Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dear Glenn Greenwald, Maybe you can teach me to liberal

Dear Glenn Greenwald,

You've stirred up a pot of shit lately via your exchange with Sam Harris about Islam(ophobia). I've been watching this play out, reading sets of commentary from both of you, observing the back-and-forth, watching people argue on behalf of your case (since I already agree with Harris's I looked at less of that), and reading through your Twitter feed on occasion. What I've determined is that I'm apparently doing my liberaling wrong, and I'm hoping you can set me straight.

To introduce myself briefly, I'm pretty damned liberal. I'm highly educated, and I live in the Southeastern US, which makes me something of a sore thumb around here. I'm told pretty frequently about how communist and socialist I am (actually, I'm neither, I just support a progressive tax structure, believe in global warming, and want to keep creationism out of the science classroom), what a threat to my nation I am, and how I'm not wanted in this country because of my political orientation. I thought I was liberaling pretty well, studying subjects like economics and political theory in my spare time while keeping abreast of science, all while giving people the chance to prove themselves on who they are, not what they are, but lately, I'm questioning my liberal core. You are the reason, Mr. Greenwald. I don't think I'm liberaling right anymore, and watching your discussion with Sam Harris, also a liberal, really started to convince me of that.

Something today really got me curious about wanting to ask you about this, about how to liberal correctly. Earlier today, you tweeted on Twitter about the Boston Marathon bomber(s). Of course, you're mostly responding to the hysterical right wing in America and their incessant claims that "terr'ist Muslins" are to blame. I feel that you might be confusing these folks with other targets of your criticism on "Islamophobia," most notably Sam Harris and some of the folks defending him. Anyway, here's what you tweeted:

This is where I'm lost. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but didn't you just lump everyone with "mental illness" together regardless of their individual situations or personalities? I know that liberals are really against doing this kind of thing, lumping people together and making blanket statements about the whole when a more nuanced argument is necessary, as you've readily proved by repeatedly pointing out that Harris is a bigot for criticizing Islam and daring to suggest that statistically effective methods, like profiling in certain security-based circumstances, might produce a better result than ignoring statistics altogether while consuming enormous amounts of resources to achieve a far worse result that essentially no one is happy about.

Here's the part where I get even more about this. Sam Harris criticizes the teachings of Islam, the tenets of a religion that people, more or less, choose to be a part of (or do they?). But it looks like you're pointing out that the bomber may have just been someone with a mental illness, which not only provides absolutely no useful information in this circumstance, but particularly is something beyond that person's capacity to choose. Since the first of the preceding points is likely to be unclear, let me note that since anyone who would blow up a bunch of innocent people isn't operating in the normal frame of mind, we could define entire swaths of "mental illness" as the willingness to take part in this behavior. I suppose we have to be careful, though, since a nontrivial proportion of Muslims does this, claiming motivation by their religious beliefs, which we shouldn't conflate with their race. Is that right? Or must we conflate it with race? Or only when we want to make a particularly liberally point?

So liberals are supposed to blame things like "mental illness," no matter how stigmatizing, damaging, useless, unfair, and beyond someone's control, but they cannot point out that problems could arise from someone who subscribes to particular facets of an organization--one that they could choose to leave at any time if they so desired--well known to be involved in perpetrating this kind of crime as an artifact of believing the things at the center of their organization? Mental illness is such a convenient label, though, isn't it? It makes the perpetrator into a victim, and it makes it easy to point fingers at our shoddy state of mental healthcare. It's far easier to do that than to untangle and challenge the belief system of one of the most reactionary, dangerous religions on the planet, isn't it?

Are you seeing where I'm lost? I feel very much like I'm, as a liberal, supposed to only criticize groups of people for holding bad ideas for bad reasons, ones that reliably produce bad results, if it is beyond their control to hold them, as with mental illness. This is hard to make sense of, which is presumably why I'm feeling like I'm not too good at liberaling and am writing you for advice.

Now, speaking of conflating things, as a good liberal, am I supposed to do like you're doing and conflate the reactionaries, who are mostly Christians (SHH! Racism...), with the carefully nuanced scholars? As a liberal, am I to realize that careful explorations of difficult issues is essentially on par with the yammering of embarrassing fools? Do I do that because it's useful to make the point or for some better reason? Like if I quote-mine to call Sam Harris an Islamophobe and then link to an article to indicate that Islamophobia is a real problem, I should choose some hillbilly Republican (Christian, shh... racism) from North Carolina ranting on his "terr'ist Muslin" box to make my point, right? That's how to be liberaling the right way? I just want to be clear.

Another question, while I have you: are you aware of the work Harris has done regarding free will? He has some pretty interesting things to say about mental illness and justice. Of course, I don't think he said anything there that can be opportunistically misconstrued into a claim of being bigoted against "brown people," so I understand if you haven't familiarized yourself with that aspect of his work. I'll give a quick primer--not that I'm necessarily an expert in this field.

It seems to be the current state of research that we don't have this "libertarian free will" that seems to sit at the middle of a lot of beliefs in the West. Harris put together quite a little piece about this, in case you haven't seen it (it is called Free Will), indicating that we may indeed be acting on prior causes below and beyond our conscious awareness or abilities to choose. When these actions include heinous crimes, then we have a pretty serious question in front of us about how to handle the matter since, in a real sense, the perpetrators are also victims of circumstances.

I'm having a very hard time sorting out how to be liberal correctly with all of these complicated factors. So far, I've figured out following you guys that it's apparently not okay to blame Islam (a set of ideas) for anything, however many Muslims use the doctrines of that religion to do horrible, violent, oppressive things (how many women in Islamic nations were beaten for Allah while I wrote this or while you read it?--SHHHH, racism!), because that might be insensitive to "brown" people (which makes no sense since Islam is a religion not a race or color). Evidently this restriction includes even avoiding asking people to question the ideas at the center of that religion as ideas because it's "phobic" to their racial identity to do so. On the other hand, I can blame whatever I want on "mental illness," which is certainly something millions or billions of people suffer from without ever committing any crimes, particularly any violent ones. Can I note that these people did not choose to become mentally ill, cannot choose to become mentally well in most cases, and cannot examine any set of precepts that have very little foundation in reality and yet form the basis of their mental illnesses? How do I liberal myself correctly around these questions?

Now here's where I really get lost, and I'll cut this correspondence after I ask. What if the religions are actually sometimes causing the "mental illnesses" that lead to these kinds of problems, like back in 2001 when [don't talk about it specifically because it might be racist] happened? What if, in fact, the religions are "mental illnesses" of a particular kind? I'm pointing particularly at the hardcore fundamentalist kinds here. At what point do I stop being a responsible "liberal" in blaming "mental illness" and start being a "bigot"? Is it when I name the "mental illness"? Is it when I suggest that having that particular "mental illness" might be a significant source of leading to a particular kind of problem? Is it when I point out that defending the context in which that "mental illness" exists, spreads, and damages minds in consequential ways might be a real problem, even if it only manifests (reliably) in a small percentage of people infected with it?

I really appreciate your time and attention. I look forward to your reply, so I can get back to being as liberal as I'm supposed to be.

Sincerely and with kind regards,
James Lindsay, Ph.D.

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