05/26/14

Reflections on last weekend’s tragedy in Isla Vista

As I reflect on the actions of one young man to intentionally end the lives of six others, I have no frame of reference. There is literally nothing that I can call on in my own experience or the experiences of others I have known to “understand” what happened. And what needs to be understood? What refuses understanding? As far as I can tell, it is how one human could overcome seemingly insurmountable psychological and emotional prohibitions and end the lives of other human beings. But is that really so surprising? This happens on a regular basis. It’s not as if we don’t know the ways that this can be accomplished, even orchestrated on a large scale.

There is something more that catches my interest. My family and I lived at the edge of Isla Vista for six years. I spent time near all the locations where Rodger killed. I have many fond memories of the beautiful environment in which I grew and changed as a scholar and an individual. I also know that these details are meaningless in relation to the weekend’s tragic events. That these render the event more significant to me points at a certain egotism. Yes, things happen elsewhere, but not here. Not close to me or to a place that I love. The unfathomable is based in part on my arbitrary location in the world.

Yet surely even those not personally connected with the events struggle with their seeming absurdity. It is not just a geographic location that we are invested in, but a socio-economic or cultural location, as others have pointed out. When life is lost on the battlefield, in the Third World or in the ghettos, there is an element of anticipation that softens the blow. This anticipation itself is often revealing of our prejudices. Yet we are surprised, or more so, when tragedy strikes in a movie theater, at an elementary school, or in a beautiful community by the ocean. Why? Because we believe that the socio-economic backdrops against which the latter events and activities take place provide protection against murder. Comparatively, that is true, but when that pretense of protection is violated, we feel vulnerable and exposed.

This is not at all to trivialize the pain and loss that comes from death, although to a certain extent any socio-cultural analysis cannot fail to trivialize the individual death. Rather, the access points of my reflection tell me that their function must be considered. They say as much about me and my interests as they do about the invaluable lives involved.

There is no tidy equation that will return us to stasis. We cannot add up the contributing factors and predict this terrible outcome. As others have noted, while we can and should explore all the elements of this event, from masculine culture to mental illness to population density, we should resist the reductionism that usually accompanies these conclusions. In the aftermath of tragedy, the public conversation is usually reduced to a squabble over the one response we should have. Shouldn’t it be possible to maintain multiple conversations, multiple avenues of improvement? It is clear there is no quick fix. It is also clear that whatever approaches we take should not be about reestablishing our illusions, but working toward substantive change. Demonizing Rodger provides the quickest end to the pain felt by many, and the quickest societal end to the uncertainty of disruptive events. But it does nothing aside from quickly patch the hole left by the tragedy so we can bide our time until the next.

On the other side of the coin, we should not confuse our frustration at the slowness of change with the ability to change. I have seen this already in many fatalistic responses that bear the influence of Western Christian epistemologies. As this story goes, gun control or mental health work or fighting a misogynistic cuture won’t ultimately make a difference. These things will happen again despite our best efforts. Of course these assertions are correct. I have seen a version of this response often in the classroom when dealing with huge issues deeply embedded in our culture. Nothing I do will make a difference…so I can do nothing. I argue that this reasoning is implied by our reading of the supernatural.

I grew up understanding that the biggest issues in life were resolved by a simple conversation with God. Even in the thoughtful philosophy of Kierkegaard, God inhabits the place of the absurd, the limit of my understanding. Rather than continually struggle, I simply submit and the uncontrollable is controlled. With that divine standard, the mundane inch-by-inch progress that is the hallmark of change in our world seems fruitless. Just as with the individual contexts that mark the importance of these events in our minds, the issue is not really about others, but ourselves. If I am convinced that true change only happens by supernatural intervention, lesser slogs through the social and political mud of the American landscape is too much work. But this is also how, viewed in the lens of history, any earthly change is made.

Thus, a couple things I can take from the events. First, our meaning-making has more to do with ourselves, though we engage in it against the foil of victims and perpetrators. Second, it is counterproductive to tout these events, whose meaning refuses to be contained, as reducible to trite slogans or policy changes. Yet we must engage in our communities. We must take action without providing solutions.

What can we as a society begin to control? We cannot force folks into mental health services before they have committed crimes. We cannot force (though we continue to try) a traditional version of the ideal nuclear family. We cannot systematically shut down all sources of misogynistic culture, nor those of fetishization or commodification. We cannot limit or control access to firear…wait a second. That might be a good start.

Access to firearms would not have prevented at least three of the deaths in last weekend’s tragedy as they occurred. Or perhaps they would have. In his written manifesto (that I confess I skimmed but did not read) Rodger reflects on the feeling of power, a feeling he had been longing for, that came from the acquisition of firearms. If he had been unable to obtain these weapons, would he have carried out his plan? Guns are guns and people are people, but the combination certainly seems to enhance the power of both, and it undoubtedly enhanced the confidence of Rodger to go forward with his plan.

Yet whether access to firearms would or would not have made the difference is not the really the point. The question is whether limiting access would be a step in the right direction. Quite possibly. Would it infringe on the rights of upstanding individuals to purchase, own, and discharge certain weapons? It certainly would, if such rights existed. Even if that were the case, though, we would want to ask how many victim’s lives would outweigh the pleasure of these upstanding individuals and the relative ease with which they can procure their weapons. Some would say that the loss of even one life outweighs the ability of many to own and use firearms. I don’t think that is the case. There is no easy answer. But I think we can have a smarter conversation about it than the one that currently dominates the political landscape.

I struggle to say something meaningful in the face of meaninglessness without resorting to trivial or banal statements. I have no prayers to give. My heart has hurt as I thought of the tragic events, but that means little. We balance what we can do, and what we should do. For my part, I will continue to seek authentic conversations about the factors that contributed to Rodger’s tragic actions, both to process and to help make changes for the better.

05/12/14

Ignorance is the Answer

Following the turnaround by Brandeis on honoring Ayaan Hirsi Ali, further incidents in the last few weeks have raised questions about the complex web connecting religion, identity, and violence. Two weeks ago, the interfaith advisory panel for a soon-to-open 9/11 museum in New York objected to an approximately seven minute film that they say draws strong parallels between the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks and other Muslims. In a telling statement, the sole imam on the panel who resigned in protest claimed that Muslims would be offended and “unsophisticated” patrons would be unable to make a distinction between the average Muslim and an Al-Quaeda terrorist. (There’s an insightful take on the fear of Islamophobia in connection to Ali’s case and the 9/11 museum here.)

I’ve tried to adopt a charitable position regarding the reservations of this interfaith panel. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are those who work to make strong connections between religion and violence, and there are also those who work to dissolve all such connections on a case-by-case basis. I think it fair to acknowledge that religion is not the sole cause of violence, nor are religion and violence exclusive spheres. So the goal in these situations is to accurately represent what the nature of the connection between religion and violence is (and not merely protect one’s own identity).

One of the issues at hand is how much to cater to the ignorance or “unsophisticat[ion]” of the average person. This is difficult to determine without begging the very question at hand. Certainly if it were the case that Islam inevitably led to physical violence and destruction, it would not be misleading to say as much. On the other hand, if it was the case that we could prove by any acceptable measure that religion did not or could not play a role in physical violence, it would be misleading to make such a connection. But I’ve just suggested that neither of these is actually the case, so it is no easy thing to determine how strongly to posit the connection. There is something ironic, however, about nuancing the connection of religion to violence out of fear of violence.

Perhaps, then, it is ignorance that is really at issue here. After all, proponents of a religious tradition that denounce those who commit violence in the name of their tradition usually argue that those “extremists” have misunderstood or misrepresented the “truth” of said tradition. I understand the desire for the peaceful threads within a religious tradition—or those relatively insulated from the effects of religious violence, as in much of the West—to denounce the violent threads as wrong or at best misguided. There are only two choices that I can see in adopting that paradigm, however. One would be to make an argument using the evidence of the tradition that said religion is truly aggressive or truly peaceful. These arguments have been raging for centuries, and while they matter greatly to those committed to the traditions, they are of little value to those outside the tradition because they appeal to a body of evidence that is substantiated in the first place by faith. History, textual, and cultural traditions all point to a spectrum of peace and violence within each religious tradition.

The other possibility for those who wish to denounce violence is to do so based on a value external to religious belief, such as that violence is wrong because it fails the test of reciprocity—you wouldn’t want it done to you—or that the prohibition of physical violence is the precondition of human social interaction. This defense, though, obviously calls into question the validity of the religious tradition as a source of fundamental value if it is necessary to incorporate values outside of religious tradition to regulate it.

I am quite obviously in the latter camp, arguing that the extremes of faith can only be limited from outside religious tradition. Consequently, I am fully willing to acknowledge, though it may be taboo to suggest, that ignorance, not unsubtantiated religious belief, is a greater point of leverage to make societal change. In other words, I’d be happy to argue that education—critical inquiry into how the world functions and the diversity of positions within it—would make a more substantial impact than directly attempting to disabuse folks of their religious belief. (It is quite clear that extremist groups also fully understand the threat that education poses to religious belief, as evidenced most recently by the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram.)

The question this raises for me is whether the more peaceful and less coercive groups within religious tradition are so because education provided them with a more accurate or truer interpretation of their own religious beliefs, or if education allows folks to “outsource” the evidential weight that religion is required to bear to make sense of the world. If the former is true, there is a long road ahead to determine just what historical contingencies account for the depth of past mistakes, and what sort of opaque supernatural plan is at work, having forced humanity to crawl around in the dark and destroy each other in ignorance for most of human existence. Further, how is it possible to find a way forward, to “prove” the correct interpretation of religious belief so that we can limit antisocial and violent acts as effectively as possible?

If the latter is true, if education or knowledge allows one to unknowingly shift the existential burden from resting solely or ultimately on religious tradition to being shared among social, biological, psychological, political, and economic factors, then we—those who are comparatively privileged in the aforementioned areas—should take a thorough assessment of the weight each of these factors bear.

I’ve written before about how, when I was a Christian, my church caught onto a sort of epistemological breakthrough. Evangelical trends from the places where Christianity was and is spreading (in the South) suggested that one could be more effective in spreading the Gospel if, rather than coming right out and telling people they need Jesus, we attempted to meet people’s “felt needs.” Coercion is a played-out model in a free society, and just being really nice wasn’t getting the job done, but if a subject says that what they really need is a meal, or their roof fixed, or a place to meet friends, and the evangelist addresses that problem, the subject is more receptive to supernatural claims. Rather than consider that what people actually need is some help with their very practical problems, we concluded that their practical problems were barriers that we had to get out of the way so that we could give them what they really needed: Jesus.

We told them the reason we helped is that we had Jesus’ love in our hearts. Don’t you want to be part of a group that has it all figured out? If I had been forced to assess my own situation when I was a young Christian, I would have thought, “Well, yes I’ve never really wanted for any of the basics in life such as food, clothing, water, shelter, safety, etc. Yes I’ve always had a good support network. Yes I’ve always been economically well-off, comparatively. Yes, I’ve received a full twelve years of primary and secondary education and had ample opportunity to receive higher education. Yes I’m culturally privileged from the perspectives of race, sex, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, and body image, among others. But the reason I am who I am is because I’m a Christian.” Is that enlightenment or is that ignorance?

I can look back now and say at least that the relative security I had in all of those areas allowed me the freedom to distribute the existential weight of those factors as I saw fit with very little consequence, with little chance of my thinking being challenged. Then I looked at those with few or none of those privileges and, completely devoid of context, prescribed the same logic. It is indeed true that religion can be peaceful, can be motivational, can be life-changing. But it is intellectually dishonest to assign the existential weight to a category that cannot be tested, but must be accepted on faith. And because it cannot be verified in the world, it is systemically, symbolically, and even often physically violent, to impose its order. Thus, I am perfectly willing to agree that ignorance is the real culprit in religious violence, but this does not bode well for those maintain the purity of religion from all acts of violence.