Showing posts with label protest. Show all posts
Showing posts with label protest. Show all posts

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Injustice, Protests and the Mobs: What’s a Catholic To Do?

Watching the United States today, we’re seeing an alarming transition from a Republic that is—in theory anyway—based on the rule of law to an ochlocracy (A political system in which a mob is the source of control) where anger at a real or perceived injustice is used to extrajudicially target people that demagogues dislike. 

Yes, it’s indisputable that we’re here in the first place because the rule of law was unevenly applied to certain groups of people… many of whom have lost faith in the system we have. The question is what are we to do when legitimate grievances with illegitimate tactics. After all, as Catholics we cannot accept an evil means to achieve a good end.

We need to be clear on this before acting against injustice. Yes, if an institution is corrupt, it must be reformed. But not all methods used to demand reform are morally acceptable. Unfortunately, a certain subset of those seeking redress are choosing an evil means—demagogues using mob rule—to intimidate or even attack those they dislike. 

Let’s not just blame the other side here. The tactic of mobs is not limited to specific ethnic, political, or other groups. Nor is it limited to the United States alone. The tactics of the Nazi Brown Shirts in the 1920s and 30s might serve as an example of how bad a mob directed by an ideology and demagogues might become. So, we cannot say, “it’s their fault” while ignoring the wrongs we might tolerate on our own side. Conservatives need to be aware of the groups (like nationalist and white separatist/supremacist mobs) claiming to associate with their causes. Liberals need to be aware of the groups (like the antifa and others) claiming to associate with their causes. No faction is free of extremists.

Unfortunately, too many demagogues find the extremists on the other side to be a useful tool to discredit legitimate concerns. If one faction raises a concern and that faction has extremists who march with them, it becomes too easy for an opposing faction to treat anyone sharing a concern as agreeing with the extremists. (This is a guilt by association fallacy, by the way). It is quite possible to have something in common with an extremist group without accepting their extremist positions. For example, Antifa might have things in common with the Democratic Party, while white separatists might have some similarities with the Republican party, but that doesn’t mean that the Democrats and the Republicans openly support their worst barbarisms. So, even if we wish that one party would be more forceful in rejecting the extremists, we can’t automatically assume that the failure to do so is a blanket endorsement of evil.

Unfortunately, the mobs are making these associations. If a Catholic says “black lives matter,” other Catholics assume that he or she has capitalized each word and supports the extremist movement that has appropriated the slogan for themselves. If a Catholic says that they think that he or she has to support Trump because the other choices seem worse, other Catholics assume that he or she has openly championed the worst parts of his policies§

But we can’t do this. The Church expressly calls Rash Judgment a sin. We are not to accuse a person of a moral fault that we simply assume he or she must believe. We need to be certain that there are facts to base such an accusation on. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out (#2478):

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

Unfortunately, when we fall into mob rule, we don’t give a favorable interpretation to another (often falling into a fallacy of equivocation or accent), we don’t ask how the other intends it (often falling into a straw man or hasty generalization fallacy), and in our rush to correct, we don’t correct in love.

Once a mob falls into rash judgment, we often find that people who were not to blame for an injustice gets harmed in the violence and the demagogues claim that, while regrettable, it’s perfectly “understandable” that they act this way. But this is where we need to consider the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). If we do not want to suffer injustice, we must not personally cause or take part in injustice to others. If we want others to consider the harm that they indirectly they cause us, we must consider the harm we indirectly cause others.

So, the past injustices a group suffers does not justify members of this group from inflicting injustice on others, regardless of what unjust members of the “others” have done. However, this cuts both ways. If it’s wrong for the mob to unjustly target groups based on the acts of some, we must not target entire groups with accusations based on the wrongdoing of some. So, if we see protestors carrying signs saying “black lives matter,” we cannot automatically assume they mean to support the radical group Black Lives Matter.

Another thing to remember is that laws that are just in themselves cannot be disobeyed just because the government is behaving unjustly. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Prov. 8:15: By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things. Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good,—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver,—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws. (STh., I-II q.96 a.4 resp.)

To use an extreme example, we’re not free to rape and murder just because the regime that passed laws against them is morally evil#. One who argued that laws against such things in Nazi Germany weren’t binding because the Nazis did not have legitimacy would still be culpable« if they refused to obey those laws. It’s when a law is intrinsically unjust in itself (for example, a law in Nazi Germany that required you to turn in Jews you knew were hiding) that we are obligated to oppose it.

Applying it to our present crisis, laws against rioting and vandalism remain just and binding, even when protestors are rightfully angry about a flagrant injustice in the legal system and frustrated by the fact that nothing seems to change. An unjust law might be giving permission to group X to do something that is illegal for group Y. If the permitted act is unjust, Group X must not do it. If it is just, it is wrong to deny it to Group Y.

If we think the legal system is unjust in some way, we may legitimately work to legally overturn it. If we find a monument honoring somebody offensive cannot be borne, we may legitimately work to have it legally removed. But rioting, behaving like vigilantes, putting other people at risk or destroying cannot be done… whether the government turns a blind eye to it or not.

What is a Catholic to do in these times? Behave justly, show compassion, and love our foes. That means we don’t turn a blind eye to the evils done by groups we favor while condemning the evils done in groups we oppose. If we would be angry if something was done against us, that is a huge clue we ought not to be doing it ourselves, whether by commission or omission.


(†) While the United States votes on who is elected to represent us, it is not a democracy in the literal sense of the term. 

(‡) As always, I try to alphabetize my dichotomies to avoid the appearance of siding with one.

(§) Before anybody falls into Whataboutism, and accuse me of overlooking something, we can usually reverse these examples. For example, the Catholic who morally believes they can’t vote for Trump is often accused of supporting all of the evils of the Democratic Party.

(#) This is where those extremists go wrong when they think that saving unborn children justifies murdering abortionists. The laws against murder and the laws against vigilantism are just in themselves.

[«] No doubt in such a regime, those laws would be enforced unjustly, never enforced against the regime, but evil by them does not justify behaving unjustly ourselves.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Double Standards: Not All Injustices Are Viewed as Equal, But They Remain Unjust

“When you see a nation, an entire nation simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”

—Bill De Blasio, Mayor of New York City

“However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators' ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders.”

—Open Letter of 1200 health care professionals

One thing that shows up during the protests#—just as they have any other time there is injustice—is the attitude of “But, what about X? Why are you focusing on Y instead of X?” Alternately, we see “Why are you focusing on this now when you were silent all these other times?” These comments usually spark internet brawls, where the people who think Y is more important than X respond with anger, thinking that these objections show that the people who say them “don’t care” about injustice.

It’s true that some people do say these things because they don’t care. But others have legitimate concerns about injustices that others either don’t care about or don’t understand. I think the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12a) is important here: Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. If we want others to care about the injustice we suffer, that shows caring about the injustice others suffer is a moral imperative. Saying Y is more immediately urgent than X is one thing. But holding a double standard based on one’s own biases of what is important and what is to be guilty of injustice as well. 

In other words, before you say, “That’s different,” remember that some people think the same way about your cause. If you don’t want others to dismiss your cause, don’t dismiss theirs, even if you think one cause is in more urgent need of correction than another.

I began reflecting on this when New York City mayor De Blasio announced that he was going to tolerate protesters violating quarantine rules but keep them in place for religious services, because these cases were an exception to the rule. Since the (presumably) peaceful right of assembly is included in the same amendment as the freedom of religion, we have a clear-cut case of the double standard. If the laws of health are so important that religious groups cannot hold services because of the risk of increasing the spread of COVID-19 then, logically, the risk of thousands of people gathered in close spaces to protest must be held to the same standard. And health experts are expressing grave concern over the rioters spreading contagion. Some “health professionals” have apparently signed a letter saying that the need to protest outweighs the need to quarantine, but it’s the same double standard. What determines a “need” is based on what the person considers important and what others consider a need is not.

But that’s precisely the attitude behind the injustice that is currently being protested—the recognition that the treatment of certain people and issues are being handled unjustly based on what those in charge think is important and what they don’t care about. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the protestors’ perception§, they resent that what they have seen as injustice for decades was dismissed as not important or not as bad as they thought. 

This is why the Golden Rule is important in all times and all circumstances. If we want to have people treat our cause justly, we must make sure we treat the causes of others justly. That doesn’t mean “give in to everything.” Justice is giving to others what is their due by right. A human being must be treated like a human being in all circumstances. But when a demand unjustly harms others, giving into it is not just. For example, we cannot give into the demands of a manifestly unjust group like Planned Parenthood in the name of “justice,” because their promotion of abortion harms other human beings, treating them as less than human.

Having one standard of treatment for one group, and a different standard for a second group is unjust, regardless of whether the second group is treated better or worse than the first. If seeking the public good is a requirement of good government, it cannot be selective in making or enforcing laws out of sympathy for one group or antipathy for another.

In dealing with the quarantine laws, regarding the protests and the freedom of religion, we must not have different standards for different people. If the conditions of contagion bar large groups from meeting, we must apply that to all large groups. But if the conditions do not bar all large groups, then we need to make clear what differences make one group safer than another.

Otherwise, especially if it becomes clear that the different standard is based on indifference or antipathy to one group, we’re guilty of injustice.    



(‡) At the time of my writing this article.

(#) When I speak of protests, I am of course speaking of peaceful and lawful protests, not rioting.

(†) For example, I find it sad to see some people are angrier over the symbolic actions taken to protest the death of George Floyd then they are over the actual death of George Floyd.

(§) I’m more inclined to think now that they have a valid objection than I was ten years ago. That’s because I have ten more years of experience in what goes on in the world and ten more years of studying Church teaching than I had before.