Archive for ‘feelings’

January 20, 2011

How many times must I tell you?

by Carl Dyke

I noticed myself doing something interesting today. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach three sections of introductory World History back to back to back. We were doing a document analysis using my critical reading rubric. Inevitably I end up providing some of the same guidance from section to section, so that by the third section, from my perspective I’m saying the same thing for the third time.

I share a common prejudice that people who need things repeated to them three times might not be all that bright. (Actually, since I had the students divided up into smaller work groups among which I circulated, I said some of the same things way more than three times.) I know there can be reasons repetition might be needed that have nothing to do with intelligence, so I can usually intercept my first reflex reaction. But the point here, of course, is that I was not repeating myself to the same people; it just felt that way by the end of a long day. And as a result I noticed myself reflexively feeling as if the third section might be a little dim – when in fact they picked up the task and performed it every bit as well as the earlier sections.

It’s interesting to think what kinds of effects might accumulate over a long semester, or career, of letting this dynamic play out. Just a little more impatience in my body language, a little less care in explaining the ‘third’ time, or conversely the kind of elaborate patient overexplanation one may lavish on the slow. How much difference do such subtleties actually make?

January 5, 2011

Rusty wire and the wild ponies

by Carl Dyke

This is how Rachel described her childhood, in contrast to an article she was reading in the Funny Times (because it’s pretty funny) about how American pediatricians are trying to get warning labels on hot dogs because they’re a dangerous food. They’re dangerous because about ten kids a year choke on them and die, which is of course ten too many but makes any given kid choking on a hot dog and dying about a 1:6,000,000,000 shot. It’s sort of an amazing thing to think we need to take comprehensive positive steps to head off this danger, as compared to the subsistence farm where Rachel grew up at which rusty wire was unavoidably abundant and unsurprisingly devoid of warning labels. And the only ponies that could be afforded were the wild ones, and one of the first things she remembers is learning by trial-and-error how not to get kicked in the head by them.

Of course a decline-of-our-civilization-from-its-rugged-can-do-origins narrative would be easy here, as would a progress story about how much relatively safer our precious little darlings are. These are both pleasant affirmations of a worldview. And of course if we’re willing not to leap to judgment it’s more complicated than that. I’m reminded for example of JohnM’s comment awhile back remembering “an essay by Jean Briggs, an ethnographer who studied child-rearing among the Inuit. One of the things that disturbed her was the practice of setting problems for children, not providing the materials they needed, and teasing them when they failed to solve them. She initially thought it was cruel. She then came to realize that if, for example, an adult Inuit was out seal-hunting on the ice and some of his equipment broke down, the inability to improvise a solution would kill him.” What, weren’t these children being abused? Clearly understanding only happens here when judgment is suspended and practices are examined in relation to situations, not preconceived ideals.

This came together with something I just skimmed on Slawkenbergius’ recommendation, Eva Illouz’s Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help (2008). Eva suggests that “[t]he point of cultural analysis is not to measure cultural practices against what they ought to be or ought to have been but rather to understand how they have come to be what they are and why, in being what they are, they ‘accomplish things’ for people.” Obviously I agree with this, and very well put.

But then in turn this came together with Dave Mazella’s great comment just now on the last post talking about how ‘hegemony’ is a “slippy-slidey concept… that… leads in one way or another to a rather deracinated ‘cultural studies.’ But that’s for another post,” which would be this one. Dave points to the danger of judgment, and perhaps more importantly action, indefinitely deferred. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” Marx told us, and after several thousand years of philosophy who could disagree. Or as Erskine Bowles said recently, reflecting on his transition from finance and politics to academe as President of the University of North Carolina, “I come from a world of ready, fire, aim, and I came to a world of ready, aim, aim, aim, aim.” C’mon ya eggheads, fire already!

Weber provides one answer. The ethics of the scientist and of the politician are different: it’s the scientist’s job to get knowledge right, the politician’s to act in pursuit of ultimate ends. Mixing those tasks just makes the scientist unreliable and confounds the politician in detail and nuance. Nor is knowledge an adequate guide to action; as Durkheim said (in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life) “[s]cience is fragmentary and incomplete; it advances but slowly and is never finished; but life — that cannot wait. Theories whose calling is to make people live and make them act, must therefore rush ahead of science and complete it prematurely. They are possible only if the demands of practicality and vital necessities, such as we feel without distinctly conceiving them, push thought beyond what science permits us to affirm.” Still, more and more reliable knowledge is better than less and less reliable knowledge, no? And Orwell, Huxley, Hitler and Stalin showed us what happens when understanding is simply subordinated to politics, be they public or personal. Along those lines another option is the pragmatic tolerance and decency Rorty arrives at as the best way to love both Trotsky and the wild orchids.

Rachel points out, correctly, that the contemporary media-saturated world is a more immediately scary place than it used to be. A kid chokes on a hot dog in Dubuque and in minutes it’s right there on your news feed, as if it happened next door. But it’s not like the older world was less dangerous – rusty wire and wild ponies will kill you dead, and everyone knows it. What’s different now is that people apparently think it’s actually possible to intercept every possible danger. They don’t think their kids are going to end up stranded on an ice floe; the preciouses don’t need to be exposed to peril to toughen them up and make them resourceful in contingencies. Fate plays no part in our world. Hot dogs may be scary, but they’re finite and pragmatically manageable in a way that Satan, symbol of infinite jeopardy, never was.

May 24, 2010

Nightmares of dead generation

by Carl Dyke

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

What is this familiar nightmare (Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) doing here? Well, he’s a tool, of course, specifically ideological cover for a point I tried much too briefly to make at Giovanni’s post on the deselection (and destruction) of books including Gramsci’s Prison Letters at the Victoria University, Wellington Library. In what may be my favorite practical joke in a long while, that comment has itself since been deselected and destroyed, perhaps as part of a more comprehensive culling of all comments at the site. But since that move forecloses conversation there, I’ll move the thought here and see if it’s worth a chat. I’m interested in the forms the nightmares of dead generations take in our lives. [Note: Giovanni’s original post at his own blog, with excellent commentary, is here.]

Giovanni calls attention to the fascinating process his university library used to try to declutter its holdings to free up space for other purposes. Books that had not been checked out in ten years or longer received a red sticker on the spine indicating their peril. Users could veto the cull by drawing a black line through the sticker, a veritable Wikipedia moment in the stacks. Heroic scholarly defenders against this barbarism then crawled around the shelves black-lining every red sticker they could find. “Save one, save all.” I remember the same kind of culture wars at UCSD when I was a grad student there and little-used books were to be gulaged to UC’s off-site storage facility. And soon my own little university’s figleaf of a library will be faced with hard decisions as we work out how to implement consultants’ recommendations to devote a whole floor currently occupied by a big chunk of the meager collection to an integrated ‘Learning Commons’ offering academic services to our ‘Millenial’ students, many of whom read quite a bit but have never cracked an actual book in their lives.

I should admit that the solid, reliable feel of a real book in my hands, the mystery of shelves groaning under the weight of knowledge, the thrill of the unexpected shelf-read discovery, the crisp, definite sound of pages turning are all pleasures that have shaped my life leading up and into academe. Like many of my peers I think there’s nothing that decorates a living room quite so well as piles of loose books. It may be that this sensuous materiality is especially critical in the case of Gramsci’s prison letters. So, Giovanni

recoiled especially at seeing Antonio Gramsci’s Lettere dal carcere sporting a red sticker. The letters that Gramsci had penned as a political prisoner, under the constraints of censorship and the rationing of his writing privileges, and that together form an extraordinary prison memoir, yes, but also a chronicle of intellectual life during Fascism and the autobiography of one Europe’s greatest political thinkers and philosophers of the last century – it seemed such an astonishing indignity for that particular book, such an offence to its history and ours, that it might even be suggested to remove it from view, let alone destroy it.

Gramsci wrote the letters under confining conditions of prison censorship and oversight; his access to books, writing materials and headspace all fitfully but effectively restricted. Yet he was “almost physically consumed by the need to fight with the only weapon he had left the forces that wished to neutralize his intellect.” How ironic, then, for the product of this effort to fall victim to an arbitrary mass purge?

Quite right. But is this book that product? Gramsci wrote his letters one by one, on a variety of papers, to a variety of recipients. Later they were collected, transcribed, edited and published in the handsome critical edition we now discuss. The materiality of this volume, I note, is already pretty distant from the materiality of the letters and their conditions of production. I take it from the shelf, a convenient, compact whole; I find a comfortable nook; I read the letters one after another on their crisp, neatly-printed pages with their erudite critical apparatus. Here I see the content of Gramsci’s writing, but what I do not see, or feel, is precisely the conditions of its production. My ease of access is exactly the opposite of Gramsci’s struggle, or the slow drip of Gramsci his recipients experienced for that matter. The library is not the prison; the book is not the letters. This book is a simulacrum. And although I can appreciate the reverence for the great man that imbues all his offshoots with a reflected charisma, it’s quite another thing to fetishize this object, this rendition, this product of a purely contingent technology of textual production and diffusion as the true representation of an authentic original.

(Interestingly, Gramsci himself had this “reverence for the book,” as Antonio Santucci once described it to me. I had asked him – this was when he directed the Gramsci archives – if the books Gramsci had owned contained any marginalia, knowing that any historian studying me would do well to track the conversations I was having with the books I was reading by the notes I’d left in them. Antonio said there were none, and hypothesized that Gramsci’s poor rural upbringing had instilled this sense of the book as a precious and inviolable object. I might speculate that a folk-Catholic biblical culture might also have had something to do with it. Writing in the margins is just about the only reason I prefer a physical book any more, by the way, and that’s just because I’m too lazy to learn the available digital markup systems.)

So the question is not whether Gramsci himself and his legacy are being attacked by the removal and destruction of this particular book. That’s all a red herring. No, as Giovanni gets around to saying, the more effective questions have to do with the process whereby books were deselected, and their individual suitability for other forms of availability. He also leaves hanging an intriguing thought about the identity-conferring functions of books as material objects. I’ll take these questions in turn.

As to the deselection process, it seems obvious that to clear physical space in a building previously devoted to book display someone’s ox is going to be gored no matter what. As Giovanni notes, this process is happening on a smaller scale all the time as new books come out and old ones obsolesce. The ten-year rule looks good to me as a rough cut of books that are not actively being used for their content. The strikethrough rule makes sense if we imagine that responsible constituencies will use the opportunity, as Giovanni says, to direct their

sharpest possible thinking on the subject of which print materials ought to be displayed, and how, and at what cost, and which titles would do better in a digital environment; how to balance the needs of current and future researchers with broader cultural considerations; how to understand the value of books as material objects, and the act of browsing them as a physical journey into a topic or the history of a country, within a set of spatial coordinates that don’t always map well inside of a computer network.

This is not what happened; the culture warriors did none of this thinking, instead ‘saving one, saving all’. Apparently the mode of destruction encouraged not reflection and responsible participation, but a Luddite backlash. How might the process have been better coordinated, made more ’empowering’ to use a loathsome jargon? Perhaps by turning the mute verdict of the sticker and the mute veto of the strikethrough into real conversations somehow? Can we imagine a happy consensus on which books to cull, or at least a feeling that due process was done? For that matter, is it even possible to get rid of a single book if we devote due attention and care to all of the excellent objectives Giovanni lists?

As to availability, as soon as the Vicky-Welly library has interlibrary loan that’s sort of a non-issue. Libraries share books from both within and among collections; in terms of that function there’s no particular imperative to have any particular title on any particular shelf. Perhaps my perspective at a small library that can’t hope to afford or shelve even a decent fraction of the books I think it ‘should’ controls my thinking here. But further, as I’ve just pointed out the original materiality of the letters makes them particularly bad poster children for defense of the physical book, the thing itself. In the old days we’d be inclined to think that photostatic reproductions were the gold standard for autograph material; nowadays digital reproduction offers quick and easy access to this level of visual authenticity. As for the printed version, that is just as easily digitized as any other book, subject to the same stewardship and market conditions. As I noted in my original comment, Gramsci’s oeuvre has a particularly poor digital availability compared, say, to Marx’s (the above quote was instantly available from my sofa for search and retrieval in public domain from Going forward this, not shelf-to-shelf stocking, may be the more appalling scandal.

If digital media offer easier access to content we want easily accessible, what advantages do physical books offer? Are they just fossils of the dying “analogue humanities,” as Giovanni calls them? Do we need them in some way digital media can’t provide to preserve memory, Giovanni’s special interest? Or are they involved, as he further suggests, in the materialization of a kind of collective identity?

Save one, save all. I don’t care how long it has been since the complete works of Giovanni Boccaccio were checked out. We need them; they must be there, occupy that space, or we might as well not have an Italian department at all.

I can see why it wouldn’t be worth having an Italian department that couldn’t read Boccaccio (or Verga, or Pirandello, Moravia, Calvino). But if he hasn’t been checked out in ten years, are they reading him? Should they just check out the books that give them their identity every once in awhile to reset the clock, as Giovanni suggests? And what would an Italian department look like that read its Boccaccio online, that did not therefore ‘own’ Boccaccio or have his works available to display as a talisman? Why would that be an Italian department not worth having?

March 31, 2010

Just do it?

by Carl Dyke

Back in the day, guys used to work. Nowadays, guys got feelings. — An old hand’s lament.

Yesterday I locked myself out of my office. It was a carpool day and I forgot to grab my keys.

When I got to school it was time for my first section of freshman introductory World History. So I went right to class and got them settled and oriented toward the day’s task, which was peer-review of thesis paragraphs for their papers on agency. (In this section most of the papers will be on the decision to drop the atomic bomb.) Then I told them what was up with my keys, they laughed at me, and I left the classroom to go get my door open.

When I got back after about 15 minutes (took a pitstop while I was at it) they were reading and commenting on their second or third paragraphs each. I let them finish a couple more swaps, then had a group discussion about what patterns they saw in the paragraphs they had read. This yielded some nice insights about constructing a point in relation to evidence and the concept of agency in relation to structure. Then I opened a parenthesis about their teaching/learning journals for the class, and asked them a process question. Colleagues regularly remark on how my students don’t seem to require a lot of supervision, I informed them. Why do students just work in some classes but play limpy or make an obstructive fuss in others?

The discussion was interesting and seemed self-reflectively valuable, so I asked the other two sections the same thing. Then, with a meeting coming up to select the campus professor of the year, I used my seminar today as a focus group to brainstorm qualities that make a good teacher. Across the four groups the students’ perspectives lined up strikingly consistently. A common wisdom among some teachers is that students want to be spoon-fed, so their opinion of ‘good’ teaching is really just easy grades. I didn’t find this to be the case at all. Given bad alternatives students prefer an easy teacher to an arbitrarily or inaccessibly hard one. But they don’t respect or appreciate easy teaching.

My students all enjoy most the classes in which they learn the most. Across the board they report learning the most from professors who treat them with respect, show them the value of the work they’re doing, and include them in a shared process of teaching and learning. They appreciate when their teachers care about them and make an effort to shorten social distance rather than pontificating from on high. They love when professors know their stuff, and hate having their noses rubbed in the Herr Professor Doktor’s great expertise. They like to be challenged, not demeaned. In today’s group, where students brought up favorite professors by name, these factors were notably effective regardless of gender, race and ethnicity.

Incidentally, not a single student mentioned instructional technology as a dimension of good teaching and learning.

Previous posts on various aspects of this are behind the links.

March 29, 2010

Tea Party Animals: How many lumps?

by Carl Dyke

The ‘Tea Party’ is an interesting image for the current wave of disgruntled populism sweeping the U.S.American nonurbs and suburbs. Something is awry with the democracy if our own government is reminding folks of an oppressive colonial power. (That something may be civic education. The basic democratic concept that when you lose elections the other guys get to do things their way for awhile is what we’re trying to explain in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Arizona.) Certainly Democratic administrations are always going to stir up the folk libertarians on ordinary ideological grounds. But it strikes me that there’s an added existential dimension to the level of vituperation currently being directed at the Feds.

The Great Recession has been important social-psychologically in the sense that it created relative immiseration, historically one of the best predictors of social upheaval. People will take consistent, reliable misery pretty well. But when stuff they’ve grown to expect is taken away, watch out. Think Germans after Versailles. (To be more precise, the German case shows that the time to worry is when things start to get better again after the crisis has passed.) In the United States it seems to me the basic problem is accelerated by an individualistic popular culture in which all legitimate collectivities are taken to be voluntary. You’d think the government would be included in voluntary organizations because of the vote. But when votes you lose create organizations in which your will is not directly mixed, the conceptual slide into tyranny is real enough that it worried founding fathers like Madison and caused them to set up a clumsy, inefficient governing structure on purpose as a flywheel.

Also critical, I think, is the perhaps unique success of modern U.S.American civil society in hiding itself from individual view. As Durkheim noted, modernity is characterized by high complexity and interdependence, in which all sorts of stuff we need to live as we do happens around the edges of our awareness. We only worry about sewers and food safety and international monetary systems when they don’t work. When the gears and pulleys under the hood start to grind they make a frightening racket. ‘The Government’ is a convenient popular name for all the stuff we desperately need without even knowing it and over which we suddenly and nauseatingly realize we have no direct personal control when it starts to go wrong. It’s comforting that someone’s in control even as we revile them.

On the Big Scary Other-O-Meter ‘The Government’ probably ranks better than Satan, witches, the international Jewish conspiracy; maybe a little worse than patriarchy, capitalism, and the clash of civilizations. Educated people learn to depersonalize their Big Scary Others.

L'État, c'est moi.

February 17, 2010

Feelings and education

by Carl Dyke

For my “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” class this semester I started out with Ira Bashkow’s The Meaning of Whitemen, which I’m using as I often do as an excuse to read it, based on Rex at Savage Minds’ recommendation. It’s really a terrific book about race, modernity and Papua New Guinea, for a lot of straightforward reasons. This post, however, is tangential, drawing out a thread about the management of other people’s feelings that weaves into an ongoing interest of mine here.

Ira argues that the meaning of whitemen is fully entangled with the Orokaiva cultural world, notably as a highly-conventionalized “vehicle for achieving valued forms of social agreement and unity” (214). Pragmatically, the Orokaiva construction of whitemen as the familiar Other offers a “safe idiom” in which shared understandings can be deployed to challenge and criticize other Orokaiva without creating direct antagonism. Critical discourse is crafted in terms of implied contrasts with whitemen, who are not present to be offended and are outsiders to the discussion anyway. Of course we can easily see this same sort of dynamic at work in many more familiar uses of the near Other to make points while leveraging solidarity and deflecting antagonism, such as the typical ways men talk about women together and vice versa, or the ways workers talk about bosses together and vice versa.

Although the book is about this Orokaiva construction and deployment of whitemen to create and maintain their own unity, Ira spends the second chapter backfilling a more general picture of the Orokaiva cultural world in the context of the postcolonial situation. It turns out that the management of conflict and maintenance of unity is very important to the Orokaiva in general, not least because they value both competition and equality, autonomous individuality and community obligation, fundamental tensions that require elaborate dynamic balancing. As a result Orokaiva are exquisitely sensitive to perceived slights and inequalities, and spend a great deal of effort in formal etiquettes of status smoothing. Orokaiva relations with whitemen are thus complicated by whitemen’s “brightness,” their surplus of cargo and “lightness” with respect to their obligations of correcting for that in their dealings with others. As admirers of autonomy and competition the Orokaiva admire whitemen for their knowledge, accomplishments and swag, but as sticklers for equality think they’re missing something really critical about being together in the world.

Pursuant to the value of equality Orokaiva pay a whole lot of attention to each others’ feelings, but ‘values’ don’t quite tell the whole story. Habit and ritualization ‘operationalize’ values, of course. And no doubt they actually care about each other sometimes. But more materially they inflict consequences on each other for not. Hurt feelings such as jealousy justify retaliation, ranging from ruptured relationships to theft and spoilage to sorcery to violence and warfare.

In class the other day all of this came to an interesting head. We’d been working on how to write an evidence-based analytical essay, and over the weekend I had read draft introductory paragraphs. It became clear from these (as it had been from class discussion) that some of the students were not reading the book and were winging it. I opened class by pointing out that for an evidence-based analysis winging it is not in the game yet. But then I asked why students might choose not to read. Let’s bracket judgment and think of this as a practice that has meaning and integrity for its practitioners, I said. How might ignoring or resisting the instructional materials of the class make sense?

Laziness and poor commitment were cited, and I acknowledged that these could sometimes be fully explanatory without otherwise rewarding this transparent gambit to guess what I wanted to hear. We noted that students are often able to get away with not reading, playing limpy until in desperation or resignation the teacher spoonfeeds them what they need to pass. And of course some teachers just default to spoonfeeding without any particular effort on students’ part. But one student who I knew wasn’t reading was steaming over the conversation, so I asked him what he was thinking about. He said he had no interest in being told he was ignorant by some showoff smartypants [book author]. And there we had it.

This is the conflict of the classroom. “Bright” teachers show up and regale the students with their wisdom; day after day the students are reminded of how ignorant and inadequate they are. Each accomplishment leads only to a new threshold of humiliation. Without any mechanism of reciprocity or status smoothing students’ feelings are systematically subordinated, ignored and trampled. Ingratiation, passivity, smoldering resentment and sabotage are the classic ‘weapons of the weak’ responses.

Bashkow and I, who should have known better, attack the students with a book in which we flaunt our superior knowledge and linguistic facility without offering redress. No wonder they don’t want to read it. I laid this all out and asked the students how the Orokaiva would address this problem. Today I find out what they came up with, although I don’t expect to transform this deeply-embedded disfunction overnight. Since the Orokaiva usually use throwing a feast as their leveler, maybe I should buy them pizza and maybe Bashkow should have included a coupon for it in the book.

Interestingly, this problem did not arise at all in the evening section of the class. Part of it is that those students are mostly older and more intentionally committed to their education. But part of it, they told me when we talked about it Monday evening, is that I told them I was reading the book along with them. It happened to come up with them but not with the day students. The evening folks said that our shared process of discovery created a feeling of solidarity for them and helped them through the difficulties of the text. Something I know, off and on; something to remember.

April 13, 2008

Thinking through the Edict of Nantes

by Carl Dyke

In the textbook we use to teach introductory World history there’s a picture of a peasant leader from the Peasants’ War in the Holy Roman Empire during the early 16th C, “Little Jack” Rohrbach. He’s a strapping bearded fella with his arms tied behind him, attached to a stake with a short line. The stake is surrounded a couple of paces out with a ring of dry burning wood. He is undoubtedly roasting slowly to death.


This seems sort of unfriendly to the students, and I’d have to agree. But since it’s a History class we have to try to figure out what was going on in the heads of everyone involved where it ‘made sense’ to them. There were of course various dimensions of political and class conflict in these events, but the religious conflict of the early Reformation is easier to get at and revealing of the profound cultural differences that help to make history worth studying, so I focus at first on that.

One obvious wonder has to do with the disconnect between this seemingly-unfriendly treatment and what we today would think of as ordinary human rights. We might not like someone, we may even think it’s ok to kill them. But doing so by inflicting lengthy extraordinary pain is beyond a kind of threshold to us. (I tease students that if the threat of this kind of punishment did not deter the peasant leader, what chance does painless execution have to be deterrent? I also look outward to the history of the Atlantic slave trade and point out that if Europeans were acting in nasty burny ways toward ‘each other’, there’s not much point in being shocked about how badly they treated the Indians and Africans.)

So what was the moral context in which this sort of public spectacle of pain made sense? Was it just the amoral brutality of war? Yes, there was some of that. When you’ve just got done stabbing and hacking at other people’s flesh with edged weapons, and perhaps been carved like deli meat a bit yourself, a little extra fire might not seem like a big deal. Among the participants in this particular war were early mass armies with little sense of noblesse oblige, along with rural knights whose self-restraint was being seriously tested by a shift of power to the towns that soon made them obsolete.

This explanation won’t do the whole trick, however. There’s a symbolic, even ritually sacred quality to the execution that isn’t captured by mere brutality or resentment. I suggest to the students that we take seriously for a moment the idea of heaven and hell, eternal reward and punishment. Let’s say we really believed that. It would start to matter a whole lot how we lived our lives here. There’s no sense in talking about hell if ‘it’s all good’, so apparently there are ways of living that will send you or others there; and given the scale of the punishment, it would be very important to avoid them. It would also be nice and friendly to do everything in your power to save others from this fate.

In the scale of eternity, this peasant’s torturous end is fleeting. Nor is the pain of earthly fire any comparison to the furnaces of hell. Furthermore, from his perpective this pain is also as nothing compared to an eternity of bliss. At the individual level, therefore, his torture is of little consequence; but at the symbolic level it represents a vivid contrast between an object lesson in the wages of sin, on the one hand, and his own virtuous martyrdom, on the other. (The former is why the execution had to be done in public. The latter is part of why eventually executions were moved away from public view.)

‘Human rights’ are quite beside the point here. They are about the secular sacredness of the human individual, but the flesh being fried here is much bigger – ideas of fundamental truth and eternal salvation or damnation. No individual can measure up to this level of moral universalism.

Which is why the Edict of Nantes and its various analogs are so significant. It’s not actually that Henry IV said ‘it’s all good’. What the Edict actually says, in context, is that we think you’re still wrong and you’re still going to hell, but we’re exhausted by all the killing each other over it so we’re not going to try to stop you anymore; and if you can talk other poor fools into following you there, so be it. This turned the murderous logic of moral absolutism into a pragmatic policy of toleration.

It was for the intervening centuries and processes I hope to get to in good time to turn this license to be wrong into the notion that each of us is right in our own way.