I’ve always been fascinated with the dark side of human nature. I’ve also long observed the political dynamics of whatever group I’m in, whether family, friends, work, community and nation. Politics means to me the study of power – who has it, how they work it and what happens to those who become disempowered.
The adage goes “Power corrupts…” and that seems very apt this Electoral Campaign as the trickle-down effect of the stench from Dirty Politics invades us. Watching my own reactions of disgust and outrage to the Dirty Politics saga initiated this blog post. It’s my attempt to understand my own reactions as much as the motivations of the politicians concerned.
As usual I turned to the past to get a grip on the present.
Our cultural traditions in the West have long instructed us in how to be a good person, living in a moral society. The Greeks gave us the idea of the four cardinal virtues and taught us the ideals of democracy. Yet bad behaviour such as theft or murder has consistently thrived then and now. Religions have set moral and ethical guidelines, but their institutions and followers have been pretty useless at practicing them.
The seven deadly sins are an old Christian list of qualities that describe seven most important ways of humans being bad. They are Pride, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth. I figure their descriptions capture beautifully most everything nasty and horrible that humans are capable of.
When I started thinking about this list I realised that individually and personally we are all familiar with one - or several - of the seven sins. Generally most people – religious or otherwise - manage subduing them and run amok only occasionally. But our contemporary western society as a whole seems to amplify and exemplify them all at once.
The history of the West has been characterised by elites in power using force (the State) backed up with ideology from the pulpit (the Church). This unholy combo has excelled in teaching people to live under such lovelies as misogyny, state-sanctioned murder (war) and hierarchies that must never be questioned.
Nearly always it was/is men who have been in charge of authoritarian political and religious systems. Female experience and voices have not been acknowledged and indeed, actively oppressed.
Today the Church and State partnership has devolved into a more secular western capitalist economy run by global corporates. Democracy limps along as it struggles to appease the Gods of Mammon. The governing ideology is that of unlimited growth and is practiced at the expense of our planetary environment. Consumers are encouraged into an almost obligatory permissiveness that carries an injunction to gratify more and more perverse desires.
|Worship of Mammon|
Despite the widespread (but not complete) secularisation of New Zealand and a Kiwi suspicion that God is dead, other parts of the world seem hell-bent on proving that religion is vigorously thriving. God is apparently alive and doing awfully well working through the big three –monotheistic and often competing - religions (Jews, Christians and Muslims). However He doesn’t seem capable of slowing down the seven deadly sins running amuck destroying our world. Wherever we look – here or there – morality seems strangely divorced from the practice of religion. So I am dispensing with the myth that we need religious stories to lay a moral compass for humans.
Still, those people from our past did know a thing or two about the way people tick. Being good is a challenge and stories are helpful navigational tools. I’m using the Christian list of the seven sins as a template or framework, but will explore them in my own pagan way.
The seven sins were named early in Christianity’s history - the Church was great at defining human failings - and then committing the very sins they outlined. The list of sins was apparently first compiled in the Dark Ages by Pope Gregory the Great who reigned as Pope from 590 till his death in 604, when he was promptly created Saint (despite his rather awful evil-doing as a mere mortal. )
Before I bandy around the words sin and evil anymore, it’s important to clarify them. Words we use mostly originate from a variety of ancient roots. The word sin is a Christian idea, for it assumes there is a god with a capital G. If a Christian commits a sin, they transgress a religious or moral law, or are deliberately disobedient to the will of their God (who is good but loves to punish).
In other words they do evil. Evil -like sin – is a religious word, used to denote profound immorality and sometimes even described as a supernatural force that fights eternally against the moral white knight of Good. The Devil - a most marvellous myth - is the personification and apex of sin. He continually struggles against his original master and moral absolute the good God. (a very masculine conversation going on here.)
In normal everyday conversation, we non-Christians would use the word evil to mean something heinous, contemptible, really, really bad.
So while eschewing a Christian or otherwise religious viewpoint, I’m utilising Christian-based words – which is what most of us do anyway in this contemporary, secular, Kiwi culture.
In most lists, Pride – or in Greek Hubris – is considered the original and most serious of all the sins and source of all the others.
Essentially it is a belief that one is better than everyone else. It will manifest as arrogance, disdain, scorn, contempt, snobbishness and sneering down one’s nose at others. It indicates a loss of contact from reality, a failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, and an overestimation of ones’ own competence, often exhibited by those in power.
This is particularly noticeable today in the ruling class of politicians, the best example being Team Key in conjunction with bloggers and a tame media.
Ex-Cabinet Minister Judith Collins has Pride down to a fine art. Hopefully her fall will be as spectacular as her hubris.
The arms trade, especially the nuclear armaments industry or political advocates of dropping a nuclear bomb on another country have an extreme case of mega-pride.
Dante's definition was "love of self, perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbour". We seem to despise anyone who is “other”, whether it immigrants, foreigners, anyone in fact who doesn’t belong to our clan. As soon as we compartmentalise “us” from them” and conjure up different ways of treating them from us – that contempt marks our pride. All the oppressive and/or institutionalised behaviours that show an inability to treat all people fairly - eg racism or ageism - fit here pretty snugly.
Pride is also defined as an excessive admiration of the personal self. Society’s values certainly encourage an obsessive focus on one’s body or decoration and clothing of the body. Vainglory or Vanity is a form of Pride. This can mean futile boasting – certain TV or radio presenters spring to mind. But this kind of Pride has strong narcissistic undertones. Western capitalism has bequeathed a ruling ethos of narcissism - “it’s all about me”. This is particularly prevalent in celebrity worship and the belief we are all due our 15 minutes of fame.
In Greek tragedy Pride could mean excessive pride or defiance of the gods, but usually referred to crimes committed by mortals against mortals. It was not generally thought of as a religious matter. It would also refer to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure and gratification of the abuser. Aristotle called it ‘shaming the victim”. Often there were strong sexual connotations.
Today we might call it assault and battery, or sexual crimes such as rape, or the theft of public or sacred property. Sound familiar? 200 domestic violence events occur every day in N.Z – that’s one every seven minutes. This is mass pride inflicted by one gender working itself out on disempowered women and children. Furthermore our adversarial courtrooms still put rape or domestic violence victims through a public shaming.
The antidote for the sin of Pride would be to consciously cultivate the qualities of Humility, Compassion and Tolerance. It wouldn’t go amiss either if we tried practicing a lot more celebration of inclusion and cultural diversity. But above all we must work as a community to abolish the idea that one gender –men - are entitled to disrespect, shame and abuse women.
The sin of Pride is different than the way we often use the word pride. Taking pride in one’s work or achievements is often a way of expressing healthy self –respect. Cultivating this kind of pride is important. Women especially often suffer from lack of pride. Because society doesn’t value women’s work such as unpaid child-rearing and housework, the active building up of our low self-esteem through pride becomes an essential path to societal health.