Kindness and necessity

An article in the paper this weekend quoted a religious leader from New Jersey describing the basic message of his faith. "People should have high morals and be kind to each other," he said.

That seems hard to argue with.

So let's argue with it. Because actually this religious leader's formulation bothers me. What troubles me is the way he presents what seem to be two separate, distinct ideas: "high morals" and "kindness."

This doesn't seem to be a matter of repetition for emphasis. The religious leader isn't saying, "People should have high morals by being kind to each other," or "People should have high morals by which we mean be kind to each other." He is suggesting, instead, that there is something called "high morals" that exists and matters beyond the separate something of being kind to each other.

I'll somewhat grudgingly concede that this might be true in some technical sense, but I still don't like the distinction.

Before we get into that, I should note that kindness is a bit of an awkward term here. It tends to convey more an idea of niceness than of goodness — and as Little Red Riding Hood sings in Into the Woods, "nice is different than good."

Kindness seems less robust than, say, a word like justice. But while it may seem to mean less, it can also mean more. It's possible to treat someone justly without also treating them kindly, but if one is to be kind, one must also be just. There's no such thing, after all, as a kindly injustice. Nor is it possible to accept or allow injustice while still being, in any meaningful way, kind. (Stonewall Jackson, the eighth-grader's history book says, was "kind" to his slaves. No. No he wasn't. If he had been kind to them, then they would not have remained his slaves.)

So while kindness may be less comprehensive than love, which is the word I would have preferred to use here, it still seems adequate for the question I'm trying to get at, which is whether it is helpful to speak of a duty to "have high morals" as something that is or can be distinct from the duty to be kind to each other.

To justify the religious leader's formula above, all we really have to do is to find some examples of morality that aren't directly related to the obligation to "be kind to each other."

The most obvious examples of that sort of thing are the sorts of religious duties that I tend to think of as matters of piety rather than of morality (which is not to say that such matters are necessarily lesser just that they are something else). Sabbath-keeping, for example, is regarded as a moral matter for Jews and Christians, but it doesn't seem to be obviously related to or derived from the obligation to be kind to one another.

We can also find plenty of non-sectarian examples of what seem to be moral obligations that have little to do with being kind. Imagine, for example, a lone individual stranded on the proverbial jungle island, living on a diet of fruit, nuts and vegetables and thus, seemingly, freed from any relationship that might require this island dweller to exercise kindness. It still seems possible for such an isolated individual to behave morally or immorally. This hypothetical island-dweller will need to do work — to build a shelter, for example — and that work can be done with care or it can be done carelessly. That care or lack thereof involves a moral component. Care and craft would seem to be another realm of morality that can be considered distinct from being kind to each other.

So technically at least, it would seem that the religious leader's formula is valid. And yet I'm still not happy with it.

Here's why: It is true, as this formula suggests, that "be kind to each other" is not wholly sufficient as an expression of all that morality entails. But while kindness may not be sufficient, it is necessary. If kindness is not quite the whole of "high morals," such high morals cannot exist without it. Kindness — well, here let's use that better word — love may not quite be the only moral duty, but it trumps all others.

Talk of "high morals" as distinct from "be kind to each other" may be technically true, but it opens the door to the danger of allowing those other matters to override that essential duty of kindness.

And we do this all the time. We latch onto the pietistic duties of religion or the secular pieties of craft as thought they somehow exempted us from the obligation of kindness. We use them as excuses for our failure to be kind to each other. Given the choice, or when the need to choose inevitably arises, we opt for "high morals" rather than kindness. That's backwards.

"The sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath." Apart from "be kind to each other," high morals really aren't.

  • Joshua

    David:
    Add me to the list of folks observing that I can certainly be kind and unjust in cases where justice demands that someone be penalized and I withhold the penalty out of kindness.
    I dunno, can you? You can certainly be kind to the someone who did wrong, but usually, won’t you also be unkind to the victim of the wrong? Won’t you also be unkind to future victims, as you failed to provide a visible disincentive when you had the opportunity? I think there would be a net unkindness overall.
    In the exceptional case where it may be kinder overall to withhold a penalty, won’t it also be just? I mean, if there are circumstances that mean that withhold punishment is not unkind to anyone, won’t those circumstances also justify you?
    A concrete example: A guy once forced entry into my flat by breaking a window. He (eventually, after some argument) fully paid for repair, and took some effort to ensure that while it was broken, no-one else entered (or at least, he said he did). He did it because he wanted to rescue his cat, which had got inadvertently locked inside when we went on holiday. It was starving and dehydrated. Wouldn’t it be, not just unkind, but also unjust, for me to prosecute him for the crime which he did technically commit?

  • Joshua

    David:
    Add me to the list of folks observing that I can certainly be kind and unjust in cases where justice demands that someone be penalized and I withhold the penalty out of kindness.
    I dunno, can you? You can certainly be kind to the someone who did wrong, but usually, won’t you also be unkind to the victim of the wrong? Won’t you also be unkind to future victims, as you failed to provide a visible disincentive when you had the opportunity? I think there would be a net unkindness overall.
    In the exceptional case where it may be kinder overall to withhold a penalty, won’t it also be just? I mean, if there are circumstances that mean that withhold punishment is not unkind to anyone, won’t those circumstances also justify you?
    A concrete example: A guy once forced entry into my flat by breaking a window. He (eventually, after some argument) fully paid for repair, and took some effort to ensure that while it was broken, no-one else entered (or at least, he said he did). He did it because he wanted to rescue his cat, which had got inadvertently locked inside when we went on holiday. It was starving and dehydrated. Wouldn’t it be, not just unkind, but also unjust, for me to prosecute him for the crime which he did technically commit?

  • Tonio

    Losing those were his just deserts* so I don’t see what’s unkind about bringing that about.
    I’m not sure deservedness should even be a factor. That would almost be like judging people rather than judging their actions, or almost like saying that people bring instances of random or non-human-caused suffering on themselves.
    Justice implies to me a sense of restoration, of balance, of bringing things into good order.
    That’s out of place when we’re talking about how an individual should treat others. It would imply that we should make less of an effort to avoid harming someone if that person has harmed others, like a philosophical version of vigilantism. As individuals, we cannot and should not deem anyone more or less worthy to suffer. Justice is more of a community/authority concept.
    We’re using “love” here in the broader sense, in the “do as you would be done by/desire for other as for yourself” general application, rather than personal relationships.
    I wasn’t talking about personal relationships either, but simply a feeling that one has. It wouldn’t occur to me to label that “broader sense” as love.
    Because if no such reason exists, which is my bet, I’m thinking you’ve got grounds to raise a fuss under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
    I would agree. I read many years ago that the law was put in place purely for sectarian reasons, to forbid people from breaking the Sabbath. The drug stores obtained an exemption by arguing medical necessity, whereupon they installed lunch counters, and then the restaurants complained of unfair treatment.

  • Tonio

    Losing those were his just deserts* so I don’t see what’s unkind about bringing that about.
    I’m not sure deservedness should even be a factor. That would almost be like judging people rather than judging their actions, or almost like saying that people bring instances of random or non-human-caused suffering on themselves.
    Justice implies to me a sense of restoration, of balance, of bringing things into good order.
    That’s out of place when we’re talking about how an individual should treat others. It would imply that we should make less of an effort to avoid harming someone if that person has harmed others, like a philosophical version of vigilantism. As individuals, we cannot and should not deem anyone more or less worthy to suffer. Justice is more of a community/authority concept.
    We’re using “love” here in the broader sense, in the “do as you would be done by/desire for other as for yourself” general application, rather than personal relationships.
    I wasn’t talking about personal relationships either, but simply a feeling that one has. It wouldn’t occur to me to label that “broader sense” as love.
    Because if no such reason exists, which is my bet, I’m thinking you’ve got grounds to raise a fuss under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
    I would agree. I read many years ago that the law was put in place purely for sectarian reasons, to forbid people from breaking the Sabbath. The drug stores obtained an exemption by arguing medical necessity, whereupon they installed lunch counters, and then the restaurants complained of unfair treatment.

  • hapax

    Tonio: That’s out of place when we’re talking about how an individual should treat others. It would imply that we should make less of an effort to avoid harming someone if that person has harmed others, like a philosophical version of vigilantism.
    It most certainly would NOT imply that, Tonio. I cannot help it if you infer that interpretation. I understand that you have well founded fear of oppressive authoritarianism, but it truly is not inherent in every expression of value judgment.

  • hapax

    Tonio: That’s out of place when we’re talking about how an individual should treat others. It would imply that we should make less of an effort to avoid harming someone if that person has harmed others, like a philosophical version of vigilantism.
    It most certainly would NOT imply that, Tonio. I cannot help it if you infer that interpretation. I understand that you have well founded fear of oppressive authoritarianism, but it truly is not inherent in every expression of value judgment.

  • Amaryllis

    The artist has a perfect right to make art of “lesser quality” if it will put food on the table (and, I hope, to pursue “pure” art on his or her own time). Art is, on some level, about communication; so I don’t see where art that captures a mood/feeling/experience/etc. perfectly but is comprehensible to fewer people must be considered “better” than art which expresses itself more sloppily but is accessible to more people.
    But “accessible” doesn’t have to mean “sloppy.” The writer who can’t sell his Great Novel may be perfectly justified in writing well-crafted genre novels, TV scripts with tight plots and witty dialogue, competent general-readership newspaper stories, etc. But I–and the novel’s characters– was thinking more in terms of the writer who has the gift to write, oh, Middlemarch or something, and keeps churning out something on the level of Left Behind instead. Or, if it’s not humanly possible to write Left Behind if you have a shred of talent, then intentionally, cynically, badly-written dreck instead. As hapax says, that seems an ungrateful waste.
    —-
    RE spoilers and book titles: do we still care? After all, we discuss books and movies and TV and comics all the time around here, and nobody has read/seen everything. Personally, I don’t much care if something is a “spoiler” if it contributes to the discussion, but maybe that’s because my memory is so full of holes that if I ever come across the work in question, I’ll probably have forgotten any plot details anyway.
    —-
    @MikhailBorg, sympathy, best wishes, good hopes. May all go well with you.

  • Amaryllis

    The artist has a perfect right to make art of “lesser quality” if it will put food on the table (and, I hope, to pursue “pure” art on his or her own time). Art is, on some level, about communication; so I don’t see where art that captures a mood/feeling/experience/etc. perfectly but is comprehensible to fewer people must be considered “better” than art which expresses itself more sloppily but is accessible to more people.
    But “accessible” doesn’t have to mean “sloppy.” The writer who can’t sell his Great Novel may be perfectly justified in writing well-crafted genre novels, TV scripts with tight plots and witty dialogue, competent general-readership newspaper stories, etc. But I–and the novel’s characters– was thinking more in terms of the writer who has the gift to write, oh, Middlemarch or something, and keeps churning out something on the level of Left Behind instead. Or, if it’s not humanly possible to write Left Behind if you have a shred of talent, then intentionally, cynically, badly-written dreck instead. As hapax says, that seems an ungrateful waste.
    —-
    RE spoilers and book titles: do we still care? After all, we discuss books and movies and TV and comics all the time around here, and nobody has read/seen everything. Personally, I don’t much care if something is a “spoiler” if it contributes to the discussion, but maybe that’s because my memory is so full of holes that if I ever come across the work in question, I’ll probably have forgotten any plot details anyway.
    —-
    @MikhailBorg, sympathy, best wishes, good hopes. May all go well with you.

  • hapax

    maybe that’s because my memory is so full of holes that if I ever come across the work in question, I’ll probably have forgotten any plot details anyway.
    For what it’s worth, I *had* read the work in question, at least half a dozen times, and didn’t recognize it until I ROT13′d the title.
    Not a good admission for a readers advisory specialist!

  • hapax

    maybe that’s because my memory is so full of holes that if I ever come across the work in question, I’ll probably have forgotten any plot details anyway.
    For what it’s worth, I *had* read the work in question, at least half a dozen times, and didn’t recognize it until I ROT13′d the title.
    Not a good admission for a readers advisory specialist!

  • Anton Mates

    Best of luck, MikhailBorg. May your anesthesia grant you entertaining hallucinatory experiences, and may your medical staff be considerate and attractive but not disturbingly so.
    Michael Mock,

    I think you’re describing a difference more in terminology than viewpoint; in other words, I think our two viewpoints amount to much the same thing when it comes to practical application.

    Quite possibly. My viewpoint might lead to a bit more motivation for trying to help other people harmonize their own desires–that is, if I see someone making himself miserable by doing X and hating himself for it, I do think it would be morally good to help him to either stop hating X or stop doing it, even if no one else is bothered either way. As I understand your position, you’d consider that a morally neutral action.
    But in the real world, of course, I’m not a telepath or a supergenius, so I usually don’t know how to fix people’s internal conflicts for them, nor do people often appreciate such meddling. So, yeah, in practical terms it’s not much of a difference. Maybe it becomes important if you’re a psychiatrist.
    Doesn’t matter at all in the castaway scenario, of course, since neither of us is present to interact with the guy.

    Secondarily, if our castaway is the sort of person who considers sloppy work a moral failing, then surely he will do the best work he can, yes? I don’t see that as a moral issue so much as a simple matter of motivation and result.</blockquote
    I don't think he will necessarily do the best work he can. He may be too lazy to work well. He may have trouble focusing his attention. He may not have time to do a good job, what with all the foraging and avoiding sharks and things he has to do. Yet he may still feel bad about not doing a good job, which is why it would be a moral failing in his eyes. His external behavior, and his internal feelings, won’t be the same as if he was a guy who built sloppily because he thought sloppy work was fine.
    That’s pretty par for the course in sexual morality. Tons of people think they shouldn’t masturbate, or have premarital sex, or sleep with others of the same gender, or what have you, and yet they do it, and feel guilty about it. While I don’t generally think they’re doing anything wrong (unless we’re talking about giving into your impulse to commit rape or something), it seems pretty clear that they do.
    I agree with others upthread that it’s often not a good idea to encourage people to consider their private behavior moral or immoral, because it can pile on extra layers of despair and self-hatred when they’re considering something they already don’t like about themselves. Nonetheless, just as a descriptive statement of fact, I acknowledge that many people already do so.

  • Anton Mates

    Best of luck, MikhailBorg. May your anesthesia grant you entertaining hallucinatory experiences, and may your medical staff be considerate and attractive but not disturbingly so.
    Michael Mock,

    I think you’re describing a difference more in terminology than viewpoint; in other words, I think our two viewpoints amount to much the same thing when it comes to practical application.

    Quite possibly. My viewpoint might lead to a bit more motivation for trying to help other people harmonize their own desires–that is, if I see someone making himself miserable by doing X and hating himself for it, I do think it would be morally good to help him to either stop hating X or stop doing it, even if no one else is bothered either way. As I understand your position, you’d consider that a morally neutral action.
    But in the real world, of course, I’m not a telepath or a supergenius, so I usually don’t know how to fix people’s internal conflicts for them, nor do people often appreciate such meddling. So, yeah, in practical terms it’s not much of a difference. Maybe it becomes important if you’re a psychiatrist.
    Doesn’t matter at all in the castaway scenario, of course, since neither of us is present to interact with the guy.

    Secondarily, if our castaway is the sort of person who considers sloppy work a moral failing, then surely he will do the best work he can, yes? I don’t see that as a moral issue so much as a simple matter of motivation and result.</blockquote
    I don't think he will necessarily do the best work he can. He may be too lazy to work well. He may have trouble focusing his attention. He may not have time to do a good job, what with all the foraging and avoiding sharks and things he has to do. Yet he may still feel bad about not doing a good job, which is why it would be a moral failing in his eyes. His external behavior, and his internal feelings, won’t be the same as if he was a guy who built sloppily because he thought sloppy work was fine.
    That’s pretty par for the course in sexual morality. Tons of people think they shouldn’t masturbate, or have premarital sex, or sleep with others of the same gender, or what have you, and yet they do it, and feel guilty about it. While I don’t generally think they’re doing anything wrong (unless we’re talking about giving into your impulse to commit rape or something), it seems pretty clear that they do.
    I agree with others upthread that it’s often not a good idea to encourage people to consider their private behavior moral or immoral, because it can pile on extra layers of despair and self-hatred when they’re considering something they already don’t like about themselves. Nonetheless, just as a descriptive statement of fact, I acknowledge that many people already do so.

  • Tonio

    I understand that you have well founded fear of oppressive authoritarianism, but it truly is not inherent in every expression of value judgment.
    My point has nothing to do with authoritarianism. I’m saying that it’s wrong to judge people as good or bad, worthy or unworthy, partly because those are binary concepts. It’s the actions that should be judged. People are combinations of good and bad and indifferent, and how we perceive the personalities of others is highly subjective.
    To clarify, I see justice as a collective concept and not an individual one, where the balance is necessary for a community or society to function. The balancing has to be done by a community as a whole, or by justice systems acting on behalf of the community.

  • Tonio

    I understand that you have well founded fear of oppressive authoritarianism, but it truly is not inherent in every expression of value judgment.
    My point has nothing to do with authoritarianism. I’m saying that it’s wrong to judge people as good or bad, worthy or unworthy, partly because those are binary concepts. It’s the actions that should be judged. People are combinations of good and bad and indifferent, and how we perceive the personalities of others is highly subjective.
    To clarify, I see justice as a collective concept and not an individual one, where the balance is necessary for a community or society to function. The balancing has to be done by a community as a whole, or by justice systems acting on behalf of the community.

  • hapax

    I’m saying that it’s wrong to judge people as good or bad, worthy or unworthy, partly because those are binary concepts.
    Well, I don’t disagree with that (although I don’t think they are necessarily binary concepts, but rather endpoints of a long spectrum) but I’m at an utter loss how you managed to tease that out of what I said.

  • hapax

    I’m saying that it’s wrong to judge people as good or bad, worthy or unworthy, partly because those are binary concepts.
    Well, I don’t disagree with that (although I don’t think they are necessarily binary concepts, but rather endpoints of a long spectrum) but I’m at an utter loss how you managed to tease that out of what I said.

  • Karen

    Amaryllis is right about the levels of Art. I know a couple of classically-trained musicians who put food on the table working as session players on pop and country albums. They’re not producing Beethoven’s 10th Symphony, but they are making good music that sells and using their skills. Wasting their talents would be something like playing for a Milli Vanilli-type thing, where the band with their name on the cover can’t play the radio and uses my friends’ skills to lie to the public. There are talented painters who work in graphic design and make lovely objects or fabrics for common use, and there is Thomas Kinkaid.

  • Karen

    Amaryllis is right about the levels of Art. I know a couple of classically-trained musicians who put food on the table working as session players on pop and country albums. They’re not producing Beethoven’s 10th Symphony, but they are making good music that sells and using their skills. Wasting their talents would be something like playing for a Milli Vanilli-type thing, where the band with their name on the cover can’t play the radio and uses my friends’ skills to lie to the public. There are talented painters who work in graphic design and make lovely objects or fabrics for common use, and there is Thomas Kinkaid.

  • MercuryBlue

    Karen: Thomas Kinkade’s still useful for something, though. Namely giving Jared Padalecki another excuse to be pretty onscreen.

  • MercuryBlue

    Karen: Thomas Kinkade’s still useful for something, though. Namely giving Jared Padalecki another excuse to be pretty onscreen.

  • Amaryllis

    hapax: Not a good admission for a readers advisory specialist!
    I recognized the specific “work in question” immediately, but I’ve been known to re-read a mystery novel and be surprised all ever again.
    And speaking of librarians and mysteries, I just finished Lindsay Davis’s latest Roman mystery. Well, Egyptian this time: nefarious doings in the Great Library at Alexandria. With shout-outs to reference librarians, those admirable public servants “who believe they exist to help people find things.”

  • Amaryllis

    hapax: Not a good admission for a readers advisory specialist!
    I recognized the specific “work in question” immediately, but I’ve been known to re-read a mystery novel and be surprised all ever again.
    And speaking of librarians and mysteries, I just finished Lindsay Davis’s latest Roman mystery. Well, Egyptian this time: nefarious doings in the Great Library at Alexandria. With shout-outs to reference librarians, those admirable public servants “who believe they exist to help people find things.”

  • thirstygirl

    Oh Amaryllis, you quoted one of my favourite parts of that book, which is one of the set I read over and over again [other members- Bujold, Butler, Miss Manners, Chandler]
    OK about the selling out of your Art debate- I am an avid reader of genre fiction. I’ve worked my way through most of them and the thing is there is GOOD work within each genre- as long as the writer knows what genre they are working within and does the best they can within those limitations. The bad works appear when the authors either a-have no respect for the genre and figure its readers will accept anything so they don’t have to do it properly or b- don’t realise what they are writing, which is really just a case of not being a good writer. The author may be able to string a living out of it for a while but they won’t be writing books that people will joyfully re-read and which will last.
    Even if you are better than the field you are working in, the way that you prove that is by doing good work, despite the limitations of the field. And there will be people in that area who are very very good at what they do and you should learn from them.
    But I guess that’s coming down to an idea of mutual respect. Maybe even kindness.

  • thirstygirl

    Oh Amaryllis, you quoted one of my favourite parts of that book, which is one of the set I read over and over again [other members- Bujold, Butler, Miss Manners, Chandler]
    OK about the selling out of your Art debate- I am an avid reader of genre fiction. I’ve worked my way through most of them and the thing is there is GOOD work within each genre- as long as the writer knows what genre they are working within and does the best they can within those limitations. The bad works appear when the authors either a-have no respect for the genre and figure its readers will accept anything so they don’t have to do it properly or b- don’t realise what they are writing, which is really just a case of not being a good writer. The author may be able to string a living out of it for a while but they won’t be writing books that people will joyfully re-read and which will last.
    Even if you are better than the field you are working in, the way that you prove that is by doing good work, despite the limitations of the field. And there will be people in that area who are very very good at what they do and you should learn from them.
    But I guess that’s coming down to an idea of mutual respect. Maybe even kindness.

  • Tonio

    I’m at an utter loss how you managed to tease that out of what I said.
    I was treating your point and Caravelle’s point about deservedness as parts of a same general concept, and that may have been incorrect.
    Another point about love is that one can feel love for one’s fellow human beings and still be unkind to them, or one can be kind to them while hating them or felling indifferent about them. I’ve stayed away from using the word “kindness” in this discussion because it seems like a subjective concept to me. Two people may both want to be treated with kindness, but they may disagree on what constitutes that treatment.

  • Tonio

    I’m at an utter loss how you managed to tease that out of what I said.
    I was treating your point and Caravelle’s point about deservedness as parts of a same general concept, and that may have been incorrect.
    Another point about love is that one can feel love for one’s fellow human beings and still be unkind to them, or one can be kind to them while hating them or felling indifferent about them. I’ve stayed away from using the word “kindness” in this discussion because it seems like a subjective concept to me. Two people may both want to be treated with kindness, but they may disagree on what constitutes that treatment.

  • Chana

    Jason, we have some of those same laws in my area: you can’t buy alcohol on Sunday (or alcohol above “beer level” at anywhere but a liquor store). It’s annoying and I don’t see much of the point – nonChristians might want to drink on the day, and for that, I’m pretty sure Christians aren’t forbidden from wine on Sunday (blood, ect?).

  • Chana

    Jason, we have some of those same laws in my area: you can’t buy alcohol on Sunday (or alcohol above “beer level” at anywhere but a liquor store). It’s annoying and I don’t see much of the point – nonChristians might want to drink on the day, and for that, I’m pretty sure Christians aren’t forbidden from wine on Sunday (blood, ect?).

  • Hobbes

    “Be excellent to each other” as a basis for morality? Sounds good to me.
    My friend summarizes her Catholic beliefs this way.

  • Hobbes

    “Be excellent to each other” as a basis for morality? Sounds good to me.
    My friend summarizes her Catholic beliefs this way.

  • Hobbes

    @Chana: I’ve heard that those sorts of “blue laws” were passed to get people to go to church, rather than hanging out at the tavern on Sunday morning.
    I’ve also read that that’s the same reason there’s no mail on Sunday: “standing around in the post office/general store with your buds and waiting for the mail” used to be a fairly popular time-waster.

  • Hobbes

    @Chana: I’ve heard that those sorts of “blue laws” were passed to get people to go to church, rather than hanging out at the tavern on Sunday morning.
    I’ve also read that that’s the same reason there’s no mail on Sunday: “standing around in the post office/general store with your buds and waiting for the mail” used to be a fairly popular time-waster.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    But “accessible” doesn’t have to mean “sloppy.” The writer who can’t sell his Great Novel may be perfectly justified in writing well-crafted genre novels, TV scripts with tight plots and witty dialogue, competent general-readership newspaper stories, etc.
    Indeed. And not necessarily fiction, either. I’ve turned out gift books in my time, for instance, and I’m actually quite proud of them: they’re very much at the cute and fluffy end of the market and not the kind of thing I write or would buy for myself, but I feel like I did a professional job on them and that if someone was going to buy one of my gift books, they’d at least be getting a good gift book.
    I think it comes down to this: you either respect quality or you don’t. If you don’t, chances are your Great Novel won’t be all that great either. If you do, then your bread jobs will be decent as well. Doing anything well requires an ability to discern and appreciate good work, and if you can do that, you won’t want your bread jobs to be sloppy.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    But “accessible” doesn’t have to mean “sloppy.” The writer who can’t sell his Great Novel may be perfectly justified in writing well-crafted genre novels, TV scripts with tight plots and witty dialogue, competent general-readership newspaper stories, etc.
    Indeed. And not necessarily fiction, either. I’ve turned out gift books in my time, for instance, and I’m actually quite proud of them: they’re very much at the cute and fluffy end of the market and not the kind of thing I write or would buy for myself, but I feel like I did a professional job on them and that if someone was going to buy one of my gift books, they’d at least be getting a good gift book.
    I think it comes down to this: you either respect quality or you don’t. If you don’t, chances are your Great Novel won’t be all that great either. If you do, then your bread jobs will be decent as well. Doing anything well requires an ability to discern and appreciate good work, and if you can do that, you won’t want your bread jobs to be sloppy.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    Is it acceptable for an artist who has the capability to do good work, to deliberately produce bad but saleable work to support a family? Even in cases where this doesn’t mean fraud or deception, just poor craftsmanship?
    I personally think this is something of a myth; as you say, accessible doesn’t have to mean sloppy. But more than that, I don’t think it’s a very likely scenario.
    For one thing, I don’t think it’s very easy for a good artist to produce deliberately bad work. Their sense of structure, their ability to use language, their personal textures will be the same whatever they’re working on. They’re always going to sound or look like themselves to some extent. They might produce simpler work, but producing actually bad work would probably take more concentration than doing a simple work well. It’s too labour-intensive. Try mispronouncing every word in a sentence; it’s way more trouble than saying them right.
    For another, I really don’t think deliberately bad work sells. You can sell a work that’s two-dimensional but pacy, you can sell a work that’s sentimental but charming, you can sell a work that’s not brilliant but has saleable qualities – but writing something deliberately bad figuring it’ll sell is something of a myth, I think.
    A lot of writers, for instance, try to sell a novel to Mills and Boon, figuring that it’ll be easy because the books are so pulpy – only to find themselves turned down because Mills and Boon actually has some stringent standards that they’ve failed to meet. Mills and Boon don’t tend to publish the work of good writers fallen on bad times, they publish the work of writers who absolutely love the Mills and Boon format and want to produce good examples of it. It’s not going to win any Nobel Prizes, but neither is it the work of someone deliberately dumbing themselves down; instead, they’re directly targeting a non-intellectual fantasy, and that takes some skill.
    So the idea that an artist would do bad work, rather than just different work, to support themselves … well, I’m not surprised it’s portrayed as something debated by academics rather than artists, because with working artists I don’t think it’s likely to come up.
    Too, the idea that an artist can support themselves by other means than producing commercial art – well, why should they? It’ll probably support them poorly. The reason somebody’s a good artist is usually that they have a facility; that facility translates into other kinds of work. A writer, for instance, is someone whose most saleable skill is probably their ability to use language: that’s what they’re good at. I’ve written novels, but I’ve also written sales copy, gift books, commercial non-fiction, reviews, reader’s reports; they’re all variants of the same thing. I took on a project fairly recently that was miles away from the fiction I’d usually write, and the reason was that on an hour by hour basis I got paid way more than I would have done for any other kind of work I’m qualified for: pro rata, it earned about twice my highest office salary.
    So if an artist needs to support their family, chances are that using some variant of their artistic skill isn’t just another way of supporting that family, it’s the most effective way. You spend your life carving wood and nobody’s going to give you a CEO’s salary down the temp office: you don’t have the CV and skills for it, because you’ve been spending your time doing other things. But you might earn a pretty decent living doing ice sculptures for weddings – it’s something you know how to do well enough to command a decent price.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    Is it acceptable for an artist who has the capability to do good work, to deliberately produce bad but saleable work to support a family? Even in cases where this doesn’t mean fraud or deception, just poor craftsmanship?
    I personally think this is something of a myth; as you say, accessible doesn’t have to mean sloppy. But more than that, I don’t think it’s a very likely scenario.
    For one thing, I don’t think it’s very easy for a good artist to produce deliberately bad work. Their sense of structure, their ability to use language, their personal textures will be the same whatever they’re working on. They’re always going to sound or look like themselves to some extent. They might produce simpler work, but producing actually bad work would probably take more concentration than doing a simple work well. It’s too labour-intensive. Try mispronouncing every word in a sentence; it’s way more trouble than saying them right.
    For another, I really don’t think deliberately bad work sells. You can sell a work that’s two-dimensional but pacy, you can sell a work that’s sentimental but charming, you can sell a work that’s not brilliant but has saleable qualities – but writing something deliberately bad figuring it’ll sell is something of a myth, I think.
    A lot of writers, for instance, try to sell a novel to Mills and Boon, figuring that it’ll be easy because the books are so pulpy – only to find themselves turned down because Mills and Boon actually has some stringent standards that they’ve failed to meet. Mills and Boon don’t tend to publish the work of good writers fallen on bad times, they publish the work of writers who absolutely love the Mills and Boon format and want to produce good examples of it. It’s not going to win any Nobel Prizes, but neither is it the work of someone deliberately dumbing themselves down; instead, they’re directly targeting a non-intellectual fantasy, and that takes some skill.
    So the idea that an artist would do bad work, rather than just different work, to support themselves … well, I’m not surprised it’s portrayed as something debated by academics rather than artists, because with working artists I don’t think it’s likely to come up.
    Too, the idea that an artist can support themselves by other means than producing commercial art – well, why should they? It’ll probably support them poorly. The reason somebody’s a good artist is usually that they have a facility; that facility translates into other kinds of work. A writer, for instance, is someone whose most saleable skill is probably their ability to use language: that’s what they’re good at. I’ve written novels, but I’ve also written sales copy, gift books, commercial non-fiction, reviews, reader’s reports; they’re all variants of the same thing. I took on a project fairly recently that was miles away from the fiction I’d usually write, and the reason was that on an hour by hour basis I got paid way more than I would have done for any other kind of work I’m qualified for: pro rata, it earned about twice my highest office salary.
    So if an artist needs to support their family, chances are that using some variant of their artistic skill isn’t just another way of supporting that family, it’s the most effective way. You spend your life carving wood and nobody’s going to give you a CEO’s salary down the temp office: you don’t have the CV and skills for it, because you’ve been spending your time doing other things. But you might earn a pretty decent living doing ice sculptures for weddings – it’s something you know how to do well enough to command a decent price.

  • Tricksterson, Commander of the Evil Clown Brigade, Keeper of the Death Sheep and Minion of MG

    Actually I can see, granting that it’s played for laughs, and as maybe a commentary on how religions and other social movements develop, where Bill and Ted’s “commandments” would make pretty good maral directives:
    “Party on dues!”: Enjoy life.
    “Be excellent to each other”: But not at other people’s expense and if you get a chance to help someone, why not do that?

  • Tricksterson, Commander of the Evil Clown Brigade, Keeper of the Death Sheep and Minion of MG

    Actually I can see, granting that it’s played for laughs, and as maybe a commentary on how religions and other social movements develop, where Bill and Ted’s “commandments” would make pretty good maral directives:
    “Party on dues!”: Enjoy life.
    “Be excellent to each other”: But not at other people’s expense and if you get a chance to help someone, why not do that?

  • Jason

    I think it comes down to this: you either respect quality or you don’t. If you don’t, chances are your Great Novel won’t be all that great either.
    I think it comes down to this: you either respect quality or you don’t. If you don’t, chances are your Great Novel will contain lots and lots phone calls, ethnically stereotyped characters, unlikable Mary Sue protagonists with porn star names, major world catasrophes depicted as not having much effect on societal infrastructure or people’s emotional states, lesbians who wear “sensible shoes,” disfigured guys with removable metal eye sockets and foreheads, etc etc etc.

  • Jason

    I think it comes down to this: you either respect quality or you don’t. If you don’t, chances are your Great Novel won’t be all that great either.
    I think it comes down to this: you either respect quality or you don’t. If you don’t, chances are your Great Novel will contain lots and lots phone calls, ethnically stereotyped characters, unlikable Mary Sue protagonists with porn star names, major world catasrophes depicted as not having much effect on societal infrastructure or people’s emotional states, lesbians who wear “sensible shoes,” disfigured guys with removable metal eye sockets and foreheads, etc etc etc.

  • Launcifer

    Jason: There’s another, slightly more sinister issue there, too. The LB novels are actually a good example of what I mean, largely because one of the creators should have an intimate understanding of the mechanics of the written word, but the other should know about the innate power of language in all its multi-faceted funkiness.
    Think about it: one of these twerps is a priest. If there’s anyone who should understand the synergy between the written word and vocalisation or performance, it’s a priest. You’d think La Haye would understand the power of words; I’d expect him to understand the way that the right phrase can galvanise someone, offer them comfort and hope, or simply deliver a well-timed kick up the arse. More importantly, you’d think his calling would have offered him ample opportunities to meet people for whom the wrong words can cause catastrophic damage.
    My main concern with these novels is that their use of language is so insipid and, at times, nonsensical that I’d have serious concerns about the sanity of anyone who genuinely suggested that this series was inspiring or galvanising. That might sound harsh, but there’s no clarion call to rise up and, y’know, do something worthwhile for someone in need of a helping hand, or to go out into the learn more about anything and everything. These novels don’t seem to carry the sort of message that inspires a person to do much more than pat themselves on the back, secure in their self-delusion. The protagonists don’t seem to do much of anything beyond shirking what one might think would be their duty as designated protagonists. Not only does it make for a poor reading experience, it makes the characters bad role models for their readers.

  • Launcifer

    Jason: There’s another, slightly more sinister issue there, too. The LB novels are actually a good example of what I mean, largely because one of the creators should have an intimate understanding of the mechanics of the written word, but the other should know about the innate power of language in all its multi-faceted funkiness.
    Think about it: one of these twerps is a priest. If there’s anyone who should understand the synergy between the written word and vocalisation or performance, it’s a priest. You’d think La Haye would understand the power of words; I’d expect him to understand the way that the right phrase can galvanise someone, offer them comfort and hope, or simply deliver a well-timed kick up the arse. More importantly, you’d think his calling would have offered him ample opportunities to meet people for whom the wrong words can cause catastrophic damage.
    My main concern with these novels is that their use of language is so insipid and, at times, nonsensical that I’d have serious concerns about the sanity of anyone who genuinely suggested that this series was inspiring or galvanising. That might sound harsh, but there’s no clarion call to rise up and, y’know, do something worthwhile for someone in need of a helping hand, or to go out into the learn more about anything and everything. These novels don’t seem to carry the sort of message that inspires a person to do much more than pat themselves on the back, secure in their self-delusion. The protagonists don’t seem to do much of anything beyond shirking what one might think would be their duty as designated protagonists. Not only does it make for a poor reading experience, it makes the characters bad role models for their readers.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    If there’s anyone who should understand the synergy between the written word and vocalisation or performance, it’s a priest.
    That doesn’t really translate to just the written word, though. I’m thinking of how often the books insist that the passionate demeanour of a character trumps what they’re saying, how a display of sincerity stands in for a credible argument. All of that suggests a view of language that values performance almost to the exclusion of content. You wouldn’t expect someone with that attitude to write a very good book, because a book is all content and no performance. (I’ve got a theory – http://www.kitwhitfield.com/2007/02/method-writing_01.html – that writers are basically actors who can’t act.)

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    If there’s anyone who should understand the synergy between the written word and vocalisation or performance, it’s a priest.
    That doesn’t really translate to just the written word, though. I’m thinking of how often the books insist that the passionate demeanour of a character trumps what they’re saying, how a display of sincerity stands in for a credible argument. All of that suggests a view of language that values performance almost to the exclusion of content. You wouldn’t expect someone with that attitude to write a very good book, because a book is all content and no performance. (I’ve got a theory – http://www.kitwhitfield.com/2007/02/method-writing_01.html – that writers are basically actors who can’t act.)

  • http://jamoche.livejournal.com jamoche

    I realize that you’re summarizing an entire book in three paragraphs, but the example strikes me as a little too oversimplified to be convincing.
    That’s just a briefly mentioned incident in the past of one of the characters; we see the effect it had on the character, but IIRC we don’t learn much more about the incident itself than we’ve discussed here.

  • http://jamoche.livejournal.com jamoche

    I realize that you’re summarizing an entire book in three paragraphs, but the example strikes me as a little too oversimplified to be convincing.
    That’s just a briefly mentioned incident in the past of one of the characters; we see the effect it had on the character, but IIRC we don’t learn much more about the incident itself than we’ve discussed here.

  • Jason

    @Launcifer-
    Think about it: one of these twerps is a priest.
    Maybe I’m being super nitpicky about connotations, but LaHaye isn’t really a priest. I could be wrong but the only Christian denominations I know of that refer to their clergy as “priests” are Catholics and Episcopalians/Anglicans and I’m pretty sure LaHaye wouldn’t want to be associated with either group. Other denominations tend to either use the term “minister” or “pastor.”
    The process for becoming a minister can also range from spending years going to school to learn the history and original languages that the Bible was written in as well as various types of theology and a long discernment process to just having some church elders decide they like you proclaim that you are now a pastor, depending on the church. Tim LaHaye went to Bob Jones University, which isn’t really held in high regard by anyone other than the crowd that it already preaches to.
    I think the crowd that LaHaye talks to isn’t one that was necessarily taught to question or think about anything but to accept things at face value as long as they follow their prescribed worldview. I would think that extremely persuasive language skills would be more important to a priest or minister whose flock actually *thinks for themselves*.
    I think this is why the books sell despite the glariingly obvious flaws.

  • Jason

    @Launcifer-
    Think about it: one of these twerps is a priest.
    Maybe I’m being super nitpicky about connotations, but LaHaye isn’t really a priest. I could be wrong but the only Christian denominations I know of that refer to their clergy as “priests” are Catholics and Episcopalians/Anglicans and I’m pretty sure LaHaye wouldn’t want to be associated with either group. Other denominations tend to either use the term “minister” or “pastor.”
    The process for becoming a minister can also range from spending years going to school to learn the history and original languages that the Bible was written in as well as various types of theology and a long discernment process to just having some church elders decide they like you proclaim that you are now a pastor, depending on the church. Tim LaHaye went to Bob Jones University, which isn’t really held in high regard by anyone other than the crowd that it already preaches to.
    I think the crowd that LaHaye talks to isn’t one that was necessarily taught to question or think about anything but to accept things at face value as long as they follow their prescribed worldview. I would think that extremely persuasive language skills would be more important to a priest or minister whose flock actually *thinks for themselves*.
    I think this is why the books sell despite the glariingly obvious flaws.

  • Launcifer

    Kit: I’m thinking of how often the books insist that the passionate demeanour of a character trumps what they’re saying, how a display of sincerity stands in for a credible argument.
    I can see where you’re coming from there, Kit, but I do think that any character (or, indeed, invididual) who genuinely thinks that way is going to come across as a failure, regardless of the medium. Whether it’s the craft of writing, or the craft of performance, the central issue there – over and above the lack of craft involved – is that there’s a basic failure of logic.
    Granted, this might be something of a special case, but I do think that the problem you mention there would be as obvious were I to listen to the sermons of La Haye the pastor as it is when I read the works of La Haye the author. That doesn’t counter your point about performance over content, though. I think you’re quite possibly right with that one.
    Now I’m off to read your theory of method writing :).

  • Launcifer

    Kit: I’m thinking of how often the books insist that the passionate demeanour of a character trumps what they’re saying, how a display of sincerity stands in for a credible argument.
    I can see where you’re coming from there, Kit, but I do think that any character (or, indeed, invididual) who genuinely thinks that way is going to come across as a failure, regardless of the medium. Whether it’s the craft of writing, or the craft of performance, the central issue there – over and above the lack of craft involved – is that there’s a basic failure of logic.
    Granted, this might be something of a special case, but I do think that the problem you mention there would be as obvious were I to listen to the sermons of La Haye the pastor as it is when I read the works of La Haye the author. That doesn’t counter your point about performance over content, though. I think you’re quite possibly right with that one.
    Now I’m off to read your theory of method writing :).


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