Thursday, May 5, 2011

New Religion Dispatches Piece: Osama bin Laden in Hell

My most recent piece for Religion Dispatches develops in a bit more detail some of the ideas Kathryn Gin and I discussed in our bloggingheads.tv conversation.

7 comments:

  1. Beautiful. Thank you for writing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That is one of the best articles I have read in a long, long time. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Along with your post, another article showed up in my dashboard today. A Cambridge scientist has connected what we commonly call human 'evil' with a lack of human empathy. It's interesting how you both seem to be aiming at the same truth, coming from different directions.

    And it raises another question about someone like Timothy McVeigh - would all that exposure to his victim's suffering have done any good if he wasn't actually capable of empathy?

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/05/us-science-evil-idUSTRE7442Q620110505?feedType=RSS&sp=true

    ReplyDelete
  4. Bernard BeckettMay 6, 2011 at 8:11 PM

    Eric

    Viewed from a great distance, the Bin Laden affair is a curious one. One of very many things about this I am curious about is what appears to be a peculiar fixation on 'evil men' (Noriego, the Ayotollah, Gadaffi, Hussein, Bin Laden... we all know the list).

    Is there not an obvious danger in reducing the massively complex geo-political processes behind history's unspeakable tragedies to the almost cartoonish representation of evil men doing evil things? Might it not allow the focus to shift from the far more difficult and pressing questions, namely what are the circumstances that allow these behaviours to flourish, and how can we best create an environment where they don't?

    I mention this because it seems to me to relate well to the wider theme of the perspective we choose to take on morality. I wonder if the objectivist/subjectivist viewpoints don't subtly lead us to one narrative over the other here. Could it be that by taking such constructs as free will, good, evil and redemption out of the equation, the focus shifts to a more mechanical, and perhaps broader, sense of cause and effect?

    I'm not sure, but just as there is something striking about the obsession with hell and retribution, as you so admirably note, so there is something going on with this obsession with bogey men. Gore Vidal does a nice little rant on this in the movie Bob Roberts, from memory.

    Bernard

    ReplyDelete
  5. Bernard,

    I agree that there is something deeply troubling about the propensity (in American politics and in other contexts) to reduce complex social problems to a "bad guy" who is threatening us, and then to see the solution to these complex problems as a matter of "taking out" the individual.

    But my opposition to this kind of identification of problems with individual people is rooted in values that I don't know how to make sense of if they are wholly subjectivized: the preferability of nonviolence to violence, the inherent worth of persons, the importance of taking responsibility for our own contribution to problems as opposed to throwing them wholly on the shoulders of others.

    This last, by the way, is hard for me to make sense of apart from some appeal to freedom. At the same time, it is premised on the recognition that much of human behavior is directly explained by forces outside the person--not just biology but also cultural influences for which we bear collective responsibility. The idea is that most of the time we do what we are disposed to do by virtue of nature and nurture, and that the exercize of freedom--which involves TAKING responsibility--is a relatively uncommon thing. But we can only take responsibility for our own choices, and one way to avoid taking responsibility is to focus outwards, to look at how others are NOT taking responsibility, and treat that as the end of the discussion. We can then continue happily following our biological and cultural programming without having to perform the very hard task of imposing our will on the course of our actions--because we only expect OTHER people to perform this very hard task.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Bernard BeckettMay 8, 2011 at 2:44 AM

    Eric

    At the risk of turning to the world of movies for all my examples, there's a wonderful monologue at the end of the Lars Van Triers film Dogville, which addresses something like the idea you mention; the way moral codes key off not only what we expect of ourselves, but also of others. In a poignant reversal, the amoral gangster accuses his do-gooder daughter of being arrogant, for holding those she helped to lesser standards than those she applies to herself. I've explained this poorly, but it's an unusually thoughtful piece of film making. Worth checking out if you don't already know it.

    Is there not a way of creating meaningful preferences for, say non-violence over violence, from a subjective starting point, simply by acknowledging our evolved capacity to create fulfilling narrative? The argument would go that acting according to those narratives that most deliver a sense of fulfillment is a process that is both subjective and meaningful. As we participate in our own cultural evolution we have the potential to create ever more satisfying/meaningful narratives, and indeed these may well involve a great deal of self sacrifice, empathy, love and service. I think, perhaps optimistically, that they do, and would argue this quest can hence be considered meaningful without referencing any values other than the personal desire for fulfillment.

    I totally agree that taking personal responsibility is an important part of any functioning ethical package, and was just wondering about the habits of mind that allow us to slip into the evil man version of history.

    Bernard

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you for writing this incredible article. My initial response to the news of his death was pure glee. Then I was "unfriended" by a friend who said I had "creeped a lot of people out." I wanted names, but he would not give me any names. It was a Sunday evening. I am certain he was alone and that the person I had creeped out was him. Later though I wondered what my glee was about. Your article is the closest I have come to an answer since the day of Bin Laden's death.

    ReplyDelete