On Context and Moral Equivalency
We cannot talk about all the talk about Charlottesville without first talking about the context of this cultural moment. In 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida. In the aftermath of his death, many voices blamed him for his nonverbal cues of threat: He was black, walking at night in a majority white neighborhood, and he was wearing a sweatshirt with a hood. This blaming of the victim exists largely because of the strength of cultural normativity. In America, the largest group of people with power—white people above the poverty line—get to decide what normal, safe behavior looks like. This standard, while messily and informally arrived at, is very powerful, and difficult to change. In a setting in which a teenager is blamed for his own death at the hands of a man who violated explicit orders from police, the blaming can be understood when placed in the context of normative safe behavioral standards. “Safe” people, in the context of majority norms, are white people, whose belonging is almost always unquestioned (and who do not wear baggy clothing with hoods). Martin was deemed “unsafe”, having violated all the standards of normative behavior, and was therefore preemptively followed, and, as a result, killed.
The acquittal of his killer created a new context in which Alicia Garcia, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors started a hashtag that birthed a protest movement that has helped define the last 4 years of American cultural discourse: Black Lives Matter (BLM). This phrasing is important contextually because white supremacists chanted “White Lives Matter” (WLM) in Charlottesville last weekend. The phrases are similar, only three words each with two shared in common. Claims have been made drawing a moral equivocation between BLM protests and alt right rallies; however, this equivocation can only exist outside of context, for the types of people who claim these phrases want very different things, making moral equivocation absurd. BLM is an assertion of the value of people of color, a plea for equity and a place in a shared society. WLM, on the other hand, is a defense of supremacy, and a plea to continue excluding others (“You [Jews] will not replace us!”). The former group is asking for a seat at the table. The latter is demanding the door be locked so no one else can get in. BLM can resonate because the policies, norms, policing and economic standards of our country suggest black lives do not, in fact, matter as much as their Caucasian counterparts (more on this in next week’s essay). WLM must be seen as immoral because of the clear rebuttal it offers black—and all “other”—lives. In America, as a rule, the value of “white life” has not been systemically questioned in the same way that “black life” has been seen as expendable. Any survey of American history—despite massive gaps—reveals that most power, wealth and normative standard-making rests in white hands. To be sure, America has deep class divides, and many white folks feel powerless and undervalued. Still, the vast majority of oppressive violence has been acted upon black bodies by white hands throughout our history. One cannot take on the mantle of victimization when there are actual victims in the room! I don’t say this to incite defensiveness or reopen old wounds; rather, these simple facts are critical to a thoughtful response to Charlottesville.
This is the context we must recognize when thinking about Charlottesville and our lack of moral authority. Foundational racism in our society is demonstrated in the fact that the cultural norms invoked by many in the majority to condemn Martin and BLM protests have not been applied to white supremacists and their protests. No one seems to have noticed that the coalition of white men who marched made intentional choices that placed them in a context deemed unsafe, even by white, normative standards:
Jason Kessler, who requested the permit for his self-named “Unite the Right” rally, argued he was trying to have “a pro-white demonstration” (Business Insider). Many of the men who attended wore clothing that signaled the KKK and neo-Nazi groups, hoisted confederate and nazi flags, and carried semi-automatic assault rifles and bullets. The men also marched after sunset, carried lit torches reminiscent of KKK gatherings where minority men were lynched, and chanted phrases documented to have come from Nazi Germany and the Confederate South, two societies sustained by the violently enforced supremacy of Caucasian Christians.
These men sent every sign that they were placing themselves in a specific historical context in which white males had all authority to attack or end the life of anyone they did not appreciate. This context must be a part of the conversations we are having on moral authority and equivalency.
In a just and fair society, there are laws protecting freedoms like our first amendment right to free speech and a permitting process guaranteeing our right to assemble. However, moral authority recognizes that “all things are permissible, but not all things beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23). Normative standards in America state that an act can be legal and condemnable. It is true that our freedoms are meant to protect lives, not feelings; that said, legal acts, like marching with torches and guns while shouting racial slurs and white superiority, are morally reprehensible, and must be denounced as such by our leaders, not dismissed as the equivalent of movements to elevate all lives.
We all seem to be lacking in context these days, however, and in that way our president reflects us. As we try to make sense of what happened in Charlottesville and struggle to address the monument issue, we need the moral discipline to place every event in its proper context, the wisdom to analyze the moral authority of that context (is it fair for all or just normal for powerful people?), and the words to denounce hate, legal though it may be. We cannot ask our leaders for what we do not demand of ourselves.
Next week, we will revisit the debate around BLM and All Lives Matter, mining that conflict for the foundational context it laid for the present.