I have been struggling to come up with something valuable to say in the midst of this extraordinarily challenging moment. Perhaps not knowing what to say is a good first step, since the temptation to immediate spin just reinforces preconceptions. But it seems important for a moral theologian to say something, because the problems we face right now are first and foremost moral problems. They are not problems of medicine or engineering; neither do they seem to be the kind of conflicts, say over economic policy, which certainly have moral aspects to them, but are susceptible to pragmatic compromise. No, right now, we have an out-and-out moral war going on, a conflict with highly-charged moral rhetoric being traded back and forth. We are facing an ugly campaign season with two presidential candidates whom, whatever their policy platforms, appear to a majority of Americans to be morally-corrupt figures… no doubt we will be repeatedly informed of each one’s character failings by the other. And, as is often the case with really important moral conflicts, there is a way of proceeding which demands that everyone either commit to the cause or be “othered.” You’re on board, or you’re the enemy.
There’s a fair amount of irony in all this, given that by all accounts, beliefs about moral relativism and non-judgmentalism are pervasive in our society. But it’s important to see that this habitual non-judgmentalism is actually a component of our inability to handle moral conflict well. Alasdair MacIntyre famously diagnosed contemporary societies as ones in which fragments of moral language continue to be in use, but in ways that lack coherence. While MacIntyre’s later work complexifies this account, his initial diagnosis is that the default morality of our social form is emotivism. Emotivism suggests there is really no rational way to distinguish rooting for the cops from rooting for the Cubs; when we praise or blame action in moral terms, we are simply cheering and booing for “our team.” This analysis comports with David Brooks’s articulation of our problem in terms of potentially ascendant tribal (which has nothing to do with Native Americans) thinking. (He thinks, by the way, that we should look to the 1890’s for clues, not a bad suggestion.) Worse, as Andrew Bacevich and Ross Douthat rightly point out, a recognition of this tribal thinking is blocked when one group – the cosmopolitans – failed to recognize that it is, in fact, a tribe. Both the distaste for and the championing of Donald Trump has a great deal to do with whether you are a part of, or an enemy of, the tribe of the cosmopolitans. Yet even here there are odd twists: Trump is not exactly a “great commoner” himself, and his seeming lack of any sense of personal morality doesn’t match up with the typical belief of the anti-cosmopolitan tribe that they are the forces of morality fighting against the specter of cosmopolitan relativism. Thus, the bizarre spectacle of an emerging strongly morally conservative Republican platform for a candidate whose commitments on some of the supposedly key moral issues are questionable at best. And if the Democrats appear less bizarre, it’s not because there aren’t really striking problems with a cosmopolitan insistence on justice being carried by a candidate who appears perfectly comfortable with drone strikes and Wall Street finance. That’s not meant to be a critique from a purity perspective; rather, it is the difficulty Clinton faces in offering some kind of coherent view, when a kind of “new Democrat” 1990’s style pragmatism has been rendered taboo. Thus, the election is moralized, despite the incoherency of any rational account of the candidate’s moral principles. Emotivism means that none of it is required to make any sense, because after all, what could “moral sense” possibly mean?
And now into this has been injected the emerging social conflict over race and policing, which has produced sufficient social disorder (I apologize for the painfully neutral term for such horrible events) to become a crisis. After all, people are being killed, and there’s nothing like that to produce an immediate sense of moral fervor. What. A. Mess.
President Obama’s speech in Dallas asked, in essence, “Will the center hold?” And the question I have to ask is: where is the common moral language that can be summoned to hold the center? Moral conflict in American society is not new, nor even is moral inconsistency. But hashtag battles aren’t exactly conducive to developing that common moral language. Yet there is a deeper concern: it’s not exactly like some technocrats can come up with and impose a “common moral language.” Leaders must in fact work with the moral “savings” – the capital – built up in the community as a whole, which might be made to circulate beyond the tribal boundaries. Martin Luther King Jr. is surely our masterful recent example of a leader who was able to do this. King was a political strategist and he had disciplined practices of non-violent protest. But above all, he appealed to a larger moral language, applied to a common people. He summoned people to a higher version of self and of country, one that could not help but resonate even with his persecutors. And one must ask not only if there is anyone who can command such language today, but whether there are even ears to hear it.
I don’t know the answer to this question. MacIntyre’s diagnosis may ultimately be right, and just as the combination of economic conditions and the refugee crisis are testing the limits of a cosmopolitan moral language in Europe, the combination of economic conditions and the racial crisis will test ours. But even if one is less apocalyptic and more hopeful than MacIntyre, there are particular barriers to the achievement of a common moral language in the present circumstances. At least three are worthy of note.
One, much potential language available for the common morality is now coded to identify with a tribe. The outrageous incident of a Canadian singer altering the words to the Canadian national anthem at the All-Star Game is a vivid example. Surely the very act of altering the words of such a quasi-hymn is nutty. Yet he also held up an “all lives matter” sign, and the altered words expressed the sentiment that we are all brothers and sisters. Thus, the sentiments expressed were anti-tribal, and yet the reaction (and the probable intention) was that he had expressed a tribal view. One wonders if a performer had held up a black lives matter sign if the reaction would have been the same – perhaps on Fox News, but there may not have been the general outcry. My point is not to justify his actions; it is to illustrate that the deployment of evidently common language no longer brings tribes together, but becomes another expression of tribalism. An analogous argument could be made about statements about racism; I commonly use “racism” in my classes as an example to defuse moral relativism: we know we’re all “against racism,” and that it’s wrong, right? But when I talk about overcoming the structural racism in policing, it is all too easy to be accsued of using the language of one tribe against another. If morally-powerful common language like “racism” or “equal dignity” or even “everyone should be treated equally no matter their skin color” is now coded “tribal,” then where are we to turn for the uniting language?
Two, our inability to distinguish just and unjust power, and instead to reduce conflict to raw power relations (who’s in power? who’s oppressed?), is painfully manifest. One description of the events of the past week would be: two members of an oppressed group were unintentionally but unjustly killed by the actions of the lawfully-constituted powerful authorities (the killers are on leave while the incident is investigated), and then five unrelated members of the lawfully-constituted powerful authorities were intentionally killed by a member of the oppressed group (the killers was then killed by the authorities). Any discourse which operates primarily in terms of power won’t be able to handle this well – neither the description itself, nor a moral evaluation of the description. Indeed, endless arguments will ensue about “power” and “oppression” in the statement itself. These are worthwhile in themselves, but they don’t adequately grasp the problem. Most notably (and I worry about saying this), they fail to grasp the qualitatively different moral character of the latter, much more infamous act from the former acts. I say this, even though I also believe that there is structural racism involved in policing generally and, most likely, in the outcome of the killing of Philando Castile. I’ll add, to further complicate the calculus, that the Dallas massacre was an isolated incident rather than an example of an ongoing pattern. Nevertheless, intentions matter. Are we able to acknowledge the moral asymmetry of last week’s killings while at the same time maintaining the ongoing concern about structural racism in policing? I think we need to, but if our moral language remains fixated on power and oppression, we won’t be able to do so.
Which leads to the third problem. There needs to be a better account of what is meant by “structural racism,” both for the sake of a real public consensus on it, and for the sake of being more careful about identifying what needs to change. The public consensus part is a no-brainer; for many, many Americans, racism is associated with Klan rallies and segregation, not with a society where blacks and whites interact with no problems every day, and where African-Americans hold many positions of power. Given this general attitude, people don’t understand what this accusation means, and to use it as a blunt instrument isn’t any more effective than yelling “baby-killer” at women seeking abortions. It may get people’s attention by raising the moral stakes, but it is unlikely to begin the genuinely hard conversations needed to address a complex problem constructively in the long term.
But, for the ethics geeks in the room, effective conversation also requires some kind of differentiation between two sorts of claims about “social structures.” On the one hand, we can talk about unjust social structures in terms of explicit laws that encourage and perpetuate unjust actions. We have an imperfect but real history of social change in this regard, and presumably there remains some consensus that, when such structures are identified, we have both legislative and judicial means of addressing them. On the other hand, what I think is meant by “structural racism in policing” and in the livesof the white population in general is more like what Charles Taylor called a “social imaginary,” a kind of program operating in the invisible background which is nevertheless essential in running the operating system. It is more about custom than law, more about unwritten assumptions than explicit plans, more about reactions in particular situations than a wholly-consistent pattern of behavior. This latter sort of structural racism is best described by the ongoing experiences of African-Americans, particularly men, who are aware that language about color-blindness is itself blind to their experiences – and to the privileges that invisibly accrue to whiteness. Yet at the same time, many (not all) who press claims about structural racism are both unable to understand the ongoing, difficult experience of police officers and potentially blind to their own structural choices which, however benignly intended, perpetuate the problem in the social imaginary (such as, say, moving their resources out of a central city in which they are solely needed). The scapegoating of urban police forces obscures the work that they do in maintaining order under difficult conditions.
Of course, the last paragraph above can’t be anything other than an invitation to a much more extended, reflective conversation about the actual experience of race in America today. And this unintentionally long blog post can at least call into question the ways in which many of our means of expressing our tribal views – whatever tribe that might be – in this moment of crisis are inadequate. Hashtags, T-shirts, and sloganeering should be abandoned. We need more conversations like this one, between Van Jones and Newt Gingrich (of all people), which at least begin to generate mutual honesty about the contours of the situation. Whatever his flaws, Gingrich nails the basic foot-in-the-door sentiment that white people need to admit they simply do not understand all that is involved in being black in America, and Jones’s statements about shame and resentment begin to get at the affective blocks on conversation. Or check out this NPR interview with St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman, who responds to questions about the challenges in his city with sanity and reason. He seeks proactive response to the concerns expressed on all sides, while also not over-reacting to any particular event. May we have more conversations like these.