At Times Like These: From Just Cause to Justice
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
History churns up many times like these – times when a deep and persistent injustice is widely perceived and met by a singular focus and unusual willingness across society to deal with it.
Think of any revolution and you’ll be in the ballpark: the French, the Russian, the American.
Or consider the great social movements out of which many of our heroes come: the suffragettes, the American Civil Rights movement, and so on.
The injustices of which they are born create righteous anger that fuels mass action.
Sometimes, and in some people, righteousness tips over into self-righteousness. If the wrong people are allowed, or take, enough power, great evil can be done in the name of great good. Thus for example, “the Reign of Terror” during the French Revolution, the gulags and purges of (more than one) Communist Revolution, etc.
At times of such high social, cultural and moral stakes, how does a society ensure that justice is done, rather than injustice done in its name?
Whenever great movements born of righteous anger go bad, they do so because they equate two pairs of things that are very different indeed.
Privilege vs. Guilt: They are not the same.
To be privileged isn’t to be guilty. Privilege can make for error, blindness, and ignorance – all of which must be remedied. But they are all things that mitigate guilt; they don’t demonstrate it. Those who do evil in the name of good have always declared the privileged guilty. The Nazis did it; the Stalinists did it; the Maoists did it. In fact, it’s hard to find a genocide that does not depend on that false equality.
Rightness of a cause vs. rightness of those who fight for the cause: They are not the same.
The justice of a cause does not make right all of the perceptions or demands of those who are motivated by it. In fact, history and psychology demonstrate that it is almost impossible to get large numbers of people to do great harm to others without convincing them that a higher morality justifies it.
Equal rights don’t follow from false equivalences.
Are there other pairs of concepts, as important as those two, that we need to consider as carefully at this critical time?
Sleeping on this post, I think it might be helpful to share what prompted me to go ahead and write it - especially given how reluctant I am to pronounce on such difficult issues as those currently afflicting my adoptive country (USA).
The "trigger" was actually an event in my native country of England - the vandalizing of a statue of Churchill in London, graffiti-ed with the words "[Churchill] was a racist."
By today's standards, that's a pretty easy argument to make.
But he was also the guy who saved the United Kingdom from arguably the most racist and ethnically genocidal state in modern history, the Nazis, and therefore literally stopped Britain from becoming one.
Reasonable people can argue about it. At the very least, though, that latter fact means that the British people together get to decide through democratic means and as a people what should happen with Churchill's statues and property related to his memory. What it doesn't mean is that a self-appointed group of "cultural supremacists" get to destroy the property and culture of others who are doing them no harm.
In so doing, they make it harder to put right the very real injustices that we really do need to tackle.
Britain is not America. Churchill was not a slave-trader. And British race-relations and policing are not like the American.
But back to the USA - where a deep historic outrage continues to have effects that still warrant outrage today. Eighty per cent of the solution is admitting the problem. But perhaps eighty per cent of the 20 per cent that remains is making sure we define the problem accurately.
Hence this post - which is nothing more than an observation (pertinent, I hope) by an American cultural outsider.