Thursday, August 21, 2014

"What Good Fortune for Those in Power That People Do Not Think": Religion (of a Sort) and Justification of Police Brutality

Several observations culled from my file of notes from books I've read over the course of many years, which have helped me to see more fully and to understand better. To my way of thinking, what both of these authors have to say could well powerfully gloss discussions we've had here of late about the role of religion in the world — and the quandary religion often presents to LGBTI folks. Both Alice Miller and Philip Greven are addressing the strongly held belief of many Christian cultures that physical punishment is necessary for the right rearing of good children.

In the unpaginated preface to her study For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, trans. Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983),  Miller cites Hitler:

 What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.

And then she goes on to observe, later in her book:

Witnesses of sudden political upheavals report again and again with what astonishing facility many people are able to adapt to a new situation. Overnight they can advocate views totally different from those they held the day before — without noticing the contradiction. With the change in the power structure, yesterday has completely disappeared for them (p. 84).  

Miller attributes this facility of many human communities to adapt to new power structures suddenly imposed from above, even when those power structures are antithetical to the ones that preceded them, to the effects of what she calls "poison pedagogy" in child-rearing: poison pedagogy seeks to suppress the ego of the child, to make it malleable to adult control. In her judgment, such an approach to child-rearing obliterates the I who might remain stable and consistent when sudden political changes occur — and who might therefore resist them when they portend serious harm to a human community. 

Miller notes:

It is one of poisonous pedagogy’s main goals to make it impossible from the very beginning to see, perceive, and evaluate what one has suffered as a child (p. 205).

And, in her view, this inability to face and understand what one has suffered as a child translates into an inability to face and understand the unmerited suffering of others in the world around oneself as one matures.

And then there's Philip Greven who writes the following in his book Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse (NY: Random House/Vintage, 1990):

Religious rationales for physical punishments have been, and remain, among the most powerful and influential theoretical justifications for violence known in the Western world. For generations, they have woven the threads of pain and suffering into the complex fabric of our characters and our cultures (p. 94).

I say that these observations could well gloss discussions we've been having on this blog about the role of religion in the world today, and in gay lives in particular. But to my way of thinking, they might equally well cast significant light on our discussion of what's happening in Ferguson, Missouri, and especially on the reflex reaction of many Americans to trust and justify the brutality of armed authority figures, especially insofar as that brutality is manifested towards poor people of color.

As Anthea Butler notes at Religion Dispatches this morning, before they set off on their nightly task of arresting and intimidating protestors, local and state police in Ferguson have been holding prayer sessions. They have been asking God to bless their peace-keeping task in Ferguson, just before they don their gas masks and fire off their canisters of tear fast or before they point their guns at protestors and journalists.

There is a certain infantilism about the assumption that what the police in Ferguson are doing represents unalloyed peace-keeping (and that God stands on their side as they point their guns and set off their tear gas), is there not? But there's an equal infantilism in the view of many citizens that the police always and unequivocally stand on the side of right and morality — and of God.

Greven and Miller challenge us to ask where these infantile — and destructive — notions of God and of the use of force come from in our culture. This is no easy task when, as Lillian Smith writes in her book classic novelistic expos√© of McCarthyism, One Hour (1959; repr. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1994): "There is no end to this kind of thinking which is not thinking at all, of course, but only a most human try at unraveling stone" (p. 3). This before she observes, later in the same book, "The Church can be prison more easily than door" (p. 180).

The graphic is a posting that suburban St. Louis police officer Lt. Ray Albers posted on his Facebook page prior to going to Ferguson two nights ago. As this Huffington Post article (which is my source for the Facebook posting) notes, Albers was relieved of his duties after he pointed a rifle at protestors and threatened to shoot them for heckling him. I do not know why Ray Albers was posting on Facebook as Ray Eskew.

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