Monday, 26 February 2018

About The Shootings

With acknowledgement to the Chuck Gallery.
By Thomas Scarborough
About the tragic shootings in the USA, a few things are clear. Firstly, they have been possible because the weapons were accessible. Secondly, they have happened, by and large, in educational institutions. Thirdly, the shooters have targeted institutions, not individuals.
I have had the privilege of studying theology in the USA. I have studied, too, in other parts of the world. Yet what I experienced in the USA seemed unlike anything else. There was a rising feeling within me of being violated. Thankfully I never had any thoughts of harming anyone—yet the thought crossed my mind: could there be any relation to the massacres?

Beyond that sense of violation, in many cases, students may struggle to know what they are experiencing. In my own case, the situation was unusually transparent. It was not difficult to connect my feelings with the ideology which aroused them.

In theology, there has been a growing tide in the USA, which has its origins in the philosophy of Europe in the mid 20th century—more exactly, in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The theologian R.L. Sturch describes it like this, in the New Dictionary of Theology: ‘In terms derived from Wittgenstein, religion may be seen as a ‘form of life’ or ‘language-game’. Debate within the ‘form of life’ is legitimate, but about the form itself there can be none; either it is adopted or it is not.’ Without so much as entering into theological niceties, we may note some strong language: a form of life ‘is adopted, or it is not’, while debate is ‘legitimate’ only within a given life form. 

Take an instance of such theology, which calls itself a Theology of Communal Practice. Theologians Nancey Murphy and Brad Kallenburg state, ‘What has to be accepted, the given, is—so one could say—forms of life ... The viability of a historical community depends on the ongoing felicity of its communications. Thus, for the society to be viable, most of this communication has to be ‘true’ most of the time.’ Again, without so much as doing any theological analysis, we may simply note the strong language: forms of life ‘have to be accepted’, they are ‘given’, and they ‘have to be true’.

While this hardly serves to prove a point, such ‘compulsive’ thinking is all-pervasive in theological seminaries in the USA—while it is its application that creates the stress.

How should one guarantee ‘felicity of communications’? How should one preserve ‘legitimate' debate? How should one press ‘acceptance’? It need not be through open confrontation—in fact it may more often than not be through the violence of silence. ‘Illegitimate’ debate is greeted with silent stares—or it is channeled, rerouted, deflected. It stacks reading lists, it sustains and manages felicitous communications, it promotes methodological exercises which skirt around the content. In short, it defeats the student. This is the violation.

Is this felt in other educational institutions in the USA? While I do not have direct experience of it, the answer is yes. The psychologist Peter Gray, in Psychology Today, surveyed the ‘seven sins’ of US education. One of the items on his list was ‘Inhibition of critical thinking.’ There is a ‘powerful force’, he wrote, ‘against honest debate’. Yet the force is not merely theoretical. There are students who feel it. Forensic psychologist Stephen Diamond puts the violence down to this: ‘We are prone to feeling hurt’—and in some cases, pathologically.

Seung Hui Cho was a killer who issued a manifesto. On page one, he wrote, ‘Ask yourself what you did to me.’ His entire manifesto, while on the one hand an inscrutable rant, on the other hand reveals a sense of being violated. ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,’ he wrote. Is this the reaction to the ‘powerful force against honest debate’?

A brief post such as this cannot hope to answer this question—yet it is surely a question which needs to be asked, and answered. As much as one needs to control access to weapons, one may equally need to overhaul the educational system—and its philosophy.

Huston Smith, a popular writer on religion, considered, ‘Our humanness flourishes to the extent that we steep ourselves in [ultimate] questions—ponder them, circle them, obsess over them, and in the end allow the obsession to consume us.’ There is little humanness in excluding or marginalising issues—in speaking the language of the ‘given’, the ‘legitimate’, and so on—whether it be in seminaries or elsewhere. One needs the marketplace of ideas—together with the freedom, transparency, bravery, and skill that its negotiation requires.


Keith said...

You insightfully lay out an intriguingly original case, Thomas, for what you propose as being culturally, institutionally wrong with education in the United States, and your own sense of ‘violation’ — with the recent mass shooting at a Florida high school as contextual backdrop. Permit me to turn briefly to a more prosaic — admittedly less philosophical — look at the place of guns in American society, its toll, and what policymakers and other stakeholders (including some conservatives) have been grappling with.

First, a number whose size can numb: Well more than 300 million civilian firearms are in circulation in the United States. That bell cannot be unwrung. Many millions of guns are unregistered and illegally change hands, in the shadows. Some for benign intent; some for malign intent. Meanwhile, when tragedies like mass shootings occur as the other week in Glendale, Florida, or the other month in Las Vegas, the nation tearfully laments how and why such incidents happen with seeming regularity, pledging allegiance to the refrain “never again.” The bromide of “sensible gun reform” resurfaces, undefined and unreconciled, as it has many times over. The mourning begins once more. And the nation is indelibly reminded it’ll never become inured to the horror.

Meanwhile, murders like those of the promising young lives at the Florida high school or the Las Vegas concert stir existential anxieties and outraged cries for “real change,” urgent demands reverberating around the country. As does everyday gun violence, in its various forms, whose reality comes to us more through sterile crime statistics. Case in point, of the roughly 33,000 American deaths from guns each year, many are the result of day-in, day-out street crime (and suicides) — not mass shootings — such as the 650 gun deaths in one major city just last year.

But what “real change” might be expected? How might that happen without violating what people across the political spectrum agree is Americans’ Second Amendment right to ‘bear arms’ — to reassure that total confiscation is a red herring? What are the reasonable actions the nation can weigh and implement? What’s the effect of the impossible-to-ignore reality of 300-plus million guns already in circulation? How does the gun culture that has been an integral, historical part of America’s social landscape shape solutions?

Some argue that it’s advisable, in arriving at solutions, to take one small bite at a time, to accumulate wins. Though the one-bite-at-a-time approach risks never getting beyond reticently nibbling around the edges of what is a brontosaurus-sized challenge. Others argue that, fundamentally, what’s needed is a comprehensive set of ideas and plan of action, beyond feel-good aspirations — a missing part of the montage, without which substantive change might never happen. But time isn’t on the side of reform. The half-life of media attention, even on mass shootings, is comparatively short. I would like to think that the fervor, determination, articulateness, freshness, and laser focus currently being shown by young students will reset the political table.

Modern history says no; but we’ll see.

Martin Cohen said...

This is very true - but again, are educational systems in countries like France or China - or indeed the UK any more open to debate and ideas? i don't thinks so. Even at very young ages French children (like my one) are being told to write out sentences in EXACTLY this from, and penalised for any deviations from the boring routine.

And yet few of these children return to their schools to wreak an angry revenge - whether by gun or other means. So I agree the US has to think about the seeds it plants in children's minds - but not that THIS is really the issue here.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you Keith and Martin.

With regard to 'resetting the political table', I would think that an armed populace is fundamental to US defence philosophy. A little collateral damage (a fractional number of students) will not undo it. One will make adjustments, but not discard the philosophy.

With regard to 'openness to debate and ideas', we could be talking past each other. I am referring not so much to educational content or method (the what and the how) as to the degree to which the student is affirmed or disaffirmed.

This may be paradoxical. For example, a South African seminary lecturer angrily repudiated me in class, a few times 'losing the plot' in the process, then blamed me for derailing the course. Was he affirming me? Yes. My ideas were worth engaging with. But the first time I experienced a point of crisis with a US professor in class, he fell silent, lowered his eyes, then thanked me kindly, and said he was making a note. Was he affirming me? In this and many similar situations, no. The band just kept on playing.

US educationalist Jane Vella states that there must be 'affirmation of every offering' of the student, as a priority. However that may exclude the kind of affirmation I refer to above. There can be engagement, appreciation, respect, validation, and so on, while the student is dying inside.

Martin Cohen said...

I remember having my mouth taped up in US school. How about that! The student *was* disaffirmed.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Finally I know what we have in common!

Keith said...

Although I cannot speak to the unique matter of seminary schools as referenced above, I can speak to the mainstream American education system more broadly. My observations are based on my own attendance at American schools; my two kids’ attendance and their friends’ attendance at American schools (from preschool through graduate and postgraduate school); and, even, the reactions of foreign educators visiting and observing American classrooms.

It’s hard to make blanket assessments for any school system, of course, even when based on extensive anecdotal data points, as there will be outliers and egregious points of failure in any country — sometimes shaped by obvious drivers like socioeconomics. With that caveat in mind, I would argue that overall the American education system is quite progressive on several dimensions — notable for encouraging critical thinking, analysis, debate, creativity, and unorthodoxy.

What struck me over the years were the reactions of teams of foreign educators visiting schools in my area and elsewhere in America, who invariably enthused about these same aspects of the American classroom in contrast to the strict conformity and structure, and overemphasis on rote learning and group performance metrics, that they not uncommonly explained characterized their own educational cultures.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear gentlemen,

Probably a feeling of not fitting in creates the motivation to react with extreme measures for those who search revenge, (and not only for those). The question follows why one should fit into something and how such an idea, to fit or not to fit (to be or not to be), can become of such reality that people believe to be unfit (not be) indeed.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you Tessa. This is interesting. It drives deeper. It seems to me there would be two possibilities. Society works on the assumption that we ought to fit in, therefore some revolt. Or it works on the assumption that we ought not to fit in, therefore some revolt.

Keith said...

You make interesting points, Tessa; I’ll briefly touch on just one. Hundreds of millions of school-age children around the world daily struggle, from socialization pressures and baked-in notions of ‘norms’, with the angst of ‘fitting in’ or ‘not fitting in’ — but don’t murderously act out. For those who do thrash out, the not-uncommon ‘common denominator’ is a problematic confluence of mental-health factors, including brittleness in coping, devalued self-worth, and ideation around violent recourses.

Tessa den Uyl said...

To deal with expectations about conduct is presumed to be apprehended once a person is born, no matter where. The more competitive a society is, a stronger urge for self image is demanded, and the less stable an identity becomes. When a self image is raised upon appearances (of that self image), the more fragile being becomes.

Think away everything you know, that you possess, consume, friends etc. then still, on the top of the mountain and barefoot, you are. You do not need a lot, to be. Dignity is far from many things that are thought to create a person's dignity. Whether we ought not to fit to fit, or ought to fit to fit, these ideas always stand in comparison to. To what? We are so deeply embedded into certain ideas that we can hardly recognise them. For the idea to fit or unfit is within itself a crazy idea. How can a life, not fit? The idea about ideas is where a lot of confusion is created.

Many people pass their life in deep depressions, commit suicide, silent suffering that somewhere is connected with not feeling in place, others use violence against other people and those feeling perfectly well use violence towards other people. Why should we impose ourselves? Why do we have to be seen or even noticed or judge? The writer writes, the builder builds, and even that person who wants to do ‘nothing', is that doing ’nothing’ creating such harm? Maybe that is the person you sit next to in the park and suddenly feel relaxation coming over you, because someone is not frenetically and obsessively looking for the future. (And we might say that even that person, thus serves society).

There could be a weapon lying on each street corner, if people could truly accept themselves (and thus others), having the basic needs in a decent way and not be stressed out by everything that is missing, who would pick up that weapon? We think we are open, we think to be not violent or not judging, we think to be a lot, of what we are not.

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