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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Thursday, July 29, 2010

THE DEATH OF WISDOM

"I have also had to warn them I believe social workers will enter the labor suite when their new baby arrives next month."

Not long ago, the New York 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC's policy regarding obscenity was unconstitutionally vague. Judge Rosemary S. Pooler (a Clinton appointee) ruled that the ban on accidental or spontaneous foul language or offensive behavior did not define or explain obscenity clearly enough, forcing networks to bleep or censor everything in advance just to avoid the large fines which might result.

The reason this sort of court case comes up is that obscenity is so difficult to define, since it seems to be different to each person. Something that might be pornographic in one setting is perfectly innocent in another. Take a picture of your wife giving your baby a bath in the sink, and you have a cute picture to embarrass your child with when they grow up. Another picture of that same naked baby in another setting or taken by another person might be child pornography. Since obscenity is an abstraction rather than an easily defined concrete concept such as the speed limit, laws struggle at dealing with the issue.

That difficulty is the basis behind a lot of problems with modern society; the substitution of law for wisdom. Consider the "zero tolerance" rules that schools have regarding weapons. In Virginia, and 8 year old boy was suspended for a week because his mom packed a butter knife in his lunch so he could make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In Orlando, Florida, two boys were arrested after they drew stick figures of their classmates being hung and run through with swords.

These "zero tolerance" schemes were put in place by well-meaning people trying to prevent horrors such as knifings and shootings in schools. Yet their existence presumes that law and rule can replace judgment and wisdom. The fact of having a knife in the lunch box replaces the truth of why its there in such a scheme, taking the leadership out of the hands of teachers and parents and turning it into management by lawyers and judges. Instead of teaching the child and leading it to behave wisely and properly, the child is legislated into not doing anything which might be harmful or dangerous, regardless of the context or situation.

The genesis of this is the rejection of absolute, objective standards and ethics by which we may, as a culture, make wise decisions in each given situation. Instead of having the wisdom of elders and tradition to help guide our future, all of that was rejected as old and outdated. The basic shared ethos of western culture, primarily Judeo-Christian in its origin, has been rejected. That hasn't made the world a better, more advanced and progressive place, it has simply left a vacuum which cultures need filled to have order and cohesion.

So in the place of this ethic laws are implemented. Instead of using common sense and wisdom shared from one generation to another, we have rules and laws given us by managers who know best. This is the origin of seat belt laws and rules about children wearing helmets and padding while riding a bicycle. It is where legislators get the idea they can tell businesses how much sugar to put in food or what toys to pack in a child's fast food meal. This is where the government gets the idea it can tell people their children are too fat and their cars are too dangerous to the environment. And most of all, its why parents go along with this without protesting too much.

In England, the health care system has authorities taking children away from their parents because the state decides they've become too overweight. For the children, of course. The parents are upset by this but they let the state take their child. Why? Because the very idea of leaving people up their judgment to raise their own children and handle the situation without the state is unthinkable.

Rather than having a structure in which families help each other, neighbors lean on each other, and the community is a local resource, we've largely abandoned that for the easier option: let the state handle everything. Replacing wisdom with law means abandoning personal responsibility and the hard choices of leadership. Replacing leaders with managers means that everything has to be reduced to a quantifiable, legally definable specific.

Judges who are forced by law to use minimum sentencing for court cases are suffering from this effect. The ability to judge a case by its merits and the situation of the perpetrator is wrested from their hands by a specific, quantifiable rule: this crime = this punishment. But the judges forced this situation by not using judgment to begin with. Had there been greater wisdom in sentencing and greater discernment in dealing with criminals, voters would not feel compelled to force judges to act more strictly.

Schools are forced to give children tests to determine their learning. Standardized tests are implemented because children are coming out of school without even basic skills such as reading and basic arithmetic. The tests miss more subtle concepts such as wisdom, beauty, and goodness because these are abstractions which cannot be given a quantifiable test. Yet teaching abandoned such basic principles already, forcing parents to demand a standard by which schools may be held accountable.

And it all comes back to the abandonment of wisdom and a worldview which gives principles by which situations and people may be judged. When wisdom dies, all we have left is the law, and instead of the individual doing right, we have the most powerful forcing people to do what they think is good. C.S. Lewis once said that the more laws a culture has, the more lawless you can tell it has become. Without societal pressure to do good and avoid evil, without shame to discourage bad behavior, cultures are reduced to an ever expanding set of rules to try to cover every single situation, until the state makes lawbreakers of us all.

*This originally was posted on the Examiner Opinion Zone.

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