Friday, February 24, 2017

Responding to Trump's Administrations: Scapegoats and Meaningful Resistance

Yesterday I was reading about RenĂ© Girard and his understanding of how societies use the scapegoating mechanism as a kind of pressure valve to channel the violent energies caused by rising conflict: people collectively identify a sacrificial scapegoat towards whom they channel all that violent energy. They "sacrifice" the scapegoat to "the gods" and achieve a kind of catharsis that brings in its wake a temporary peace.

As I was reading, I was (naturally) thinking about the current administration. That administration, as I see it, has invoked a particular form of this scapegoating mechanism as part of an effort to win the support of disaffected, white, working-class Americans. I say a "particular form," because what the administration has done is invoked divisive us/them ideology that divides the world between an in-group and an out-group, and it is this out-group that becomes the scapegoat. Not an individual, but an entire class of human beings. "These others," they say, "are the source of our troubles, and when these others are removed or marginalized our problems will be solved."

This ideological othering is the most dangerous kind of scapegoating. It sets community against community, achieving the temporary peace within a community by putting itself at war (figuratively or literally) with another community. When the targeted others are already represented in a diverse community, then the war first begins internally, requiring a kind of purge. The potential for widespread and enduring horror is quite significant if the leadership of a nation is allowed to carry out a vision defined by such scapegoating of the ideological other.

So when there is a danger of this happening, or when it is already underway, resistance is essential. (I am convinced a resistance movement must be thoroughly nonviolent, for reasons I won't explore here.) But yesterday, as I was reading about Girardian scapegoating, I began to worry that some voices in the burgeoning resistance in the US were turning Trump into a scapegoat, trying to heap on him the weight of all that is wrong in American society so that his removal from office could become the sacrificial ritual that would, in the Girardian scapegoat mythology, make everything right again.

Thinking about this, I wrote up a quick little parable or drama, meaning to warn against this possibility. Then I posted it here.

Feedback from friends on social media as well as on this blog have led me to conclude that the parable was at best ripe for being misunderstood and at worst a dangerously misleading vision. More precisely, I worry that my little parable suggested a false equivalency between two very different things: on the one hand, the kind of threat posed by a presidential administration that lifts up and legitimizes ideological hate in the course of implementing policies that scapegoat whole classes of people; on the other hand, the kind of threat posed if those who resist that administration's efforts were to fall prey in significant numbers to the scapegoating instinct.

These two things are not equivalent.

What I want to say now is this. I think there is enormous danger when the reins of power fall into the hands of those who openly preach ideological division and encourage scapegoating of whole classes of people. Those who see this happening have an obligation to speak out about the threat, to repudiate the othering, and to stand (nonviolently) against the policies and policy proposals that would implement such scapegoating of entire groups. There needs to be a meaningful resistance.

I suspect that the sort of approach that Michael Moore lays out in his "10-Point Plan to Stop Trump" would (if a large enough number of people get on board) prove quite effective in neutralizing Trump's ability to enact his ideological agenda, if not pushing him out of office. But while an action plan is crucial to any organized nonviolent campaign, the spirit in which that campaign is waged is just as important, especially for long-term success.

Most importantly, a resistance movement must avoid becoming the thing it stands against. This means, first and foremost, that it must avoid ideological othering. But just as importantly, it must also avoid the milder scapegoating that treats Trump as the problem and his removal as the solution that will restore peace and prosperity to America.

If a nonviolent resistance movement against Trump's agenda falls prey to the scapegoating instinct, that is not in any way equivalent to an administration that is trying to implement us/them ideology on a global scale. Not even close. Our world will be safer if that administration fails to implement its ideology or, better yet, stops trying either because it has been rendered toothless by our checks-and-balances (supported by a strong grass-roots movement) or has been removed through impeachment or resignation. But my worry is this: a resistance that falls prey to mythic scapegoat-thinking will, if successful in removing Trump's administration, quickly move from the elation of success to the comforting sense that all is now well, as if the problem were solved.

Furthermore, if a successful campaign is defined by the scapegoating of Trump, this may actually fuel the us/them ideology in this country, worsening the divisions and the polarized animosity. Because here's the thing: Trump is the hero of a lot of people. He symbolically represents them. If it's just about ousting Trump--and his ardent supporters are seen as nothing but a bunch of idiots that deserve to be shoved back under the rocks they crawled out from--then the danger posed by Trump's brand of ideological leadership will be alleviated only at the cost of intensifying the divisions that put him into power in the first place. The next Trump who comes along can awaken the same forces, and they may be angrier than ever.

I have been in the habit of expressing these concerns by saying that Trump is just a symptom of a far deeper problem--a problem of ideological divisiveness that needs to be separated from the people who preach it and repudiated in much the way the Martin Luther King, Jr., repudiated racial oppression by insisting that racism, not racists, were the enemy.

But a commenter on this blog, raverroes, has pointed out to me that this is the wrong way to characterize Trump. Rather than being a symptom, he is a catalyst.

This strikes me as exactly. When he was campaigning, Trump's shameless indulgence in pugnacious rhetoric encouraged others who harbored divisive ideologies to step out of the shadow of shame that kept them from expressing their hate boldly. The social constraints against openly abusing Muslims and other minorities in public were, in Trump's rhetoric, lumped together with "political correctness" and dismissed along with its excesses. And when Trump was elected, that event carried a symbolic meaning for at least some of those among Trump's base who were most in the grip of ideologies of hate: The social forces that repudiate acting on our hateful feelings have been defeated. We are free to hate out loud.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that every Trump voter took home that message. A substantial percentage of Trump voters were never inspired by his divisive rhetoric and blatant us/them ideologies in the first place. They voted for him in spite of those things, perhaps not seeing them as the existential threat to our values and social life that I take them to be. I know people--who are surely representative of many more--who held their noses as they voted for Trump, finding him odious but thinking that his excesses would be restrained by the establishment and that his administration would make SCOTUS appointments that would favor a pro-life agenda. Others thought his promise of good jobs, of looking out for the working class, eclipsed his talk about Muslim bans and registries (which, they thought, was just talk and wouldn't be something he could implement anyway, it being unconstitutional and all).

But even if most Trump voters were not inspired by Trump's promulgation of ideologies of division, those in our society who did embrace such ideologies flocked to him and were emboldened by him. He became a catalyst. And that catalyst is now occupying the most powerful political office on planet Earth.

This, then, raises the question of what to do in response. The root problem is not any one person but an underlying pattern of thinking and acting. The root problem is divisive ideology and the illusory promise of tribal unity offered by sacrificing scapegoats. There are deep social structures and unconscious cultural forces that feed such ideology, that perpetuate such false promises. We need to work against these forces in a way that doesn't lead us to become seduced by their lure. But we also confront the reality that a catalyst for these forces now occupies the Oval Office. I'm not sure his aim is to be such a catalyst.  I suspect it is more about ego-gratification. But he remains a catalyst.

I remain convinced that we compromise any meaningful resistance to divisive ideology and its harmful effects if we turn a catalyst into a scapegoat. But raverroes has highlighted for me the crucial difference between symptoms and catalysts, and so I also think we compromise any meaningful resistance if we treat someone who has functioned as a catalyst as nothing but a symptom.

There is one final conditioning force that I believe any meaningful resistance needs to internalize. I think we lose the moral center that must define a nonviolent movement if we see only the catalyst and forget that the catalyst is first and foremost a person--a human person who has been thrown into a position he never expected to be in and who is plagued by his own demons. A person gripped by an irrepressible urge for approval while sitting in a role that by its nature draws relentless critical scrutiny. A person who is surely angry and miserable, whose spirit is layered with crud and who is desperately trying to get rid of the crud by rubbing it off on those around him. Where there is a human soul there is the need for the kind of compassion that reaches across the divides of human conflict and affirms our shared human condition even as we stand firm against the choices and behaviors that we are convinced are wrong and harmful.

The question is how to cultivate the right spirit and weave that spirit into an action plan that stands up for the vulnerable, that says no to ideological hate and scapegoating, that impedes the advance of injustice--and that can do so without falling into the scapegoating instinct even when such a potent catalyst for ideological division occupies the most visible and powerful office in the world.

I don't have clear answers, but I think we need to ask the questions.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A (Very) Short Drama, Maybe a True one

Donald Trump: "I present to you, the American people, the dangerous other, the source of all our troubles. It is the Muslim and the Latin American immigrant! Let us together drive them out, or keep them out. Let us crush them and all will be well with America. It will be great again!"

Trumpeters: "Yes! Let us strike down this evil among us. Let us destroy this threat to all that is good and right, so that America will be great again!"

(Efforts to enact the plan ensue, until the resistance interrupts.)

The Resistance: "This is intolerable! It is an effort to oversimplify our nation's problems by identifying those problems with some scapegoat, with people who are different or 'other.' This will lead only to greater hatred and escalating cycles of violence. It must be stopped!"

(Struggle commences as Trumpeters and the Resistance face off. As the Resistance grows in numbers, some leaders emerge, who speak out a unifying message.)

Leaders of the Resistance: "We present to you, the American people, the dangerous other, the source of all our troubles. It is Donald Trump! Let us together drive him out!"

I'll stop there, since you know how it ends--or, more properly, doesn't end. I guess this isn't a (very) short drama after all. But the telling is short, unless we decide to throw away the script.

Addendum: Because of some responses I've had to this post both on social media and in the comments, I worry that my effort to deliver a warning in a clever way has ended up implying a false equivalence where I didn't intend to--and, furthermore, that I ended up glossing over some very important realities. Hence, I have created a follow-up post that addresses these things.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Resisting Feedback Loops of Ideological Violence: Answering a Commenter's Question

In a comment on my previous post, Mike H asked (simply playing Devil's Advocate) how I would respond to the following claim:

"The very fact that those who oppose an all-out ban bring up the likelihood that a ban would actually increase terrorism in the future seems to prove the point - that there is an inherent problem with what we call 'terrorism' in the very essence of Islam that is just waiting to explode and which could awaken at any time or place."

Since my answer was too long to post as a comment, I post it here instead:

It is part of the very essence of ideologies of division that they operate in this way, but Islam needn't be formulated in such ideological terms. In fact, many Muslims (all the Muslims I know personally) reject such an ideological understanding of Islam.

But divisive ideologies are real--and you can find them alive and well in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, they are also alive and well everywhere else in the world. And that creates the danger of feedback loops of escalating hostility unless we stand against these ideologies.

Here's how these feedback loops work. Suppose you have two groups, A and B, and within each group there is a subgroup that views itself as locked in a zero-sum struggle with the other group. Acts by members of A that treat all of B as the enemy strengthen the position of those within B who claim that all of A is the enemy, earning them more recruits and greater strength. This in turn will lead to more acts by members of B treating all of A as the enemy...and the feedback loop is off and running.

Of course, there's the question of whether something in the Koran or in Islam's history and traditions lends itself to such us/them ideology. And the reality is this: if you leaf through the Koran, you can find texts to support such ideological thinking. I'm no expert in Muslim history, but you can probably find things there to support such ideological thinking, too. But I've leafed through the copy of the Koran that I got when I went to a Muslim open house, and so I know you can also find things there to oppose ideological divisiveness.

The same is true of the Christian and Jewish Scriptures and histories/traditions: you can find plenty of texts that support us/them ideology; and you can find texts that oppose such ideology. What you do with these complex texts and traditions depends on the interpretive lens you bring to bear. The more that ideologies of division prevail within a religious community, the more that texts and traditions will be interpreted in ways that feed those ideologies.

The Muslims I know personally read the Koran and their tradition in ways utterly opposed to the ideologies that fuel terrorism and underwrite dreams of Muslim world-domination. U.S. policies that single out Muslims in a sweeping way will cause them substantial hardship and will inspire in them fear for the future and outrage against the administration, but will almost certainly not inspire them to adopt ideologies of division and turn them into terrorists.

But there are those on the fence who will be pushed towards embracing this ideological us/them version of Islam by such policies. Of course, most who end up in this ideological camp don't commit acts of terror (although they may cheer them). But policies that treat all of Islam as the enemy will not merely help to push more people towards extremist views but will also push more of those with these extremist views into extremist actions.

But this isn't a distinctively Muslim thing. The same is true on the other side of the divide. Most Americans don't view all of Islam as the enemy. But some do. And if a handful of Islamist extremists commit another significant terrorist attack on US soil, guess what will happen? The number of Americans who think all Muslims are the enemy will grow (especially if there are prominent voices of authority encouraging it). And of those who harbor such ideology, more will be inspired to strike out against innocent Muslims, committing hate crimes and the like. The position of those in authority who harbor such ideological views will likely be strengthened, making it more likely that America will implement military policies that strike out at the Muslim world in ways that harm innocent Muslims. And it will be less likely that this cost in innocent lives will be treated as a weighty loss.

When this happens, ideological extremists in the Muslim world will likely say something like the following: "These actions by the American government show that there is something in the very essence of the West that is just waiting to explode against us!"

Put another way, this kind of language is part of the ideology of division that fuels inter-group conflict and makes such conflict escalate and become increasingly entrenched. We can step away from escalating cycles of violence only by resisting these ideas--only by stepping back and blaming the ideology of division itself, manifested on all sides, instead of fueling it on our side by saying that there is something in the very essence of "them" that causes the problem.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Security, Good Will, and Ideologies of Division

In recent month I've found myself writing numerous lengthy reflections on our nation's current political climate and circumstances--and posting them publicly on Facebook rather than on my blog. The reasons for this are numerous, but the result is that this blog has been neglected. There is, however, an important point I wanted to make today, and as I was about to compose it on Facebook I decided it ought to go here instead.

Much of this blog is devoted to the Christian love ethic. I have argued that, based on an ethic of love, we should be willing to take risks. We should be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable on the Jericho road to help the injured victim in the ditch. We should be prepared to face our enemies with the kind of love that can turn them into friends, even though what might happen instead is that they strike us down.

But the point I want to make in this post is that even if our main aim is security, as opposed to living out a love ethic for its own sake, we need to take the sorts of risks that love demands.

The fact is that there are multiple ways to promote safety and security. One way is to keep threats out. Another way is to threaten decisive retaliation against those who do us harm. A third is to promote good will.

By "promote good will" I mean a few interrelated things. I mean interacting with others in a way that builds networks of friendship and mutual care. I mean doing the sorts of things that inspire gratitude. I also mean avoiding the kinds of things that magnify hostility and create enemies. I mean not deliberately provoking outrage.

Put simply, we're safer in a world of friends than in a world of enemies. One of the surest ways to create friends is to help people in their time of need. And one of the surest ways to create enemies is to assume that they are enemies and treat them accordingly.

The problem, of course, is this: to build friendships, I need to make myself vulnerable. If I refuse to make myself vulnerable, that means I am shutting people out in ways that they will likely experience as hostile.

If I engage those around me in a spirit of good will, those who are already my enemy may try to take advantage of that. They might pretend to be in need, and then when I make myself vulnerable by helping them, strike out against me. Reasonable concern for my own safety and security requires that I take sensible precautions against such things, especially if I know that I have enemies out there. But if I take extreme steps to prevent such things--if I try to make myself invulnerable to attack by shutting out anyone who might pose the slightest risk of being a threat--I help create a world in which I have fewer friends and more enemies. I create a world where I am in greater danger than I was before, because more of those around me wish me ill.

In other words, the more afraid I am of making myself vulnerable and the more I act on such fear, the more I will need to be afraid. Similarly, the more aggressive I am in relation to my neighbors--seeking to keep myself safe by issuing threats against them and retaliating with extreme prejudice when my threats aren't heeded--the more I find myself with no alternative but to be aggressive. It becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is true both at the individual level and at the group level. It is true of me with my neighbors, and it is true of America in relation to the wider world. We live in a world where America has enemies, those who wish to do us harm. But if we try to make ourselves immune to attack by shutting down our borders and adopting an aggressive posture, we become a nation with fewer friends and more enemies. The cost of an an "America First" nationalism that shuts down our borders and treats every desperate refugee as a potential terrorist is that we help to create a global environment in which more people wish us harm than before.

If we open our borders to, say, Iranian college students, what is going to happen? Of course, some extremist who wishes to violently attack Americans could try to come into the country on a student visa. But the vast majority who come to this country will do so in order to experience a new country and get an education. And guess what? If we let them in and don't treat them like enemies, if we invite them to dinner and to the movies and to a football game, if we give them a stellar education and inspire them to learn to sing the school's alma mater, we have planted seeds of good will that can help to overcome the seeds of hatred that are being sown by hate groups out there in the wider world.

ISIS and organizations like them are built on ideologies of division: us vs. them, the in-group vs. the out-group. Terrorists depend on a worldview in which "we" are at war with "them." Islamist extremists who target the West teach that Western nations are an enemy of Islam and that there is only one path for Muslims who want to flourish: destroy the enemy. This is the thinking that inspires Islamist terrorism.

Most Muslims don't buy it. Certainly, most of those who live in America today don't buy it. And our security depends on things staying that way. We become more secure if fewer people buy it, rather than more people buying it.

Right now, ISIS is helping to create a refugee crisis. Most of those desperate refugees are Muslims. The horrors of civil war and the violence of Islamist extremism are displacing them, and they are fleeing for their lives. ISIS claims that all of Islam is at war with West. If it's the West that provides succor to these Muslim refugees, that act of good will flies in the face of ISIS's ideology. If America provides a place of refuge and healing--not blindly, but through the kind of careful vetting process that's been in place for years--doing so helps expose ISIS's ideology as a lie.

But if we slam our borders shut, especially if we focus on singling out Muslims as a class for exclusion, we feed the ISIS ideology. We make their worldview more convincing. We help their recruitment efforts. In our of fear of letting a terrorist slip through the cracks of our vetting, we fuel the ideologies of division that inspire terrorism.

The alternative is not open borders. Just because I invite my neighbors over for dinner and show hospitality to those in need doesn't mean I take the locks off my doors. We must not fall for these sorts of false dilemmas. There are people out there who mean to do us harm, and we need to take sensible precautions. But our security depends as much on good will as it does on those precautions. And if we become so ruled by fear that we try to shut out everyone, our efforts at promoting security become self-defeating. We make our world more dangerous. We make ourselves less secure.

This isn't some obscure scholarly point. It's common sense. We are safer in a world with more friends and fewer enemies. Right now, there are ideologies of division that encourage Muslims to view Americans as enemies, and vice versa. If we feed those ideologies, we make our world more dangerous. If we fight those ideologies through showing Muslims that we are not their enemies, we make our world safer.

What is the effect of a sudden, unannounced slamming shut of our borders to a range of Muslim-majority countries--turning away scientists on their way to the the US to join cutting-edge research teams, turning away students about to begin Master's programs in philosophy and chemistry, turning away refugee families that after years of vetting have finally received approval to settle in America and have boarded a plane to their new lives? This act will cause hardship to those affected. It will deprive us of the good will that might have been generated by our generosity. It might deprive an American research team of a brilliant colleague and impede life-saving research.

It will probably not cause those scientists, students, and refugees to become terrorists. But it will send a broad symbolic message to the Muslim world: The US is anti-Muslim. And when the US sends that message, ISIS says, "Oh, goodie!" Because it means their ranks will grow. It means their worldview will become more plausible to more people. It means more people will be fueled by outrage against America to pursue the path of terrorist violence.

And no security system is foolproof. A security measure that reduces the likelihood of a determined terrorist getting into the country is not a good security bet if, in the long run, it substantially increases the number of terrorists who are trying to get in to do us harm.

Imagine that I found out that my door locks and dogs will only keep out 50% of determined burglars, whereas there is a new security system by Company X which would keep out 99% of them. But suppose that I am not really a target for burglars, let alone determined ones. In fact, the chances that a determined burglar will target my home in any given year is about one in a hundred. Now imagine that I find out that there is a team of burglars that keeps tabs on Company X's customers. They think anyone who installs the company's system has something really worth stealing. So were I to get the security system installed, my home would suddenly become the target of dozens of determined burglars every year.

Should I get the system installed? Obviously not.

Of course, the trade-offs we're dealing with when it comes to national security are not so stark or clear. But the point remains the same: sacrificing good will for the sake of greater security has costs--including a cost in terms of security. The safest world is one where ideologies of division are replaced by mutual understanding and respect across differences. Our aim should be to work towards such a world while taking sensible precautions against those in the grip of these ideologies. As soon as we decide to stop working towards such a world in favor of immunizing ourselves from any possible threat, we are pursuing an illusion: the illusion that we can achieve invulnerability.

Here's the grim truth: no matter what we do, we will be the victims of terrorism again. It will happen. The national security question is how best to reduce the frequency of such attacks. Throwing good will to the dogs is not the answer.