Losing the Plot

The dehumanizing rejection of moral agency

There is nothing like being pleased with your own work - and this is the best stage - before it is published and begins to be misunderstood. - Flannery O'Connor in a letter to a friend circa 1950's

Late in life, I have become something of an admirer of Flannery O'Connor. My admiration is rooted less in her stories themselves than in her unambiguous ideas about what writers, and Christian writers in particular, are up to when producing their art. The passage from a letter of Miss O'Connor's, which I included above, gives me a wry chuckle. Anyone who has written something that has been read by anyone else at all will be familiar with the annoying business of having their writing utterly misunderstood.

I mention this because it has been in the back of my mind as I have contemplated what I am about to write. I do expect to be misunderstood by some for writing what follows. But I also expect to be actually understood and yet still disapproved of, all at at the same time. Thus, I may actually achieve a hat trick of social opprobrium.

In a recent interview, Theodore Dalrymple was asked to opine on the origin of crime. His answer was as succinct as it was jarring to modern ears:

The origin of crime is the decision to commit it.

Mr. Dalrymple (a.k.a. Dr. Anthony Daniels) spent 30+ years doing medicine and psychiatry among prison populations and the urban poor.  He came out of that experienced with a shrewd understanding of human nature and especially of human agency as the primary explanation for human behavior.

What is striking when reading Dr. Daniel's books is more than confirmed by my own experience and it is this: we are blinded to the causes and remedies of social pathology by our reluctance to accept the explanatory power of human agency.

The therapeutic lens, which so completely dominates our understanding of human behavior in the west, appears everywhere and at all times, yet it is often invisible to us.

That something can be both pervasive and invisible is perhaps best expressed by the old Chinese proverb which says, "If you want to know what water is, don't ask a fish."

My own journey out of the therapeutic haze was prompted by being thrown into circumstances that my upbringing and social background would never have predicted. I was thrown by events into close association with the urban poor. Over a number of years I tried to help numerous people. Many nights have I wandered the halls of city and county jails in the wee hours of the morning, my pockets full of cash, so that I could bail some young man out of jail. (Jails are notorious for their unwillingness to accept either personal checks or credit cards when posting bail.  Cash on the barrelhead, buck-o.) I'm familiar with the unnaturally bright lights, the clang and echo of metal doors, the smell of urine and the shouting. Oh my word -- the shouting and agonized wailing.

I bailed these young men out of jail, usually, so that they could avoid missing a day of work and thereby maintain their tenuous grip on the lifeline of a job.

I have carried bags of groceries into a house occupied by a drug dealer and various women with small children in tow. The women and children were hungry and needed food. The drug dealer was adorned with thousands of dollars worth of gold chains, gold teeth, and tattoos. Yet the children went hungry.

I have lost count of the times I helped with methadone expenses, and Uber rides and overnight stays at cheap hotels to prop people up.

I am not bragging about this, I'm just explaining. I am entirely uninterested in any suggestions regarding my social virtue. The painful fact of the matter is that, while my own motivations may have been good, my actions were ultimately foolish and wasteful.

In making the choices I made, I was entirely blind to the possibility that the predicaments that people were in, and which I was trying to alleviate, were the result of truly volitional decisions and reflected a particular set of values that were freely chosen. I was reacting to their situations as if they felt the same way I would feel if I were in their circumstance. But what I routinely missed was the fact that their circumstance was a product of having values that actually diverged widely from my own.

Often these young men were in jail because they had been stopped on some minor traffic violation and were found to have outstanding warrants for their arrest. The outstanding warrants were almost always related to prior traffic citations. Among the urban poor, it is common practice to simply ignore the obligation to follow up on traffic citations. The city is usually only too happy to put people on a very reasonable payment plan to pay out their fines. But this is very often ignored and people just go about their business as if they had never received a citation at all.

Winding up in jail, then, for the people I often tried to help, had to do with nothing other than their decision to flout the law.

The origin of crime is the decision to commit it.

As I got to know these people, I had many conversations during which I tried to advise them on how to avoid these difficult circumstances in the future. I was often surprised to discover that they already knew full well what it would take to avoid these circumstances in the future. But they had no intention at all of modifying their behavior for the simple reason that they preferred the inconvenience of arrest to the discipline of managing their own affairs.

And it wasn't even a matter of the money. The modest payment plan for their traffic citations, which would have been acceptable to the city, could have often been funded for less than they spent in one week on cigarettes. To say nothing of the money they spent on weed.

It also wasn't the case that they robotically went about their lives without an explicit point of view about their choices. They almost always had a very well developed worldview that informed their choices and, more to the point, they were conscious of what it was and could readily articulate it.

All of these experiences began to have the salutary effect on me akin to swallowing a very large red pill. They caused me ultimately to get serious about unpacking a set of presuppositions I had been operating with, but which I had never explicitly examined.

Over time, I began to see that the professional helper class - even setting aside their problematic economic incentives to perpetuate the dependency of their clients - often viewed those clients as largely helpless automatons who were not entirely responsible for their own choices.

You also can observe this phenomenon in the implicit assumptions that undergird the claims of systemic racism and CRT. The consistent presupposition is that human agency and volition explain less about one's circumstance than one's environment/race.  My own experience outside the epistemic bubble of the progressive left, though, was that the race of the young men I was trying to help had nothing to do with their opportunity. They were themselves their own biggest obstacle. Race had exactly zero to do with it. So long as they quit smoking dope and made a habit of showing up at work on time, they had an unbounded opportunity.

Much of the BLM/CRT hustle is rooted in a conspicuous unwillingness to discuss, or even consider, the possibility that human agency offers more explanatory power than long-ago racism or statistically insignificant numbers of police shootings.  "Systemic racism", an amorphous boogie man which, we are told, is everywhere generally but nowhere in particular, is to blame for every unequal outcome. And we are supposed to believe that human volition accounts for nothing.

The timing of civil rights act in the 1960's overlapped with an adjacent social rejection of historical moral norms. At the very moment at which the last legal vestiges of racial discrimination were being eliminated, a widespread shift in cultural mores took place. Whether the correlation of these events was a coincidence, or whether there was some causality that flowed in one direction or another, is beyond me. I will note, however, that the moral shift of the 60's was facilitated in large part by the emergence of reliable contraception. The "pill" had the effect of muting the logistical consequences of sexual freedom, even as it did nothing to alleviate the emotional and spiritual consequences.

One of the awkward realities in the aftermath of the civil rights movement has been the alarming hockey-stick shape of the social pathology graph within the urban black community: social pathology has skyrocketed. It has been widely documented, for example, that fatherlessness among the urban poor is epidemic. A black child in America was far more likely to live in a two parent home in the years immediately following slavery than is a black child living 50 years after discrimination of any kind was made illegal.

The BLM/CRT kerfuffle of recent years has seemed in large part to be a desperate attempt to distract all attention away from human agency as offering any explanation for the social pathologies we see with our own eyes. There must be no consideration, say, of the 1960's reset of sexual mores as part of any effort to understand behavior within the urban community. And, by all means, the lyrics of urban music must be understood to be apropos of nothing as they relate to human behavior, or to the ideas animating the choices of its listeners.

In other words, we are expected to think of the urban community as something less than entirely human.

The BLM/CRT grift forecloses the consideration of any possibility that the ideas which animate the free choices of the urban poor determine more of their circumstance than the long ago attitudes of long dead people.  We are expected to conceive of the urban black community as an undifferentiated mass, moved along by forces wholly outside its control. Implicit in the entire CRT project is the notion that black human beings are nothing more than cookie-cutter machines which march in lockstep, and with neither the human agency nor the moral freedom we routinely assume to be present in every other race.

No understanding of a human being could be more racist or dehumanizing.

But that is where we are. And our unwillingness to gaze unblinking at the explanatory power of human agency has placed countless avenues for reducing the sum total of human suffering beyond our reach.

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