Twitter is designed to bring out the worst in us. It is a dopamine factory for moralized expressions of anger, panic, and contempt. It is also a perfectly designed stage for theatrical performances before like-minded audiences who heavily reward the same. Last week, it brought me low. The precipitating event was a march in St. Louis to the house of Mayor Lyda Krewson, during which a couple of nearby homeowners menacingly pointed guns at the protesters who were marching by. Watching that video of a semi-automatic and pistol being waived at people who didn’t appear threatening at all (arguably, a fourth-degree assault) sent my anger dial off-the-charts–which is why the tweet that followed was a doozy. It was also intemperate and wrong. To be clear (and contrary to what I wrote): No one should have rushed the gunmen. No one should have used violence to end the threat of a shooting. None of that, it turned out, was necessary.
It would be unfair, however, to say that social media manufactured my anger. Instead, it fed it. Where did that anger come from? Hundreds of instances of appalling violence that police officers from all around the country have unleashed on protesters since the brutal murder of George Floyd. Dangerous right-wing counter-protesters who have engaged in frightening armed intimidation of demonstrators. Inspired by the murder of Heather Heyer at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, they have weaponized cars and trucks and run over protesters on at least 50 occasions, including in Visalia CA, the California Bay Area, San Jose CA, Bakersfield CA, Newport Beach CA, Hollywood CA, Denver CO, Tallahassee FL, Gainesville FL, Kokomo IN, Boston MA, Jackson MI, Minneapolis MN, Lansing MI, Jefferson City MO, Fargo ND, Brooklyn NY, Akron OH, Tulsa OK, Portland OR, Chattanooga TN, Richmond VA, and Seattle WA. Demonstrators have been shot by heavily armed civilians in Indianapolis, IN, Albuquerque NM, and Seattle WA. Black protesters in the Bakersfield and Indianapolis incidents subsequently died.
It’s perfectly obvious that what I’m seeing in these demonstrations — largely peaceful marches for the cause of justice and liberty too often facing dangerous intimidation and violence — is not what some others see. They’re seeing the massive deployment of the police and National Guard to contain rampaging mobs said to be looting and burning across 2,000 towns and cities. They’re witnessing hundreds of police officers being injured (more than 700 as of June 8, a figure which has not been updated as far as I can tell but is certainly higher today), and 14,000 arrests thus far. And they’re hearing equally lurid stories about innocents being shot and killed in the course of these protests (22 and counting). Judging by my inbox, their anger matches – if not exceeds – my own.
As journalist Walter Lipmann pointed out in his magisterial Public Opinion, we are entirely beholden to others to tell us what’s going on in the world outside of our immediate personal experience. Both what we know as fact, and how those facts should be interpreted (which is not self-evident), are in those circumstances delegated to others. Given that, it’s wrong to think that those who disagree about what’s been going on since the murder of George Floyd are (necessarily) irrational, stupid, or evil. Better to think of them as differently informed. “Poorly informed” is an alternative conclusion, but that may or may not be the case. Motivated reasoning can drive even highly informed and intelligent people into dubious intellectual wastelands.
Accordingly, it’s not surprising that some believe that the violence directed at the protesters is entirely justified or, at the least, largely forgivable given the circumstances. While I see the long-overdue revival of the civil rights movement, they see the sans-culottes. While I see the violence being primarily driven by over a century of institutional racism, injustice, and economic inequality (as did the Kerner Commission in its report regarding the far more violent protests in 1967), they see antifa, black racists, and socialist revolutionaries.
It is not my intent here to relitigate the morality of the protesters in general, or the behavior of the gun-waving couple in St. Louis in particular. If we disagree about these matters, it’s unlikely I’m going to change your mind in this essay. Instead, I mean to remind you (and myself) that we may not know as much as we think we know about the world outside of our reach. That’s not a case for agnosticism about “the truth.” It is a case for dialing back our sense of certainty about our opinions.
What’s a moderate to do? It is certainly “immoderate” to endorse violence (which is where my intemperance led me last week, albeit in the case of self-defense), or threats of violence (which is where the defense of the gun-waving couple led others last week). Alas, both feed off each other, and I suspect few outside of the radical fringe are comfortable with where this road is taking us.
While that might suggest a common ground — a mutual commitment, first and foremost, to civil peace — that would be morally problematic. That’s because acts of violence and acts of civil disruption (trespassing on private property, defying police orders with regards to march routes, squatting in public places, etc.) are two different matters. The former is wrong, but not necessarily the latter. As Martin Luther King famously wrote from the Birmingham jail, too many white moderates are “more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.” Civil resistance and disobedience — the intentional disruption of peace — are the essence of protest, the tactics that produce the media coverage necessary to attract attention and change hearts and minds. Discard that, and one discards the campaign for the underlying cause.
Clearly, many disagree. But as a moderate, that doesn’t trouble me. The moderation I embrace is not a split-the-difference meeting of the minds (the creed of centrism, which I do not hold). Instead, it is anchored in a commitment to an open, pluralistic society that treats everyone with dignity and respect. Today, that society is under attack. And under these circumstances, moderation must be radical.
Even so, moderation demands that we keep our head even while everyone around us is losing theirs. What makes social media so difficult is that it encourages us to react to everything, whereas moderation is (per Federalist 42) the “mild voice of reason, pleading the cause of an enlightened and permanent interest, is but too often drowned, before public bodies as well as individuals, by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain.” Deliberation and reflection go hand in hand with moderation.
Last week was a good reminder that we could all – myself included – do better in that regard.