Readers of a certain age may remember an old Goodyear tire commercial with the tag line, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” The applications transcend auto repair, as Shaomin Li, professor of international business at Virginia’s Old Dominion University discovered on a business trip to Taiwan.
As he was being chauffeured from one venue to the next, Professor Li noticed that his host always backed into parking lot spaces, opting for often tricky and laborious maneuvering over the simpler method of pulling straight forward. Detecting a wider pattern of behavior, Professor Li conducted his own experiment. He discovered that 88% of Chinese drivers back in when they park, in contrast to 6% of American drivers.
“All of a sudden,” recounts Professor Li, “I said, gee — isn’t this delayed gratification?”
We shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on a single study, but this observation does not appear in a vacuum. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell investigates the popular stereotype that transplanted Asians excel academically and professionally in contrast to homegrown Americans.
Mr. Gladwell discovered that the stereotype is much more accurate among southern Chinese than among northern Chinese, and he identifies a single reason for the difference.
In an old stand-up routine, comedian Steve Martin proposed his way to get out of anything with two simple words: I forgot. As in the statement, “I forgot bank robbery is a crime.” Absurdly funny, since we’ve all learned by middle school that ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law.
Even those who consider themselves religious are quite capable of rationalizing their way around almost any moral impediment. People whose aversion to murder makes them challenge the morality of capital punishment may be equally passionate in their support for euthanasia, partial-birth abortion, and the “selected non-treatment” of handicapped newborns.
Even the most righteous among us are not immune from moral indiscretion. As the sages taught: Most people are guilty of theft; a few are guilty of sexual immorality; and everyone is guilty of loshon hara (malicious gossip).
So what makes some of us more moral than others? Is moral conduct simply the absorption of cultural values or submission to some doctrinal code? Are we nothing more than products of our environment, or is there some moral imperative programmed into the human psyche that we can channel through sheer force of will? Why is the path of virtue often so hard to find and why, even in moments of moral clarity, do we experience such dissonance between our minds and our hearts?
I offer here a remarkably savvy insight into progressive thinking and priorities from Jim Geraghty of the National Review, cited by Eytan Kobre in Mishpacha Magazine:
A list of progressives’ fears would offer a mix of the insignificant, the theoretical, the farfetched, and the mundane… climate change a century from now, the Koch Brothers, insufficient cultural sensitivity in video games… New York mayor Bill DeBlasio is on a crusade to save his city from charter schools and horse-drawn carriages…
You notice progressives don’t spend a lot of time and energy fearing flights of people from countries with Ebola, and unsecured border, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Vladimir Putin’s aggression, the declining number of two-parent families…
This may be a bit of psychological transference. When the Leftists notice things like ISIS, Putin’s aggression, or the collapse of the family, on some level — perhaps subconsciously — they realize their prefered options are unlikely to be effective. Confronting that fact would force them to reevaluate how they see the world — and sometimes, after a sufficiently dramatic or frightening event such as 9/11, some people actually do change their worldview.
But a lot of people can’t or won’t overhaul their entire philosophy and understanding of how the world works. So they deny the idea that any of these are real problems or worthy of much attention or discussion — they reflect GOP scaremongering, others’ paranoia, etc.
But all that fear and anxiety and anger has to go somewhere… and thus it gets expressed at much more convenient and much more philosophically aligned targets — i.e., climate change a century from now, the Koch Brothers, insufficient cultural sensitivity in video games, and so on.
In other words, if the big problems of the world are likely to remain insoluble unless I change my approach to political, economic, and social dynamics, then I’m likely to shift my focus to more abstract issues that don’t force me to question my own ideological predisposition.
This reminds me of a meeting I once had with my editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In the course of the conversation I mentioned columnist Charles Krauthammer. Without missing a beat, my editor said, “I hate him.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “He’s so articulate that I find myself agreeing with him… and I don’t!”
Had I been less protective of my position at the time, I would have suggested that she reexamine some of her positions. Oh, well. I guess I can suggest it now.
In a letter to Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, a former student he calls “Sarah” grapples with her indecision over whether she should continue to attend Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur eve. Having discarded the Torah observance of her youth to intermarry, she still feels drawn to this one last vestige of Jewish practice.
Sarah confesses that she feels like a hypocrite, and she wonders whether she angers God by standing before Him on the Day of Atonement when she is not even fasting, and when her whole life is a rejection of His commandments.
In his column in Mishpacha Magazine, Rabbi Feldman invited readers to offer their own responses. Here is mine:
You ask in your letter whether God sees you as a hypocrite for coming to shul on Yom Kippur. Your question contains its own answer.
Read the whole article here.
University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic asked subjects for donations to save a little girl from starvation. To one group he gave no other information; to the other group he added that this girl was one of millions of other starving people. Logically, that extra bit of information should make no difference, since the girl being saved is the same.
But as one of my mentors likes to say, human beings are psychological and not logical creatures. Case in point: subjects in the second group donated about half as much money as those in the first group.
Does living in St. Louis make me an authority on the Ferguson riots or the Michael Brown shooting? On the one hand, local news offers a view of events more pure, more raw, and more personal than anything found in national coverage. More significant, perhaps, is how the fear of spreading violence, made real by advisory statements from local police and local rabbis, descended upon our community more palpably than the first snowfall of winter.
But let’s be honest. The violence hasn’t spread. Ten miles sounds perilously close to the images spilling over television screens around the world; but I was no more affected by the rioting than you were in New York or Israel or Madagascar.
In University City, St. Louis’s predominantly Torah observant neighborhood, you find an even mixture of middle-class Jews and middle-class blacks. The families next door and across the street from my house are African American, and we couldn’t wish for nicer neighbors. Indeed, for all the portents of spreading violence, not a whisper of civil unrest has disturbed our ethnically divided neighborhood… Baruch Hashem.
So who am I to opine on the Ferguson violence? Frankly, my perspective has more to do with what I do than with where I live. I’m a high school teacher. My subject is Jewish history.
So my first thought was that Jews have had plenty of cause for grievance over the generations. Relentless Roman pogroms, forced conversions by Almohad Muslims, massacres by the Crusader armies, the Cossack uprising in Poland, the expulsion of Jews from Spain (and Portugal, and Britain, and France, ad nauseum), the blood libels of Europe and North Africa and, of course, the Holocaust, have provided ample justification for a culture of entitlement based on historical victimhood.
And yet the Jews have never responded that way. Our collective equanimity comes largely from our religious sensitivity, which dictates that absolute justice is reserved for the World to Come; the best we can hope for in this world is an imperfect system that prevents, according to the teaching of our sages, man from swallowing his fellow alive. We need only watch recent news reports to witness what happens when the rule of law is abandoned.
And so, collectively, we have accepted with stoicism the injustices perpetrated upon us by the nations of the earth, defending ourselves when we could, resigning ourselves to Divine judgment when we could not. But we never responded with random violence, never vented our rage against one another, never burned down our own communities because we had no where else to direct our fury.
Well, almost never.