Saying No to Racism, Brutality, and the Politics of Total Domination

Fresno Bee, June 7, 2020

Evil is contagious and brutality loves company. When George Floyd was killed, one of the officers involved should have said, “Stop it.” But peer pressure and the bandwagon can cause ordinary people to participate in terrible things. It is often easier to look away than to say, “This is wrong.”

So kudos to former Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis and to Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom spoke out against abuses of power emanating from the White House. Critics may say that this is coming a bit late in the game. But better late than never.

The Rubicon was crossed this past week when the president threatened to deploy the military in pursuit of what he chillingly called “total domination.” The police and National Guard then used tear gas and grenades to drive peaceful protesters away from a church so Trump could pose with a Bible.

The president did not read the Bible at the church, of course. Nor did he cite an equally important document, the U.S. Constitution.

Each of the five freedoms of the First Amendment was under assault this week. The threat of total domination and police brutality undermines our freedom to assemble, protest, and petition. Journalists were shot at and arrested, in violation of freedom of the press. And then the president took a battering ram to the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state.

Our country needs a crash course in civics. You don’t hold a democracy together by domination. Nor do you unite a secular nation by brandishing a Bible. Cops and soldiers especially should read the Constitution with care. We consent to be governed because we believe that the institutions of government — including the military and police — exist to defend our rights.

That’s why police brutality is so appalling. When the police kill people in their custody, the social contract unravels. That’s also why efforts to create law and order through domination are un-American and counterproductive. Domination does not create consent, it breeds discontent.

The good news is that there are conscientious cops, soldiers and civil servants. Americans of all races volunteer to serve the public and protect the Constitution. Many public servants spoke out against the George Floyd killing and against racial injustice. Some even took a knee with protesters. And now Gen. Mattis and Adm. Mullen are reminding us of the need to reaffirm our commitment to the Constitution.

But this is not easy. Mullen’s statement opened a difficult can of worms. He said of the military, “They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief.”

If a cop or solider were given an order to violate the rights of citizens, would he or she refuse? Conscientious disobedience is a deeply American idea. But it is a question that rightly provokes fear and trembling.

The nation began in disobedience to tyranny. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Howard, the Earl of Effingham, was a British officer who became a hero to early Americans after he resigned his commission rather than fight the colonists. Henry David Thoreau said that if the law causes you “to be an agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, we have “a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” And in 2003, President George W. Bush warned Iraqi soldiers that they would be prosecuted for war crimes and that it would be no defense to say, “I was just following orders.”

This lesson can also be learned from George Floyd’s killing. A uniform does not protect a person from moral condemnation or from legal prosecution. The cops involved were fired and arrested. It seems obvious in retrospect that one of them should have said, “Stop it. This is wrong.”

In the heat of the moment, peer pressure and the bandwagon often prevail. But once the heat has dissipated, the world will condemn those who condone cruelty. And history will eventually shine a more flattering light on those who have the moral courage to say to the creeping shadow of total domination, “Stop it, this is wrong.”

MLK and the Moral Need for Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, January 19, 2020

We have a moral obligation to educate and enlighten ourselves. Love and duty are blind without education. This is a theme we find in the life and writing of Martin Luther King Jr.

King was a Christian minister whose nonviolent work for racial justice was inspired by Jesus and Gandhi. But he was also a scholar. He studied sociology, philosophy and theology.

King’s model of thoughtful activism provides an antidote for a culture of quick tweets and silly memes. Our attention spans are short. We skate across the surface of things. King reminds us of the power of the slow and serious study of the humanities. Social change begins with change of heart and also with a change of mind.

So here’s a proposal for Martin Luther King Day: read something! King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a good place to start. King shows there how Socrates and Jesus inspired him to engage in civil disobedience.

If you want to know more about King’s philosophical influences, read his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” where he explains his philosophy and theology of love. King says there, “All life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers.”

This idea did not pop into King’s mind unformed. He discovered it through an intellectual pilgrimage through the history of philosophy. King’s ideas, and his activism, grew out of a broad understanding of the world’s traditions.

King routinely warns against intellectual and spiritual blindness. In his book, “Strength to Love,” King said it is “not badness but blindness” that causes evil in the world. It was ignorance that led people to crucify Christ and to execute Socrates. The root of racism, hate, and violence is “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

King concludes that we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.” And he argues — with a nod to the existentialist philosophers he studied — that moral blindness is a result of a tragic misuse of freedom.

Racists and haters often make a conscious choice to be dumb. Every human being has the capacity to think critically, inquire into truth, and gain enlightenment. But people choose not to exercise this capacity because they are focused on defending their own selfish interests and narrow points of view.

Liberation from ignorance is difficult. It causes anxiety. It is difficult to question authority and stand up for justice. The solution for the anxiety of emancipation is a courageous commitment to truth. We need the courage to think for ourselves and, as King puts it, to “courageously do battle for truth.”

King suggests that the Christian faith provides the ultimate solution. He rejects the idea that human reason and science alone can eliminate hatred and injustice. He says, “Man by his own power can never cast evil from the world.” He says that humanistic hope is based upon an illusion about the inherent goodness of things.

King was, after all, a Christian pastor. In the background of his thinking is the problem of sin and the need for a savior. King tells us that he found the strength to persevere against threats and violence with the help of God.

This pushes us toward further reflection. Are we good enough to save ourselves? Or do we need divine assistance?

In order to answer those questions, we need to embrace the difficulty of thinking and the complexity of faith. A lot of people would like to ignore these sorts of questions. They would prefer to ignore the question of why racism persists, whether violence can be justified, and whether the arc of the universe really does bend in the direction of justice.

But lazy indifference is not helpful. Faith without thought is flimsy. And wisdom is not possible without fear and trembling.

King said, “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

So how do we honor Dr. King? We honor him by working for social justice. But we also honor him by avoiding half-baked solutions and easy answers. In short, we honor him by taking up the task of thinking.

Enlightenment Values and Education

Ignorance is Not a Virtue

Fresno Bee, May 20, 2016

  • Ignorance, enlightenment are political issues
  • American universities are committed to enlightenment values
  • Democracies flourish when citizens are enlightened

Obama at Rutgers graduation- Ignorance is not a virtuePresident Barack Obama defended Enlightenment values recently in a commencement address at Rutgers University. Obama described the American founders as Enlightenment thinkers who opposed “superstition and sectarianism.” He concluded, “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”

This caused a minor flurry of commentary. Many took this to be an attack on Donald Trump, which it probably was. Trump tweeted that it was Obama who was ignorant. And so it goes in an era when even university commencements are politicized.

But universities are not politically neutral. They are bastions of enlightenment. They proclaim enlightenment values in their Latin mottos. The Rutgers motto says, “Sun of righteousness shine upon the West.” Fresno State’s motto says, “Receive the light and give it forth.” The University of California’s motto is “Let there be light.”

WE CURE OUR MORAL BLINDNESS THROUGH FREE INQUIRY AND RATIONAL ARGUMENT.

The enlightenment ideal is politically progressive. Defenders of the enlightenment believe that knowledge makes the world better. And they know that knowledge rests upon freedom of thought.

The great Enlightenment thinkers were liberals in the broad historical sense of the term. They advocated liberty, equality and justice – and in some cases, political revolution.

Enlightenment thinkers believed that tyranny and injustice could be overcome when the light of reason is allowed to shine. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant used a Latin phrase as the motto of enlightenment: sapere aude. This is a command: “dare to know!” Enlightenment rests upon a set of such imperatives. Speak truth to power. Be audacious in pursuit of wisdom. Follow the light, wherever it leads.

Some critics claim that this is a bunch of Eurocentric nonsense. They reject Enlightenment values as the oppressive ideology of colonizers and slaveholders. It is true that the heroes of the Enlightenment were white European men. They were wrong about a lot of things, including slavery.

We all have blind spots. But enlightenment provides a solution. Enlightenment requires self-criticism. We cure our moral blindness through free inquiry and rational argument.

Other critics reject reason as a solution to the human problem. Some believe that faith and feeling are more important than argument and inquiry. Others fear that liberal education is irreligious indoctrination. Some even think that science is an ideological temptation.

But blind faith is willful ignorance. Good ideas do not need protection from criticism. Rational critique strengthens good ideas and helps us avoid bad ones.

Martin Luther King once said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Immoral people often plead ignorance, when they are caught doing something wrong. Others turn a blind eye to injustice.

Voluntary ignorance is negligent and recklessly indifferent. Knowledge generates responsibility. Mature people accept the obligations that knowledge creates. Moral people also shine a light on their failures. They admit their mistakes and work to correct them.

Some people are proud of their prejudices. Others wear bigotry as a badge of honor. The ignoramus relishes his own stupidity.

Such bovine complacency is the opposite of enlightenment. Conformity and obedience are easy. But cud-chewing contentment is beneath the dignity of human being. And docile herds are susceptible to the whims of the demagogues. Fanatics manipulate superstition, while tyrants prey upon a compliant populace.

CUD-CHEWING CONTENTMENT IS BENEATH THE DIGNITY OF HUMAN BEING.

Enlightenment is not easy. It is hard to think for yourself. Some claim that ignorance is bliss. But ignorance is not bliss – it is merely the path of least resistance.

To claim that ignorance is bliss is to deny our innate inquisitiveness. We are born ignorant. But we have a thirst for knowledge.

Education feeds off of curiosity. It questions everything and stimulates further inquiry. A good education arouses our mental energies. A great education leaves us with burning questions.

Laziness, cowardice and self-interest occasionally get in the way. It is easy to rest comfortably in our misconceptions. No one is completely wise or perfectly moral. Dark spots of ignorance remain within each of us. But the solution is obvious: more enlightenment and less stupidity.

Our schools and universities are a product of the Enlightenment, as is our republic. Democracies flourish under conditions of enlightenment. They falter when ignorance grows. They thrive when citizens dare to be wise.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article78862672.html#storylink=cpy

Racism and Growth Mindset

Fighting racism with faith in the future

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2015

It’s disappointing to see that racism still exists: in fraternity houses, in Ferguson’s police department and in Fresno’s schools. But most of us are outraged by recent racism. And this gives us a reason to hope. Racism is not inevitable. Racists are bred, not born.

A key to making progress on any issue is the belief that it is possible to make progress. If you don’t believe that improvement is possible, you won’t work to make things better.static1.squarespace

Research done by psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrates the importance of affirming that progress is possible. People who have a “growth mindset” believe that since growth is possible, their effort matters. On the other hand, those who believe that talent and intelligence are fixed — something you are born with — give up more easily.

I recently spent the day with Eduardo Briceño, CEO of Mindset Works, a business that is putting Dweck’s research into practice. Briceño had a number of examples of the importance of the growth mindset. Educators, for example, clearly believe that growth happens. The point of education, after all, is to help children grow.

One of Briceño’s most astounding examples comes from the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians who have a growth mindset are more willing to compromise, less distrustful of one another and more hopeful about peace. The reverse is also true. Those who believe that character is fixed are less willing to compromise. If you believe that people can’t change, and that members of certain groups have fixed traits, then there is little hope for peace and progress.

Racism is connected to the fixed mindset. Racial prejudice is based upon assumptions about the “fixed” traits of members of racial groups. But racial identity is not destiny. Nor are racists destined to be racist. One way to break the stranglehold of prejudice is to remind ourselves that our identities and attitudes are not permanently fixed.

Some of this research sounds too good to be true. Cynics argue that human nature is not really that malleable. The cynical realist shrugs, thinking that recent racism is yet another chapter of the same old story of man’s inhumanity to man. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But cynicism is defeatism. It rests on the same kind of fixed mindset as racism.

Sure there are limitations to growth. Racism is not the simple result of a bad mindset. Racism is also the result of struggle over scarce resources, demographic pressures, corrupt institutions, media stereotypes and so on.

It is important to recognize the depth of racism. But that shouldn’t stop us from working to make progress. Rather, realism about racism set the agenda for the work we must do to build the world we want.

Racism won’t go away over night. But it is important to see that we have made progress. Outrage about racism is a hopeful sign. As are the institutional responses that we’ve seen in Ferguson and elsewhere. We are slowly growing a better future.

The philosopher William James once explained, “faith in a fact can help create the fact.” When we believe that change is possible, change is more likely to occur. James imagines standing on a mountain pass, confronting a leap across a chasm. If you have faith that you can make the leap, you will jump farther. But defeatism will undermine you. A defeatist will jump weakly or not at all, either falling into the abyss or failing to reach the summit.

Martin Luther King Jr. also emphasized faith in the future. He believed that the universe was on the side of justice. But King also said, “progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” Rather, progress comes through “tireless efforts” to combat the cynical forces of social stagnation. King clearly had a growth mindset.

Racists and cynics believe that the world is fixed. But that’s false. The world is always changing. So there is work to be done. There is always a new generation being born, who have yet to be corrupted by pernicious ideas. Like weeds in the garden, racism and cynicism occasionally crop up. So let’s get to work, pulling weeds, planting better seeds and growing a better world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/03/20/4438246_andrew-fiala-on-ethics-fighting.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Individual Conscience and the Common Good

When conscience and common good collide

Andrew Fiala, Fresno Bee, February 6, 2015

There is no easy way to reconcile individual conscience and the common good. The argument about the measles vaccine makes this clear. Some have refused vaccination, despite the dangers this creates for public health._55524133_friedrichwandererabovetheseaoffogoriginal

Similar disputes play themselves out in a variety of contexts: Ebola quarantines, eminent domain, and the like. During the past half-century, exceptions have been carved out for individual conscience with regard to military service and a variety of other issues. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a corporation, Hobby Lobby, an exemption to federal insurance laws requiring contraception coverage, based upon a claim of conscience.

Society demands that individuals should serve the greater good and conform to the norms of social life. The risk of allowing conscientious refusal is significant, as we are seeing in the current measles outbreak. Those who are not vaccinated put themselves and others at risk.

But individuals (and apparently even corporations) can refuse to comply. The advocates of conscience might quote Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Or they may assert with Emerson that nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

Human beings are fundamentally conflicted. We are social animals. But we are also individual persons. Each of us views our own life as special, unique and infinitely valuable. And yet, each of us is merely a replaceable member of the herd, subject to biological forces that flow through our bodies and affect the whole.

Human life is fractured by this irreconcilable rift. Life is lived in the first-person: you are the hero of your own drama. And yet from the outside, each of us is merely a bit player in a much larger story. You will be entirely forgotten in four or five generations. And yet, this life is the only one you’ve got.

Your own death is one of the most important events in your biography — the final, defining moment of your life. But from the perspective of the species, your measly life is inconsequential. Nature will digest your flesh. The planet will not notice your departure. But for you and your loved ones, your departure to the undiscovered country will be an infinite loss.

Our heroes have often been conscientious refusers: Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther King. But refusal antagonizes the herd. It is not surprising that these heroes were killed. Occasionally the moment is ripe for a refuser to make a difference, especially when the herd is obviously wrong. But most of the time, the tidal movements of society and nature sweep individuals along, and away.

Some individualists claim that individuals should never submit to society’s demands. On the other hand, collectivists claim that social welfare always trumps the right of conscience. At one end is lonely egoism. At the other end is totalitarianism.

Neither solution is acceptable for those of us committed to a democratic social life. Individuals should not lose themselves completely in the herd. Nor should we live in defiance of society. To be human is to suffer in the middle. The tragedy of being human is that we are pulled in multiple directions by opposing forces and conflicting duties.

Religion appears to offer one sort of resolution. An omnipotent God can hold all of this together in his benevolent hands. God is big enough to love each of us infinitely, while also understanding the substance of the common good. But the mystery of divine omnipotence gives us little to go on. We live this side of paradise, without access to divine omniscience.

Does God want us to vaccinate our children, to provide contraception, or to serve in the military? Religious people disagree about the answer to those questions. Every act of conscience is a leap of faith.

Another solution appeals to science. Scientists understand how vaccinations help prevent epidemics. But science can’t tell us how to live in the first-person or how to balance our values, duties, and commitments. Individuals must still interpret the data and apply it to their own lives.

There is no way around this dilemma. Claims of individual conscience can cause outbreaks of measles. But each measly individual also has a claim on infinite value. And a democratic society of conscientious individuals is as dangerous as it is inspiring.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/02/06/4367159_fiala-on-ethics-when-conscience.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy