Does your conscience bother you

25 01 2018

How do you live with yourself knowing that you at best did nothing to stop a predator, at worst aided in the predation?

The case of Larry Nassar is likely one of the worst cases of sexual abuse by a single individual in US sports, if not US society. The number of victims who testified at his sentencing hearing is 156; about 40 more submitted testimony anonymously, and still others have stated that they, too, were abused by Nassar.

Nassar, justly, will spend the rest of his life in prison. Yes, I believe we incarcerate too many people, for too long and in too horrid conditions. I support sentencing and prison reform. I also believe some of us have behaved so monstrously towards others of us that they have lost their right to live among those on whom they would prey. So, yes, I think it is just that Nassar will live and die a prisoner.

But what of all those who enabled him, who didn’t stop him? Rachael Denhollander, who was the first victim willing to identify herself as such,

said she felt certain the officials had been told. It seemed impossible to her that no one knew about it. From the practiced way Nassar did what he did, it seemed like he had done it thousands of times. (Which he later admitted to doing.) “This must be medical treatment,” Denhollander remembered thinking. “The problem must be me.”

Denhollander would later learn that women and girls had come forward before she walked into Nassar’s office in 2000. Four women to be exact. None of them were believed. That’s the reason why Denhollander spent a large chunk of her statement indicting the institutions that enabled Nassar’s abuse to go on, unabated, for nearly thirty years.

These institutions include Michigan State University, which conducted self-examinations which—surprise!—revealed no wrongdoing, and USA Gymnastics, which “kept secret files with sexual abuse allegations against member coaches rather than immediately forwarding those complaints to the police.”

Yes, yes, institutions turning away from inconvenient truths: nothing new about that. But how do you, as a person, turn away? The coach, colleagues, the president of the university: they supported Nassar, dismissed complaints, pleaded ignorance. They didn’t want to know.

Is that it, finally? They didn’t want to know? Because it was, what? unpleasant? a hassle? Because it was more important to think of themselves as good than actually to do good?

I ask because as much as I’d like to think I’d say HEY!, would I, really?

I don’t know that I’d do it out of a sense of Kantian duty—to do the right thing for the right reason—but I think there’s a decent chance that I’d realize that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t step up. Universal law may set the absolute standard, but as a non-absolutist, I’ll have to make do with conscience.

That conscience is not unerring, but it keeps working on me, perhaps because I keep working on it. And maybe because I do the work, it’s possible that I’d think, Hey, and so thinking, say Hey!, and maybe even shout HEY!

Again, I don’t know for sure that I would, but I do know that if I didn’t, well, that would mark me for the rest of my days. I would be diminished.

So how will these enablers live with themselves? Will they, like MSU President Simon, cover themselves in ashes while pronouncing themselves righteous? (You think I exaggerate? I do not.) Will they deflect and deny, or downplay the severity of the crimes? Will they keep themselves whole, and hollow?

What will they do?

~~~

Ursula Le Guin died yesterday. I like her stuff, but as a fitful sci-fi fan, have more to read than I have read.

Still, when I was reading all of Dvora Meyers’s and the other Deadspin staff’s reporting on Nassar (and, really, you should follow all of those links I provided, then the links within the links) I did think of one of the Le Guin’s stories I did read: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.

Unlike many of you, I didn’t read this in school: I only read it for the first time a few years ago. But it insinuated itself into me, is still working on me.

I don’t know that I’d walk away—I mean, I live in the US: I haven’t walked away—which is why I’m not sure that I’d have done the right thing by all of those girls and women.

Ach, I could say, it’s not the same, not at all the same. But I’m not so sure, I’m not at all so sure.

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If I’m so wrong

12 04 2015

Too many thoughts, not enough words.

No, that’s not right: too many thoughts in too many directions, words scattering after the thoughts.

I didn’t make the argument that pluralism is best protected by the one-law principle (I guess I’d call it), and have been stewing about how to brew up that argument.

David Watkins (aka “djw”) at Lawyers, Guns & Money had a couple of good posts, as did John Holbo at Crooked Timber—the comments are even more provocative than the original post—the latter of which spurred a multi-page effusion of thoughts that. . . led to no greater coherence of those thoughts.

So: more work to do.

One thing did seem worth mentioning now, however, and that is that I was wrong to assert that adherence to a one-law standard would be sufficient to protect and even promote pluralism: it would not.

I think it can protect pluralism, but not on its own. One addition might be a robust defense of one’s off-the-clock expressions against on-the-job discipline or punishments. That is, as long as someone performs her duties at work, what she says or does when not at work can’t be used against her by her employers.

There are issues with this, of course, in terms of salaried employees, or those for whom off-the-clock expressions might be fairly seen as relevant to the job (e.g., a fire fighter who hates Catholics or a teacher who argues that children of single parents are damaged), or for a boss or CEO who is to represent an entire company.

And that more is involved than just employers/employees implies that other principles/standards may be required.

As I said, more work ahead.





Does your conscience bother you

30 11 2014

“The reason I have a clean conscience is that I know that I did my job right.”

Darren Wilson killed an unarmed young man and his conscience is clean. He does “feel remorse”, and he “never wanted to take anybodys life, that’s not the good part of the job that’s the bad part”.

He just wants “to have a normal life.”

Others have discussed the shooting of Michael Brown, the way Ferguson policies its black community, the (un)reality of Wilson’s version of events, the unusual manner in which the Ferguson prosecutor approached his job in this particular instance, and the demonization of black bodies—all with much more knowledge and eloquence than I can.

So let’s talk about that “clean conscience”. Should someone who killed another person have a clean conscience?

Is it enough to say “I did nothing wrong” or “I was following my training” or “I was doing my job”? Is that enough to buff out the dents and scratches in one’s conscience?

Because shouldn’t killing someone dent your conscience?

I think it should. Even if it were justified, even if you kill someone who clearly and unambiguously was trying to kill you or someone else, even if the law and calculations of survival are on your side, it should bother you that you killed someone.

Maybe that’s the “remorse” Wilson mentioned, that he feels bad for Brown’s parents that “their son lost his life”—but Brown’s life wasn’t lost, it was taken. By Wilson.

I don’t trust clean consciences, and I don’t trust the ways in which we scrub them, be it via Jesus or training or even necessity. We should be burdened by our actions, should have to carry our deeds with us.

This isn’t to say that there is no way of coming to terms with those deeds or their consequences, that the weight should remain heavy and constant throughout our lives, or that we shouldn’t get help to figure out how to carry that weight. I am skeptical of redemption but atonement may be possible.

Atonement, at least, rests on the recognition of a banged-up conscience, on the recognition of misdeed and error and regret and wrong. It rests on the recognition of the weight.

~~~

I accept that there are some matters beyond good and evil, and I accept that one may act—including acting to kill—to preserve life.

But that something is necessary doesn’t make it good.

At that moment of survival, at that moment of killing, one may be beyond one’s own conscience, and that may be appropriate, necessary to one’s survival.

But that doesn’t mean you get to leave that moment in the moment. This is something you did, so that as long as you are you, you should carry that moment with you. It should mark you.

This isn’t a call to scorn those who kill, but to recognize the weight of killing. And insofar as we authorize some—police, soldiers—to kill to protect others, to protect us, then we ought to carry that weight as well.

~~~

Wilson’s words seem grotesque to me, but I understand the impulse, to say not just that “I got clean” but “I was never not-clean”, to reassure oneself that not only does one not regret what one did, but would do it again. To be untouched, weightless.

But what kind of human life is weightless?

I don’t know how long we should carry our deeds, good or bad, or how we should carry them so that we are neither crushed nor untethered by them. This is hard, to know how to live in the world.

This is the work, and this is how conscience gives us weight, in order to do the work and carry the weight.





On the tv and the media

29 06 2013

I’m no good at personal confrontation.

I know, I know, y’all are thinking But absurdbeats, you can be such a bitch!  And it’s true! I can be! But as comfortable as I am tearing into an argument, I am no good at tearing into a person—so much so that I cringe at witnessing a person getting chewed out.

That said, my discomfort transformed into awe over the course of this video:

Maybe because this guy wasn’t some poor schmoe but a CEO, maybe because Congresswoman Duckworth was so righteous, maybe because he was so. goddamned. shameless, but I actually enjoyed this, uh, little exchange.

Commenters on other sites have pointed out that the problem may lie less with Mr. Owie-I-Turned-My-Ankle-Once than with a system that allows him to claim a veteran’s disability for an injury sustained in prep school, and I don’t disagree.

But: a shitty system does not excuse shitty behavior.

Systems matter. The ancients pointed out that the type of society in which one lives affects one’s behavior, and over the millenia thinkers have exhausted a lotta brain cells trying to figure out how, exactly, culture may shore up or degrade virtue. Aristotle wondered whether one could be good in a bad polis, Diogenes wandered about searching for that one honest man, and today those of very different political persuasions bewail the corruption of our culture and the doom which awaits us all.

So, okay, culture matters.

But so, too, does conscience. I don’t know the exact relationship between culture and conscience, what resources any one individual needs to reflect on this relationship, nor what one needs to choose conscience over an interest which culture may promote, but I doubt that conscience is always and everywhere collapsible into culture.

There’s something called ‘virtue ethics‘ which focuses on conscience and character. I am dubious of its efficacy on its own—it’s too easy to slide from virtue as a goal to virtue as an excuse—but as part of a comprehensive set of standards, it’s can help to check oneself. If you want to think of yourself as a good person, then you need to consider what are the actions of a good person, and how do my actions compare.

This is where the whole conscience-culture nexus gets tangled (as least for us epistemological nihilists): If culture decides what is ‘good’, and I want to be ‘good’, then how can I go against culture?

That’s a tough one, and in its abstract form I can only offer multiple, partial answers.

The case of Mr. Owie-Ankle, happily, is not so abstract, and thus more amenable to judgement.

Braulio Castillo clearly cares about goodness. He’s a man who contributes to charity and gives back to his community.  Given that he publicizes these good works, one can safely say that Castillo has at least thought about what is good.

As such, it is telling that he both highlights his “military service” and obscures the details by which he came to claim veteran’s disability based on that “service”. On his company’s website it is noted that he

attended the United States Military Academy (West Point) Preparatory School. Braulio was honorably discharged from the United States Army and received a service connected, disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs for his active duty service as an enlisted soldier in the US Army.

Did you catch that? He attended not West Point, but West Point Prep, doesn’t detail the injury (injured his foot in an exercise), and calls his time spent at that prep school “active duty service as an enlisted soldier in the US Army.”

It was not.

If he thought that he did nothing wrong in claiming a 30-percent disability for an injury sustained prior to an active college-football career, then why not publicize the details?

It’s entirely possible that he thinks that doing good here makes good whatever he does there (another skew in virtue ethics), so why bother with such petty matters as, um, fudging the facts?

It is also entirely possible that he may have been suffering from a malady Upton Sinclair identified long ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”  And perhaps he could point to the particular business culture in which he operated—in which not understanding something is SOP—and say B-b-b-but everyone’s doing it! and claim that if his acts aren’t, y’know, good-good, they are at least par for the course.

(Of that last possibility, I would be unshocked.)

But that he called himself an “enlisted soldier in the US Navy Army” on “active duty service” when he was neither tells me he knew he was fucking with the facts, and was fucking with those facts for money.

That’s not good, Mr. Castillo, not good at all. You richly deserved that shredding.

And because of that, I richly enjoyed that dessert.





“If I wanted the government in my womb. . .”

1 03 2012

“. . . I’d fuck a senator.”

Oklahoma state senator Judy McIntyre spotted this sign held up outside of her office in protest of a proposed personhood bill and decided she needed to pose for pictures with that sign.

Fellow Democratic senator Constance Johnson had her own take on the bill, proposing a “spilled semen” amendment declaring wasted seed an act against the unborn (which dovetails with alleged historian David Barton’s musings that “I have to consider that Biblically, life begins before conception because it says ‘before you were in your mother’s womb I knew you’,”. . .).

And, of course, Virginia senator Janet Howell offered her own rectal exam bill in response to her state’s stick-a-wand-in-a-woman bill.

Fine responses, all.

And the appropriate response to sex-is-dirty (-for-all-of-those-slutty, slutty-women) comments and the US bill to favor the rights of conscience of employers in matters of contraception by erasing the rights of conscience of employees?

Why, Miss Piggy singing Peaches!

(So, so, so NSFW)

Seems. . . right on so many levels.