In the face of riots, practice empathy

How can we bring some measure of intelligence and humanity to the quarrels afflicting America? I'm afraid the answer is love.

A protester and a policeman.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Barely a week after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, one can be forgiven for having the impression that millions of Americans have forgotten about him. This is not because there is, at least as far as I am aware, any reasonably sized segment of the population willing to argue that his death was justifiable. It is because, in our typical muddied American fashion, we have decided to turn our attention to other things: criticism of the president, for example, or meta-ethical debates about both the morality and the efficacy of looting.

In many quarters these debates are becoming heated. As I write this, friendships are no doubt being destroyed over arguments about the violence that has overtaken so many American cities in the last week or so. The form is virtually always the same: Person X says something about the wickedness of American institutions, perhaps employing abstract language — e.g., "structural racism" — and Person Y responds in kind with insults and dog whistles — "thugs" continues to be the favorite — and a determination never to speak again to his former interlocutor.

How can we bring some measure of intelligence and humanity to these quarrels, which in their present form, coming as they do after months of stated-enforced social isolation, amid rising unemployment and the breakdown of a once virtually unchallenged public health consensus, seem to me inevitable? I am afraid that the answer is love.

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Why say "afraid"? Why not? There are few more things more frightening than opening ourselves to the possibility of love for those whom we would as soon regard as unlovable. Hence the continued popularity of the simpler alternative. Hatred is easier; it is more familiar, more comforting, more risk averse to sequester oneself in a fixed opinion, especially when faced with seemingly limitless examples of the iniquity of those on the other side.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to rioting and looting. In what possible sense, many will ask, do these things serve the cause of reform? Are they not, if anything, more likely to provide recalcitrant elements within law enforcement an excuse for maintaining the status quo? These are not absurd arguments, but they are, I think, nevertheless deeply mistaken. This is true for the very simple reason that they are begging the question. Well-meaning liberals and their reactionary opponents have something in common — namely, a ready-made belief that they are part of an existing political community, one in which there exist certain established procedures for effecting change. This seems to me the essential difference between peaceful protests and the Carlylean orgies of violence that have usurped the former in the public imagination. It is not that those attending relatively tame public events (like the hundreds who gathered with signs in the small Michigan town where I live on Monday afternoon) are behaving better than the others; it is that they are engaging in fundamentally different activities which, from their respective vantage points, seem equally fitting.

This is why facile cost-benefit analyses — by looting you risk alienating the people whose support you need for your cause! — are of very little importance to the question of crimes against property. No one who decides to light a police car on fire or to help himself to goods exposed under the smashed window of a store is doing so because he has arrived at the conclusion that these things are necessary steps toward positive social change. One riots and loots precisely because one does not believe that reform is possible, much less desirable. This is the painfully inevitable result of accepting that instead of being a member of a given social order seeking redress for legitimate grievances, one stands utterly outside it, denied any consolation save the intoxicating self-actualization of violence.

Such conclusions can be mistaken, as they almost certainly are among the tens of thousands of comparatively privileged white 20- and 30-somethings who have taken to the streets to fight pitched battles with police out of boredom and then complained about being on the receiving end of the sorts of things they almost certainly expected to meet in these adventures. But even in their case, it is not unreasonable to assume that, however integrated one may be into the mainstream of American society, one's power to alter it by ordinary procedural means is radically circumscribed, indeed, perhaps even non-existent. Besides, when meaningful participation in society has been proscribed for months on end according to an ever-shifting series of fideistic rationales, what should one really expect from those who had already convinced themselves (truthfully or otherwise) that they were at its margins?

None of this should be taken as an apologia for looting or any other violent conduct. I do not seek to excuse such behavior but to understand it and, up to a point, to sympathize with it. It is no use, as Dickens wrote in a similar context, "to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown — as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it — as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain words recorded what they saw."

What does one gain by understanding? Love, of course, and a broader, more generous view of the world, one that allows the most enthusiastic protesters to accept that there are scoundrels and opportunists in their midst, that there are decent mayors and governors with humane intentions and even, I daresay, a few good cops. In my own teenaged years there were numerous occasions upon which I experienced the despair that I suspect only the very young can feel when confronted with the knowledge that man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. Had I been in certain places at certain times, I could easily have smashed cars and windows and buildings. I could perhaps have done far worse. But I also understand — even if I find myself lucky enough not to feel it acutely — the impulse to defend oneself, one's family, and one's property, and to welcome the assistance of the public authorities in doing so.

Reading an essay like this one, about an uneasy vigil with a pair of Manhattan doormen on the night of the worst rioting the city has experienced so far, I can only nod along in sympathy with the author's willingness to do anything within his power to keep his loved ones safe. I can, in other words, see in any number of opposed images — the angry protester and the no-nonsense cop, the desperate looter and the armed store owner, the armchair radical and his practical conservative interlocutor — and the broader panorama formed by millions of these little vignettes scattered across a nation on the verge of an economic depression a perfect tragedy, in which both sides are fully human and not entirely lacking in justification for their actions, even if righteousness is not evenly apportioned. This, I think, is the vantage point we should all be seeking.

Are there limits to what understanding can achieve here? Almost certainly, and they begin and end precisely where one would imagine, at the intersection of one's theoretical commitments and life's infinite messiness. Sooner or later an impasse is reached between even the most broad-minded opponent of police brutality and the thoughtful National Guardsmen whose job it is to pelt the former with rubber bullets. But surely it is better to find ourselves at these junctures with something more than unthinking hatred inside us.

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