Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Isolationism in Online Communities

As I've mentioned before, my FB feed is often the source of fascinating material to write about. Here's a snapshot from my feed recently:

I have a feeling that I may be the one whose posts have now been hidden, although the timing is a bit off - I haven't written a blog post on the subject of guns in a little while. I may also have been hidden by this individual some time ago for the same reason.

My purpose here isn't to embarrass or criticize an individual, which is why I tried to hide all of the identifying information. I'm also not interested here in the specific issue or the positions on it. Rather, it's the response itself I find fascinating. It's a celebration of isolationism, a "three cheers" for blocking oneself off from people who disagree with you.

I agree that people who disagree can sometimes be disagreeable about it, but that's another matter entirely. And I am willing to guess that the use of the term "ignorant" here is a synonym for "thinks differently from me". Even in cases where somebody is, in fact, ignorant (that is, lacks certain information) about a topic, I may still learn something by listening to what they have to say. Ignorance is not a moral failing, but we tend to treat it as one.

This is the sort of "citizenship" that I wrote about earlier in the Brexit context. If we're going to live in community - whether in physical space or the virtual world, or often both - we need to do better than simply shutting out the folks who disagree with us. I'm not saying that we should all bathe ourselves in a mass of opposing views. And negativity is certainly worth avoiding, because of the psychic costs it brings. But disagreement and negativity are not the same thing - and if we avoided all negativity on the internet, we'd shut the whole thing down anyway...

Ultimately, people are going to do what they want to do. If you want to shut out the views of those who think differently, you can do that - FB has apparently made it easy to do so. But don't then complain that you live in a world in which nobody listens to your side anymore. They will only be following your example.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit and the Fundamental Problem of Human Communities

The Brexit vote which shocked the world this past week has raised a lot of questions, from the local and immediate (who is going to do what in the UK government?) to the global and sweeping (does this represent a global trend towards nationalism?) Even understanding the vote is difficult - there are divisions of geography, economics, age, and class. Those who voted for the UK to leave the EU did so for a host of reasons, some of which may never be fully understood.

One of those reasons was surely a sense of exclusivist nationalism, a "Britain for the British" sort of movement. This part of the Leave campaign was by turns implicitly or explicitly anti-immigration, and both leading up to and after the vote there have been a number of incidents of violence and intimidation across the country directed at people seen as being "foreigners". A friend of mine, an expat American who now lives in the UK, posted this to Facebook the other day:
I thought my heart was broken already, but it shattered a little more today, when another American woman I know was attacked in a Tesco parking lot. She was spat on, and screamed at, and told, "Go home, you filthy immigrant." And there's the attack on the Polish center, and the flyers delivered to schoolchildren saying Polish "vermin" should leave now, and the other reports of violence and abuse hurled at anyone who looks foreign. I thought this was my country too, but I think now maybe I was wrong.
While he doubtless disapproves of spitting on people in parking lots, George Will signaled his approval for this sort of nationalism in a recent column (which you can read here), which he titled "Britain's welcome revival of nationhood". He couches his argument in terms of the political centralization of power and control in Europe, but it's really an argument about identity and community. He rails against "cultural homogenization" and lauds the desire "to live on our land, under our laws, our values and with respect to our identity".

What Will is blithely assuming here, of course, is that we have a common understanding of who is "us" and who is "them". Moreover, he is also assuming (without saying so) that the best way for humans to live is for all of "us" to get together in our community, and all of "them" to go live somewhere else.

This notion of homogenous, exclusive communities is popular with some (though not all) "conservative" thinkers. It's usually rooted in an unexamined base of primordialism - the notion that "nations" have an "essential" character that is deeply historical, often ancient. Britons are British, therefore, because ... well, because they're British. The history behind these groups is usually fantasy and myth, but people like it anyway.

The instinct for gathering communities of like-minded people with whom we are comfortable is an understandable one. Social psychology has long established that this is in the nature of the human-as-social-animal: the desire both to be connected to others and to be distanced from others, which social identity theorists identify as the primary purpose of groups. If I'm in a group, by definition there must be some other people who are NOT in my group - there is an "us" and a "them".

Because of those boundaries between us and them, we have an easy means of making all kinds of difficult decisions quickly and easily. Perhaps the most important of these is trust. Our resources (mental and physical) are limited, and I can't be wary of everything and everyone. Group identity gives me a quick way of understanding who I can trust (and therefore relax around, do business with, etc.) and who I can't trust.

The problem with this is that we rely for our survival and prosperity on ever-widening circles of cooperation. Despite Donald Trump's emotional claims otherwise, the world is not built around "winners" and "losers". The highest achievements of human civilization come when we cooperate with each other, which isn't possible in a zero-sum world. George Will may want to usher us back to the 17th century when we only dealt with each other "as nations", but there's a reason why that model has been eroding - it's not as good as an interconnected world in which nations matter less and cooperation among people matters more.

A lot of the argument around the Brexit has focused on these issues of economics, and reasonably so. The less interaction and cooperation, the more barriers to trade and exchange, the poorer everyone will be. The fact that so many in the UK have been left out of the benefits of being part of a larger community is a failure not of the system of interaction, but of the distribution of wealth. The profits of free enterprise are increasingly hoarded by fewer and fewer - small wonder that the masses would like to shut that system down, since it isn't going to benefit them anyway. That failure has very little to do with the EU and bureaucrats in Brussels, and a great deal with the exercise of power and greed within British (or American) society.

But there is an argument here which goes beyond the economic to the moral and social. Simply put, what kind of society do we want to live in? And what kind of citizen do I want to be within my community? Do I want to only interact with people like me and avoid others as much as possible? How do I think the stranger, the "other", should be treated? Is it OK if I draw the boundary of my identity narrowly and reject everyone outside of those lines?

These aren't "liberal" questions or "conservative" questions - they are fundamentally human questions. The answers have political implications, but the questions are not essentially political, they are moral and social. In my view, I cannot square narrow nationalism with any understanding of the Christian faith, and any attempt to do so would simply be selfishness on my part. The value and worth of every human is the same in the eyes of God. How we negotiate living nearby and interacting
with each other is a matter of details, based on (hopefully) mutual respect for a common humanity.

The only other alternative, despite Will's attempt to deny it, really is isolationism. If you want to be honestly isolationist and not interact at all with people who are different, that's fine - have at it. But if you want to live in modern society, you don't have much of a choice. And being angry at, or afraid of, other people is simply a recipe for violence. That road leads to behavior that we know we don't want. Let us stop following "leaders" who want to take us down that path for their own gain, pretending all the while that it leads somewhere peaceful.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hate is Hate: Responses to the Orlando Shooting

Much has already been written about the terrible shooting in Orlando this past afternoon, and much more will be written and said in the coming days and weeks. A lot of what we hear will be predictable, because we've had this "conversation" a lot of times before. I've written a lot about gun control already; if you want to my thoughts on that subject, type "gun control" in the search box on this blog and have at it. The short form: guns are a terrible means of self-defense, and the answer to gun violence isn't arming everyone else in society.

What I want to offer here is a broader perspective, one that looks at the shooting in Orlando not as simply as a terrorist attack or an attack on the LGBTQ community or a mass shooting, but as another event in the long and frequent chain of human violence.

Viewed from this very broad lens, the specific questions about the precise motives of the shooter or the detailed connections between him and various other organizations become much less important. They matter for this case in particular, but if our intention is to have a dialogue about how to have fewer such incidents in the future then we need to move beyond the specifics and talk about violence.

We tend to be guilty of "fighting the last war" in our response to mass shootings. After Sandy Hook and Aurora, the answer was "better mental health"; after Columbine, "better parenting". After Orlando, some want to use the "terrorist" label to claim that we have a particular enemy (ISIS? Radical Islamism?), and that all we have to do to prevent such attacks in the future is to eradicate that enemy.

All of this, of course, misses the point. We had plenty of shootings (including mass shootings) in the United States long before the current flavors of radicalized Islam came along, and we will likely have more long after they are gone. Many recent attacks (including Sandy Hook, Charleston, and Aurora) weren't conducted by Muslims at all, nor did they have any particular political motive. Yet the action, and the result, was much the same: innocent civilians, going about their daily lives, gunned down by an individual bent on their destruction.

Politicians who offer simple solutions are deluding us, and possibly themselves. There are no easy answers, no "if only I was in charge everything would be better" actions. Crimes of mass violence are at the same time unique and the offspring of a particular set of (very broad) factors:

Opportunity: This is the one factor that we never talk about, because there's simply nothing that can be done. If someone is bent on killing civilians and can manage to hide their plans from law enforcement ahead of time, there will always be opportunities. A sporting event. A dance club. A concert. A shopping mall. A movie theater. An airport. A train station. A school. The fact that we live in community makes us vulnerable. We can tinker with these vulnerabilities at the margins, but only for specific targets and for limited periods of time. To live in society means to live in vulnerability to one another. The key here is to live with that vulnerability, but without fear.

Means: This tends to attract a lot of heat, and not much light. There are many ways for people bent on mass destruction to cause it. Some are more effective than others, and some are easier to contain or implement than others. Homemade bombs are possible, but tricky, and efforts can be made to monitor certain kinds of chemicals in certain quantities to try to prevent another Oklahoma City. Knives and other hand implements can be deadly, but usually in small numbers; it is difficult to imagine an assailant killing 49 people in a night club with a knife.
     Guns come in various types, from small pistols with few rounds to large rifles with many rounds and high rates of fire. Guns get most of the attention because, in the United States, they are the perfect means for anyone bent on causing widespread destruction: easy to acquire, easy to use, widely available, and highly destructive. We already have a few restrictions on firearms - fully automatic weapons are widely restricted from civilian ownership, for example. Further restrictions would reduce the means available for mass killings. It would not eliminate these events, but it would make them both less frequent and less deadly when they do occur.

Motive: This is the arena in which people love to engage in rampant speculation, most of it useless. More often than not (Orlando, Sandy Hook, San Bernadino, etc.), the killers die in the incident, leaving us to speculate afterwards about their motives. What particular ideology or mental illness fueled this particular rampage? We think that, if only we can get the right answer (or say the right words), we can solve the problem.
     This is where we are most at sea. For law enforcement purposes, it matters whether the Orlando shooter was working with others or not. But for the purposes of trying to reduce the quantity and severity of violence in our society in the future, it's irrelevant. We shouldn't care whether this individual was a follower of ISIS, or al-Qaeda, or the KKK, or the Westboro Baptist Church. There will always be ideologies and theologies that justify, even demand, violence against innocents. There is only one thing they all have in common: Hate.

On Sunday night as we were still sifting through information about the shootings, I happened to be watching the Tony Awards and was treated to Lin-Manuel Miranda's moving and emotional sonnet, which he read in lieu of an acceptance speech. The poem is anchored in an anthem of the LBGTQ community, "Love is love", and so it is. But the opposite is also true: hate is hate, whether born of Christian or Muslim ideology, whether directed at women or blacks or sexual minorities or other nations or people of different faiths or members of different political parties.

If you're looking for one root cause to these acts of inhumane violence, here it is: hatred. Hatred of particular groups, hatred of others who are different, hatred of random strangers, even hatred of self. Hatred, as Star Wars reminded us, leads to suffering - for both the hated and the hater.

The thing about hatred is that it feeds on itself. Read, if you can, this Storify compilation of live tweets from a recent rally for Donald Trump. The anger and hatred, as the correspondent reported, were "palpable". Insults, curses, angry words, threats, coming both from the candidate and the crowd - all combined to raise the collective level of hatred far beyond simply the sum total of the individuals. The more anger and fear we immerse ourselves in, the more we hate. The more hatred we encounter in others, the more we hate. And make no mistake - there is hatred inside all of us.

Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us of this many years ago:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
If you want a more modern example, I encourage you to read this speech by the Lt. Governor of Utah. It is moving, it is eloquent, and it makes all the right points.

If we want to have less violence in our society, the answer doesn't lie in defeating an ideology or a religion. It doesn't rest on electing a strong man who promises peace but delivers only anger. It doesn't rest, in fact, on who we elect at all. It doesn't even rest, ultimately, on whether we put more money into mental health, or do better work with terrorist watch lists, or restrict guns - although all of those may be good things to do. The answer lies in us, every day. Every day we face opportunities to love more, to be kind, to come together. And we face temptations to give into fear, to express our anger, to hate someone a little bit more. We together decide which it will be.

Which will you choose today?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Competing Narratives: The Brock Turner Case

For much of last week the case of Brock Turner, a Stanford student convicted of raping an unconscious woman, took over the internet. It went viral when the victim issued her own statement at Mr. Turner's sentencing, and when a letter sent by Mr. Turner's father to the judge in the case pleading for leniency was released into the internet wild. It's been bumped from the "front pages" by the Orlando shooting (about which I will write separately), but it remains and will remain a powerful parable.

The case raises many broader issues: the power of privilege and wealth, "rape culture" on campuses, race and the fairness (or lack thereof) of the criminal justice system. All are issues we've been battling over for the last few years; that they all combined in one single story says much about why this particular incident has such a powerful pull.

The story that took over the internet centered around two competing narratives: the narrative of the victim, movingly shared in her lengthy statement linked above, and the narrative constructed by Mr. Turner and his family and friends. Thanks to a lot of work and a lot of discussion in recent years, the narratives of victims of sexual assault have come to be taken seriously, even to hold a place of cultural dominance. So many people are so angry with Mr. Turner's sentence (six months in jail, likely reduced to three for good behavior) and with the Turner family precisely because they seem out of sync with the victim's story of suffering.

The Turner narrative is a throwback to a time when alcohol could be blamed as a causal factor, that this sort of thing could be put down simply to "too much drinking" and "bad judgment". There was a time when those stories would have held sway. As the Turner family is learning, that time is gone.

This narrative is apparent in a number of statements written to the court on Mr. Turner's behalf, including one from the local municipal judge (and former federal prosecutor), who said in part:
There is no doubt Brock made a mistake that night — he made a mistake in drinking excessively to the point where he could not fully appreciate that his female acquaintance was so intoxicated. I know Brock did not go to that party intending to hurt, or entice, or overpower anyone. That is not his nature. It never has been.
The problem with this narrative is that we no longer believe that drinking alcohol will make you do things that are not in some way already part of who you are. Quinn makes an essentialist argument about Mr. Turner's "nature", but to believe her story is to believe that if we drink enough, we will do things that are foreign or alien to us. Some years ago we took away that argument with regard to drunk driving, and we are now well on our way to doing so in cases of sexual assault.

Interestingly, another letter ostensibly written on Mr. Turner's behalf appears to make the same point:
From scientific evidence I have studied during my education and from my experience, alcohol is a depressant and a chemical that can release inhibition and magnify both positive and negative personality traits, something I saw too often and too negatively in the Emergency Department. It is not however a substance that dramatically changes someone’s intrinsic personality traits, suddenly altering someone from being mild mannered to criminalistics. 
Full disclosure: I know the author of this letter as a colleague. I have not spoken to him about this case, nor do I know his views beyond this particular quote.
The recent outrage over the case has centered around the sentence given to Mr. Turner: likely three months' jail time, plus a requirement that he register as a sex offender for the rest of his life (in addition to the loss of his position as Stanford and, as has been reported in some places, a lifetime ban from the US Olympic swim team to which he had aspired). Here there is a broad gulf of opinion, with supporters of the victim claiming that the sentence is far too light (and now calling for a recall of the judge in the case) while Turner's family and friends argue that it is in fact too much. Here again Judge Quinn's letter is illustrative:
I believe a prison term will serve no useful purpose in Brock’s case. He is forever changed by the events of that night. Judge please consider other options to prison — options which will serve the purpose for which a sentence is imposed, and options which will leave a future for this very scared young man. Probation could include heavy reporting requirements, counselling, community service in multiple ways, including speaking out about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, college partying, and the “hook-up” culture on college campuses throughout the United States.
If you read the victim's statement (linked above) carefully, you will note some convergence here. The victim doesn't was Turner to "rot in jail". She is also not particularly interested in how frightened or scared he is about his own future. What she wants, more than anything, is acknowledgement that her narrative is legitimate and real. She is frustrated that Turner, and his supporters, seem unwilling to accept that there is another story here, another way of understanding what happened.

In that sense, Judge Quinn is right about one thing: prison time will not, in itself, help Mr. Turner very much. As retribution three months is quite light, but retribution isn't the point here. In terms of rehabilitation - changing his heart - prison is a terrible tool, and likely to have very little if any affect.

Quinn's call for probation with community service, however, misses the mark. Read the victim's statement carefully and you can see that what her narrative demands is in fact far harder than prison, far more difficult than talking to college students about the dangers of drinking and partying. It demands not only acknowledging but embracing the very real and terrible pain he caused, and the fact that he himself caused it through decisions he made. It insists that he face that squarely, not hiding behind alcohol or youthful indiscretion or anything else - that he take the full weight of his sin upon himself, hold it and accept it as part of himself.

As the Christian church (among many other faith traditions) has been teaching for thousands of years, there is no other way to receive true forgiveness and peace than to first embrace the sin. It is an incredibly painful process, far worse than simply spending a few months in prison. It is so painful, in fact, that many spend their whole lives running from it. It is a path that no court, no government, can mandate; only Mr. Turner himself can choose it.

However "broken" his friends and family claim that he is, we know that he has not yet chosen that path. He has made no statement indicating anything other than his "alcohol-made-me-do-it" story. He continues his legal battle to appeal his conviction. To all outwards appearances, he is as convinced as ever that he did very little wrong. He is not ready to own his victim's pain and her story.

I do not know Mr. Turner or his family, but they appear determined to fight with all of the tools available to "free" their son from the punishments imposed upon him - punishments which will make his life more difficult, but which will not in themselves change his heart. That path will always be open to him, and we can hope that someday he takes it. Until then, this story will continue to be only a tragedy, and Mr. Turner both a despised and pitied figure in it.