My classes had read three moral essays by Rousseau, Iris Murdoch, and Anthony Kwame Appiah and were in the midst of writing a paper synthesizing the ideas within each. I was already trying to move them into thinking about their next paper, a review/analysis. We read a slew of different review articles, so they could see how it didn’t matter what you were reviewing or analyzing (a comic about a warrior princess in a chainmail bikini, a bizarre game about clown hugs, an existentially absurd cartoon, a working theory of what makes us jerks, or a postcolonial alt-soul-punk band), so long as your argument was well crafted–that any argument isn’t about the text, but about how well you can turn your subjective reasoning into an object of use. I fell back on some YouTube channels as well for this:
To show how big ideas can be connected with small ideas or even the everyday.
For me, this is why we exist. To think well about the things we do so that those action are worthwhile. We were discussing their most recent assignment where they had to answer the simple question ‘How do you know you’re a good person?’ This was when they really understood that ‘simple’ and ‘easy’ were not the same. I explained to them that the assignment wasn’t asking if they were good or not, I didn’t care if they were good or if they thought they were good or if they didn’t. That was meaningless to me, what I wanted them to focus on was the ‘how’ part of the question. They had read three brilliant philosophers and a slew of cultural critique, so now they had to show me that they could explain themselves.
In the course of my lecture and the Q&A between me and the students, I let it out that I was a radical pacifist. They were confused by this phrase so I did my best to explain it to them. I probably didn’t do a good job, but it came down to this, murdering someone is always morally wrong. Always. There is no exception or justification. They levied the usual scenarios, what if your life was threatened? what if someone you loved life’s was threatened? what if you could save the lives of other by murdering a serial killer? To each question and their increasingly creative scenarios I said the same thing, No, it’s never right or good to murder someone and further, any justification that I could come up with would only heighten my guilt.
The struggle, I told them, is to reconcile the subject with the objective and vice versa; the process is dynamic and ever ongoing, a challenge taken up over and over whether or not an answer is available or satisfying. The point of the exercise, of the writing assignment is to show your reasoning. It’s to show how a subjective truth can be made into an objective truth. So my students (like anyone reading this) now know I’m a pacifist. My students also kinda hate that I make them read so much and that I’m pushing them to come up with responses to rather uncomfortable and disquieting questions.
But I hope they don’t hate it too much. A lot of campuses are experiencing discomfort and disquiet. This October has begun with murder. Casual murder. Umpqua Community College, Texas Southern University, and Northern Arizona University.
Last week, as I walked into the campus where I teach English as an adjunct professor, I thought to myself,
“Every day I’m one step closer to being shot.”
It was just a random thought, a momentary suspicion. I don’t really believe that I’ll ever get shot; I don’t feel threatened or anxious even with the plethora of shootings. Part of what makes me a pacifist, I can’t get in a mental place where violence is my default setting or anything but an impossible option. I can’t imagine the kind of reasoning that leads someone to have or use a gun. I just can’t see it. I don’t understand the pathology of someone who feels themselves always under threat when in fact they never are under any threat. The murderer of nine people at UCC had nothing but contempt for life, his perceived belief in his own persecution was what drove him to kill and being a complete gun nut who found solace in firearms is what gave him the means. I think Samir Chopra has it right when he says a certain “social pathology is to blame for the itchy trigger finger.” The president of TSU gets at it when he says, “Too many guns are accessible to students and to people in general in our community.” When an 18 year old freshman got into an argument with a rival fraternity on NAU’s campus it was the perfect mixture of accessibility and pathology.
It’s too easy to offer trite or tone deaf condemnations, the kind meant to make you feel superior and apart from it all. Even the sensible responses too easily slip into a holier-than-thou point of view. There are graphics all over the place showing the impact of guns in our nation. Everybody knows. So when I hear that research into how to roll back the pathology of violence is cut, I grow anxious. When I read a reasoned and impassioned plea to resist making living with gun violence a casual thing I feel appropriately challenged,
Instead of controlling guns and inconveniencing those who would use them, we are rounding up and silencing a generation of schoolchildren, and terrifying those who care for them. We are giving away precious time to teach and learn while we cower in fear. It’s time to stop rehearsing our deaths and start screaming.
I’m irreligious, and I doubt whether or not I’m a good person. I’ve come to realize that the only effective action I have at my disposal is what I’ve been doing. I still hold to the creed that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Needling students, provoking them into actually figuring out how and why they think and feel the way they do, is how I step up to the challenge. A good life is an examined life lived with clear purpose ever able to adapt and incorporate the world around it. It seems that around me now is this fact of gun violence, and, I suppose, this is how in my pitifully small way I confront and address it.