Civil Unrest

Understand, Don’t Stoke, The Rage

Tense but peaceful protest in Manhattan. Photo by Koli Mitra.

The world is in turmoil right now. In poltics, the media, even civil society, there are calls for people to “take sides” and “take action.” But what action? And which “side”?

I don’t say this to pretend that there are NO morally clear principles in the issues being debated right now. But the issues are multiple and textured. I think we are gravely mistaken if we attach a litany of agenda items onto a political platform and still claim that the platform ONLY stands for the clear, baseline moral principle. We are gravely mistaken (or deliberately disingenuous) if we think anyone disagreeing with any element of a bloated, choked platform is therefore (and obviously) opposed to that clear, baseline moral principle. For example, people expressing concerns about certain tactics of the activist group Antifa have been accused of being “pro fascist” because the self-proclaimed mission of the group is “Anti-Fascism.” Whatever the substantive merits of the criticism, surely, it is irrational to suggest that if you don’t like my tactics you are necessarily rejecting my avowed goal?

Volatile events are unfolding daily on American city streets, and that volatility seems to be echoed and even amplified by some of the pundits and politicians who comment on them, whether critically or defensively. The touted narratives often conflate peaceful protesters, violent protesters, and opportunistic looters and vandals, though it’s not at all clear how or if any of them are related to one another. But honest reflection is harder than pointing in the general direction of an event and proceeding with our condemnation or applause, depending on our own political “stripe.”

In this era of snap judgments, I am taking the now “controversial” position that it’s better if cooler heads prevail.

This is no time for moral cowardice. I absolutely believe that. But I urgently caution against equating mindfulness and temperance with “moral cowardice.”

It’s been said that “silence is violence” and that’s certainly true if we silently allow fellow humans to be harmed. But what about when an ally is being asked to join an all-out battle cry? In that context, isn’t it just a bit more ambiguous whether silence is violence? In any case, a gentle voice of reason is NOT “silence”; it just seems that way when bombs and cannons are drowning it out. It is especially unnerving when someone urges on the firing of cannons and then turns on others to indict them for their supposed silence.

I know that what is good and moral must sometimes be defended in ways that look like its opposite. But it must not actually become the thing it fights. For example, even when we execute the most heinous war criminals, like Nazi SS officers, it is still important to do so with the utmost solemnity. What we NEVER want is a public spectacle celebrating the execution or subjecting the convicts’ families to torture, or generally letting ourselves give into something like bloodlust. This is not for the benefit of the Nazis. It is for ourselves. To behave in that way is to vitiate our own moral character and the possibility of healing. 

Am I saying that rage felt by survivors of a monster or even a monstrous system are invalid? Of course not. Of COURSE it’s understandable that survivors feel a swell of overwhelming rage, or even an impulse to lash out and turn into a mob. The rest of us need to give space for that anger to be expressed as an emotion. Treating those expressions with scorn, anger or sanctimonious judgment or worse, inflicting even more suffering and “punishment” on survivors is morally reprehensible. 

But it is also incumbent on the rest of us to prevent the expression of those emotions from becoming actualized violence and destruction and we need to do so in constructive and supportive ways. That includes NOT advocating actual violence as a “solution.” Don’t lecture people who are in pain. But also don’t become a vocal cheerleader for violence.

Violence is not the answer. Those of us who haven’t actually suffered the legacy of the historical wrongs that people are protesting must sympathize with the underlying rage, but we must not stoke it. We must not appropriate the outrage as though it springs from our own experience. That behavior is not “support”; it’s narcissism.

I know a couple whose teenage daughter went through some trauma a few years ago. She had fits of uncontrollable rage. In those moments her parents didn’t scold her. But neither did they spur her on to destroy her room or inflict harm on herself or her siblings. They held her. They soothed her. They let her cry on their shoulders. Most importantly, they got her the real help she needed. 

To be a genuine ally, one has to do some difficult and uncomfortable work. By that I don’t mean performative virtue signaling on social media, like vapid celebrities love to do with empty rhetoric of “I see you” and “I take responsibility.” What I do mean is, in these hard times, the ally has to provide REAL support, like the parents in my example. The ally has to have the strength to be the calm one. Find out how you can help hard-hit neighborhoods (which are disproportionately Black and poor) with practical needs. Local groups are working to clean up and provide resources and survive through this. It isn’t the “oppressor” who is feeling the brunt of all the fury. If you have friends who have connections to such neighborhoods or have been personally harmed, do what you can for them individually. We all have friends for whom there are lifelong indignities that have bubbled to the surface even if they aren’t currently in the path of any tangible danger. Let your friends vent. Or give them space away from you if they need, but keep an eye on their needs, and meet them as best you can. And please, have a little poise. Don’t make this about your own indignation.

Understand, don’t stoke, the rage.

 

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