When counseling my students on how to do college level writing, I discourage the practice of using overly generalized claims as opening sentences to a written piece. My students are further warned against relying on such statements as empirical support for their argument/s being advanced in the textual body of their papers.
I am going to violate this counsel and likely make Strunk and White turn in their respective graves. (My apologies).
Never, in the modern era of US political history, has a person serving as president conducted such an extraordinary press conference as President Trump, did on 15 August 2017. In many ways, Der Twitler (Trump), may be the embodiment of the Seinfeld (NBC Television, 1989-1998) character, Frank Costanza. Once more, Trump organized a Festivus event in which he could air his petty grievances.
However, in this particular instance, Der Twitler, was in absolute full old white man crazy bloom, bless his little racist heart. Today, 17 August 2017, Trumpery doubled down with a fusillade of tweets that are (once again) devoid of any semblance of logic, fact, or erudite intellection.
Reading and listening to the current US president strain credulity by engaging in a preposterously untenable effort to ascribe moral equivalency to individuals and groups committing acts of political violence in Charlottesville, VA, between 11 and 12 August 2017, borders on experiencing an existential crisis. Indeed, perhaps, from a political perspective, that is precisely what the US is currently experiencing — an existential crisis for the political soul of America.
As I have utilized social media the past few days, I have been struck with bewildered amazement at individuals who claim to be Christian, many of my own denomination, that passionately defend white supremacist actions in Charlottesville while criticizing the actions of counter-protesters. (The largest church organization within my particular denomination issued a public statement that is blistering in its critique of any person claiming to follow the Way while also promoting racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. Essentially labeled such as hypocrites who do deny the faith).
Returning to my social media experiences, I encountered an individual who put Black Lives Matters (BLM) into their crosshairs arguing that BLM is as culpable as the racists in Charlottesville for engaging in violence and promoting hate. Suggesting that their claim to being victims of racism is unjustified, solely a cloak to disguise their real purpose. Never articulated what was that purpose.
Another individual went so far as to defend the terrorist who weaponized his car against an unsuspecting group of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring dozens more. Their claim was that the terrorist was being threatened and therefore acting in self-defense.
Let that sink in.
I’m still dumbfounded.
This person, claiming fealty to the Christian God, defended an act of terrorism because the terrorist happened to likewise support the current US president. “It was not a white supremacist rally! It was a ‘Unite the Right’ rally to support Trump,” commented this person in the running Facebook thread. Did you view any of the pictures of that rally? Below is one pictorial example from slate.com of said rally.
(Not sure, but a picture clearly shows the paraphernalia, trappings, and symbols employed by white supremacist groups in the US among the “Unite the Right” — white racists rally in Charlottesville).
What these unnamed persons, others I encountered the last couple days on social media (not going to name without permission), and President Trump have in common is attempting to justify their political ideas and ideologies through applying moral equivalence.
Understand, that moral equivalence is an equivocation and logical fallacy of relevance that reflects cognitive bias. One’s cognitive bias is associated with heuristics which, are relied upon to interpret, understand, and describe reality. Below is a helpful illustration of equivocation:
Star Wars always.
A heuristic is a model, rule of thumb, or stereotype, etc. on which humans often rely to navigate and makes sense of life experiences encountered, particularly when confronted with access to less than ideal (perfect) information. Which is generally the case with few exceptions.
We make decisions, in other words, based on information available, and where information gaps exist, we rely on heuristics to fill those information gaps, in order to make the best or optimal decision. Our brains are probability calculators, and where necessary, we use a dummy variable in the form of a heuristic, when an actual empirical variable is unavailable or unknown. Consequently, our decisions and understanding of reality are more likely best guesses. Of course, there are instances when, we have ideal (perfect) information, as in the above picture of the racist rally in Charlotteville.
Such as when some white supremacist morphs into a terrorist through weaponizing their car, by driving into a group of people, with whom the terrorist has a political disagreement concerning the status of certain white racist men in US political history and ethnic / religious minorities in American society. In this specific context, in my opinion, perceiving a threat is insufficient justification to resort to violence in response to that perceived threat. Watch the video, if you can stomach doing so, I could discern no threat to that driver.
The upshot is that relying on moral equivalence as support for a decision or expression of thought is no more accurate predicting that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election. Which, is why, humans have developed a hierarchy of morality concerning human decisions, actions, and words. This hierarchy of morality holds some human decisions, actions, and words to be of a worse moral character than others.
Before you protest, let me note that the entire US justice system (criminal and civil) is based on a moral hierarchy beginning with categorizing acts as either civil or criminal. In a civil action, one may be sanctioned by losing a credential or paying damages to another party. In a criminal action, one is sanctioned by incarceration, fines, probation, loss of voting rights, an equal opportunity in the economy, etc.
In other words, the moral hierarchy on which the US justice system is based, assigns disparate sanctions depending on which hierarchical moral principle / legal statute has been violated. Trespassers are not sentenced to death. Trespassers generally get a citation that may lead to a fine. The upshot is that moral equivalence is an absurd moral stance that reeks of prevarication.
From this point, I want to advance the claim that relying on moral equivalence is a manifestation of something much more subtle, deep, and sinister. That something is a type of temptation.
One of my absolute favorite books is, The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. A masterful work that examines the methodology of temptation. In my rather clumsy manner, I will attempt to echo the spirit of that book by shifting to an exploration of how our political ideas and ideologies may be used as weapons against our souls.
A key takeaway from The Screwtape Letters is the subtlety with which the average human being is tempted to act in discord with principles that human accepts as sacred. In certain Christian texts, the metaphor of ‘flaxen chord’ is invoked to communicate the subtlety, the appearance and feeling of false security and comfort in temptation, that serve to obfuscate the truth: that one is in bondage to temptation and at eternal risk. I wonder how political ideas and ideologies to which we ascribe may similarly operate on our capacity for empathetic action.
And to be clear, my target is not these political ideas and ideologies, but not those political ideas and ideologies. All political ideas and ideologies may morph into a flaxen chord that pulls us away from that Deity to whom we have pledged fealty.
How? Let’s return to how humans process information for the purpose of making a decision. There is much yet to be understood and fully investigated concerning human decision-making, the nurture versus nature debate remains unsettled, for example. My view is its a bit of both punctuated, in addition, by education, culture, socio-economics, politics, etc. That disclaimer aside, I want to suggest that heuristics play an out sized role in morphing political ideas as agent provocateurs against the religious principles we claim to accept and abide. As noted above, heuristics may not be the best information on which to base a conclusion.
I think another aspect of heuristics working on behalf of temptation is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the exercise of encountering new information, retaining discreet parts of that new information that align with pre-existing conceptions and heuristics, then discarding the remaining parts of that new information. Accept the fact that we all rely on cognitive bias.
Cognitive bias operates on how we reconcile a political idea with a religious principle. For example, if one believes that work ethic is the most important contributor to achieving the American dream then, we are more likely to emphasize certain principles in the sacred text at the expense of others. And, by the way, a recent poll by the Washington Post and The Kaiser Family Foundation, found that Christians in the United States, were twice as likely to accept the notion that poverty is a direct condition of less effort.
Consider that 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is one verse out of 23,145 verses — in the New Testament, and one not recorded as having been spoken by the Way. As compared to the thirty-five verses in the New Testament in which the term ‘poor’ is invoked in an effort to teach us where our hearts should be: turned outward to others in service, as the Way served us through His ministry and infinite sacrifice.
Also consider the Calvinist notion of calling and election. Max Weber (1864-1920), a brilliant academic to whom is traced the origins of the modern academic disciplines of sociology, political science, and political economy, published a striking analysis of the origins of modern capitalism in, 1905. The book is still assigned reading in many a college and graduate level course. I know, I got to read it multiple times in my undergraduate courses, graduate courses, and have assigned it in courses I teach at university. One of the few timeless contributions to the human corpus of knowledge.
In that book, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber investigates how a protestant ethic contributed to (did not cause, Weber is quick to acknowledge) the development of modern capitalism. The process Weber identifies starts with the Calvinist ethic that the successful acquisition of material wealth is an outward sign of God’s providence. That the person of wealth has their calling and election to be be saved in Heaven assured. Accordingly, the pursuit of material wealth is justified as fulfilling the heavenly mission to which one has been called. The pursuit of profit becomes a Christian virtue and part of the ideational basis for the modern capitalist economy.
Such an interpretation within the Christian tradition, stands in stark contrast to the teachings of the Way. Did the Way not counsel the rich man to sell all he had and come follow the Way? In other words, to shun wealth and the pursuit thereof in favor of learning, applying, and acting in accordance with the teachings of the Way. Did the Way not teach, “Blessed are the poor,” and command to, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” — yes! Last, how wealthy was the Way? Let’s see, His sole earthly possession was his cloak that was stolen by Roman guards. His profit was your everlasting joy through salvation.
One can only conclude that profit is not a Christian gospel virtue. The irony is, that such a political idea is held as sacrosanct ideology but must be reconciled by doctrinal slight of hand and subjective interpretation of sacred text that places an absurd emphasis on one verse while discounting the thirty odd verses in the New Testament that clearly stipulate how the poor in spirit and possession are to be treated.
It is precisely this sort of subtle transvaluation of original Christian teachings, principles, and doctrines, that inextricably lead to political ideas and ideologies morphing into the flaxen chords that bind one to temptation and, perhaps, transgression, even sin. Moral equivalence, heuristics, cognitive bias all work in concert to provoke susceptibility to temptation leading one to discount the moral status of another, enabling the sort of politics and political violence now being observed, experienced, and lamented.
In the end, we must follow the wise counsel of Obi Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them” (Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977, Lucasfilm / Disney).
Until are willing to judge another by their heart rather than by the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, the manner of their speech, educational level attained, who they date, the size of their bank account, what they drive, what they eat, how they eat, or how they think and relate to others (in the case of Asperger’s / Autism); we are doomed to the current politics of political violence, othering, and hatred. To focus on another’s heart, one must first focus on changing their heart.
Fundamentally, the teachings of the Way advocate for changing one’s heart. The choice is ours, we must be willing to experience the consequences of tearing down the walls of hatred surrounding our hearts so that we may eradicate symbols of hatred from our private and public discourse and spaces. I choose to change my heart. Will you?