Violence Can Move Bodies, But Not the Spirit

Violence Can Move Bodies, But Not the Spirit

Fresno Bee, November 18, 2011

Martin Luther King thought that nonviolent civil protest created a “tension in the mind.”  This tension is the result of seeing good people jailed and brutal power unleashed upon passive resisters.  King’s insights help explain reaction to recent police brutality against Occupy protesters.

Police have used rubber bullets, stun grenades, pepper spray, and clubs to break up Occupy encampments across the country.  An Iraq war veteran was injured in Oakland,  An 84-year old grandmother was pepper sprayed in Seattle.  And at UC Berkeley, cops in riot gear jabbed students with nightsticks.

In the Berkeley case, officials defended police action in public statements that do indicate a certain tension in the mind.  The UC Berkeley police captain explained (in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle), “the individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence.  I understand that many students may not think that, but linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”

Robert Birgeneau, The UC Berkeley Chancellor, explained this more fully in a letter to the campus.  “It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully… They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers’ efforts to remove the tents. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them.”

Although the Chancellor invoked our tradition of civil disobedience, he appears to have forgotten the power of the images of police violence from the Civil Rights era.  Police who strike unarmed, nonviolent protestors are usually on the wrong side of history.

Violence is effective in the short term.  Police were able to clear protesters out in Oakland, Seattle, and Berkeley.  The philosopher Hannah Arendt explained, “Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience.”  Violence does move bodies.  But it cannot move the spirit.

Violence does not prove anything about justice or truth.  King explained, “in the long run of history might does not make right and the power of the sword cannot conquer the power of the spirit.”  In fact, violence can provoke a spirit of rebellion in the hearts of those who are bullied.  And thus violence tends to escalate, as those who are harassed begin to push back.

Violence and nonviolence are slippery concepts.  We can use the term “violence” metaphorically to describe storms and emotions.  And some people speak of structural violence—which is the tendency of a system to harm people through racism or oppression.  But violence is usually understood as harmful physical force intentionally applied against the will of some victim.

It seems clear that on this definition, the police have been violent.  When cops strike students with clubs or pepper spray old women, it is obvious that there is intent to cause physical harm.  Protesters who link arms do resist police power.  But linking arms is nonviolent because it does not intend to cause physical harm.

Occupy protesters have invoked the idea of structural violence, claiming that the system is set up in a way that harms the majority.  When the police attack peaceful protesters with batons and pepper spray, one suspects that they may be right.

The protestors at Berkeley, for example, were trying to call attention to the problem of education in our state.  Tuition keeps increasing. Classes are cancelled or jammed to overflowing.  And students graduate with large debts and few opportunities.  Students are beginning to push back against a system that is failing them.  But linking arms in protest is not violence, despite what the Berkeley Chancellor said.

Some people may think that it is better to clear the tents and end the protests quickly, hoping that the structural problems will go away.  But attacking the protesters won’t solve our problems.  And it is wrong to suggest that the police are somehow justified in assaulting those who are directing our attention to these problems.

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2011

It is difficult to balance individual liberty with concerns of a global nature.  We want to be free to consume and reproduce.  But the choices of free individuals add up, creating significant impacts.  This is especially true now that there are 7 billion human beings on earth—a number that will grow to 10 billion by the end of the century.

We passed the 7 billion mark on Halloween.  This is a kid-friendly holiday, which makes parents glad they have children.  But it also marks the beginning of the typical American over-consumption calendar.  Once the Halloween candy is gone, we turn to Thanksgiving gluttony and then on to Christmas overindulgence.  Imagine the environmental impact of 2 or 3 billion more people gorging themselves as we do every year.

Ecologist Madhu Katti, from Fresno State’s Biology Department put it this way in a recent post on his blog, “A Leaf Warbler’s Gleanings”: “There are many reasons to be worried about the consequences of having so many of us crowding this pale blue dot of a planet.  Especially if so many of us are keen to continue spending billions of dollars on seemingly cheap plastic junk.”  Common sense tells us that as population grows and consumption increases, we will hit a limit.

This point has been known, at least since the time of Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century economist.  Malthus is famous for arguing that as populations grow, they will suffer a dieback caused by environmental pressures.  He is infamous for hinting that it is wrong to support poor people since aid to the poor increases population in counter-productive ways.

So far, we have found technological solutions that have helped us avoid the grim Malthusian limit and reach the 7 billion mark: increased agricultural productivity, new sources of power, better medicine, etc.  But there may be a limit to technological solutions.  And as population and consumption grow, the Malthusian limit looms.

So what can we do?  Policies that use coercion to prevent people from reproducing are immoral.  The right to reproduce is very basic.  It would be wrong for the state to license reproduction or require sterilization.  The morally acceptable response to population pressure is to increase each individual’s sense of responsibility for reproduction.  Perhaps we could do the same for consumption.

This individualistic approach is, however, vexed by the problem of diffusion of responsibility.  When there are 7 billion other people involved, my own choices appear to be infinitesimally insignificant.  It is odd to demand that I should consider global population and environmental issues when thinking about my reproductive life or shopping patterns.

So where does that leave us?  Perhaps it helps to return to Malthus.  Malthus thought that one solution to the population problem was “moral restraint.”  He defined this as celibacy until marriage and refraining from marriage until one is ready to support a family.  Not only would this help to moderate population growth but Malthus also thought it would be good for women, since it would prevent the “evils and unhappiness” that arise from “promiscuous intercourse.”

Malthus was on the right track here, despite his prudish sense of sexual morality.  The key to population pressure is to find ways to empower and educate women, including giving them more control of their own reproductive lives.  Professor Katti explained it to me this way, “the empowerment of women and reduced infant mortality are the key factors” in slowing population growth.  Women choose to have fewer children when there is “greater economic security, better health, and some measure of control over their futures.”  This has helped to lower birth rates in industrialized countries as well as in places like Bangladesh.

So far, so good.  The further problem is that despite lowered birthrates, we continue to consume loads of cheap plastic junk.  Professor Katti continued, “we have figured out how to lower birth rates, but are far from tackling the wasteful consumerist lifestyle that is at the root of so many of our environmental problems.”

Is it possible that some version of “moral restraint” could work when it comes to consumption?  Instead of focusing on promiscuous intercourse, it may be time to begin thinking about how to limit promiscuous consumption.

Occupy movement about sense of unfairness

‘Occupy’ movement about sense of unfairness

Fresno Bee, Oct. 21, 2011

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is an expression of resentment about inequality. The motto of the movement – “We are the 99%” – shows this. The top 1% of Americans hold half of the nation’s wealth. Corporate CEOs are doing well, while wages stagnate, hours are cut and debt increases for the rest of us.

It is not surprising that these inequalities cause resentment. Resentment is about fairness. And things seem unfair to many Americans today.

Some inequalities are fair: such as inequalities that result from differences in talent or expertise. We want the pilot to fly the plane, not the flight attendant. Resulting inequality of income is fair – so long as it is reasonable and leaves the flight attendant doing well. In a similar way, inequalities resulting from certain genetic differences can be fair. Tall and fast kids get to play on the basketball team. But fairness means that there should be other opportunities for other kids.

Genetic differences can produce unfair inequalities. Racial discrimination and sexual inequality are unfair because racial and gender differences are irrelevant to performance. It would be unfair if women were not allowed to be pilots, for example, as was once the case.

Individuals do not earn the advantages or disadvantages of their genetic differences – these differences are a matter of luck. The advantage of inherited wealth is also a matter of luck. Rich kids don’t earn the advantages of wealth: They are just fortunate. Individual initiative does matter in the long run. Poor kids can do well, despite their relative disadvantage; and rich kids can fail to achieve. But a privileged starting point will give you an advantage. And this seems unfair – because neither the poor kid nor the rich kid has earned their relative difference.

This is not to say that we should engage in “class warfare” to make rich kids miserable. In a certain sense, that would be unfair as well, since parents should be free to help their own children excel. Rather, the point is that poor children should have fair opportunities for wellbeing. The drive for equality is not about bringing the privileged down. Instead it is about lifting the underprivileged up and providing a fair starting place. Women should be able to fly planes and poor kids should have decent schools.

The basic idea here is equality of opportunity. This idea was defended by John Rawls, the most important political philosopher of the past century. Rawls said that inequalities are justified only when they benefit the least advantaged. The basic idea is that as the rich get richer, the poor should also do better. When this happens, resentment diminishes because even the poor will agree that they benefit from the system.

This idea undergirds our graduated income tax system: as the rich get richer, their tax dollars help poor kids in poor schools. This creates equality of opportunity and a sense of fairness. For Rawls, the aim is to “improve the long-term expectations of the least favored.”

Presumably, most Americans agree with this idea. It is a basic value in the Christian tradition. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, for example, Jesus says that we have an obligation to the “least of these” among us: the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned.

But one wonders whether we are actually fulfilling that obligation. The “least favored” includes a growing number of unemployed, disenfranchised, imprisoned and indebted people. Unemployment hovers around 10% (15% here in Fresno County). Twenty percent of American homeowners are underwater in their mortgages (closer to 45% here in Fresno). The median student loan debt for recent college graduates is $20,000 – without good job prospects. And 1 in 100 adults are in prison – the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Statistics such as these remind us that we are not improving the long-term expectations of the least favored. And this is what is fueling the resentment of the “Occupy” movement.

The Occupy protesters have not offered much in terms of concrete policy initiatives. It is not clear what we should do to promote fairness in a dysfunctional economy. But first we should get clear about our shared conception of justice. The Occupy movement is reminding us of the basic idea of fairness. This is not the only principle of justice: liberty matters too. But it is important to focus our concern on the “least” among us.

Community service can transcend religions

Community service can transcend religions

Fresno Bee, Oct. 07, 2011

According to Gandhi, “religions are different roads converging to the same point.” This is a nice idea. But it is most likely false. There may be some common values shared by religious people. But the details diverge — often in quite radical ways. Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons and Jews will never agree about fundamental metaphysical questions: about the nature of God or the soul. And if we include atheists in the mix, it is unlikely that these roads will ever converge.

And yet, there may be a common path that we can walk together for a while, despite our differences. One common path is community service. Most religions stress altruism. And atheists recognize the ethical importance of working for the common good. Although there are different ways of providing service, it is rare to find a person who does not think it is good to help others.

It is important to understanding that despite our differences about fundamental things, we live together here and now. We drive the same roads, use the same resources and make our livings together. And our children will inherit this world from us. Productive relationships among diverse religious people can develop around shared interest in our common world.

This is the idea behind President Barack Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. This initiative aims to bring people of different faiths together to engage in a joint service project. The White House website describes this project as “an important way to build understanding between different communities and contribute to the common good.”

Fresno State is participating in this interfaith campus challenge. The project will begin with an Interfaith Student Discussion Panel as part of the Ethics Center’s Conference on “Ethics, Religion, and Civil Discourse.” On Thursday, a diverse group of students will discuss how their own religious traditions understand community service, and they will begin brainstorming a joint service project.

This joint service project is being coordinated by the Jan & Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning, under the leadership of Chris Fiorentino. According to Fiorentino, a substantial amount of research indicates that service-learning works to promote greater cross-cultural understanding. Fiorentino says that people “find common ground through service.” Fiorentino recognizes that there are some issues that are intractable. It may be impossible for diverse religious people to agree about an issue such as abortion. But he maintains that there is quite a lot of room for consensus around issues such as education, safe neighborhoods and hunger.

A joint service project aimed at one of these topics can help to show that despite our differences, we have much in common. Fiorentino points out that we often over-emphasize our differences. One reason for this is a sort of self-absorption. It is easy to stereotype other people and their divergent points of view, especially when you only associate with people like yourself. Fiorentino argues that working on a joint service project can help people move beyond their narrow perspectives and learn to see “that there is something bigger than their own point of view.” That bigger thing is the community itself.

It is obvious that community service is not a panacea that will cure religious tension. Atheists and theists will still disagree about the existence of God, even if they swing hammers together. And Catholics and Mormons will still disagree about the teachings of Jesus, even if they work together to teach kids to read. But it is important to learn that, despite our deep differences, we can work together on projects of common concern.

Gandhi’s idea that all religions are fundamentally the same is hopeful — but misleading. If religions are fundamentally the same, then it is very difficult to understand the depth of religious conflict. Instead of hoping for a final convergence of religious belief, perhaps the most we can hope for is to learn to admit our differences while focusing on those values we share. The idea of being of service to the community may be one of those universally shared values.

A worthy goal — neutrality without censorship

A worthy goal — neutrality without censorship

Fresno Bee, September 24, 2011

A math teacher in San Diego County, Bradley Johnson, hung posters on his classroom wall that displayed religiously oriented statements from American history. The posters included phrases such as “In God We Trust” and “God shed his grace on thee.” Johnson claimed that he intended this as a patriotic celebration of America’s heritage.

The school district removed the posters, claiming that, “because they were taken out of context and very large” these phrases “became a promotion of a particular viewpoint that might make students who didn’t share that viewpoint uncomfortable.” This month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in support of the school district. It found that Johnson’s display was not “neutral”– as required under the First Amendment. The court agreed that the school district was enforcing “neutrality” by removing Johnson’s posters.

Neutrality is an important ideal. Religious dissidents came to America in order to escape the power of the state-sponsored churches of Europe. Today, there is more diversity of belief, with growing numbers of nonbelievers and non-Christians. We need state neutrality with regard to religion.

But we should be careful that as we pursue neutrality, we don’t end up stifling debate. This case can be understood as a call for improved public discussions of religion. It is obvious that genuine philosophical debate is not conducted by hanging posters on the wall. We need to find better ways to discuss our most fundamental differences.

I discussed this case with Doug Fraleigh, chairman of the communication department at Fresno State. Professor Fraleigh — an expert on freedom-ofexpression issues — agrees that Johnson’s posters violated the First Amendment. But Fraleigh is concerned with a growing trend toward government regulation of speech. He worries that the court seems to think that “teachers are paid to convey the government’s message.” Fraleigh said, “While some control of classroom speech can be warranted, excellent teaching is an art which cannot flourish when lessons are subject to inflexible government control.”

According to Fraleigh, this decision extends a precedent in which the government attempts to “broadly regulate government employee speech.”

The court reasoned that the government can limit an employee’s speech at work, so long as it does not interfere with that employee’s right as a citizen to speak freely outside of work. Fair enough: Johnson remains free to discuss his religious views after work.

But there is a silencing effect, nonetheless, when teachers fear that they will run afoul of the authorities.

More extensive academic freedom — along with more civil public discourse — could be part of the solution. A truly open and tolerant discussion of religion would be useful in our diverse society. We would have to listen to one another and learn about other points of view. And we would have to understand our own beliefs well enough to defend them.

This may be too much to ask for in an elementary school context. But if teachers felt free to discuss religion in an open and inquiring fashion, school would be a more lively place: a place in which important ideas are considered and defended, instead of simply ignored in the name of neutrality. Such lively exchanges — if they were conducted with a genuine spirit of inquiry — would open student’s minds, stimulate curiosity and create a love of learning.

The philosopher John Locke said, “Truth would do well enough, if she were once left to shift for herself.” But our tendency sometimes points in the other direction. Our justifiable fear of the establishment of religion can lead us to limit freedom of discussion. The danger of this approach is that it prevents us from engaging in those sorts of vigorous debates that help us understand what we believe and why we believe it.

Johnson’s posters may violate the spirit of the First Amendment. But they are also weak as teaching devices. We need open-minded and inclusive discussion of our diversity, not simplistic posters and competing bumper stickers. In our increasingly diverse world, we need more and better discussions of religion and our religious differences.