Emerson on reparations

On January 1, 1863, in celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, Ralph Waldo Emerson read a poem to a Boston audience. In that poem, Emerson considered the then-current idea that slave-owners should be compensated for having their slaves taken away from them. To this ethically bankrupt notion, he replied:

Pay ransom to the owner,
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.

This seems to me to be a good concise summary of the case for reparations.

And no wonder many present-day political leaders reject the notion of reparations to the descendants of slavery. If we compensate the descendants of slaves for their stolen labor, by a logical progression we might then have to compensate the offshore workers for the full value of their labor. Or compensate the underpaid warehouse workers and retail employees in this country for the full value of their labor. There’s even an implication that today’s billionaires did not in fact earn their fabulous wealth through their own efforts. In other words, the assummptions underlying reparations contradict the assumptions of economic libertarianism.

Is your identity set in stone?

If you’re reaching sexual maturity today, you have a wide array of sexual orientations with which you might identify. There are the old categories of straight, bisexual, gay, and lesbian. There is a continuum from asexual through graysexual to allosexual, though it’s not a linear continuum since it also includes demisexual and aspec and other identities. The old continuum of gay/lesbian to straight (where if asked “how gay are you?” you might reply “a Kinsey 6”) now must include more than two binary genders. Thus, in addition to gay or straight, we now have pansexual, omni sexual, polysexual, etc.

In my observation as a sexuality educator, this plethora of sexual orientations can be both freeing and confusing for young adolescents. Some young adolescents, including the ones who have felt they are somehow different than the norms shown in popular culture, are relieved to find that there are other people out there like them. Other young adolescents, including those who may feel that they don’t fit into pop culture norms, may not see themselves reflected in any of the existing categories, or may see themselves reflected in more than one category. Even young adolescents who fit into one of the old categories (one they don’t have to explain to their parents) find the need to understand the new plethora of sexual orientations, as friends and acquaintances identify with other sexual orientations.

I think it’s helpful to introduce young adolescents to the concept of sexual fluidity. Back in 2014, social psychologist Justin Lehmiller wrote:

“Over the last decade [i.e., prior to 2014], the concept of sexual fluidity has drawn great attention from both scientists and the general public alike. In case you aren’t familiar with it, the basic idea behind sexual fluidity is that some of us have the capacity for a ‘flexible’ erotic response, which can lead to significant variability in one’s pattern of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity over time. In other words, someone who is sexually fluid may experience fluctuations in who they are attracted to, who they sleep with, and what labels they identify with multiple times over the lifespan.”

In other words, your sexual orientation can change over time. I feel this is a useful corrective to a culture that seems to want to put us into a limited number of essentialist categories — we are gay or straight (but not something in between), black or white (but not biracial), Democrat or Republican (but not socialist or communist).

There’s a theological point here. Existentialist theology suggests that humans don’t have a pre-existing essence. We define our essences ourselves, through our actions in the world. By contrast, essentialist theologies insist that humans have defined essences from their beginnings. Essentialist theologies include both conservative Christian theologies (“man is sinful”) on the one hand, and atheist theologies (“humans are programmed by their biology”) on the other hand.

While some Unitarian Universalists do espouse essentialist theologies, mostly essentialist atheist theologies, I’d like to think that most of us do not fall into the essentialist trap. Instead, we assert that humans can change over time. Where others try to place humans into little boxes of essentialist identities, as existentialists we know that we have the ultimate freedom to define our own essence through our actions.

Anesthesia

Update, October 10: Turns out when I wrote this, the anesthesia was still clouding my brain — my prose is even more confused and incoherent than usual. I’ll leave it up as written, so to show what anesthesia can do to you.

In college, I took a class with Lucius Outlaw, Jr., in which we read Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Husserl’s book opened up the possibility of observing the stream of one’s own consciousness, something I’ve been interested in, and have practiced, ever since. So when I went in for a colonoscopy yesterday, I decided to take the opportunity to try to observe what happened as I was given anesthesia, and later how I came out of anesthesia

Thinking back to a previous colonoscopy, I realized that I simply couldn’t remember some things I knew had happened after coming out of the anesthesia. I couldn’t, for example, remember getting dressed, though I knew I had done so. Before I underwent anesthesia yesterday, I wanted to see what I could retain in memory from the time I went under anesthesia until I arrived back at home.

I have a clear memory of when I lost consciousness. One of the nurses asked me to settle myself slightly differently on the gurney, which I did, and then — nothing.

Continue reading “Anesthesia”

Fatigue

I just received email asking for my help in a social justice cause that I care about. And I deleted it.

I can’t add any more to my life right now. Because — COVID. Because I’m trying to keep programs running to support kids and families who are stressed because of COVID. Because I know what little I’m able to do is inadequate, but it’s what I can do.

Yes, I know I should feel guilty for deleting that email. Yes, I know I should feel guilty for working for a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Silicon Valley when the needs are much greater elsewhere. But the nice thing about COVID fatigue is that I no longer have the energy to feel guilty. Instead, now I practice humility: I no longer pretend that I can save the world. I do my part, but I no longer have to pretend to do more than my part.

Is it science? or religion?

In a book published this year, the philosopher Evan Thompson says, “When science steps back from experimentation in order to give meaning to its results in terms of grand stories about where we come from and where we’re going — the narratives of cosmology and evolution — it cannot help but become a mythic form of meaning-making and typically takes the structures of its narratives from religion.” — Why I Am Not a Buddhist, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2020), p. 18.

What Thompson says is akin to what Hannes Alfvén said back in 1984, in his paper “Cosmology: Myth or Science?” Alfvén argued that “there has been — and will perhaps always be — an oscillation between mythological and scientific approaches.” He further documented what he felt was a mythical orientation in the cosmology of 1984: “In a true dialectic sense it is the triumph of science which has released the forces which now once again seem to make myths more powerful than science and causes a ‘scientific creationism’ inside academia itself.”

And these days, I’ve heard apparently well-educated people saying things like, “I don’t believe in religion, I believe in science” — thus ignoring or passing over the fact that scientific models are not matters for belief, they are intended to be checked against empirical evidence through multiple investigations, and they are subject to a constant revision that is not compatible with what is generally meant by “belief.” I don’t think it’s a good idea to turn science into a religion, and it would be better to find one’s mythic meaning-making elsewhere, maybe in poetry or music or paintings or novels or even religion.

Creolizing schooling

In the Black Issues in Philosophy series on the blog of the American Philosophical Association, Josue Ricardo Lopez, assistant professor at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, writes about creolizing schooling:

“The project of creolizing schooling underscores political education as the central project of schooling. It is based on what Jane Anna Gordon in Creolizing Political Theory [Reading Rousseau through Fanon (Fordham Univ. Press, 2014)] argues are at least three principles of creolization: building from the commonalities across our differences, respecting the most salient of our differences, and recognizing that the political is always open to contestation and negotiation.”

I hear echoes of Paolo Friere, John Dewey, and Maxine Greene in what Lopez is saying. Lopez goes beyond Dewey’s concept of educating for democracy, by framing the issue in terms of decolonizing, by considering who American democracy was designed for. As for Friere, he addressed a specific kind of adult education, whereas Lopez is specifically looking at schooling for children and teens.

Also of importance: creolizing is different from multiculturalism. In multiculturalism, cultures exist side by side; creolizing means that cultures change through their interaction with one another. Multiculturalism in education can have the tendency to make non Euro-American cultures invisible; by contrast, creolization

I do have a minor quibble with Lopez’s essay. Lopez rightly points out that “distinct projects will call for different knowledges.” However, the vision of what different knowledges might offer is too narrow. As someone trained in the visual arts, I rolled my eyes when the best Lopez could come up with for the visual arts was “artistic knowledge becomes important for turning brick walls into a canvas for murals that reflects the beauty of the community.” Yet the essay incorporates two infographics that I’ve seen too many times and that actually distract from the main arguments of the essay; if Lopez had cooperated with someone with visual training, there could have been graphics that amplified, rather than distracted from, the essay. Of course, Lopez reflects the bias of the academy: the written word is always considered superior, and the arts are poorly understood and relegated to a minor supporting role. In today’s political struggles, we need digital photographs, videos, animations, infographics, memes, video game design, user interfaces — site-specific murals and other site-specific artworks can be important for local communities, but online media is where young people can make a much bigger impact. (Parenthetical note: when it comes to the arts and education, Maxine Greene’s legacy is worth remembering: she engaged seriously with hip hop and other musicians, artists, etc., and through this engagement acknowledged that music and the arts have something unique to offer in education.)

In spite of this minor quibble, Lopez’s essay is well worth reading. This passage really struck me:

“I worked in Connecticut with Caribbean and Latin American high school students who recently arrived in the United States. There were multiple cultures, languages, religions, and perspectives students brought with them. However, their unique insights, needs, and interests were considered secondary if at all by the school….”

How can the unique insights, needs, and interests become matters of primary importance? How can the school use those unique insights and interests to address real world political issues? John Dewey said, “I believe that education … is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” And Lopez is expanding that notion for a globalized and multicultural society to include the project of decolonizing.

Now I’m waiting for the book on creolizing schooling….

The dangers of forgetting

A recent post on the Black Issues in Philosophy blog explores the dangers inherent in forgetting this history of violence perpetrated on black people. The authors, Desireé Melonas, professor at Birmingham-Southern College, and Alex Melonas, and independent scholar, note that society’s forgetfulness in this area can cause “black people [to become] subjects thought existentially to inhabit the realm of the ‘unreal,’ having therefore no legitimate claim on reality….” Needless to say, this has negative consequences for black people:

“We know that keeping intact historical accounts that blot out or minimize the severity of black terror violence perpetuates the idea that black people aren’t human beings whose lives are worth preserving, that they aren’t human beings at all. Reality, then, continues to conform itself around this idea.”

Melonas and Melonas have been addressing this existential threat on a local level by “confronting historical erasure.” They do this through a community remembrance coalition, one of many such coalitions across the U.S., to memorialize the victims of racial terror, educate local communities about instances of racial terror that have been effectively erased from community memory, and then advocating for racial justice in the present day. They say: “By renegotiating the boundaries of our collective memory, we invite into our consciousnesses an alternative view of those whom we ought to consider valuable.”

Their blog post, titled “Why We Forget,” is thoughtful and readable, both in exploring some of the philosophical problems that arise from communal forgetfulness, and in suggesting concrete and practical ways to address those problems.

What is religion

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been intensively writing a curriculum on world religions for middle elementary grades. Most of my time has been spent in developing activities for children to get inside the stories that are the basis of the curriculum — so my home office, and my office at work, became workshops where I was making prototypes of paper bag puppets, mobiles, board games, masks, and so on. And the rest of my time was devoted to writing up those activities. Yet all the while I was producing material aimed at second and third graders, and their volunteer teachers, I was thinking about what religion is. Because when you’re trying to make something clear to second and third graders, you first have to make it clear to yourself.

Here, then, are some of my thoughts on religion:

First of all, it is widely accepted among current religious studies scholars that religion is not a thing; that is, there is not a “thing” out there that you can point to and say, “That’s religion.” Some religious studies scholars will say that religion is at most a social construct. Other scholars argue that there really is no such thing as religion; that what we call “religion” is actually the West trying to impose the characteristics of Western Christianity — belief in a transcendent being, hierarchy and clergy, weekly meetings, exclusive adherence to one religious group, etc. — on other societies. Still other scholars point out that religion is a valid category within Western jurisprudence, because the West holds dear something we call “religious freedom”; but that defining what constitutes a religion which can receive the legal protection under laws pertaining to religious freedom is often problematic (e.g., Scientology is defined as a religion in the United States, but not in some Western European countries; Mormonism was allowed to become a religion in the United States in the legal sense only after it renounced the tenet of plural marriage; etc.). Finally, still other scholars argue that “religion” is really merely a tool of colonialism; this may be seen, for example, when the British Empire took over the Indian subcontinent, and, for ease in colonial control, defined something called “Hinduism” that didn’t exist before; though then some newly-created “Hindus” figured out that the Western concept of religious freedom could give them some autonomy in which to resist colonial oppression, making everything far more complicated than it might appear at first.

In short, religion is at best a social construct; at another extreme, it might not even exist at all.

More importantly, when talking about “religion,” we must be very careful to avoid imposing Western definitions and criteria. This means that talking about “faith communities” is problematic: “faith” implies that Western-style belief in a transcendent being is the central feature of a religious group; but many Therevada Buddhists simply don’t have a transcendent being; certain strands of Judaism emphasize correct action (orthopraxy) over correct belief (orthodoxy); etc. Indeed, talking about “communities” is problematic, because it assumes Western-style voluntary associations called “congregations”; but many strands of Daoism in China have nothing that remotely resembles a congregation; the Buddhist sangha, usually conceptualized in the West as a congregation, in other parts of the world is a small grouping more like what we in the West would think of as monks.

Nor should we talk about “adherents,” a common term in the United States to designate persons who are associated with a religious group. The word “adherent” carries connotations of Western-style Christianity, where you get to choose which religious group you want to adhere to; but in many parts of the world, you are born into a “religion” and it’s not a choice, such that religious affiliation is closer to ethnic identity. We wouldn’t say that someone born in Ireland who emigrated to the United States is an “adherent” of Irish-Americanism; the same is true for many religious affiliations.

Even as a social construct, religion — considered carefully — challenges many of our preconceptions. We are accustomed to making broad, sweeping generalizations about a given religion: for example, all Christians believe in God. But that simply isn’t true: there are today a good many Christian atheists in the United States, people who embrace many of the teachings of Christianity, but who simply don’t believe in God. When I have pointed this out to some non-Christians, they become offended, because they “know” that all Christians believe in God, and therefore they didactically proclaim that a Christian who doesn’t believe in God isn’t a “real Christian.” But this kind of statement cannot be accepted: how can a non-Christian presume to dogmatically declare who is and who isn’t a Christian? — indeed, this kind of statement helps us understand how “religion” was used as a tool of colonial control: an outsider proclaims that what a colonized person is doing is religion, and therefore that colonized person has to do it a certain way, or else…. If we remember that religion is a social construct, and specific religions cannot be defined by broad sweeping generalizations, we can save ourselves from attempting to control other people in this way.

Along these lines, we can also remember to let religions speak for themselves, rather than trying to speak for religions. As I was looking at older world religions curriculums, I was struck by how often the curriculum writer was willing to take a religious story and turn it to their own ends. This most often happens when a curriculum writer takes a story, removes some specific religious content, and repurposes the story as a moral tale. A common example of this is the way curriculum writers (and children’s book authors) use Buddhist Jataka tales. Most Jataka tales take the form of a story-within-a-story: the framing story is an incident happens within the community of monks surrounding Gotama Buddha; next the Buddha tells the story-within-the-story, an incident from one of his previous incarnations; finally, we return to the framing story where Buddha and the monks talk over which of them was which character in the story-within-the-story. But curriculum writers (children’s book authors) tend to strip away the framing story, rewriting the story-within-the-story as a simple folk tale; but this imposes an outside (probably non-Buddhist, probably Western) interpretation on the Jataka tale.

When we let religions speak for themselves, we also have to remember the internal diversity within religions. One Christian cannot speak for all Christians; not even if he’s the Pope, for the Pope only speaks for Roman Catholics (and maybe not for all Roman Catholics, as we seem to be seeing in the resistance of conservative Catholics to the current pope’s reform efforts). When you look at the internal diversity of the “religion” of Christianity, it boggles the mind. How are silent meeting Quakers the same religion as Eritrean Orthodox Christians? How is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints the same religion as the Church of the Lord (Aladura)? It is true that they all share a reverence for Jesus; but there are Muslims and Hindus and Baha’is who also share some kind of reverence for Jesus (perhaps a lesser reverence, but how can we measure that?). It is true that the wildly diverse groups refer to some of the same books as a shared religious scripture, but these books are translated and interpreted differently, and some groups add other books, or leave out parts of some books. Moving beyond Christians, what about the internal diversity of Hinduism: what do Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism have in common, aside from all being rooted in the culture of the Indian subcontinent, and aside from all being grouped together by British colonial rule? In today’s political climate in India, it might be said that Hindusim has become more like a politicized ethnic identity; but where does that leave the large Hindu community in Bali?

We must also consider how religions vary over time. Today we thinking of all evangelical Christians in the United States as wanting to outlaw abortion; yet there was a time, not so long ago, when many or even most evangelical Christians supported the right to abortion. The Sikhs at the time of Guru Nanak’s death did not have the “five Ks”; yet they were nevertheless Sikhs. Mormons didn’t practice plural marriage, then did practice plural marriage, then didn’t practice plural marriage (except for a few small splinter groups); yet who am I, a non-Mormon, to say who was and who wasn’t a Mormon?

To recap, here are some of the things I had to wrestle with as I was writing this curriculum:
— “Religion” is at most a social construct, and may not even exist;
— We have to be careful not to use the social construct of “religion” to impose our will on others;
— “Religions” are internally diverse, sometimes wildly so;
— “Religions” vary over time.

Trying to embed these concepts in a curriculum such that middle elementary children can get some sense of them was challenging. Trying to embed these concepts in a curriculum so that adult teachers would challenge their own (Western, colonial) preconceptions seems almost impossible….

“God” and monotheism

I have found the concept of god to be useful, regardless of whether one is a theist or atheist; God as a concept has a long history in Western philosophy, at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. But in order for the concept of god to be useful, you can’t have an anachronistic understanding of god.

These days, a typical anachronistic understanding of god is one where “god” is equated with the God of conservative and traditional Christians. Christian theologians have used many ancient Greek philosophical concepts to build widely varying theologies over the past two thousand years, and while it is usually clear that someone like Aristotle was not a Christian, it’s easy to forget that Aristotle was also not a monotheist.

Yet in his Metaphysics, Aristotle famously refers to the “unmoved mover,” which Western tradition has typically equated with the Christian God. If Aristotle was not a monotheist, what then did he mean by the “unmoved mover”? Amod Lele explains in a post on his blog “Love of All Wisdom”:

“Some translations of Aristotle have him referring to capital-G ‘God,’ but this is misleading. What these translations render as ‘God’ is to theos, literally meaning ‘the god,’ in lowercase in the Greek. The ‘the’ in ‘the god’ is used here in a generic sense, as classical Greek so often does — a universalized singular to represent the plural class of particulars, as when they might make general statements about what ‘the boy’ or ‘the dog’ is likely to do. Plato in the Laws, for example, said ‘Of all animals, the boy is the most unmanageable’; it is a classical Greek idiom that could also be translated ‘Of all animals, boys are the most unmanageable.’ If we were to render to theos as ‘God,’ then this passage should instead be rendered ‘Of all animals, Boy is the most unmanageable.'”

Thus, according to Lele’s reading, when Aristotle speaks of the something that is often translated “God,” what he really means is “the gods.” To say Aristotle was a monotheist would be an anachronistic assertion; Aristotle was clearly a polytheist who acknowledged several gods and goddesses (Zeus, Hera, etc.). Lele, citing Richard Bodeus’ book Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, writes:

“Aristotle mentions ‘the god,’ the generic term for the plural gods, only as an analogy to help illustrate his point (against Plato) that the unmoved mover has a real presence in the physical world rather than being an abstraction.”

The useful aspect of the concept of god is not so much in metaphysics, but in ethics. How do I lead the best life? In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that the highest good is contemplation — not contemplation of the Christian god, but perhaps contemplation of the highest good. Lele reads the Nichomachean Ethics in this way:

“…There is a supreme good beyond the finite, but that good is not to reach a final end identified with the goodness of a single god. Rather it is to be godlike, to live the kind of infinite life that the many gods live — and it is quite questionable how achievable Aristotle intends this goal to be for humans.”

What I find most interesting about this discussion is that “god,” in the Western tradition, need not mean the Christian God. (Even if “god” could be equated with the Christian God, Christianity is wildly diverse with so many different understandings of the nature of the Christian God, that you couldn’t assume that “god” meant what the conservative United States Christians of early twenty-first century mean.) Mind you, it may be difficult for many Westerners to think beyond the confines of Christian definitions of God; but doing so can provide access to the philosophical tool kits of Aristotle, Socrates, Heraclitus, Spinoza, and many others.