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Interrogating Social Ethics

A visit with Sharon Welch, Professor of Religious Studies

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: religious studies multicultural education privilege social ethics ethics

What a society counts as moral or immoral is subject to the particular zeitgeist—the spirit of the times. “At the time of the slave trade, for example, most people who were slave owners thought it was moral. Even a few blacks, once they were freed, had slaves,” explains Sharon Welch, Professor of Religious Studies. As a social ethicist, Welch researches not just the way individuals make moral choices, but how a whole society begins to decide “what counts as moral.” To that effect, all of her projects coalesce around such issues of social morality.

In addition to observing human behavior, Welch’s humanities-related research involves reading the work of other scholars and then synthesizing those ideas into something new. For example, she has been reading the challenge to dominant ethics by Native American and Engaged Buddhist authors, trying to respond in terms of how those ethical systems differ. Asked about her latest book After Empire: The Art and Ethics of Enduring Peace (2004), Welch responds: “One of the things I’ve always been very interested in is the ethics of peace and war. And the kind of debate going on now about whether the United States, as the predominant political, military, and cultural power, should take on proudly and without hesitation the mantle of empire. And there are people who are arguing that we should that it’s not a matter of whether empire, but whose empire, in the sense that Americans can do it better than anyone else, so that we should take this opportunity while it is ours.”

Welch examines political and ethical arguments for empire, but she also examines the critiques found in the western humanist tradition: “If we look seriously at empire, we find that every empire becomes one of domination and coercion. And a basic lesson of history is that people do not like to be dominated, and they’re going to resist. There’s a cost to empire; there’s a cost not just to the people who are controlled, but to those who are in control. We often do not see the consequences of our actions–the destruction of the lives of others, as well as our loss of moral integrity." As to the issue of whether the U.S. should try to shape a new world order, Welch says exasperatedly: “The story of empire is so tiresome. How many times have we seen it? There’s a new empire that has the mantle of truth and beauty and order, and in order to maintain that mantle, justifies cruelty against people who resist.…And then this empire is replaced by another who also tries to maintain peace through domination. I think it’s time people try a different script.” Hence, it proves crucial at this uncertain historical juncture that, “rather than use our power to be an empire, we use our power to put in place a kind of world order that we would like to see when we’re no longer the dominant political power, bringing the rule of law to the international sphere” of nations. In fact, international movements are trying to do just that—for instance, putting in place the International Criminal Court as well as regional and United Nations emergency peace-keeping forces. For example, in response to the crisis in Darfur, Welch contends that “there needs to be a force that could come in when a government cannot (or will not) stop the slaughter and violence.”

In After Empire, Welch explores “what it would take for the United States to have a peace mandate,” by comparing the religious ethics of Native American philosophy, western humanism, and contemporary Engaged Buddhism. The work of contemporary Native American philosophers and activists is instrumental in this regard, suggesting that “to be Americans together we really need to look at an imperial adventure very close to home, one still happening—the conquest of Native American peoples. We need to challenge the deprivation of rights that still continues.” Regarding her exploration into these events, Welch states: “I knew it was horrible, but not until I did the research did I realize the level of grotesque brutality of which we [the European colonizers] were capable, and that the brutality got worse rather than better. So that by the time the last populations [of Native Americans] were being killed in California, you have some of the most grotesque, unspeakable acts—dismemberment of corpses, raping and killing innocent women and children, treating people like animals, pushing them away.” For all its ugliness, “this is part of our history,” Welch says, “and unless we acknowledge that we’re capable of that we can’t really move forward as a nation.”

Telling honest stories about our country’s past is an important starting point. “One of the most dangerous stories that as Euro-Americans we tell ourselves is that we can defeat evil. Whether we think we defeat it through violence, or persuasion, or coercion, the notion of defeating evil,” Welch emphasizes the irony, “is often the cause of some of the greatest evil.” This becomes most obvious in the case of war, “where in order to defeat the enemy we become the enemy. In order to stand up to torture, we ourselves become torturers. To protect the rule of law, we give up the rule of law.”

To make sense of this paradox, Welch looks to the work of social psychologist Albert Bandura, who charges that a kind of “moral disengagement” exists in American culture, where “most evil is committed out of obedience, rather than disobedience, by people who are in pursuit of a just cause.” This disengagement seems to occur by way of a particular process: first the cause is established as just (e.g., standing up to “terror”), then people begin to use euphemistic language to describe their techniques (e.g., “coercive interrogation techniques,” for actions they would describe as torture if done to their own loved ones), and then they begin to dehumanize and demonize their victims (e.g., calling them “enemy combatants” and assuming that they are all guilty) and make disadvantageous comparisons (e.g., try to prove that one’s own evil practices pale in comparison with that of the “enemy combatants”). On the basis of this subtle and insidious process, Welch reminds us that “a great deal of evil is done by people who are just doing their jobs, being efficient, and following orders.” The Holocaust is a painful example of this syndrome. Welch seeks a way for Americans to identify this moral disengagement, observing that "it’s really easy to see someone else doing it, but much harder to see it when we are the ones doing it. How do we begin to see through the rhetoric that justifies its evil—the euphemistic language, the demonizing, and the dehumanizing that goes on?”

The other tradition to which Welch turns is contemporary Engaged Buddhism, as developed by Thich Nhat Hanh—a monk exiled from Vietnam during the war. In his social service work he tried to get young people involved in repairing the ravages of war, and he was exiled because he advocated for both the North and the South. “He was equally critical of violence regardless of whence it was coming,” explains Welch. “I think we have lessons to learn from Thich Nhat Hanh and his work about how we can really be what we want to be as U.S. citizens—in a land where there really is freedom and equality and opportunity.” Following this lead, Welch critiques not just the violence of war and oppression, but the peace movement as well.

To illustrate this apparent paradox, Welch recalls being a faculty member in Boston during the 1980s where she attended many demonstrations to protest first-strike nuclear weapons: “At all these demonstrations, there was a group of Buddhist monks chanting with beating drums, like the peaceful cadence of the human heart. They were an oasis of calm and compassion and serenity. We were shouting, with our angry slogans and harsh signs. Only after twenty years of practicing Buddhist meditation did I realize how those monks were also protesting us as much as nuclear weapons! We were almost a mirror of the problem!” Realizing that “they were trying to show us a different way of living too,” Welch became committed to finding ways that in their demonstrations they “could also be peace.” When people are afraid, they use the tools they have, and perhaps “the peace movement hasn’t done enough yet to put in place other tools. We really do need to find a better language for our aspirations of human dignity and peace and security because we haven’t found one yet that really resonates with people. And it’s a real challenge to not just fall back into the pattern of vilifying them and setting ourselves up as the righteous vanguard. We know we’re not. So how can we be honest about it?” Although Welch describes many “little successes,” they are not given much attention in the crisis-driven media. “We don’t really have a cultural script for the little successes,” she observes. “It’s not as glamorous to prevent a war. And how do you know you’ve prevented it? Maybe it wouldn’t have happened anyway.” Moreover, while war may be averted, racial and economic problems still remain: “With war, there’s a least the illusion of a definite end—one side surrenders,” whereas with peaceful kinds of solutions “there’s no defined end; the struggles are ongoing.”

Sometimes research may be best described not in terms of isolated findings that result from testing a hypothesis; rather, sometimes it is more comparable to a continuous journey—each article or book a signpost of where the researcher stood at that particular moment on that journey. In that respect, it seems natural that Welch, in collaboration with Suzanne Burgoyne of MU’s Theatre Department, was inspired by Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) to employ an interactive theatre technique in classrooms and workshops. Participants construct and then perform an image or scenarios they consider to be an oppressive situation, while people from the audience work to propose solutions, gaining valuable conflict resolution skills and empathy in the process. From this work Welch has come to realize that “the world in which you live, even though it can be really oppressive, is like fish in water—you don’t notice it.” And when teaching about structural imbalances in society, she notes that “a lot of the barriers that keep people back aren’t deliberate. It’s people just going on the way they’ve always done things—being comfortable with people who are of the same race or same class, and not understanding the complexities of people’s history.” She finds it very encouraging to learn from her students that “they really want to find a way to really be Americans together.”

This work with multicultural education and interactive theatre as a teaching device is being continued as part of the Difficult Dialogues Project—an interdisciplinary initiative involving MU, and 42 other institutions, designed to address threats to academic freedom and the difficulty in civil discourse that currently exist—not only at the university but across American culture. The multidisciplinary team received a two-year grant from the Ford Foundation to see whether they could improve the quality of intensive political discourse on campus. “A lot of people don’t know how to hear each other when they have really different views of what counts as important,” says Welch. “In a time of real religious pluralism and strong political divides people talk past each other, they shout at each other, or they fall silent; but they don’t think they can bring up tough issues and really deliberate together.”

Consider, for example, what might be gained in regard to the controversial debate about stem cell research if, rather than just immediately dismissing the opposite side, people genuinely grappled with the issues, listening to the voices and opinions of each side. But we can’t hear other voices if people are being silenced, and Welch, for one, is gravely concerned about “the chilling effect on academic freedom of many of the legislative measures that have passed since 9-11.” She reflects on the Military Commissions Act of 2006 passed by Congress that allows “coercive interrogation techniques” and rescinds the writ of habeas corpus. “What this means is that people become afraid to speak up,” observes Welch. “How can we help people speak up about this and have a genuine dialogue?” By training faculty fellows, the Difficult Dialogues Project is designed “to empower students to express opposing views respectfully and in the spirit of open-mindedness.” And that kind of initiative offers a great deal of hope for the future of healthy discourse at MU—and beyond.