Sunday, September 22, 2013

Swearing and Suicide

One characteristic of the latest generation of youth is pervasive profanity. Abusive and scatological speech is seen to be part of manliness. In my day, this was kept in check by censorship. Back then, cowboys were the average boy's heroes, and they were portrayed in the media largely without swearing; convicted felons have taken over their place as role models today, celebrities like Akon and 50 Cent, who revel in prison culture.

That is not to say that cowboy culture was all that healthy. The American West where cowboys roamed was as rebellious, lawless and power mad as any penitentiary. But in frontier culture, women were needed to help settle the land. As a result, the cowboy valued them. Well, the good guys anyway. They treated women with kindness and respect. Not so prison culture, with its ho's and worse.

I am reading this book:

Leonard Sax, Boys adrift; The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men, Basic Books, New York, 2007

This describes the devastation that this decline in values, along with several other factors, such as over-medication, plastic exposure and video games, are having on boys and their ambitions for their future. Homer Simpson, it seems, is such a klutz and a loser that young men are actively avoiding marriage and family life, just to avoid the chance of imitating Homer. The author is so clear in his exposition that my 14 year old son and 19 year old daughter willingly listened as I read most of the text to them aloud. We even have gone out and watched some of the movies it recommends, such as "Failure to Launch" and "The Big Lebowski."

Anyway, profanity. Since this book was written ten years ago, the problem of suicide has become even more severe than the statistics the author cites indicated. Today, suicide has passed auto accidents as the leading cause of death among teens.

It seems to me that one reason for such popularity of self-slaughter is profane speech.

So common is it among preteens that virtually all of them do it whenever they can. My son told me last night that when he was in grade eight last year, he was a member of the "non swearing club." This was not an organized club, but just the result of a chance encounter on the playground. Two kids, a boy and a girl, one of them a Jehovah's Witness, had noticed that they were the only kids in their grade who did not swear. My son remarked, "I do not swear either, I'd like to be a member of your club."

Anyway, profanity by nature tends to be non life affirming. It is, somebody said well, like sprinkling little declarations of war throughout your speech. This is more damaging than I think these youth realize. We owe our lives to our ability to talk. Without it, humans would still be a few scattered tribes of little monkeys scrabbling out our existence on Africa's savanna.

More important, profanity denies God, the God of love, the God of life. As Baha'u'llah says, "The tongue I have made for mention of me, defile not..." Or as the beloved disciple put it,

"In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God."

If our words are saturated with hate, it is only natural that we should start to lose our taste for living. Words kill, and if there is no enemy to kill, young people kill themselves. That is probably one reason why the prohibition against profanity is so strong in this new Revelation. I will finish with what that greatest of early scholars in the Baha'i faith, Mirza Abu'l-Fazl, had to say about the prohibition against profanity.

from: Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, The Brilliant Proof

"Seventh: The command prohibiting cursing and execration and making it obligatory upon all to abstain from uttering that which may offend men. For, as is evident in moral science, cursing, reviling and speaking in harsh words and offensive phrases is one of the greatest causes of alienating hearts, filling minds with rancor, creating hatred and animosity among the peoples and igniting the fire of calamitous warfare among men.

"Thus it is said by wise men: "Verily, war begins in words;" and the poet Firdaws'i has said: "A mere word is the cause of warfare." Another verse illustrating this point at issue is "The wound inflicted by the tongue is deeper than inflicted by the sword."

"Were one to ponder over the differences and schisms already spoken of which arose among the Christian peoples, creating different sects and schools, such as the Aryans, Nestorians, Gnostics, et al., kindling the fire of terrible battlefields and violent calamities, he would clearly find from the testimony of authentic history that the principal and initial cause of such divisions and disasters was the difference of opinion between two religious doctors, which would result in discussion and controversy.

"In order to overcome his opponent and demonstrate the correctness of his own view, or because of believing his own opinion correct, each would so persist in his attitude that it would finally lead to harshness towards the other. This harshness would gradually lead to insinuating remarks and annoying statements which in time would culminate in reviling, execrating, fighting and even bloodshed.

"Now the harmful outcome of these religious fights and their evil effect upon human society needs no mentioning here. For the calamities caused by these differences during the past ages are recorded in the historical books of every nation, and the hardships which have continued down to our time as the painful result of those dissensions are evident to men of understanding.

"Perhaps someone may advance an objection saying that ordinances prohibiting anathema and execration are found in the other Heavenly Books, as, for instance, the commands of His Holiness Christ, well known as the Sermon on the Mount, wherein He most lucidly states, "Whosoever shall say thou fool! is in danger of hell fire." (Matt. 5:22).

In the Qur'an it is stated: "Revile not those whom they call on beside God, lest thy, in their ignorance despitefully revile Him." (Qur'an 6:106, Rodwell, p. 327).

The answer to this objection is evident to the people of insight, for such ordinances and prohibitions are considered as educational commands in the estimation of the learned and not as laws and enactments of religion. Consider this command of the Sermon on the Mount, wherein He states:

"Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment." (Matt. 5:22).

Again He says: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures;" (Matt. 6:19).

And again: "Take therefore no thought for the morrow."(Matt. 6:34).

Also: "Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also;" (Matt. 5:39); and "if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also." (Matt. 5:40). Then later on He says: "Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn thou not away."(Matt. 5:42).

It is fully evident that the learned men and doctors of the Christian and Muhammadan religions have not considered these ordinances as imperative. Men of intelligence versed in law and jurisprudence have not deemed those who disobeyed these laws deserving of punishment and trail.

Nay, as already mentioned, they have unanimously accounted them educational laws. Moreover some of those laws are such that the doctors have not considered those slighting them as transgressors or evil-doers before God.

For instance, "Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also," "Give to him that asketh thee," and "from him that would borrow of thee turn thou not away."

The above statement will clearly show why such commands and ordinances were not considered by the leaders of the Christian peoples as imperative and obligatory and why they could not remove cursing and execration from among the community.

But in the Baha'i religion the commands prohibiting cursing, reviling, swearing and blasphemy have been revealed as imperative and obligatory laws. The responsibility attaching to the violators has been revealed in various Tablets.

Emphatic commands have been issued in regard to the purity of pen and tongue, prohibiting the writing or speaking of that which will offend men.

For example, although in various Tablets such as the "Ishrakhat" and others, the law prohibiting cursing and execration has been explicitly laid down, nevertheless Baha'u'llah, during His latter days, in the Blessed "Book of the Covenant" fortified and emphasized the above law by addressing the following command to the people of the world:

"O ye people of the world! I exhort ye towards that which is the cause of the elevation of your station! Hold fast to the fear of God and adhere to the hem of kindliness! Verily I say unto you, the tongue is for the mention of good; defile it not with unseemly words. Verily God has forgiven the past. Hereafter all must utter that which is seemly. Shun anathema, execration and that whereby man is perturbed. The station of man is great. Some time ago this lofty word was revealed from the treasury of the Pen of Abha: 'Today is a great, blessed Day! That which was latent in man is today revealed and become manifest. The station of man is great, should he adhere to veracity and truth and remain firm and steadfast in the Cause.'"

Every intelligent soul who reflects upon this utterance: "Verily, God has forgiven the past; hereafter all must utter that which is seemly," "Shun anathema, execration and that whereby man is perturbed," will clearly see how emphatic an ordinance has been given forth ratifying the prohibition of anathema and execration.

Because according to the law current among the people of knowledge the purport of this blessed utterance is an explicit prohibition concerning anathema and execration The intended purpose thereof is the unpardonable position of the one who violates this mighty command and decisive blessed ordinance.

(Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, The Brilliant Proof, pp. 31-32)


The Wainfleet Philosopher's Cafe and the Meaning of Life

I am the animator of a discussion group run by the Wainfleet Library called the Philosopher's Cafe. Here is the mailing I wrote to its members for September.

originally written September 5, 2013

The Meaning of Life

About ten years I came out for the Wainfleet Library's monthly Philosopher's Cafe. It was 2004, and the meeting was in its first year. An initiative of Lorraine, a library employee, the Cafe was inspired by former librarian Stan Skrzeszewski, from London Ontario. Stan is a former philosopher-in-residence at a library, and he started up Philosopher's Cafe groups in several libraries across Ontario. I was impressed by the business card he handed out, proclaiming him to be a "Philosopher Practitioner." It also included a picture of a bust of Socrates. He has visited our meeting several times over the years. Before the second year started, Loraine went away for what proved to be a permanent maternity leave. The library asked Stu Edwards and myself to animate the discussions. The next year Stu moved away, and I have done it alone ever since.

The topics we have discussed have covered every possible facet of philosophy and modern life. In the first meeting I attended, the topic was, "What is truth?" Stan once suggested, "What makes a good politician?" Generally, I have found that the most popular concern, one we return to again and again, is the environment. People, I found, are very worried about global warming, and how we are going to save ourselves from its consequences. Another preoccupation is democracy, questions to do with how we can arrive at decisions that will save us from such threats. At the end of each meeting, the group itself decides the topic for the next month. The only rule is, if you suggest a topic of discussion, be sure to turn up next time to remind us why you wanted to talk about it! In June, the suggested subject for our first meeting this year, Thursday 12 September, 2013, was: "What is the Meaning of Life?"

What do you think the meaning of life is? It is a difficult and profound question. But it does have a funny side, as demonstrated in the Monty Python movie, "The Meaning of Life" The Ancient Greeks considered the question itself to be meaningless, completely unanswerable. Life has to be lived first, before you can even think about what it means. They had a saying, "Call no man good until he is dead." They did not mean that the only good person is a dead person. No, only that life is subject to a sort of uncertainty principle where you can only judge goodness or meaning once it is over, once everything is complete. Whether you agree with that or not, do come out to the Wainfleet Cafe at 6:30 PM, Thursday 12 September, for a lively discussion.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An Age of Responsibility

"The lack of competent teachers is no doubt a serious obstacle facing the Indian believers at present. But it is by no means the most difficult problem with which they have to deal. The essential is that all the friends, without any exception whatever, should realise the full measure of the responsibility which Baha'u'llah has placed on them for teaching far and wide His Message. It is only through such an awakened consciousness of their heavy and sacred responsibilities and duties that the believers can hope to effectively promote and safeguard the interests of the Cause. The Baha'i era is thus the age of individual responsibility - the age in which everyone is called to consider the spread of the Cause as his most sacred and vital obligation." (Shoghi Effendi, Dawn of a New Day, 50-51)