As I’ve been reflecting on the eruption of demonstrations and riots across the country sparked by the death of yet another unarmed black person at the hands of police or armed white civilians, I’ve had cause to remember a maxim* I wanted to share:
A bad argument can do great damage to a good cause.
Here’s how each of those elements looks to me right now:
The good cause in question is advancing several important ideas, one of which is that the law is designed to protect people, regardless of their individual characteristics (race, religion, sexual orientation or identity). It’s even designed to provide them with protections regardless of their activities. By this I mean that even if someone is being arrested because they actually did something wrong or illegal, the law should protect them from having an arresting officer kneel on their neck or otherwise cause them grievous harm or death.
The bad argument in the current situation might be symbolized by throwing rocks or bottles at police officers. In the unrest in downtown Salt Lake City yesterday, the police that I observed in the news coverage were not acting with violence, not harassing or persecuting demonstrators.
The great damage I have observed is signaled by my mom’s commentary as she watched the live coverage. Here are a few things to know about my mom: She gets angry at racial injustice. She is entirely in agreement with those who lament the terrible mistreatment of George Floyd by the officer who caused his death. She wants to see improvement. Her response to seeing broken bottles thrown at police officers standing in local streets yesterday was something like, “Yes, of course Black Lives Matter. Why are you throwing bottles at these officers?!”
Am I suggesting that there’s never a reason to protest loudly or vigorously? Am I suggesting that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all? Am I advocating that people with grievances just be more patient? No. I’m acknowledging that my mom, and so many people like her, were not moved to greater support or sympathy for the good cause of impartial justice by the bad argument of the demonstrators’ incendiary activities televised yesterday.
At the same time, I recognize that tone policing† is a tactic used by the powerful to silence the powerless, and deflect attention from the need for substantive changes by insisting that people won’t get their way if they can’t behave.
In a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace, Martin Luther King Jr. made this statement:
I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.
Now, it’s worth considering whether there would have been extensive live local coverage of the protest in Salt Lake City yesterday if all of the protestors had been stoic and silent. In some sense, those who are powerless are ignored if they protest quietly, and berated if they protest loudly.
I expect that each of those officers in riot gear yesterday had families at home worried about their safety, and the threats of violence from protestors did not engender feelings of support for their cause.
In his speech, “The Other America,” Martin Luther King Jr. amplifies on the issue of riots, contending that “riots are socially destructive and self-defeating,” but that “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”
I agree with MLK that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. At the same time, it seems to me that our current task as observers of these riots is to focus on the good cause, and not let ourselves be sidetracked by the bad arguments. And if we’re out protesting, it is in our interests to consider whether our actions are making it easier or harder for others to side with us.
Overall, can we seek out the good arguments that are being made, and amplify them? And can we hear what is painful, regardless of the tone in which is it said (or shouted), and remain present even when it would be more comfortable to turn away?
*I spent some online searching time trying to track down this quote so I could get the wording right and give credit to the author. I didn’t have any luck; it could be that the line is more of a general rule than a specific quote, or else I didn’t give it enough time. If you’ve heard this before and know where it comes from, please let me know.
†From Wikipedia: Tone policing is an ad hominem [personal attack] and anti-debate tactic based on criticizing a person for expressing emotion. Tone policing detracts from the validity of a statement by attacking the tone in which it was presented rather than the message itself.
[Images: Salt Lake Tribune, as provided to MSN.com]