A colleague, Trish, wrote to ask me if I'd seen Heather Sappenfield's The View From Who I Was. She said it is set at a place called American Indian Preparatory School, modeled on the Native American Preparatory School. Trish didn't know it, but that school means a lot to Native people.
I had not heard of the book, so looked it up and saw that an ARC (advance reading copy) was available at Net Galley (anyone can sign up to read ARC's via Net Galley). The View From Who I Was is due out in January. The description of the book is unsettling. Here's the first paragraph:
Sometimes the end is just the beginning At Crystal High's Winter Formal, Oona Antunes splits in two. Her disembodied spirit watches as her body leaves the dance and tries to freeze to death. Three days later, she wakes in the hospital missing fingers and toes, burdened with the realization of what she's done to her mother and father.
But it was the second paragraph that got my attention:
When her school counselor invites Oona to join him at a Native American school, she becomes immersed in a foreign world where witches, talking rocks, and minor deities are reality. Oona discovers that if she is to heal, her father must also heal. But are his problems more than they can handle?
NAPS was, and is, a special place to us. Located near Santa Fe (remember--I'm from Nambe Pueblo, which is near Santa Fe), it was designed to provide gifted Native high school students with a culturally supportive education from which they would go on to college. I know people who worked there, and I know students who went there, too. I started reading, making notes as I went.
Far too often, Native people--or some semblance of Native people--are used by people who care only for their romantic notions of who we are. Mascots, of course, are one example.
In the Acknowledgements, Sappenfield says she went to NAPS twice. Those visits weren't enough to give her a meaningful or grounded respect of who we are... In The View From Who I Was,
there are a lot of romantic notions that ultimately serve as the turning point in the protagonist's life.
I hate that NAPS and kids there were used
by Sappenfield for this book.
It feels like a violation. The school and
kids are only a magical device that
serves the white protagonist.
Soon after learning about the book, I learned that the description at Net Galley is an old one that no longer describes the book. Frankly, I was relieved. But when I read the book, the description at Net Galley (also at Amazon and GoodReads) struck me as accurate. There is stuff about witches, and there's a talking rock...
As indicated, I read an ARC (advanced reading copy), which--in theory--means that there is still time for the author to revise. However, I think the errors indicate a fundamental lack of understanding, knowledge, and respect that would prevent the book from being revised in such a way that it would be ok.
After reading the ARC, I talked with a former NAPS teacher and student. The student, in particular, was troubled by how the school and teachers are misrepresented. It was special to her. Since her time there, she said, there's been nothing written about it. She hates that this book, with these errors, might be the first thing about the school that people read.
Here's my notes on the parts of the books that are about Native people/culture, with my thoughts in italics. I've included comments from the student (C) and the teacher (A).
You'll see places where I use "Oona/Corpse" and "Hovering Oona" when I'm talking about the protagonist. It is a bit confusing overall. The protagonist's name is Oona. As the book opens, Oona's spirit splits in two. The part that stays in her body is called "Corpse" by the part that left her body and hovers nearby. The story is told to us by the part of her spirit that hovers. Hovering Oona has control over whether or not Oona/Corpse is going to express or act on emotions. Oona/Corpse isn't aware of the Hovering Oona.
Murial (Oona's mom) likes to decorate their swanky home in Colorado using Native artifacts. There's a peace pipe, kachinas, moccasins.
Wondering about the back story for these items. I wonder where Oona's mom got them? She could have gotten them online, but those would be fakes. I wonder if Oona's mom knows about the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act? (Note to readers: Do go read that act. It is important and protects consumers from fraud, and, it also protects Native artists for whom their art is their livelihood.)
Prior to the suicide attempt, Oona is with Mr. Handler (her school counselor) at a school leadership conference. They're at a session put on by Native students from the American Indian Preparatory School. The school counselor has spent time at the school prior to this. In the session, a Native guy with a crew cut introduces Dr. Benson, who is the school's "flute master." He plays the flute to open their session.
It is plausible that there would be someone on flute opening a session, but not probable that the school would have a "flute master." Pop-culture tells us that when you have Indians, you gotta have flute music. They kind of go together in white peoples minds. Though many Native nations use flutes, they're over-used by outsiders who want to signal "Indian" to an audience. Invariably, it gives people goosebumps (as it does to Oona). Flutes used that way are even the butt of jokes amongst us. Having it open this conference presentation made me shake my head. It appears later, too, in a gathering at the school. I asked C (student) about it. She said they'd have morning openings each day where announcements were made. Someone would pray in their Native way, but no music.
The row of Native students sits with bowed heads.
Not clear if they were sitting that way when the flutist was playing (as though it is a prayer), or, if they are sitting that way as the Navajo girl is introduced and speaking. Bowed heads suggests a prayerful moment, but overall it doesn't sound right to me.
The Native guy with the crewcut introduces a Navajo student, Angel Davis, who is "of the Fort Defiance Navajo" and then Angel takes the stage and starts talking.
Generally speaking, a Navajo person takes care (in presentations) to introduce themselves according to fairly standard protocols. See the first few minutes of this video for an example. At conferences, those first few minutes would be followed by a translation (into English) of what was just said. Angel doesn't use the protocol before moving into her very-Indian presentation.
Angel's presentation is about five feathers she has with her on stage. She talks about how she got each one:
Angel's speech was slow, yet soft, lilting: "I hold in my hand five feathers." She held up her hand and out the sides of her fist were the ends of long feathers. "Gifts from my grandfather. From his headdress. An eagle feather for each good thing I've done." Angel read about each of those good things: graduating middle school, helping her brother when he had mono, attending the American Indian Preparatory School, far from home, completing a summer writing program, even farther away. She ended with reading at this conference. She didn't candy-coat things, she just described how each challenge she didn't want to do at first, and after, her grandfather would call her out behind their house, place his hand on her shoulder, tug a feather from his headdress, and give it to her.
There's a lot wrong with that passage. First, headdresses are not part of traditional Navajo attire. They are worn primarily by Plains tribes. As written, it sounds like Angel's grandfather wears it all the time, or, that he put it on to do this feather-giving-ceremony where he takes a feather out of his headdress. It doesn't work at all. When a Native person is given a feather to mark an accomplishment, it isn't taken from an existing headdress. And, when feathers are given, it (or how it is done) generally isn't something they talk about to outsiders in the way Angel does. It is possible, but not plausible.
Oona listens to the next speaker who talks about his "costume" with its "fringe, beads, and feathers" and how he goes to powwows, where he dances for his grandma and his ancestors. Oona thinks "Was he kidding? The guy wore a white Oxford shirt with short sleeves and a tie."
It isn't likely that he would have said "costume" or "fringe, beads, and feathers." He would more likely have said "regalia." He does the powwow circuit, it sounds like. He dances for his grandma and ancestors. Dancing for his grandma and ancestors sounds right to me. Does Oona think he can't be legit because he's wearing a shirt and tie? Or, is she being snarky about who he dances for? Either way, there's also a feeling that these kids are richer than Oona, with all her material wealth, is.
Mr. Handler invites Oona/Corpse to go with him to the Native American school, where she can help juniors fill out college applications. (Later, we'll learn that her help is specific to navigating websites.)
That sounded ok to me, but when I was talking with C about the book, she asked me what Oona was going to do at the school. I told her, and she laughed, saying they were tech savvy and didn't need help like that.
Murial says that she wanted to be anthropologist because she loves Indians.
More flute music. It appears several times throughout the story.
See comments about page 16.
Oona/Corpse is with Mr. Handler. They're approaching the grounds at the Native school. Before they get there, she sees faded house trailers (one with plywood covering window) and rusted out cars.
Two Indian kids scampered around out front, one in just a diaper, the white of it against this world, against his skin, seemed unreal.
How does protag know those are Indian kids? The school is not on a reservation. The community by it is not Native either. That the two kids "scampered" also stands out. Animals scamper. Little kids, too, the dictionary says, but given the overwhelming associations of Indians-as-animal-like, seeing it here gives me pause.
At the school, Oona/Corpse is greeted by Louise, who is "a stout, toffee-tinted woman in a purple broom skirt and a white blouse." She has ebony hair that she wears in a bun that is clasped with a beaded barrette.
I didn't note what words Sappenfield used to describe skin tones of Oona's mother or Mr. Benson, or Ashley (her friend at school). Later on, Angel is going to ask Oona if she is part Native (Angel says "an urban Indian") because Oona's skin tone is olive. Of late, there have been several discussions online about words used for skin tones, when and how they're used, and who is using them.
Back in the car, Mr. Handler and Oona/Corpse drive to the part of campus where their rooms are. As they drive, she sees "a white woman in a blouse and jeans and an Indian man with a long braid...".
How does she know the woman is white? Oona's assumption is that all Indians have darker skin and hair, so this woman must be white. That is an incorrect assumption. Later, Angel and Oona have a conversation about skin tones.
Mr. Handler tells Oona/Corpse he's there to help counsel the kids at the school:
They're the kids who want to go on to college. These are not your average Native American kids."
He backs off from that statement, saying
"Scratch that. They're just kids. Trying to figure things out. Like you."
I'm glad he backed off but what did he back off from? Did he mean that an average Native kid doesn't want to go to college? I really don't know what to make of that exchange.
They park the car and get out. A "flock" of Indian students approach.
I can't recall what words author used to describe groups of kids at Oona's school in Colorado. Was flock used there, too? Problem with flock is similar to scamper.
A boy greets Mr. Handler by calling him "Lone Ranger." And then:
"He no sabe," another one said, and they all laughed. 'No know,' I realized; Tonto had been disrespecting that white-masked man, and I'd never had a clue.
That doesn't make sense to me. The line Tonto uses is "kemo sabe" -- not 'he' or 'no'. Sappenfield wants us to think that Tonto was saying "he no sabe" and as such, was dissing the Lone Ranger. Does Sappenfield now know what Tonto said? Am I missing something myself?!
That part aside, the banter between the kids and Mr. Handler is easy going and reflects relationships I've seen between Native kids and white teachers and staff who have established a warm relationship.
Oona/Corpse and Mr. Handler go to dinner and sit with the staff and teachers. Oona/Corpse is introduced to Dr. Yazzie, the headmaster. He is the guy Oona/Corpse saw earlier--the one with the braid:
Now Corpse saw the symmetry of his forehead, cheeks, and chin, a honey-tinted movie-star face, smooth but for creases at his eyes.
Ok. A super handsome dude. Yazzie, by the way, is a Navajo name.
As they eat, Dr. Yazzie tells Mr. Handler:
"You know the statistics, Perry. Half of them can't handle the college world and drop out."
Mr. Handler asks about students. Davina has done ok. Louise posits that Davina's aunt has been a good role model for her. That aunt is a sergeant on the Navajo police force. When Mr. Handler asks about Cindy, Louise replies:
"Her father died." Louise's mouth, which arced down naturally, stretched down in a real frown. "Her mother had to get a job, so Cindy went home to help out with the kids."
"Poor girl," Mr. Handler said. "She was so smart."
Louise nodded. "Yes, a waste. Her father's death was a waste too. Put his truck in the ditch. Drunk. Tried to walk home on a frigid night. They found him sitting, frozen, at the entrance to their driveway. Apparently neighbors were driving past, waving."
A laugh burst from Ms. Cole. "Sorry. I hadn't heard that last part."
I found that conversation troubling. It is plausible that Louise would think "waste" but it isn't plausible. The teachers and staff at NAPS were especially supportive of Native culture and values. That a Native kid would step up to help her family would not be characterized as a waste. That neighbors drove past and waved at the body of Cindy's dad... Is that plausible?! It strikes me as incredibly offensive to imagine, let alone share, or laugh at. Louise and Ms. Cole strike me as horrible people. When I told C (student) and teacher (A) about this, they both felt that this was a misrepresentation of the teachers and staff. It strikes me as a 'fit' with government boarding schools were the framework for them was "kill the Indian and save the man" but definitely does not fit with NAPS. A quick note about Louise's mouth, which "arced down naturally" -- Angel's does, too. Weird.
Mr. Handler then asks about Roberta:
Louise laughed. "She skipped that summer internship you arranged at the hospital. Didn't even call to let them know."
Louise goes on to say that Roberta is 18 years old now, and
"She took a job as a stripper instead. Still goes back and works weekends. Calls herself Destiny."
Mr. Handler scans the cafeteria and sees Roberta. Oona/Corpse sees her "shapely back". The next line is Hovering Oona's voice:
I had an image of Roberta in a string bikini, slithering along a pole over an audience of salivating men, some hungrily waving dollar bills.
That is another very troubling part of the book. Why did Sappenfield create this particular characterization for Roberta?!
Hovering Oona looks at the kids in the cafeteria and thinks
these weren't the people we'd imagined inhabiting that flute music. The ones who'd made us feel poor. Maybe the bullshit had been those conference readings.
Ok... so Roberta is meant to humanize Native people?!
Closing out this scene in the story, Mr. Handler says that he's read statistics (about Native people), but that "the reality is a lot harder to swallow."
So--the reality is one girl who has done well, one who has gone home, and one who is a stripper?
Dr. Yazzie, studying Oona/Corpse, puts his hand in his pocket.
It seemed an odd detail at that moment. Later, we learn that he keeps a rock in that pocket. It talks to him.
After dinner, Oona/Corpse and Mr. Handler head to their rooms. As he says goodnight to Oona, she sees him swallow and his Adam's apple goes up and down. Oona/Corpse wants to say she's sorry about those kids, but she doesn't, because Hovering Oona stops her.
Early morning, Oona/Corpse goes out on a trail where she'll get cell phone reception. She calls her boyfriend. After the call, Angel comes along the same trail. She tells Oona that she's "greeting the sun." As she goes on her way, she calls back "I dreamed of you three nights ago."
Angel asks Oona if she's "an urban Indian" who is "from the city" and that "maybe doesn't know traditions, Indian ways." Surprised, Oona asks Angel how she could be Indian (appearance-wise). Angel tells her there's "a lot of mixed-blood or northern Indians here that don't look Indian."
That is an interesting passage. I'm glad to see appearance being addressed.
Angel tells Oona/Corpse about photographers that want photos of kids who look Indian. She also talks about how people like to visit Indians to "feel like they've done a good deed or something."
Another interesting passage, and accurate. It is ironic, too. It demonstrates that Sappenfield is able to have her characters speak to outsider use of Native people for their own benefit, but, with the way she uses Native culture in her book, doesn't understand that she's doing precisely that with this book.
As they talk, Angel looks at Hovering Oona on Corpse's shoulder.
As the book progresses, we learn that Angel and Dr. Yazzie can see Hovering Oona. And, in a passage that returns to imagery of Roberta as a pole dancer, Roberta walks through Hovering Oona's spirit and has a reaction that tells us that she, too, has ability to sense Hovering Oona. That makes them mystical or magical. It might seem cool a lot of people, but it plays on stereotypes! Not ok.
Oona/Corpse goes up the trail behind the school and comes upon Angel, kneeling in a clearing. Oona gets behind a branch and watches Angel, who is chanting. She turns north, west, south, and east. She rises and calls out to Oona that she doesn't have to hide, and asks her if she's spying on her. Oona says that, in addition to wanting to know more about the dream, she wanted to see what greeting the sun was. Oona asks Angel why she does it, and Angel says it is "showing him I'm ready for the day. And worthy."
That is unsettling. I understand that curiosity, but honestly, it is creepy and voyeuristic. I'm curious about the back story for it. What is Sappenfield's source? Is that something a Navajo girl or person actually does? Is it accurate? Is her source the Navajo girl she named in the Acknowledgements at the back of the book? Did she see that girl praying? Did she ask that girl if she could join her?
If yes, there's a huge power dynamic in that request, and it is entirely inappropriate. In universities, there are research protocols that do not allow vulnerable populations (youth) to give permissions like that because they don't have the experience/knowledge/wherewithal to say no. Increasingly, tribes are asking writers to go through similar tribally-based protocols when they are there for research purposes for stories. I'm pretty sure NAPS administrators would not have given the author permission to do this.
Angel and Oona talk for a while. Oona tells Angel that she had tried to kill herself. Angel nods, saying
"I thought you looked like you'd been dead."
This is another manifestation of the stereotypical mystical Indian who sees and knows things...
At breakfast Oona/Corpse asks Angel what she saw that made her think that Oona had been dead. Angel shrugs her shoulders and looks at Hovering Oona. Oona/Corpse says
"If I'd said I was an urban Indian, would you tell me?"
Angel's face hardens and she gets ready to leave. Oona presses her, asking if she can join her to greet the sun. Angel sighs and asks "Do I have a choice?" Oona/Corpse seems to be developing an awareness of Hovering Oona.
With Oona's question, it seems to me that Sappenfield knows that there are things that are guarded. The way she handles all the spirituality in the story tells me that she doesn't care about anything that Angel or Native people might be guarded about.
After Angel leaves, Oona overhears two white teachers talking. One says that teaching there has
"been a wild ride, and I've never been able to forget, even for a minute, that I'm an outsider."
She goes on to talk about her first week at the school, when a girl went to her room (teachers live on campus):
"...whimpering about witches in her room. It was the middle of the night, for God's sake, and I tried to calm her. I mean, witches? I eventually got her to sleep, she spent the night in my room, and in the morning she seemed fine. At lunch Yazzie took me aside. Apparently I'd handled it all wrong. Made a fool of myself. When a student has witches in her dorm room, you inform Yazzie immediately, and they call a medicine man to come purify it."
Ah! There's the part about witches that the blurb on Net Galley refers to!
The two teachers commiserate about feeling like outsiders.
Similar to the question about Angel's prayer, I'm curious about the source for this part about witches and medicine men.
The next morning, Oona/Corpse joins Angel in her greeting of the sun. Though she moves in the same ways that Angel does, she isn't listening to Angel. Her thoughts are about her parents, her suicide, and her dad, in particular. She whispers to Hovering Oona and seems to be gaining insights into her family dynamics and her own well-being.
Again: what is the author's source for the way that Angel is shown in her movements? Turning to N/S/W doesn't jibe with what I know of the greeting that Navajos do at dawn. Some nations do have a directional greeting. In this part of the story, readers assume the voyeuristic gaze that Corpse had earlier. As a Native woman, this part makes me uncomfortable. I don't think author imagined a Native reader, or Native views on exploitation of Native spirituality.
Dr. Yazzie talks with Oona/Corpse, telling her that it looks like she's had a hard time. She says "Don't tell me you can see I've died." He says that it isn't hard to see, and then nods towards her shoulder where Hovering Oona is perched. He tells her:
"I have a rock in my pocket. It speaks to me."
"It tells me you're a good person. That you're going to be ok."
Clearly, Dr. Yazzie is a mystical Indian, too. This is the talking rock of the Net Galley blurb.
Corpse goes to "Circle" which is a gathering that happens once a week. Mr. Handler sits beside her. She tells him about Dr. Yazzie's rock. They're seated in chairs arranged in a circle. Dr. Yazzie comes in and sits on the floor in the center of the circle. Dr. Benson (the flute master) rises from his chair and plays. All heads are bowed. Corpse gets goosebumps and then comes fully aware of Hovering Oona's view, and how Hovering Oona "constantly reasoned, doubted, judged" Oona. Oona/Corpse whispers to Hovering Oona that she has to stop. Oona/Corpse reaches to her chest, to the "slice" through which Hovering Oona had left at the start of the story. Hovering Oona darts down and enters but doesn't like it in there and takes off again. When the lights come back up, everyone is staring at Oona.
Oona is definitely healing, and it is due in large part to these mystical Indians and their flute music. My guess it that people will dismiss my concerns. Overall, I can hear them say, this is a book about healing from suicide. How that happens, to them, doesn't matter. It reminds me of so many books. Cole in Touching Spirit Bear is healed thru similar Indian ways. In that story, he comes to terms with his bullying behavior. It is top of many lists about bullying. The stereotyping of Native people doesn't matter to people who are intent on using the book with bullies. People are staring at Oona, we'll learn later, because they saw Hovering Oona.
Another mealtime. Oona/Corpse is sitting with the kids, where they are talking about William's time at a summer camp at Harvard. People said to him "I didn't know Indians wore normal clothes." Oona says "Seriously? You believe they knew that little about Indians? That's impossible."
It is odd that Oona is incredulous. Recall she was wondering about the kid at the conference who was in a shirt and tie? That aside, her remark is interesting given what she says next about mascots.
The conversation moves to a discussion of the Washington DC pro football team mascot, the Cleveland Indians logo, and, the Chiefs. William says "Headdresses? Just feathers are religious for us." They laugh, and Corpse laughs with them but thinks to herself that it isn't funny at all, and wonders why she never noticed these things before.
Not having noticed problems with mascots before sounds a lot like the person at Harvard who wondered about Indians wearing normal clothes. It is hard to know just what to make of the things that Oona thinks and says.
Oona/Corpse tells Angel there's no water there, but Oona tells her there is, under their feet. She goes on:
"In Navajo tradition, we have Tonenili. He's responsible for rain, sleet, and snow. He also causes thunder and lightning. Often at ceremonies he's there in a costume of spruce branches, playing the part of a clown. He sprinkles water around. Especially during night chants. Maybe he's been speaking to you, trying to heal you."
This, I think is the "minor deity" of the Net Galley blurb. I'm doubtful that Angel would have told Corpse that much detail about Tonenili, but as before, what is the source for this? That the word "costume" is used makes me think that the source might be an anthropology text written by an outsider.
At breakfast, Oona/Corpse is with Angel. Oona sees Dr. Yazzie with his hand in his pocket and starts wondering to herself about the rock. Angel says "What?" Oona says "nothing."
Does Angel's "what" to Corpse suggest that Angel can hear her thoughts? Maybe Oona was not wondering to herself. Maybe she was actually speaking her thoughts aloud.
Angel and Oona/Corpse go for a hike. Oona asks Angel about the girl who had a witch in her room and learns that the room she is in was that girl's room. Oona asks Angel:
"A medicine man cleansed my room?"
"Does that stuff linger? Like could his power cleanse me?"
Angel seemed to sort out her thoughts in the road ahead of them. "When you first came here, you scared me," She looked over her shoulder, right at me [Hovering Oona]. "I worried you might have the ghost sickness and you might take me with you."
"Me? Is a ghost like a witch? Is that what that girl saw? Is that why everyone was staring at me?
"It's complicated. It's not good to talk about these things. They have power."
"Do you think a medicine man could cure me? My hands and feet have been tingling since Circle."
Angel tells her that she doesn't think Oona needs a medicine man anymore because she's healing herself.
I don't know where to start in analyzing that conversation. Angel shares information but also says it isn't good to talk about these things. She's right--Native peoples guard some things very carefully, but she chose to share some of it with Oona. Lucky for Oona! As before, I wonder about Sappenfield's source for this material.
On their hike, Angel holds out an eagle feather to Oona and says:
"This is for all the things you've survived."
No! Angel can't legally give Oona an eagle feather. It is illegal for people who are not Native to have eagle feathers. Info here: http://www.fws.gov/eaglerepository/ This law is info 101 to Native people, and especially those who would be at NAPS.
At that point, I stopped taking notes. I did read it, all the way to the end. Though the book goes on for another hundred-plus pages, the story location shifts when Mr. Handler and Oona leave the school. They were there for one week. Angel and William return at the very end, at Oona's graduation.
There's more analysis to do--the depictions of Gabe (Oona's boyfriend) and the family maid (she's Mexican), and the use of Spanish in various places. Some of it doesn't sound quite right to me. I'll close this post with something I said earlier:
I hate that NAPS and kids there were used
by Sappenfield for this book.
It feels like a violation. The school and
kids are only a magical device that
serves the white protagonist.
It isn't "just fiction" that Sappenfield, or any writer is doing, when they write a story. Some fictions affirm existing stereotypes. Some create new problems for Native people to deal with. It doesn't have to be that way. Writers---you can do better. Editors---so can you!
Last: If something I've said is unclear (or if there are typos!), do let me know. I welcome your question, corrections, and comments.
Editor's Note: The original post for this review had an error in the title. This is a reposting of the review with the correct title (the word 'where' was replaced with 'who').
Traveling through Scotland, one is struck by the number of memorials devoted to those who lost their lives in World War I. Nearly every town seems to have at least one memorial listing the names of local boys and men killed in the Great War (St. Andrews, where I am spending the year, has more than one).
Scotland endured a disproportionate number of casualties in comparison with most other Allied nations as Scotland’s military history and the Scots’ reputation as particularly effective fighters contributed to both a proportionally greater number of Scottish recruits as well as a tendency for Allied commanders to give Scottish units the most dangerous combat assignments.
Many who served in World War I undoubtedly suffered from what some contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists have labeled ‘moral injury’, a psychological affliction that occurs when one acts in a way that runs contrary to one’s most deeply-held moral convictions. Journalist David Wood characterizes moral injury as ‘the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation’ and declares that it is ‘the signature wound of [the current] generation of veterans.’
By definition, one cannot suffer from moral injury unless one has deeply-held moral convictions. At the same time that some psychologists have been studying moral injury and how best to treat those afflicted by it, other psychologists have been uncovering the cognitive mechanisms that are responsible for our moral convictions. Among the central findings of that research are that our emotions often influence our moral judgments in significant ways and that such judgments are often produced by quick, automatic, behind-the-scenes cognition to which we lack conscious access.
Thus, it is a familiar phenomenon of human moral life that we find ourselves simply feeling strongly that something is right or wrong without having consciously reasoned our way to a moral conclusion. The hidden nature of much of our moral cognition probably helps to explain the doubt on the part of some philosophers that there really is such a thing as moral knowledge at all.
In 1977, philosopher John Mackie famously pointed out that defenders of the reality of objective moral values were at a loss when it comes to explaining how human beings might acquire knowledge of such values. He declared that believers in objective values would be forced in the end to appeal to ‘a special sort of intuition’— an appeal that he bluntly characterized as ‘lame’. It turns out that ‘intuition’ is indeed a good label for the way many of our moral judgments are formed. In this way, it might appear that contemporary psychology vindicates Mackie’s skepticism and casts doubt on the existence of human moral knowledge.
Not so fast. In addition to discovering that non-conscious cognition has an important role to play in generating our moral beliefs, psychologists have discovered that such cognition also has an important role to play in generating a great many of our beliefs outside of the moral realm.
According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, quick, automatic, non-conscious processing (which he has labeled ‘System 1′ processing) is both ubiquitous and an important source of knowledge of all kinds:
‘We marvel at the story of the firefighter who has a sudden urge to escape a burning house just before it collapses, because the firefighter knows the danger intuitively, ‘without knowing how he knows.’ However, we also do not know how we immediately know that a person we see as we enter a room is our friend Peter. … [T]he mystery of knowing without knowing … is the norm of mental life.’
This should provide some consolation for friends of moral knowledge. If the processes that produce our moral convictions are of roughly the same sort that enable us to recognize a friend’s face, detect anger in the first word of a telephone call (another of Kahneman’s examples), or distinguish grammatical and ungrammatical sentences, then maybe we shouldn’t be so suspicious of our moral convictions after all.
The good news is that hope for the reality of moral knowledge remains.
The good news is that hope for the reality of moral knowledge remains. – See more at: http://blog.oup.com/?p=75592&preview=true#sthash.aozalMuy.dpuf
In all of these cases, we are often at a loss to explain how we know, yet it is clear enough that we know. Perhaps the same is true of moral knowledge.
Still, there is more work to be done here, by both psychologists and philosophers. Ironically, some propose a worry that runs in the opposite direction of Mackie’s: that uncovering the details of how the human moral sense works might provide support for skepticism about at least some of our moral convictions.
Psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene puts the worry this way:
‘I view science as offering a ‘behind the scenes’ look at human morality. Just as a well-researched biography can, depending on what it reveals, boost or deflate one’s esteem for its subject, the scientific investigation of human morality can help us to understand human moral nature, and in so doing change our opinion of it. … Understanding where our moral instincts come from and how they work can … lead us to doubt that our moral convictions stem from perceptions of moral truth rather than projections of moral attitudes.’
The challenge advanced by Greene and others should motivate philosophers who believe in moral knowledge to pay attention to findings in empirical moral psychology. The good news is that hope for the reality of moral knowledge remains.
And if there is moral knowledge, there can be increased moral wisdom and progress, which in turn makes room for hope that someday we can solve the problem of war-related moral injury not by finding an effective way of treating it but rather by finding a way of avoiding the tragedy of war altogether. Reflection on ‘the war to end war’ may yet enable it to live up to its name.
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