Redemption and the New Year

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

Yesterday,1 I mentioned an understanding of moral essence, in which

people are born with, or develop in early life, essential moral properties that stay with them for life. Such properties are called “virtues” if they are moral properties, and “vices” if they are immoral properties. The collection of virtues and vices attributed to a person is called that person’s “character.”2

George Lakoff goes on to explain what he calls the metaphor of Moral Essence:

  • If you know how a person has acted, you know what his character is.

  • If you know what a person’s character is, you know how he will act.

  • A person’s basic character is formed by adulthood (or perhaps somewhat earlier).3

Critically, a person’s character is seen as unchanging. Lakoff writes that this “metaphor of Moral Essence is a significant part of our moral repertoire . . . and it is used by liberals and conservatives alike.”4 This justifies an increasingly harsh system of criminal injustice and a writing off of “people who for one reason or other — inability to find a job, old age, disability, racism, sexism, drug addiction — have been unable to cobble together the means to support themselves.”5 Indeed, Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim write that prior to the institution of Social Security, poor people and convicts were often mixed together and treated alike.6

So there is an irony in that on New Year’s Eve, I find myself reading a book a friend lent me—one I should probably add to my library. It’s an old book, dating from the 1950s, Cosmos and History by Mircea Eliade.7 Because chapter two is about what the New Year fairly universally meant to what Eliade calls “archaic” societies.

This apparently is a time of re-creation, the transformation of chaos into order, a time before which people celebrated and were in fact allowed to get a little out of hand because the new year was a new start—a redemption, sometimes accomplished through the driving out of a scapegoat, sometimes recognized with a return of the dead who were then driven out.8

This is a time to remember, but also a time to forgive.

Instead, we have become a very unforgiving society—at least for anyone who is not among the powerful—as our increasingly punitive attitudes towards the poor and those we label as criminal indicate. We might want to think again about that: poverty is on the increase9 and the gap between rich and poor is widening.10 In combination with our treatment of so-called “illegal” immigrants and with our treatment of Muslims, it is in fact not inappropriate to remember Martin Niemoeller’s famous words:

In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.11

“They” are in fact coming for more and more of us, as more and more of us are driven to desperation. It is time to start again.

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