Modernity and Despair: What Should We Hope For?

I’m giving a short talk in Boston today, at the conference Frontiers of Democracy. Here are some of the points I’m hoping to mention:

The modern world produces a certain kind of despair and helplessness because the primary sources of hope are technological development and the institutional efforts of technocrats. The best hope of progress is always elsewhere: the Supreme Court, Silicon Valley, the Justice Department. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been waiting with quite a bit of excitement to see whether one man–Justice Kennedy–will decide to legalize same sex marriage. Looking around, we see lots of progress but no role for ourselves in achieving them. I care a lot about same sex marriage, but I can’t point to a single thing I’ve done to bring it about: it has seemed inevitable for most of my life, even when Democratic politicians passed laws outlawing it and campaigned against it.

This is because of modernity’s structuralist bias: problems are most easily parse-able as the result of systematic factors, and thus only large-scale statist solutions seem adequate to respond to them. In this sense we live in the world imagined by Max Weber: progress is achieved by professionals, through the slow boring of hard boards. Bureaucratic solutions are the norm, and even social movements must have their solutions instantiated in bureaucratic institutions to truly count themselves successful. It’s not enough to march or protest: your marches and protests have to lead to new policies, new laws, or new spending. Politics seems like it is reducible to a fight to steer the large organizations that make up our world.

We seem to understand people in aggregate but not individually. The emphasis is on “seem” because these aggregates are often vague, self-fulfilling, or ignore vital ceteris paribus problems. Vox recently suggested that there are 16 plausible explanations for the plummeting crime rate, all but a few of which are not only outside of my power to effect, but most of which are even outside of the power of the police department to effect.

There are similar stories to tell about the difficulty in identifying the causes of economic growth and the levers of macroeconomic success and stability. Yet at the same time pollsters can seemingly predict elections with frightening accuracy on the basis of comparatively small samples, and the Federal Reserve can seemingly nudge growth and inflation. Most of the explanations I know, as a scholar, are systematic explanations. Systems and generalizable knowledge go hand-in-hand: experts produce this knowledge and thereby prove their worth. Scientific progress becomes the model of social and political progress.

Civic renewal proposes a radically different view of progress.  On the civic view, developments that exclude us–that render us passive in our own well-being–are not progressive ones. “We” must work together to achieve our hoped for goals, or else, first, they won’t be progressive, and, second, they won’t be sustainable. Policies that are made without engaging citizens threaten to be corrupted by those exclusions either in the first instance or over time as citizens assume that the matter is settled and begin to ignore it. “Nothing for us without us” becomes a democratic slogan, with the understanding that we don’t believe it’s enough for policies to be made and enforced in our interest if they don’t engage us.

The new movements around race and police brutality that began in Ferguson have skillfully combined systematic analysis with personal action, digital mobilization on social media and protest organization. Yet this is not a generalizable lesson: these same techniques have failed to mobilize citizen engagement on a mass scale on environmental issues, finance-sector malfeasance, economic inequality, or free and fair trade.

I worry that other successes, like participatory budgeting or community-led efforts at school integration, are too small-scale and bound up with state institutions and the logic of bureaucracy and governmentality to supply the foundational insights of civics.

This kind of “progressivism” encompasses even conservative civics: front porch conservatives and Sam’s Club conservatives. Modernity is just as much a threat to their ideal lives, and not just because of the way that the modern scientific worldview undermines their metaphysical and moral commitments. Still, civics has a lot to learn from conservatives in this respect: symbolic commitments are at the heart of the solidarity required for co-creation. Here also we see a human-scale politics, around the question of the display of Confederate flags, the naming of streets and respresentation of our community’s heroes and villains.

Instead of a general science of action, it is seems to me that civics can—at best—offer a unified set of participatory values alongside subject-specific and regional knowledge, and case studies of sometimes-viable strategies.

Finally, we should hope that the civic renewal movement grows large enough to encompass lively debate, disagreement, and faction on issues of focus, strategy, and the push-and-pull of partisan identity. This is how the unity of our values will become a foundation for a living community.

Forgiveness in Charleston and South Africa: Political or Theological?

After the families of the victims of the Emanuel AME church shooting unilaterally forgave the shooter, I’ve been thinking again about forgiveness. (Some previous posts here.) In particular, I am wondering again about the relationship between theological and political forgiveness.

The classic Enlightenment description of the duty to forgive is derived from the Christian tradition on forgiveness that goes back to Augustine. One modern example of this tradition is Desmond Tutu, whose work on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission combines theological reasoning with a strategic politics translated into the discourse of self-help and therapeutic psychology, all in order to justify a duty to forgive:

“The onus is on each single South African … it is incumbent on every South African to make his or her contribution. Without being melodramatic, it is not too much to claim that it is a matter of life and death. On its success does hinge the continued existence, the survival, of our nation…. It is ultimately in our best interest that we become forgiving, repentant, reconciling, and reconciled people because without forgiveness, without reconciliation, we have no future.” (Tutu 1999, 165)

Surely what Tutu writes here lays claimed to unearned universality: it works as a theological imperative but not a categorical one; perhaps at best it is understood as a pragmatic political analysis of the necessities of post-apartheid South Africa. If there was to be a future for South Africa, given the difficulties in punishing the criminality of Afrikaners that it faced post-apartheid, then forgiveness was obligatory both legally and individually. The process of fact-finding and official pardons for past violence in a new republic was thus required for ‘the survival of the nation.’ But Tutu offers this pragmatic analysis alongside his theology:

“Theology said they still, despite the awfulness of their deeds, remained children of God with the capacity to repent, to be able to change.” (Tutu 1999, 83)

He goes on to explain that this recognition of a fellow creature of God’s creation demands that we model God’s unconditional love through forgiveness:

God does not give up on anyone, for God loved us from all eternity, God loves us now and God will always love us, all of us good and bad, forever and ever. His love will not let us go for God’s love for us, all of us, good and bad, is unchanging, is unchangeable. Someone has said there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, for God loves perfectly already. And wonderfully, there is nothing I can do to make God love me less. […]  Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity have obviously never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law. (Tutu 1999, 85)

As I see it (and following Hannah Arendt) Tutu forecloses the possibility of deliberative judgment by conflating the strategies of a fledgling government with the demands of divine love. Who can argue with God’s alleged example? The problem with the hyperbolically poetic accounts of the gratuitous good of the forgiver is the same that troubled Arendt in the hyperbolically gratuitous evil attributed to the perpetrators of the Holocaust. In both cases, the hyperbolic rhetoric disguises a refusal to judge that which cannot–in any case–be punished. The inability to effectively punish the wrong-doer makes judgment irrelevant, and so forgiveness seems like a promising alternative.

The South Africans were forced by circumstances to decline prosecution through systematic pardons, but it is deceptive (perhaps self-deceptive) to describe this nolle prosequi in theological terms. The question that faced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not “whether to forgive,” it was “whether to punish,” but Tutu’s rhetoric disguises that fact. Black South Africans were obligated to share the world with their oppressors, and this requirement dictated the pardons. It didn’t dictate a specific theological underpinning for those pardons, so one has to wonder how much of Tutu’s theology was a kind of amor fati, celebrating the unavoidable.

In the case of the Charleston families, the reverse is true. No one would have faulted them for refusing to forgive Roof. I tend to think that while the families’ decision may well have been motivated by a theological sense of the duty to forgive, they also acted in a kind of sovereign refusal of resentment. Yet while I can see the power in forgiving one who has offered no remorse, it also seems hollow. The forgiveness was offered in theological terms, as a deferral to God for all judgment.

A political form of that forgiveness might be an effort to erase Dylan Roof’s name from the scene, and to remind the country that the names that matter most right now are these:

  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
  • DePayne Middleton Doctor
  • Cynthia Hurd
  • Susie Jackson
  • Ethel Lance
  • Clementa C. Pinckney
  • Tywanza Sanders
  • Daniel L. Simmons Sr.
  • Myra Thompson

Some–like Roxane Gay in the New York Times–even refuse to join the families, exercising that same sovereignty in pointing out that the attack cannot be fully forgiven by the families alone so long as it was aimed at all Black people. Gay goes on to describe how African-Americans have continually taken Tutu’s path of celebrating the necessity of forgivness:

The call for forgiveness is a painfully familiar refrain when black people suffer. White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present.

Black people forgive because we need to survive. We have to forgive time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism continues to thrive. We have had to forgive slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, inequity in every realm, mass incarceration, voter disenfranchisement, inadequate representation in popular culture, microaggressions and more. We forgive and forgive and forgive and those who trespass against us continue to trespass against us.

Surely Gay is right! The murderer eliminates the possibility of forgiveness with his crime. We cannot forgive the murderer (and indeed the murderer cannot be forgiven) because their victim can no longer speak and we cannot speak for them. How much worse, then, the unrepentant terrorist who murders in the name of a continuing system of white supremacy? How can he be forgiven until he has made restitution to every one of his victims–both those who are dead and those who must continue to live under the systematic injustice of such violence?

Arendt says of Adolph Eichmann that he is guilty of being unwilling to share the earth with Jews; thus no one should be expected to share the earth with him. Black South Africans had every right to a similar judgment of Afrikaners: only circumstances deprived them of the power to act as Israel did to Eichmann. Isn’t the same true African-Americans and Roof? How can any Black person be expected to share the earth with him?

Indeed, how can any Black person be expected to share the earth with any of us white people for whom Black lives do not (often) matter? I don’t mean to conflate white inaction with racist murder: I think it is worse than that. We are not to blame for Dylan Roof merely because we passively enjoy the benefits of white privilege. We are to blame because of the ways we perpetuate white supremacy, because of the concrete acts we take that continue policies of poverty, unemployment, police violence, and mass incarceration. We have our own violence to answer for.

At best African-American forebearance is political: an effort to survive under conditions of extreme oppression, an act of public and performative suffering that they use to motivate other rights-claims. In contrast the theology accounts of forgiveness seem deeply impoverished. Baldwin captures it best. On the one hand, he points out that silence and complicity deserve punishment:

“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

Yet at the same time, he captures a bit of that celebration of necessity:

The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. Why, for example—especially knowing the family as I do—I should want to marry your sister is a great mystery to me. But your sister and I have every right to marry if we wish to, and no one has the right to stop us. If she cannot raise me to her level, perhaps I can raise her to mine.

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

In that sense, a politics of forgiveness is still necessary. We white people need it for our own liberation. Tutu was right all along: without reconciliation, we have no future. But I think Roxane Gay is right to point out that the theological tradition of forgiveness can’t get us what we need from reconciliation. We must become one nation, and the only way to do that is concretely… we must reach out to our neighbors for their forgiveness and recognize that they will set the terms.

The Brightside Dilemma (some thoughts on hope)

Barbara Ehrenriech’s book Bright-sided starts with an interesting dilemma in breast cancer treatment. On the one hand, your odds of surviving–say–stage 4 breast cancer is quite low (22%). On the other hand, there is evidence that optimism and hopefulness will increase your chances. Being optimistic won’t increase your chances above 50%, but it will help.

So: if you are diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, what should you believe? Should you believe that your chances are 22%–pretty low–and allow yourself to feel the sense of mortality, loss, and despair that belief may provoke? Or should you believe that your chances of survival are quite high or guaranteed by God’s divine grace or some untested medical trial–and thus increase your odds a bit?

We have, then, at least two reasons to adopt a belief: the best evidence and the practical effects. Allowing considerations like health benefits to cause us to overestimate the odds of some outcome is sometimes referred to as “pragmatic encroachment.” There are lots of reasons to allow pragmatic considerations to encroach on our purely evidentiary reasons for believing: the classic example is Pascal’s wager, where the cost of skepticism about God’s existence outweigh the benefits. You might also find that beliefs that are personally disadvantageous are easier to deny than beliefs that are advantageous: for instance, if you make a lot of money at your job, you may have a hard time accepting that you are not very good at it or that you are overpaid. (This could be true of both hedge fund managers and teachers.) If you benefit from white or male or class privilege, then you may not want to believe that your achievements are the result of systematic inequalities.

It’s also the case that if you’re excited about a research program or a public policy, that excitement and passion is a kind of reason to believe that the program or policy will be effective. But it’s a non-epistemic reason and there’s good reason to discount it: both for others who are potentially infected by your excitement and for yourself in quiet moments of contemplation. It’s still a tricky thing to decide what to do with those doubts because while “I want this to work” is not the same as “this will work” it’s also true that “This probably won’t work” isn’t the same as “this will not work.” Overconfidence spurs us to take both important risks and stupid ones. It may be that we can’t weed out the stupid ones in advance, which is why I call this a dilemma and not a fallacy or a bias.

New Evidence of Police False Statements

The New York Times has a story on the new CCRB report that includes data on the rise of proveable police deception:

In New York, the number of false statements noted by the agency, while small, has grown in an age of easy and widespread video and audio recording by civilians. In 2014, the agency found 26 instances where they believed an officer gave a false statement to investigators, a total equal to the previous four years combined.

As longtime readers know from my reflection on my work for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, both the standards of evidence and the standards of professional behavior are massively biased towards the police. We’d need to jump a very high bar of evidence to prove that something happened (ostensibly preponderance, but with police officers granted privileged credibility) and then pass a very stringent test to show that the force used was unnecessary.

Beyond the kind of deceptions mentioned here (which only new technologies can expose dependably) there was also pretty rampant “testilying” where officers used only cliches to make their case: “The suspect reached for his waste-band” or “I observed a hand to hand transaction” or “The defendant thrashed his arms and legs” were repeated over and over. It’s court tested language, so the testimony is culturally coached. Perhaps this was how it happened, but the same words came up time and time again to describe the actions of lots of different people in different situations, so you could never know if the officer was describing the fight in question or a different one.

In every discussion of the NYPD, I think it’s important to emphasize that in a department with about 40,000 working police officers, we only got about 4,000 complaints a year, and only substantiated about 400 of those. And there were repetitions, so that maybe 2/3 of those 4000 complaints were against the same 1000-1200 officers.

One way to think about this is that while we “substantiated” only about 10% of the cases we considered, we didn’t “exonerate” the other 90%. Most of the rest of the cases were “unsubstantiated” which meant that we just didn’t have enough evidence to proceed (roughly like deciding not to prosecute.) When combined with the overall testimonial privilege that officers receive, it’s almost certainly the case that a large number of those unsubstantiated cases were also true accusations. That suggests that in the NYPD, at least, the vast majority of officers are good people doing the job well enough to avoid complaints.

I think that’s a good sign: even if we know that there were also officers covering their badges and lying about their names, that’s marginal. The NYPD also spends a lot of money each year on settling lawsuits. So there is still plenty of misconduct to weed out.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s a level of legal, sanctioned violence that amounts to the domination and intimidation of whole communities of Black, brown, and poor people that goes unspoken and ignored.


Reprobation as Shared Inquiry: Teaching the Liberal Arts in Prison

One of the reasons I blog less than I used to is that in addition to running this journal I’ve been teaching and organizing a college program at Jessup Correctional Institution. (Although I think it was having a daughter that really sucked the wind out of my sails, blogging-wise.)

Anyway,first page to prove I haven’t been completely unproductive, my collaborator Daniel Levine and I just published an article on the philosophy of punishment that reflects on our experiences at JCI. Here’s the abstract:

Respect for victims requires that we have social systems for punishing and condemning (reproving) serious crimes. But, the conditions of social marginalization and political subordination of the communities from which an overwhelming number of prisoners in the United States come place serious barriers in the face of effective reprobation. Mass incarceration makes this problem worse by disrupting and disrespecting entire communities. While humanities education in the prisons is far from a total solution, it is one way to make reprobation meaningful, so long as the prison classroom is a place where the educators’ values are also put at risk.

If your library doesn’t have a subscription to RPR, you can read an archival copy (which excludes the final formatting and page numbers) through philpapers here.