There’s an old joke, which holds that in heaven, the cooks are French, the cops are English, and the engineers are German; whereas in hell, the cooks are English, the cops are German, and the engineers are French. We live in a sort of silly cultural hell where the columns are composed by Thomas Friedman, the novels are written by Jonathan Franzen, the debate is framed by CNN, and the fact-checking is done by no one.
Jake Halpern is the author of the Darren Wilson profile appearing in this week’s New Yorker. The profile is garnering a lot of attention. However, at this moment, I’m more interested in Halpern’s “All Things Considered” interview, which I listened to on my drive home on Monday.
CORNISH: In the end, how did this change your understanding of Darren Wilson?
HALPERN: I think that meeting someone in person, whoever they are, meeting their family, seeing their child – you inevitably see them in a more human way. That’s true. And yet, reading the police reports, even to some of his own police reports, I also felt like he is a human, but he was part of a system that was really doing some bad things.
I think I saw the contradictions of it, the really egregious things that that police department did and some of the checks that this guy did – the pedestrian checks and whatnot – that were super questionable and where there were real suffering as a result of it, and yet simultaneously see this guy as a three-dimensional human being. And it was complicated. It made it difficult to kind of come up with easy answers and, you know, swift, knee-jerk conclusions.
You probably know by now that I consider myself to be a Nerdfighter, so you may also know that Nerdfighters hold the maxim to imagine others complexly in ultra-high regard. It’s the Golden Rule of Nerdfighteria. You might think, then, that I’d be psyched about Halpern’s flat-footed attempt at nuance — his obvious belief that Darren Wilson is more than the worst thing Wilson’s ever done.
Except…we aren’t really hearing a complex imagining of Wilson here, because Halpern seems unable to imagine a human being who is fully human and fully racist. Even though we are complex enough creatures to be both of those things at once.
In trying to resolve a contradiction which does not exist, Halpern sets up systemic issues — racism, in particular, but a whole mess of accompanying factors as well — as somehow outside of human identity. This is obviously nonsense; nothing humans do is truly outside of human identity. Yet in Halpern’s estimation, you can see Wilson as a cog in the machine OR as “a three-dimensional human being.” To see Wilson both ways at once is to invite cognitive dissonance and a nascent migraine, simply because one construct precludes the other.
These constructs are no good, so let’s chuck ’em.
Our biases, both good and bad, are a part of our complex humanity. This fact does not excuse harm that comes from bias; it accounts for it. Darren Wilson was able to murder Michael Brown because the murder of people of color by white men is one of America’s original sins. We haven’t truly acknowledged this sin, and we’ll be unable to escape it until we do. Until then, this dynamic, in the fullness of its history and its nihilism, comprises an unseen part of the American identity. We can and should attempt to root it out from the depths of our soul.
The intellectual dishonesty required to situate America’s original sins outside of our social identities is vast and disturbing.
Nota bene: “Social change” and “social justice” mean many different things to different people, and my notions of “justice” are heavily influenced by my social location as well as by my perception that justice in America is often no more than a brand name for things which are incredibly unjust. My goal in this post is not to offer some kind of authoritative definition of either “social change” or “social justice,” nor to challenge people who are dedicated to the idea of “social justice,” but to describe some ways in which “social justice” is not a simple term with which good people should reflexively agree.
Now, to the post!
“Justice” — retributive, distributive, restorative or transformative — is an ideal. It involves the address of past wrongs.
It is righteous; it is critical; it is evasive; it is unreal; and it is insufficient.
Justice happens by degree, and it can happen to a seemingly-sufficient degree without ever really challenging the status quo. Even restorative justice can take place as a way of protecting the powers-that-be. Think about it: Someone can be “restored” in the view of society, though reparations (either paid by the one being restored or paid to the person, their family, or their descendants) or through rehabilitation, and still nothing will have altered whatever caused the original injustice.
We say “social justice” to distinguish it from “criminal justice,” but in both instances, justice asks, “What wrongs do we have to right?”
On the other hand, my social change asks, “What do we have to destroy so we can role the dice on building something better?”
Let’s look to a current case: Sandra Bland. For those of you who haven’t been following the news out of Texas, Sandra Bland was a black woman detained after a traffic stop who later turned up dead in her jail cell. The official story of her “suicide” is almost comically inconsistent.
Sandra Bland deserves justice; there is no question in my mind about that. And if that justice was vast and encompassing enough to prevent all future deaths in police custody, that would be pretty good. I couldn’t be critical of that kind of justice.
But justice as I know it, as I’ve seen it practiced, is incapable of such a project. Once you get too far from where you began, conventional ideas of “justice” begin to think that one thing has nothing to do with the other. Social justice that starts to seem inconsistent to the uneducated lay person is going to be stymied by accusations of injustice (when you ask the powers-that-be for too much, too quickly, you get silenced with accusations of injustice). Our concept of “justice” is just too. damn. small.
What I believe we should do is gather wisdom (and determination) from tragedies, such as the death of Sandra Bland, and use that wisdom to critically examine everything, everything, everything.
Test everything, everything, everything. Then try to change whatever fails the test, even if it doesn’t fit neatly into the box of a past wrong we need to set right.
And as long as you are doing that, you can call it whatever you’d like.
Fact: There is not enough love in this world.
Which leads me to understand why people grasp on to religion, even if religion fails to live up to its loving reputation more often than not.
One of my seminary professors was a native Spanish-speaker who wanted us to understand that the Bible says different things in different languages. He told us that, in English, it is perfectly acceptable to love cheese, love your children, love your spouse, and love your god. In Spanish, it would be absurd to use the same word to describe these four things. But there is one duplicate in the set of four; the intimate, life-changing, self-altering love you feel for your spouse is the same word you’d use for what you feel for your god. He told us that he felt this same love for Jesus, and I believe him. I believe him because I recognized the emotion. I know, from the inside, what intimate, life-changing, self-altering love looks like. It’s hard to fake.
And I understand why you’d want to love Jesus so, so much. Unless you are very lucky, there is no one else who would die for you. There are days when the world is unbearably lonely to live in. Maybe you’re trapped on the freeway, boxed into your little metal container and surrounded by hundreds of strangers who you can’t communicate with because they are also boxed into little metal containers, and the alienation you suddenly feel — the fear that, omg, this is life — needs to be kept at bay by any means at all, even by a tacky “Honk if you ❤ Jesus” bumper sticker.
We (non)believers do believers a disservice when we assume that “Honk if you ❤ Jesus” can’t indicate an intimate, life-changing, self-altering love. We (non)believers do ourselves a disservice when we assume that such love is so easily found that we can cavalierly tell believers that they don’t need to go to Jesus for it. Where are (non)believers finding love? Do you immediately know? And do you have any ideas how to offer atheistic reassurance to your fellow human beings in the middle of a traffic jam? Personally, while I enjoy a nice Darwin fish, I don’t find it to be existentially calming.
Mark 4:39 is existentially calming, even if I don’t believe that the very elements obeyed a man named Jesus from Nazareth when those words were spoken.
(Non)belief means not offering a pat answer. It means finding ways to enhance human life that are more reliable than fairy tales. Building community, developing personal relationships, offering assistance to people you don’t know, helping people who don’t deserve your help are tangible ways to increase the amount of love in the world. Resisting violence and systems of domination are acts of love. #BlackLivesMatter is love.
Love has to be demonstrated to be felt.
I want to live in a world where there is more love. Don’t you?
During spring quarter, which happened to also be the final quarter of my program, I took a class called Sects, Cults, and New Religious Movements. As with most of the classes in my Methodist seminary, we didn’t really spend much time on the non-Christian point of view, even though a pretty sizable percentage of cults and new religious movements are non-Christian. Instead — as was typical for at least 80% of the courses I took in graduate school — we spent time talking about how uncomfortable the Christian students are made to feel by non-mainstream Christian beliefs, non-Christian beliefs, and (non)believers themselves. There was a lot of…how should I put this? Well-meaning liberal Christians feeling the crap out of their feelings. (The one evangelical Christian in the class was my buddy, but that’s a different post about how sometimes an honest enemy is the best friend you can have.)
I’ll be honest, it was boring. Until it was infuriating.
One day, a student got up on his little soapbox to talk about his time interning as a hospital chaplain. Both the internship and the soapbox are extremely common experiences in seminary; it wasn’t at all surprising that this man — let’s call him Gus — had worked in a clinical setting and wanted to preach about it. It was a little bit unusual for Gus to discuss working with psychiatric patients, though. Seminarians share the biases of the wider culture, and in general, we’re all terrified of talking about mental illnesses.
Gus, as it happens, had a different point of view. He had been counseling a patient who was being treated for, in his words, demon possession. It was her third hospitalization and medical science was obviously not helping because it was not treating the underlying spiritual cause. According to Gus, this patient believed (and he agreed) that there was no point in continuing hospitalization when the needed treatment involved getting right with God. Brimming with righteous anger, Gus told the class that the doctors ignored him or laughed at him when he brought the need for an exorcism to their attention.
In the discussion which ensued, I learned that perhaps only 25% of our classmates believed in demons; probably fewer believe in actual possession. But it turns out that they all fervently believed in spiritually-integrated care that addressed the possibility, however remote it was seen to be, of demonic possession. Mainline Christian conclusion: Doctors have no business telling a patient with psychosis that the symptom can be treated with biomedical interventions if the patient would rather go to a priest or a faith-healer.
My contribution to this discussion was sadly limited by my classmates’ general disagreement with the facts I tried to offer, such as the correct medical definition of psychosis or the fact that types of religious preoccupation can very often be manifestations of an underlying disorder (which is not to say that having religion is a mental illness; it isn’t, and atheists need to stop saying it is). My experiences as a mental health advocate were voted down in the low democracy of the graduate classroom.
Looking back, I regret not taking a more aggressive stance. My diplomacy got us exactly nowhere. I should have said: Demons are fiction. Your mental illness is no more caused by demons than it is caused by a tiny troll living in your stomach.
I don’t have a romanticized view of medical science, and I certainly have no illusions about involuntary hospitalization, which is the least effective way to combat a mental illness. Involuntary treatment is and should be the treatment of last resort, and only should be used in cases where there is obvious risk to the self or to others. The fact that patients with mental health conditions are trapped in the jaws of a medicolegal system wherein psychiatric advance directives — one of the few ways to anticipate how one will be treated in the case of involuntary hospitalization — are abrogated at the whim of the clinician is nothing short of a crisis. Defensive medicine is not helping anybody, and neither is the 17 year lag it takes for new research in mental health to make its way into medical practice. In short, we’re talking about a very serious, very complicated problem.
But…let’s talk about adding demons to this mix. We’ve spent the last 300 years trying to get demons out of medicine. Evidently we haven’t had much success with the church-going rank-and-file, but, thank the God I don’t believe in, we’ve had better luck with the doctors. We know we’ve had better luck with the doctors because, as just one example, an anticonvulsant is the first treatment for epilepsy (or, if you live in a civilized place, you can try MMJ), and skull trephination to let the demon out is not.
To say that we — as graduate students, as doctors, as religious leaders, or whoever — should treat mental illness as though it is spiritually different from other bodily maladies is, to say the least, infantilizing. To say the most, it is criminally irresponsible and will lead to unnecessary human suffering. In extreme cases, you will continue to see children killed by their parents by either neglect or by smothering/stabbing/beating to eradicate the “demon.” Those of us who know that demons aren’t real have no business tolerating this belief, damn that it’s “sincerely held.”
Because I realize that demons aren’t real isn’t the argument that will carry the day with mainline Christians, let me make the Christian argument as well: Jesus of Nazareth came so that you may have abundant life. People who are suffering are not living abundantly. People who claim that their suffering is in the service of Jesus are misinterpreting the Gospels they hold so dear.
Changing the world from an atheist perspective encompasses a ton of different issues. Gamer culture, philosophies of science, principles of good dog ownership…these are all atheist social change (ASC) issues. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when I say that the surveillance state is an ASC issue. This is not mission drift. Our mission should be to make the world safe for (non)believers.
In a world where (non)believers can be imprisoned for blasphemy or executed for apostasy, we can’t take an easygoing approach to social control. Without a certain amount of security — the kind of human security where private conversations are kept private and where speech doesn’t carry a death sentence — we can’t be (non)believers. We can’t be in community and we can’t be intellectually rigorous. In America, we might lose our jobs or our homes. In other countries, we might lose our lives.
Edward Snowden has been living in exile for two years because his belief in liberation technology over the power of the modern nation-state compelled him to take radical, heroic, self-sacrificing action. Two years in exile would be an enormous price for any of us to pay, and Snowden isn’t done paying. His anniversary in Moscow is presently causing the nastier corners of the Internet to rage over the US government’s inability to serve up his head on a platter — and by nastier, I don’t mean “out of the mainstream” or “insignificant.”
My (non)believer friends and colleagues, you don’t have to agree with what Snowden has done. You are permitted your
squeamishness moral discomfort about whistle-blowing and breaking the laws of Empire. But you need to have Snowden’s back, because he has yours. You, of all people, will not be free in a Panopticon.
I had a rather amazing experience this past Wednesday, as I was given the opportunity to “preach” (what is it that atheists do instead of preach?) — and not just preach, but in fact organize an entire hour — at my school’s weekly chapel. Three administrators, including the president of the school, attended.
Good nerdfighter that I am, I spoke on imagining atheism complexly. Why promote one passion when you can promote two, three, or four? I’d like to write something on complexly-imagined-atheism (complex atheism, for short!) in the near future.
I ended with this video:
And remember, Gotham never gets better for long.
(Don’t know what I’m talking about? Watch the video.)