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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

COULD WE END RACISM IF WE STOPPED BEING WHITE?

In PeaceAble on June 12, 2020 at 4:44 pm

If any of my fair-skinned friends wants to begin to understand racism as a systemic problem in American culture, a good place to start is with Tanehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.”  You will barely get started in the first section of the book before you will be confronted with two revelatory ideas.

The first of these is that “race is the child of racism, not the father.”

Think about that for a moment.  We know that race is a social construct, that there is no biological basis for separating humans into races based on external physical features.  Claiming that a dark skin is evidence of a separate race is no more based in fact than claiming that detached earlobes are.  But the implications of the statement are more profound than that.

The statement tells us that humans did not see color, decide that races existed, and then became racist.  Rather, we needed a reason to justify de-humanizing those we would dominate, and the invention of race gave us that reason.  And by “we” I mean white people, for who else has benefitted more than we have from the invention of race?  We have used it to justify conquering and subjugation, colonialism, genocide, rape, and more – a very long list of atrocities that were easier to commit as long as the victims were not as human as we were.

Which then brings Coates, and his readers, to the second idea.  Being “white” is a myth, an illusion, what Coates refers to throughout the book as a “dream.”

We aren’t, after all, actually white.  We’re varying shades of a sort of pink beige, turning more brown or red with exposure to the summer sun, and more pale and yellow in the winter.  But being white has become such an immutable part of our identity; so fundamental to how we see not just ourselves, but the whole world and our place in it, that it is the beginning of how we relate to everything else.  The whole structure of the canon of western civilization, its art, literature, science, history, religion, philosophy depend on it.  We measure human progress by its relationship to our own whiteness.

If we weren’t white, what would we then use to determine who the “others” are?  What other characteristics of humankind have the breadth, the scope of race?  If “white” did not exist, would black, brown, yellow, or red also disappear?  After all, those colors are as inaccurate in describing other races as white is in describing us.

We might still divide up humankind by ethnicity, by nationality, by language, by culture; but wouldn’t those things first require us to recognize the fundamental humanity at the heart of those differences?  Once we have identified race as the controlling factor, once we have determined the inherent inferiority of the other on the basis of race, then we can judge their accomplishments, their civilizations as inferior by default.  But if we had to start by dealing with all those things that humans create, it would be more difficult to dismiss their creators as less than human.

Calling our whiteness a dream has other implications as well. 

Dreams are more than just fantasies or illusions.  They are, first of all, associated with sleep.  If the core of our racial identity is a dream, then we are asleep in our reality.  And what happens to our dreams when we awaken?  To be “woke” is to have roused ourselves from the dream; to have left it behind in the darkness.

A dream is also either an aspiration or a fear.  When our dreams become nightmares, they express those things we most fear.  We may wake from them sweating, our hearts pounding, confused and terrified.  Leaving them behind is difficult, the fear remains.  When our dreams are desires, they give us goals, and light our way.  But if we dream too big, the aspirations can become traps.  If we cannot become all that we dream we are or could be, how do we reconcile that, if the dream is of our innate superiority?

We find that we need the dream, because without it, all our fears and aspirations are merely the consequence of being no more or less human than those the dream does not include.

So, I think that I need to try to stop being white.

But how does one, especially in one’s seventies, shed one’s race?  I’m certainly not going to dye my skin, get plastic surgery, alter my birth.  And those things would be lies, anyway.  If I am to be something other than white, it has to be real.  And it has to come to terms with all those decades of whiteness that already live inside my skin.

Baby steps.

If whiteness is an illusion, how do I step outside of it?  If it is a dream, how do I wake up?

Another point that Coates makes, one that I already knew but the context is important, is that naming is an act of power.  I would also call it an act of creation.  We cannot name a thing until we have knowledge of its existence.  And when we name it, we say how it is to be perceived, judged, related to.  We define it.  We say what its fundamental characteristics are, and what connotations we are to draw from it.  We say what is our power over it, or its power over us.

To define something is to limit it, to enclose it in our perceptions; and to try to imprison it there.  Our words for things are the first steps in creating and controlling our reality.

So, the first step in changing our reality is to change the names we use for it.  This is an idea that has long existed in therapy.  Reframe the experience, name the feeling.  We do not need to be the victims of our lexicons, we can take control.

I am becoming more aware every day now of how much of my perceptions of the world and my place in it have been founded in my whiteness.  Many of my successes have been made easier because I am white, have been expected because I am white, assumed because I am white.  And my failures, my fears, my shortcomings have been amplified by those same privileges, expectations and assumptions.

So, what happens if I reframe my whiteness.

I have, for most of my adult life, played with the idea of the mongrel.  I have often joked that we are all mongrels.  I have bemoaned, in my humor, the lack of cultural or group identifiers for mongrels.  We have no traditions, no flag, no songs, no creed, no signs of belonging or loyalty, no natural gathering places.

But it turns out that it’s not really a joke.  None of us has a singular ancestry beyond a few generations, insignificant in the span of human existence.  We’re all mutts.

I’ll start small on my way to mongrelization.  From now on, when faced with some official form that asks me to say my race, I will respond not white, but other.  If required to explain, I will say that I am mongrel, or perhaps “mixed-blood.”  Didn’t we create laws that claimed a single drop of black blood made one black?  So, I will embrace all the drops within me.  I will be them all.

I think we should start a movement – an awakening, if you will – toward the end of the white race; and the rise of the mongrel. 

Anyone can join.  Anyone who wishes to shed the skin that whiteness has trapped them in can become a mongrel.  But it is most important that white people go first, because as long as there are white people, there will also be the others.  And as long as we continue to dream our own whiteness, we will never awaken to the full possibility of being simply human.

Thugs with Grievances and Very Fine People With Guns

In PeaceAble on May 29, 2020 at 12:16 pm

The question being asked by a lot of white people on social media this morning:

Why do these rioters destroy their own neighborhoods, loot and burn, and risk a violent, perhaps deadly response from the police?  Don’t they know that just makes them look bad and hurts their cause?

Now, let’s set aside for the moment the fact that these people were not asking a similar question of armed white people storming state capitols and threatening violence, talking about lynching and assassination and so forth.  Don’t they know that just makes then look bad and hurts their cause?

Although the answers to these questions are related in two ways.

I’ll start with the question that is being asked, then show how that question and the other non-question are related.

And I’ll begin by asking another question.

Why do prisoners, when they riot, destroy their prison: looting and burning, risking a violent response from the guards?

Because they don’t have much to lose.

And don’t try to say, “Oh, but that’s different,” because it is only different in degree, not in kind.

We used to call them ghettos, but they were always prisons.

We now call it the inner city, but it’s a prison just the same.

We call them the projects, or the neighborhoods, but they’re still prisons.

And the chances for a kid growing up in the inner city ever escaping from the systemic poverty, the institutionalized racism, the disastrously inadequate education, the oppressive living conditions, and the constant threats of violence from within and without are just about as few and far between as the chances of escape or release from prison.

And the chance that people living under those conditions have always been and will always be treated by major segments of society as less-than-human, even if they try to follow all the rules, do the “right” things, and manage to get out are pretty substantial.

So why not burn it down?  Why not burn down the physical manifestation of your imprisonment?  And why not, while you’re at it, take whatever you can get away with?  You’re unlikely to get it any other way.  And it’s going to burn, anyway, if you don’t take it.  And it’s a way of saying to those outside that the longer you deny us not just the basic, but even the least more than that which would make life more than just survival, that would liberate us even a little bit from the prisons you have put us in; the more our anger, our fear, our grief and our need will fester and grow until it again explodes into what makes you ask the question and not see the answer, just as you don’t see us.

And why should we risk violence, even death, at the hands of the police?  Hell, we do that every day, sometimes without even getting out of bed!

And how is that related to the second question?  I mean aside from fairly obvious racial and other issues of prejudice?

They both have to do with fear.  There is reasonable fear and unreasonable fear; and as a society we have routinely, historically, gotten them confused.

The people asking the question are afraid of the people doing the rioting.  They are afraid of them even if they are merely demonstrating.  They are afraid of them even if they are doing nothing.  They are afraid of them because our culture, our society has spent hundreds of years and enormous amount of resources convincing them, teaching them, to fear those other people.  Not to fear them because of what they have done, but because of what we have done to them.  To fear them because of who they simply are, which is the other.

After centuries during which white people took whatever they wanted, by whatever means they could, from other people, they are afraid that the others will take what they have – or take back what was taken.

And the culture has also spent those centuries teaching us all, convincing us all that when you are afraid, the appropriate response is to arm yourself, and the people with the most dangerous weaponry are to be admired and respected.  Corollary to that, we have been taught that those with the most destructive power have the right to use that power to do whatever they want, because if you don’t let them then they will use that power against us – and it will be our own fault for not properly respecting the people with the power.

We have, in other words, been told that the people without power are to be feared, and the people with power are to be respected.  Until the moment when the others realize that they, too, have power; at which point they are to be put down because that realization is all the evidence needed to prove that fear of them was warranted.

We have also been taught that when groups of white people take up arms against the authorities, and people are injured or killed as a result, it is the authorities who are to blame, not the groups of armed white people.  But when the others do it, the authorities are praised, not blamed. 

You do see how backwards all that is, right?  And how obviously true?  Because if you don’t see it, then you will never find the truth you claim to be seeking when you ask the question.

Gallivan’s Travels: The Choices We Make in the World We Live In

In Gallivan's Travels on January 18, 2020 at 7:36 pm

Sometimes you have a destination and you want to get there as quickly as possible. Other times you just want to travel, so you can take it slow and enjoy the scenery. And sometimes you want to reach as perfect as possible a compromise between the two.
And then there are the times you think you you know what you want, but life steps in and changes your plans.
I am not a big fan of the interstates. Most of the time I prefer to travel the secondary highways and less travelled roads. So, before we left Lums Pond State park, near St. Georges Delaware, I consulted my road atlas (much more useful for this kind of planning than a GPS app) and plotted a route south on US 301. We had a destination – a state park just outside of Richmond, VA. We wanted to get there at a reasonable hour, but didn’t want to rush. Also, we knew that we were likely to encounter some messy weather along the way.
US 301 is nice road to take south if you want to avoid the interstates. From St. Georges almost to the Maryland line it’s a well-maintained 4-lane with a wide, grassy media separating the north and south lanes, and relatively little civilization along the edges. I imagine the trees and fields must be gorgeous in the spring and summer. There was one toll just before the state line (I generally like to avoid tolls).
The scenery began to change a bit in Maryland, but the road still moved along well with little traffic. As son as we began to see signs for the Bay Bridge, however, the road expanded to 6 0r 8 lanes, and it got a little crowded. All in all, though, it was till preferable to the stress and pace of I95. Things stayed that way until we got within spitting distance of D.C., when we turned south again, and the road quieted down.
And the weather turned colder and wetter.
But we had our destination, we were still making good time, and we were looking forward to a relaxing evening in the campground and perhaps a short tour of Richmond tomorrow.
Then we got a phone call from someone back home in RI.
Be careful in Richmond, she said, the governor has declared a state of emergency ahead of the big gun rights rally planned next week. The FBI just arrested four men who were planning on bringing military-style rifles to the capitol. There have been weeks of online threats of violence, including white-supremacist sites calling for a “bugaloo,” the precursor to a race war.
Now, quite apart from the political and constitutional issues involved here, we are not the sort of people who feel comfortable driving deliberately into a place where there may be people with large guns thinking about actually shooting people.
Suddenly, Richmond was out as a tourist stop this week. And our campsite just outside the city seemed too close to the action, too. Who knew whether it might be filling up already with people plotting violence.
Now, before anyone starts talking about good guys with guns and police presence and “paranoia,” think about this. How many people might choose differently about going to a rally, or a concert, or a theater, or a church or a school if they knew that there might be even one person there, never mind possibly dozens, who was threatening violence and would bee heavily armed? The original planners of the Richmond event claim to have wanted peaceful protest, said they represent responsible gun ownership; but somewhere along the line, they lost control of the situation. It is (to put it mildly) ironic that a rally to protect the rights of responsible gun owners could turn so quickly into a display of the most dangerously irresponsible use of them.
But that is the world we live in now – not just around gun rights, but around a lot of issues. We have to make what used to be simple decisions about where we go and what precautions we take based on the unpredictable behavior of people who want us to be afraid.
Now, our original plan was to hurry up to Richmond tonight, take a stroll through the city tomorrow, then make a leisurely drive to visit family in Greenville, NC. We would arrive early enough for conversation, games, and a special dinner. We’d have time to adore and exclaim over our obviously talented and brilliant grandson, and then sleep in a real bed one night before going on our way.
Then the texts started coming and going. There were scheduling conflicts. Complicated family dynamics meant juggling different sets of parents and step-parents on the same day. How many nights did we want to stay, could we arrive this time rather than that time, and, oh yeah, there’s this other thing happening if you wanted to come that night instead of this one. So the leisurely trip became a destination, and the desire to avoid the interstates ringing Richmond meant going the long way around.
And that also is the way of the world right now. It’s harder to be spontaneous, even with family. We live far apart, and we have blended families and broken families and too many permutations of our relationships. We can’t just call up and say, hey, we’re ten minutes away, just passing through, and how about we bring you dinner or dessert, or a nice bottle of wine, and we hang out for a while.
Now everything has been sorted out, of course. One of the advantages of traveling in a small motor home and not having to get back to jobs or other responsibilities is that we can be flexible. We can adjust. Richmond will, I hope, still be there on our way back north in a few weeks. Family can be visited again when we might hope for a smoother connection. There will almost always be a way to choose the roads less travelled if we want to, or take the highway when we need to.
The complicated can usually be simplified.
And that, to, is the world we live in.

Notre Dame is Burning — Long Live Notre Dame

In No Particular Path on April 15, 2019 at 4:48 pm

Notre Dame de Paris is burning.

The date is April 15, 2019. The great cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is burning. As I write this, the roof is destroyed, the great spire has collapsed. I do not yet know if the rose window remains, or the fate of the great works of art that lived inside the cathedral walls. Most are likely gone forever. The building itself may be rebuilt, the parts that survive the fire, the great stone works, may be restored. Yet what remains or what comes next will never be what was.
This is the way of the works of men.
An irony in the tragedy is that it seems likely that the fire struck as restoration on the cathedral was beginning. Notre Dame was dying, crumbling under the weight of more than seven centuries. And a decision had been made to restore it, to give it new life, to keep it a while longer.
I think we may suppose that, like so much else that humans have put upon the Earth, it was inevitable that humans would destroy it, or the Earth would bring it down and cover it over. But this was not supposed to be the time. This was not supposed to be the way. Surely, those who wanted to restore it must have believed they could give it at least some greater measure of immortality, of permanence, however illusionary they might prove in some distant end.
I have often wondered at this idea of the immortality of the works of humans. What is it that drives us to preserve certain select pieces of the past, with the expectation that the future will value them as we do?
There have, at times, been movements in the arts which have celebrated impermanence. The “Happenings” of the 20th century, the works of the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude are high profile examples. But how many of us have built sand castles, drawn on sidewalks with chalk, marveled at ice sculptures, or gasped at fireworks displays. Some arts are by their very nature impermanent. Any live performance is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Every time an actor or a dancer or a musician goes before an audience, the event is new, fleeting, impermanent. Even as long as there are humans to remember it, the memories themselves are shadows of the original.
We can, of course, record these things, just as we will continue to have photographs and paintings and literary descriptions of Notre Dame to helps us remember its grandeur. But our records and our recordings are not the thing itself, and neither will be what goes up where the fire has brought it down.
The truth is, I think, that our attempts at permanence, our striving for immortality for the things we create is a measure of the value we place on things precisely because they are not immortal.
We do not really value immortality for its own sake. Those things we make of plastic, which are virtually indestructible, are mostly utile, cheap, meant for ordinary consumption, meant to be discarded – how ironic to create indestructible objects for impermanent uses. And ironic, too, I suppose. To create impermanent objects for the ages.
It is our mortality, our vulnerability that makes our lives so precious, and that is also true of the things we create.
In Shelley’s “Ozymndias” we are asked to look at the arrogance and futility of our attempts at immortality. In Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” the titular character forestalls his decline and demise through artistic sorcery, but in the end is, as are we all, reduced to dust. The Egyptians mummified the dead, but what remained was no more than a preserved shell of its human occupant, and if exposed to the air for too long, it too would go the way of Dorian Gray. We surround ourselves in art and literature and architecture and all the other arts with reminders of the impossibility of immortality. But we try, anyway.
Cathedrals are especially reflective of the struggle between death and eternal life. This is the central theme of all major religions, that it is possible for us both to die and to live forever.
There will be mourning for Notre Dame, as there is with any great loss. There will be also be discussions of how it might be raised from the dead, what measure of eternal life might still be possible for it. The faithful will not lose their faith, for if Notre Dame can find a way to live forever, then there is hope for us all.
For these are the ways of humans, as it is of all our works.

“I’ve Changed!”: Why expecting forgiveness for past bigotry is just another form of privilege.

In PeaceAble, Politics on February 11, 2019 at 12:50 pm

If you are a white person over the age of 30 in America (I’m trying to be generous here.) you need to accept, understand, acknowledge and learn to deal with the fact that you were raised in a culture that supported, even promoted, racism and white superiority as normal. It was normal for real estate agents to direct people of color away from white communities. It was normal for businesses to reject black job applicants. It was normal for advertising and film to make their heroes and heroines white; their servants, their inferiors, their attackers, their enemies non-white; it was normal to see things like blackface as harmless remnants of minstrel shows and the memory of performers like Al Jolson, and Amos and Andy. It was normal to see native Americans portrayed as either villainous or noble savages. It was normal to assume that non-whites were less intelligent, more violent, poorer, and generally less civilized than whites.
If you are a male of the same age you need to also accept, understand, acknowledge and learn to deal with the fact that you were raised in a culture that supported, even promoted, misogyny and male superiority as normal. It was normal to assume that a man would get paid for his work and a woman would not. It was normal to assume that when a woman was paid, she would be paid less than a man. “The weaker sex” was a normal thing to say about women. It was normal to expect that strong, virile men would be sexually active and non-monogamous, but that only immoral, wicked women would be. It was normal to believe that women were less intelligent, less mechanically inclined, less interested or credible in matters of politics or the world in general, and more suited to domestic duties than men. It was normal to believe that women were intended to serve men, not compete with them.
Because of these things, if you have always been a normal, ordinary white person, it is quite possible that you have, sometime in your life behaved in ways that reflected what that culture was teaching you. Perhaps you went to a Halloween party dressed in blackface, saying “yesiree, boss” as you shuffled along in too-big clothes with patches. Perhaps you went as an “Indian,” with leather fringed clothing and a feather in a head band, saying “kemo sabe” or using “me” instead of “I,” giving out “war whoops” as you did a “war dance” around the room. Perhaps you found it funny to dress up as Charlie Chan and pronounce your Rs like Ls. Perhaps you thought you were not affected by racism because you had some non-white friends or co-workers that you liked. Perhaps you told yourself that it wasn’t Malcolm X’s, or Muhammed Ali’s, or Martin Luther King’s race that was the problem, but their politics.
Because of what the culture had been teaching you since your birth, as a normal, ordinary male, it is quite possible that have, sometime in your life, behaved in ways that reflect the culture’s misogyny and chauvinism. Perhaps you found it disturbing that a woman was put in a position of authority over you. Perhaps you thought that putting a woman on a pedestal was the same as respecting her. Perhaps you thought that being able to seduce a lot of women into sex meant that you “love women.” Perhaps you thought that getting a woman drunk and having sex with her was consensual. Perhaps you thought that a woman you met in a bar should have expected to have sex with you. But you wanted your wife to be a virgin the first time you took her to bed, and you vowed to “kill” any boy who tried anything with your daughter.
If any of this is true, perhaps you don’t see that it should be a big deal now. It’s unfair that there should be consequences now for how things were then. You’ve changed. Times have changed. All that was a long time ago. You apologize, explain, seek redemption and forgiveness, what else can you do?
The argument has always been that human beings are products of their time and their culture, so we should excuse their past behaviors and only judge them on who they are now. The problem with that is that who we are now are products of our own past, and that includes our past prejudices, our past behaviors, and our past privileges. And the people who were subjected to who we were then are also products of that past. Expecting forgiveness is just another expression of the normative privilege we have always enjoyed.
And here’s another thing. The normative rules haven’t really changed all that much. Racism persists. Misogyny persists. Religious bigotry persists. Xenophobia persists. Homophobia persists. Fascism persists. The class system persists. And we are still raising generations of white men who believe that they are the normative measure of all things, who are being taught that cultural change is an assault against them, not just culturally, but individually. They are being taught to fear the change, to see themselves as the victims.
So, what can we do?
We can embrace our own past and learn from it. We can learn to empathize with the other, to see our past in the context of the other’s experience of it, not just our own. We need to become who we say we are now not in spite of our past, but because of it. We need to take personal responsibility for cultural privilege.
We need to shift our focus from proclaiming that we support progressive change in spite of our past to understanding how and why we can support progressive change because of our past. It’s not enough to apologize for past sins and promise that you are a different person today. You need to be able to explain how those sins changed you then, are changing you still, and how they inform your actions today. And if you can’t do that, then expect neither forgiveness nor redemption.
The truth is, it will be difficult for white men to present themselves as the champions of changing cultural norms that have benefitted them for a very, very long time.
Is that unfair? Is it more unfair than the historic injustices suffered by people of color and women?

God, Biology and Choice: Perhaps I Simply Had to Write This

In No Particular Path on November 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm

It is possible that every choice we make is freely made at the moment we make it. This isn’t to say that our choices aren’t influenced by our biological make-up and our present physical conditions, our past experiences and knowledge, our perceptions, our psychological and emotional states, our beliefs and our relationships with others who are involved in the choice; but all those things are simply data we use in making a determination about our choices, not the choices themselves. And the degree of influence any one factor may exert at any moment will certainly vary. In the end, though, we choose, and the choice is ours to make.
Another possibility is that our choices aren’t choices at all, but are predetermined by the path set for us by a deity or deities. In that case, we are simply puppets of the divine, who is working out some plan beyond our influence or understanding. All the influences that may affect a free will choice would be part of the overall experience, but wouldn’t change the choice itself. We may ask ourselves why we chose as we did and what plan the divine is using us for, or why the divine has directed others to behave as they do; but the responsibility for the choice itself isn’t ours or anyone else’s. We also have to consider whether everything is predetermined: every triumph, every tragedy, every disaster and every celebration.
The third possibility is that our choices are biologically predetermined; we are genetically pre-programmed to behave in certain ways. In this case, there may be a certain randomness in the universe itself; the movements of the cosmos, for example, are events which may affect us, as are all the influences under free will, but our specific response to those influences at any one moment is predetermined by our biology and the biology of all our evolutionary and ancestral history. As with divine predestination, we have no personal responsibility for our choices, nor does anyone else; we are simply leaves tossed on the wind, vulnerable to the forces of nature, but unable to make a deliberate choice about what is happening to us. We can, if our biological make-up predisposes us to it, question how those forces led us to this place, but the questions and any answers we arrive at would simply be an extension of our biological predetermination.
It is also possible that we have some free choice, but it is limited. Either the divine or our biological nature gives us the ability to make choices, but only with regard to the details of the trajectory, not the trajectory itself. We have freedom to choose, but only within predetermined limits set for us according to our biological make-up or our assigned place in god’s plan.
In any event, the larger question, for me anyway, is “so what?” Does it really matter whether all this is “real” or not? If I walk out the door and decide to turn left rather than right, does it really matter in any practical way whether that choice was an event in the moment or a predestined action. I will, in any case, experience the action according to what I believe to be the reality. If I believe I am making the choice I will experience the process of consideration, weighing the relevant influences, thinking about the possible consequences, deciding on my course of action and acting. And while the discussion of the possibilities makes for a wonderful philosophical exercise, and is certainly useful as a way to try to understand what it means to be human, unless I am able to separate myself from my perceptions, it makes no difference.
In other words, there is really no practical sense in which the reality of free will or predestination changes my responsibility in this life for my actions.
Suppose I believe that everything I choose is predetermined. Then that belief would also be predetermined. If I then use that belief as a reason to leave my life to whatever happens, without trying to deliberately choose a course of action, telling myself that nothing I do is in my control, then I have a dilemma. The rest of the world may still assign credit or blame to me for my actions, and generate consequences based on that. I may not like the consequences, but really have no complaint, because all of this would have to be part of the same predetermined reality that I claim to believe in. If I believe that I have a choice, on the other hand, then I can certainly examine my choices to see if they fit some standard of ethics, morals, or logic; and use that to argue for their rightness.
In the same way, debate about god’s existence can make for an interesting exercise in trying to understand the nature of the universe and the place of humans in that universe, but my beliefs will be part of what creates my experience, and they will help to shape my choices, the consequences of those choices, and the direction of my path. I cannot, of course, no matter how devoutly I might wish it, impose my belief wholly onto anyone else and make them see the world as I see it, or expect them to act in the world according to my perceptions.
In other words, either god exists or does not. There are no other possibilities. The differences between beliefs are only in how we define god. Our beliefs are in our definitions and vice-versa. There are a great many ideas of god in which I do not believe; and I suspect that a great many people would not believe in my ideas of god. So what? We are all human beings, limited by our humanness to flawed perceptions of any god that might exist. And since our definitions and perceptions are limited and flawed, so are the choices we might make based on those perceptions. We can use our idea of god to explain our actions, but we cannot expect others to see things our way just because our beliefs are sincere.
If my actions lead to consequences that are harmful to others, it is unreasonable to assume that my religious beliefs and convictions are exculpatory. I am still responsible for my own actions in any practical interpretation of what that responsibility is. To come to any other conclusion would be to treat my religious beliefs as a form of mental illness (a conclusion to which far too many evangelical atheists are willing to leap), in which I would claim that I am not responsible for my actions because my god made it impossible for me to understand them, to make rational choices about them, to understand their consequences, and to choose to act any differently.
A belief in free will, the ability of humans to make choices as independent individuals, is necessary for any sense of morality, personal responsibility, ethics, and judgment. It is also, of course, the foundation of guilt, blame, shame, and regret. But it can be used, as well, for conscious change, for correction, for discipline, for redemption. Absent free will apology is just a mindless exercise, an illusion. Without free will, punishment is simply cruel and pointless. Without free will, we do not affect our existence, it affects us.
It doesn’t matter at all whether all of this is an illusion. It is within the illusion that we must live, by the very nature of the illusion itself and our limited ability as humans to perceive it (as opposed to theorize about it) or to act outside of it.

The Learned Hypocrisy of Being Human

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Uncategorized on July 30, 2018 at 10:44 am

To be human is to live in contradiction.
Perfect consistency is impossible for us. We think too much; we feel too much; we believe too much. We invented philosophy and science, and art, and morality. And every time we think that these have given us an answer that is final, that is absolute, that we can rely on, that is true, the world changes and we change and the answers have to change as well.
But change is hard, so we cling as long as possible to the old truths, accepting only what in our pain and our grief and our fear we can no longer deny; and contorting ourselves to make everything fit. We shake our heads in disbelief at our own contradictions, and label others’ inconsistencies as hypocrisy.
But it’s really just all of us being human.
I just read something that asked the question, “How could we go so abruptly from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?” How could the same country elect an erudite, scholarly, compassionate and thoughtful leader, then replace him with a crude, anti-intellectual, self-aggrandizing, impulsive one? Which of these very opposite men really represents who we are?
The answer is, of course, that they both do.
We have evolved into creatures who deal with the natural conflicts and dangers of the world by contriving to make them more contentious and more dangerous. There are real solutions to the real problems of the world. There are more than sufficient resources. But we allow our worst traits, our basest instincts, our superstitions and prejudices and fear to rule us; we hoard our resources instead of using them, we reject comprehensive solutions to complex problems in favor of simplistic analyses and short-sighted solutions. We proclaim our desire for peace and understanding, we pray for the relief of suffering and ask why we can’t all just get along; but we refuse to do what is necessary to achieve those things. If we can’t see a way to fix something right now, for all time, without any sacrifice or compromise on our part, we tell ourselves that no solution exists at all.
We are simultaneously all that is good in the world and all that is evil. And every choice we make is a choice to turn in the direction of one or the other. Our moral compass is broken and we have lost our ability to find our way in the wilderness.
We are polarized because we have made a choice to declare ourselves only half of who we are, and to further assert that our chosen half of this bifurcated self is the only acceptable truth, the only reality.
The contradictions remain, of course, but rather than acknowledge them and try to understand how they make us whole, we either deny them or tie ourselves in knots trying to fit them into the incomplete self we cling to.
We do not live linear lives. Our stories are told first in stream of consciousness, and we try to understand who we are by rewriting the stories until they make sense; but each story needs to make sense on its own as well as finding a place in the whole anthology of our lives, and we need to forget so much to make that happen.
I am a man and a male. How can I change the normative misogyny and chauvinism of the culture unless I can acknowledge that it lives within me? I can’t remove it from my experience, from the teachings that shaped me. It’s there. It always will be. But when I allow myself to see it I am better able to see my way forward; so that there may come a time when we will have raised a generation that never learned it in the first place. I’m not a feminist because I have never seen the feminine as less, but because I have, and I am working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I come most directly from pink-skinned European ancestors. How can I change the normative xenophobia and racism of the culture unless I acknowledge that I carry within me the same learned fear of the other, of the different, that I wish to change? I don’t seek racial justice and equality because I have never felt afraid, but because I have, and I’m working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I am cisgender and heterosexual. How can I change the normative homophobia of the culture unless I acknowledge that I have feared and felt shamed by the feminine in myself, that I have questioned my own capacity for intimacy, both emotional and physical, with both women and men? I don’t fight for the humanity of those who are homosexual, or bisexual, or transgendered, or gender non-conforming, or to allow everyone to love whomever they love because I was never told that my feminine was weakness and abomination, but because I was; and I’m trying to change that in myself as well in the society.
If we are going to tell our stories authentically and honestly and make it possible for others to do the same, then we cannot forget, cannot leave out, the parts that make us contradictory, inconsistent, and even sometimes hypocritical.
There is no high road or low road; there is only the path we have walked thus far, with its hills and valleys, its twists and turns and detours, its dark passages and glorious vistas; for there is no way forward except from where we are right now.

What’s Holding You Back?

In PeaceAble, Politics on June 22, 2018 at 10:57 am

During the last election, there were people who said that if Donald Trump was elected they would leave the country. Others said that if Hillary Clinton was elected they would leave. Of course, very few of them intended to leave and even fewer made any effort to go.
Why would they? How would the election of either candidate have affected the comfort and privilege of their lives sufficiently to cause them to give any of it up.
So, I am going to ask you to step back from the current reality of your life for a moment and try to imagine a different life. How bad would things have to be for you?
What level of poverty or oppression would you have to endure?
How much would you need to fear for your own life or the lives of your children?
What level of violence on the part of criminals or your own government would cause you to flee?
Now imagine that you are a resident of Florida and the only place you could get to where you might be safe is Canada. But you can no longer just put your passport in your pocket and drive there, passing a charming border guard with a slight French accent who tells you to have a nice day and enjoy your visit. Instead, you have to save up, out of your meager salary, giving up some of the essentials of day-to-day survival, six months’ or a year’s salary or income in order to pay a smuggler to get you across the entire continent and over the border in secret.
And imagine that the smuggler might be just as dangerous, just as likely to rob or rape or kill you as any of the gangs or government thugs you are fleeing. Imagine that it means you will likely suffer extremes of heat or cold, of hunger, of lack of shelter, of illness; and there will be no relief or assistance. Imagine that the journey means risking your life.
Finally, imagine that you have heard that when you get to the border you will be treated as a dangerous criminal rather than as a refugee. You may be arrested and your children taken away by force or deception, and you might never see them again nor know what fate you have brought them to. You may be sent home, to the place you have fled, into the clutches of your worst fears, your ugliest nightmares.
Now go back to the questions we began with. Knowing these things, how much worse, how much more dangerous, more oppressed, more unbearable would your life have to be to get you on the move?
Our government would have you believe that cages are summer camp; that it is a simple matter of law and these people are, by definition, criminals; that the issue is not their humanity, not what they have suffered; they would have you believe that we are the real victims here, that we must protect ourselves from the other.
If compassion for the human beings at our border, and disgust or outrage at the way our government is treating them is not enough; then perhaps you need to move to empathy. Put yourself, just for a moment, into their lives. Step away from the assumptions and expectations of your current reality and imagine one that would lead you to do what they have done.
And while you’re at it, step back from your assumptions and expectations of the rights and privileges of our constitutional government and imagine that you have become the Jew in pre-war Germany. Imagine that we have seen the rise of a fascist, dictatorial, white-nationalist government. And imagine, because you must, that we are almost there. What do you imagine you will be able and willing to do about that?

Media and Murder: Why “fixing” violence in popular entertainment won’t stop mass shootings, but we may want to do it anyway.

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Politics on February 28, 2018 at 12:39 pm

 

In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting there has been a new round of discussions about how to prevent such tragedies.  And one of the ideas being pressed by people who really don’t want to talk about things like gun control is the old claim that we need to do something about violent video games and movies.

 

The available evidence, however suggests two seemingly contradictory ideas: first, violence in video games and movies (or any other media) does not cause people to commit mass murder; second, we should nonetheless work to reduce the amount of graphic violence in entertainment media.

 

The idea that video games or movies are to blame seems to surface only when the killer is a teenager or very young adult.  The average age of U.S. mass shooters, however, is 35.  And, although the average age of video game users is around 31, the largest number (29%) of users are under 18; but that percentage is not significantly higher than 18-35 (27%) or 50+ (26%).  In addition, only 20% of video games are “shooter” games, and as video game sales have increased significantly, violent crime rates have remained steady or shown decreases.  And even in individual cases, there has never been any clear link between the actions of any mass shooter and his consumption of violent media.  In other words, there is no evidence that suggests the use of violent video games or watching violence in films or on TV has any causative relationship to mass shootings.

 

Most media studies seem to suggest that entertainment reflects popular attitudes and serves to reinforce them, but does not directly cause them. Think of it this way: if you are going to make a movie or design a game that will appeal to as large a segment of the population as possible, you won’t try to change what they want, you will try to discover what they already want and give them more of it.  In other words, people aren’t expressing themselves violently because popular entertainment is violent; popular entertainment is violent because people are expressing themselves that way.  And there are a great many social and cultural factors involved in that. 

 

It has long been observed that movies, in particular, reflect the times in which they are made.  During World War II, for example, Hollywood made a lot of movies showing the heroism of our fighting forces, the evils of our enemies, and the courage of Americans on the home front.  Following the Vietnam conflict, an unpopular war, there were a lot of films that showed the horrors of war, the physical and psychological effects of war on both troops and the general populace.  When Ronald Reagan was elected and the country seemed to be shifting back in a more conservative direction, we saw more movies about the cold war and home-town heroes rising up to defend against Soviet invasion, and movies that revised the Vietnam narrative and the idea of the super-soldier.  As things improved and the cold war ended, film began to reflect more positively on human relationships.  But since 9/11 amid renewed fears of terrorism and attack, we have seen a great many more movies about superheroes and the military, with ever increasing amounts of violence.  When people are afraid, Hollywood gives them superheroes of all kinds.

 

But there is in that realization cause for concern.  If the violence of our entertainments is a reflection of who we are, is this who we want to be?  And what is the danger in that?

 

One lesson of the women’s movement and its attempts to deal with misogyny in American culture has been that media is extremely important in the reinforcement of cultural norms, and that culture changes much more slowly than social awareness or changes in law or individual behavior.  Much has changed with respect to the role of women in the workplace, but events of the last two years have shown that the culturally normative idea that women exist subservient to the power and fantasies and physical needs of men remains firmly in place.  And just as the cultural norms cling to archaic views of men and women, it also clings to normative fantasies about the military, American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and violence as a solution to problems of violence.

 

American culture continues to tell us two things of relevance here.  First, it tells white, heterosexual, Christian, American males that they have reason to be afraid, primarily of the “other.”  And, second, it continues to try to frame the solutions to that fear in fantasies of superheroes and militaristic violence, weapons of enormous destruction, and personal heroism.  Notice, as something of an aside, that greater awareness of the ubiquity of violence against women has coincided with an increase in the number of movies involving female superheroes, females in the military, and female characters equal to men in their capacity for violence.  Our culture, as reflected in our popular entertainment, values the capacity for violence as a measure of our ability to respond to our fears.

 

The graphic and excessive violence of popular media shows us, in other words, that we have a much deeper problem of violence embedded in The American culture, and we need to address that.  So, what can we do?  How do we change the culture?

 

Media in America are profit driven.  They respond to what media consumers tell them they want.  If we tell them, through our purchase of video games, our attendance at movies, our TV habits, that we want more militarism, more police action, more superheroes, more personal heroism, more graphic depictions of more violent responses to conflict, more reinforcement of our fears about those who are different from us; then that is what  we will get, and we can expect that there will be more and more incidents of people trying to solve their problems by taking large, extremely deadly weapons to places where they can kill as many people as possible.  There is no reason, except the public’s appetite for it, that superhero films, or vigilante films, or action video games need to show scenes of extremely graphic, extremely destructive violence.  If the public were to decide, in large enough numbers, that they no longer want to be told that the solution to violence is more and greater violence; if they were to stop paying good money to go to the latest big-budget superhero blockbuster; if they were to not go out to get the latest version of Grand Theft Auto; then the media would stop making those things.

 

But that’s a hard thing to do.  Most of the people I know really love the latest dark manifestations of Marvel fantasy characters.  They like a good action movie with lots of enormous guns being fired, lots of big explosions going off, and lots of hugely muscled heroes killing lots of ugly, despicable villains.  And real cultural change would require us to give some of that up.  We would have to dial it down.  We would have to start playing games that require more nuanced solutions, we would have to start patronizing films, even superhero and military films, that require less graphic on-screen violence to arrive at a climax.

 

It is a myth that watching violence purges us of violent feelings.  Do you leave a violent game or a violent movie thinking, “wow, that’s great; now I don’t feel like I need to do that in real life,” or do you leave thinking, “I am so energized, so pumped up, that I think I could (or wish I could) be a hero like that in real life”? 

 

There is no single solution to the problem of violence and the increase in the kind of mass murder we have witnessed in Parkland, in Las Vegas, and in so many other of our schools, our malls, our concert venues, our churches and our public spaces.  We need a comprehensive approach that combines a variety of strategies.  Most of those strategies are well known, but cannot work in isolation from one another.  Certainly, passing a lot of new laws and regulations about violence in entertainment won’t make a huge difference by itself.  But all of these things can make a difference if we begin to take a hard look at how our culture, through it’s entertainment, its other public media, its politics and its policies, reinforces the idea that our problems can be solved by more and greater violence.

 

As consumers of public media and popular entertainment we can change the culture if we have the will to do it.  It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but long term effective solutions rarely are.  What ideas about violence are you helping to reinforce by how you spend your entertainment dollar and your leisure time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Could It Happen Here?

In PeaceAble, Politics on February 19, 2018 at 11:40 am

After yet another mass shooting like that in Parkland, Florida, last week, there are always the same responses. But I’m not talking about the calls for banning certain guns or the calls to arm even more people; I’m not talking about the thoughts and prayers; and I’m not talking about those who want more locks and scanners and cameras and armed security guards; though I will show a connection in a bit.
I’m talking about the “how could it happen here” response.
Why are people always so surprised that the same violence that has happened in so many other places is possible where they live?
The reason is simple. We need to believe that all kinds of bad things happen to other people, and (as the President suggested in his first reaction to the shooting) that the victims share some responsibility for what happened. There must be something different, we tell ourselves, about those people or those places where these things occur.
The reality, unfortunately, is that the difference more and more seems to be only that it hasn’t happened here . . . yet.
But the response is an indication of several problems with how we approach serious issues and tragic events.
First, it is an expression of unconscious assumptions of privilege and specialness. It suggests that there are places where we might expect such things to happen, even believe that it is acceptable for them to happen there. People are currently harking back to the Columbine shootings of 1999, but that was not the first time there had been a shooting in an American school. In fact, in January 1989, a lone gunman using an AK-47 killed five children and wounded 29 in Stockton, California. From 1992-1999 there were more than two hundred homicides in school shootings in the U.S.

What changed with Columbine was the erroneous perception that those sorts of things only happened in cities like New York or Chicago, and mainly among groups of non-white, poor populations. Columbine brought it into a middle class community in middle America. The other thing that happened was that the television age caught up with the shootings. Columbine was an instance of children shooting children, there was no obvious cause or reason for it, and the news media, reinforced by the rise of twenty-four hour cable news, ran with the story.
Second, it suggests that there is some way to isolate or protect ourselves from the things that are happening to others. After Columbine, schools started installing metal detectors in schools. Since then, we have seen the imposition a host of security protocols, installation of a variety electronic devices, and the introduction of both armed and unarmed security and police. But the number of incidents, the number of deaths per incident, and the deadliness of the weapons have all increased. What we have not seen is any real attempt to understand why these things happen or to deal with the real problems. We need to understand that turning our schools into prisons and fortresses or arming ourselves to the teeth won’t stop the carnage.
Third, the response suggests that there is some moment in time, some singular incident, that will finally mobilize us to do something, anything, to prevent these things; though there is no consensus as to what that might be. While I commend the actions of Parkland students to organize a national walk-out, to call out the NRA and politicians who offer platitudes instead of solutions, I have difficulty hoping that these actions will prove ultimately effective in making the Parkland students, as expressed by student Emma Gonzalez, remembered as the last students to die in a mass shooting at a school. If Columbine led only to more security and no long-term solutions, if Sandy Hook didn’t lead to lasting change, why should this? As long as people believe that it won’t happen here, and only do what they think will protect themselves, lasting change won’t happen. Until every community, especially those that have not yet suffered such a tragedy, can come out in forced to demand change, it won’t happen. Until people stop waiting for it to happen to them before they demand change, it won’t happen.
It isn’t unreasonable for people to be shocked when events hit close to home. We have been far too accustomed since at least the 1950’s duck-and-cover drills to living in fear. Far too much of our national life is lived in fear, far too many of our national policies are motivated by fear, and far too much of what we are sold by both politicians and corporations is based on fear. Part of the shock of these events is not that we thought we were safe, but that we feared we weren’t; and our fears have been realized. But to find our way to effective solutions to the things that divide us, that make us afraid, that move so many to violence we need to be fearless. We need to dare to stand up and stand out, to take to the streets, to make our voices heard. And we must do this before it affects us directly, before we become directly victims. We need to understand that we are all already victims. Our society is already a victim, our democracy is already a victim, our way of life is already a victim. And we must stand up to the forces that tell us to be quiet.
Instead of asking ourselves, “How could this happen here, to us?”, we should be asking ourselves, “How do we keep it from happening anywhere, to anybody?” But the answer to that question will require a whole lot more than just banning a few weapons or building some new defenses.

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