Not thinking about being human

At the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, writes about what it’s like to be a black professor.

Back in December, 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Yancy titled “Dear White America,” a thoughtful essay that asked white Americans to reflect on their position as white persons in a social system that provides structural benefits for white people. From my perspective as a former student of philosophy, this op-ed piece was primarily philosophical: it was written in the spirit of dialogue and openness, and designed to evoke serious reflection on an insistent social situation.

Rather than evoking reflection, Yancy reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he received “hundreds of emails, phone messages, and letters, an overwhelming number of which were filled with racist vitriol.” Yancy offers quotations from perhaps a dozen of the communications he received. Sadly I was not astonished by the level of vitriol; it was about what I expected. I was mildly astonished at how badly written these communications were, and how thoughtless — I mean “thoughtless” not in the sense of a lack of civility (though they did lack civility), but thoughtless in the sense that the writers had not actually thought about what they wrote.

Since Yancy’s essay was structured to provoke thoughtfulness about the topic of race, how is it that hundreds of people responded thoughtlessly? Part of the problem may be the American cultural tendency towards “evasion of philosophy” — the phrase used by American pragmatist philosopher Cornel West to name the American propensity of avoiding systematic thinking. Another part of the problem is American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon which includes those ostensibly well-educated Americans who value entrepreneurship and “business” over the life of the mind.

But I think the major problem here is the inability of most white Americans to think seriously about race and racism in America — to think, to think seriously. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has identified the problem of “white fragility,” but there is more to Yancy’s experience than white fragility. Yancy was attacked for asking white Americans to think, reflect, be introspective. The refusal to think can only be called intellectual fearfulness.

Another way of saying this is that white Americans are fearful of thinking seriously and deeply about what it means to be human. This fearfulness on the part of white Americans is, I suspect, amplified by the general American anti-intellectualism which is in large part a fear of thinking outside the narrow boundaries of technical achievement or outside the even narrower boundaries of American white Protestant evangelical theology. Thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence and other technical matters is acceptable. Thinking about, and either accepting or rejecting, the Protestant evangelical conception of God is acceptable. Thinking about what it means to be human as a white American is not acceptable, and evokes fearfulness rather than serious reflection and introspection. I find that very troubling.

Denominational leaders shooting themselves in the foot

It was just over a year ago that my denomination was engulfed in conflict due to a denominational leader’s insensitive remarks. Looking back, I still feel embarrassed by that moment — not that anyone else in the world cares what my tiny denomination does, but still, no one likes having denominational stupidity on view for all the world to see.

With that in mind, and in a spirit of utter humility remembering all the other stupid things my denomination has done, it’s kind of a relief to read about another, much larger, denomination having its own moment of embarrassment. An article in Christianity Today (which I learned about from John Fea’s blog post) tells the story of Paige Patterson, one-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and current president of an SBC seminary, and Paul Pressler, an SBC layperson. Back in the 1980s, Patterson and Pressler were the architects of the “Conservative Resurgence” within the SBC. Now Pressler faces allegations of sexual assault, and Patterson allegedly assisted in a cover up.

It’s an ugly story, almost as ugly as our own Unitarian Universalist Forrest Church episode. And before you say that this sort of thing implies that we should do away with organized religion, may I remind you of the sexual misconduct of Jerry Sandusky and Bill Cosby, so if we’re going to do away with organized religion we also need to do away with organized sports and the entertainment industry. And sadly this kind of argument does lead many religious progressives to claim that we should do away with all organized institutions, because (so goes the reasoning) human institutions are the locus of the problem. As if we can separate individual human begins from society. As if human society without any organized institutions would put an end to sexual assault. So let’s just stop those silly arguments, shall we?

Instead, this story about Paige Patterson and the SBC offers a chance to reflect on the fact that we human beings screw up regularly. Instead of being shocked when human beings screw up, it is wiser to accept regular screw-ups as a fact of life, to acknowledge that any one of us can (and probably will) screw up, and to make sure we build into our human institutions processes for dealing with screw-ups. I suppose it seems more glamorous to get all indignant when other people screw up, and flood social media with that indignation — but while maintaining and strengthening institutional processes is far less glamorous, I promise you it’s more likely to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

“Why, sir, a man [sic] grows better humoured as he grows older. He improves by experience. When young, he thinks himself of great consequence, and every thing of importance. As he advances in life, he learns to think of himself of no consequence, and little things of great importance; and so he becomes more patient, and better pleased. All good-humour and complaisance are acquired. Naturally a child seizes directly what it sees, and thinks of pleasing itself only. By degrees, it is taught to please others, and to prefer others; and that this will ultimately produce the great happiness….” Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Tuesday, 14th of September, 1773.

While I have great areas of disagreement with Johnson — and he would dismiss me as a “Leveller” who wants to do away with the great principle of subordination and social rank that keeps a society stable — I find him to be right about a great many things. For example, what he says about people growing “better humoured” as they grow older I find to be substantially true. He was 64 when he said this in a conversation in the castle on the Isle of Sky built by the MacLeod clan; seven years older than I am now. I look forward to improving additionally by experience, and thinking myself of even less consequence than I do now.

The kind of wisdom Johnson praises here strikes me as a variation on what Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics called phronesis, or practical wisdom. Contemporary U.S. society no longer values phronesis; instead, our society values techne, or technical skill; and nous, or abstract knowledge. In my experience, those who have the kinds of wisdom that can be categorized as techne or nous tend to think themselves of great consequence, and, like children, tend to think more of pleasing themselves, and they tend to be impatient, and they tend to consider it acceptable to seize directly what they see. The titans of Silicon Valley come to mind, people like Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick and the venture capitalists and the many CEOs of small inconsequential start-ups. The current president of the U.S. also comes to mind.

These are all ill-humored people who think themselves of great consequence and who wish to seize directly what they see without thinking about their effects on others; they have very little in the way of practical wisdom. Unfortunately, these are the people who now provide us with leadership. Equally unfortunately, these are the kind of people we now respect: selfish, immature, child-like idiot savants who think themselves of great consequence, and who, if they think of us lowly peons at all, think of us with contempt because we lack their narrow technical skill and abstract knowledge, and feel the only thing they owe to us is the privilege of exploiting us. I think I prefer the elite of Johnson’s day, the “men distinguished by their rank,” who at least paid lip service to the obligations of their rank, and at least pretended to protect those who were subordinate to them.