Pattern Recognition

Written By: J.Noonan - Aug• 27•14

Shout Louder God, I Couldn’t Hear You

Maybe, apostate that I am, God is not talking to me.  Either that or my hearing is not as good as I thought it was.  I say this because God has been raising his voice in Missouri, but I had to find out about it from CNN.  According to the Reverend Fred D. Robinson,  “What God is Screaming”  in Ferguson, MO is for America finally to face up to its history of structural racism.  Now, one might ask a) why God would have thrown its lot in with a country premised upon the racial violence of the slave trade, and b) why it has taken so many instances of racist abuse for God to raise its voice?  But who am I to question the Divine, I, who cannot even hear its voice.  What I can hear and understand is the political point the Reverend is making:  angry demonstrations are not accidents, or the fault of  “a few troublemakers.”  They are predictable and legitimate responses to long-standing patterns of injustice.

Boy, Stephen Harper Dislikes Sociology

I am sure that Canada’s most Reverend Stephen Harper thinks he hears the divine voice too, but so far as I can tell, in a whisper, because I cannot recall any instance of his claiming to have been publicly directed to a course of action by the Almighty.  Too bad.  The Eternal could have explained to Harper, as it is explaining, loudly, to Americans, that a) there are patterns in social life, and b) the existence of patterns is strong evidence that there are underlying structural causes at work.  None of this sociology for our great helmsman, who boldly steers social science back through the twenty-first, twentieth, nineteenth, and eighteenth century to the fictional state of nature where there is no society, no social forces or powers, no social structures of any type, just “individuals,” their choices, and their responsibility for them.  Now the seventeenth century, it had a god who wore big boy pants, smiting the guilty and leaving the shouting about “causes”  to the professors.

Yes, there is a specter haunting 24 Sussex Drive again, the specter of sociology.  In 2013, remember, after an alleged plot to blow up a VIA rail train was “foiled,”  Harper warned Canadians that it was not the time to “commit sociology” by searching for underlying causes for terrorism.  Last week, in response to the murder of 15 year old Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg, the Prime Minister was once again preaching against the dangers of looking for causes.  There are no causes, there is no social injustice, there is no history of institutionalized racism against Canada’s First Nations, there is no systematic threat to aboriginal women.  Crime is “not a sociological phenomenon,”  according to Harper, in one of the most stunningly non-sensical claims I have ever heard a person with a post-graduate degree assert.  Perhaps because that degree happens to be in economics he really does believe that choices arise ex nihilo from atomic selves pursuing their own interest.

That the individuals who commit crimes have made choices is a tautology.  The interesting question is not :  did person ‘a’ choose to commit the crime he committed (if there were no choice, there would have been no crime), but rather, why, if crimes are purely a function of the atomic choices of distinct individuals, are there patterns of criminal behaviour and victimization?  Why are young black men in Missouri more at risk of being killed by the police than young white men in Connecticut?  Why do rates of violent crime track poverty rates?  Why do aboriginal women in Canada, who make up approximately 3  per cent of the Canadian population,  make up approximately 10 % of homicide victims?   If there is no structural explanation for that statistic, that would be an anomaly beyond belief.  Clearly, the question that Canadian society has to ask itself is:  what are the factors that explain why aboriginal women are in such dangerous proximity to men who choose to murder them?

Preaching, Practice

I do not know whether we need an inquiry to answer that question.  But whether one favours an inquiry or not, every thinking person has to accept that there are social structures and dynamics that affect differently identified groups of people differently.  If there are only individuals and choices, then holding individuals to account suffices. But suffices for what?  A guilty verdict holds the individual accountable for what he did, but it does not explain why he did it.  Guilty verdicts do not get us closer to understanding the causes of patterns of crime.  Therefore, they do not get us closer to solving violence as a social problem..  There is no contradiction, (as Harper seems to think there is) between social scientific understanding and individual responsibility.  In fact, the relationship is the opposite–  it is only when we understand the real forces at work on individuals that responsibility becomes a meaningful category.

If all the justice system does is incarcerate particular individuals, it leaves the structures of social injustice in place.  That failure to address causes guarantees work for itself as social conditions manufacture the same sorts of people who commit the same sorts of crimes.  To be fair, though, it is unreasonable to expect that one social institution acting in isolation will be able solve deep-seated social problems.  The Reverend Robinson is correct– Ferguson (or Winnipeg) is a  test.  But it is not God that asking the questions, it is the racially subaltern asking white Americans , and the people of the First Nations asking  Canadians, if we will take responsibility for the history of domination we are parts of (even those of us who opposite it in theory and practice).  It is amazing how quickly people who preach individual responsibility point in every other direction when it is they who are asked to accept responsibility for themselves.

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2 Comments

  1. SteveG says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Now, if we all can just dump ice water on our heads the problem of this world will be washed away. Praise The Lord and pass the ice.

  2. Bommer says:

    Thanks! I really enjoyed this piece. I agree that one institution is not enough to find, let alone solve, such systemic problems. It seems then that there is a call for an organization whose purpose is look at the whole of the system and the interaction of its parts – to point to its weaknesses and highlight where its malfunctioning causes negative consequences. This is, I think, an important job for philosophy and we have to figure out how to have more impact.

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