Wednesday, July 6, 2011

being in Rome, being at home

The head of an employers' group in New Zealand was cashiered after saying on a radio broadcast that the reason women were paid 12% less than men in the country was because they needed more time off -- for the children and for menstrual discomfort -- and thus were less productive.

"I'm sorry, I don't like saying these things because it sounds like I'm sexist, but it's the facts of life," Alasdair Thompson of the Employers' and Manufacturers' Association said.

The public outrage was as fierce as it was predictable.

There are some things you just don't say, and Thompson was recorded saying one of them. On the one hand, you wonder where his brains had run away to on the day in question. On the other hand, it was hard not to wonder to what extent he might have been telling a simple, if unpalatable, truth...or perhaps a partial truth.

It seems to me that there are yardsticks for civilized discourse and those yardsticks sometimes make the social wheels turn more smoothly. The rules are worth learning, but with a caveat. That caveat is that the human mind, if it's any good, is not civilized. It is expansive and where the rules may say "right," the mind will consider "wrong," where the policies say "good," the mind will toy with "wrong." etc. This is why, in the end, rule-keepers who imagine they have reached the civilized heights are both boring and dangerous.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This is good social advice. Sociologically it has some impact and makes some sense. But on a personal level, I also think people create their own versions of Rome -- the do's and don't's, the OK's and not OK's, and in so doing cramp the limitless horizons of the mind. After investigating a particular topic, another brick may be blithely added to the personal Roman citadel. Dig my Rome!

When in Rome, I think it is a good idea to ask who created this Rome, this civilization, these highs and lows. Sure, no one want's to stick his foot in his mouth by blabbering on about some socially unacceptable position, but making room in the mouth for a tasty foot is another matter. Just because we like hot dogs and filet mignon does not mean this mind is not an endless smorgasbord.

There is a difference between being in Rome and being at home.

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