by William H. Benson
January 30, 2003
In the book Dances with Wolves Lieutenant Dunbar finds himself alone at Fort Sedgewick, abandoned and forgotten by his superior officers and fellow cavalrymen. He had his horse Cisco, and occasionally he saw a solitary wolf he named Two Socks. However, the point of the story is that Dunbar did not choose to remain alone but gradually fell in with the Comanches to the point that he abandoned his own society and fully accepted the Native American’s.
Men and women are social creatures. It is indeed a rare human being who will choose absolute isolation from others, separate and outside of society. The anxiety and terror of permanent separation is bred deep into our thoughts, for supposedly “No man is an island.”
On January 31, 1709 an English ship stopped at the Juan Fernandez Islands, some three hundred miles west of Valparaiso, Chile in the Pacific and discovered Alexander Selkirk, a Scotch sailor who had lived alone on the island for four years and four months.
Shoeless and dressed in goatskins, Selkirk reacted with the greatest indifference to his rescuers, for he said that after the first eight months he had conquered his loneliness and had learned to enjoy his days marooned on an island. Surrounded by cats and goats, he had adapted.
Selkirk was the exception, for most people are not psychologically suited for absolute solitude.
Although Sigmond Freud devoted most of his thoughts toward discovering how individuals think and then behave, he also examined the tension between the individual and society. He understood that individuals have universal desires and that society expects people to curb those desires for the benefit of the society.
The psychologist studies the individual, and the sociologist studies the society and its methods of limiting individual desires. Societies set up rules and create laws, defining what is acceptable and what is not, what is criminal and what is legal, and what is proper and what is inappropriate.
The sociologist even digs deeper and discovers what it is that each society accepts as the arbiter of public truth. In many societies over the centuries that arbiter was religion. But in recent decades in America and Europe, science has superseded religion as the dominant way that society sets its limits on what is acceptable and what is deviant.
Perhaps what is needed today is a new arbiter of public truth that rises above both religion and science, and steps us away from confrontational discussions of right and wrong.
Roe v. Wade just celebrated its thirtieth birthday, and that court decision, right or wrong, is an example of science overwhelming religion as the arbiter that led to the decision. Whether to legalize drugs or not is another of our society’s perplexing questions, and America now is searching for the arbiter which will point to the truth.
An excellent way to solve the problem of crime and to empty our prisons is to make everything legal. Nobody and nothing is then deviant. All things are permissable. And we all will be looking to live alone on a deserted island.
Each society at any point in time is constantly negotiating the meaning of truth, for everyone is a moral entrepreneur trying to determine what is wrong and what is right.