Character, virtue, skills

In Parts of you haven't grown up yet, @DRMaciver talks about how lack of some skills can make one feel like a bad person, brings up the definition of virtue as skill, and concludes an incompetent person cannot be the same as a bad person, because children are not bad despite lacking virtues. (But we still feel bad so what's up with that?)

Children are bad people, kinda

In the culture at large, children really are considered bad, but we tend to use different terms to talk about it. We call them "little savages" and "little monkeys" (see also: Lord of the Flies, infantilising or downgrading indigenous people to animals, Weber's narrative of social progress). The key part of mother's responsibility is seen as instilling the correct values in their children. Not coincidentally, women in general are also held responsible for "civilising" grown men (see also: the virgin mother side of virgin/whore dichotomy, the infantilisation of men or their portrayal as "savages/animals" that require domestication or civilisation) and elites - for guiding the masses.

The society doesn't strongly focus on the virtues of children because they are still growing, and therefore their actions reflect the values of their parents and the amount of control the parents exert over them. The society begins judging a person on their own merits starting in adolescence, when they first gain some measure of independence. A person's actions are thought to reveal what a person is "really like" - in other words, their moral character (ethos).

We therefore feel shame when we're bad at some skills as an adult because we are told that if only we held the right values - either due to how we were raised or due to our "natural" character - we would have acquired those skills already. The fact that we didn't - or the fact that we are not finding the skills effortless - "proves" that the we are somehow defective (variously - lazy, brutal, boorish, loose, primitive, dumb).

Is "bad" the same as "undesirable"?

There are actually three reasons why someone might be bad at something:

  1. lack of skill (someone never learned to separate the colours from whites when doing laundry)
  2. lack of motivation (someone doesn't care whether their white clothes look white and clean)
  3. lack of capacity (someone is too sick to do more chores than strictly necessary for survival)

Lack of skill is remedied by teaching, and lack of motivation - by persuasion. Lack of capacity however usually constitutes a hard limit.

Now, let's do some reading.

  1. read a guide on how to inteview job candidates and screen for great-yet-undervalued talent
  2. note that the guide advises screening for high energy people
  3. relabel "high energy" as "industrious", and "low energy" as "lazy"
  4. character references start making sense

Our society attempts to screen out people lacking capacity (energy, intelligence, extroversion, attractiveness), but when necessary, reframes it as screening out people who lack motivation, which makes it look like it's "their own fault".

We therefore shuffle back and forth through a confused mix of shame ("What is wrong with my values? Am I a bad person?") and helplessness ("I really do value this and want to do better at this - why can't I? Am I lacking in talent/capacity?") It might feel like we are getting educated by punishment, but the actual goal of people doing the discrimination is not to educate, but merely to maximise their gains and minimise losses. Godmothers bet on the ones they expect will make it.

Categories: gender · character