Newsletter #29: scapegoats and a new logo
I suspect that one reason why prison abolition is so hard for many Catholics to grasp is because so many Catholics struggle to face the reality of the clergy abuse crisis.
Happy Tuesday! Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:
The exception and the rule
The scapegoat and prison abolition
A new logo
What I’m reading
The exception and the rule
I recently read a book by an anti-mask political theorist and was struck by a quote within it by a Nazi political theorist, who himself is quoting a nineteenth-century theologian. Well, it turns out that the (unnamed) theologian is Søren Kierkegaard, whose work I actually have yet to read. But I have now read a bit, which I came to in a really weird roundabout way. Anyways, here’s Giorgio Agamben’s quote of Carl Schmitt’s quote of Søren Kierkegaard:
“The exception explains the general and itself. And when one really wants to study the general, one need only look around for a real exception. It brings everything to light more clearly than the general itself. After a while, one becomes disgusted with the endless talk about the general—there are exceptions. If they cannot be explained, then neither can the general be explained. Usually the difficulty is not noticed, since the general is thought about not with passion but only with comfortable superficiality. The exception, on the other hand, thinks the general with intense passion.”
I can’t think of a better example of the above than certain versions of Christian sexual ethics, which prioritize the majority of Christians, and especially those in positions of power and influence, and tend to marginalize those already on the margins. One might also wonder if the scapegoat mechanism plays a role here, as that which helps to preserve the general.
The scapegoat and prison abolition
The scapegoat played an essential function in my recent extended essay on mimetic rivalry. And it also played an important role in a book I recently read, Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons by Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd. I bought the book, largely because I loved Lloyd’s Black Natural Law. Break Every Yoke was just as radical, but also (by the time I finished it) just as common-sensical.
In the text, Dubler and Lloyd make an argument in favor of abolition, in favor of abolishing the prison system. They argue that one might seek to abolish the American prison system because of its uniquely inhumane structure. But they go further than this, arguing that “caging” human persons in prisons is inherently evil and ought to be opposed, in whatever form.
There are many important threads throughout the book, but here I’ll just briefly trace its consideration of the scapegoat. As early as the introduction, Dubler and Lloyd note that the American prison system functions largely to eradicate poverty by driving the conditions for crime into the parts of society in which the poor dwell, and then pushing the poor into parts of society set aside for them or prisons, trading the poor between the two. Society refuses to address the conditions under which the poor are either driven into crime or are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system.
They draw on the work of many writers, thinkers, and activists, including Jason Lydon. Dubler and Lloyd write:
“Lydon describes a 'dangerous sacrificial theology,' with the criminal justice system primarily serving a scapegoat function. Politicians and prison administrators frame the prison as an institution that responds to and addresses violence, brutality, and abuse, but in Lydon's view, prisons merely reroute these pervasive American problems onto the bodies of specially designated victims. 'We have public trials of individuals who have done something terrible, and these people take on the sins of all those who have inflicted harm. In watching these scapegoats be tried, convicted, incarcerated, and experience the many harms and violence of incarceration, survivors of violence are supposed to receive some kind of healing. This, we are told, is 'justice.'' Lydon dissents: the public rituals we tell ourselves are about 'justice' and 'healing' are merely 'spectacles of scapegoating.'"
Prison abolition, for Lydon, Dubler, and Lloyd is about escaping the scapegoat mechanism and facing that we all have a responsibility for the harms in our society, that we cannot merely place the power of those harms onto individuals that we will lock away.
Interestingly, this view is one tied to victim advocacy in many spaces. A purely punitive view of justice is one which privileges the perspective of the perpetrator. It sees the perpetrator as the central figure of the harm, and the one who requires communal response. The victim is set aside, even if our rituals of sentencing suggest otherwise. A truly victim-centered response would not ask how we need to make the perpetrator pay. It would focus more centrally, instead, on what we need to provide the victim to help heal and empower them.
This is also a key issue behind the clergy abuse crisis. One of the most significant failures of Church leaders (after the horrific failure to address the crisis at all) was to focus on the person of the perpetrator, rather than that of the victim. This happened in at least two ways. First, perpetrators were the focus when it came to “healing,” by sending them to “rehabilitation” programs and providing not comparable support for victims. This was during the second phase of the crisis (the first phase being that in which the Church just refused to believe these harms were occurring), where victims were scapegoated as liars, taking upon themselves the sins of their communities and being sacrificed so that the Church might maintain innocence.
Second, as the next phase of the crisis occurred, in which the Church had to face the horrors of the abuses within it, Church leaders needed to find a place in which blame could be placed while preserving its general and essential innocence. When the abuse victims could no longer serve the role of scapegoat because of public outcry, Church leaders then decided to throw all the blame upon the abuser-priests. Certainly, those priests were rightly recipients of blame. But Church leaders sought to place all blame for the crisis upon them, making them into the new scapegoats so that Catholic leaders—and Catholic communities generally—could maintain their own innocence. We could maintain a deluded sense of institutional and communal innocence by making those priests the source, summit, and containment of all evil. Not wanting to face the ways in which we all have played a role in these crises, we drove the power of these evils into the priests that we sent into prisons. We did not change more than we had to. And the victims still did not get what they needed or deserved.
I suspect that one reason why prison abolition is so hard for many Catholics to grasp is because so many Catholics struggle to face the reality of the clergy abuse crisis. If we keep driving others into prison, we can maintain our own sense of innocence.
A new logo
I recently rolled out a new site logo, and have begun using a new name for some of my initiatives. As I’ve developed various spaces, including this site, my Instagram account, my writing workshop, and other initiatives, I’ve found that one concept which holds them together is the concept of “mezzo.” I connect the word to the opening lines of Dante’s Comedy:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la dirritta via era smarrita.
Midway through the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
for the straightforward way was lost.
In the context of my writing workshop, The Mezzo Consortium, we are “mezzo” writers, writers who are “halfway,” on a journey, growing and developing ourselves and our writing.
In other spaces, like this site and my Instagram, I’ve found that people often engage because they are also characterized by “mezzo.” Many of you are here because you’re midway, in-between, on a journey. These spaces are often characterized by the holding of tensions, by intersectional identities and concerns, by bringing together people and backgrounds and experiences that don’t tend to find easy coexistence, by working through the mess and continuing forward.
Maybe you realized that the easy answers were the wrong answers, that you or your community had mistakenly thought the journey was complete, until it was upended by something that made you lose “the straightforward way.” You found yourself “within a forest dark,” and you knew that that was exactly where you were supposed to be on your journey. You continue on.
In the logo, the “M” is made of two mountains. That’s been a key image for me. I feel as though my journey is currently one of scaling a mountain, where the top is hidden in cloud cover. I don’t know how far I have to go, but I know I have to keep going. The “M” is also incomplete, with spaces that still need to be filled in. As I’ve shared before, I’m not the expert, and I don’t have everything figured out. I still have a lot to learn. I’m grateful for the many things you all have taught me, and continue to teach me.
Behind those mountains, just on the other side, is the sun. Maybe we can’t see it from our side of the mountain, but we believe it’s there. The sun may be unique to each of us. Maybe for you it’s justice, or liberation, or integration, or self-acceptance. What we share is hope, a commitment to its pursuit, and mutual encouragement. And while that sun may be on the other side of the mountain, it also breaks out of the box that contains us. That’s what we’re working to do.
Expect the identity of this space (and other spaces I manage) to continue to change and develop. The journey is unique to each person. But we can still journey together, scaling the mountain and marking points of danger, sharing where we’ve made mistakes, setting up spaces of safety, and offering a helping hand to those behind us.
What I’m reading…
I just finished My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem, and also The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. Thoughts on these books to come. You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.
Now accepting submissions!
If you like what I’m doing here and want to join in this developing project, I’d love for you to submit an essay, poems, or a short story for consideration. You can learn more here.