04/28/15

Privilege, Oppression, but above all, Nonviolence

I had an interesting conversation with my students today about social systems of privilege and oppression in the context of the Baltimore riots that are taking place right now. (For other articles about the riots, see here and here). We’re at the end of a class on ethics, social systems, and civics, and the current events are an opportunity to apply the concepts we have been discussing all semester.

What I learned from today’s conversation is that we can be educated about privilege and oppression and still not apply it to real situations because when assessing current events, we default to the mantras of the very social systems that need critique. It’s worse than denying that social structures exist, because in this case one admits their existence, but never grounds them in any actual occurrence. Sure, racism is a part of our social structure, the thinking goes, but Trayvon Martin? Michael Brown? Eric Garner? or Freddie Gray? These were all about something else, anything else than social structures that consistently support our devaluation of their lives.

I learned that we value property, and we value nonviolence. For some reason, when property is destroyed, all bets are off. The line of thinking goes something like this. “Yeah, it’s a terrible thing that a guy died from his treatment in police custody, but you can’t destroy your own city! That affects other people!” There is a conditioning that goes on when we see physical structures destroyed that we associate with the height of anarchy. (Except in movies—then we love to see stuff blow up.) For some reason when people are destroyed in the same way, it doesn’t affect us similarly. So some peoples’ stuff is more important than some peoples’ lives. We ought to be honest about this.

Even more interesting is the idea of nonviolence. It came up multiple times in our class conversation that violence ultimately doesn’t solve anything. Don’t these looters know they are sabotaging themselves by becoming violent? Why don’t they look at MLK or Gandhi and imitate their approaches? Set aside the fact that a casual watcher of Selma can see that successful actions were so because they provoked violent retaliation. We’re not really talking about an ethical ban on violence anyway. We’re talking about violence when it applies to the average citizen. Police violence, the violence of the state? These are not critiqued in the same way. If I ask my students, “Do you think it is right that a young man dies in police custody, likely because of his rough treatment at the hands of police?”, they would say, “No, but…”

It’s not simply no, it’s “No, but.” And it’s with that qualifier I realize that all abstract talk about systems of privilege and oppression is of little value unless you can apply it to events that are taking place. “It’s terrible that a guy died, but we can’t tolerate riots!” It would be a huge step forward if we could just turn the sentence around. “It’s terrible that this violence and rioting took place, but we can’t tolerate police brutality!” Why can’t we have that conversation instead of the one we are having?

People express incredulity at the fact that rioters are using violence. “Don’t they know that it undercuts their aims?” But why? Why is it that violence expressed by the average citizen, is automatically thought to be counterproductive when state violence, whether military violence abroad or police violence at home, is automatically assumed to be at worst necessary, and at best productive? This presumption colors the way we respond to these incidents, and is exactly the reason that some act out in violence in the first place.

“Don’t people know that they’re actually delaying justice for the victim by distracting people from solving the case?” What if violence, instead of being an ignorant explosion, was conceived as a response to justice delayed? A belief that the current police and justice system will prevail on the side of right requires a certain amount of trust in the system. Of course I trust the system. It has in general done right by me. But what if the system betrayed my trust on a regular basis by treating me or those in my community unfairly? Would I be wise to continue to trust in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Or would I insane? Of course I gamble on the justice of the system, because historically my bets have paid off. But at some point it would become stupid to do so if it was never in my interest.

It takes significant faith to continue to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary, and this is often why religion is a tool of the oppressor against the oppressed. But how can we blame lack of education when people respond with violence? Education shows that nonviolence, when met with violence, can win sympathy to a cause. It also shows that violence is the foundation for every significant civilization in history, and it is the most brazen of hypocrisies to denounce it as if we don’t think it’s a viable tool to upset the status quo.

You could read this as an apology for violence, which it’s not intended to be. But you can’t hide behind education if you immediately condemn violence without being to recognize legitimate, long-endured oppression. Education doesn’t teach you to abhor violence. It teaches you to be able read the situations around you without resorting to a black and white binary to define your world.

10/6/14

Religion and the Mafia? Open questions about a (seemingly) fruitless argument

For a few days I resisted commenting about the latest round of statements from Bill Maher and Sam Harris and responses from Reza Aslan—and more recently Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof on Real Time—over the subject of Islam. [Maher also did a debrief here.] Part of me thinks that any response to the debate may actually deepen the problem it is purportedly trying to solve.

There are two points, however, that I think are important to note.

The first is that we should be attuned to the rhetoric involved. Rhetoric does not mean untruth. It is involved to an extent in most of our speech and particularly when we are trying to sway others. We want to consider the rhetoric—what facts are chosen and what facts are left unsaid, what arguments are used—in conjunction with the content of the argument. None presents a complete version of the issue. This is not a requirement, but it should be clearly understood.

  • Maher—who is both a comedian and an atheist—argues that the religion Islam, more than Christianity, is responsible for widespread violence and laws that violate the core principles of Western liberalism.
  • Aslan—a scholar currently doing a good job positioning himself as an authority on religion—responds that Maher makes such statements because he’s ignorant about the complexity of religion…and the violence Maher speaks of is not a religious problem, but a political/social/cultural/geographical problem.
  • Affleck—an actor promoting a movie who also (probably) donates to charitable causes throughout the world—says Maher’s statements are racist. Some people are good, some people are bad, and we should condemn the bad and not lump the good in with them.
  • Kristof—a reporter and activist who has emphasized the strong links between the oppression of women and religion—says Islam plays a significant role in justifying oppression, but there are also many Muslims doing great things in the world, even fighting against extremism within their own traditions.

Despite what Aslan (and other scholars) contends, I don’t think one needs significant or specialized knowledge to speak to this issue. In other words, one doesn’t need to be a scholar of religion to say something here. I think all of the people involved meet the requirement of engaged citizens.

The second and more important point is really a question. What is the desired result?

What do Maher and Harris think would be the best possible outcome regarding Islam (and then probably religion in general)? It isn’t to coerce—compel by force—people to give up religion. Maher says as much, and it would violate the core principles of a liberal, just society he says he values. What Maher and Harris are implying is that no individual, group, institution, or country should be able to commit violence or justify oppression through religion. Argue, debate, and try to convince—but don’t coerce.

If their goal is as I describe it above, the rhetorical approach Maher uses is less than ideal. He makes a comparative claim that Islam is worse than other traditions in terms of its oppression of women. He bases his argument on certain facts, and Aslan and others respond with different facts. I see little productive value in the debate on this level, even if it were true, because neither side knows whether more people are free or oppressed under Islam. More importantly, neither side really thinks that is the point. If one side or the other could successfully prove that one more person is oppressed by Islam than free, or vice versa, would that end the debate over the benefit and harm of religion? Doubtful. It’s more than that.

Maher’s approach is not wholly ineffective, because it certainly promotes conversation, and Maher seems to want to shock people into awareness of his argument. But it (obviously) alienates quite a few people, and arguably the very people who could exert the most influence for change.

With that said, shouldn’t a reasonable person agree with the principle that religion should coerce no one? If there are those who disagree with this idea—or simply prefer to ignore it because they are not being coerced—shouldn’t that, as much as to what extent Maher’s and Harris’s claims are true or false, be a topic of discussion? I think people should be just as angry at Christianity because states like Idaho have laws that protect prayer as an alternative to medical treatment and as a result allows parents to let their children die from Type 1 Diabetes and food poisoning. Maher contends we shouldn’t because it doesn’t affect as many people. The point, however, is the same. At what level of harm should we shift our focus from isolated individuals to traditions? Do we not ignore the issue by arguing over “correct” interpretations of religious doctrine and texts?

It seems that one underlying fear of those who react negatively to Maher’s claims is a fear of the ignorance of the populace. This is a legitimate fear, which recognizes many people are unable or unwilling to think critically and will use the condemnation of a tradition’s dogma as a legitimation for their own fearful violence and bigotry. This should be recognized and dealt with, but ignorance cannot serve as an excuse for silence.

But what if we come at the question from the other side? What of the objections of Aslan, Affleck, and others?

I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that most people who identify with a religious tradition are “good” people by (non-religious) societal standards. That observation is at the core of most objections to criticisms of religion.

Does the fact that religious people can be good negate the argument against oppression and bigotry in religious traditions? Does the good outweigh the bad, and are we measuring again by sheer numbers? If so, this would also be a more productive point around which to center the debate, because it would indicate that the presence of people who are ‘good’ by broad social standards protects religion from social critique. In one popular version of this argument put forth by the Dalai Lama, Karen Armstrong, and other, religion itself becomes “that which promotes good.”

If though, as reasonable people would agree, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, et al. have been the impetus for at least some oppression and bigotry throughout history and in the present, what then? Is it possible for us to sincerely investigate the extent of that role? Is it an all-or-nothing proposition?

But the biggest question, I think, is the relationship between religion and other forms of privilege. If other cultural elements of privilege and oppression are inextricably intertwined with questions of religion, particularly when religion manifests in its most extreme forms, what does that mean? Harris claims that the element of religion is a more primary motivation for oppression than economic or political factors, but his claim is debatable, particularly because religion always manifests strongly in times of crisis. Alternately, other scholars have claimed that religion is a tool (inappropriately) used to express cultural frustration. If religion manifests violently when it is accompanied by cultural deprivation, how does it manifest in areas of relative cultural privilege? What is cultural influence of a religious tradition if it is correlated with violence among oppressed peoples and “peace” among privileged peoples?

If we are to make a serious claim that other factors aside from religion are primarily responsible for religious violencewe have to to consider the possibility that other factors aside from religion are primarily responsible for religious peace, do we not? What if this is true?

Rather than draw any immediate conclusions, I’d like to leave these questions open. I welcome any thoughts.

07/24/14

They’re Right. The Debate Really is About Religion.

About 30 miles from where I live, I drove past a sign informing me there’s a Hobby Lobby coming to my neighborhood soon. And just when I was getting ready to put it in the back of my mind, now that the initial fury has died down. I can do that, of course, because it doesn’t directly affect me. (You can’t always tell that someone is directly affected by a case just because they have strong views on it, but a sure fire way to tell someone has no interest is the comment, “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.”) So I’ve been thinking more about the question of religious influence this week.

I’ve also been reading a book called How Good People Make Tough Choices for potential use in the classroom. In one section the author, Rushworth Kidder, uses the public debate over abortion to make the case that each side is closer to the other than it thinks. He contends that the debate here, as in many other cases, is not really over values but over definitions, particularly over the question of when life begins. He asks us to imagine a debate between articulate and thoughtful folks on either extreme of the debate. Certainly they both value life. Neither side supports murder, both value the concept of freedom of choice, both value children, and neither side thinks disposing of unwanted children is an acceptable societal practice. Both also value women and their choice, at least as a matter of principle. Both think that law should be followed and unjust laws should be changed. Most on both sides, he thinks, probably even agree that religion does and should play a role.

As mentioned, this all points to the idea that this debate is not really over values. Life for one side begins at conception, which is fixed at some (early) indeterminate point, and for the other at gestation, which is also fixed at a (later) indeterminate point. The debate is also unlikely to be decide on those grounds because of the indeterminacy of the evidence, just as with our difficulty of deciding exactly when someone is dead.

He almost won me over. But then he continues, “if the pro-life side were suddenly convinced that life had not yet begun by this or that week, they would have no more difficulty allowing the woman an abortion at that time than they would in letting her decide to clip her nails, since they feel strongly about individual choice” (98). Kidder is absolutely right about the notion that there is much more common ground among all parties than is typically granted in the media.  And he is also right that if we grant pro-life advocates were truly convinced—hypothetically, since he’s not advocating one side or the other—then they would have no issue with terminating pregnancy at that stage. The likelihood against that happening, however, is astonishingly high.

The issue that Hobby Lobby is the latest iteration of is not really about abortion, or women’s rights, but religion. I have to agree with advocates of “religious freedom” on this point, and the debate would certainly be more focused if all parties focused on religion as the beginning and end of the debate. Maybe initially it was about the actual content of the debate, but that has long since ceased to be the case.

Here’s where this begins to apply to Hobby Lobby. It is increasingly clear that many of the drugs the owners of Hobby Lobby disagree with do not actually cause abortions, and thereby do not terminate life, but that has not, as of yet, changed many minds on the side of the defense. (Lest one thinks the weight of the evidence only needs to settle in a little more, one only needs to think of human impact on the global climate, or evolution, about which there is overwhelming evidence, and yet disagreement falling uncoincidentally along similar lines.) Evidence is not a clear determinant of the case.

Let us just say however, that sufficient and justifiable ambiguity remains for the owners of Hobby Lobby not to change their minds yet. And let us say that we want to protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion as well as their sex, race, class, body type, gender, ability, etc. And let us say that we want to allow as much latitude as possible to exercise freedom within those identity categories or others. These are all good things. How do we maneuver through this ethically?

The concept of discrimination may provide a way forward. What makes discrimination problematic, what makes it something that we societally seek protection from, is that it is action based upon an irrational judgment (prejudice); in other words, a judgement that is irrelevant to the case at hand. When this discrimination is sustained, it becomes institutionalized as oppression, and that oppression is masked as cultural norms, nature, “the way of things,” and as such hides its arbitrary heart. But we have gradually seen through (although certainly not eliminated) such legitimacy in the past and begun to expose it for the façade it is.

So if you want, don’t call it discrimination. Call it irrational judgment. Either way, it results in an ethical failure. For this reason we should not limit the access to guns on the basis of race. We also should not limit the access to cultural and artistic enrichment on the basis of socio-economic class. We should not limit the access to land to build a church (or a mosque) on the basis of religion. And we also should not limit access to contraceptives or birth control on the basis of sex. All of these forms of discrimination have to an extent been institutionalized based upon arbitrary beliefs, and their insidiousness lies in their power to coerce the implausible scenario they portray into existence.

What Kidder fails to recognize, then, is the uniqueness of religion in its ability not just to supplement, but to replace ethics. Earlier he notes, “Worship and faith, combined with charity and mercy, are powerful contributors to the health and well-being of our communities.” This has indeed been true, but the opposite is also true, that religion is a powerful contributor to the sickness and destruction of well-being of communties. If and when this is combined with the notion that there are millions of folks that somehow have similar human values irrespective of religion, one is more inclined to think that ethics and religion are not the same, and that there are broader, more inclusive, bases upon which to judge and protect the individuals in our communities. Although we protect religious freedom, although we understand the depth of its historical tradition and its far-reaching influence in America, we cannot allow religion—again, in an irrational relation to the facts at hand—to be used as a means to circumscribe the rights of certain individuals, against their will, when we have established them as rights of citizenship.

To be clear, the point is not to reverse some dangerous trend toward increasing religious discrimination in America, at least in the long view. Discrimination based on religious (Protestant Christian) belief has always been a part of the American heritage. Neither is the point to eliminate religion of any sort from society as a whole, at least by force. That too would be immoral. The point is to continue progressing toward limiting religious privilege in the public sphere. One way to do that is to make clear the distinction between religion and moral/ethical value.

There can be broad overlaps between ethics and religion, but they are not synonymous. In response to Socrates’ question to Euthyphro, “It is loved by the gods because it is pious,” and not the other way around. Where that leaves ethics and how ethics can be valuable if not rooted in the supernatural is a question that keeps many holding to a causal connection between the two, usually because it is how they were first encountered. That there is no necessary connection between religion and ethics is important because it removes the justification of a distinctive religious identity to trump or receive preferential treatment, or exceptions, over any other social identity in the public sphere.

The wild card in this scenario is Christians who disagree with the position of Hobby Lobby’s ownership. These Christians are key stakeholders in the drive to separate “good” religion from “conservative” religion in order to protect their beliefs. Insofar as religion and state remain separate, this position may be defensible. When the line becomes blurred, though, the attempt to dismiss the issue as a case of bad religion or about something else besides religion obscures bigger problems, including the attempt to conflate ethics and religion and the irrational basis of judgment, at least in this case. What is one to do, who both identifies as Christian and believes that corporations should not be able to limit the access of their employees to contraception and birth control on religious grounds? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I’m convinced that it is these folks who will increasingly be crucial in debates over religion in America and globally.

08/14/13

Elysium: Everybody Loves a Good Death

Don’t worry. I won’t spoil it (all), although you already know the story. I actually enjoyed the movie, even if the preview made the plot look more nuanced than it actually was. You could make a number of criticisms that are not unique to Elysium. They are the hallmark of any action movie. Any action movie that takes on something larger than mano-a-mano combat still has to has that combat to bring about the ultimate resolution. Zizek said as much of The Fugitive years ago, the same was true of The InternationalElysium_Poster (which I watched mostly because of the Istanbul shots over the grand bazaar, but now everyone does that), and it is true of Elysium. Apparently, structural and societal changes are made when people get together and punch each other in the face.

Hey, I watch them frequently, so there’s obviously something appealing to me—and many others—about these scenarios, but I’m probably fooling myself if I think the movie is a deft critique of the growing discrepancy between rich and poor. Certainly it aims to be, but the scenario in which the critique is portrayed allows us to think that social and economic polarization is only due to a handful of clearly insane power-hungry monsters rather than embedded in the Joe Shmoes of society like you and I.

Okay, so this part is a bit of a spoiler. The president of Elysium represents the kind of “let die” response to those living on Earth. We won’t do anything to help them, but we won’t do anything to harm them either, and then we don’t have to feel bad about others’ lack in the midst of our safety and security. That would be a realistic—and certainly more common—representation of how most of us deal with the world. But then comes along the Defense Secretary of Elysium, the tyrant who is delusional with dreams of controlling everything, and we think that it’s evil people that corrupt an otherwise decent system. Yet every person on Elysium knows of the millions who don’t have access to the same level of care and live in relative squalor, eking out an existence.

Oppression isn’t just tyranny. As Iris Young notes in “Five Faces of Oppression,” it “refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions…the normal processes of everyday life.” It’s not as if we’re talking about a warning for “our” future. For many or most, this is right now.

And like all dramatic tales, how does Elysium make us care in a way that life does not? Through the portrayal of death. But not just any death, and not anonymous death, and not mass death. Singular, important death. As is common in action movies, many who the protagonist considers friends will die. We see his pain, but we think, at least he is still alive. And of course many countless others must die in the terrible conditions we see portrayed, but their deaths are left unnamed and implied. We are made to care about the deaths of the very good, and the very bad, those for whom we are given a narrative, a story.

But it’s not just that we’re made to care about certain deaths. It’s that the death allows us to render a final judgement, to see the final tally and make a decision, since there will be no further evidence. In the case of the protagonist, we can usually decide that it was worth it for him or her to die. We make a martyr for a larger cause. With the adversaries, we grant that they got what they deserved. These deaths have meaning. What of the others, the countless extras and nobodies who perish along the way? They were at best plot vehicles, with no significant meaning of their own. Considering the question of their deaths opens up a question of meaning, and when we cannot encode labels such as hero, villain, or martyr, we must ignore the death, for it cannot but mean.

My takeaways (in no particular order):

  • Death is way more important to us than we like to let on. Plots and narratives are advanced in relation to death, and death is the given against which we make meaning.
  • Certain deaths “count,” and others do not, and our valorization of those who we give the ability to die “well” allows us to ignore the rest who are not afforded the opportunity.
  • Jodie Foster’s accent is…not good.

I am probably thinking of this in ethical terms since I am preparing to teach a course on ethics for undergraduates. My background in ethics was relatively poor until fairly recently, as is the ethical background of many who are given the answers early on. After all, why continue to look for other ways to frame the question when you already have the answers? I guess the question I am mulling over is what criteria we do, and should, use when determining the value of a life. The perhaps well-intentioned human rights approach, based on life’s inherent dignity or human self-consciousness, seems no more tractable than religious approaches. Although we think we do, I’m not sure we really want to solve the problem that Elysium fictionalizes in the first place.