Reason and Violence

I recently overheard some co-workers talking about the violence in Baltimore:

“If you act like a thug, you should be called a thug.”

“This is just typical of those people. Instead of working in the system you start looting and hurting people. No wonder nothing ever changes for them.”

“What do I do if a cop harasses me? I sue him. I talk to his superiors. I use the law. What do they do? Steal and burn and pillage.”

“It’s just an excuse to get a flat-screen TV for free. Most of them don’t even have jobs anyway, and they’re used to demanding everything without paying for it.”

“I get that racism still exists for some people, but how could it not with this kind of behavior? You burn down or loot a pharmacy and hurt your own people by eliminating a place to get medicine. They’re completely self-destructive.”

I’ve spoken with these co-workers before. We’ve debated these kinds of issues and many others. In every setting and work situation I’ve been in with them, they are otherwise smart, kind, and solicitous people. But get them talking about race, gender, and politics and things will usually go downhill pretty quickly (and I no longer find it surprising that human beings are thoroughly paradoxical). All of the above statements are easily refuted on rational and evidential grounds. Importantly, they do not even represent the best or the most charitable conservative responses to racial violence. But I have heard enough of them to suspect that they are fairly typical of a disturbingly large number of people.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how someone could look at the violence in Baltimore so punitively and one-sidedly. Obviously, both sides will accuse the other side of doing just that. But that is precisely the setting for these problems.

A white suburbanite looking at the Baltimore violence as charitably as he or she knows how, might say the following:

Even admitting for severe police malfeasance, this just simply isn’t the way to respond. It’s not effective, it’s not moral, and it only makes everything worse. Let’s grant that the police and the government are way too heavy-handed with black communities, even unjustifiably killing black people in some cases. Violence is still violence, and what’s worse, it hurts their own communities more than it hurts anyone else. Even property destruction is an assault on the livelihoods of their own people. They must be better than this. They can and must transcend the violence that is being perpetrated on them and show the world their true humanity. What’s more, they are capable of being better than this. Police violence cannot be condoned, but this can’t be either. Things will never change if this is perceived as an acceptable response.

If that, or something like that, sounds eminently reasonable, then you are part of the problem. Because “Reason” does not exist in the abstract. Reason is a particular community’s property; it is no Platonic universal form that every homo sapien has equal access to and equal utility in operationalizing, and that is perceived the same everywhere. To speak in this way to is live within a Rawlsian original position. The “original position” is a thought experiment designed to help us envision a fair and impartial point of view that must be adopted in order to reason out the fundamental principles of justice. Assuming we all inhabited this original position, in which we could strip away our identities, beliefs, and cultures, we might imagine all of us deciding together on the same principles of justice and equality.

Of course, none of us inhabit such a space, which is precisely the point–this is a thought experiment that is meant to help us determine true equality and justice that is not based on race, gender, or culture. When we overlay the results on the real world, we are meant to be able to see where true inequality and injustice obtain.

What we usually see instead are white communities that appropriate a physical version of the original position in which they become the arbitrators of what it means to act morally and justly.  These are the communities least personally affected by inequalities and injustices, and who therefore lay claim to the universal rationality that is meant to govern all communities. In other words, these communities have the power to elevate their reason to the level of a Platonic universal form, and insist from a place of safety and education that they can objectively articulate the moral ills that plague society.

And does all violence look wrong from such a position? Of course it does. Even the most charitable position, which strongly condemns police violence toward minority communities, comes from a position that can afford to extend hermeneutical charity in the first place. But even those people within these communities that do not condone this kind of violence–people who have the most right to pronounce some kind of judgment because it is judgment on their own families, friends, and neighbors–do so within a fallen world/system where violence and injustice are the norms. This is to condemn neighborhood violence but ignore the violent city, the violent state, and the violent law that looks universal under the universal rationality of those at a remove from violence, but which is punitive outside the communities that hold it up as such.

If we condemn this local violence, we cannot do so from a so-called “original position” where we slice out the violence in Baltimore or Ferguson and hold it up for condemnation while ignoring the world of violence out of which it was formed, the physical and psychological and even legal violence that surrounds these communities.

If our moral sensibility demands that we must take a stand against violence–all violence–we need to be sure exactly how far that violence extends. And it certainly doesn’t begin and end on the streets of a neighborhood in west Baltimore. Until we are ready to face the violence inherent in the laws, enforcement agencies, and cultural prejudices we still hold as a nation, we are poorly positioned to condemn the violence in local communities.


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