I had an interesting conversation with my students today about social systems of privilege and oppression in the context of the Baltimore riots that are taking place right now. (For other articles about the riots, see here and here). We’re at the end of a class on ethics, social systems, and civics, and the current events are an opportunity to apply the concepts we have been discussing all semester.
What I learned from today’s conversation is that we can be educated about privilege and oppression and still not apply it to real situations because when assessing current events, we default to the mantras of the very social systems that need critique. It’s worse than denying that social structures exist, because in this case one admits their existence, but never grounds them in any actual occurrence. Sure, racism is a part of our social structure, the thinking goes, but Trayvon Martin? Michael Brown? Eric Garner? or Freddie Gray? These were all about something else, anything else than social structures that consistently support our devaluation of their lives.
I learned that we value property, and we value nonviolence. For some reason, when property is destroyed, all bets are off. The line of thinking goes something like this. “Yeah, it’s a terrible thing that a guy died from his treatment in police custody, but you can’t destroy your own city! That affects other people!” There is a conditioning that goes on when we see physical structures destroyed that we associate with the height of anarchy. (Except in movies—then we love to see stuff blow up.) For some reason when people are destroyed in the same way, it doesn’t affect us similarly. So some peoples’ stuff is more important than some peoples’ lives. We ought to be honest about this.
Even more interesting is the idea of nonviolence. It came up multiple times in our class conversation that violence ultimately doesn’t solve anything. Don’t these looters know they are sabotaging themselves by becoming violent? Why don’t they look at MLK or Gandhi and imitate their approaches? Set aside the fact that a casual watcher of Selma can see that successful actions were so because they provoked violent retaliation. We’re not really talking about an ethical ban on violence anyway. We’re talking about violence when it applies to the average citizen. Police violence, the violence of the state? These are not critiqued in the same way. If I ask my students, “Do you think it is right that a young man dies in police custody, likely because of his rough treatment at the hands of police?”, they would say, “No, but…”
It’s not simply no, it’s “No, but.” And it’s with that qualifier I realize that all abstract talk about systems of privilege and oppression is of little value unless you can apply it to events that are taking place. “It’s terrible that a guy died, but we can’t tolerate riots!” It would be a huge step forward if we could just turn the sentence around. “It’s terrible that this violence and rioting took place, but we can’t tolerate police brutality!” Why can’t we have that conversation instead of the one we are having?
People express incredulity at the fact that rioters are using violence. “Don’t they know that it undercuts their aims?” But why? Why is it that violence expressed by the average citizen, is automatically thought to be counterproductive when state violence, whether military violence abroad or police violence at home, is automatically assumed to be at worst necessary, and at best productive? This presumption colors the way we respond to these incidents, and is exactly the reason that some act out in violence in the first place.
“Don’t people know that they’re actually delaying justice for the victim by distracting people from solving the case?” What if violence, instead of being an ignorant explosion, was conceived as a response to justice delayed? A belief that the current police and justice system will prevail on the side of right requires a certain amount of trust in the system. Of course I trust the system. It has in general done right by me. But what if the system betrayed my trust on a regular basis by treating me or those in my community unfairly? Would I be wise to continue to trust in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Or would I insane? Of course I gamble on the justice of the system, because historically my bets have paid off. But at some point it would become stupid to do so if it was never in my interest.
It takes significant faith to continue to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary, and this is often why religion is a tool of the oppressor against the oppressed. But how can we blame lack of education when people respond with violence? Education shows that nonviolence, when met with violence, can win sympathy to a cause. It also shows that violence is the foundation for every significant civilization in history, and it is the most brazen of hypocrisies to denounce it as if we don’t think it’s a viable tool to upset the status quo.
You could read this as an apology for violence, which it’s not intended to be. But you can’t hide behind education if you immediately condemn violence without being to recognize legitimate, long-endured oppression. Education doesn’t teach you to abhor violence. It teaches you to be able read the situations around you without resorting to a black and white binary to define your world.