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.

Arendt, Antisemitism, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union Strike

I am one of those ideologically-impure liberals that worries a lot about public sector unions. On the one hand, I favor workplace democracy and collaboration; on the other hand, I worry about the fact that as union membership has declined, the majority of remaining union members haved tended to be at the top of the income distribution and to have many other forms of cultural and social capital as well. A public sector union member gets input into the functioning of government as a voter, plus they get input into our government as a union member concerned about their own labor conditions. What’s more, public-sector unions are not all the same: to my mind there’s a difference between a teacher’s union and a police or prison guard union, and I’m not willing to be univocal in my support for both. Still, my bias is generally in favor of teachers: I am one, after all.

Caption BelowI recently read an interesting factoid about teaching: in the 1960s, 2/3 of all households had school age children. Today, only 1/3 do. Attempts to verify these have been unsuccessful, although the percentage has certainly been dropping for a long time along with the birth rate. (I also learned that 39% of Chicago’s public school teachers send their own children to private schools.)

Looking at the responses to the Chicago Teacher’s Strike, especially the way it pits centrist technocratic Democrats like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel against old-school labor progressives, I suspect that the falling percentage of families with school-age children is part of the problem. Sure, everyone agrees that education is important, but fewer families actually have current need of a good education, and so for better or worse they have begun to look at the costs rather than the benefits of strong schools.

In my view, this decline allows an interesting analogy with Hannah Arendt’s account of the growth of anti-semitism in Origins of Totalitarianism, which itself is derived from Karl Marx’s essay on On The Jewish Question. Arendt argued that Jews had failed to take advantage of their political and economic power while it was still extensive enough to garner protection from the Christian majority. When their role as scapegoat creditors was centralized into big (non-Jewish) businesses and a few Jewish financiers, the long-ignored differences between Jews and Christians exploded to the fore, with genocidal results.

Arendt bases this theory on Tocqueville’s account of the downfall of the French aristocracy:

“the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any considerable decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country.”

Troublesome as inequality and oppression may be, inequality without the power to back it up is even worse. Arendt suggests that the Jews refused to occupy a designated space within the European political economy, instead “choosing” to remain aloof no matter which class individual Jews would otherwise occupy. (Of course, it’s not so simple, but to Arendt it seems that there was a coincidence between the Jewish desire for group survival and the nation-state’s interest in preventing assimiliation.) Yet according to Arendt this became a great problem when successful Jews sought acceptance and assimilation into the professions and intellectual elites:

“Central and Western European Jewries had reached a saturation point in wealth and economic fortune. This might have been the moment for them to show that they actually wanted money for money’s sake or for power’s sake. In the former case, they might have expanded their businesses and handed them down to their descendants; in the latter they might have entrenched themselves more firmly in state business and fought the influence of big business and industry on governments. But they did neither. In the contrary, the sons of well-to-do businessmen and, to a lesser extent, bankers, deserted their fathers careers for the liberal professions or purely intellectual pursuits they had not been able to afford a few generations before.”

Arendt called this “political ignorance” that blinded the Jews to “the political dangers of antisemitism.” Certainly they understood the costs of social discrimination; what they did not understand was the way this would morph under totalitarianism:

“Whenever equality becomes a mundane fact in itself, without any gauge by which it may be measured or explained, then there is one chance in a hundred that it will be recognized simply as a working principle of a political organization in which otherwise unequal people have equal rights; there are ninety-nine chances that it will be mistaken for an innate quality of every individual, who is “normal” if he is like everybody else and “abnormal” if he happens to be different. This perversion of equality from apolitical into a social concept is all the more dangerous when a society leaves but little space for special groups and individuals, for then their differences become all the more conspicuous.” (55)

To be unequal when equality is understood as equality before the law is a blessing; to be unequal when equality is understood as a social requirement for membership in the political community is quite a curse. The more that Americans attend to income inequality, the more they will worry about Wall Street bankers, certainly; but they also worry about the local inequalities, those they see at work in their own communities. Wall Street is far away for most Americans; yet everyone has a local government, and most Americans can observe that the cars that park in the teachers’ lot are nicer than their own, while simultaneously noting that teachers have shorter days and longer vacations.

For Arendt, the backlash of resentment comes when those with a privilege lose the power to enforce it. The aristocrats tried to keep their privileges without preserving the authority to organize their communities, and they lost their heads; the Ancien Régime gave way to the centrally-administered bureaucracy. Teachers are no longer trusted to evaluate their own success or failure; more and more of their lesson plans are legislated or provided by centralized textbook publishers. Fewer families depend upon teachers than ever before, and those who do have political power don’t trust the public schools in large urban school districts like Chicago, New York City, or Washington, DC. In these and many other ways, the job of teaching K-12 education is being de-professionalized, in large part because we’ve tried to demand that education solve all of our problems and it simply cannot.

Perhaps this comparison is not the right one, but what I notice is that labor solidarity is increasingly exclusive of the least-advantaged. Especially during times of increasing unemployment, I worry that solidarity with laborers will not include those most in need. Unions are no longer primarily sources of solidarity between the lower and middle-class and a means of stepping into the middle-class; now they are sources of solidarity within some elements of the upper-middle class, i.e. those who are well above the median income in the United States. In this sense, public sector labor unions appear to command economic power while failing to achieve the cross-class solidarity that would legitimize that economic power for those who are worse-off. The resentment that emerges, then, appears to be driven by the demographic constitution of the union itself. As Arendt pointed out, rights without the power to protect them are useless: when you need them, they’re not there.

Even as teachers are losing political power, it appears that the political power of labor solidarity has an unfortunate tendency to accumulate among those who already have it. In the US, the people who most need unions don’t have them: Walmart workers; nurses and home health aids; agriculture and construction workers. Meanwhile, the people who least need unions get them: folks with graduates degrees and guns. Soon, perhaps, it will just be those with guns who can prevent the legislative undermining of their rights to collective bargaining.

(Continued in the next post, Public-sector unions as Public Work: The Case for Teachers)

Res Publica: Philosophy, Scholarship, Work

In responding to my post on the topic, Peter Levine says of “public philosophy” that

I am not yet sure what it means or whether I want to be part of it.

To me, that is a major indictment. He then goes on to give a useful account of “public scholarship” that we can take as a contrast:

In general, the kind of public scholarship that interests me most is that which (a) involves research collaborations between academics and non-academics and (b) strengthens the capacity of non-academics. At its best, community-based participatory social science works that way: laypeople help define research problems and hypotheses, help collect and interpret data, and become more knowledgeable and effective as a result. This is different from “public scholarship” in the sense of scholarship that is well-known and accessible. It is also different from activist scholarship, because activism often implies an agenda, whereas public engagement implies a willingness to deliberate ends and means.

Much of what folks call public philosophy will not fit this bill, but frankly I suspect that this is the model we should strive for.

In part, Peter is inspired by John Dewey, in the sense that the goal of such collaboration is to help form a public:

it is desirable to turn a people into a public. Conceivably, a philosopher could help that transformation happen, which would be “public philosophy” in a Deweyan vein.

In part, too, I suspect Peter is channeling Harry Boyte’s conception of “public work.” Whereas Dewey (and Hannah Arendt) worry about the scholar overriding the public with her expertise, Boyte offers an account where our expertise gained through service and productive private enterprise is a virtue and a resource to be drawn upon in our lives. The goal of public life is not to bring us all together as amateurs, but to allow us to engage in a shared project.

Because we have a shared goal towards which progress is an unalloyed good, we need not demur over our talents and skills out of fear that we are trangressing on the equality that we hope to achieve. Instead, on Boyte’s view, we ought to seek ways to bring our professional skills to bear on public problems. This needn’t be textual scholarship on Hannah Arendt; it can be as simple as assisting with research, writing, analyzing statistical data, or facilitating fractious meetings. We don’t have to pretend that we’re only good for photocopying (although I’ve got some good techniques for scanning documents if you’re interested.) If we truly have nothing to offer as professionals, then we ought to ask whether we are studying “schmess.”

This conception of “public work” is a direct response to the anxiety that philosophers “engage with” rather than “consult for” social movements and organizations. While the rhetoric of “offering philosophical services” creates a distance that must be bridged, in practice our professional expertise offers us one of many intersections with matters of public concern. The tendency to downplay these skills, to present ourselves as the proverbial idiotes, private and unskilled in worldly affairs, is a large part of why we philosophers find ourselves, as Daniel Levine (no relation!) puts it: “unmoored and isolated from broader social currents.” This is surely a part of what Jerry Fodor has called the “masochistic metatheory,” that:

philosophical issues are the ones that nobody else cares about.

So long as we define ourselves by our irrelevance, I think we will find that we are.

Arendtian Natality, Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and Antinatalism

Because of my work on Hannah Arendt, I often struggle with the apparent incongruity between her account of natality and my own tendency towards antinatalism.

Natality is at the heart of Arendt’s project, a rejection of the Heideggerian obsession with mortality and being-towards-death:

“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”

While it’s true that Arendt didn’t simply mean the biological act of giving birth when she described natality, this biological fact is at the heart of her insight into the novelty and unforeseen circumstances of political action, since it introduces new selves into a world that would otherwise become increasingly familiar.

“Objectively, that is, seen from the outside and without taking into account that man is a beginning and a beginner, the chances that tomorrow will be like yesterday are always overwhelming. Not quite so overwhelming, to be sure, but very nearly so as the chances were that NO earth would ever rise out of cosmic occurrences, that NO life would develop out of inorganic processes, that NO man would emerge out of the evolution of animal life. The decisive difference between the “infinite improbabilities” on which the reality of our earthly life rests and the miraculous character inherent in those events which establish historical reality is that, in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them— men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.”

One cannot help hearing Arendt’s Jewishness in the attribution of a miraculous power of renewal and unprecendentedness to natality. This is partly a reflection of certain Jewish tropes like Tikkun Olam, which is used in an ordinary sense to indicate the “public interest” but carries a theological connotation, since it literally means to “repair of the world,” in the Manichean sense described by Isaac Luria: that the world was formed through the shattering or rupture of the divine, and it is our job to restore the divine’s unity. One gloss on this restoration is that “be fruitful and multiply” is the first command given by God, and there is a sense in Arendt that the “new ones” may include our political messiah, the actor whose words or deeds may salvage our shared world. (Luria, however, taught that this entailed a Zionist return from the Diaspora, which Arendt recognized as impossible.)

Yet part of the fundamental antinatalist objection is that giving birth is a existentially weighty act that we do on another’s behalf: we bring a new person into the world who must receive the gift of existence without a right to refuse it. Better Never to Have Been tries to captures some of the ways that this may be a harm, but I primarily worry that bringing more children into an already crowded world is a kind of trespass that Arendt noted would always be a risk in acting.

Continue reading Arendtian Natality, Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and Antinatalism

Ideology and Self-Sealing Arguments

From Understanding Arguments by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin, which I use in my critical thinking course:

Ideologies and worldviews tend to be self-sealing. The Marxist ideology sometimes has this quality. If you fail to see the truth of the Marxist ideology, that just shows that your social consciousness has not been raised. The very fact that you reject the Marxist ideology shows that you are not yet capable of understanding it and that you are in need of re-education. This is perfect self-sealing. People who vigorously disagree with certain psychoanalytic claims can be accused of repressing these facts. If a boy denies that he wants to murder his father and sleep with his mother, this itself can be taken as evidence of the strength of these desires and of his unwillingness to acknowledge them. If this kind of reasoning gets out of hand, then psychoanalytic theory also becomes self-sealing and empty. Freud was aware of this danger and warned against it. […]

[This kind of argument can] counter criticism by attacking its critics. Critics of Marxism are charged  with having a decadent bourgeois consciousness that blinds them to the facts of class conflict. The critic’s response to psychoanalytic theory is analyzed (and then dismissed) as repression, a reaction formation, or something similar. Here self-sealing is achieved through an ad hominem fallacy. We might call this self-sealing *by going upstairs*, because the theorist is looking down on the critic.

Much of this will be familiar with Hannah Arendt’s criticism of totalitarian ideology.

Notably, many arguments for evolutionary psychology have a similar form, especially those that focus on the way beliefs are formed to signal loyalty or attract esteem.