Monday, March 31, 2014

Dismissive condescension impedes productive discourse

A few weeks ago, a writer for the Johns Hopkins News-Letter wrote an opinions piece titled "Religious Hierarchy Impedes a more Equitable America." The article can be read in it's entirety below (in italics). Beneath the article, I've posted my response (in standard font) which I published in this week's edition of the News-Letter. As a forewarning, my response focuses more on the tone of the original article than the content of its articles, so if that sort of discussion bores you, don't read it!

The original article: Religious Hierarchy Impedes a more Equitable America
In his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx emphatically claims, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless world.” Going further, Marx remarks religion is nothing but an opiate that provides an illusory sense of happiness, which impedes their ability to realize that real happiness lies not in an abstract illusion but rather in their concrete material relations. Almost 200 years after this insightful expose, religion today, more than any other factor, continues to play the most integral role in how a large majority of our country sees both itself and others’ position within the intricate global web.

But why is it that billions still fetter their minds around belief systems whose theological validity has repeatedly been shown to stand in staunch contradiction with proven scientific facts and established historical events? More baffling might be the question of why religiosity has actually intensified in many places, rather than attenuate, in the face of these apparent empirical inconsistencies. But the most pressing question above all is what motivates many to zealously support religious institutions whose political agenda runs directly against their own interests. The answer to these startling realities undoubtedly lies among the dynamic multitude of economic forces that comprise our modern capitalist society and how the greater public perceives the way these forces impact their daily lives. Particularly important is the influential role that religious leaders play in justifying the continuation of such a disaster prone economic system.

Revived orthodox conservative movements on the Right, in the form of the Tea Party and an ideologically charged Republican party, rose out of the destruction wreaked by the 2008 financial crisis. At the core of these radical movements, however, has been an entrenched return to traditionalist Christian values reminiscent of the Puritanical witch-hunts of early colonial America. Brandishing a simplistic panacea for the ills of the country, these vitriolic factions continue to lash out against those whom they identify as laying outside their religious-ideological beliefs. Whether it is a strong resentment towards poor Mexican migrant workers for taking their jobs, hateful attitude towards gay people as inherently different than heterosexuals, or the comical belief that their black President is secretly a Communist/Socialist, these fringe groups have irrevocably altered the political terrain of our country.

But the most intriguing aspect of this orthodox revival might be the paradoxical re-embracement of the prevailing capitalist order by those exact same individuals whose lives it completely torn asunder through speculative gambling on Wall Street. The sight of figures like the Koch brothers being heartily welcomed by these groups’ as symbolizing the epitome of honorable success has been puzzling. It is as obvious that these billionaires are simply looking to exploit the fervent megaphone of the Tea Party to further their own business interests as it is troubling to think the group can’t detect such deceit. Incessant chants for lower taxes, cuts in social spending, and annulment of the healthcare initiative are antithetical to the peoples’ very interests. Here, religion’s powerful ideological magnet pulls more forcefully than anywhere else, because instead of realizing that the same individuals in whom they have imbued their trust are the ones indirectly responsible for their current malaise, the justification that we receive is an absurd invocation of some divine being’s “grand plan.” 

Behind these misguided conclusions are always the same corrupt religious leaders who possess a vested interest in protecting the status quo, all the while profiting immensely from the pittances of their followers.

This corrupt business model thrives perfectly in the poor enclaves of the American South where magnificent evangelical mega-churches run by opulent pastors constantly proselytize the virtues of liberty espoused by the political Right. Citizens of states such as Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, where some communities are stunningly similar to squalid caricatures of third-world nations, never fail to overwhelming vote in favor of candidates who devoutly support socially regressive policies. It seems counter-intuitive to think that a region, where the official poverty rate is a record high 17 percent, would consistently elect national representatives in relentless pursuit of economic initiatives detrimental to their constituents’ livelihoods.

The policy discussions dominating the electoral scene in these states revolve around issues like denying equal marriage benefits to same-sex couples, shutting down minor social programs like Planned Parenthood, and preventing a socialized model of national healthcare from restricting their freedoms (not that Obamacare satisfies such a model). Who are the main agents behind the support of this trivial and distracting political discourse? They are, in fact, the same leaders who every Sunday pontificate on equality and the necessity of building a more fair and just society. Yet, their explanations of why these end goals are not being effectively pursued ultimately circle back to the aforementioned talking points, rather than highlighting the grossly inequitable policies that form the bedrock of our current economic system.

But this isn’t to say that the religious establishment is the only minority block supporting a status quo pernicious to the interests of the majority, or even that they are always in favor of such a system. It is undeniable that the Church (particularly the Catholic Church) provides millions of poor Americans with critical material and spiritual support in times of need. Yet, the apathy of the main leaders within these enormously influential centers of social life towards the most pressing issues facing our country today is inexcusable. The reason for the shortcoming is not due to a lack of understanding, but rather the unwillingness to stand against the unfair policies from which they ultimately derive their exorbitant wealth and influence. For instance, the absurd law that renders a church tax-exempt has permitted many agents within the Evangelical base to amass tremendous material wealth, which has permitted them to create almost mini fiefdoms within their respective locales.

To rail against these obviously biased policies would essentially require religious leaders to engage in activities opposed to their best interests. But if history has anything to tell us about such a prospect, it’s that this will never happen without a mass consensus among the rank and file. Sadly, the likelihood of this collective conscious organically forming seems quite bleak given the strength of the framework in place to counteract it. Aided by powerful media conglomerates with similar interests, religious leaders shield their congregations from narratives that explore the foundational aspects of society’s problems.

In spite of these challenges, the religious domain still has the potential to motivate large sectors of the American population to demand real political and economic changes from the state. But for this to occur, there needs to be a sustained effort that works to highlight the subterfuge of the religious hierarchy while simultaneously providing a substantive vision for positive change. More importantly, this has to occur without encroaching upon the individual’s religious beliefs. The goal should not be to insult the doctrines making up their core values, but rather to demonstrate the possibility of a fairer and more just world where all individuals derive benefit—not simply a selected few.

My response: Dismissive condescension impedes productive discourse

A February edition of the News-Letter featured an Opinions article – titled “Religious hierarchy impedes equitable America” – on religion’s propensity to inhibit social progress. It was eloquently argued by a bright and impressive young columnist who’s written several insightful articles for the Opinions section. Unfortunately, I found the premise this particular article patronizingly dismissive of the opinions of huge swaths of the American population, and its tone antithetical to the open-minded atmosphere of respectful exchange I have striven to foster as Opinions Editor. This week, I finally decided to respond.

Which economic policies will result in a more “equitable” America – as well as the relative desirability of equity in comparison with other social prerogatives - are matters of enormous debate in the economic and philosophic communities. The opinions section is a fantastic venue to further that discussion through the passionate and reasoned presentation of our convictions. Unfortunately, the author of the article in question preempted any such discourse with the presumption that any who disagree with him must be ignorant, naive, stupid, stubborn, selfish, or some combination of the above.

If the article is to be believed, conservative talking points are not arguments worthy of being engaged, but a “trivial and distracting political discourse.” Opposing economic policies are not merely biased, but “obviously biased.” Nobody in power actually disagrees about what “the most pressing issues facing our country today” are – it’s just that religious leaders demonstrate inexcusable “apathy” towards those issues. These leaders do not provide their congregations with their heartfelt beliefs on how to solve society’s problems, they merely “shield their congregations from narratives that explore” those problems.

The article did not endeavor to prove whether the “political agenda” of “religious institutions…runs directly against [religious people’s] interests.” Indeed, the article does not bother to provide any evidence substantiating the claim. Instead, it uses that highly controversial assumption as a mere starting point from which to engage “the most pressing question above all”: how it came to be that religious zealots were hoodwinked. That the Tea Party ideals which animate so many on the right can be dismissed as “billionaires…looking to…further their own business interests” is also “obvious”; what’s up for debate is merely why “the group can’t detect such deceit?” Why is it, the author asks with apparent sincerity, that “billions still fetter their minds around belief systems” with which he disagrees?

As a Christian who thinks the Tea Party has some pretty good ideas, I was surprised to learn that my beliefs make me a gullible puppet for my greedy asshole of a pastor. I was hitherto unaware that the sum of my contributions to political discussion amount to an irrelevant distraction, or that my every political thought is merely an unoriginal byproduct of my placement in a complex system of material power relations over which I have no control.

The article observes “[i]t seems counter-intuitive to think that a region, where the official poverty rate is a record high 17 percent, would consistently elect national representatives in relentless pursuit of economic initiatives detrimental to their constituents’ livelihoods.” I agree: it is counter-intuitive. Intuition tells us that people generally elect representatives with economic initiatives they believe to be in their best interests. Since Republicans keep winning in the South, intuition suggests that Southerners sincerely believe Republican economic policies are what’s best for them. Intuition also reminds us that vast geographic regions are very rarely populated exclusively by morons, and that self-identified Republican voters come from a diverse set of education levels, income levels and IQ scores. And intuition deduces that if localities run mainly by progressive representatives were always successful at alleviating poverty, cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, New York and Baltimore would have a lot fewer poor people than they do today. Therefore, intuition leads us to the conclusion that very many people, exposed to the same information and mental faculties accessible to the author, have ruminated long and hard on matters of economic policy and social justice, and yet come to a set of conclusions markedly different from his own regarding which policies truly work to their detriment.

But alas, many prefer to go against their intuitions than to confront the unsettling reality that their most deeply held beliefs are contested and unresolved matters of opinion. Many of these same people prefer to craft condescending caricatures of their opponents than to make good-faith efforts to engage with their ideas. When confronted with such one-sided perspectives, one questions who is truly “brandishing a simplistic panacea for the ills of the country.”

When we find ourselves in heated disagreements, it is sometimes useful to take a step back and consider why our opponents think the way they do. At times, it may even be interesting to hypothesize as to which specific incentives or formative experiences may have played a role in molding the alternative viewpoint. And if we are writing to an audience of people who already agree with us, we might float such theories in passing as a means of strategizing on how to best convince skeptics of our shared convictions. But if we are writing to a broader audience, and our curiosity about the other side extends only to wondering why they cannot realize how obviously wrong they are, the inevitable result is that the disagreeing parties will continue to talk past one another.

This is not a recipe for the productive discourse I seek in the Opinions Section. Too many in our society seem unwilling to consider the possibility that an informed, intelligent, well-intentioned person could differ from their own opinion, with the unspoken implication being that anyone who dares dissent must not be informed, intelligent or well-intentioned. It is an arrogant and narrow-minded presumption in any environment, but it’s particularly unfortunate at a school like Hopkins in which one needs only walk around the corner to find a whole host of counterexamples.

The author concludes that the “the goal should not be to insult the doctrines making up their core values.” Perhaps this was not his goal, but he accomplished it nevertheless.

 Andrew Doris is a junior Political Science major from West Chester, PA. He is the Editor of the Opinions Section.

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