Mon 19 Sep 2011
Somewhere in their first couple of years, human children develop the capacity to say, “No,” hence the “Terrible Twos.” I think of it as being an early manifestation of rational nature, because it is evidence that mutually exclusive options are understood. Although a screaming two-year-old may be thought unreasonable, or even irrational, it would be incorrect to label the child non-rational, or pre-rational, or sub-rational, since he or she is well aware of what contradicts desire.
Refusing to do something is not only a human capacity, of course. Dogs and cats refuse to do things all the time. When my dog doesn’t want to go outside, she refuses to walk to the door, and at 90 lbs. she is pretty much an immovable object. My late cat—rest in peace—never once came running when called, though he lived to be 18. I personally have no horse stories, but I’m sure they exist, and so for many other species. What humans do that’s interesting, however, is they specifically say, “No,” and this means they refuse not only to do something but also to believe something. Refusal to believe may or may not affect action; thus it is not reducible to action or inaction, rather it varies independently. Refusal to believe means, in other words, rejecting a proposition. Here are several propositions that humans routinely reject: “This would be good for you;” “You should do this because it would be good for you;” “You should do this because it’s expected of you;” “This is too dangerous;” “You should not do this because it’s too dangerous;” “You should always obey the law;” “The rules are there for a good reason;” and so forth. Again, action or inaction may be consistent with the rejection of propositions like these, but not necessarily. If I am right the mere rejection of a proposition, refusing to believe, is a characteristically human trait and evidence of rational nature.
Consider the main character in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” He simply repeats, “I would prefer not to,” thereby firmly insisting on his own integrity as an agent.
What brought me to reflect on this was the death last July of British jazz singer Amy Winehouse. Her song, “Rehab,” is about refusing. “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no. . . I won’t go, go, go.” It’s quite a lyrical number, beautifully performed by Ms. Winehouse with her gorgeous alto voice, and the musicians in the YouTube music video version are simply charming. The contrast with her sad life and early demise is a shock. Of course, Winehouse should have gone to rehab. In fact, apparently she did go, more than once. Initially, her family said that her death had been caused not by a drug overdose but by unsupervised, cold-turkey sobriety; the toxicology report released recently, however, indicated the presence of alcohol. She died at 27; as always, the death of the young is heartbreaking. And yet in watching her sing that song, even knowing what became of her, I can’t help seeing something positive and quintessentially human. We can point to weakness, illness, stubbornness, failure, even sin—but that doesn’t capture it. There’s still the dignity of the human being who can say, “No.” There is still the God-given capacity of refusing, evidence of rationality and indispensable condition of free will. This is what makes us, in the words of Psalm 8, “a little lower than the angels.” And the sorrow we feel when a person makes bad choices, and consequently dies much too young, is intelligible precisely as the appreciation of a human being’s sublime value which, despite our efforts sometimes, cannot be erased.