer is to eliminate the source of frustration, if that is possible.  Absent that, perhaps a conscious effort to lighten up will be helpful.  People do tend to over program themselves nowadays, giving themselves less space to relax.  Character requires a store of reserve.  You get that by being good to yourself.

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