Superficial replacements of what is Most Natural

It is quite symptomatic for people today, especially young people on the internet, on tumblr in particular, to replace natural and necessary, yet recently (and not-so-recently) rejected human behaviour and interest with superficial and very limited reproductions. And, to be quite honest, it worries me.

Take political correctness, for instance. I am in no way speaking against politically correct behaviour—on the contrary, I think it necessary. However, the form of political correctness we know and use today is an insufficient replacement for proper manners and considerate behaviour. Manners, of course, were rejected a short time before extreme political correctness came into fashion, as outdated and classist. For a short time, people roamed freely across the internet, being just about rude and offensive, and then the opposite came into being.

The problem with this Opposite is that, rather than becoming a renaissance of manners, it became much more of a perversion of them. It is all the more classist, despite being used most fervently by those who claim to fight classism, and it is strict and limited, and always out of date. Rather than intending to always treat all people courteously and with consideration of their very feelings, one intends to treat only a few groups of people with such consideration, and without much care for each person belonging to any of these groups as an individual. In fact, it seems that for many people the point of political correctness is to be always as rude and misbehaving and unfriendly as possible, except to a few chosen peoples, as a collective entity, who might not in any way be offended. These offences are changed regularly, and can only be properly known by the initiated, contemporarily educated, young (or trying to behave as a young person would) who spend most of their time online.

No matter how good the intention, if a person isn’t perfectly up-to-date in their language or their understanding of specifics, they are made the villain of the play. I have addressed this before, and I have to say again, that it is a better aim for one’s behaviour to be unspecifically and unconditionally good, rather than overspecifically and exclusively perfect. To treat people with consideration and friendliness is not as difficult as it might appear, and even if one may struggle to do so, it is worth training. There is nothing classist even about more elaborate manners, in fact, as those can be acquired through simple consideration of one’s own actions and through watching well-behaved people, it is much less classist than expecting people to behave in a way that requires specific education, access, and social environment.

Now of course, many argue that there’s too many well-mannered people who behave very much politically incorrect and offensive towards people’s feelings. This is due to the fundamentally wrong idea of manners that many (especially young) people have nowadays. The behaviour employed by a great many rich and privileged people is often equated with traditional manners, even if said people behave terribly, and every sort of inconsiderate behaviour towards more modern sentiments is associated with older generations. But the thing is actually quite simple: If people behave in a way that they know hurts another’s feelings, offends another’s personal sensibilities (not to confuse here with polite disagreement!) then they are, in fact, not polite, not well-mannered, not considerate or courteous.

If your aim is to be good to people, as individuals, and all people, then you don’t do things that hurt them, at least not intentionally. You respect them both in regards to socio-political (race, gender, class, etc.) as well as purely personal matters and feelings. And this according to each human being. That’s not speaking against political correctness in the least—but one should remember that a stilted consideration towards specifically chosen people, without much regard to their individuality, and with absolutely no care for anyone else, and no effort to behave decently, is not worth much. If applied in such a way, then political correctness is merely a protection for those who want to treat others badly without being exposed.

(It helps, of course, to view humanity as a whole, interconnected and inseparable, with smaller, overlapping, open-boardered inside, yet each human being an individual, rather than, as it is so often now done, divided into many small, impervious groups which, in case they overlap, form even stricter, smaller groups.)

And take social constructs. A current trend online is memes and comics and shorts stories about how “weird humans are”—often from the perspective of aliens, sometimes of pets. How humans care about each other, how they do nice things, even if they don’t appear necessary in a commercial, efficient way, etc. Also posts about how people in history and pre-history have always been people, and have always cared about each other. The appreciation for all of these things is quite wonderful, and long-needed. However—not all, but a large portion of those things are, in fact social constructs. But of course, social constructs are considered bad things, so they are not called that. Instead, we learn that “humans are weird” whenever they do something that is not either selfish, or efficient, or both. Even if appreciative, we learn it in a negatively-tinted way. How weird it is! To think that humans are indeed—well, what? Humans.

But you see, social constructs are not fundamentally bad things. Nor good, either. Being a social construct doesn’t make a thing bad. It does not make it good, but it does very much make it human. The idea to say, “this does not exist in biology, it is a social construct and therefore bad/fake” is a way stripping humans of their humanity. We are social, and we ought to be social. That does not mean that we have to stick to every social construct there is. In fact, questioning, examining, changing and adjusting, even abolishing social constructs is as much of a socially constructed behaviour, and it is surely necessary at times, and it has always been done.

To consider unselfish, good, caring, or playful and creative behaviour to be “weird” is, even when meant positively, not the right way to approach it. It is not weird. It is not unnatural, it is purely natural, and necessary. It is also not exclusive to human beings, though of course, according to our understanding particularly developed among us. And it shouldn’t cease to do so—after all, wouldn’t it be much better to stand against those who claim that only selfishness and efficient work are necessary? No! There’s many bad or outdated social constructs, but humans are social animals, and we change, and the things we create and construct and develop change with us. Different social constructs in different cultures and eras do not prove that social constructs are fundamentally bad and unnatural, they prove that they are, in fact, natural, and that they can be altered.

But the derogatory way of talking about good and necessary things brings me to the subject of education. It’s a pity that what used to be considered general knowledge is now called “useless facts”. Despite pointing out that they are the best-educated generation of all time, and much smarter than older people, today’s youth is victim of a very strict, career-oriented education. This, of course, has been created by older generations, and is often criticised, but that doesn’t change its effect.

Knowledge needs to have a use, otherwise it is called, deliberately, “useless”. The studium generale is of the past, so is any form of general and recreational knowledge and education. And this surpasses class. Whether its the studies of rich people not intending or needing to put them into practical use, or the underestimated, wide knowledge of common and tradespeople.

Fortunately, nowadays people have a better access to university education than they did in the past, even if they don’t come from a privileged background—academia is not as strictly reserved for the rich and privileged as it used to be, although there is still a lot to be worked in that direction. However, as strange as it might sound, knowledge becomes more and more a privilege of the academic, regardless of their background.

If you don’t gain knowledge for a career, and if it is not a commercial career, then it should at least be an academic career, then why earn knowledge at all? And why learn anything out of your field? And why in a way that cannot be put to use, even if the knowledge you have gained is just the same?

What is now called, rather apologetically, “useless facts” and considered a waste of time to read, are, in a much more accessible form, thanks to the internet and easily available books, what used to be sought-after knowledge, just for the knowledge itself by earlier generations. Not centuries, but just a few decades ago. Very often, people who are now deemed to have no use of academic interests, learned about things for personal use, and people who worked in academic fields studied things entirely unrelated, and people who were not going to have a career learned for the sake of learning.

But now knowledge needs to be monetised, or at the very least certified, even if it is not supposed to be used in a professional environment. All other knowledge, all personal knowledge, is deemed useless, a waste of time, (and insufficient to put into conversation with better-educated people, even if they are less informed on the chosen subject—but that is an entirely different matter and unrelated to this) and as such even immoral, as people are made to feel guilty for enjoying knowledge without putting it into professional use.

This is helped by the popular idea that in the past only professionals and academics, and a certain kind of rich people, and then only men, knew anything. But as a matter of fact, very often people who worked in handiwork, women with no intention or prospect of a career, and even rather poor people (though that depended heavily on time and place) were quite well and diversely educated. Knowledge was not deemed useless, but valuable, even when people could not assume to earn money or esteem through it.

And “useless facts” and all the non-fiction and documentaries, as well as free online courses and all that is so often looked down upon as a past-time for people who don’t know what to do with themselves, are proof that people still long for knowledge, and for an intellectual occupation, no matter how unproductive and inefficient it might be. And that should be supported, not degraded, and not apologised for. Reading books and articles on things that interest one, visiting university lectures without being enrolled, even reading little tid-bits of funny and obscure historical or scientific facts, should never be something to feel ashamed of.

And even more so, even if many older people did not have the same opportunities as young people today, it would be very foolish to assume that they are uneducated, just as it is very foolish to assume that people in earlier times were only sitting in the mud, thinking the earth were flat.

“Useless facts” of course, are just like “humans are weird” an apologetic degradation of a thing actually liked, and valued. It seems a common reaction nowadays. A sort of fear, “Look at that silly thing I made, it’s really not good!” — “Why, it’s fabulous!” This is not a reproach, much rather a caution. Because in such cases, there’s not many to call it fabulous, the derogatory name will be adopted by the majority, and the good thing painted badly.

And now for Kindness, the most exhausting subject for a little composition like this one, and thus, appropriately, with a capital K. We all want Kindness, we all want to be kind. So far, so good. But kindness is not conditional. Friendliness is, politeness is. Kindness, like Love, is not.

So many people explain why you cannot be kind to everyone, why kindness to some people is evil to others. But that is wrong. You are mistaking kindness for friendliness, and for support. Kindness is unconditional. If you want to be kind to some people, but think others undeserving, then you don’t really want to be kind, you want to be nice, to be friendly, to be polite, to be politically correct, or to be supportive. All necessary and valuable by themselves, all, at least to a degree, selective and conditional. And all, for the receiving person, pleasant.

Kindness is not necessarily pleasant or opportune. You are not kind to a person by supporting their bad actions and intentions. You are not kind to a predator by supporting the harm they inflict. On the contrary, if you fight against the bad a person does, you do them an act of kindness, inflict kindness upon them.

We can and we should try to act kindly towards everyone. We should practise kindness, train it, nourish, and cultivate it, and plant where it lacks. That does not mean that we should always be nice, that we should support everyone’s wishes and goals, or to be always compliant. To practise kindness means very often to oppose.

But if your approach to kindness is conditional, if you want to exempt certain people from it, if you want to do them bad, than you contribute to the Bad rather than the Good, and only half-heartedly, superficially to the Kindness the world needs.

But a necessary fight against the bad a person does is not the same as self-indulgent malevolence towards the people who are made the symbol of what one considers, or even what might really be, what is bad, or a part of what is bad in the world.

The Man under the Umbrella

I am well aware of Friedrich Bhaer’s unpopularity, but I don’t understand it. I am aware of it, because it has been so often stated and explained; I don’t understand it because nothing of it makes sense—personal preferences aside, everyone has a right to like (or dislike) whoever they want, after all.

“Me wants me Bhaer!”—Tina, the daughter of Mrs Kirke’s French maid, said as she flung herself into the arms of this controversial character, and her words express my own feelings perfectly.

The accusations are numerous: Bhaer was merely an afterthought, to screw the readers, he is unattractive and boring, suppresses Jos own freedom as a writer and forces her to express herself in a posh manner, and of course, he isn’t Laurie.

But we’ll start in the beginning. Little Women has originally been published in two parts: Little Women and Good Wives. Later editions often put them together, but the distinction between the two books is an important point in the discussion of Friedrich Bhaer.

After Little Women first came out, Louisa May Alcott received several letters from readers who asked about the further lives of the March sisters, and especially about whom the little women would marry. Ms Alcott was not delighted by this question, and of her character’s being reduced to the subject of matrimony, as was rather usual back then, and which, in return, brought many modern readers to the conclusion that marriage by itself were a sign of a lack of liberation in the heroines and could therefore not correspond with Ms Alcott’s own intentions.

In particular the still popular wish, that Jo and Laurie should become a couple and marry displeased the authoress. But that does not make the insinuation that Friedrich’s part was caused by mere spite true.

Criticism of Friedrich Bhaer comes from those who would have liked to see Jo with Laurie, as well as those would have preferred her to remain unmarried. An argument for the latter is that Louisa May Alcott herself has never been married, and that Jo was based on her in many respects. But Little Women is no direct autobiography and contains many elements that didn’t happen as described in the lives of the author and her sisters. The common attempt to equate Jo and Louisa cannot succeed. The Marchs are obviously based on the Alcotts, but they are not them. But this awkward mingling of real person and fictional character is applied nearly exclusively to Jo.

The desire for an unmarried role model is common and understandable, especially as many readers identify with Jo and often think differently about these things than the 19th century audience—although it cannot be denied that the marital status of a novel’s heroine continues to receive a great deal of attention.

But to say “For this reason I would have preferred Jo to stay unmarried,” would be a better choice than, “Jo was never really supposed to marry, it’s only in the book because Louisa May Alcott has been pushed to do so. Jo is in truth single!” But in truth Jo doesn’t exist, only Louisa, and in the book, Jo married, and she did so because the author wanted her to.

The question, whether a marriage of Jo and Laurie would have received as much rejection, nowadays, I mean, because even those would prefer Jo to be single, seem to rather tolerate Laurie than Friedrich. But this is not supposed to be a comparison of both men—I like Laurie a lot, and I would not have had any issue had he and Jo become a couple. But they didn’t: Jo didn’t want it, Louisa didn’t want it, and in the end it turned out that Jo and Laurie could continue their wonderful friendship, though in a matured way, and still find a different sort of love each.

The notion that it was a sign of conformation or even submission, shows a completely incorrect understanding of the societal context of the story’s time. It may come from the cliché of the young woman who has to marry a boring old man, and who liberates herself by eloping with a brooding young rake; or from the good social standing of Germans, especially German academics, in contemporary America.

But Friedrich is, according to all economical and societal standards of that time, no reasonable, let a lone conforming choice—not within the story, and not from the point of view of the then audience. To claim that his character had been created because of societal pressure is completely incorrect.

Friedrich is poor; the idea that older men used to be preferred was based on the fact that they usually had build an existence (or increased it) and this promised financial security. To prefer a poor, older man over a young, very rich man, who still had the prospect of becoming even richer, was no decision made of reason, and not at all understandable for onlookers.

Beyond that, Friedrich had a very bad position as a German. German immigrants were a fairly large minority in America back then; most of them were poor, and even more so very unpopular. One must not forget that the Hummels, from whom Beth contracted the scarlet fever that later led to her death, were Germans, too. But the Alcotts liked Germans—and so did, apparently, the Marchs. Louisa May Alcott’s parents were transcendentalists and felt very drawn to German culture, in particular literature. Louisa May Alcott was born in the same year that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died. She loved Goethe and visited his house in Frankfurt—thought she didn’t have time to go inside. It is obvious that Friedrich is a character whom she liked to write and who came very close to her personal literary ideal.

But what is much more important: Friedrich supports, respects, and values Jo.

It brings me nearly physical discomfort to read what’s claimed about Friedrich and his attitude towards Jo and her writing. That he would belittle her, keep her from writing, push her to betray herself and lose her way. Yes, even the fact that Jo writes in later years, is read as a rebellion and secret disobedience towards Friedrich.

It’s a mystery to me, how one could read a book and interpret it in such a twisted manner. It seems that, whenever Professor Bhaer appears, some readers throw all reading comprehension overboard. To think Friedrich had condemned Jos own stories and asked her to write what he considered “higher literature” is complete nonsense. And so is the idea that he had asked (or forced) her to stop writing altogether.

Friedrich knew that Jo wrote and was very enthusiastic about it. He also had reason to assume that she published stories in papers, but he could neither be sure about that, nor about what sort of stories they were. He saw a magazine of the sort, for which she hadn’t written anything, and criticised this sort of stories (and their title illustrations) in general, especially their accessibility for children, without referring to Jo’s own stories, as is commonly maintained.

He did worry however, that Jo, due to a lack of money, protection and experience, could possibly write for exactly this sort of paper, and, rather impulsively, made an effort to dissuade her. Jo argued that one could earn money that way, and Friedrich, a poor man, mind you, remarked that one should rather sweep dirt in the streets.

One can—and should—not deny that Friedrich wanted to influence Jo in this matter. But I’ll have to remark two things: For once, I don’t see what’s wrong about that. He didn’t take the decision away from her, which he neither could nor would do, he simply stated his opinion—an opinion she valued from her own free will. Jo wouldn’t have changed anything, had she not agreed with him. Jo was stubborn and headstrong, and would not even have her nearest and dearest change her mind. She wouldn’t have read her story with Friedrich’s eyes, if she hadn’t truly agreed with what he’d said. That aside, it’s Friedrich’s right to tell his opinion, regardless whether Jo or the reader liked it or not. The idea that a “good” man in a novel always has to tell the heroine what she wants to hear, is a horrible, pseudo-feminist trend, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea that a person (especially a woman) would betray themselves (herself) through learning and growth. Anyway—to claim that Friedrich oppressed Jo, and that she would let him do so, is an insult to both of them.

Secondly: Friedrich has not once talked degradingly about Jo’s own stories. He hadn’t read them, couldn’t even be sure whether she had published any. He also never criticised that she wrote. His criticism was directed towards a specific genre, one could even say business or even milieu, which he thought would be harmful to both Jo and her work. He wanted Jo to write, but he didn’t want her to do it only to earn money, instead to write what she truly wanted. Jo’s first reaction was to write an overtly moralist, sermon-like story, but with time she balanced it out and found her way (back) to what she truly liked.

Here, too, the criticism describes the absolute opposite: Friedrich never wanted Jo to stop writing what she liked. He wanted her to start. At that time, Jo cared more about her income than her own development and expression, which did her no good, and of which Friedrich couldn’t approve.

Later on, Jo wrote neither secretly, nor in rebellion—she wrote as she liked, and Friedrich always supported her.

Friedrich also didn’t consider (commercial) writing to be unsuitable for a woman, and wanted Jo to get published and be successful as a writer. He even took her to a symposium of famous writer, which in the end disillusioned and sobered Jo, but which also helped her not to feel intimidated by the so-called Greats. Friedrich, too, would not be intimidated and, reserved as he normally was, argued ardently for his convictions, which impressed Jo persistently.

Friedrich did not make Jo more womanly. In fact, Jo and Friedrich liked and respected each other’s characteristics and peculiarities that were often seen untypical for their respective gender. Jo became, as she grew older, less boyish, but that was partly due to her increasing maturity, as she mostly left behaviours behind that would also not have suited a grown man, and on the other hand, because her appreciation of other women had grown—Jo had, after all, the tendency to take men and “manly” things more seriously.

Friedrich liked and loved Jo just as she was. But he also supported her development and growth. And it’s funny that this of all things is so often criticised, even condemned, even though it is what Little Women is largely about.

No character in Little Women is perfect. Not Friedrich, not Jo, and nobody else either. But Jo is often seen as a perfect heroine, and her development as self-betrayal. But one cannot rob a book of its own essence to modernise it. The notion that Jo could only be a good role model if she would never think or act differently than she did at the age of fifteen, because all maturity, all learning, were a sign of submission and an antiquated world-view is a dreadful way of thinking by itself. But if one happens to be of that opinion, then one should also stand by it rather than selling it as the author’s own belief.

That aside, it seems that nobody is allowed to criticise Jo. No other character, and no reader. Her sisters have all been degraded cruelly, but Jo has to be considered perfect, just as she is. She is the representative of all strong girls and completely infallible, or else valuable only through her faults. That is the common opinion—though not the writer’s, who considered her protagonists mistakes, and her development, and to acknowledge them, very important. That does not make her a lesser character or a bad role model for young girls—on the contrary, it makes her human, and gives her room to grow.

Transcendentalism was an important influence for Louisa May Alcott, although she did not at all view or take it uncritically. Growing up is the central point of this novel, and, although I am sure that Jo would have managed to do so very well on her own, Friedrich was a great help for her, to look forwards, and to become a big woman, while always staying true to herself.

And, at last, the romance. I’ll say three things:

Every person feels differently. The interaction of romantic and other feelings, and the cognition of them, is highly individual, and Jo and Friedrich have found what is just right for themselves.

The chapter Under the Umbrella can be re-read over and over again. Those who have forgotten just how romantic Jo and Friedrich are, should read it again.

Thou is often a subject of criticism—and perhaps the most painful one of all. What is presented as Friedrich’s attempt of shaping Jo to his demanding ideals, is nothing but his way of approaching her. For thou is viewed quite wrongly nowadays—it’s old-fashioned, and thus often seen as posh or dusty, and as a distanced form of address. But the English you is much rather comparable to the German Sie, which is formal and impersonal, and used by strangers and people whose connections are merely business-like. Thou on the other hand, is Du, the informal, personal and intimate form of address, used by friends and family. It is also to be noted that children are always addressed Du, while children address all adults, aside from family and friends, with Sie, which indicates the adults’ authority. This is was much stricter in the 19th century, and through initiating thou, Friedrich opened towards growing intimacy, while raising Jo on the same level as him, a grown woman and his equal. It is a loving and respectful gesture.