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To Turn or Not to Turn - A Question of Cheek
(Frankly, it also feels really good to be able to get under the skin of hypocrites. That has been a distinct pleasure since childhood, but now I have much more ammunition, so it’s a lot more fun.)
One of the issues that has always bothered me has been the snarling about religious principles. There are several that make good sense at times—like, for instance, turning the other cheek. But they contradict the basic principles of Objectivism, so they are hardly ever discussed. When people do talk about them, it is always with disparagement and scorn.
I get a great deal of value from Objectivism, but then I have read almost everything Rand has written—most things more than once. I have seen many newcomers quickly turn off to Objectivism because they think it is only a dumb kind of dogmatism that attacks their beliefs—which they hold to be the essence of the good (as opposed to evil). Too many end up thinking that Objectivists are crackpots.
Well, are religious principles like turning the other cheek really anti-Objectivism? There goes that little child inside me again. He tells me that Ayn Rand’s heroes turned the other cheek all the time in her fiction.
Here come the knee-jerks! Moral denunciations! Ayn Rand’s heroes turning the other cheek? Dayaamm! The very idea!
Well, let’s go have a look-see. Forget about everything you have ever learned. Just look.
Let’s start with Ayn Rand on religion and moral principles. What did she specifically say about this? From the 1964 Playboy interview:
"… religion is an early form of philosophy…
"And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points. They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate..."
Her problem was with faith, not necessarily with religious moral principles. She thought that religions do have valuable moral principles. What a relief!
So I can talk to a Christian, for instance, and say that there is no evidence for the existence of God, but as Ayn Rand’s Objectivism points out, there are rationally-based axioms instead. Also, I can point out that Rand said that many religious principles are good. That’s a whole lot more convincing than saying that the idea of God is delusional and a principle like turning the other cheek is unspeakable evil.
Basically, if you want to make this world a better place to live in by convincing others to look at reason Objectivism-style, what Rand said about many moral principles needs to be given a larger context than the faith-versus-reason one she always stressed.
What got me thinking along these lines was a parody of Rand and Objectivism by Michael Prescott, a best-selling writer of suspense novels based on serial killers. He was once a hardcore Objectivist and later changed his thinking. His satirical phrase for Objectivism was Reversalism, which he defined as "the truth is the exact reverse of everything you believe." The only reason that particular satire can exist at all is because there is a dose of truth in the implication. The more you look at that phrase, the more the word "everything" jumps out at you.
This got me to thinking even more. Maybe the age of the hard sell is over. Rand had a habit of couching her views in such a manner as to cause maximum dramatic impact. She was always careful about defining her context, but those who have followed have not been so particular. You see many of them bashing religion and all that religion has ever stood for throughout history, because it is fun. They can pretend to be kick-ass intellectuals without having to expend any of the thought needed to do what Rand did.
Maybe that’s fun, but it is extremely poor salesmanship. I even think it is extremely poor philosophy.
Anyway, the idea of turning the other cheek started bugging me. I had a personal thing with that once. I also noticed its historical influence—Ghandi and Martin Luther King were two leaders who used it as a powerful tool to effect social changes. Their approach was pacifism and it worked. Is that a contradiction? Look-see time. Check premises. Here is what Rand thought about pacifism.
"If some 'pacifist' society renounced the retaliatory use of force, it would be left helplessly at the mercy of the first thug who decided to be immoral. Such a society would achieve the opposite of its intention: instead of abolishing evil, it would encourage and reward it."
Ayn Rand, "The Nature of Government," The Virtue of Selfishness
Well, renouncing the retaliatory use of force is certainly what turning the other cheek is all about, if taken literally. The more I read and thought about it, though, the more I saw that force was not the only issue, but retaliation always was. You can refuse to retaliate against many things ... insults, the injustice of a court sentence, physical violence. The concept of retaliation does imply that something unpleasant or harmful was done. We can call that aggression.
Thus, 'turn the other cheek' has been interpreted down the ages as the principle of not retaliating against aggression. What has not been clear, however, is whether this principle means permanently renouncing retaliation or merely renouncing it on the spot and in kind when something bad has just been done against you.
Then, surfing over Objectivist sites on the Internet, I came across the following observation, which caused the coin to finally drop in my head. Eureka!
"Decision-making, according to Schwartz, consists of two stages: first, a man uses moral principles to determine his valid options, and, second, he examines the costs and benefits of each valid option to determine the best course of action."
Don Watkins, "Rational Decision Making" Noodlefood blog, October 17, 2005
Off I went thinking about strategy and tactics in moral principles. That is what has been missing. At least, I haven’t come across it yet in Objectivist discussions of religious moral principles.
If you look at what most Objectivists interpret the principle, 'turn the other cheek,' to mean, you will see things like "disastrous if taken literally," "sanction of the victim," "leaving evil not judged," altruism, and so forth. But they are only looking at the moral principle as a strategy, not a tactic.
Here is what I mean. Back to Rand.
"It [ethics] is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.
" 'Value' is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept 'value' is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible."
"The Objectivist Ethics," The Virtue of Selfishness
A moral principle’s purpose is to guide man’s choices and actions. It is based on getting or keeping values in the face of an alternative.
I used to play chess quite a lot. Anyone who has acquired a moderate level of skill and studies the games of masters knows that there is a huge difference between a strategy and a tactic. A strategy is a decision to implement a certain general manner of playing, like going up through the middle of the board, focusing on the corners, drawing the opponent in with sacrificial offerings and so forth. A tactic is more immediate, more short-term. You work out in your mind that if you capture a pawn, your knight will be captured by a bishop, but then you can advance a rook on the left side to the back row… Working in a tactical frame of mind, you calculate costs and benefits in terms of immediate payoffs.
The alternatives for both strategy and tactics, of course, are provided by the rules of the game, and the need to choose is provided by the opponent. This is a pretty good metaphor for life, if you call the rules of the game "reality" and the opponent "death."
Thus a moral principle like 'turn the other cheek' can be either a strategy or a tactic. It certainly operates on both levels. What did the Bible say about that? The principle comes from the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus and is told in both Matthew and Luke.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
Matthew 5:38-42, NIV
"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Luke 6:27-31, NIV
Essentially, the Bible doesn’t make a distinction. The context makes it seem more like a reaction to embedded rules—ones that caused people to turn off their thinking and commit injustices back then—than absolute commandments. No matter, though. We can look at what it means in both contexts.
When I was much younger, I learned the hard way that turning the other cheek was not good strategy. You can’t adopt it very successfully and say, "That is my game plan for living." The value you are trying to get or keep is missing, unless your value is merely a Kantian-type commitment to duty for duty’s sake. You also run the risk of losing things that are very important to you.
When I was in early high-school, I was very religious. One of my main values was not just trying to be virtuous, but to associate with those who were virtuous and learn from them. I wanted to live in a virtuous world and be a part of it.
I had already been in music for a couple of years playing trombone in the band. One of our activities was playing in the marching band for parades and ceremonies and at half-time in football games. The uniforms costed a lot of money and there were no allocations for them, so a creative plan was instituted for all the high schools in the county. Band members would sell chocolate in their neighborhoods once a year and the profits would be used for purchasing new uniforms and fixing old ones. We sold chocolate door-to-door.
Off I went one night, selling chocolate on my route like a polished apple. I had an excellent presentation, I was hard working, I smiled a lot and I always sold much more than my share. People responded to the work ethic in a youngster they saw in me and, frankly, I sold pretty good chocolate at a good price.
As it was getting dark, I came to one particular house. I lived in a typical suburban neighborhood, so all the houses had full yards and were pretty well kept. Before I could go up to the front door, a tough looking kid approached me.
"Hey. What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Selling chocolate. Want to buy some?"
"Hell no. You go on and sell your chocolate wherever you want, but you just skip that house. My girl lives there and I ain’t gonna stand for no creep sniffing around her."
He pointed to the house I was getting ready to solicit. I saw no reason for skipping a house on my route, I had no interest in his girlfriend, and I told him so. He threatened me again, but I ignored him and went on ahead. I don’t remember anymore whether I sold chocolate to those people or not, but off I went to the next house after going through my presentation. Halfway there, the tough kid came up again.
"What did I tell you?" he asked.
"Excuse me. I’ve got to finish my route." I tried to go around him, but he blocked my way.
"I told you not to go there didn’t I? But you went anyway."
Then he tried to grab my box of candy. I didn’t let him and he punched me on the side of the face.
What an opportunity! We had just studied the Sermon on the Mount in Sunday School and here God was sending me a test!
I calmly stood my ground and proudly offered him my other cheek. He punched that too. Then I turned my cheek again and he punched it again. And suddenly I turned into a punching bag turning one cheek after another and receiving one punch after another.
What happened to God? Where did He go?
I started getting really angry because it hurt and the pain was getting worse and this guy didn’t show any sign of stopping. He was actually enjoying himself, the bastard! Well, if the test had to be hard, I would withstand it. I had my principles and God had to be watching.
I don’t know how long this went on, but I remember it lasting quite a while. Then a car drove up and the kid looked scared. He grabbed my arm and dragged me off into the woods nearby. I was completely confused by then anyway. Everything was turning out so differently than I had been taught. He did some more punching and I did some more cheek turning, but I think he was getting tired. I don’t remember this part lasting too long.
Then, one of those strange things in life that you can never explain happened. My mother got suddenly worried and went out looking for me. She had never been to that part of the neighborhood, but she went directly to where I was. Straight to the edge of the woods. The car lights suddenly cut through the trees and her voice called out, "Mike!" The tough guy, looking scared again, took off running and vanished.
Since then, I’ve often wondered about what made her go straight there. Hunch? ESP? God? Blind coincidence? Nowadays I have accepted the fact that I simply don’t know what I don’t know, so I don’t try to explain it to myself anymore. It just happened. That’s all.
Back then, though, I was sure that God had sent her. I told her what had happened and I was quite proud that I had passed God’s test so strictly. She wouldn’t have any of it, though. We immediately went to the police station to file a complaint.
I had to tell the story all over again. The police officer listened to me sympathetically, then started looking at me in wonder. By the time I finished the story, he was looking at me as if I were a fruitcake or something. My ears were pretty red, too, because that was not what was supposed to happen. I was supposed to get a pat on the head for being true to my principles. This was an officer of the law, damn it!
He knew the boy from other incidents and picked him up. I remember the boy sitting in front of me and getting a scolding for being a bully.
That was all? No repentance? No punishment? No reward? What a letdown from God!
But that was not the worst part. The really bewildering part came when I went back to school and then church. Basically, I had to listen to two reactions:
"Huh! If that had been me ..." Then, all sorts of bragging about physical prowess and the unfortunate destiny of the bully would ensue. I didn’t mind that as much as the other one, though.
"That was stupid. You can’t take the Bible literally. You have to interpret it."
These were the same people who taught me that turning the other cheek was a virtue. They even pointed to their cheek when they preached it. Now they were telling me that there was an escape clause for when things got funky and real? No way! God had tested me! I argued and argued and argued. It started getting to the point where I would enter a crowded room at church and it would suddenly get quiet.
I was not at a good age for that kind of stuff to happen. It was very painful at the time.
I finally came to the conclusion that hypocrisy was the rule at that church, that whatever was going on over there was not what it appeared to be, and that whatever was really going on was something so nebulous that I didn’t know where to start. So I lost interest. This was a few years before I had ever read anything by Ayn Rand.
It took me a long while to adopt another formal code of ethics. Using the principle of 'turn the other cheek' as a strategy for living had only resulted in loss, embarrassment, confusion, ridicule, and heartache. That’s a tall order for a kid, but then my idea of virtue was, too. My world of virtuous people teaching virtue to the young vanished. Gone. I was still too young to understand why people did what they did, and I was way too naive to imagine using a principle as a tactic instead of a strategy.
So what about using it as a tactic? I already mentioned Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Their value was not duty, but rather, effecting social change when the fighting capacity of the people they represented was vastly inferior to that of their oppressors. What they did was make sure that their enemies had a full, functioning rational capacity, and then turned the other cheek in a very loud and public manner. This effectively put their enemies to shame, and the rest is history.
Sometimes it really can be a good tactic. Ayn Rand used it quite a bit in this sense, especially to highlight the fact that her heroes would not live by the standards of her villains. Here are two prime examples.
The first is from The Fountainhead. Roark was taken to court. His magnificent Stoddard Temple was remodeled into the Hopton Stoddard Home for Subnormal Children. It was partitioned into five floors containing dormitories, schoolrooms, an infirmary, kitchen, and laundry, with the floor lines visible through the huge windows, and a plethora of historical styles spread out all over the building. Roark was sentenced to pay the costs. He did not appeal. This cost was above the fee he received for his last major commission, the Cord building, and consumed a good part of his savings.
Roark simply turned the other cheek. The reason—his value—was that his integrity was so sacred to him that he would not grant his sanction to discussing the issue, not even in court. This, of course, is highlighted by one of the most famous put-downs in all of Rand’s literature. Here is the section from The Fountainhead. Roark had gone to look at the mutilated temple by himself. Toohey approached and started some small talk.
"Toohey went on softly: 'What does it look like to you? Like a senseless mess? Like a chance collection of driftwood? Like an imbecile chaos? But is it, Mr. Roark? Do you see no method? You who know the language of structure and the meaning of form. Do you see no purpose here?'
'I see none in discussing it.'
'Mr. Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.'
'But I don't think of you.' "
Just that put-down alone was worth the price of Roark turning his cheek. The best part is that this was not merely a quip. He meant it.
Rand’s most memorable 'turning the other cheek' scene is probably the torture scene in Atlas Shrugged. John Galt is being tortured on a machine, and all of a sudden it stops working. Galt’s value was his contempt for the unthinking in man.
" 'But I don't know what's wrong with it.' The man sighed, bewildered. 'I don't know what to do.'
'It's the vibrator that's out of order,' said a voice behind them; they whirled around; Galt was struggling for breath, but he was speaking in the brusque, competent tone of an engineer. 'Take it out and pry off the aluminum cover. You'll find a pair of contacts fused together. Force them apart, take a small file and clean up the pitted surfaces. Then replace the cover, plug it back into the machine—and your generator will work.'
There was a long moment of total silence.
The mechanic was staring at Galt; he was holding Galt's glance—and even he was able to recognize the nature of the sparkle in the dark green eyes: it was a sparkle of contemptuous mockery.
He made a step back. In the incoherent dimness of his consciousness, in some wordless, shapeless, unintelligible manner, even he suddenly grasped the meaning of what was occurring in that cellar.
He looked at Galt—he looked at the three men—he looked at the machine. He shuddered, he dropped his pliers and ran out of the room.
Galt burst out laughing."
If you want to have some fun, try going through Rand’s works and see where she used turning the other cheek as a tactic to get or keep another value. It is even used almost at a strategy-level when her heroes turn the other cheek to each other, as they value each other far too much to inflict harm. Hank Rearden slapping Francisco D’Anconia immediately comes to mind.
This approach, i.e., putting a religious moral principle in another perspective—as I just did—is an excellent way to tie Objectivism to the world of a religious person without turning him off. It is very difficult for a person to think he has been a fool for years and to overthrow all he has believed to be the good. In seeing a moral principle he held as a problematic strategy work as a tactic instead, a strong barrier to understanding is lowered. This is enhanced by the fact that many such principles work well as tactics. That is why they have survived throughout the centuries.
One warning, though. Turning the other cheek is a very effective tactic, but only some of the time. Make sure that your enemy has a functioning rational capacity and some sense of shame. Otherwise, you might end up like I did and come across a sadistic bastard who will slap you silly for the pleasure of it.
In that case, though, you might want to seriously question the validity of another religious moral principle: Thou shalt not kill.
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