Disengagement: Is It Always Morally Reprehensible?
Is disengaging politically always morally reprehensible? This is a question I ran into today on Twitter, when I was charged with “the morally inexcusable act of throwing up my hands and disengaging politically.” To which my response was that there are times when it is morally reprehensible not to disengage. And when faced with a choice between two parties, both of which embrace a violent imperialism, the militarization of society, some form of mass incarceration, no universal health care, regime changes whenever it suits US interests, and the drone assassinations of people who are merely trying to go about their lives but fit a certain “profile” that makes them legitimate targets, it seems to me time to disengage and, further, it seems to me not to disengage is reprehensible.
More broadly, I wondered how many Vietnams, how many Koreas are needed before a person decides to disengage? How many innocent human beings incinerated by drones are needed before a person decides to disengage? How many people have to die as the result of a virus because of poor health care and health care facilities before a person decides to disengage? How many people have to die as a result of police behavior before disengagement becomes justified? And, of course, the list could go on and on and on, but the point seems clear: There must come a time when disengagement, so far from being morally reprehensible, is in fact a morally responsible act.
When I would teach the book No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, I would emphasize the part where Sheriff Bell thinks to himself that it is necessary for him to quit because to do otherwise would endanger his soul. I emphasized that part for two reasons: First, to remind students that they have souls and that their souls needed nurturing, needed care. They weren’t so much interested in that. After all they all had phones. And, second, because almost always, no, always some students rebelled against Sheriff Bell’s decision to quit, to disengage. They took the position that Bell should have stuck it out. “Even if there is no hope for improvement?” I would ask. “Well, there’s always hope for improvement,” they would respond. “Even if Bell is correct that by staying he’d be endangering his soul?” I would ask. Well, that was more than they were able to process and, so, we would end up at a standoff.
I took away from these discussions that it is hard, extremely hard for human beings to disengage from their society. It seems like “giving up.” And, of course, in some sense it is. But what if the alternative is “giving in?” That is, giving in to inhumanity, to injustice, to savagery. What then?