Issue 14, Volume 17
I try to be wary of using overly dramatic language when discussing complex issues, although like anybody else I am frequently imperfect. Whilst strong rhetoric has a vital place in political advocacy and building responses to injustice, I worry that otherwise well-intentioned people run the risk of distilling questions of how to solve difficult problems into unhelpfully sensationalised and divisive camps. Sometimes however, events simply demand to be talked about in such a way and scrolling through my newsfeed today I came across an aphorism so appropriate that it had to be shared.
This week the world watched America burn.
Almost anything sensible that I could think to say about the death of George Floyd and the surrounding inequalities that led to it, strike me as so obvious as to go without saying. It was a horrific and grotesquely wasteful destruction of a human life. It was metonymic of the relationship between tens of millions of African Americans and a system of policing poisoned by hundreds of years of racialized power. It was a depressingly unsurprising data point on a graph being produced by a country so deeply afflicted by maldistributions of social and economic resources as to manufacture human tragedy of this kind with stochastic regularity. Global condemnation, mass protest and civil disobedience are not just justified reactions, but moral imperatives; and as part of this reaction many people have rightfully pointed out the need to take the opportunity to inspect our own national crimes toward our Indigenous populations.
On the actual ethics and utility of the current riots we’re seeing in the United States, I confess not knowing what to think except for the obvious, that in many instances they’re an understandable reaction on part of a population driven to extremes of desperation and anger, although an ultimate accounting may yet reveal many of its targets to have been undeserving – in recognising the entirely human reaction to oppression we should not overlook the cruelties that victims have been known to inflict upon each other, jammed together as they are in the boxcars of history. Beyond those cautionary prompts, there isn’t much else I think many of us are qualified to say, and I don’t think many of you tune into De Minimis for a poorly informed and condescending lecture on civil responsibility.
However, there has been one reaction I’ve noticed lately that has me worried – the extent to which so many people in my age bracket and political alignment have been reacting to the turbulence overseas to mock and repudiate a genuine commitment to non-violence in political norms, and indeed to celebrate the destruction and damage visited on communities and norms of social cohesion. These past several days, a number of prominent publications have run op-eds to this effect, treating condemnations of the violence in protests as obfuscating at best and contemptibly privileged at worst.
Now, the obvious disclaimer is that I cannot say for certain how deep or widespread this trend actually runs. If we have learned anything over the past decade, it is that social media is a good servant but a bad master, and my impressions are being fed to me online by digital mechanisms designed to curate my news diet and social impressions according to perverse incentives for outrage and sensationalism. I would be relieved to find that I’m the victim of a self-generated moral panic, however in the past week I have witnessed too many statements to this effect, and subsequent expressions of approval by people I otherwise admire. Some of them are from predictable sources, (I really should unfollow Red Flag), others I can chalk up to reactionary reposts of currently stylish but hopefully ultimately disingenuous memes and articles. ‘Unfollow me if you’re the sort of person who thinks that violence is never the answer’ or ‘let’s make a national Punch a Terf/Nazi/Police Officer Day.’ For a while now, it seems that in response to the typical response to the sorts of social injustices, the reactions that gain traction are those that promote simplified and combative reactions. This is not to say that universal pacifism is always the answer, however when we abandon our reluctance to use violence, and stop treating it as a last resort, we give ourselves permission to justify the self-indulgence of our anger.
People reacting to oppression with violence can be understood. One of the great harms of injustice is how it makes those who suffer it dehumanize themselves. It takes a kind of moral hero to uphold the virtues of civil discourse and understanding when subjected to years of brutality. But for those of us on the sidelines, we have do not have that excuse.
Reggie Banks is a third year JD student.