One Small Voice

I would like to add my small voice to the din surrounding the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. As a resident of Minnesota I am especially embarrassed by the actions of one of those pledged to serve and protect in what I regard as our best and largest city. It is beyond reckoning. But it happened. And it happens.

As one who was raised in Baltimore, Maryland throughout my adolescent years, I saw some of the blatant racism that pervades the South. Now for those who don’t regard Maryland as a Southern state because it remained neutral during the Civil War, I would simply point out that the state is below the Mason-Dixon line and is in some ways fiercely Southern. Perhaps it’s precisely because it did remain neutral during the Civil War. Now many in that state seem to be out to prove that they, too, are Southern rednecks.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not mean to tar all Southerners with the same brush.(And I certainly don’t mean to imply that racism is peculiar to the South. The recent events in Minneapolis prove otherwise.)  Many Southeners are fine people who are just as upset by the murder of Floyd as am I. But there are those in the South who wear their bigotry proudly on their sleeves — as there are Northerners as well.

I was a student in high school in Baltimore in 1954 when the Supreme Court decided that schools should not be segregated and recall vividly making my way through angry crowds at the end of the school day in order to get the bus back home.

In addition, one of my black classmates in college attended a Catholic Church in Annapolis, Maryland during her first year in college. At the end of the service the priest took her aside and told her that there was another Catholic church on the other side of town “for you folks.” I was astonished and deeply embarrassed on her behalf, but not altogether surprised. I had worked throughout my high school years in a grocery store in Baltimore with two black delivery men who often told me of their anger and pain and I listened in stunned silence. What does one say? I recall one day when one of them looked at me and said “I can take most of the hatred, but when I take my family out for a drive on a Sunday it pains me to see the signs that read ‘No Colored.’ What do I tell my kids?” I had never even noticed the signs before he mentioned it. As I said, Maryland could be as fiercely Southern as Mississippi.

The George Floyd murder has the world in a buzz and one only hopes it isn’t the usual outrage that follows such an event and goes nowhere — like the outrage that followed the shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. We can explain the carnage as an expression of bottled up rage and frustration that has followed this event, but surely we cannot justify it — just as we can explain Hitler’s hatred of the Jews while we can never justify it. Let’s hope the outrage in this case that has expressed itself in the trashing of private property results in positive steps taken to make sure that this sort of thing never happens again. The problem with the carnage, of course, is that many will focus on that and forget what it stems from.

However, it does seem as though the graphic pictures of the policeman with his knee on the throat of the black man handcuffed and pinned to the ground by two other policemen takes the fact of racism in this country to another level: that it makes us realize that the determination of football players such as Colin Kaepernick to protest a few years ago were not out of order, but  a timely reminder that there is hatred and bigotry in this country and that the black population have been the brunt of much of it for many, many years.

What is one to do? That is the burning question of the day and it is heartening to see people around the country talking about steps that can be taken to thwart these sorts of events and help make the world safer for the black population in this country. Black Lives Do Matter. Indeed. What is especially heartening is to see the growing numbers of white folks who are joining with their black brothers and sisters to help see that at least some of the deep-seated racism in the country is brought into the air and dissipated. One can only hope.

Calm Voice of Reason?

Ben Carson, one of the many candidates for the Republican nomination for president, speaks calmly and with supreme confidence. He appears to be every bit the medical doctor dispensing a prescription to a sick nation. In an atmosphere charged with the electricity generated by such clowns as Donald the Trumpet, Dr. Carson strikes many as the sensible alternative. His popularity is increasing daily. But when one gets past the calm exterior one worries about the substance of his positions. He claims, for example, that women are primarily responsible for rape and that Obamacare is a form of slavery. Moreover, in a personal letter addressing me by my first name, Ben asked my support for his candidacy and noted that he opposes such things as Planned Parenthood, and

“believes in peace through strength. We must defeat our enemies before they become strong enough to destroy us. We must seal our borders right away.”

Now there’s a bit of paranoia for you and the typical Republican appeal to fear.  He believes the country needs a “spiritual awakening,” which (apparently) only he can bring about. Indeed, he has a number of strange views that worry those who seek to know where the candidates stand on critical issues.

In an interview on CNN following the publication of a recent book, for example, he advanced the notion that if the Jews had been armed in Nazi Germany Hitler would never have been successful in carrying out the “final solution.” As Yahoo News reports, in part:

“I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” Carson said. “I’m telling you there is a reason these dictatorial people take guns first.”

The comments drew a swift response from the Anti-Defamation League.

“Ben Carson has a right to his views on gun control, but the notion that Hitler’s gun-control policy contributed to the Holocaust is historically inaccurate,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the organization. “The small number of personal firearms available to Germany’s Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state.”

What we are dealing with here is what logicians call “counterfactuals.” It’s impossible to prove or disprove counter-to-fact statements of the type “If the Jews had been armed the Holocaust very likely would not have happened” We can have fun with such statements, as many historians do in speculating about the past, but we must bear in mind that it is just that: speculation. Whether or not the Anti-Defamation League had responded as they did to Carson’s remarks, it is clear that those remarks are on the weakest possible historical grounds. They cannot be proved or disproved. The man seems to be enamored of unverifiable historical claims, however, since he said in the same interview that

 “passengers on Flight 93, which crashed on 9/11, helped avoid further tragedy by rushing the gunman.”

There is simply no way of knowing whether this claim is true or false. We might like to think it is true, but that is neither here nor there.

Thus, in the case of his claim about the Holocaust, the notion that IF the Jews had guns THEN Hitler would not have been so successful in carrying out his Final Solution is totally unfounded, mere speculation. One might be tempted to say it is irresponsible in the climate of the discussion (can we call it that?) of gun control in America in 2015. When the issue is raised, as it invariably is, in an atmosphere of heat and very little light, it is irresponsible to seek analogies with situations that never occurred —  suggesting what would have been the case if events had not turned out as they did in the last century.

Dr. Carson’s demeanor is reassuring and it is a pleasant change to hear at least one candidate speak calmly and assuredly about issues that confront us all. It is, in its way, a breath of fresh air. But when one reflects on what is said and not the manner in which it is said, one realizes that this man is not all that far from folks like Donald Trump at the far right of the political spectrum. Beneath the calm exterior one can sense an element of hysteria. We need to listen to what these people say and not be taken in by the fact that they seem self-assured and confident in the claims they make. Facts do not speak for themselves; they must be supported. Speculation is just that: it is not fact and it is ultimately groundless.

The Cat In The Room

In a comment on a previous post I was trying to make myself understood by my good friend Dana about the various colors in ethics — black, white, and gray. In doing so I came to realize that I could be clearer about where I stand on the issue. And where I stand is not where many others stand, so it behooves me to make my position clear in case it might be close to the truth, as I like to think it is. The issue surrounds the question of whether there is a right and wrong in ethics.

The prevailing opinion as late as the medieval period was that there is a clear difference between the two, an absolute right and an absolute wrong. The Church, of course, knew the difference and if men and women were in a moral quandary they would simply ask the priest. And if he didn’t know he would refer to Church dogma. I think there are echoes of that conviction among church-goers today who still ask their parish priest or parson for advice when facing a moral dilemma. Many, however, came to regard this black/white position in ethics as leading straight to intolerance and a host of atrocities all in the name of ethical certainty. And it did. So for the most part the view of absolute right and absolute wrong has been tossed aside along with the Ptolemaic hypothesis about the neat arrangement of our finite universe. We are now living in a relativistic age and we tend to think that when it comes to ethics, at the very least, it is all a matter of opinion.

What I have tried to do is to carve out a middle ground between the two views, to insist that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong — but we don’t know it absolutely. It is this last proviso that keeps us from the intolerance and even arrogance that often came with the supposed certainty that one was right about which side God was on in a war, for example, or whether heretics should be burned alive in an auto-da-fé. We pride ourselves on being more tolerant and, in the name of tolerance, ask the question “who’s to say?” when it comes to ethics. We then end up with a mishmash of conflicting opinions that cannot possibly all be correct. But I am convinced that this view leads us away from dialogue and the search for answers when it comes to ethical issues — especially since so many people are convinced there is no answer. Let me propose an analogy — which will appeal to Dana. He’s a poet.

The search for the right answer in ethics is like searching for a black cat in a dark room with a blindfold on. I insist that there is a cat in the room — somewhere — whereas the prevailing view is that since no one seems to know where the cat is he isn’t there at all. It’s just your opinion and mine: there’s really no cat. My conviction that there is a cat in the room rests on the fact that, in ethics, we have discovered a number of clear truths that are universally agreed upon, even though it has taken a struggle over many years (and even wars) to reach agreement. I speak about the evils of slavery and human sacrifice, for example, and the conviction that all persons have rights that ought to be respected, regardless of the circumstances. We know now that we were wrong for lo those many centuries to deny women the rights that men took for granted. We also know that in a democracy the vote should be allowed to all who are of age and must not be restricted to men with property. In fact, one could even argue that over the years there has been something akin to moral progress — for all our stupidity and determination to reduce ethics to a wrestling match. It appears that when men and women put their heads together and think things through they sometimes (rarely?) find the black cat in the dark room — despite the fact that their blindfold frustrates them and makes things extremely difficult and even painful at times.

The fact is that it is very difficult indeed to continue to search for that elusive cat. And this is why so many people simply give up and insist that it’s all a matter of opinion. We have become intellectually lazy. We prefer to save ourselves a passel of work and the difficult thinking we have decided is just not worth the effort. So many of us throw up our arms and ask “who’s to say?” It saves us the trouble of opening our minds and sifting through whatever evidence there is, scrutinizing arguments, and trying to reach even tentative conclusions. We prefer to think there is no cat. But I am convinced there is. We have held it from time to time and that assures me that we might get ahold of the cat every now and again, even briefly. There are answers to ethical dilemmas. We just have to work hard to find them and most often, because we are human, we must be content with reasonable suppositions and tentative conclusions though, at times, certain ethical truths are clear as crystal: what the Nazis did to the Jews was wrong by any standards one chooses to evoke. Now there’s a black cat if there ever was one!

Lacking In Sympathy

In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot provides us with a portrait of a thoroughly despicable man (dare I say a thoroughly evil man?) in the person of Henleigh Grandcourt. He has managed to persuade the very young and beautiful Gwendolen Harleth to marry him, despite the fact that he had previously fathered four children by another woman whom he then refused to marry. The single characteristic that stands out about the man is his complete lack of sympathy toward his fellow humans. He is all cold intellect, of a calculating sort, and treats his young wife as an appendage whom he parades before others in order to make them think more highly of him. He simply figured “that she was his to do as he liked with and to make her feel it also.” He is an emotional bully. Toward her he shows only disdain and even contempt as he relentlessly pressures her into bending to his will. He is incapable of love because he is incapable of thinking of anyone but himself.

In one of those stunning observations that this author makes seemingly without effort, she suggests that such a lack of sympathy is often allied to stupidity, as evidenced by Grandcourt’s subsequent behavior toward his wife. As Eliot notes in passing, “There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity. Mephistopheles thrown upon real life and obliged to manage his own plots, would inevitably make blunders.” The reference to Mephistopheles is not accidental, of course, since one of Eliot’s favorite characters in Goethe’s Faust is such a personage — a creature totally lacking in sympathy. It is what defines him as the incarnation of evil. He leads Faust through a series of adventures in the first part of Goethe’s tragedy that culminate in the deaths of a young woman Faust has seduced along with her infant whom Faust had fathered. Mephistopheles is not only unsympathetic, he is stupid: he fails to understand what sort of man Faust happens to be and fails totally to envision consequences. The relationship among the three concepts — stupidity, a lack of sympathy, and evil — are strongly suggested both in Goethe’s poem and in Eliot’s novel.

It is interesting in this regard to consider Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolph Eichmann whose trial in Israel she attended and reported on later in her examination of Eichmann — a study in “the banality of evil.” That man, too, was a bit stupid and lacking in sympathy, a total bureaucrat treating his victims as so many cubic yards of cargo. He worried only that the trains might be delayed and the schedule for the executions be interrupted. He never once thought of the people he was sending to the gas chambers as human beings. Reports from the camps later on suggest that this was not at all uncommon among those who guarded and actually turned the gas on the prisoners. Of course, for many years the Germans had prepared themselves for the blatant racism that accompanied Nazism by deep-seated prejudices against the Jews that they shared with most of the rest of the world. And, as the most astute propagandists have come to realize, the best way to work on those deep feelings and convince people to kill someone is to reduce them to non-human status. Goebbels, the ace Nazi propagandist, was an expert at this sort of thing. In writing his propaganda and stirring hatred among his countrymen, he was deaf to that most eloquent plea for sympathy written by Shakespeare three centuries before. It is, of course, in the words of the Jew, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

Given the fact that Eliot’s immensely attractive hero discovers toward the end that he is a Jew and is then able to declare his love for the remarkable Jewess he rescued and has come to treasure, one might argue that her novel expands on Shylock’s speech above. In any event, we all have our prejudices and tend to reduce our enemies to ciphers; not just the Nazis. During the Second World War Americans referred to the Japanese as “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” By calling them names, they became less than human and their deaths seemed necessary and even a good thing. We now call our enemies “terrorists” and lump together human beings of varying nationalities and beliefs in one cluster so we can rationalize their deaths — even the “collateral damage” that our drones cause in the Middle East. After all, if they are not human beings we feel no sympathy for them and it is easier to dismiss their suffering and death, to stupidly take steps that lead invariably to evil.

The Nature of Evil

A good friend of mine, Paul Schlehr, made an interesting comment on a recent blog I wrote about the “banality” of evil. That word is Hannah Arendt’s and it is used by her to describe the evil she witnessed in covering the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Paul suggested that her analysis does not cover every possible case of evil and he has suggested in the past an interesting model — a human “bell curve” from good to evil with most of us in the middle somewhere and folks at either end either thoroughly evil or inherently good, even saintly.

Now, to begin with, we live in an age that denies the legitimacy of such words as “evil,” insisting the “good” and “evil” are merely words we attach to personal perspectives of our own private worlds. “It’s all relative,” we hear on every street corner. I suggest that this view is simplistic and am convinced on philosophical and psychological grounds that there is evil and that humans are quite capable of performing evil deeds as well as extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion. I find my friend’s model, the bell curve, quite appealing. Most of us do seem to be somewhere in the middle and there are those — like the man mentioned by Paul in his comment who beat up a homeless person on the street because the latter witnessed him stealing from a second homeless man — or like the men who tied up a young Frenchman and beat him with a crowbar and made him watch as they gang-raped his girl friend on a public transport in Rio de Janeiro recently, as reported by Yahoo News.

These strike me as examples of unmitigated evil, a sign that these people are without conscience and quite capable of inflicting pain on others and quite possibly enjoying it. This clearly goes beyond the notion of “banality” that Arendt speaks about. This is not mere thoughtlessness, as Paul correctly points out. Sigmund Freud seems to have been closer to the truth. You may recall that he was convinced we all repress sadistic impulses — which come out when we laugh at the clown who gets hit with a pie in the face, for example — or when the chair is removed from under the man about to sit down at the table. In fact, laughter is one of the main ways we release these sadistic impulses according to Freud. The impulses themselves are not socially acceptable and we are brought up to suppress them as much as possible. We do so, according to Freud, by means of the formation of our conscience  (the “Super Ego”) which keeps those impulses at bay long after we learn to repress them as children. Humor is socially acceptable, as is the vicarious delight we take in viewing an accident, or violent games on TV. Whether we like to admit it or not, these sadistic impulses are there and some people don’t bother to suppress them but rather take delight in expressing them in violent acts toward others — like those actions mentioned above.

I do think we have to allow that Arendt’s analysis of the evil committed by people like Adolf Eichmann can be called “banal,” in the sense that he simply never stopped to think about what he was doing. He was a mindless bureaucrat who fretted about keeping the trains on time. A great many people in Germany at the time mindlessly fell in line with the Nazi propaganda and, given centuries of hatred toward the Jews, they were perfectly willing to look the other way during the “final solution.” Most of these people were not directly involved in the gassing of the Jews — even Eichmann himself never witnessed such an event, we are told. Those that were directly involved in the torture and death of those untold millions of people clearly must be regarded as in a different class altogether from those who oversaw the operation and scheduled the trains. These folks resemble more closely those who today direct drone flights into crowds of people, never witnessing the events and finding solace in the notion that they are not killing human beings, they are killing the “enemy.” The real enemy, however, may indeed be within — as Paul suggests.

It’s All Relative! Really?

A recent story in HuffPost begins as follows:

A gay Somali teen was allegedly stoned to death on March 15, according to an advocacy group that posted about the incident online.

A Facebook group calling itself Somali Queer Community posted information and photos of the alleged stoning on its social media page Saturday. The post states that Mohamed Ali Baashi, 18, was tried and convicted of sodomy by a rebel judge from the Islamic extremist group Al-Shabab in the Barawa area of southern Somalia. In front of a crowd of villagers, Baashi was reportedly pelted with rocks until he was dead, the group’s post goes on to claim.

During the many years while I was teaching ethics the prevailing prejudice I continued to run into is that all values are relative. I call it a prejudice because it was seldom a conclusion reached after serious thought. The claim was that in ethics if those values are not relative to the individual, they are at least relative to cultures. We have been told that values are “enculturated” in us and we simply adopt the values of those around us as we grow up. If someone in another culture does something we regard as wrong who are we to say it is wrong? It’s just what they do. We hear the bromide “don’t judge another person unless you have walked a mile in his shoes.” In fact, we are constantly admonished not to be “judgmental.” But let’s take the story above as a case in point. It raises serious doubts about the viability of the whole relativism thesis: failure to judge might even be regarded as the height of irresponsibility.  I have never thought that people take relativism seriously, though, they just lean on it because it is easier than thinking.

In my classes I would ask the students if they thought that the Nazis were right to “relocate” the Jews and send millions to their death. Most students would stick by their guns and say, “of course, who’s to say?” Then I would ask them if they would still believe this if they were a Jew living in Germany in the mid-thirties of the last century when the purge began. That would usually give the students pause, though I don’t know if it ever changed a single mind. But the idea was to get them thinking about a complex situation they probably never thought about before. It helps us to see evil more clearly if we imagine ourselves to be the victim.

But the story above tells us about a judicial process in Somalia in which a young gay man is found guilty of sodomy and is summarily stoned to death. The cultural relativist would say, “that’s the way they do things there. Who are we to say it’s wrong?” My response is: anyone with half a brain knows it’s wrong regardless of where or when it happened. The value of human life and the respect all human life is owed transcend cultures and makes it wrong to inflict harm on others; we have duties as moral agents to alleviate human suffering whenever possible. Now, whether or not our culture teaches us this any longer, it is the heart and soul of any viable ethical or religious system known to developed minds. The obvious conclusion in this case is that the process that found the young man guilty was flawed and the “rebel judge” handing down the judgment was blinded by prejudice. We know this happens: we see it happening on a daily basis all around us. In this regard, the Somalis are just like us and they should know better. Certain values transcend cultures.

Many think that this position smacks of “absolutism,” the claim that values are absolute and a few people know them while others do not — those few wearing clerical collars or holding degrees in philosophy no doubt. We are uncomfortable with this view and regard it as the height of intolerance, though we don’t distinguish carefully between tolerance and indifference. But while I make no claim to absolute knowledge about values, since all human knowledge is partial, there are things that are inherently wrong and simply should not be tolerated. Does this mean we should send in drones and invade Somalia with our armed forces to bring the Somali people to their knees and make them accept our way of life? Of course not. What it means is that we should all condemn the action and our hearts should go out to the young man who was stoned to death as the natural expression of sympathy for another human who was wronged apparently by what appear to be extremists — and we should hope that by making the action known through the social media the world community would condemn the action so that this sort of thing does not happen again.