The Greeks had a way of constructing the character of a person on stage in a dramatic presentation:  Ethical Habit of Action.  You learn to understand a person based not on what they say, but rather on how they behave.  Don’t believe what you’re told.  Believe only what you see.  It is the bundled experience of the form — the habit of action — that defines us… and not the brittle persona many believe is the true and ethical morality of the person.


Dr. Howard Stein taught me the idea of an Ethical Habit of Action while I was a graduate student at Columbia University in the City of New York two decades ago — and ever since, I have gratefully applied that lesson to shape and comprehend a disingenuous world.

Howard also shared a personal example of Ethical Habit of Action with me that I will share with you to help provide a divining rod of expectation that unwillingly pulls us into a necessary humanity. 

Howard grew up in a “good Jewish family” and one day, 80 years ago, as a young boy of seven, he approached his father and said, “Daddy, I want to be a civilized person.”

His father turned to him and said “Baby,” — he always called Howard “baby” even when he was a grown man and married with children — “Baby,” he said, “The test of your life is your battle with uncivilized feelings.”

Every day, and to this day, Howard understands how right his father was and how sharp and fragile the line is between civility and anarchy.  We must actively work to keep our wits and our manners about us in the midst of universal decay and despair.

It is a demand of society that we all mediate our evolutionary yearnings even though we are pre-programmed to survive-at-any-cost and defeat foes and kill threats.  We need to find a more prudent way out of the morass of a compass-less morality that drives nations into the depths of war and neighbors to take up arms against each other.

I suppose an important key to living with uncivilized feelings is confessing you even have them.

How do you moderate your uncivilized wants?  Do you repress them or express them in civilized ways?

Do we have a duty to correct and punish uncivilized behavior — or do we merely accept those public acts as self-defeating proclamations of unknowing?

27 Comments

  1. Firstly another stunning image – this type of image really appeals to me.
    “I suppose an important key to living with uncivilized feelings is confessing you even have them.”
    I think acknowledging that they exist is the first step on the path to understanding them and to dealing with them.
    How do you moderate your uncivilized wants? Do you repress them or express them in civilized ways?
    This for me is the million dollar question. I would argue that I express and channel them positively in my BDSM/consensual power exchange relationship and in my alternative lifestyle. However there are a lot of people who consider that lifestyle choice to be disgusting at best and perverted and criminal at worst.
    To expand a little further – I like to be in control of myself, my relationships and my environment – a healthy control freak. I am lucky that my partner who is also in control of himself chooses to give me that control and lets me drive the relationship both on a day to day basis and in the long term. This covers the Dominance and submission aspect of our relationship.
    The sadomasochistic aspect of our relationship comes when we play with pain. Playing with pain and acting our darkest fantasies allows us to explore the least civilized and least acceptable parts of our selves and allows us not only to confront our demons but to celebrate and accept them as well.
    Our relationship was developed and constantly negotiated over a period of two years – it is fine tuned everyday to keep it healthy and vibrant.
    Others use TV to numb the brain, others choose drugs, some choose sport others choose the arts – music, painting or writing.

  2. Now that is a specific and wondrous reply, Nicola, thank you!
    I’m sure it is confusing to some that pleasure can be found in the specific infliction of pain and also how that action is civilized in its end benefit.
    How do we deal with other dominants that believe their infliction of pain — through stalking or mass murder or the denial of vital city services — is civilized when it is obviously not? Is the consent missing from their imposed dyad?

  3. THE PURPLE IS FOR YOU TODAY, NICOLA!
    We’re celebrating your arrival as a part of our Writing Staff!
    (The theme footer is broken for some reason — that’s been a problem on the dark themes we’ve tried so far. Movable Type support has been notified because the footer isn’t broken on the “lighter” themes so it’s them and not us.)

  4. A man is on a train. he sees a wallet on the ground. He picks up the wallet and finds one hundred dollars in cash and numerous forms of identification. The uncivil inclination (yetzer hara in the Jewish religion which has a slightly different meaning) says, keep the cash and return the wallet, he will never know it was you that took it and he will still be grateful that you returned it.
    The answer that we must give back to that inclination is hey, self – you know that’s not right. Even though that money would pay for two subscriptions to McSweeneys, it doesn’t belong to you.

  5. That’s a great story, Gordon! Where, exactly, is that $100 right now? That’s two Boles University email accounts…
    OOPS!
    I mean… I hope the money has been returned to the rightful owner.
    Didn’t someone mention here once that “Morality is what you do when nobody is looking?”
    We must have an internal compass that directs us to doing the right thing. Most people rely on parenting and religion and schooling to fine-tune that direction finder, but I am beginning to think “doing the right thing” is programmed in some of us right from the start while others have absolutely no moral direction whatsoever no matter their training of spirit and mind.

  6. Firstly thank you for the Purple celebration – I am honored to be here:)
    The pleasure pain conundrum is very confusing – I do not have all the answers myself. I am empowered by the pain that my partner “takes” for me. I also get a “high” from the way that he processes that specific pain and the “altered head space” that he obtains by processing it. He is very masochistic and can take considerable pain at my hands – sadly it does not work the same way at the dentists or when he twists an ankle. He also gets a high from his perception of my pleasure and from the very physical endorphin release.
    For more about endorphins http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=55001
    The key difference between what we do and abuse is consent. Here is a summary of other differences.
    Here are the main differences between BDSM and abuse.
    In BDSM, negotiation occurs before the scene/event/relationship develops to determine what will happen and what will not happen.
    In abuse, one person determines what will happen.
    In BDSM, both parties give knowledgeable consent. They have negotiated about what they want to do, and who they are going to do it with and when.
    In abuse, no consent is given.
    In BDSM, you can always stop.
    In abuse, you can’t stop what’s happening.
    In BDSM, those involved are concerned about the needs, desires and limits of others.
    In abuse, no concern is given to the needs, desires and limits of the abused person.
    Finally, after a BDSM scene, all the people involved feel good.
    After an episode of abuse, at least one person feels bad.
    I totally agree with what you say later to Gordon – “”doing the right thing” is programmed in some of us right from the start while others have absolutely no moral direction whatsoever no matter their training of spirit and mind.”

  7. Hi David!
    I think confessing that we have uncivilized feelings is key and will lead to us dealing with them. And expressing them is a healthy way to do it.
    We never know what repressing or denying or staying consciously unaware of these feelings may do.
    And like Nicola’s comment suggests, having someone who understands can make all the difference.
    Love that quote about morality. Isn’t that what “The Invisible Man” was about?

  8. Excellent article David!
    Ethics do not need any rule or ritual to follow – it is either there, or not.
    It’s not practiced or preached, it’s ingrained.

  9. Thanks for explaining that, Nicola.
    Are there cases of BDSM partnering turning abusive — someone stays “stop” and the stop doesn’t happen either because of inconsideration, or inconsistency? Are BDSM partnerships a harder breakup than average relationships or are the power structures much clearer and severable?

  10. Hi Dananjay —
    There is a danger, though, in confessing uncivilized feelings — because the more cunning among us will use that admission to control or condemn you. If, however, you don’t make the confession that you are human, then you are tied into internal knots with no way to unwind.
    I am always fascinated by people that “look around” to see if anyone is watching before they do something. I guess I am always of the mind that someone is always watching you and that means at home, alone, in the dark — so why not just behave one way always — life is less stressful and much more enjoyable that way.

  11. How is it ingrained, Katha? Is it by genetics or a learned predisposition? I think you can pretty much sense the goodness in someone the moment you meet them and that sort of pure, unfettered, morality is rare and pleasurable to discover.

  12. Exactly, David!
    With it must come the realization that it’s human and we are all in together. And someone who tries to condemn your confession is often just too busy refusing to see it in themselves.

  13. Are there cases of BDSM partnering turning abusive — someone stays “stop” and the stop doesn’t happen either because of inconsideration, or inconsistency? Are BDSM partnerships a harder breakup than average relationships or are the power structures much clearer and severable?
    Sadly yes there are – there are also cases of abusers masquerading as BDSM practitioners. There is also a problem with people actually seeking out/being drawn to abusive relationships as well. Some submissive women have a tenancy to develop something similar to Stockholm’s Syndrome.
    http://www.mental-health-matters.com/articles/article.php?artID=469
    From my experience it takes much longer to recover from a BDSM relationship than it does a non BDSM relationship of a similar duration – about three times longer.
    It does of course depend on the relationship – if it is a “bedroom only” relationship the recovery will be quicker than one that is encompassed on all levels. I have been told it is similar to the effects of being de-mobbed from the services. It can leave a person aimless and without structure in their lives and on a much more personal level.

  14. That makes sense, Nicola. I can imagine how someone devoted to a person and a specific way of living would be lost if the relationship ends.
    When the BDSM relationships crack — is it usually the dominant’s idea? Or have submissives been known to call it off and walk away?

  15. I have known both to happen – more often than not it is a joint decision that is made because it is not working for them any more. The more mature relationships tend to be ended on that manner.
    I would suspect it is slightly weighted towards the Dominants ending the relationship more often as they are usually in the position of control. I do know of many submissives who have walked away though – especially in the early stages – where reality does not live up to the fantasy.

  16. Hi David,
    I think it is a blend of upbringing and self learning, and also the ability or desire to retain and implement whatever was learnt/ observed.
    I also think, confession of any unethical feeling doesn’t help much. If I badly want to kill my neighbor, I will either acknowledge it and do it with a solid back-up plan and face the consequences or just live with “not doing it” – simple.
    Hey, by the way – did you finally find the $100.00 you are looking for two boles university accounts? If not, let me know – I will happily transfer the amount back to your account! SMILE!