Thursday, July 18, 2013

An Avoidable Tragedy – II. The Elephants in the Courtroom

Continued from Part I

From my perspective, there are four large elephants rumbling around in the back of Judge Nelson’s courtroom. Some are obvious, some are not.

Common to Whom?

The first elephant is not only apparent to most observers, it has become a simplistic fall-back in explaining the entire trial process. Race clearly played a role in this case though not the only role. We Americans breathe racist air as my classmate from seminary so accurately observed many years ago. And the stereotype of young black men wearing hooded sweatshirts is largely associated in the minds of white suburbanites – like those who sat on this jury - with notions of gang violence and drug use. Indeed, the defense won a ruling from this judge to introduce coroner’s evidence of marijuana use by the victim as the drug crazed black attacker.

To its credit, the defense never played that overtly racist card. But while the dichotomy of the fearful black assailant and the innocent white victim is not nearly as clear in this case as in others, this caricature is the subtext for many trials in America today including this one. The composition of our prison populations readily reveals this racial disparity in which black males disproportionately make up those arrested, convicted and incarcerated in an America in deep denial of its continuing race problem. Statistically speaking, if one wants to guarantee getting away with murder in America, they should be white, wealthy enough to afford a good attorney and kill someone who is black. If one wants to guarantee they will be killed by the state in which they reside, one only has to be the opposite of that composite.

Racism is also echoed in right wing polemics about the alleged coercion prompting this trial and pressuring its jury for a guilty verdict. This argument unwittingly recycles the “outside agitator” caricature from the days of desegregation – We wouldn’t have all these racial problems if it weren’t for outside agitators coming into our peaceful little communities and stirrin’ folks up. One wonders if the pastoral statements of the President who simply noted that this boy of color could have been his son and the investigations of the Attorney General in the face of Florida’s stonewalling would have ever been questioned had either of them been white.

Racism is also revealed in the strong racial divides in survey data in which white respondents solidly bought into immediate, acontextual constructs of self-defense while respondents of color almost universally saw the events as murder given the broader context in which they occurred. While only 30% of white respondents to the Gallup Poll believed Zimmerman was guilty, over 70% of black respondents thought so.

It also did not help that the jury was virtually all-white prompting comparisons of this jury to the Simi Valley jury that freed several white LA policemen who had been caught on tape beating black victim Rodney King. Like Simi Valley, the nearly all-white suburb of Los Angeles, could any other conclusion have resulted in this trial in a county that is significantly whiter than the state average (nearly 2/3 white non-hispanic)? From whom would the voices needed to draw the “common sense” into question have come?

While one of the jurors has insisted since the verdict that race never played a role in their deliberations, could they possibly say anything differently? If the battle over same sex marriage has taught us anything it’s that while many want to hold onto common prejudices thus avoiding the soul-searching required for repentance, few are willing to ever admit to them in the first place. Denial is the most common defense mechanism human beings utilize when accused of wrongdoing.

Premature Declarations of Victory

Disowned racism is also expectable in a society that wants to engage in self-congratulation for having successfully dealt with a long, bloody history of racism. Of course, mere assertion that “America has gotten past its racist history” is belied by the disproportionate numbers of people of color afflicted by every social pathology from infant mortality to low educational attainment to incarceration to gun deaths. A virtually all-white jury in an overwhelmingly white suburban county is hardly inclined to come to Jesus about its own or its nation’s repressed racism.

Indeed, the images of a terrified unarmed black man being stalked and finally killed do not arise in a cultural vacuum. This is a state with a long history of lynching and massacres of entire townships in places with names like Rosewood and Ocoee, a mere 20 miles away in neighboring Orange County.

Race may not have overtly figured into this killing. Indeed, I have no doubt that the jurors are telling us the truth when they say it was never discussed at all. Without a black juror on the panel to raise the issue, it was probably not too difficult to ignore it with impunity. But it certainly formed a highly potent contextual backdrop against which this drama played out.

Guns and Pimped Masculinities

The second elephant in the room is the completely irresponsible, deadly policies surrounding firearms in this country, particularly here in gun crazed Florida. The passage of the ALEC crafted bill called “Stand Your Ground” essentially removed any context of actual danger to self or others as restraints on encounters with would-be criminals. Until very recently, once the threat of lethal harm to the individual targeted by assailants was past, the target was not allowed to become the aggressor him or herself. Lethal force was only appropriate as a defense weapon when lethal force was imminent.

With the change of law largely at the behest – and the substantial funding - of the world’s largest gun industry, actual danger is no longer a required predicate for the use of lethal force. Mere anger or injured pride from having potentially been a victim is now sufficient. If your manhood feels pimped, you can kill the one who dissed you. While Stand Your Ground implies that a homeowner is on his property defending himself, his family and his castle, in fact the law permits roving gun-toters to track down those who have allegedly placed them in reasonable fear of harm wherever they might be, including young teenage boys on the sidewalks of a gated community armed only with candy and a can of tea.

While no one wanted to admit to the elephant in the room, it’s pretty clear that at a very basic level, the need for gun owners to affirm America’s gun policies formed a powerful subtext for the trial here. Much of the money for Zimmerman’s defense came from the gun lobby. America’s addiction to the weapons of war we believe will save us emerged unscathed. There will be no intervention coming out of Seminole County.

Be Afraid, They Tell Us. And We Are.

While those two aspects of the trial were fairly obvious, two more elements played a crucial role here. The third elephant in the room is a fear that is both palpable even as it is largely denied in our culture. Our daily news is filled with leaked reports that our government may be – probably is – spying on us. The government, in turn, reminds us that they do so to keep terrorists at bay. 

Many Americans are in precarious places economically with houses under water in their mortgages and down-sized jobs at big box stores and fast food joints which no longer require or compensate the training and experience laid off workers have obtained and don’t pay them enough to make a living. For many Americans, life is, indeed, frightful.

Thus it is not surprising that fear is rampant in our culture. It is palpable in the many conspiratorial accounts of 9-11 one can find all over the internet. The flames of fear are regularly fanned by talking heads of both left and right on our nightly television. Even the fear we are able to temporarily repress into our unconscious minds bubbles up in our celluloid ghost stories featuring mindless zombies wandering aimlessly without life or purpose, post-apocalyptic worlds devoid of anything remotely approaching civilization and bold terrorists able to destroy the symbols of American heritage while taking even our highest governmental officials captive.

“Be afraid, be very afraid,” they tell us. And we are. Little wonder we are willing to let a wannabe cop with little to no training, a chip on his shoulder the size of Peru and a gun in his pocket his Neighborhood Watch authorization exprohibits to patrol our streets at night and shoot down hooded teenagers armed only with a pack of candy and a can of tea with impunity. 

Inflated Individualism, Impoverished Social Responsibility

The final elephant lumbering around the back of Judge Nelson’s courtroom was the American obsession with the self-reliant individual. Forged in the fires of evangelical Protestantism, America’s Free Market Fundamentalism and refined by the constant siren calls to understand oneself only through the lens of consumerism, Americans simultaneously operate out of highly inflated notions of the importance of the individual and sorely impoverished notions of social responsibility.

The notion of duties to others is largely lost on most Americans. The rugged individual sees others as either means or obstacles to what they want. “It’s all about me” is not simply the mantra from Madison Avenue we’ve bought into, it’s the primary means of self-understanding we default to as consumers, not citizens. Given this starting place, the right of self-defense becomes central to the ability to define and defend one’s own individual interests regardless of the context in which those interests are pursued and the impact they might have on others.

These six jurors and many of their fellow Americans has been well trained to focus on the bloody scars on George Zimmerman’s head even as they have been trained to ignore most if not all of his own conduct prior to and resulting in the infliction of the same. “A man’s got a right to defend himself,” became the mantra of the talking heads -  except, of course, when that man is a black teenager wearing a hooded sweatshirt armed only with his wits, a pack of candy and a can of tea.

All Are Punish-ed

When one examines all of the events that occurred that dark night in Sanford, Florida in its larger context and consider the underlying subtext by which we make sense of them, it becomes not only possible to fully understand the events of that night. It also becomes imperative to come to a different conclusion than that which the Zimmerman jury’s narrow considerations arrived at. A true concern for justice rather than mere legality demands it.

But this jury is hardly unusual in its inabilities or unwillingness to do so. It is the rule in the American legal system, not the exception. It’s how we end up with verdicts that are legally sound but lacking in justice. And, until Americans become willing to consider the elephants lumbering in the background of this and many other trials across this nation, it will continue to be the rule.

My heart grieves for the lost hopes, dreams and contributions that Trayvon Martin’s life could have made in our world. I feel only slightly less sorry for his young killer who avoided prison but whose life, even as heretofore unimpressive as it has been, will never be the same. Saddest of all, I lament the myopia and the mean-spiritedness of my fellow Floridians which have allowed the state this native son once deeply loved to devolve into this absolute cesspool of ongoing injustice. We have become the laughing stock of a nation which simply can’t figure out what possesses us to be so consistently stupid. Flori-duh, indeed.

As William Shakespeare’s Bishop of Verona so succinctly pronounced at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet, “All are punish-ed.”


As I have worked through my grief over the Zimmerman verdict by writing this blog and examined the many aspects which contributed to it, I find myself glad for the time I spent in Florida’s legal system as an advocate. It has provided me with insights that I do not think would be possible from merely looking in from the outside or studying this matter in an academic manner. But this trial also readily reminds me why the happiest day of my life was the day I stopped practicing law. On that day, I refused to continue serving as a means for a dysfunctional  and unjust system to operate and legitimate itself. It is one of the few decisions I have made in my life for which I have had absolutely no second thoughts ever since. And on days like Saturday, I remember why.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

An Avoidable Tragedy – I. Legally Sound but Lacking in Justice

We were on our way out the door to dinner Saturday night when the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was announced. Not guilty of anything, the jury had decided. Though I had not eaten all day, I suddenly lost my appetite, feeling sick to my stomach. It was the same nauseous feeling I had experienced 22 years ago in Berkeley when I heard the verdict from the Rodney King trial.

Very Little to Agree Upon

There was very little about this entire event that would allow anyone with a conscience to be comfortable. The trial involved the killing of a black teenager returning from a convenience store with a pack of candy and a can of tea in is hands. He was killed by a rather unfortunate young man of limited intelligence and largely unrealized ambitions with a German last name and a Peruvian mother. George was ostensibly acting under the auspices of Neighborhood Watch that night and dutifully reported a young man walking through a gated community to 911.

Everyone agreed on these facts. But that’s where the agreement ended.

The 911 dispatcher thanked Zimmerman for his reporting and instructed him that police were on the way to handle the matter. The dispatcher told Zimmerman not to do anything further. But George had other ideas. He left his vehicle armed with a gun. And moments later, Zimmerman emerged with a banged up head. Trayvon Martin, the 17 year old he had been following, lay dead from a gunshot wound.

In most cases, the killer would have been charged on the site. Indeed, had the parties been reversed and the young black male with a gun had greeted police, I have no doubt he would have been immediately charged – if not shot himself - and taken away in handcuffs. But that did not happen in this case. And what did ensue was, from my perspective, terribly problematic from its inception.


One of the officers who responded to the scene recommended in his report that the assailant be charged with manslaughter. His fellow officer recommended no charges be brought in light of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. The latter had taken the micro-view, interpreting only the immediate encounter as legitimate self-defense. The former had seen it as the logical outcome of the entire chain of events leading up to the shooting, the macro-view.

The latter officer’s recommendation ultimately prevailed but not until after a highly unusual intervention from the 18th Circuit State Attorney. This elected public official, charged with the criminal prosecutions in a circuit of over a million residents in two counties, came to the county jail at 4 AM to tell the Sanford Police Department not to charge the crime.

Frankly, this NEVER happens in ordinary operations of the criminal justice system.
The Code of Professional Responsibility under which we attorneys agree to practice states as one of its ethical considerations that attorneys should never act in ways which violate the law or our code of ethics or to even act in a manner which “gives the appearance of impropriety.” How improper does an unprecedented middle of the night intervention by the State Attorney himself to prevent a killer from being charged with a crime appear? How much more improper does that appear when it is revealed that the assailant is the son of a retired judge in the neighboring circuit?   

It would require a national outburst to prompt the state of Florida to act. The state Attorney General Pam Bondi said she was considering the case but stalled for two weeks and did nothing. Pressures were mounting from around the world and demonstrators daily converged on Sanford’s courthouse to protest the lack of action.

Finally, when US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that his office would investigate the case, Rick Scott, the highly unpopular governor of Florida announced he was appointing a special prosecutor out of the Jacksonville office to consider prosecution. The new prosecutor ultimately charged Zimmerman with second degree murder, a charge I had said at the time was probably not sustainable given the evidence even as I thought manslaughter or criminal negligence could have been.

The run-up to the trial was a media feeding frenzy. Every talking head in America offered an opinion undaunted by their own lack of evidence. Right wing pundits stoked fears of racial rioting if the prosecutor did not charge and successfully prosecute Zimmerman constructing Zimmerman as a martyr.  Left wing pundits attempted to make the trial a racial litmus test even though Zimmerman was himself a man of color.  The local news channel preempted all other programming to televise the trial. No doubt their commercial sponsors were smiling all the way to the bank even as news of anything else happening in the world was ignored and supplanted by the infortainment surrounding the trial for 25 solid days.

The Verdict: Legally Sound but Lacking in Justice

In the end, an all-female jury of five white women and one Latina came to a unanimous conclusion that the state had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. While the verdict surprised me, I admit that I had not watched the trial and largely avoided the discussion of it over the 25 days it ran. And upon reading a number of analyses of the trial including a rather scathing assessment of the prosecution by famed defense attorney Alan Derschowitz, I have come to two conclusions.

The first is that the verdict appears to be legally sound. Much like the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial, the question came down to whether the jury believed the state had proven their case, not whether the accused was actually guilty of the crime. In the Simpson trial the answers were no, the state didn’t prove the case even though the accused probably did commit the crime as the later civil proceeding was able to establish.

Similarly, in the Zimmerman case, the state’s argument that Zimmerman acted out of animus proved a weak link despite his recorded ranting about “those assholes” who “always get away with it.” Moreover, the events between the car and the fatal gunshot were debatable.

It was also clear to me almost immediately that the state’s primary witness testifying about her telephone conversation with a terrified, fleeing Martin would not be seen as credible by the white public and not surprisingly the virtually all white jury saw it the same way. When pundits began to describe the witness as Precious, the obese woman presumed to be retarded in a recent blockbuster film of the same name, the handwriting for the prosecution appeared on the wall.

Finally, Zimmerman clearly had taken a pounding that night and had the bruises and bloody skinned head to show for it. Of course, that’s hardly surprising coming at the hands of a teenage boy in fear for his life, a fear that ultimately proved well founded. The defense was able to parlay those injuries into a self-defense micro-focus which completely ignored the macro-context in which it arose and that ultimately carried the day.

But while the verdict was legally sound – and had I been on the jury I might have come to the same conclusion on the case as prosecuted and with the jury instructions presented -  it ultimately was highly problematic in terms of justice. And, as the Simpson and the King cases exemplify, this is hardly a rare occurrence.

Legal Positivism and Biblical Literalism

What is legal and what is just are often not the same questions in America.  Indeed, the second question is rarely even raised in American courtrooms. What is legal and what is just may be related but not necessarily. And in American jurisprudence, they don’t have to be.

Given my time in both the courtroom and the pulpit, let me offer an analogy. Legal is to just as biblical literalism is to the academic study of religion. The former is reductionist by design, looking only at the immediate text and often operating out of largely unarticulated presumptions. The latter is a much fuller examination, presuming the text to be incomprehensible without a consideration of context – what are the conditions under which these ideas arose and were understood - and subtext – who is writing, to whom and for what purposes.

The legal system in America operates out of a premise of legal positivism. A caricature of that philosophy might be seen in the 1960s crime show Dragnet whose beloved character Sgt. Joe Friday would often respond to witnesses being interviewed, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Legal positivism requires parties to legal proceedings to look only at the immediate aspects of the case without consideration for the bigger picture in which context and subtext help make sense of those aspects. Reasonable doubt is all that is necessary for acquittals and this standard evidences skepticism about seeing the events in any big picture – a skepticism that is implicit in legal positivism. 

Positivist judges simply do not consider the justice issues in any case they try, they only consider what the law says on its face and how the facts admitted by the evidence code relate to that law. And they instruct their juries to do likewise. Hence it is entirely possible for a verdict to be returned, as in this case, that is legally sound but lacking in justice given the context of the case.

Legal positivism is an inherently conservative approach to the law. Its ability to avoid questions of justice serves the interests of those who enacted the laws often at the expense of the powerless who are targeted by the law. It thus freezes into place the values and practices of the status quo and its beneficiaries and does not permit those priorities to be questioned. A common refrain in positivist appeals court decisions runs along the lines of “If you don’t like the law, change it. It is not the role of this court to make the law.” It is a rather common means of avoiding recognition of the tyranny of the majority. It’s also an incredibly cynical response in light of the injustice and the disparity of power so often implicit in the status quo.  

That’s how the Zimmerman jury managed to return a verdict of not guilty on any charges leaving a teenage boy dead and his killer facing no criminal sanctions. Subsequent civil proceedings with lower evidentiary standards may ultimately provide some kind of accountability for Mr. Zimmerman. The civil law’s “but for” test would certainly allow the context of the assailant’s refusal to follow the directions of 911 dispatchers to be considered by the jury -  but for that conduct, Trayvon Martin would probably still be alive. Whether that case will be pursued remains to be seen.

The Zimmerman case has been highly revealing to me as a former criminal defense attorney who routinely found himself frustrated with the narrow focus of the legal system in routinely processing cases totally absent of any consideration of context and subtext. My MBTI temperament reveals a very strong iNtuitive and Perceiving character which means that I am predisposed to believe that without looking at the big picture, the immediate picture is simply incomprehensible. Little wonder I left practice as an attorney for the academy where concerns for context and subtext are the bread and butter of our profession. Though I was effective as an attorney, I was poorly suited for a profession which operated within the narrow confines of the legal system.

But I want to return to the difference between legally sound and lacking in justice here. If we presume that the legal system largely turns on the letter of the law while justice requires a consideration of context and subtext, what issues would have to have been considered here to render a just – as opposed to a merely legally sound – verdict? What aspects and values of the status quo had our legal positivist system frozen into place in this particular trial?

This entry continues in Part II. 

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The Oxymoron of the “Residential Customer”

Junk mail increasingly consumes more and more of the interior of my mail box daily. The first order of business after returning from the mail box is always going through the mail to remove the pieces of mail of actual value – bills and the occasional card or letter – from the ocean of junk mail.

 I don’t begrudge businesses the opportunity to try to solicit purchases through the use of the mail. But the level of junk mail any of us receives any given day – particularly during the endurance tests that our elections have become – is at times overwhelming and rarely of particular use to the average resident.

Thank G-d for recycling which allows all this wasted paper to actually be put to a good use.

One piece of today’s mail bore an address that I have undoubtedly seen before and never really noticed. It read “Residential Customer.” Of course, no one lives here by that name. This mail, an advertisement from a bank, was not mailed to me or my husband, it was simply mailed at potential customers en masse.

But what struck me this morning was the inherent conflict in this address. Residences are where people reside, where they seek shelter and solace from the hyperconsumerism that dominates our daily lives. We don’t go home to do business (except, perhaps, online), we go home to reside, to rest, to eat, sleep and recreate. Our homes are not marketplaces and we would hardly expect to do many of the things in a marketplace that routinely occur in our homes.

So how did I become a “Residential Customer?” I don’t recall ever checking a box on a form that said, “Yes, use my home as a place to sell products.” I don’t recall any zoning changes that allowed business activities to take place in a residential zone. And I don’t recall voting in any elections to provide businesses access to carry out their money making activities in my home.

Of course, the First Bank is hardly alone in presuming the right to invade my residence with their marketing. A check of the missed calls log on our telephone on any given day provides between 20 and 25 calls from marketers who must also see my husband and I as potential “Residential Customers.” We actually have to pay extra on our bill each month to be provided with caller ID to allow us to avoid unwanted solicitations. Why should we have to pay to not do business in our home?

Our home is surrounded with a dense hedge of trees, shrubs and lilies. The joke among our neighbors is “Rumor has it there is a house in there.” But even that clear disinvitation to solicitors does not prevent marketers from coming to our door at any time during the day and into the evening. They ring our doorbell and set our dogs on high alert to sell us everything from candy whose profits allow kids from the ghetto to go to Universal Studios for the day to alarm systems to keep people out of our house while we’re gone but not out of yard when sales are to be made. Where did they get the idea that they were invited to our home to conduct business?

Only in a free market fundamentalist society would one’s home be seen as one’s castle legally defendable by lethal force if one merely asserts that they felt threatened but in which junk mail, cold calls and door-to-door sales enjoy a special exemption from any kind of restrictions. This is a case of profoundly misguided values.

Contrary to Barbara Kruger’s critique of life in a hyperconsumerist society which cynically asserted “I Shop, Therefore I Am,” I do not live to engage in business transactions. My identity is not found in the shallow swamp of consumerism. And my home is not open for business, anyone’s business, other than my own.

A “Residential Customer” is an oxymoron.

Solicitors, you might consider the possibility that when you invade the privacy of people’s residences, you might actually get the opposite results of those you seek. If you have no more respect for my home than this, you’re not the kind of person with whom I want to do business. Indeed, the last thing I want to do is to fund inconsiderate business operations who presume the right to inappropriately inflict themselves upon me in this manner.  

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Four Pillars of Harry Coverston

This morning, I was directed to my Linkedin site by a notice that someone had endorsed me for one of the skill categories the site provides. I hadn’t really paid much attention to the site before but upon being given an edit option, I noticed there was a place to provide a summary of one’s life and objectives.

It dawned on me as I read the invitation that I hadn’t really ever done a summary of my life in the context of how my life experiences, values and understandings informed my current career objectives. And so, looking for an excuse to temporarily divert myself from the intense process of preparing for the NEH conference on the Ethics of Global Development for which I depart in just ten days, I decided to respond to the inquiry.

Here’s what resulted:


During my nearly 60 years of my life, four basic pillars have formed the focuses of my attention.

The first has been education, something I consider to be a human right and a necessity for any healthy society. I have spent 17 years in higher education as student and nearly 30 as instructor. I have taught students from elementary age to doctoral students. Teaching informs every aspect of my life including my writing, my preaching and my social media interactions. The United Negro College Fund got it right: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I have devoted all of my life to trying to insure that waste does not occur in any child of any age.

My life’s second focus has been on justice, particularly the concerns of the poor and those on the social margins. This is a calling born not out of a condescending notion of charity or a false sense of noblesse oblige but rather out of compassion, an actual suffering with those in any sorrow, sickness, need or trouble. It is a calling strongly informed by my own sufferings in life and the resulting awareness of the pain such suffering entails. This focus on justice is born out of a sense that all being is connected and thus deprivation, denigration and degradation of any member of the body ultimately harms all the members of the body. I strive to see the divine image on the face of every living being, especially those which hide behind distressing disguises of poverty, illness, addictions and crime. And I have devoted much of my adult life both in and outside the courtroom to the struggle for the human dignity of those our world would simply ignore if not throw – or lock - away.

The third of my focuses has been on the natural world, this fragile earth, our island home. Chief Seattle had it right: “The Earth does not belong to us. We belong to the Earth.” I require time in nature to recharge. It is where I experience my connection to all living beings and thus where I feel most alive. I share many hours of my life with the animal companions who grace my life and working in the tropical jungle which surrounds our home. And I am devoted to doing whatever I can protect our planet from the ongoing assault we human animals continue to carry out upon her.

The fourth of my focuses is on spirit, the very foundation of my life. I have always sought to live a life of depth and meaning, a life in which my life energies could be expended for something of true value. Extraverted by nature, I still require time alone for reflection and meditation. I have spent a lifetime calling my fellow human beings to lives which are fully human and assisting them in any manner I can in that process. And I have devoted much of my adult life to my callings as pastor, priest and prophetic voice.

My life now has more days behind me than in front of me. That is a sobering reality. I have spent much of my life living into the expectations and demands of others even as I sought to know, understand and value myself in the process. I do not regret having done so. All lives are extended, ongoing opportunities for learning, growth and development. I am grateful for all of my life’s teachers, for the many lives who have graced my own and for the many lessons they have imparted to me, even those I was reluctant to learn.

Now I seek to use my life’s many lessons and my remaining time and life energies in ways which are true to the four pillars of my existence and will hopefully benefit the world I have always served. And I am keenly aware that I have no time or energies to waste.

Interestingly, when I attempted to paste in the above response, I got this message:  

You have exceeded the maximum length by 1555 character(s).   

(Translation: Cut the crap!)

No doubt. I know I tend to be verbose. And my desire to fully answer the question probably resulted in a lot more information and insight than the average responder typically provides.

Of course, in retrospect, Linkedin is hardly the appropriate forum for this kind of introspection. While I did honestly answer the question, the context of this site demands much more succinct, direct responses and always in the light of the business values which gave birth to it. A highly edited response now appears at the site.

But I found this exercise a good experience in values clarification, a naming of the basic values I hold. It also brought about an awareness of the life journey I’ve made thus far and the many people who have played a role in that journey. 

I suspect this may come in handy as I approach my interview next week for a lecturer position in religious studies on UCF’s regional campus at Valencia College-Osceola.If nothing else, I come into the interview a little more aware of who I am and what I am seeking.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Monday, July 01, 2013

On Crudeness, Denial and Intellectual Honesty

An Empty Intellectual Arsenal?

In the euphoria of the two decisions from SCOTUS last Wednesday that struck down DOMA and upheld the lower court’s striking down of Prop 8, I shared a poster on my Facebook account that I now have second thoughts about.

It was a tweet attributed to actor Morgan Freeman. Supposedly this lion of the screen said the following:

I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.

Generally speaking, I think people who resort to name calling indicate that they have exhausted their intellectual arsenal. Worse yet, as reported, there is no substantive evidence to connect this to Freeman. It does sound like his laconic wit, at least of the persona we see on film, but that doesn’t make him the author of this blunt ad hominem.

But There is a Reason…..

I would plead temporary insanity in this case. My relief over the court’s decision (even with the disappointment in the final vote) certainly contributed to this lapse of judgment. But there is actually a reason that I ultimately chose to place it into the Facebook cyberspace.  

When I clicked on the tweet, I found an extended Facebook discussion of the tweet. That’s not surprising given how incendiary the comment was and how it was attributed to a fairly well known and loved actor. But this comment really hit me between the eyes:

Courtney Brull - Why does someone HAVE to be an asshole jist (sic) because they don't agree with you on your view?? No one can say they're an asshole. They simply have their opinion just as you have yours. Everyone should respect each other ESPECIALLY WHEN WE DISAGREE

In all fairness, the author of this comment appears from her photo to be fairly young. So, the superficiality of the comment is somehow expectable if not excusable. Truth be told, most of us tended to think fairly superficially when we were young. Indeed, some of us have never developed much depth despite the years of opportunity and experience to provide them.

Everyone Thinks Like Me....

The problem is, she reflects the response of many people called upon to confront their own demons. Just down the Facebook feed from this posted tweet was another tweet from a source identified as “Tea Party Cat.” It supposedly quotes Justice Antonin Scalia as saying

"We don't need the Voting Rights Act. That was for when there was racism. Nowadays the South is no more racist than I am."

As with the Freeman piece, I can find no independent verification of this comment. But, sadly, it is fairly consistent with the kinds of comments Scalia has made on this subject and a number of others involving civil rights and discrimination. And it raises a crucial point here.

The epitome of unrecognized narcissism is the tendency to think that one’s own perspective somehow forms the norm by which all other thinking must be judged. The comment attributed to Scalia operates out of the presumption that everyone is like me or ought to be. And, of course, that presumption is based on a second presumption that one’s own perspective is not only valuable but somehow the best position, indeed, the only possible understanding, that human beings can hold.

Why would that be so?

The Brighter the Persona….

What is even more problematic is the way such presumptions prevent the holders of the perspectives they would see as normative for everyone else from ever critically reflecting on those perspectives, how they arrived at the same and whether their basis for arriving at that perspective is sound and thus defensible. In the Scalia tweet, the presumption operates like this: “Since the behaviors of the officials in the jurisdictions we are considering reflect my own views and values, and I don’t see myself as racist, therefore they can’t possibly be racist.”

Again, why would that be?

What’s avoided here is the distinct possibility that an adult human being who has been raised in an overtly racist society might actually harbor racist views, unconsciously if not consciously, perhaps by means of repressed consciousness. Any time I hear such special pleading, I hear the voice of my seminar classmate, a black school administrator originally from New Orleans, who reminds me, “In America we breathe racist air.” Indeed, I have had my own unrecognized racism brought to my attention more times than I would like to admit.

Denial can take many forms. The “I can’t possibly be bigoted because it’s inconsistent with the persona I wish others to see” variety is common. Herein lies a major reason that purity-driven constructions of religion have such a hard time coming to grips with their homophobia. To admit that a deeply held understanding such as homophobia is not only not righteous but actually sinful would require a major self-examination and critique of one’s persona. As Jung observed, “The brighter the persona, the darker the shadow.” Little wonder so few are willing to engage in the painful self-confrontation that repentance will require here.

It’s Just Your Opinion…..

The comments of Courtney Brull reflects another variety of denial – disingenuity. Brull would have us believe that this is simply a matter of opinion, that anyone’s views on same sex marriage are somehow sacrosanct from any kind of critique because everyone is entitled to their opinion. Unarticulated here but clearly implied is the relativist corollary of that assertion: Everyone is entitled to their opinion and no one’s opinion is any more valuable than anyone else’s.

Of course, the corollary is not true and anyone with the capacity and the willingness to think critically recognizes the problem with it. The evil nature of the 9-11 attacks is not simply a matter of opinion. And the fact that some danced with glee upon seeing America poked in the eye with a stick after all the suffering America has caused around the world makes those events no less evil.

The right to hold opinions is sacrosanct in a democratic society. It is the guarantee of any value system which includes freedom of expression. But that does not mean that all opinions are born equal nor should they automatically be seen as equally valid once articulated. In fact, they rarely are. And an opinion based in faulty reasoning and disowned prejudice, which advocates or affirms outcomes harmful to others must – out of intellectual honesty if nothing else – be called what it is: evil.

Contrary to Courtney Brull’s assertions, homophobia is not merely a matter of opinion. Like any common prejudice, it is a socially corrosive force that has the potential to poison and debilitate community. Worse yet, it serves to dehumanize both the target of the prejudice as well as the holder. It makes us less than we can be as human beings. As such, intellectual honesty requires it be called what is: evil.

Sins of Misanthropy Compounded by Disingenuity

Common social prejudices are never a mere matter of opinion. No matter how we dress them up or how we would seek to legitimize them, they remain at heart what they are – species of misanthropy. Intellectually honest human beings don’t get to simultaneously construct their fellow human beings through negative stereotypes in irrational and harmful ways and at the same time hold themselves free of any accountability. To do so is to compound the sin of misanthropy with the sin of disingenuity.  

Morgan Freeman may not have actually said that homophobic attitudes are the marks of an asshole but it should hardly be a matter of contention that such is true. And attempts to avoid that judgment by dishonest appeals to free speech and sophistry suggest at a fairly basic level that the avoider recognizes the truth of that assessment. In such cases, it may well be that the crude assessment is all that really fits.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++