Drawing Muhammad, Burning CVS: What Is Ours to Do

Two wrongs don't make a right.
So what do we make of two wrongs?

When there are two wrongs, one of which provokes the other, which one draws more of our attention, energy, and emphasis? Two recent events raise the question: the shootout in Garland, TX over an anti-Islam event that featured a contest of cartoon drawings of Muhammad, and the recent riots in Baltimore.

I think it's wrong -- not illegal, but still wrong -- to deliberately insult a group of people for no reason other than to insult them. I'm not going to use "the N word," display a swastika or confederate flag, burn a US flag, or make a drawing intended to represent Muhammad. I will urge anyone contemplating doing those things that they not do so.

I also really don't think people should be shot or arrested for doing any of those things.

On a different issue, I think our police culture is a problem.
"In many places, a self-supporting and insular police culture develops: In this culture no one understands police work except fellow officers; the training in the academy is useless; to do the job you’ve got to bend the rules and understand the law of the jungle; the world is divided into two sorts of people — cops and a — holes." (David Brooks, NYTimes, 2014 Dec 9)
This police culture encourages police abuse, especially toward the poor and minorities. In Baltimore, poorer and predominantly African American neighborhoods have been oppressed for decades by police with the tacit (at least) encouragement of politicians. I think that's wrong.

I also think looting and setting fire to drugstores is wrong.

So which wrongs should get more of our attention, energy, engagement? Whether our focus goes to the provocation or to the reaction does not always depend on the magnitude of the harm wrought. I offer no answers or formula. I offer merely that we view all such questions in the light of two calls: the call to understanding, and the call to inclusion in moral community.

We Are Called

We are called to the work of understanding: the work, that is, of understanding others and the needs we all share that lie behind the strategies they choose. Even if we believe they choose unskillfully, we must understand how it is that they have the skills they have and lack others. We can never do this perfectly, of course -- we cannot even understand ourselves perfectly. Nevertheless we are called to construct the most charitable interpretation of others' behavior that our imaginations can make at all plausible. This calling entails an obligation to "assume best possible motive," and also an obligation to learn about -- and thereby strengthen our imaginative capacity for putting ourselves in -- very different situations from any we have directly experienced.

We are also called to the work of inclusion within moral community: the work, that is, of engaging in moral discourse with a wide variety of others and including others, to the furthest extent their capacity allows, in relations of accountability, for accountability and belongingness entail each other. Much of this work, too, is imaginative: We may never encounter members of certain groups face to face, yet we may nevertheless reflect on what we would say, and on what they might say, and on the ways that social structures (which legislatures -- and therefore we, as voters, influence) may facilitate accountability. Part of what we do in moral discourse is assess culpability. Exclusion from accountability, that is, exclusion from moral community, places the excluded outside of possible culpability -- which gets them "off the hook," but also dehumanizes them. Moral discourse that over-relies on blaming slides into demonizing, but discourse that places a person or group outside of accountability, and therefore outside of possible culpability, also denies essential aspects of personhood.

The work of understanding and the work of inclusion in moral community are often mutually supportive. Sometimes, however, as when culpability assessment is in order, the work of understanding and the work of inclusion pull, or seem to, in opposite directions. We are then called to negotiate that tension creatively.

(If you're asking, "Called? By whom?" then take your pick: by God, by our true self, by the angels of our better nature, by our intrinsic aspiration, by the still small voice of conscience, by faith in the possibility of beloved community, by the onward urging of the universe, by our yearning for wholeness.)

The Cases

To understand the operation of these callings, consider these cases. The first three are included in order to expand and illustrate the concepts before applying them to the last two.
  1. Two children, siblings Rob and Susie, squabble. Rob teases and provokes his sister until she overreacts and whacks him with a stick. Rob's cry brings parental involvement.
  2. Outside a bar one fine New Hampshire evening, Jack levels a virulent insult at Red, who slugs him. A police officer, witnessing and overhearing the entire altercation, finds Jack's words so harshly insulting, offensive, and degrading that he arrests Jack, but not Red. Jack is charged under a New Hampshire statute making it illegal for anyone to address "any offensive, derisive or annoying word to anyone who is lawfully in any street or public place ... or to call him by an offensive or derisive name." The officer in this case decides to let Red off with a warning: "I ought to arrest you also, but I'm not going to because if anybody said that to me, I'd slug him too.".
  3. On 2001 Sep 11, hijackers commandeered airplanes and flew them into, among other places, New York's Twin Towers.
  4. On 2015 Jan 7, at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, Islamists Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi opened fire, killing twelve, and wounding eleven, four of them seriously. The brothers took umbrage especially at Charlie's cartoons of Muhammad. On 2015 May 3, Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi attacked an event in Garland, TX featuring cartoons of Muhammad. The men fired assault rifles at police and were slain in the shootout.
  5. Riots in Baltimore on 2015 Apr 27 included looting, the burning of a CVS drug store, destruction of two police cars, and a number of injuries to police and others.
Sometimes our moral deliberation follows the paradigm of a court judge deciding whether to rule in favor of plaintiff or defendant. The kind of discernment involved in the above five cases is quite different from that. We are not dealing with who is right and who is wrong, but with two sides that are both wrong. We must discern which of two wrongs is more salient -- which one gets more of our emphasis or attention.

In each case there are provoking conditions and there is a reaction. We may try to attend equally to each, but often one or the other rises to a greater salience, warrants more of our attention, or tugs more strongly for our moral engagement.

Case #1

In the first case, the parent, responding to this incident, will likely agree that both of the following are true:
(1a) Rob should not have teased his sister so unkindly.
(1b) Susie should not have reacted as she did by whacking her brother.
The parent might give equal attention to both points, and issue equal chastisement to both children. Or, for various reasons, one or the other statements might seem more salient. If the whack is slight, the parent's emphasis might be on the provoker: "Rob, stop harassing your sister." If the whack is more disturbing, the parent might focus on the reactor: "Susie, I don't care what he said, you can't hit him."

A significant factor in judging salience between two such statements, both acknowledged to be true, is whether one of the agents is seen as more susceptible to one's moral suasion than the other. If there's a notable age difference between Rob and Susie, then parental ire will likely be directed more toward the older child: "You're old enough to know better" ("... than to tease and provoke," if Rob is older; or "... than to so overreact," if Susie is older). Parents may treat the older child as more susceptible to moral suasion, which is to say, more responsible, more firmly within the community of those with whom the parent can reason. The older child's greater culpability is a product of the older child's greater inclusion within moral community of shared discourse and reflection. The younger child may also be included to the furthest extent her or his capacity allows, but the capacity, at a tender age, for participation in all levels of moral reasoning is more limited.

Case #2

The second case is a grown-up version of the first. This one is also hypothetical, though the New Hampshire statute quoted is real. (In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire [1942], the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that statute and upheld Chaplinsky's conviction under it.) The officer. let us suppose, agrees that both the following are true:
(2a) Jack should not have insulted as he did.
(2b) Red should not have slugged Jack.
Though he assents to the truth of both, the officer clearly finds (2a) the more salient truth. It is the provocation rather than the reaction in this case that commands this officer's greater attention. The officer understands Red, sympathizes entirely with Red's situation and his behavior. Jack, however -- to his chagrin in this incident -- is included in a relation of accountability. He may rue his arrest, but this very accountability also affirms his moral agency and personhood. If the system works as it should (which, alas, too often, it doesn't) the relation of accountability is mutual, and Jack's testimony about any police impropriety during the arrest will be taken seriously. Red, on the other hand, though extended the blessing of understanding is, by that very understanding, placed outside of the accountability to which most of us would agree he ought to have been held (except insofar as the officer's warning is one way a relation of accountability may express).

Case #3

I include this case because the US response to the the terrorist attacks on 2001 Sep 11 exemplifies failure to heed the call to understanding. In the months following the attacks there was in many quarters outright hostility to the very idea of trying to understand what made the hijackers do what they did. Even today traces of that hostility linger, along with, in most of the population, a lack of any interest in grasping the social and psychological sources of violent extremism. Most Americans labeled the attackers "evil" -- which labeling absolves the labeler of any responsibility to look into the matter any more deeply. "Evil" has become a word we use when we cherish our hatred so much that we're afraid that if we understood the hated thing, we wouldn’t be able to hate it anymore.

Something provoked those terrorists to their action. If evil it were, that evil was nurtured and brought to disastrous fruition by some combination of forces interacting with the human needs we all have. The US has responded to the 9/11 attacks by building up its security apparatus, but doing very little to address the conditions that turn normal healthy children into young adults willing to be walking bombs. Few Americans have regarded the provocations to terrorism as salient, but only the terrorism that is a reaction to that provocation.

We come now to the two cases that started me on this reflection:

Case #4

Two common reactions to the violence directed at cartoonists who drew pictures of Muhammad are:
(4a) I know people have a right to make offensive drawings, but it would be better not to draw pictures of Muhammad.
(4b) "It is not OK to shoot other people because you are offended by what they draw. Even if they drew it to offend you, no shooting of them."
The (4b) answer is, in fact, a quote from Jon Stewart (Daily Show, 2015 May 4).

Perhaps you would agree with both (4a) and (4b). But one thought or the other is likely to be more primary for you. Though both may be true, one is more salient. For one funny man, Jon Stewart, it's (4b). For another funny man, cartoonist Garry Trudeau, it's (4a).

In remarks delivered on 2015 Apr 10 at the Long Island University's George Polk Awards ceremony, where he received a Career Award, Garry Trudeau argued that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were abusing satire by "punching downward."
"Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean. By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech." (Gary Trudeau, "The Abuse of Satire," Atlantic Monthly online, 2015 Apr 11)
Writer and photogapher Teju Cole also saw (4a) as the point that needed making:
"It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullyingly racist agenda, but it is necessary to try....The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not mere gadflies, not simple martyrs to the right to offend: they were ideologues. Just because one condemns their brutal murders doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology.” (Teju Cole, "Unmournable Bodies," New Yorker, 2015 Jan 9)
The subsequent shootout in Garland, TX centered on a contest of Muhammad cartoons. The event was organized by Pam Geller, who heads the American Freedom Defense Initiative and has run virulent anti-Islam advertising on buses and subways. If the Charlie cartoonists were Islamophobic ideologues, then Geller would also qualify.

Whether (4a) or (4b) rises to greater prominence in your mind will depend on who you regard as moral agents. Shooting people is a greater wrong than offending them, yet your attention may gravitate toward the provokers if you regard them as more susceptible to moral suasion. As David Frum writes of Trudeau's speech:
"Had the gunmen been 'privileged,' then presumably the cartoons would have been commendable satire. The cartoonists would then have been martyrs to free speech. But since the gunmen were 'non-privileged,' the responsibility for their actions shifts to the people they targeted, robbing them of agency. It’s almost as if he [Trudeau] thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better." ("Why Garry Trudeau is Wrong about Charlie Hebdo," Atlantic Monthly online, 2015 Apr 13)
If dogs, or violence-prone Muslims, are not within the community of those with whom we can reason, then our attention goes to those who are -- those who "should have known better." Frum's critique, in essence, is that Trudeau, in his effort to extend sympathetic understanding to the Muslim community has excluded them from moral community, denied them moral agency, set them outside of relations of accountability, rendered them ineligible for culpability -- and thereby denied them an essential part of personhood.

Stewart's response to the Garland incident -- "no shooting of them," delivered in the slow emphatic tones of an exasperated parent -- treats the shooters (or, rather, potential future shooters) as worthy of directing moral (moralizing, perhaps) discourse to. He thereby affirms their membership in moral community.

Case #5

With news of the looting in Baltimore and burning of a CVS broadcast into TVs in living rooms (and airports and a number of bars and restaurants) across the nation, two reactions were typical:
(5a) Theft, property destruction and injuries are certainly unfortunate, yet, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "A riot is the language of the unheard."
(5b) It is not OK to burn and loot. Even if you have been wronged, no looting or burning.
Again, you might, as I do, agree with both assertions. For many of us, though, one or the other is primary. Some of us find our moral energy focusing on the "provokers": the police and politicians who have allowed, and sometimes actively facilitated, decades of oppressive conditions in Baltimore's poor and minority neighborhoods -- that is, the leaders who failed to hear the legitimate complaints of those now rioting. Others of us find that condemnation of the "reactors" -- the looters and burners (a small minority of the total demonstrators) -- seems more salient.

The call to understanding in conjunction with the call to inclusion in moral community brings us to an appropriate regard for both truths, (5a) and (5b).

We are called to understanding. It behooves us to know what is going on in the poorer and predominantly minority sections of our cities; how the poor and minorities are treated by the police, politicians, civic leaders, media, and fellow citizens; what they experience in their schools and neighborhoods.

We are also called to inclusion in moral community. Our understanding of how a young black man might be prompted to ignite a drug store must not function to excuse, which is to say dismiss, him from culpability and thus from the ranks of moral agents. Recognizing all the factors that have disempowered him, it may be tempting to hold him blameless, let him "off the hook," -- that is, set him outside of moral community of accountability. Let us resist that temptation, for it only adds another level of dehumanization and alienation to that already in evidence. Respecting his personhood entails holding him responsible. If there is to be a path from disempowered alienation to empowered belonging, that path must be one of inclusion within relations of accountability.

For providing that accountability, our society relies heavily on a counterproductive retribution-based justice system. Even when arrest, trial, and sentencing are as fair as they are supposed to be, our system of retributive justice almost always does more harm than good to the interests of moral inclusion, empowerment, and reduced alienation. Instead, methods of restorative justice offer the sort of healing accountability that we all need. (See restorativejustice.org and my blog series that begins HERE.)

Those who riot, as King said, speak the language of the unheard. We must find ways for broader society to better hear the voices of poor and minority youth. They must be heard. Inclusion within the broader moral community, however, also requires that they, in turn, hear others, and are thus brought into relationship of mutuality where true accountability -- the accounting for ourselves to one another -- becomes possible.

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