Violence, Culture, and Character

Fresno Bee, June 27, 2021

Violence is rising. The Washington Post reports that gunfire killed 54 people per day through the first five months of 2021. This exceeds the death toll for the same period in 2020, which was the deadliest year in two decades. Here in Fresno, the story is similar. Last year there were 70 homicides, the highest number in 25 years. This year we are on pace to eclipse that number.

The epidemic of violence is especially tragic here at the end of the pandemic. We have endured a difficult time of dislocation and loss. But the worst is over and the future is bright. How sad that violence is raging when the world is reviving.

There is a general sense that people have become angrier and meaner. Some violence is racially charged. Some is connected to gangs and other crime. But some is merely random spite. In Los Angeles, 6-year-old Aiden Leos was shot on his way to kindergarten by an angry stranger on the freeway. Mass shooters have attacked in San Jose and elsewhere.

Commentators have offered various explanations. Some say this is the result of the stress of the pandemic. Others blame inequality. Pundits on the left blame Trumpism. Pundits on the right suggest that efforts to defund the police have empowered criminals.

Many blame guns. The White House is launching an initiative focused on guns. Biden’s Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, said “We believe that a central driver of violence is gun violence and the use of guns.”

There is no doubt that guns make violence easier. The history of violence is about the evolution of killing power. Cain killed Abel with a club. Achilles went on a murderous spree with sword and spear. Guns produce more killing with less effort.

Technological innovation exacerbates all kinds of vice. Modern chemistry produces powerful psychoactive drugs, including distilled alcohol. The Internet makes porn readily available. Social media makes it easy to gossip. And fast-food chains facilitate drive-thru gluttony.

But technology only explains part of the problem. It is human beings who put technology to use. Most people avoid addiction, debauchery, gossip, and gluttony, just as most people avoid violence. There is some truth to the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people do.” The same is true of other vices. Booze does not cause alcoholism. And French fries don’t cause obesity. Somewhere in the background is human culture and psychology.

What gives people the capacity to resist the supercharged temptations of modern technology?

Virtue and character provide part of the answer. Moral psychology must be on the table as we confront the epidemic of violence. Virtuous people control anger, cruelty and spite. Every human being gets angry. But good people resist this negativity. They resist their vicious instincts. And they find affirmative outlets for negative emotions.

Defective character is an overlooked aspect of the increase in violence. Angry and violent people are lacking in psychological development and spiritual fulfillment.

The good news is that character can be improved. We are not pre-programmed. We can learn to speak a language and play the piano. We can also learn to defer gratification, control spite, overcome hate and become compassionate.

Culture matters in character development. Good culture supports us in doing the right thing, while bad influences contribute to vice. As we analyze the increase in violence, we must consider cultural inputs. What kinds of ideas and images inspire us? Who are our role models? Are we reinforcing kindness or teaching cruelty?

We must also think critically about violence itself. Violence is not natural or normal. Violence decreased during past decades. This shows that violence is not inevitable. People can learn to be less violent. But that requires lessons and reminders about the fact that violence is a sign of moral failure. It is shameful, stupid and sad. Decent people do not celebrate cruelty. Nor do they lionize villains, thugs, and murderers.

Finally, we must give people productive ways to find meaning, purpose, and happiness. Violence is a dead-end for hopeless souls who have lost faith in life. Another antidote to violence is to create a world that provides social connection, creative outlets for the human spirit, and opportunities to experience joy, love, and hope.

Critical Race Theory and the Project of Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2021

Criticism can be divisive. But banning critique is a bad idea. Unanimity that results from censorship is not genuine. The productive solution is more enlightened critique.

I say this in response to efforts in several states to prohibit “critical race theory” (CRT) from being taught in schools. CRT claims that racism is deeply embedded in American institutions.

The reaction against CRT follows a script written by Donald Trump. Last fall he described CRT as a “crusade against American history.” He said it was “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”

But prohibiting a theory does not make it false. To disprove a theory, you need to critically examine it. Rather than censoring CRT, let’s encourage students to listen carefully to what critics have to say about racism. If the critics are wrong, let students prove them wrong. If they are right, then let’s empower young people to imagine productive solutions. Ideological indoctrination is wrong, whether it occurs in defense of CRT or against it.

The effort to ban CRT is symptomatic of a broader human avoidance of critical thought. We often prefer useful illusions about faith, family and country. When people challenge our illusions, we get defensive.

Religious people get defensive when scholars critically examine religious texts and beliefs. Something similar happens when feminists criticize gender, sex and the family. It happens when philosophers question cherished values.

Ideas and institutions are strengthened by confronting criticism head on. Criticism exposes flaws and weaknesses that can be improved. Without critique, bad ideas fester and institutions rot. If an idea or an institution is not strong enough to sustain critical scrutiny, that is not the fault of the critic.

The crucible of criticism causes values to evolve. We cannot predict where this will lead. But the hope is that as bad ideas are exposed, better ideas will develop, and institutions will be strengthened as a result.

Radical critique has a deep history. Socrates criticized Athens. Jesus critiqued Jerusalem. The American founders criticized British tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. critiqued the American dream.

The heroes of critique are often opposed by reactionary forces who aim to silence them without responding to their criticisms. Sometimes this involves violence, as in the cases of King, Socrates and Jesus. But silencing the critic does not stifle the criticism. If the critique contains truth, the next generation will carry it forward.

It is not easy to think critically about the status quo. Sometimes it seems easier to avoid thinking altogether. But as King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He also said we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.”

Ignoring the problem of race in America will not make it go away. Indeed, institutions that censor criticism end up looking weak and stupid as a result. It is childish to stop up your ears and close your eyes.

Adults ought to confront problems with honesty, sincerity, and creative intelligence. Let’s model that behavior for our children. American kids know that there are racial problems in America. Riots in the streets make it clear. Preventing them from thinking critically about these problems won’t solve them. Our kids need lots of critical tools so that they can imagine solutions to our problems. Silencing the critics is not a useful strategy.

Censors sometimes seem to think that the critical theorist is conjuring these problems into existence. But critical theory is not a conjuring act. Rather, it brings to light the skeletons in the closet. The critical theorist does not create these specters. They are already there.

Critical theory is about enlightenment. One of the most famous mottos of enlightenment is “sapere aude,” which means “dare to be wise.” Wisdom requires the courage to confront the world without illusions. The light of truth exposes things as they are, not as we want them to be.

You have to shine this light into the closet. Ignoring the skeletons hidden there, won’t make them disappear. You also have to look in the mirror. If you don’t like what you see there, turning off the light won’t help.

Graduation: Kick Away the Ladder and Soar

Fresno Bee, June 6, 2021

Here is a column for the graduates. Graduation celebrates success at climbing a ladder. The word comes from “gradus,” which is Latin for “step.” To graduate is to complete all of the steps.

Education is an ascent. Plato pictured education as a climb out of the cave of ignorance toward enlightenment. In the Renaissance, Pico Della Mirandola said the ladder of knowledge leads us to God.

Our world has lots of ladders. In school you climb from one grade to the next. As you ascend you are graded, ranked, and evaluated. This hierarchical system continues in business, the military, and other forms of adult life. Much of life is organized by ladders and ranking systems. You will ascend a variety of ladders, including the famous ladder of success.

But once you’ve climbed up, then what?

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein recommended kicking away the ladder once you’ve climbed it. Graduation is like that. It is a time to leave the ladder and make a leap. This leap is a moment of freedom, anxiety, and joy.

Freedom can be scary. There is comfort in climbing a familiar path. But life is not merely a never-ending staircase. There are also circles and repetitions — and moments in which you hover, soar and plunge. Life is a dance and a leap as well as a climb.

What will you do with your freedom once the steps are no longer measured for you by parents and teachers? How will you use your freedom? Which mountain will you climb? Where will you dance off to?

Education should culminate in freedom. Knowledge liberates us. But liberty requires constraint. Freedom without discipline is chaos. Virtues like honesty and integrity channel freedom in productive ways.

Freedom must also be connected to compassion and justice. In “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare warned us not to turn our backs on our friends once we’ve climbed ambition’s ladder. Remain humble. Give gratitude to those who helped you ascend. And offer a hand to those who need help climbing up.

There is also wisdom in standing still and learning to wait. Our culture emphasizes achievement and accomplishment. But silence is golden and patience is a virtue.

We learn this from music and the arts. The best music is not a frantic flurry of notes. The silences matter, as do the whole notes, and the whispered undertones. Subtle harmonies require gentleness, attentive listening, and a light touch. The sweetest poetry leaves important things unsaid.

And don’t forget love. True love is not selfish. It expands and uplifts. Parents, teachers, and coaches gave you the love you needed. They held your hand as you took the first steps of your journey. At some point, the training wheels came off and there you went. They ran beside you for a while as you sped up the path. And now you are ready to soar. Spread your wings. And when you are ready, pass that love on. Your task is to help others learn to climb.

Your parents and teachers hope that wisdom, courage, and tenacity will guide you as you conquer other mountains. But we can’t tell you where to go from here. Maybe you will climb Half Dome. Maybe you’ll write a poem. You might discover a cure for cancer. Or you might find a cure for violence, racism, and hate. The choice is yours.

There will always be new challenges to overcome and new ladders to ascend. We hope that you climb well, and bravely, and wisely. May your life be a dance, a song, and a sparkling work of art.

We’ll be here cheering you on, waiting for news of your achievements. Do us proud. Climb as high as you dare. Then gather your virtues around like a superhero’s cape and make that leap. If you fall, we’ll still be here to pick you up. Don’t be afraid to fall. Everyone falls down from time to time. What matters is the will to get back up and climb again.

Eventually you’ll catch the wind and soar beyond us with dignity and grace. Circle back from time to time. Astound us with what you’ve learned and who you’ve loved. We look forward to being amazed at who you will become.

Memorial Day and the Ethics of Memory

Fresno Bee May 30, 2021

For Memorial Day, consider a fitting tribute to the dead: Unity in America

Memorial Day began after the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” a day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. You would think that remembering the dead would help us find common ground. But memory can polarize.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a Memorial Day mainstay. Delivered during the war, the speech was both a memorial and an exhortation. He called on Americans to complete the task for which the heroes of Gettysburg had died, to preserve the Union so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

But there are difficulties. What about the rebel soldiers who died at Gettysburg? Should they be memorialized as well? This question lingers as we reconsider schools and military bases named for Confederate soldiers. The nation continues to struggle with how we remember the American legacy of slavery, segregation and war.

One obvious solution would be to stop naming buildings after people. A recent debate about school naming in Fresno shows us the problem. Maybe we should name schools after concepts instead of people. How about schools named “Liberty,” “Independence,” “Imagination,” or “Kindness”?

Memorials, including our use of names, are ultimately expressions of value. They make an assertion about what the living hold dear. Do the dead care about these memorials? I doubt it.

When Socrates was asked whether he wanted his body buried or burned, he shrugged. He joked, “do whatever you want with me—if you can catch me.”

Since he would no longer be there, it didn’t matter to him what happened to his corpse. He asked his friends to make sure his debts were paid and his sons were educated. He was indifferent to the rest.

This indifference opens the door to significant questions about how and why we memorialize the dead. The dead are no longer here to enjoy their memorials. Some people believe that ghosts haunt the cemeteries. But I doubt the dead care how we honor them. From the vantage point of eternity, our memorials must seem unimportant.

Eternal values transcend our petty squabbles about names and monuments. Names are powerful symbols. A school named for Abraham Lincoln means something different than a school named for Robert E. Lee. But those symbols have meaning for us. Our memorial tributes are for the living. The dead have moved on.

Decoration Day began as a day to bring color and life into the cemeteries of the Civil War. It also functioned to heal a divided nation. Flowers decorated both Union and Confederate graves. Lilacs and roses were preferred, in the colors of red, white and blue.

This memorial process aimed to build unity. Despite the war, the Civil War dead were all, in a sense, Americans. Death can bring us together, if we let it. Our differences fade away in the face of eternal sleep. Mourning widows and grieving comrades share something in common that transcends party, color or creed.

Decoration Day poem by Henry Peterson suggested that the fallen of the Civil War were “foes for a day but brothers for all time.” Peterson continued, “we all do need forgiveness, every one.” And, “in the realm of sorrow all are friends.”

Death is a great leveler and equalizer. So too is grief and mourning.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address proclaimed that the living must be dedicated to the “unfinished work” of those who fought and died. But Lincoln’s vision was broader than a battlefield. In his Second Inaugural, delivered a month before he was assassinated, Lincoln called for malice toward none and charity toward all, while asking the nation to care for the widows, the orphans and the wounded warriors.

The work of compassion and justice is a tribute to the fallen. We honor the dead by loving the living and creating ways to eliminate ignorance, injustice, hatred and fear.

The Civil War reminds us of the danger of polarization. Today our nation is divided, but not hopelessly so. A fitting tribute to the dead would seek to overcome the differences that divide us. We are all Americans, after all. And one day every one of us will be on the receiving end of the lilacs and the roses.

Is it Better to Die or to Pass Away?

Whispered euphemisms obscure the difficult finality of death.  When people die, they are gone forever.  This is tragic and true.  But it’s better to confront hard truths than to sweeten them up with fragrant words.

A couple of months ago, we had our dog euthanized.  He had been sick for a while.  During the last few days, he suffered terribly.  The polite way to speak of this is to say, in the passive voice, “our dog was put to sleep.” 

This may be suitable for parents breaking sad news to children.  But adults should be honest and forthright among themselves.  More than one person has said, “I’m sorry your dog passed away.”  They are trying to be compassionate.  But the dog did not gently “pass away.”  He was suffering and we asked the vet to kill him. 

This was not easy.  But it was the right decision.  It was very sad.  But the dog was better off dead.  It sounds cold to say it.  But it is true.

Euthanasia is Greek-based jargon that avoids the old-fashioned phrase, “mercy killing.”  Euthanasia seems less blunt.  But “mercy killing” honestly admits that this is a kind of killing.   

One problem is that killing seems evil.  But killing is not absolutely wrong.  It is not wrong when it comes from a place of compassion and respect.  It is more honest to admit this than to confuse ourselves with euphemisms. 

Death is veiled by euphemisms.  Consider phrases like “passed away,” “passed on,” or simply “passed.”  There is a kind of cloying phoniness here.  Indeed, “passing” connotes a kind of fakery.  We use this verb to describe what happened when counterfeit money is passed or when someone passes themselves off as someone or something else.

“Passing on” makes death out to be a transition to some other state.  The Bible teaches that this form of life passes away (see 1 Corinthians 7:31) and that “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

“Passing” is also passive.  We pass footballs and kidney stones.  The object passed is passive in the process.  To say that a person passed away takes away agency.  To my ears, it sounds more respectful to say “he died” than that “he passed away.”  It is nobler to imagine dying as something we do—our last and final act—than to imagine being passed around by fate or the gods. 

If we must speak this way, I suppose “passed away” is preferable to “passed on.”  To say that Jane Doe “passed on” assumes she went somewhere else.  That might be true.  But we don’t know where Jane has gone.  She may be in a worse place or a ghost trapped in limbo. This spookiness can freak you out.  The idea of “passing away” is simpler.  It tells us that Jane is gone without asking us to speculate about where she went.

Sometimes this expression is shortened and people simply say, “Jane Doe passed.”  This phrase seems to require an object like a kidney stone.  And it is ambiguous.  To say Jane passed might mean that she got a C on an exam.  One recent newspaper article used the expression twice to refer to two different deceased persons.  The author is trying to be polite.  But the phrasing is annoying.  Jane Doe is dead.  Let’s not beat around the bush.

For some, there is a taboo or phobia involved in saying words like “dead” and “death.”  Maybe folks fear that these words will somehow conjure up the Grim Reaper.  But honesty is the best antidote for fear.  It is the whispers, the speculation, and the innuendo that causes the shadows to grow.  Dying is a part of life.  Everyone we know will do it someday—including you and me. 

Sometimes it is even better to be dead, as in the case of my dear suffering dog.  It is better to affirm our mortality than to pretend that we merely pass away.  It is better to shed light on death than to pass over it with euphemisms that obscure its sadness and its finality.