Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Locating the middle

A friend sent me the following thoughts:

I am the chairperson of an anti-crime initiative in [my city] supported by the State. It is extremely interesting and educational. One of the funniest events was when we wanted to put surveillance cameras in a public housing development. I said that I would go out to see the development and talk to the tenants. Both the police and the Housing Authority said, “You need to go with us; a white person can’t go there alone.” We all went out there and looked at light poles to put up cameras while the young men, ranging from 13 to 17 years old gave us deadly looks. The cameras had to be 14.5 feet high so that a man standing in the roof of his car with a baseball bat couldn’t hit the camera! We put the cameras in; crime is down; the families are happier. I have been there frequently and in side conversations, I have been told by older women we are doing a great job, but not when anyone young could see us talking!

Do we do some things that aren’t quite fair; yes, but the families are happy that big guys are no longer there. What is truly scary is that the last two young men – age 19 and 23 – arrested were hidden in public housing for weeks. The 19 year old had 6 warrants and was arrested 6 minutes after he killed a 51 year old man (another bad guy) in an argument – as the Police Chief said that any murder is a tragedy, but some are not as bad as others and this wasn’t bad for the citizens as far as crime was concerned. The 23 year old is now in US prison for 15 years; another public housing terror, went to child prison at 14 after shooting his partner in a robbery!

My point is that I have changed my views on protecting people who want to help you, threatening people who you know have information that you need, etc. Cops are there day after day in the same area in order to develop relationships; what happens at a pre arrest conversation needs to have context.

I responded with some reflections about surveillance cameras:

The anti-crime initiative sounds like an interesting project. I know that some civil libertarians have concerns about surveillance cameras, but I think that your project offers a good example of where the cameras can make a positive difference. I find the nearly omnipresent cameras in the United Kingdom overly intrusive. Striking a balance between safety and privacy is important.

In general, societies seem to have difficulty locating the right balance, tending toward extremes. The same is probably true for many individuals. Maintaining a balance, like walking on a tightrope and be challenging. However, usually the consequences of erring are not as tragic as falling off a high wire. Yet we as individuals and societies tend to err not by small amounts but large swings: opposing or favoring all tax increases, opposing or favoring all spending cuts, opposing/favoring all abortions, etc.

Policy formulation – like developing ethical rules – is easier if the policy allows for no exceptions, let alone moderation. Attempting to write a policy (or ethical rule) that specifies exceptions and includes thoughtfully crafted nuances requires far more verbiage. For example, the two great commandments (love God and one’s neighbor) become the Ten Commandments, which, in turn, find amplification as the 613 commandments of the Jewish law, which, in turn, become the volumes of canon law that embody the Roman Catholic Church’s ethical teachings.

Anglicans famously adopted the via media, the middle way between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. The via media is a constructive approach to ethics: basic rules to which one adheres with prudential wisdom, flexibly incorporating exceptions and adaptations when the situation requires. There is no guarantee that the exceptions and adaptations will be good or right. But the alternative to relying on prudential judgment is reliance on rules (rigidly adhering to an overly simplistic set of rules or attempting to write a comprehensive and therefore incomprehensibly vast set of rules) or simply doing one’s own thing (a relativism that puts perceived self-interest first). Anyone who has served in the military or who is familiar with the U.S. tax code recognizes the problems inherent in trying to write rules to cover every situation. Anyone who has known a person who invariably insisted on his/her own way, treating others as merely means to an end, will have experienced the problems inherent in having no rules. In political terms, anarchists and libertarians prefer no rules; advocates of government mandates prefer extensive rule sets.

I want to live in the muddy middle, to champion individualism while also affirming the importance of community. I seek to follow a similar approach to life, balancing today’s pleasures/needs with preparing for tomorrow (e.g., in spending, obtaining an education, retirement planning, etc.).

Living in the middle tends to reject most ideologies because ideologues attract attention through their extremism. Living in the middle rejects a “zero defect” approach to life because nobody can consistently chart the middle way, let alone follow it without a misstep.

The middle way has had some high profile advocates over the millennia: Jesus, Confucius, and Buddha – to name just three of them. For example, Jesus in talking about the difficulty of following the straight and narrow way employs images evocative of the middle way that I have described. Similarly, he rejects both the asceticism of some and the self-indulgence of others, being neither a teetotaler nor drunk, but savoring life’s good things in moderation. He does exhort people to love with abandon, but they are to love God, self, and others simultaneously, requiring balance. Indeed, exuberant, total love may be the one exception to the wisdom of living a balanced life, seeking to follow the middle way.

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