Avoidance and Duty

Posted: October 17, 2008 in Culture, Debate, Media

In basic Freudian psychoanalytical theory, the pleasure principle is the idea that people are driven to seek pleasure, and conversely, avoid pain. Its obviousness might make one wonder why the pleasure principle was ever codified as a psychological dictum. Even more interesting is the myriad ways the principle is subverted through behaviors such as deferred gratification, charity, and sacrifice. For the moment, I’m interested in the negative side of the pleasure principle, avoidance, and the duties it imposes (or vice versa).

On workdays, I awaken to about 10 mins. of National Public Radio. My local station is currently in the midst of an eight-day fundraising drive, one of several scattered across the calendar. This year, fundraising was kicked off via the Internet a little bit early to allow listeners and supporters the opportunity to buy back a day or two of the drive in a heretofore novel strategy of avoidance. The duty imposed, of course, was early donation. My suspicion is that the effort is a wash, since listeners still have to suffer several days of browbeating to support NPR. And because it’s so difficult to perceive something that isn’t there, two fewer days of fundraising blather may well go unnoticed. On the other hand, the displeasure of listening to various fundraising gambits for days on end may be intense enough for some people to exclaim “omigod, make it stop!” The awful memory may prompt them next go round to pay up just to make the announcers shut up.

A case of nearly universal avoidance is jury duty. Several strategies exist to escape this duty imposed repeatedly throughout adulthood on most Americans. The best may simply be to answer jury polling questions rationally rather than emotionally, as trial attorneys typically want jurors who can be persuaded emotionally rather than those who are able to maintain calm objectivity. The duty to submit to jury service probably has nothing to do with avoidance except for their shared universality. The painful loss of a day, week, or even longer (how do people survive long trials?) is necessary to support a legal system that, among other things, guarantees a jury of one’s peers. Members of the various state bars are also required from time to time to perform pro bono work to indigent clients. The comparison with jury duty is pretty direct: participants must pitch in to support the structure that benefits them. In the case of pro bono work, only bar members can do so, despite their universal hope of avoidance.

All across the Internet these days, as well as in other media, the conflicts between various religions and the nonreligious are getting more intense. The nonreligious or atheist crowd in particular has raised its profile precipitously in the last few years. Personally, I find these conflicts distasteful in the extreme and wish to avoid them. However, just as a religious faith may impose a duty on the faithful to minister, evangelize, and proselytize on its behalf, more and more atheists are arguing that the stakes are too high now for nonbelievers to watch the contest from the sidelines or ignore it altogether, especially as the separation of church and state continues to erode in the U.S. In short, duty to promulgate an opinion trumps one’s personal desire to avoid the whole morass.

In contrast, a widening range of topics and issues must be avoided in polite company to forestall argument, including capital punishment, abortion, gun control, racism, sexism, and even routine party politics. The problem is that attitudes and opinions have become so hardened and extremist that proponents lose the ability to maintain principled disagreement without resorting to hysterical name calling, libel, and slander, if not outright violence. Although not generally recognized, there exists a need for dissent to generate a plurality of opinion and help define issues from a variety of perspectivees to avoid an attitude from devolving into a counterfactual and/or uncritical truism, which is precisely what happens in the absence of dialogue. We see it served up on TV in a host of what might simply be called shouting shows, no longer polite company, where contestants vie for the loudest agrument with which to shout down their opponents. It’s become almost a blood sport, though it’s difficult to see any spoils going to the victor.

  1. I routinely admit that I’m: furiously opposed to capital punishment; believe abortion, terrible as it is, must be readily available and is not a legal matter; see no justification for guns in this century–find another sport–and if you can procure nothing but wild animals to eat, use a bow and arrow. Racism and sexism are intolerable. Shouldn’t we all be above and behind such ugly tendencies by now. Almost invariably, I find the Democratic party as the lesser of two evils.
    I say this and more but no one takes me seriously.
    The one time I was called for jury duty, both trial lawyers asked me a question to which my answer was apparently so outlandish they and the judge took me to a separate room, listened to my rationales, and then requested I leave the premises without speaking to anyone.

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