“It’s an universal law– intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
A popular “hashtag” battle has achieved a symbolic primacy in the contemporary racial debate. Both the “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” positions have been propagated by means of social media, often at the expense of thoughtfulness and responsibility. One popular analogy circulating social media proposes a defeater for the competing “All Lives Matter” mentality. Picture a burning house on a street beside a number of other unmolested homes. Clearly the burning house and its occupants require rescue. However, a stick figure representation of “All Lives Matter” is seen spraying water on other houses, avoiding the conflagration. Another stick figure (representative of “Black Lives Matter”) notices this error and explains to his counterpart the need to focus his efforts on the burning house; unfortunately, he is met by a litany of excuses about the equal value of all houses. By focusing on the equal value of all the homes, the stick figure fails to save the one in need of rescue. Thus, the “All Lives Matter” movement is seen as a needless redundancy, forcefully ignoring the present problem by means of reiterating moral truisms.
This analogy receives traction by indicating the need of precision in the treatment of a problem. However, the analogy fails as it operates on premises distinct from the competing movement. Compare the following narratives: 1) African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated, persecuted, and murdered by the legal system and law enforcement representatives. 2) Two people were unjustly killed by law enforcement officers, and shortly following, five unassociated policemen are murdered by sniper fire in retribution. The analogy of the burning houses fails to cross conversational boundaries because it does not recognize the difference in diagnoses. One narrative recognizes societal racial injustice, the other injustice in general. It fails to distinguish the possibility that these are not mutually exclusive approaches to current issues. According to the competing proverbial banner, not just one house but most of the neighborhood is on fire.
Ironically, the analogy’s strength in focusing on precision is also its weakness, and correspondingly, a weakness in the “Black Lives Matter” front. The analogy forgets that ethics regarding African Americans are necessarily nested in ethics regarding human beings. Especially in a time where “Black Lives Matter” becomes associated with the vengeful murder of policemen, such precision furthers disparity between races at best, and implies justification of atrocities at worst. By dividing racial justice so starkly from justice itself, racial tension is paradoxically perpetuated. Historically, racial equality has not been realized through mere “racial ethics” at the expense of an interracial community rooted in a racially transcendent morality. The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement are significant examples which uphold leaders highly influenced by Christian and humanist ethics. When a proposed African American ethical solution conflicts with the human-oriented ethics from which racial equality is derived, it becomes not social justice but racial barbarism. On the contrary, a renewed emphasis on ethics as undistinguished by racial division pulls hitherto divided segments of society into a unified vision of the good, where racial equality is achieved naturally within its framework. African Americans fear negotiating a racially unjust society. Policemen fear wearing their uniform publicly. My mother has recently advised me to get a gun. When protectionism grasps social and class divisions, it breeds inhumanity in the name of self-preservation. Fear divides.
To deny the experience of fear, tension, or contempt often associated in anecdotes of interracial interactions is unreasonable. It is akin to denying another’s experience of pain. It is completely individual, cannot be analyzed from an exterior position, and is tautologically true when experienced. As individuals, our experiential realities can be communicated, but ultimately they will always rest in their fullness within that enigma called the individual. The same is true of the African American experience when applied at a cultural level. While a white person cannot know what it means to be black, neither can a black person know what it means to be white, nor any of us know what it means to be Babylonian. Racial reality only speaks to a portion of phenomenal experience when compared to the myriad factors which contort themselves into the individual identity, whether geographic, historical, biological, religious, or economic. However, no compilation of factors exhausts the individual identity, as all the factors previously mentioned do not quite define the fullness of a person. This ontological stance is intuitive in our cultural distaste of stereotyping. Fortunately, humans have the advantages of empathy, language, and media, existing in mass and manifold mediums, with the purpose of sharing experience via conversation. Intercultural and relational understanding will never be complete in the full metaphysical sense, but communion can be fruitfully and wonderfully pursued.
The dangers inherent in the “Black Lives Matter” movement rest in taking this experiential reality and forming it into a religiosity. A special knowledge (Gnosis) is exclusively available to the elect; revelation is granted to the African American. Only African Americans can know the African American experience, and the best to be expected from others is a loyal empathy and worshipful repentance. Those outside of the elect and their followership are dubbed heretics, perpetuating the evils of inequality by knowingly or unknowingly sinning through a subconscious racism. Denials of such are routed by implementing a Freudian dialectic, appealing with pseudoscientific fervor to a superior knowledge of the heretic’s underlying psychology. The heretic has not received the “Gnosis,” and thus is incapable of realizing his unwilled antagonism to Truth. Therefore, the difference between the elect and the heretic is one of education against ignorance, the modernly acceptable religious terms. Perspectives on people, events, and the world are filtered through the spectrum of this Gnostic lens, resulting in accusations of micro-aggressions and institutional racism where no objective evidence exists of overt or self-reflective racism. As God was once seen uncontestably acting in and symbolized by all things, so now all things take on racial undertones and symbolism. A specter of race has replaced the metaphysical demons of yesteryear. There is a neo-Marxist drive toward a Utopian future (read “heaven”) described as a pure equality between a historical oppressor and a victim class. The Utopian end justifies the ethical means, undermining the conception of the inherent dignity of human life by dehumanizing the heretic. Some must be damned that all might be saved.
The illusion of objective evidence is utilized to corroborate this Gnosis. Statistics and studies can be useful tools, but a certain danger comes with a heavy reliance on such methods. They fail to perceive the heart of matters for the same reason science fails to answer the philosophical questions of meaning or value. Information is neither knowledge nor truth. Statistics are numbers, and conclusions are abstractions made within the context of an inescapable and preconceived worldview. There is an inordinate number of African Americans in prison. Is it because more blacks are criminals or because more cops are racists? Does the overwhelming number of Jewish bankers in Germany entail that the Jews are responsible for the economic exploitation of the German people? The Nazis thought as much. There are too many questions and too many assumptions that pose as answers in confronting these delicate questions. All attempts to prove a point simply shield a worldview and an identity because they deny the very personal and relational complexity of each individual involved in any given situation. Our culture values knowledge as power, buttressed by numbers and science. Allowing even a miniscule segment of humility and empathy into one’s analysis is usually interpreted as weakness. Knowledge can be an idol, as unreal and impotent as any made of wood.
At the core of this issue rests the African American identity. As mentioned earlier, to deny a culture, an experience, and an identity that is inescapably and wonderfully unique to African Americans is philosophically and anthropologically irresponsible. However, just as one could criticize an individual’s morality (as is done every time one makes the “racist” accusation), so can one criticize morals associated with cultural identities. Currently, the African American identity is being compelled in the direction of the dehumanized religion described above. This identity depends not on positive elements about black history and contributions but rather on a negation, a required tension against an oppressor class. Unfortunately, the oppressor class then becomes a necessary element of African American identity. The actual elimination of racism would threaten and undermine this identity; therefore, oppression must be paradoxically preserved in this worldview in order to justify the identity’s existence. Racism has fallen by definition into the utterly subjective: perception is its final touchstone. This definition of racism is nebulous and subconscious and therefore pliable to any situation. Its continuation is guaranteed as long as there is someone to point at it.
As a result, the “Black Lives Matters” movement does not benefit the African American community. Marxist class struggles have only ever served to perpetuate the need for a powerful elite who promises to bring about the prophesied justice and the final equality. A reworking of cultural identity into victim and oppressor classes serves the very elites that class advocates portend to oppose. They exploit the semblance of crisis in order to justify a rise to power. It has been said never to let a good crisis go to waste, but this statement conceals a Machiavellian pragmatism. Crises can be used to effect evil as well as good, and oftentimes, crisis has been the excuse for sheer moral disregard (the internment of the Japanese in World War II comes to mind). Thomas Sowell (an African American) makes the case in his book The Vision of the Anointed that crises such as the current race struggle provide perfect leverage for opportunists to seize power. When such crises are unavailable, it is in the favor of these opportunists to create and nurture them. No matter how one assesses Sowell’s political leanings, the logic in the tactics is difficult to deny. Where idealists may propagate movements with good intentions and lofty thoughts, they will be accompanied by the elites who will not fail to sense viable opportunities for control.
Racial narratives and expectations that favor this class warfare are imposed in familial settings as well as through a ubiquitous torrent of media. Black children are taught to fear policemen, and white children are taught to fear any possible accusation of racism. Dichotomies established at such an early age immediately commence a deconstruction of trust and communion. Victim identities disillusion individuals against society, prompting a social rebellion that often dismisses the good of society along with the bad. Oppressor identities lead to an intrinsic sense of shame and an imposing fear of the ever immanent potential of becoming an active oppressor or being attacked as such. The situation leads to a madness of legalistic piety akin to the infamous Puritans of 17th century Salem. “Social justice” operating in this framework is only so in the sense that the French Revolution was social justice. Banners are flown proudly in the Parisian streets and on Twitter, and intellectuals propose whatever declaration of rights is fashionable, whether following Rousseau or Rawls. Righteousness is justified as blood fills the streets. Again, fear divides.
One cannot deny the legitimate existence of racism and its remnants that extends down to us through history. Neither is racism unique to our time and culture, but rather an unfortunate consequence of the human condition. However, the problem does not warrant the form of violent and accusatory protests and demonstrations that justify themselves by a declaration of crisis. Even racists first and foremost are people. Accusations don’t fix people. Education only fixes those with open hearts. “Fixing” and “education” are part of the problem. The heretic (the perceived racist) is dehumanized just as is the African American in the mind of an actual racist. Love changes a person in their core. Actual, self-denying, sacrificial love and relationship changes a person. Unfortunately, so does a lack thereof. The racist narrative is vindicated whenever there are attempts to dismantle the social order through chaotic protests and blindly impassioned accusation tactics. Such tactics instigate the need of a power struggle for the opposition as well. The one method neither narrative can comprehend is selfless love in the face of persecution.
The analysis of relationships in terms of power structure, a perspective proposed by Michel Foucault and now prevailing in academia, often leaves little room for this desired relational communion. Essentially, Foucault describes free relationships primarily in terms of power and resistance. He ascertains that certain historical structures lend to certain classes of people an ideological superiority which naturally overshadows and demeans the inferior, maintaining their own powerful position. In this sense, “Black Lives Matter” struggles for the reins of structural power, so tightly and subconsciously held by the historical white oppressor class. The problem with this very basic understanding of Foucault is that this philosophical perspective on relation sees power as primary and ubiquitous. The existence of a power struggle is unavoidable because power is how the relationship is predominantly defined, subordinating more traditional perspectives of love or duty or pleasure. Whether true to the depth of Foucault or not, this use of him declares no end to struggle. Foucault is often descriptive as opposed to prescriptive; he had no answer or quarrel to the struggle of power in itself, only the observance of its existence, whether overt or masked, for good or for ill. If we accept this philosophy, oppression can always be discovered and resisted in some form. Problematically, the proposed and expedient “fix” to the problem is not truly about a communion of persons, but an entire shift in power, the power of the victim coming to ascendancy. If this understanding of power is utilized to justify current brutalities, it would also justify any retribution which would follow in this generation or the next of the following victim class. The Utopia of the aforementioned religiosity will forever remain on the horizon.
Human change is a slow and delicate thing, like helping a plant grow. Similarly, growth must be rooted in something deep: indeed, the very core of who we are as human beings in relation to others, this world, God, and ourselves. Alasdair MacIntyre famously expresses in his book After Virtue that our society has lost this sense of self and any inherited context by which to understand words such as virtue, justice, or goodness. This context is what must be rediscovered—the reason why lives matter. Only then can one understand why black lives matter. The beauty and mystery behind the African American culture and people can only be assessed within this context. The postmodern critique has left the academy in a false comfort of ambiguity, often masking the individualistic (and in this case cultural) will to meaning apart from relational and moral obligations. MacIntyre’s understanding of this desired cultural context is not necessarily inimical to Foucault’s understanding of cultural power structures; rather, it may provide a virtuous means and end to which such subtle power can be directed. Indeed, the misled religiosity of the “Black Lives Matter” movement betrays the need for something more spiritual and substantial than sheer rebellion. Although the movement is fraught with dangerous implications, in its soul is something both natural and noble.
The first step in saving the world is not to seek out social justice or sweeping movements to enforce change on a culture, movements doomed to be exploited by the power-hungry and entangled in the profoundly limited emotions and creeds of our time. Rather, love your wife or husband. Play with your children. Share bread with your neighbor. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Love your enemies, even though they may revile you. Suffer well. The generalities of the day are simply that: generalities and thus unrealities. Mankind, whites, blacks, the upper and lower class—all such terms are referentially expedient but ontologically fictional. The world subsists in the minor, particular things, in persons and relations, which are unyieldingly more complex than their universal abstractions. The fate of the world rests in the small acts of ordinary people and the exasperatingly slow turnover of time, and this will remain true against all the youthful cries for an immanent justice and a Utopian conclusion to history. To save a single life may well be the worthwhile work of a lifetime. And by the grace of God we may even save our own.