So Marty Peretz has sort of apologized, and Andy has (rightfully to my mind) taken him to task for it. This isn’t the first time, though, that Peretz has either apologized for saying harmful things about Muslims, or it has been justly demanded that he do so. And that can be instructive for all of us.
Someone who finds himself in such a situation should do more than apologize; it is, rather, an opportunity for self-examination, i.e. “why do I always seem to be in this spot?” Peretz, I think, honestly does not think he’s an anti-Islamic bigot. Maybe he is surrounded by idiots and anti-semites. Surely he himself thinks so. But a more adult approach is to re-examine your thinking, your behavior, your tendencies: I don’t think I’m a bigot, but I always wind up saying things that people construe as bigoted, so maybe there is something in my thought or emotional processes that is leading me to say things that I really don’t believe.
Note that this can work with just about any character trait, not necessarily connected with politics. Maybe you get jealous and petty. I have a tendency toward irritability and a short fuse, but I don’t really mean to get testy. So what’s happening? What are the processes that bring me to that place? Can I develop my awareness of when these feelings are bubbling up in me, and take corrective action?
Lean against the wind. Maybe one way to achieve a more balanced character is to proactively take actions against a tendency. Perhaps Peretz genuinely feels that Park51 is horrid, but surely, as he well knows, this country has no lack of anti-Muslim actions and bigots. So he could spend more space on The Spine writing about them. He doesn’t need to change his views on anything, but since he says that he abhors anti-Muslim bigotry, he could search it out and condemn it more.
Same thing applies here with any character trait. Worried about arrogance? Spend time in activities that you are not good at, or places where you might even be embarrassed. Impatient? Drive around Los Angeles at rush hour.
I have found that these two ways of acting and being have been very helpful to me. The point, as old as Aristotle, and most recently deepened and illuminated by Jonathan Haidt’s masterful The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, is that human character derives not from our rational faculties but rather from ingrained habit. Changing those habits is the key to successful character formation. It lies at the heart of the Jewish tradition of mussar, which has been beautifully and powerfully updated for moderns by Alan Morinis and his colleagues at the Mussar Institute.
Under normal circumstances, the post would finish with some tag line about this is particularly appropriate during “these Days of Awe.” But actually, it’s just the opposite: they show an important weakness of the entire tradition of the High Holydays. Real character change cannot be done in ten days, and in fact, it is an ongoing process. It comes not in peak moments, but in boring and everyday ones. The High Holy Days of course do not explicitly say, “Focus now and forget it the rest of the year.” Theoretically, they are supposed to inspire you to do it the rest of the year. But practically, they do not. At best, we focus on things for ten days, rejoice that we can finally eat, and then move on. That’s a big problem: give me a year of Mussar over the Rosh and the Yom. And maybe even give a Mussar Institute scholarship to Marty Peretz.