Confronting Toxic Power by Destigmatizing Mental Illness
It still seems hard to believe. Eighteen years ago last week, our nation suffered its worst attack since Pearl Harbor. For those of us who came of age during the comparatively placid 1990s, the new world disorder came as a particular shock. U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan ensued as part of the War on Terror. In addition to physical casualties, a generation of veterans remains burdened by the psychological, relational, and economic effects of long and repeated deployments. Despite a decline in violent crime overall in the U.S., the new era has coincided with an increase in mass shootings, proof of disproportionate violence against people of color by law enforcement, widening disparities of wealth, political gridlock, ecological crisis, and, especially recently, the scapegoating of immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, non-Christians, and those with mental illnesses as sources of America’s woes.
The America born on September 11, 2001, has reached maturity. But, like any new-found maturity, this is a condition fraught with internal-conflict, paradox, and room for growth. In a nation at odds with itself and with its neighbors, we Americans can remain hopeful of reconciliation so long as we can accurately diagnose this present madness. My own mental illness has helped me understand much that I might have otherwise missed, misunderstood, or refused to believe. On the basis of that experience, the time has come for me to shed what light I can. In the following analysis, my diagnosis serves as but one possible point of departure; people with other mental health conditions can doubtless offer further insights into the true state of things.
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Although unique in its scale and intensity, the Holocaust was not original. Less well known, contemporaneous actions by Stalin in the USSR sought to eliminate entire groups of people (specifically Ukrainian peasants by means of well-orchestrated famine) to accomplish the goals of the state. After the Holocaust, many have offered the twin vows “never again” and “never forget.” Yet, ever again, people seem to forget. 1970s Cambodia. 1980s Iraq. 1990s Bosnia and Rwanda. Early 2000s Sudan. Late 2010s Iraq (again). Today Myanmar—or, if not yet, probably soon. At least in the short-run, it is more comfortable for many of us to forget, to ignore, and to avoid learning such things in the first place.
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Confronting the Shoddy Reasoning that Helps Perpetuate Injustice
“You’re wrong.” So easy. So futile. In the annals of philosophical, theological, religious, social, and political debate, it seems unlikely that any adversary has ever found this persuasive. When it comes to matters of justice, we need to show, not merely tell.
Personal accounts with a strong emotional dimension can be persuasive. But, especially for those who do not identify with the victims of a given injustice, these seem to have their limits. To the bafflement of many among us, some resist acknowledging that certain protest movements do in fact raise legitimate concerns. Debunking illogic may hold the key.
Below I have explained six of the logical fallacies that I myself have consistently encountered among those who struggle to grasp the current gravity of racial injustice in the U.S., although these observations are certainly applicable to other forms of denial about injustice. My labels for these logical fallacies are original. The ideas are not. My hope is that, by calling attention to them, others can help friends distinguish legitimate objections from illegitimate ones.
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Conclusions on Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 7 of 7)
We as a society are busy pointing out crises. Some pending disasters merely threaten to destroy individuals, while others threaten communities or even our species. Yet, we often seem disinclined to take action. The reasons include disagreements about which crises are real, which ones are critical, and how to best approach them. We should be not only resolving present crises but discerning their source and how to prevent future ones.
In the preceding weeks’ meditations on the nature of collective guilt and shared human responsibility, a number of general principles are evident.
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The Environment and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 6 of 7)
The polar caps are melting. Extreme weather events occur with greater frequency. Air quality has reached abysmal levels in major urban areas worldwide. Global consumption vastly outstrips the replenishment of natural resources. Many individuals respond to these realities with denial, cynicism, and a sense of futility. Rather than defining terms and demonstrating premises, this post will take these facts as givens; those seeking to contest them had best look elsewhere.
As urgently as any current crisis and with great clarity, the state of the environment demonstrates both the at times collective nature of guilt and the shared nature of human responsibility. In fact, to a greater extent than other issues explored thus far in this series, the environment illustrates with particular clarity a general principle governing guilt and responsibility: distribution is uneven. While guilt and responsibility may transcend individuals, some individuals are implicated more directly and fully than others.
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Reflections for Holocaust Remembrance Day
Not long after the beginning, Genesis tells us that there were two brothers. One killed the other. “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10). This is the Lord’s response when the murderer denies knowing where his brother is and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We humans are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; and yet we have been disowning and killing each other since the beginning.
On this day seventy years ago, the last prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz. On this day today, we commit to remembering the more than six million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others who were rejected and murdered by their fellow humans. Their blood still cries out to God from the ground.
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Gender, Sexuality, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 5 of 7)
Many people in the world face the persistent threat of sexual assault and see their career prospects diminished because of their gender, as a recent study shows. Some of these same individuals—but also many others—face ridicule and rejection because they find themselves attracted to people of the same gender. Some face similar treatment because they find themselves from a very early age alienated from their own bodies, understanding their gender identity to be other than their biological sex.
And then there is the rest of humanity. Some of us have the luxury of being able to ignore others’ struggles and to deny that gender and sexual identity define our lives in significant measure. Not all of us do ignore or deny their impact—and none of us should—but many can and some do. Straight, non-trans men, that’s us.
Ironically (and perhaps unfortunately), the cause of justice for women, including transwomen, for transmen, for gays, and for those who reject traditional binary definitions of gender and/or sexuality, depends in part measure on us.
I am not advocating the idea that women need men more than men need women. Neither am I proposing an androcentric noblesse oblige. Rather, I am drawing attention to the facts that those who are straight, non-trans, and male have been among the greatest perpetrators of injustice against those who are not, and that those of us who are not perpetrators are too often silent. People need people, and humanity needs all the people—or at least the vast majority of the people—to be on board with solving its most pressing issues. Issues of justice relating to gender and sexuality are no different.
You do not even need to believe that non-traditional approaches to gender and sexuality are moral to recognize that you and people like you, including your faith community, have been complicit in failing to love all people and love them well.
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Genocide and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 4 of 7)
Few of humanity’s transgressions seem as weighty as genocide. The average American high school student knows this, if they have paid any attention at all. Some see Schindler’s List or excerpts of The Holocaust miniseries. Many read Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, or Maus. The Holocaust looms large.
A focus on the Holocaust risks endowing it with a sense of uniqueness. Yes, it was unique in its scale, intensity, and efficiency; but genocides had happened before and they have continued to happen since. We must not teach with depth at the expense of breadth, lest students falsely assume that genocide is either a phenomenon of the past or will remain perpetually someone else’s problem.
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Race, Racism, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 3 of 7)
“What are you?” sometimes strangers and new acquaintances ask me, whether obliquely or directly. I have come to learn that this is short-hand for “What race/ethnicity box(es) do you check?” The racial categories on current U.S. census forms are more complex than they ever have been, yet they remain simplistic. (See a helpful article here. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/03/14/u-s-census-looking-at-big-changes-in-how-it-asks-about-race-and-ethnicity/ ) “Black, African-American, or Negro” stands in contrast to the deceptively straightforward appearing “White.” Citizens of Asian ancestry have six boxes to possibly check, along with an “Other Asian” fill-in blank. By contrast, Arab- and Persian-Americans have no obvious option (“Other”? “White”?), leading to controversy within their respective communities (http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/04/01/census.check.it.right.campaign/ ).
The history leading up to these designations is serpentine and rife with contradictions (whether to count “Latino” as a race or as something else, for example). Until relatively recently, the forms also required respondents to check one box and one box only, implying that racial categories are mutually exclusive, in fact a long-standing attitude in the U.S. and elsewhere, especially regarding the purity of whiteness.
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The Conceptual Foundations of Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 2 of 7)
Non-individualistic understandings of guilt are fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity. This is part of what makes both religions as counter-cultural today as they ever have been. Yet often the worldviews of particular Jewish and Christian individuals are more defined by their respective cultures than by the religions they profess to embrace. For many, it is not evident that we should be our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.
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