An End to Imprisonment

The line sounds impossible.  How could we ever do without imprisoning offenders? Surely, we would be overrun by criminals unchecked by even a non-violent punishment such as incarceration.  We have become a society formed by repression, repression of our fears and our prejudices and our wounds.  We fear the criminal.  We hate the other, especially those we see as part of another race or class (or, even more disturbingly, we hate the other who is part of the class we believe we should no longer be a part of).  We destroy ourselves with drugs and alcohol, abuse of our loved ones, and medically destructive life styles.  So we incarcerate and repress.

The practice we have adopted is pathological.  We currently hold either the 1st or 2nd place in the world in terms of the percentage of our population held in custody, depending on whose numbers you read.  Freedom is not a value in the United States of America.  Only if we ignore the fact that many of our criminals are non-violent offenders, medically and psychologically in need rather than a threat to you or me, do we have even the shadow of a chance of grounding our penal practice.  The fact is that as a nation we are very sick.  We destroy lives rather than listen and cooperate to see all our members flourish.  We are more like a viral infection than a citizenry.

Incarceration is a crime.  It has no rehabilitative value in almost all cases.  Dehumanizing a woman because of, in many, if not most, cases, psychological disorder is hateful.  And literally millions are being dehumanized via forced confinement in the United States.  If this issue is not the most pressing issue of our time, it certainly reaches to the top of the list.  Our nation must reform.  Not to do so is to risk a guilty blindness to a political and moral tragedy playing out on our own land.  Imagination and tolerance and science are our only way forward.

Patriotism or Citizenship

As we move deeper and deeper into the current election year, civic virtues and their place in our lives takes a central place in my reflections.  Democracy, for instance, is inefficient and makes decisions which are less than optimal, as the mean of our individual choices is not intelligent but average.  And thus we have Donald Trump.  Average is mean spirited and fearful of the inescapable wave of changes that the future brings.  Average wants to maintain the status quo.  But in a world of evolution, change is the only constant and the status quo is a dangerous, usually bigoted, delusion.

 

Trump is good for something, of course.  He exposes the blindness of patriotism.  Patriots are not principled defenders of the right, the good and the true.  They are nationalists, and nationalism is as ugly today as it was in 1944.  The fact that patriotic Republicans take Trump to be a well-informed representative of the right reveals the fact that those patriots are blinded by fear-mongers, with Trump in the lead.

 

I was a soldier once.  I risked my life for the United States of America.  I have a love for the land of America, and my community is my home.  But I do not love America above all else.  I love the people of Costa Rica and Iraq and Greece and Mexico.  Canada’s vastness is a treasure as is China’s expanse.  In my dreams, Africa’s many states are overrun with wealth.  Try selling that vision.

 

Trump risks nothing.  Everyone knows that hate and fear are blockbusters.  We are built preloaded with the in-group/out-group software installed.  The real challenge is stripping ourselves of the bullshit we are programmed with and becoming the seeds of intentional communities.  So try something new.  Be a citizen of the Earth or the coming Kingdom, but, please, God, do not tell me you are a patriot.  Besides, I have more medals than you.

Philosophy and Friendship

Philosophy is not generally thought of as a social force or a means of healing. My general impression is that academic philosophy is a force for division and it leaves more psychic wounds than it ever heals. But this is my personal impression based on an academic career that was troubled by drugs and alcohol and mental illness. Academia, however, is not the only place to practice philosophy. Philosophy is alive in the living rooms and coffee shops where friends gather to speculate about our mysterious existence. In my mind, that is where philosophical friendship thrives.

Philosophical friendship, as far as I can tell, builds rather than tears down. So much of academic philosophy is given to the adversarial picture of how to stake out a position: the opposition must be destroyed in order to clear cut land for building one’s own position. But I have been blessed to have stumbled into a group of hungry minds who do not operate under the adversarial picture. Instead, my circle of philosophers is a circle of friends, mostly in their 80s, confronting questions of health and mortality, worried over the political and economic and environmental legacy we will leave the following generations. They are genuinely curious about how to make sense of human life. And they respect each other to the point that they listen and build on one another’s insights. There is no clear cutting.

This picture of philosophical friendship is radically different from the picture we have in American life of how to pursue, for example, economic and political questions. There is little room for truth in the American debates because the aim is not discovery but victory. We do not value truth or beauty. If we pay attention to the intellectual landscape, we must prize fear and anger, and winning over everything.

But that picture is one that leads to death. Spiritual death. The life of the soul, as I read it, is deepest when we confront the unknown. The American way cannot handle the unknown. What we confront must be reduced to an object, fully understood when it has its pay off realized. To confront and appreciate the unknown is to have the insight that all is false, every insight misses the mark. And with that we come to realize that we are on an endless journey of discovery. We do not make the mark, but we continue to get closer. And every miss is an insight.

Perhaps in death we make the mark. I do not know, but I have hope. Along the way, though, I have friends.

Delusions and Philosophy

Several years ago my life came apart. All my life seemed to have been building to that time, with ongoing struggles over drugs and alcohol, depression and paranoia. Somehow, though, the struggles were seen as a sort of moral failure rather than the effects of a maladaptive brain. In that moral light, the question was how I could be so weak or so cruel rather than seeing the important questions as questions of causality and health.

It is still difficult for me to look on those recurring disturbed episodes in my life as anything less than a moral failure on my part. We have been trained, after all, to categorize actions in terms of right and wrong, guilt or innocence, freedom or coercion. That moral language demands moral activity: I must assert my will and make the right choice.

The more I learn about behavior and cognition, the less my moral language appears accurate or useful. Moral language is a relic of a discredited dualistic belief system… even if that language is still alive today. Human psychology is too enmeshed in the world to speak simply of freedom. We make choices, certainly, but the many causes of any given choice are impossible to tease out in any intellectually satisfying way.

So that time of mental unravelling in my life, was it a failure on my part or the culmination of a series of biological and sociological blunders? Both, I suppose. My mental hygiene was not very sound, as is the case for so many of us who are found on the schizophrenic spectrum. I often enough sought psychological help only to reject the help offered when my paranoia drove me to believe that my doctor, for instance, was a criminal in hiding, living under a false identity. Am I to blame for how I acted when overwhelmed by such delusions? The question is unhelpful. What we really should be asking is how to prevent the episodes of paranoia, how to recognize when they are in the process of developing and how to react once a paranoid episode has taken off.

Philosophical practice cannot address a medical crisis such as a delusion in full bloom. (Anyone who says otherwise is, in my mind, an irresponsible quack.) Philosophy, if it is anything, is an attempt to make meaning or find value in the world. Such concerns are important, but hardly seem relevant to the immediate need of the woman grappling with schizoaffective disorder. Real healing grounded in our material reality is what is needed most.

What philosophical practice offers is a process of making room in my life for the delusions of the past. I can look upon paranoia as an opportunity, a way of making my soul with my own hands. But what comes first is health, not valuing or soul-making. What that really tells me is that love is the virtue of a new order, because love does not seek to force any of us to fit into an artificial moral mold. We must embrace the world as we find it, even ourselves, or we fail to live in reality.

Apophatic Theodicy

Ten years ago a tsunami ripped through the Indian Ocean claiming more than a quarter of a million lives and displacing nearly two million more. In the face of such devastation, horrified silence is the only proper response I can think of; but many voices arose, claiming that God is clearly dead or that God was again cleansing the earth. It was against these voices that David Bentley Hart wrote The Doors of the Sea.

Hart’s Doors did little to calm the furor. The book drips with contempt for Hart’s interlocutors. As a work of theology it fails to attain to love, and as a work of rational reflection it fails, well, to be rational. Richard Dawkins has dismissed Hart’s theology as apophatuous. This is unfortunate, as Hart gives no evidence of appreciating the profound demands of silence.

But let me linger for a moment to consider the text. Take, by way of example, Hart’s attempt at defending God on apophatic grounds early in the book:

Unless one can see the beginning and end of all things, unless one possesses a divine, eternal vantage upon all of time, unless one knows the precise nature of the relation between divine and created freedom, unless indeed one can fathom infinite wisdom, one can draw no conclusions from finite experience regarding the coincidence in God of omnipotence and perfect goodness. One may still hate God for worldly suffering, if one chooses, or deny him, but one cannot in this way ‘disprove’ him. (pgs. 13-14)

The defense here would be laughable were the issue not so serious. Hart goes wrong by taking the atheist to say anything at all about omnipotence and perfect goodness. What the atheist objects to is calling God loving as well as powerful enough to intervene in the course of nature and history. Love is a perfectly familiar and ordinary sort of concept, so the atheist is surely on firm footing here. Similar points can be made about intervening in nature and history (although human attempts at such interventions have a horrible track record).

Hart, of course, wants to move the conversation to another level, a theological level. He wants our vocabulary to be restricted by the uses of theologians and Church fathers. One problem with doing so is that Hart has already as much as admitted that God’s wisdom, power and love are beyond our comprehension. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent… or something along those lines. Wittgenstein’s admonition is both an ethical tautology and a metaphysical fact about meaning.

I have suggested that there is another problem with Hart’s apophatic defense. That issue is simply this: it is not the atheist who is burdened with defending her position but the Christian. We make extraordinary claims about the unseen, claims on which we have often enough staked our reputations and lives, claims we believe have the power to transform human life itself. The atheist, on the other hand, the best among them, thinks things are as she thinks they are, to steal a line from Wallace Stevens. Things are as we find them and nothing more…. She has no patience for the postmodern mojo that would wrap everything in shadows.

The problem with the atheist position, if there is one, is that she must take care to not trust in her intuitions. She must let her intuitions be trained. Otherwise she falls victim to the tyranny of common sense. But, of course, that is not a problem really, but an expectation of intellectual honesty. The atheist’s position is one of moral responsibility, a position Hart could learn a lot from.

It strikes me as interesting that Hart’s theology, not being a Western Christian, is so wedded to scholastic philosophy. Intellectual responsibility, one would think, demands a rejection of a metaphysics and epistemology developed in almost complete ignorance of the various mechanisms at work in nature and psychology science has uncovered over the last few centuries. The development of scholastic philosophy strikes me as the epitome of religion developed without the benefit of deep experience of God…. an experience that demands silence.

What is a Christian to do in the face of overwhelming tragedy? In the Gospel of John, Jesus addresses human suffering and Christian hope:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. (Jn 16: 20-21)

We Christians can say nothing more than that we hope for some sort of transformative apocalypse, a revelation that will wipe away all tears, give meaning and value to the suffering endured during this life, and reconcile us all to one another and to nature. In other words, the Christian does not have anything to add. Silence and enduring with our brothers and sisters is the only gift we have to give.

Veterans as Pseudo-Experts

Chris Marvin, a former soldier who was wounded in Afghanistan in a helicopter crash, is on a campaign to strip away the illusion of the wounded warrior. The only problem is, the wounded warrior picture is no illusion.

A 2007 study found that fully 31% of OEF/OIF veterans seen at VA facilities received mental health and/or psychosocial diagnoses. Given the fact that mental health issues and alcohol abuse are grievously underreported, not to mention the well-documented fact that mental health issues are generally ignored due to military culture, it is very likely that the numbers of veterans suffering from mental illness could be well above those reported.

The problem with the media attention given to Mr Marvin is that veterans are not informed experts. An analogy makes the situation clear: a person with a brain is not an expert on neurology simply because she has a brain.

Giving credence to the uninformed is dangerous. For one, suicide, drug abuse, and mental illness are ravaging the veteran community right now and we need interventions. And for another, our democracy depends on a well-informed electorate, an electorate that is informed by the media. But the media is failing by taking the easy route of praising a veteran who has taken a voice for himself rather than exposing the lack of factual grounds for his position as well as the real damage Marvin is doing to the campaign to heal our wounded vets.

Ignorance is always dangerous, but in this case it is truly damaging.

Racial Bias and the Stigmatization of Police

With the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York as well as the senseless murder of two New York Police officers, the nation must face two truths: black men are marked as dangerous, violent criminals and police officers are stigmatized even as they risk their lives for us. In facing those tough truths, I want to ask the simple but difficult question of what is to be done. The answer requires deep, hard honesty and a practical vision.

 

In a recent Gallup poll on American confidence in our institutions, only 53% of respondents answered that they have a great deal or quite a bit of confidence in our police officers. That is a dangerously low number when officers must step into harm’s way for us every day. Why do I say that number is dangerously low? In part, at least, because what seems to be implied by the 47% who expressed limited to no confidence in the police is that a large portion of our population sees the police as a hostile force.

 

We may wish that the murder of NYPD officers Ramos and Liu were the result of a single sick mind, but the social forces at work argue to the contrary. The murders were the natural outcropping of a diseased relationship between police and US citizens.

 

Some argue that the underlying bigotry of our society is magnified by police power, and that this institutionalization of injustice causes the apparently justified stigmatization of police officers. A recent New York Times article by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan pointed out that in first-person shooter simulations, African-American characters are shot at higher rates than others even when they are not holding weapons and the shooters are asked to distinguish between hostile and non-hostile characters. And police officers are the very sorts of people who must make snap judgments about whether someone is aggressive or not. So, it would be not all that surprising if officers’ judgments were found to be motivated by unconscious prejudice.

 

Mullainathan points out that the bias found in the study mentioned above is part of our “fast-thinking,” a form of thinking plagued by unconscious bigotry, but that a slower, more deliberate process can help to mitigate the effects of some of our deeply ingrained prejudices. So how do we translate this lesson into action that protects our officers and helps to heal our racial divisions?

 

Part of a solution is already at work in mental health facilities. When patients take up aggressive behavior, many mental health facilities now have a practice of calling out a code for all available staff to converge on the location of the patient. No action is taken until the staff are present in sufficient numbers, sometimes numbering as many as 15 or more staff members. This protects both staff and patient. If force is necessary to subdue an aggressive patient, staff members can immobilize the patient’s limbs without much force at all. The staff are also protected from the risk of being overpowered, and they have secondary support should something go wrong. Finally, the team of staff members can make a plan for confronting the patient with the use of as little force as is necessary, and execute that plan in a calm and responsible fashion.

 

The officer who confronted Michael Brown was placed in a terrible situation. Police officers should not confront suspects without the numbers necessary to allow officers to make calm, well-calibrated choices. But as it is now, we expect the police to risk their safety, and that puts everyone at risk.

 

As for the Eric Garner case, it seems to me that the officers involved got away with murder. If the mental health facility model was used, and Garner had been talked through the situation without physical force being used until absolutely necessary, Garner would likely still be alive. But the officers involved acted on instinct, apparently. Fast, prejudiced thinking led to the death of Eric Garner.

 

The tragedy of the two NYPD officers could also have been avoided, if officers had been deployed in groups sufficient to confront an individual in a safe and responsible way. True, the officers were ambushed and their murderer planned an execution. But a group of officers providing security for one another is much more difficult to take by surprise than two officers sitting in a squad car. We failed officers Ramos and Liu by failing to imagine how to protect them and our community at one and the same time.

 

Healing the wounded relationship between the community and our police will take time. If we can protect our officers by deploying them in the numbers necessary to slow down their thinking and protect their safety, then we will set conditions for less violent and less dangerous interactions with the police. In turn, this new situation will allow officers to act on their better instincts, rather than the prejudices which infect us all when we are put in fast-thinking, high-stress environments. A noble profession deserves the chance to show its nobility, and our communities need our police officers.