Thursday, April 30, 2015

Before You Talk About Baltimore... this open letter (especially if, like me, you're white):

..and read this historical overview of how urban black ghettos were born, and why the problem is so much bigger than we like to admit (worth reading for context and understanding no matter who you are):

I believe in an ethic of love, and central to such an ethic is attention to the neighbor in need, the neighbor who is crying out. It is about listening with empathy and compassion. As Julia Blount puts it in her open letter linked above,
If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away.
Sometimes, when people don't hear me, I resort to shouting. Sometimes, when the privileged don't listen or listen with only half an ear, the frustration of Black Americans who are suffering under oppressive and marginalizing conditions grows to a point where they find themselves doing the collective equivalent of shouting.

When they do, modern white America often invokes the nonviolence of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the attempt to chastise their black neighbors and urge them to quiet down--as if King's nonviolence were not about shouting, about disrupting the status quo, about becoming so loud that the established powers were forced to hear if not to listen.

King has been sanitized for White America in a way that doesn't do justice to his radical strategy of relentless nonviolent resistance. While he thought rioting was strategically unwise, he understood the motivations behind it. While he found rioting to violate the highly demanding ethic of love that he claimed as his own, it was not nearly as morally problematic as the social and legal and economic forces that drove communities to that breaking point where outrage turns into shattered glass.

What King proposed wasn't that the black community set aside its sense of injustice, its frustration, its impatience. What King proposed was a strategy for channeling all of that into a shout that could not be dismissed or ignored, that forced the privileged majority to reflect on their own moral failings rather than hide from them by pointing fingers at the people throwing rocks.

Before you talk about Baltimore, listen to these words by Martin Luther King:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Synopsis on Riots

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Synopsis on Riots"I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.... There must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is. It is the nymph of an inferior people. It is the notion that one group has all of the knowledge, all of the insights, all of the purity, all of the work, all of the dignity. And another group is worthless, on a lower level of humanity, inferior. To put it in philosophical language, racism is not based on some empirical generalization which, after some studies, would come to conclusion that these people are behind because of environmental conditions. Racism is based on an ontological affirmation. It is the notion that the very being of a people is inferior. And their ultimate logic of racism is genocide... we've got to get rid of two or three myths that still pervade our nation. One is the myth of time. I'm sure you've heard this notion. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And I've heard it from many sincere people. They've said to the negro and/to his allies in the white community you should slow up, you're pushing things too fast, only time can solve the problem. And if you'll just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out. There is an answer to that myth. It is the time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively....Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must always help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.Now there is another myth and that is the notion that legislation can't solve the problem that you've got to change the heart and naturally I believe in changing the heart..."-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Full video: synopsis:
Posted by Afrikkan Unification on Monday, April 27, 2015

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Delinking" Marriage from Procreation: Some Thoughts on Weasel Words

I had a professor in graduate school who had a problem with "weasel words." By this, he meant words that are so imprecise that they interfere with clear thinking. They lend themselves to equivocal reasoning: they shift meaning in a way that obscures the unsoundness of an argument.

Yesterday, as I listened to the NPR report on Supreme Court arguments on same-sex marriage, I found myself thinking about weasel words--because the lawyer defending discriminatory marriage laws, John Bursch, used a doozy of a weasel word in his arguments: "Delinking."

What Bursch argued is this: If we extend marriage to same-sex couples, we are "delinking" marriage from procreation. And if we delink marriage from procreation, then it's only "common sense" that we will see an increase in out-of-wedlock childbirth.

Got that? If not, here's the argument in a bit more detail: If our society recognizes same-sex marriage, we thereby indicate that procreative potential is not necessary for marriage. Thus, we "delink" marriage from procreation. But people who have babies out of wedlock are also "delinking" marriage from procreation--not in the same sense, but ignore that in favor of the fact that the word "delinking" is imprecise enough that it can be used in both cases. Isn't it perfectly reasonable to assume that if our society officially stands by delinking in the former sense, we should expect to see more delinking in the latter?

John Bursch seems to think so, which just goes to show that lawyers sometimes need refresher courses in basic critical thinking. In fact, I'm tempted to use this argument when I teach critical thinking in my classes.

Here's the thing. One thing, P, can be "linked" to another, Q, in all sorts of ways. For example, P might be a sufficient condition for Q, the way that being born in Oklahoma is a sufficient condition for being born in the US. Then again, P might be a necessary condition for Q, the way that being born on planet Earth is necessary for being born in the US.

Notice that things can be linked in one way but not linked in another. While being born in Oklahoma is a sufficient condition for being born in the US, it isn't a necessary condition. You could, like me, have been born in California. Or Texas. Or Rhode Island. (You get the idea). That being born in Oklahoma isn't necessary for being born in the US tells us nothing about whether it's sufficient.

Being born in one of the 50 states is a necessary and sufficient condition for being born in the US. But suppose we were to make Puerto Rico the 51st state of the union. Then, we would be "delinking" being born in the current 50 states from being born in the US--by making the former no longer necessary for the latter. But the two would remain linked in another way: being born in one of the current 50 states would still be sufficient for being born in the US. The one kind of "delinking" does not lead to the other.

Of course, whatever link there is between marriage and procreation is going to be different from what we find in the examples above. Infertile couples have been allowed to marry in this country for a long time. For even longer, unmarried people have been making babies. So if there is a link between the two, it isn't that one is necessary for the other. So what is it?

Maybe it's this: We think that a stable, long-term intimate partnership supported by society and the law provides the best environment for child-rearing (all else being equal). Hence, it is best if fertile heterosexual partners restrict sex to marriage, because this would ensure that children are consistently born into the best environment for child-rearing (all else being equal).

If this is the link, we might express it as follows: If you're going to make babies, it's best that you do it within a marriage. Let's call this a normative link: If P, then it's best that Q.

This is, for example, the sort of link many see between being a gun collector and having a gun safe in your home: If you're going to collect guns, then it's best to have an appropriately-sized safe in which you can store them.

But notice that if we allow people who don't collect guns to own large safes suitable for putting guns into, we have in no way severed this normative link. Letting a non-gun-collector own a gun safe--because, say, it's good for storing the person's priceless collection of ancient scepters--does not threaten in any way at all the link described above. It remains true that gun collectors would be well advised to have a gun safe even if we make gun safes available to people who don't collect guns.

Put simply, if you think that all gun collectors should own safes, you'd be pretty silly to believe that letting non-gun-collectors own safes too will threaten this principle and lead to fewer gun-collectors buying safes. It isn't remotely "common sense" that by "delinking" safe-ownership from gun-collecting in this way, you will end up with more gun collectors lacking safes in which to store their guns.

Likewise, it isn't remotely common sense that if you extend marriage to a new class of non-procreative pairs (we already extend it to non-procreative heterosexual pairs), you will have more out-of-wedlock childbirth. "Procreation should be restricted to within marriage" articulates a different kind of link between procreation and marriage than "Marriage should be restricted to couples who can procreate." If we reject the latter, that has no direct implications for the former.

The only way to make it seem as if it does is to use a weasel word like "delink." Reference two different kinds of connections with the same word, and you can proceed as if they were the same. By this reasoning, I hope to convince you to bury all your money by the edge of Stillwater Creek. I'll tell you where. Trust me, it'll be safe.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Chasing the Illusion of Closure: Capital Punishment and the Aurora Shootings

I think most of us have felt it: hunger for the death of someone who's done something awful.

The trial of James Holmes, who shot up an Aurora, CO movie theater not quite three years ago, is about to begin. Driving to work this morning, I listened to an NPR report that included brief interviews with the parents of one of the shooting victims--a young man who chose to shield his girlfriend from the bullets. I imagined what it would be like to be the father of that man, to learn how he died saving the life of his beloved. I imagined it was my own son, several years from now.

I felt the hunger for death. But the father and mother of the dead young man were at best torn in their feelings about the impending trial. Whatever their hungers, they knew that the trial would not restore to them their son. They knew that their deepest longing wasn't for death but for restored life. And nothing anyone did to James Holmes could satisfy that desire.

They wanted closure. They knew the trial wouldn't give it. They knew the death penalty wouldn't give it. They knew that the delay in the trial was making it harder--was ensuring that whatever steps they'd made towards moving on were threatened by the demand by the court that they now go back. Perhaps they even understood that the court delays were in part caused by the death penalty itself. In cases like this, defense attorneys see it as their job to prevent their client from being put to death--and every delay is another day of life. Perhaps they knew that if James Holmes is sentenced to die, the appeals could continue for decades.

But still there is the hunger for death. And support for the death penalty in America is largely fueled by that hunger. There are other things driving that support, of course: views on deterrence, more dispassionate ideas of what justice demands. But the hunger for death that we call vengeance is what leads death penalty supporters to set up a grill outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester whenever there's an execution...and fry bacon as a human being dies.

Revenge stories play on that hunger. I can remember seeing some of the Death Wish movies as a teen, and feeling that distinctive kind of pulse-pounding satisfaction as Bronson's character pursued his murderous vigilantism.

But I've always been suspicious of that feeling. If it has a cognitive content, it's this: While a person's premature death is ordinarily one of the worst things there is, it is rendered intrinsically good when the one who dies is a murderous villain. Intrinsically good. Not a tragic necessity, but good in itself.

It's as if the villain's death can somehow fix what the villain has done. But of course it can't. A murderer's victim stays dead. The hole left in the world by the loss of someone beloved can't be filled by tearing another life out of the stream of history.

While hate can flood into the place where love once lived, hate is a poor substitute for love. It can't complete you the way love can. It can't expand your sense of self, making you bigger than your narrow ego. It can't bring joy. It doesn't gesture to the transcendent.

In the grip of hate, you don't feel as if you're on the cusp of understanding the meaning of it all.

Loss can lead to hate, which sparks the hunger for death. But feeding that hunger doesn't restore what was lost. That can't be done. What can be done is this: We can endeavor to live so that the loss doesn't kill what is best in us.

What's best in us is the power to love. And the cancer-spread of hate is the thing that most surely kills in us this power. To indulge the hunger for death is therefore inimical to realizing the most significant sort of closure. What brings real closure isn't death but forgiveness, because forgiveness is the victory of our power to love over the urgings of hate.

At least that's how I see it. And this is why I don't believe in the death penalty. I understand the death penalty, at least to the extent that someone who hasn't had a loved one murdered can understand it. I can vicariously appreciate the emotions that could drive someone to long for the death of the person who's torn their lives apart.

But closure is about healing. It isn't about feeding hungers born of hate.

I've heard the stories of people who have sought revenge, chasing the closure they think they'll find when the person who wronged them suffers in kind. Some of those stories were told to me by killers in prison, when I volunteered as a nonviolence facilitator in intensive prison workshops. Weeping, they told me how they hungered for the death of those who'd wronged them. Full of rage and hate, they struck out--sometimes at the real target, sometimes at a vicarious victim who represented those who'd tortured and tormented them.

But the act didn't bring the closure they were hungering for. The hunger for death tells us that closure will come by turning a living human into a corpse. But the hunger lies. It misdirects our energies, obsessively driving us away from what will really satisfy.

Some of these murderers eventually realized the truth. Some of them saw the futility of their path and knew that letting go of hate and vengeance was the real path to healing. Some realized that until they forgave the father who abused them, the drug-addicted mother who neglected them, the pawns of the system that marginalized them because of the color of their skin, they would have no closure from their anguished past. Rather, they'd be ruled by it. To move on, you must let go. And hate is about clinging on tight.

These are lessons I've learned from murderers, from the stories they've told me. And it didn't miss my attention that these murderers, when they killed, were motivated by the same psychological forces that drive our cultural enthusiasm for the death penalty.

The people who fry bacon outside the prison walls during an execution are closer in spirit to the one being killed than are those who stand a candle-lit vigil to oppose what's being done. The latter repudiate the spirit that led the murderer to kill. The former, unwittingly, stand in solidarity with the killer they revile.

They have allowed the spirit of hate, which tore their lives apart, to be a spirit that helps define them. This is like seeking to close a wound with a knife rather than with stitches.

I don't mean to suggest that forgiveness is easy. Nor do I think that victims can let go and release hate right away. I think that there are things we can do as a society to make it easier for the victims of horror to move forward with their lives, and that we aren't doing those things.

There are things the perpetrator of horror can do to make forgiveness a more real possibility for the victims. I think they have a duty to do these things, but to do them requires that they confront what they've done honestly and without excuses or illusions. And there are things a justice system can do to help make this happen.

Victims need to understand why. They need to know that the why wasn't good enough, and that the perpetrator knows it wasn't good enough. They need to witness the perpetrator's genuine cry of remorse, the anguished realization that they are responsible for horror. And they need to see the perpetrator take on penance, a sincere project of reform and restitution that can never restore what was lost but can express the depth of their remorse through endless efforts to do good.

I say "need," but I have witnessed victims of horrific abuse perform the miracle of forgiveness in the absence of these things. I've seen it happen in prisons: Inmates who were violently molested for years, forced to abuse siblings, thrown into foster care only to be sexually molested by foster parents--these same victims found ways to let go of hate and to forgive. I have seen the trajectory of lives change. I have followed their course in stunned wonder.

To witness it is to witness a miracle. It is a reason I believe in God.

I'm tempted to say, "If criminals in prison can do it, then so can we." But public policies can't be built around miracles. And such miracles happen most often after people hit bottom. So I suppose these miracles are more common for those imprisoned for their crimes than they are for the victims of crime who are trying to move on.

What we need is a criminal justice system that focuses more of its attention on meeting the needs of victims. And to do that, we have to stop assuming that victims' needs are best met just by punishing offenders. Victims have a right to confront perpetrators, to demand the things described above. They have a right to the help of trained facilitators who have the skills to challenge offenders to really hear their victims--without excuses or rationalizations, without hiding behind emotional walls.

In short, they have a right to something like the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program. The death penalty offers the illusion of closure. But the deeper truth is this: What victims get from the execution of a loved one's murderer is not closure but the opportunity to finally begin to pursue closure--an opportunity that has been deferred because they've believed that erasing the murderer from the world is what was needed. But they begin this pursuit of closure when much of what can help provide it--a confrontation with the killer culminating in the killer's remorse and repentance--is no longer possible, because the killer is dead. And so all they can hope for is the miracle.

For the survivors and families of the Aurora shooting, I wish for something more satisfying than the death of James Holmes, than years of deferring the search for closure while they wait for an execution that will not meet their needs. And if our justice system can't or won't help them pursue their deepest needs, then I hope they get the miracle.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"F**k Your Breath": Mistakes in Law Enforcement

The other day, another police shooting of a black man made headlines--this one in Tulsa, so it hit close to home.

It was all captured on video: An officer tackled a fleeing suspect, Eric Harris. While he was ordering Harris to roll onto his stomach, a reserve deputy--a volunteer with full law-enforcement authority--decided to subdue Harris with his Taser. Except that he wasn't holding his Taser. He was holding his handgun.

You can barely hear the "sorry" on the video. It's swamped by Harris's cries: "Oh my God, he shot me! He shot me!"

But if you listen closely you will hear that soft "sorry," and it has an oh-shit quality to it. So I'm confident the Taser story is true. The guy didn't mean to fire his gun. It was a mistake.

A fatal one. Harris died later at the hospital.

Another feature of the story isn't included in the video (at least the one I saw and that's linked to above). At the end of that video, Harris can be heard saying, "I'm losing my breath." And then the video ends. But according to reports, a deputy responded to that fading plea with crude disdain: "F**k your breath."

It's impossible not to think about Eric Garner, a black man who died last summer from a police officer's choke hold, whose last words were, "I can't breathe." Was the deputy thinking about Garner? Was his dismissal of Harris's life breath an expression of a deeper and broader disdain?

I don't know. But I can't help but think about lying on the pavement, bleeding, dying, crying out in pain and horror, and hearing my life and human dignity swept away with "F**k your breath." Perhaps they were the last words Harris ever heard, the final punctuation of his life story.

The man who said those words committed no crime. There will be no charges filed. One man shot Harris by mistake, and may face charges. Another sent him into death with a final message: You don't matter.

Both acts trouble me, but the latter strikes me as more inhuman, even if its consequences were less dire.

I don't like to define people by their worst moments. The officer who said to a dying Harris, "F**k your breath," should not be defined by those words. What he said may have been horrible and inhuman. That doesn't mean he was.

I like to think that right now he is mortified. I like to think that he lies awake thinking, "How could I have said that? What must it have been like, to hear those last words just before he died?" Maybe the officer was caught up in the adrenal rush of the moment: the chase, the unexpected gunshot, the furious thought that this would never have happened if the suspect hadn't run.

Maybe it just slipped out. A different kind of mistake.

I've known numerous police officers over the years, all of them good people with a sense of civic responsibility. They recognize the weight of the public trust they've been invested with, and they're committed not to abusing that trust. I can't imagine any of them saying "F**k your breath" to an apprehended suspect dying from an accidental gunshot wound. And I like to think that none of them would ever mistake the firearm in their hand for a Taser, and so fatally shoot a suspect who--whatever his mistakes--didn't deserve to die.

But mistakes happen. Especially when strong negative emotions overtake us, we say and do things we wouldn't do in wiser moments. It was a mistake for Eric Harris to flee the police. So why did he do it? Maybe he was terrified. Maybe he thought, "I might become the next Eric Garner, the next black man killed by the cops." And so he fled. It's not uncommon for fear-driven behavior to actually bring to life the things we fear.

Police work is dangerous, and the moments when police shootings happen are some of the most high-stress, high-adrenalin moments in a police officer's work life. And such moments are the ones when mistakes are more likely to happen. The right kind of training can reduce their likelihood. Did the reserve deputy who mistook his sidearm for a Taser get the same kind of training that a regular officer receives?

I don't know, but the mistake I want to focus on is the other one: the anger-fueled obscenity, the dismissal of a life. I'm going to assume it was a mistake--that is, something said in the heat of the moment and later regretted, as opposed to the calculated, self-righteous dehumanization of a dying man.

My question has to do with the kind of training that reduces mistakes of that kind. In the heat of the moment, with emotions high and blood pounding in our ears, how much more likely are we to dehumanize those we see as our opponents and our enemies? And what kind of training can ensure that even in those moments, we remember the humanity of those who run from us or talk back at us or lash out at us in anger and frustration?

In some cases, the failure to really see the humanity of a suspect might lead to a crushing remark that discounts a human life in its final moments. In other cases, that failure could mean the difference between shooting a suspect and holding fire. Police should fire when lives are at stake--their own, another officer's, a civilian's. But one of the lives at stake in every police shooting is the one who is shot. That life needs to be given its due weight, too. How do we ensure it isn't discounted? How do we ensure that lives aren't cut short or damaged because, in the adrenalin-fueled moment, those lives aren't valued as they should be?

Much of the discussion about this has focused on race--as well it should. There is rampant evidence of subconscious racism operating beneath the surface of our thoughts, influencing our choices without our knowledge. This isn't a police problem. It's been documented in college professors, preschool teachers, Northerners and Southerners, rich and poor, black and white. (Yes, unconscious bias--against blacks--even influences the thinking of blacks through the phenomenon sometimes called internalized racism.)

While there is also overt racism at work in many corners of our society--as the federal investigation into the Ferguson PD makes plain--the bigger issue by far is the covert kind of racial bias that influences the choices of good people without their conscious knowledge. Such racial bias--especially if we aren't aware that it's at work in us--can increase our likelihood of making mistakes of the kind I'm talking about. Mistakes in which we think less of people than they deserve.

Such mistakes are a problem wherever they happen. But they become a bigger problem in high-stress moments. And they become a potentially fatal problem when guns are involved. This means that we will be more likely to see the problem play out in dramatic fashion among law enforcement, precisely because they are in high stress jobs that sometimes require decisions about using lethal force.

This does not mean that police are somehow especially racist. It isn't "their" problem and it isn't "theirs" to fix. Its our problem. It's ours to fix. The social forces that generate implicit bias don't originate in police departments. They come from everywhere. And if we are afraid of the effects that such biases will have on police officers who need to make life and death decisions and may be influenced by unconscious biases, then all of us need to tackle the sweeping social forces that perpetuate these biases.  (We also need to root out overt racism, and not just in police departments.)

But in the meantime, we need to offer resources to police officers who do not want to be influenced by such biases, who are committed to being fair defenders of the public good. The power they're invested with means that if anything, they need to be better than the rest of us when it comes to such things. And the police I know feel the weight of that and want to live up to that weighty trust. What tools and techniques can we offer that will help?

As important as the issue of implicit racial bias may be, it isn't the only source of the mistakes I'm talking about here. Can we imagine the recent events in Tulsa playing out with a white suspect? Of course. The kinds of scenarios that awaken fight-or-flight responses also fuel adversarial, zero-sum thinking: It's him or me. It's us or them. And as soon as another human being becomes one of "them," their humanity begins to be discounted.

This tendency appears to be rooted deeply in our human instincts. And police officers are asked to throw themselves into the very situations that trip these instincts. It's their duty as police officers to step into danger, to confront law-breakers in a way that's inevitably adversarial. Caught up in the emotional intensity of that conflict, the suffering of the adversary might trigger a flush of righteous animosity, spilling out in words like "F**k your breath."

It's only human. But it's a mistake. A tragic moment of staggering inhumanity. The police officers I know want to be the best they can be, even in those moments that have a tendency to evoke our ugliest selves. What kind of training will help?

It should be clear that I'm talking about something very different from the sort of training that will help a reserve deputy keep his head enough to realize that he's holding a handgun rather than a Taser. What I have in mind is something rooted in our capacity to see and respond to humanity in the face of conflicts and emotional forces that have a natural tendency to drive out such responsiveness.

But there are layers of problems here. Police officers have dangerous jobs, and their survival--their ability to make it home to their families--may depend on responses that are rooted in the same fight-or-flight instincts that fuel our propensity to dehumanize. What kind of training can offer the right sort of balance between preserving those essential survival instincts while nurturing our human capacity to see the humanity even in those we are in conflict with?

That's the balancing act we are asking our police officers to perform. And they're being asked to do it in a society where racial biases and other forms of prejudice are being written into our subconscious responses to our environments from an early age.

It should be clear that I don't have pat or ready answers. My aim here, rather, is to ask questions that acknowledge the deep problems and the tragedies we face without drawing good-guy/bad-guy lines, without oversimplifying, without pointing the finger at the other guy.

The Tulsa case is human. It is human because humans make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are tragically wrong. It is also inhuman. Sometimes our mistakes lead us to fall short of our human potential, and to see our fellow human beings as less than human. When it comes to wrestling with such oh-so-human inhumanity, we need to be in it together, to ask what we can do to help each other be better than we thought we could be.

And that means we need to stop saying "F**k your breath," even to those who say it to others.