We Must Demand Professional Policing For All

I am a professional philosopher. That doesn’t just mean I do it for a living. Though I’m glad to be paid for my work, getting paid to do a thing does not make you a professional. Being a professional means that philosophy is my vocation and is closely tied to my self-identity. The norms of my profession have become personal norms; when my profession suffers a crisis, I feel it personally. Even if I lost my job I’d think of myself as a philosopher!

Yet most police officers are not professionals in this sense. Consider the collective horror, shame, and disgust we philosophers have at the abusive behavior of our fellow philosophers: think of what it means to be compared to Colin McGinn or Thomas Pogge. Why isn’t there that kind of horror, shame, and disgust among police officers at the drumbeat of police shootings?

Some police departments do have professional police departments. I’ve written before (for instance here and here) about my work doing civilian oversight of the NYPD, where–for the most part–I observed professionals at work. Yet even there the culture tends to be defensive rather than proactive. They saw civilian investigators as a no-longer-necessary evil, based on long-past departmental misdeeds. Yet we did that work precisely because the department had failed to engage in its own oversight. And corruption and abuse kept appearing, like whack-a-mole, whenever a part of the department found itself unsupervised.

Still, the culture at the NYPD seemed to be slowly changing, and I met many young officers who took their work seriously and evinced a desire for more than an exoneration; they aimed not just to mount a vigorous defense of the legality of their actions, but also to show that they had acted wisely and well, and that failures to do so were blameworthy even if they were not punishable.

I do not see that professionalism in the Baltimore Police Department. It’s quite obvious that the police department in Baton Rouge is not professional in this way. And we now know far too much about the unprofessionalism–indeed the thuggery and extortion–of the Ferguson police department. The list of such unprofessional departments is almost as long as the list of African-Americans killed during routine interactions that would never have led to violence with whites. And that’s just it: the one common feature seems to be that the unprofessional departments are primarily policing African-Americans.

I won’t pretend to give #BlackLivesMatter activists advice; their movement has its own leadership and needs nothing from me. But white citizens are and ought to be outraged by these killings as well, so it’s time for us to think about what kinds of changes to demand. We have a responsibility here and we cannot shirk it merely because we are not citizens of the specific cities or residents of specific neighborhoods that suffer under the boot of unprofessional departments. We must do what we can to professionalize the departments that police our fellow-citizens.

This will be a multi-pronged effort. Some parts will be legal, for instance, adopting a necessity rule:

Even when the police have a reasonable belief that a person is dangerous, the necessity standard does not permit deadly force if non-deadly or less deadly alternatives are available and adequate to meet the threat.

(And yes, the reason many officers are exonerated for their killings is because their states do not require that their use of force be necessary. That’s disgusting.)

We must also change training to emphasize defusing violence before it starts:

The key for the police in such circumstances is to slow things down: to ask questions rather than bark orders, to speak in a normal tone, to summon additional resources if necessary. Pulling out a gun on an anxious person may unintentionally raise his level of stress. In “suicide by cop” confrontations, this can make a bad situation worse.

Finally, we have to change the norms and cultures of law enforcement in the United States, specifically the sense that police departments give their officers that they are besieged by the public and must form a “blue wall of silence.” Law enforcement officers have strong professional norms against whistle-blowing and go further, even covering up each others’ misdeeds. This has become a professional norm of non-judgment of the behavior of officers when they are criticized by outsiders.

This is organized corruption at the national level. The more professional police departments are complicit just because they fail to deplore the activity of their less professional fellow officers. Police departments must respond to criticism by changing their collective attitude to each other and their jobs; they must change their culture. Right now, officers respond to criticism by saying or thinking that “Civilians can’t understand split second decisions.” This is that defensive move. They must become pro-active and use their own professionalism publicly. They must look at videos like the ones that show Alton Sterling being shot, and join in the criticism of those acts. They must say: “Officer, your job is to make split second decisions well and you have failed.”

Remember this article? “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me.

This is what complicity looks like. Officer Sunil Dutta literally claims that calling him a “racist pig” is an excuse for him to use force; Sunil Dutta isn’t white, and that’s the only reason he will say this publicly. Yet he shares this position with many racist white officers, and thus provides them cover.

Police shootings must become not just a national embarrassment among liberals like me; they must be a professional embarrassment for everyone in law enforcement. Police officers should feel personally responsible to make #notallcops true; they should feel on the hook for proving the claim that “these abuses are outliers.” They must come to think that their honor is at stake, and that each and every shooting causes them dishonor.

So the norms of the law enforcement profession must change, and police themselves are unwilling to change them. Thus it falls to us, as citizens, to demand professionalism on our terms. We do pay their salary, and we are accountable for what our employees have done.

That means treating de-escalation and stricter rules of engagement as professional norms, and refusing to defer to law enforcement’s own norms of professionalism. We must conclude that unprofessional departments require civilian oversight, if even the professional departments need it. We must demand that our police departments begin building these new norms into officer training. We must demand that police departments replace the culture of the blue wall of silence with collective professional honor and shame.

The old saying, “Who watches the watchmen?” has an answer: democratic citizens watch. But we must stop merely watching, and act. We must work together to police the police.

Nationalistic Dissent: Trump, the Tea Party, and the “Bowling for Fascism” Study

Civic engagement folks need to talk about nationalist populism.

In the past I have praised movements with which I have no ties for at least giving voice to groups of my fellow citizens who are frequently excluded from policy and electoral politics because they hold noxious views. Both the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign seem to have tapped a part of the US that usually have no representatives who will speak louder than a dog whistle on their behalf. As a proponent of participatory politics, I’ve often thought that the exclusion of nationalistic white people is undemocratic, just as I have thought that the exclusion of leftist non-whites would be undemocratic.

My guide in these things has usually been Hannah Arendt, who praised political participation and criticized the exclusivity of bureaucratic proceduralism. All democratic theorists confront this question in some way: why is it better for a people to govern themselves rather than submit to the dictates of some (richer, wiser, more virtuous) subset of their number? We sometimes speak of politics as a decision-theory, so that a form of government that depends on bureaucracy is no more or less just than any other: everything depends on the characters, or perhaps simply the decisions, of those who rule, no matter whether we call them administrators or aristocrats.

In contrast, Arendt often pointed to the spontaneous development of councils in revolutionary settings when explicating the ideal institutions of political life. On Arendt’s account, the councils of the Hungarian revolution closely resembled the Constitutional Congress and ward system proposed by Thomas Jefferson as an alternative to political parties, the ad hoc groupings of citizens during the French Revolution, and the soviets that succumbed to party unification after the Russian Revolution. Everywhere, the building blocks of politics seem to form the same basic shapes, only to be assembled into different forms due to ideologies, foreign pressures, or historical ideals. According to Arendt, the councils predate the formation of interest groups, they federate easily and advance their most excellent members as representatives to more central councils. The councilors are principally concerned with the establishment of the polis, and so strategy often succumbs to republican altruism. In the US and Europe, lacking as we do anything approaching a revolutionary context, the institutions that most closely resemble councils are deliberative polls.

What the councils, wards, and townships all have in common is that they enact a vision of democratic politics in which democracy is understood as isonomy, meaning equality both before the law and in the legislation. And isonomy is only possible if all citizens participate as equals and develop equal civic capacities, no matter what their ideology. In fact, this participation itself produces certain kinds of inclusive and non-dominating norms, such that to exclude our fellow citizens is to destroy the very power and capacity by which we act.

She sums up the problem in her brief essay On Violence: “Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” Where power designates the human ability to act in concert, violence emanates from a singular act whose explosive consequences are utterly out of the actor’s control. For Arendt, power is a characteristic of human collectivities: where a plurality forms, the potential for action becomes realizable. Violence, for Arendt, is a perversion of that appearance, insofar as what appears to the members of the group is the possibility of impossibility: terror in the face of the potential for one’s own death. On Arendt’s view of violence, the violent one exposes her fellows to their own mortality by reminding the assembly of the risks of gathering together with others who, like themselves, are fundamentally unpredictable. She may seek to control their activities through this violence, to force them to obey her commands, or she may seek to disperse them and their collected potential for even more unpredictable actions, including mob rule and widespread violence.

Though they usually appear together, violence and power are nonetheless opposites: “…where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” (Arendt 1970, 155) The inseparable contraries of power and violence are best seen at work in the efforts of a democratically-controlled police force, where they work in tandem. When they come into conflict, however, the conclusion is foregone: violence wins. The “textbook case” of such a confrontation is the Prague Spring, when “the head-on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely nonviolent resistance of the people in Czechoslovakia” demonstrated the vulnerability of power in the face of violence. (Arendt 1970, 151-2) Of course, the encounter is usually not so unalloyed, and the violence necessary to subdue power is not always palatable to the state. Thus nonviolent resistance like that adopted by the Indian decolonization movement under Gandhi is quite capable of giving pause to an overwhelming force if that force is itself aware of the capacities and risks associated with violence: “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but its price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is paid by the victor in his own power.” (Arendt 1970, 152) Violence can settle the present debate, but it renders every subsequent discussion uncertain because of the fear that it will be settled as the murderer settles the argument over the life of his victim: with a bullet.

This has long been my way of thinking about politics and hate: that hatred breeds violence, and violence is of limited effectiveness for building lasting political institutions. And simultaneously: inclusive institutions will tend to tamp down both hatred and violence, make us realize the inefficacy of hate and self-destructive character of violence.

Thus civic engagement would be civilizing.

And yet: this was always a kind of cherry-picked idealized political theory for Arendt and for me. It may well fail the test of empirical verification. A few years ago, Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtländer, and Hans-Joachim Voth published a study on the relationship between social capital and Nazi party affiliation in Germany called “Bowling for Fascism,” where they showed that “social capital aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.”

This was a disheartening result. We often talk about Germany between the World Wars as if it was an unrelenting economic and social depression. But in fact, many Germans still had strong social ties and institutional memberships: not just militaristic, but chess clubs, choirs, and animal breeding clubs that seemed to contribute to the rise of the Nazi Party: “a dense fabric of civic associations went hand-in-hand with a more rapid rise of Nazi party membership.”

Social associations are thus no more good or bad than any other capacity: they are as prone to justice as injustice, as prone to democratic norms as undemocratic ones! As Satyanath and his co-authors describe the state of this research, this connection between authority and social capital goes well beyond Nazi Germany: we see similar mechanisms impeding development in Sierra Leone in the research of Daron Acemoglu, Tristan Reed, and James A. Robinson:

[C]hiefs that face fewer constraints build social capital as a way to control and monitor society. This mechanism may also induce people to invest in patron-client relations with powerful chiefs, thus giving them a vested interest in the institution. Hence, if in surveys people say that they respect the authority of elders and those in power, this is not a reflection of the fact that chiefs are effective at delivering public goods and services or represent the interests of their villagers. Rather, rural people appear to be locked into relationships of dependence with traditional elites.

Social capital and civic power, thus, can be tools of both isonomy and oppression. Like many other forms of human organization, the strategies and institutions that we develop to collaborate with each other are not universally good or bad. We can democratically deliberate about violence, racism, and misogyny and come to any conclusion at all.

The burgeoning self-awareness of white national populists within the Tea Party and now in support of Donald Trump for president are unlikely to win an election any time soon. But insofar as they are now busy building lasting relationships, institutions, and sources of support and political power, this need not have a moderating or cosmopolitan effect. In fact, empowering our fellow citizens could easily lead to much worse outcomes. We might well hope that they would continue to lack a voice in our political system.

Consider Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns: we normally see more participation as a non-partisan activity. Indeed the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service both define it as such, so that wealthy donors may fund GOTV as a charitable contribution without campaign spending limits. Yet it’s now become de rigueur to use targeted GOTV camaigns as a part of partisan electoral strategies. Democrats focus their GOTV spending on likely Democratic voters, Republicans focus their GOTV spending on their own likely voters. A non-partisan tool for participation has become partisan.

Civics engagement, too, could become a partisan resource. It’s increasingly clear that differential social capital accounts for some of the major privileges in our society: well-organized groups get better government, and thus over time the patterns of organization and disorganization have come to resemble the patterns of wealth and income distribution, the maps of public health disasters, unemployment, crime, and incarceration. As a good liberal, I tend to focus on the way that these differentials affect Blacks and Latinos, and to compare the plight of disaffected whites to the statistics that still report that they are, as a group, better off than non-whites.

But: my framing of the problem comes from a position of comfort. I am not a low skill white male in a de-industrialized city. And so my judgments and values support my class and social position: they are ideological.

Poorly educated white workers are the only group that is demonstrably hurt by free trade and immigration. Yet cosmopolitan liberals have pretended that they ought to stomach their losses to make up for our privilege. Who can blame Tea Partiers and Trump supporters for noting that no one among contemporary elites is willing to stand up for their interests? Who can blame them for attaching themselves to the first charismatic figure who promises to do so?

They will very likely fail this election cycle in the US. Possibly the right historical analogy (which I owe to Steven Maloney) is the French Presidential Election of 2002, where Jean-Marie Le Pen faced Jacques Chirac in the second round. Le Pen surprised everyone by getting 16.7% in the first, crowded, round, to Chirac’s 19.9%. Sound familer? It looked close! Then he got 17.8% in the second round and Chirac got the rest: 81.3%.

The white nationalist populists interests will not dissipate with the Toupée Voldemort who currently leads them. Other politicians–entrepreneurs looking for a market–will step up to take his place, especially now that they are organized and self-aware. So what should we do, together, about our fellow citizens?

Ice Cream Trucks and other Drug Dealers

There’s a lot to love in this New York Times profile of the Mister Softee/New York Ice Cream feud:

“Let me tell you about this business,” Adam Vega, a thickly muscled, heavily tattooed Mister Softee man who works the upper reaches of the Upper East Side and East Harlem, said on Wednesday. ” Every truck has a bat inside.”

Mr. Vega, 41, said that if he comes across a rival on his route, “I jump out and say, ‘Listen young man, this is my route, you gotta get out of there.”

Battle lines being drawn around ice cream sales in Midtown Manhattan is the kind of story meant for a Disney movie. Or maybe something R-rated, just for the bravado of “Every truck has a bat inside.”

I’ve always hated the local ice cream trucks, which are really trying to overcharge my for ice cream by training my daughter to have a melt down if I force her to eat store-bought ice cream instead of the overpriced stuff being advertised with a racist tune. (Well, maybe not. But still…) And now it turns out that they really are scary:

“If one of my drivers goes to Midtown, they’ll bring their trucks in and surround them — a bunch of guys,” said Peter Bouziotis, who runs the Softee depot in the Bronx, which covers Manhattan. “They’ll start banging on the windows.”

In various spots, I’ve seen this bad behavior tut-tutted and blamed on capitalism. But I suspect that this particular case (as well as most of the cases like it) actually has very little to do with capitalism and everything to do with the fundamentals of a non-capitalist economic system: common pool resource management.

This kind of social norm enforcement through threats and violence is a fairly common way of organizing property regimes when social or legal factors prevent privatization and legal exclusion. The technical definition of a common pool resource requires that the resource be rivalrous (able to be used up) but non-excludable (it can’t be locked away.) Tourists are both, even though they don’t think of themselves as resources or property.

The commons is precisely not “private property.” It’s commonly held. This caused many modern economists to argue that there was a “tragedy of the commons” whereby commonly-held goods would be used up rather than stewarded: each user would have an incentive to maximize–privatize–as much of the common-pool resource as possible, and so the commons would be ruined. These economists argued that only private property–and thus capitalism–could save the earth from overuse. Thus, for instance, we need to have “cap-and-trade” regimes so that corporations will maximize the profit to had from their privately-held shares of pollution, and this is supposed to be better than taxing pollution or simply regulating it away.

But in practice, the economists were wrong, as Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington Workshop showed: commonly-held goods can be protected and managed as effectively as privately-held goods, and under conditions where private ownership is impossible to enforce. Unless the community is heavily disrupted (for instance by imperialism or police occupation) common-pool resources aren’t overused because users are understood to have a “share” by communal norms rather than legal title: exceeding one’s “share” is punished by the community of users.

In common-pool resource management systems, social norms take the the place of physical exclusions, and these norms include the ability to sanction–often physically sanction–potential interlopers. Crucially, this requires all sorts of negative emotions and actions that liberals such as myself don’t like: shame, resentment, contempt, us-v.-them tribalism, and even violence (on the small-scale “get the bat” variety or large-scale “revenge-killing” variety.) Common-pool resource management requires insiders to sanction poachers, and that’s what New York Ice Cream is doing here:

“From 34th to 60th Street, river to river, that’s ours,” he said on a recent afternoon, moments after handing a chocolate cone to a delighted-looking little boy. The vendor would not allow his name to be published for fear of losing his job.

Look at Maine lobstermen (cf especially Acheson’s The Lobster Gangs of Maine) or fisheries management in Taiwan or Chile or water rights on the West Coast and you see the same behaviors emerging organically. We also see it in drug distribution, it’s true. Recall Vanda Feldab-Brown’s work on illicit markets and violence:

It is not inherent that illegal economies, including the drug trade, are violent. There is great variation. But there are other factors apart from the quality of law enforcement, such as the central balances of power within the criminal market. Are there few groups that have developed a balance of power and defined territories, or many small groups that constitute a slim market of mom-and-pop types of enterprises that do not have the capacity to trigger or generate any violence?

Violence is a tool for exclusion. That sounds like a universal evil, but it’s not; it’s just as much a tool for the maintenance of contested common pool resource systems as it is a tool for more deeply problematic exclusions. My own preferences are for a violence-free world; but this of course just means that my taxes pay others to credibly threaten interlopers for me, as well as actively utilizing violence on my behalf.

Now, many people object when I use the explanation for the violence in the illicit economy that leads many of our students at the prison to be incarcerated. And indeed, I don’t think that all of their behavior is defensible in this way. But it’s important to understand just why illicit markets are violent: participants lack access to legal title to their businesses and to legal conflict resolution mechanisms. Largely because of racism and racist educational systems, they are unable to participate as equals in the legal labor market. They’re thus thrown into the grey and black market for labor, where they cannot access police and courts. Under those conditions, where none of their property is protected, participants in the illicit market are thrown back onto traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, which emphasizes honor and uses credible threats of violence to enforce property and contract rights.

If anything, New York Ice Cream is like the ideal of labor organizing; they were working for Mister Softee and tired of being exploited by licensing fees–payments to capitalists by laborers for the privilege of laboring–so they expropriated the means of production and locked the bosses out of the factory, that is, out of Midtown. Then, they made life difficult for the scabs:

The rift between New York Ice Cream and Mister Softee goes back to around 2013. According to court documents, Mr. Tsirkos held at least a dozen Softee franchises at the time, mostly in Midtown. Several of his drivers said that he was upset at high franchise fees and inflated prices for supplies. So he took his trucks (they are owned by individuals, not Mister Softee), added sprinkles and a waffle cone to the logo, and struck out on his own….

Ironically, the one place we don’t see poachers sanctioned is in heavily-policed high-oversight free-market property regimes (aka capitalism) because that’s where the rich are able to control things using rules and courts instead of social solidarity. In those situations, they often use the ideology of fair competition to force insiders to compete with poachers and scabs.

To be clear, I’m not endorsing drug markets, or even beating up your food truck competitors. But I find it strange when ordinary human behavior–often the laudatory kind that is responding to a larger abuse of power with small-scale violence–is pathologized by my fellow liberals who recognize the small-scale violence but ignore the larger abuses.

New York Ice Cream’s drivers have bats; Mister Softee’s drivers have been slashing tires, making death threats, and now the owners have the court system extracting six-figure judgments from the people doing the work and giving it to the people who hold the private right to the intellectual property:

Mr. Tsirkos has been ordered to compensate Mister Softee for his misdeeds. Last week, a federal judge ordered him to pay Softee $287,858.44 in lawyers’ fees, bringing the total he owes to over $767,000. (So far, Mister Softee’s lawyers say, Mr. Tsirkos has parted with only $2,426.)

So my expectation is that this short-lived Paris Commune of frozen dessert distribution will soon come to an end.

Forgiveness and Revenge Seminar Retrospective

Whenever I teach an advanced class of thoughtful students, I like to offer a short retrospective at the end of the semester. I sit down without my notes or texts and try to makes sense of what we have done.

Below, you’ll find the retrospective I shared on our last day. (As background, we read five main texts with supporting articles: William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye, Susan Brison’s AftermathAntjie Krog’s Country of My SkullJoshua Dubler’s Down in the Chapeland Sara Ruddick’s Maternal ThinkingOther major figures: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Desmond Tutu, Maria Chenowith and Erica Stephan, David Kennedy, Susan Griffin, and Hannah Arendt. (Yes, this is too much! Yet the students were game and actually kept up with the reading, which was pretty satisfying.)

[Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Torture, Violence]

We began the class with William Ian Miller’s book Eye for an Eye on talionic cultures. For Miller (no relation, sadly), the cultures of honor that celebrate revenge and reprisal have a few distinctive features: they recognize the legitimacy of resentments and retributive desires and they try to channel those desires through procedures that limit their harmfulness. Thus they respond to the threat of revenge by quantifying harms and restricting reprisal. These cultures are sometimes thought of as primitive, but in vengeance they show remarkable insight and ingenuity. Miller makes much of the fact that revenge involves parties at odds who are trying to get even, and at times these metaphors suggest a seemingly inexorable calculation in justice, one which legitimates payback and every other possible settling-of-accounts.

One of the most interesting parts of Miller’s book is his account of how Christian theories of forgiveness seem to echo and rhyme with the original accounting that the scales of justice entail. St. Paul seemed to suggest that we forgive because vengeance is for the Lord, and so by repaying harms with kindness, we heap coals upon our perpetrator’s head. It almost looks as if the deprivation of punishment in life is a designed to lengthen the sentence or intensify the damnation to be carried out after death. For Miller, the best account of the quality of revenge comes in our discussion of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, because there we see the demand for forgiveness made by a superior foe, because Shylock seeks revenge as proof of his own humanity, and is denied it as proof of the inferiority of his Jewishness.

The echoes with Coates’ work on reparations struck a chord with the entire class. Ultimately Coates suggests that payback is required for spiritual renewal, that Blacks and whites cannot know forgiveness until we settle accounts. So long as Black children must deal with the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, and the continual plunder of Black wealth by whites, calls for racial justice will be cheap talk. Coates certainly set the bar high, and I don’t know that we have yet found an argument to gainsay him, except that the racial accounting he demands is too difficult for us to bear. But Coates can easily see that we are unwilling to pay what we owe; the question is what hope there can be for equality so long as this debt remains unpaid.

Here, the South African experience ought to be instructive. When philosophers write books on forgiveness, we can never seem to do anything better than refer to Desmond Tutu, whose warm celebration of the strength and power of forgiveness strike us all as somehow worthy of emulation. And it’s in Tutu that we start to see the opposite side of Coates’ argument. Coates sets the stakes very high; for Tutu they were even higher, because his book and his constant refrain was that there can be no future without forgiveness. This is an interesting formulation: it does not promise South Africa an easy path, but rather makes a simple logical point: forgiveness is necessary. It may not be easy, it may not be fair, and it may not even be sufficient. But without it, the country is stuck.

Reading Antjie Krog’s book, Country of My Skull, helped us to see that a process can be inadequate and still work, a little. It can be a part of a reconciliatory project that none of the participants will live to see the end of. Sometimes it seems that even the #rhodesmustfall critique is able to point to colonial harms associated with Cecil Rhodes because the later harms of apartheid have been largely exposed and… not resolved, but rendered less pressing. The problem is that the past contains so many horrors, and even when resentments over recent atrocities like necklacing have been quelled, there is a whole previous century of atrocities to explore.

Forgiveness was nonetheless necessary for Tutu and for Krog, even while for Coates, forgiveness is nigh impossible. Necessary but impossible; impossible, but necessary. Something like that is at the heart of the problem of violence and trauma in Susan Brison’s work. How can a woman survive the aftermath of the crime that almost kills her? What Brison argued was that almost nothing about the experience of seeking justice through the police and courts can be said to serve her interests. Her hope and her healing were so very slow, and partial, and frail that I almost hesitate to mention them here: I worry that I shouldn’t “put them to work” as “conceptual resources” in the same way as many of the other texts we’ve read. Yet Brison offers them to us as evidence of considerable philosophical rigor, and I think the right move is to engage with her.

There was and will be no question of forgiveness for Brison; she showed us how irrelevant her attacker even was to these questions of survival and flourishing after violence. But revenge, too, seemed inadequate to her. What she needed was safety and respect, what she needed was to be restored to power and security. As a result, she focuses on a curious paradox: victims who blame their attacker feel much less safe than those who blame themselves. Even though the self-blame is in some sense obviously fictional and inaccurate, it is therapeutic and the source of the strength to grow and change beyond the trauma.

And in her dual conclusions, Brison seems to set up a very different and non-relational account of the aftermath of violence: that the goal of the survivor was to bend and not break, to cultivate in herself and in her child the openness to novelty and sociality that trauma and violence take from us. When I set up the syllabus I hoped this moment in Brison would set up a useful echo for the work of Sara Ruddick in Maternal Thinking with which we ended the class, because that’s where I put my sometimes dwindling hope: not in the promise of forgiveness from victims, but in the sense that revenge may be just as irrelevant to survival, no matter how powerful the impulse sometimes feels.

We began to learn just how irrelevant paybacks have become in our society when we read about the prisoners at Graterford in Pennsylvania. Much of what matters in Dubler’s discussion of faith in American prisons is in the background assumptions of the way his book is written, not often clearly stated or remarked upon: that the prisoners there are intelligent, good, and even wise; that they are not being punished, but merely waiting, living under conditions of arbitrary interference and capricious abuse. What Dubler found in Graterford’s chapel were men who are struggling to figure out how their own past acts have come to define them, and how to survive the evil that they have done and that is done to them. This suggests that one of the worst elements of revenge is the way we see perpetrators as irredeemable, the way we reduce those who harm us to those harms. Graterford makes me wonder what it could mean to love the sinner and hate the sin when we never stop thinking of them as sinners, and never let them forget that they have sinned.

Perhaps this “waste management” of criminals would be more acceptable if there weren’t so many of them. And indeed, I think Dubler’s book on Graterford starts to show us the problem with a world where we simultaneously treat some members of our society as if they are unworthy of our attention or support throughout their lives, subject to constant violence and depredation, until they lash out or misbehave–at which point we become desperately retributive. The men and women in prison are disproportionately poor and poorly educated, and yet the only injustices we’re willing to punish are the ones they commit. This asymmetry of responsibility is a kind of massive structural violence that undermines the entire project of criminal justice, and hampers the reprobative role of punishment in our society.

This is usually the place in the course where one would turn to restorative justice approaches. Instead, we turned to the literature on violence prevention, a transition that requires explanation. The criminologist John Braithwaite often tells the story of two US servicemen in Japan who raped a young Japanese woman. The rapists were called to a private reconciliatory meeting, where the woman read a letter indicating that she was willing to forgive them and ask that they not be punished. The servicemen did not understand, and when it was their turn to speak they told the judge, “We are not guilty, your honor.” This shocked everyone involved; had they been–or pretended to be–repentant, they would have been freed. As a result, they were sentenced to the legal maximum period of incarceration rather than freed as had been planned.

Now, Braithwaite tells the story as an example of a failure of reconciliatory norms in the US: confessions and repentance have been trained out of Westerners by the the procedural safeguards we have created to prevent coerced confessions. But I see the story differently: a young woman was raped by two foreign men, and the male authority figures in her society demanded that she absolve them of the crime for diplomatic purposes. They were only stymied by the rapists’ failure to make the proper ritualized speech acts in a crucial moment of the ceremonial subordination of the victim’s needs and interests.

This is not a story of frustrated reconciliation or failed forgiveness, but frustrated impunity. It’s not an indictment of the refusal of repentance rituals, but of the demand for them. I find myself sympathetic to the Black South African mothers Krog reports on, who argued that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a fancy way for powerful men to smooth over their own transgressions, leaving the mothers no less bereft of their sons and daughters than before.

But this too, is too simple, which is why we ended with Sara Ruddick. Ruddick is my kind of care ethicist: she resists gender essentialism while defending care ethics, and roots the phenomenology and ethics of care in practices of caretaking and peacemaking and the skills and competencies required to succeed in those matters. What’s more, Ruddick acknowledges the tension between the different modes of care, of holding safe, welcoming change, and attentively loving our children and vulnerable dependents, and shows that mothers (who can be men but have tended to be women) develop their skills and competencies in the difficult thinking through of those tensions in contexts and situations. It’s a powerful book of philosophy, and I’ll be teaching it again at JCI this summer.

On my view, Ruddick helps to spell out both the background attitudes required for forgiveness but that we can also only start to think of the role of forgiveness in a society and in a relationship when we foreground the purposes it serves. Women and men who mother understand that transgressions and injuries will occur, and they train their children to forgive them. They do this because resentments are unhealthy; they do this because revenge is unsustainable. But mostly they do this because maternal thinking is a kind of disciplined, cognitively-loaded thinking-through-emotions.

Anger is one of the most pernicious emotions a child must confront, and so mothers prepare themselves and their children for that confrontation. Mothers know that anger always presents itself as immediate, urgent, and correct, but that a child can only survive, thrive, and succeed when she can resist its pull. Mothers teach their children to master their anger; they train them to restrain it and to let it go. And they do the same for themselves: they learn that their anger and sorrow at the loss of one child must be subordinated to the safety of their other children, and other mothers’ children. And so they act out of anger but with reason, they force themselves to put their anger and revenge to use. Sometimes they harness their grief for peacemaking.

A mother’s anger can become violent, of course. But if it remains maternal in the way Ruddick describes, it will preserve the goals of preservation and cultivation, of survival and growth. Ruddick and Brison thus end on the same note: that the meaning of a trauma is ultimately the way it shapes us as mothers. The measure of our revenge or forgiveness is not whether it slakes our revenge but whether it makes the world a safer space for our children. Talionic cultures know this; they limit payback just because they want to settle accounts for the next generation. Reconciliation and forgiveness, too, work only to the extent that they settle old scores, that they bury the implements of violence in places where new generations will not dig them up.

I ended the semester significantly less hopeful about forgiveness than I began. Individual acts of forgiveness have a power to transform people and relationships in a way that still seems sublime, in the technical sense of “sublime:” a phenomenon that challenges our faculty of understanding. And precisely because it has this status, I worry deeply about the demands that we craft policies in such a way as to require that forgiveness become mundane, a quotidian part of the working of a system. Because in those cases it always seems to be the powerless who must forgive, and the powerful who use the rhetoric of forgiveness to demand that their victims ignore oppression and systematic violence.

This is not the hopeful ending I planned. And indeed, it’s not an ending at all; Martha Nussbaum’s new book Anger and Forgiveness came out too late to include in the syllabus, but it’s been helpful to my own thinking, and I shared a few useful passages with the students. Like Brison, Nussbaum treats our relationship to anger, resentment, and revenge as one that we must manage, one that we must prevent from gaining too much control over us. She treats anger and resentment as imprecise heuristics for pointing out injustice, but argues that both justice and individual happiness require the subordination of those passions to capability-expanding outcomes. She brings the literature on survivors together with the philosophical and theological scholarship on forgiveness, and uses that to frame the problems of mass incarceration and transitional justice. So there’s a lot in this book to be excited about, even as I worry that she’s put too much of her emphasis on South Africa’s “success.”

In particular Nussbaum worries about the status-degrading and payback moments in revenge, like when Paul uses forgiveness to get payback. What’s particularly good about the book is that Nussbaum is bringing together so many disparate strands of this problem, so that, for instance, she can show that these hyperbolic payback and status-lowering elements of our retributive impulses have contributed to the American problem with mass incarceration. It’s a big, sophisticated, and difficult text, and while I’ve read most of it, I don’t think I’ve fully digested it yet. So the semester is over, but the true retrospective is always forthcoming.

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.