Shallow Thinking and Punishing the Poor

We can be blind to the obvious. We can be equally blind to our blindness. In the recently published book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses two general processes the brain uses when thinking about, really, anything. He describes “fast” thinking as the immediate impression born from habitual or everyday experience that requires little energy. “Slow” thinking is the more calculating, time-intensive contemplation or examination of a presenting issue. The problem is that we have a tendency toward laziness and would much prefer to make a quick judgment and move on, rather than consider, even pray over something, whereby obstructing the view.
            Because we do not take the time to make the time for such deliberation—and, our current media-driven, multi-tasking, shallow-thinking brains serve as the launching pad—we become much more vulnerable to external suggestion and influence by the most charismatic and more frequently heard/lauded perspective. It makes little difference if what is being communicated makes a great deal of sense or is beneficial (not to mention actually harmful) to the self or society.
Psychologist, Kathleen Vohs, studied one such area, specifically. She and her team found that money makes us selfish. This should come as no surprise. Still, Kahneman summarizes: “Some cultures provide frequent reminders of respect, others constantly remind their members of God, and some societies prime obedience by large images of the Dear Leader….” What we hear and pay attention to influences our behavior. When images or words representing money were introduced to prime one group of university students against a control group, Vohs tallied results that were clear and provocative. “Money-primed people become more independent than they would be without the associative trigger…[demonstrated] increased self-reliance…were more selfish: they were much less willing to spend time helping another student who pretended to be confused about an experimental task…[and chose] to stay much farther apart than their nonprime peers…[showing] a greater preference for being alone.” That is, “money primes individualism: a reluctance to be involved with others, to depend on others, or to accept demands from others.” Even seemingly innocuous reminders of money effectively shape behavior and attitudes.[1]
            Recently, the media has drawn attention to how our money-driven society has affected one significant population: the incarcerated. One journalist for TIME magazine, Fareed Zakaria, indicated that Pat Robertson had just committed a gaffe (i.e., “accidentally telling the truth”) by suggesting the judicial system is not working. Indeed, our country surpasses other developed countries in number of incarcerated individuals—exponentially. The article suggests the culprit is the war on drugs.[2]While there is significant data to support this, it is only one factor in a multifaceted equation (though I am certain Mr. Zakaria would agree). A French sociologist, Loïc Wacquant, outlines extensively in his, Punishing The Poor, the exceedingly complex, economically- and authoritarian-driven system that has brought the United States to the current distinction of holding the largest reserve of incarcerated individuals. I quote heavily from his work.
            Wacquant explains, “Explosive growth of the incarcerated populations, which increased fivefold in twenty-five years to exceed two million and are stacked in conditions of overpopulation that defy understanding…[with] runaway growth of the budgets and personnel of correctional administrations, promoted to the rank of third-largest employer in the country even as social expenditures undergo deep cuts and the right to public aid is transformed into the obligation to work at underpaid, unskilled jobs…diffusion of a racialized culture of public vituperation of criminals endorsed by the highest authorities in the land and relayed by a cultural industry feeding (off) the fear of felons: the irresistible ascent of the penal state in the United States over the past three decades responds not to the rise in crime—which remained roughly constant overall before sagging at the end of the period—but top the dislocations provoked by the social and urban retrenchment of the state and by the imposition of precarious wage labor as a new norm of citizenship for those trapped at the bottom of the polarizing class structure.”[3]
            Wage-labor no longer supports a small family above poverty. This and myriad other factors too often relegate the non-salaried individual to homelessness, and without regard for the “homeless” status the system “effectively reduces him to a noncitizen, [facilitating] criminal processing. Here penalization serves as a technique for the invisiblization of the social ‘problems’ that the state, as the bureaucratic lever of the collective will, no longer can or cares to treat at its roots, and the person operates as a judicial garbage disposal into which the human refuse of the market society are thrown.”[4]In the United States, neither major political party is exempt from blame.
The liberal Democratic party became enamored by the “zero tolerance” mantra after Bill Clinton clearly adopted the agenda in 1994, which had “little to do with the alleged ‘explosion’ in youth delinquency or with the ‘urban violence’ that have invaded public debate toward the end of the past decade.” Rather, “it has everything to do with the generalization of desocialized wage labor and the establishment of a political regime that will facilitate its imposition. It is a regime that one may call ‘liberal-paternalist,’ insofar as it is liberal and permissive at the top, with regard to corporations and the upper class, and paternalist and authoritarian at the bottom, toward those who find themselves caught between the restructuring of employment and the ebbing of social protection or its conversion into an instrument of surveillance and discipline.”[5]
Truly, we have seen President Obama in action reinforcing southern-border offenses and penetrations, among other crime-fighting strategies. Yet, it is difficult not to assign the greater burden to those who “champion a minimal state in order to ‘free’ the ‘creative forces’ of the market and submit the dispossessed to the sting of competition” and who “do not hesitate to erect a maximal state to ensure everyday ‘security’….” The argument has never been more clear as now, though long in coming. “Since the rupture of the mid-1970s, the country has been the theoretical and practical motor for the elaboration and planetary dissemination of a political project that aims to subordinate all human activities to the tutelage of the market…the penal sector of the bureaucratic field [being] an essential element of its new anatomy in the age of economic neo-Darwinsim.” The market economy is god. Anything, or anyone, or any system that infringes on the free-flow of the free-market (freely available, of course, to a miniscule percentage of the overall population), is anathema and automatically rendered “un-American!”
What’s more, “The penalization of poverty thus vividly reminds everyone that, by its sole existence, poverty constitutes an intolerable offense against this ‘strong and definite state of the collective conscience’ of the nation that conceives of America as a society of affluence and ‘opportunity for all.’”[6]We hold the poor in contempt, and feel justified in doing so. Individualism is strongly safeguarded as supreme virtue in our country. Many would assent that this is reflected in the belief that God created each as unique beings. One result of seemingly infinite presentations of personhood is an extraordinarily varied response to life circumstances. Furthermore, the value of contributions to the community is assigned just as varied importance depending on the particular setting. I might add that community, itself, is a significant factor in this discussion, but that will have to wait until another post for elaboration. At any rate, I am grateful for a country that affords the freedoms it does. I grow increasingly alarmed, however, at the rate at which those freedoms are inaccessible to still greater members of my country. It is even more of an offense to listen to—I was going to say politicians, but it is also church leaders, bible-study members and my children’s classmates’ regurgitating familial mantras—singing “God Bless America” and sending vitriolic emails about praying in school and keeping Darwin out of science classes, yet have no thought to perhaps helping to influence government to facilitate a more equitable economic system in which increasingnumbers have access to creative potential, not the very real decrease of admittance.
While it appears our system of government with checks and balances in place keeps excessive power (at least to the President) at bay, it is equally evident that our government has maintained greater inaction in comparison to its historical record. The unprecedented media deluge available for consumption and input to anyone with an internet connection prohibits the deep reflection absolutely necessary to address America’s failed penal system. How can we hold all the factors involved in our minds (especially since there is no real certifiable economic answer available) and love and care for our neighbor if our brains are swiftly being rewired to think only in the shallowest of ways? The fact that I doubt many will take the time to even read to the end of this blog exposes the shortness of our collective attention span.  
There is no easy answer. I am not looking for one. It is only that I so long to see meaningful, constructive conversation among our leaders—in the political, religious, educational and entertainment sectors, representing multiple ethnicities and both genders with equal weight. If that sounds like Heaven, well, perhaps that is very much what Redemption will encompass. That it seems unlikely to happen, even impossible does not mean we don’t work toward that end. But, it will not happen, and will certainly be impossible, if all sides are blaming and spewing enflamed sound bites. First, though, I must exercise my mind, heart and spirit to lengthy repose, sustained meditation and reflection, deepening thought and discernment with informed and inspired consideration. This is a critical time—more now than ever—that we utilize the “slow-thinking” feature of our brains! Anyone up for that?

[1]<!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Kahneman2011368 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).3683686Daniel KahnemanThinking, Fast and Slow2011New YorkFarrar, Straus and Giroux<![endif]–>Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011),<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> 55-56.
[3]<!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Wacquant2009367 Loic Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009).3673676Loic WacquantPunishing The Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity2009Durham and LondonDuke University Press<![endif]–>Loic Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009),<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> xv.
[4]<!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Wacquant2009367Ibid.3673676Loic WacquantPunishing The Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity2009Durham and LondonDuke University Press<![endif]–>Ibid.,<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> xxii.
[5]<!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Wacquant2009367Ibid.3673676Loic WacquantPunishing The Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity2009Durham and LondonDuke University Press<![endif]–>Ibid.,<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> 7, 8.
[6]<!–[if supportFields]> ADDIN EN.CITE Wacquant2009367Ibid.3673676Loic WacquantPunishing The Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity2009Durham and LondonDuke University Press<![endif]–>Ibid.<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>, 12-13. 

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