Tuesday will mark one month since a gunman killed 49 people and injured more than 50 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando. This past week brought more murder and sadness, with police violence against African American men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota captured on viral video, a grieving boy and a shattered girlfriend, and then a sniper in Dallas who killed five law enforcement officers and terrified a city. Add to that the shameful litany of mass shootings in recent years; the collapse of states in Syria, Libya and now Venezuela; a refugee crisis that has destabilized the European Union and inflamed voters in Great Britain; and our own electoral season, which has whittled down our political options to a nativist bully who winks at racism and violence and a deeply unpopular political insider who is widely seen as dishonest.
The world has been falling apart for a long time now. So how do we put it back together? The answers are the same as they ever were: We change our leaders at the ballot box; we compel them to act through peaceful protest; and we improve ourselves through learning, self-criticism, conversation and art.
But how do we get there? How do we clamber out of this morass of anger and grief?
First, a deep breath, and then a recommitment to principles.
If we can’t empathize across lines of race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, then there’s no hope of preserving democratic governance. Before this day is over, you will have dozens of encounters with people who disagree with you, and the vast majority of those encounters will be amiable. This makes real life fundamentally different from life filtered through social media, where people often search out strangers to antagonize. It is difficult to persuade anyone to change his or her mind about political, ethical or religious matters; it is virtually impossible to persuade a stranger to change his or her mind about anything. You may shame someone into silence for a while, but you will not change their heart. It is possible to transform the way people think, but this takes years, or decades, and it requires love.
We are all responsible for our own rhetoric. Angry rhetoric is cumulative in its volatility and can inspire mentally ill people to violence. It is essential to examine our own rhetoric for its incendiary power. When possible, it is a good idea to humbly encourage our friends to examine their own rhetoric for its power to incite violence. Telling other people, especially strangers, how they should speak, what they should or should not say, or demanding that they say things as a ritual submission to your worldview will only alienate them. Listening is better than speaking and speaking is better than shouting. No one ever wins an argument on television.
No movement or group is responsible for the actions of a mentally ill or sociopathic person who claims allegiance to that cause. But not all movements are morally equivalent. There is a difference between seeking redress for past injury and ongoing injustice and seeking to defend privilege. The moral legitimacy of any social movement depends on its commitment to nonviolence. There is a big difference between damaging property and killing people. But destruction of any sort only yields more anger. Revolution is another matter, but we are not there yet.
The majority of police are good people and dedicated civil servants. But the police wield extraordinary power, so a higher bar must be set for professional behavior. People who drive cars with broken taillights should receive a notice in the mail. It is possible to reform our police forces without disrespecting our police officers. If entire segments of our society fear the police, then the need for reform is urgent and essential. The lives of police officers are not more valuable than the lives of citizens. Respecting police officers is common courtesy; disrespecting them isn’t illegal. Law enforcement is a public service, and the public have the right to be satisfied with that service. Resisting arrest is a bad idea, but it is not a capital crime. Social media amplifies the failings of police work but rarely captures its manifold everyday successes.
Black Lives Matter is a slogan that calls attention to pervasive and immoral bias against people of color; All Lives Matter is a truism used to deflect attention away from the fact of racism (see above: demanding that they say things as a ritual submission to your worldview will only alienate them). Injustice that has lasted centuries won’t disappear today, tomorrow or any time soon. All people are equal before the law, but history did not deliver us a society in which wealth, opportunity and dignity are equally available to all people. It may take decades to root out racism, but there’s not a minute to lose when it comes to the guarantee of civil equality.
The key thing is to strive not to be less angry about injustice but more effective about combating it. Anger is a powerful way to bring people together, but anger is not in itself righteous. It is an emotion, but also a dangerous and blunt tool. Anger for its own sake is always destructive, especially to the people it consumes. People who use other people’s anger for their own ends are almost always dangerous and disreputable. Often, we feel that other people are not angry at the right things. But the goal is not to make them more angry but less complacent. Effective leaders subsume anger into thought, and thought into action. As long as we live in a republic worth preserving, anger that leads to violence will be counterproductive. It alienates our allies and encourages our enemies.
Democracy has always been contentious; it will not get less so. There is no ideal point we will reach where strife ceases and people live without anger or grievance, but often, it seems like the past was such a place. The past seems particularly pleasant to people who once enjoyed greater privilege and power. In most ways, we live in a better world then the one our grandparents lived in. But not in all things. It takes discernment to know what is worth preserving; the humanities, which are in danger in many places in America today, are the practice of that discernment.
Democracy is fundamentally incremental. It is better to take action that improves things than to hope for a grand solution to big problems. People who proclaim an ideal but exempt themselves from living up to it are hypocrites; people who strive to live up to their ideals but occasionally fail are simply human. It is better to be a Girondin than a Jacobin.
There are more than 7 billion people on the planet and about 320 million of them live in the United States. Social media makes the joy, suffering and anger of millions of people feel like our own. That is empowering and overwhelming. Social media also gives us the illusion that we can be effective merely by talking or feeling. The technology of this new form of mass communion has probably developed faster than our emotional capacity to process it. We do, however, have a tried and true method of communion with other people, the past and things that are foreign or unsettling to us: These include art and literature and honest colloquy, in which people speak not for victory but for truth and understanding.