Just when highly publicized cases of police brutality against African-Americans in urban areas are spiking awareness about systemic racial profiling and discrimination the nation has wrongly believed was mere history, the exacting issues of social inequality, civil rights, and respect for the claims of minorities become increasingly obscured by a dull clamor of special and often contradictory pleadings for many other concerns that threaten to cloud the struggle for real justice.
As any historian of law well knows, the evolution of law is tied to a developing social consensus. But when social consensus itself becomes muddled and multi-directional, the legal, if not the philosophical or theological, question of rights and wrongs suffers unnecessary setbacks. A “Gresham’s law” of language takes over, where it is not bad money that drives out the good, but self-serving tropes that end up replacing the genuine coinage of truth and righteousness.
The disarray itself is often prompted by uncritical emotional or knee-jerk ideological reactions, based on how one regards media reporting. The media knows how to pander to such reactive constituencies, and advocacy groups have learned the power of communications technology to push sympathetic perceptions of their causes, as have advertisers for their products, including everything from tennis shoes to burritos to digital tablets.
Strategic marketing and product identification work just as efficiently for political campaigns and public advocacy initiatives as it does for anything else. With the explosion of digital connectivity through social media various efforts both to “brand” new types of victims and to mobilize collective grievances about their presumed situations through certain strategies of discourse have grown exponentially.
The process has been both beneficial and productive (as well as commendable) for black community activists, who have argued vocally in recent years that the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which abolished Jim Crow laws and removed all legal barriers in theory to equality for African-Americans, has masked deepening social isolation, economic oppression, and judicial persecution of their people, especially the male population, despite the 1965 legislation.
The problem of “structural racism”, first identified in the late Sixties, points to profounder challenges that draw our attention beyond the formalism of the law to conflicted tendencies within society that cannot be analyzed merely in terms of rights, protections, or entitlements.
For example, the spread of the much celebrated “new urbanism”, as an article in The Christian Science Monitor recently observed, was made possible in many, once decaying metropolises only because of the very hypervigilant policing now condemned by social reformers. Many city-dwelling white progressives, who naturally chide the police for their behavior, have been indirectly responsible for that behavior as well as the expulsion and victimization of young black males on account of the trend toward “gentrification”.
You cannot have a city that prioritizes green spaces, food carts, bistros, and microbreweries if it serves to evict poor people of color, which is usually the case. Lifestyle “justice” and economic or racial justice don’t even match up with each other.
Another example of such a disconnect is the ongoing brouhaha among media representatives and members of the intelligentsia in America over whether to honor or condemn the victims of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices in Paris this past January.
In France at the time the sentiment was overwhelmingly one of solidarity with the victims combined with a militant defense of what has historically been a sacred value in both secular France and liberal America – “freedom of expression.” The fact that the Charlie Hebdo attackers were not simply enraged locals, but trained operatives of a sleeper terrorist cell commandeered by Al-Qaeda of Yemen , should have made the matter transparent.
But the reaction in the US was curiously ambivalent at first, then antagonistic. A narrative slowly developed among American academic commentators that what Muslims condemned as an “insult to Islam” really amounted to “racism” on the part of less enlightened Westerners, including those who stood up for Charlie.
The pushback started in earnest on April 10 when famed cartoonist Gary Trudeau during a speech at Long Island University criticized the Charlie Hebdo victims not for defaming Islam (the complaint of many Muslims), but for “punching down”, i.e., inappropriately making fun of an excluded underclass. He even went so far as to accuse Charlie and other European satirists of fomenting “hate speech.”
In a stroke Trudeau magically morphed into something different the Muslim complaint that Westerners, despite their hallowed right to to insult someone’s religion, do not have the right to insult their religion. Islamic ambassadors have been pushing for years in the United Nations toward some kind of global proclamation that safeguarding against offense to one’s religious sensibilities should be a universal human right as well.
But most Western intellectuals would recoil from such a stance, especially if one followed the irresistible logic that one should also refrain from satirizing their favorite target – white Christian evangelicals. So, “voila” (to employ Trudeau’s own dramatic expletive in his speech), the issue becomes one of privilege versus exploitation of an alleged victimized, and racialized, minority (even though European Muslims comprise many different racial groupings).
It is but one more illustration of the lamentable habit among Western secular intellectuals to dismiss the importance of religion and to flaunt hypocritically their own social privilege in the name of defending the underprivileged.
According to Greg Luklanoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education writing in The Huffington Post, to apologize for religious fanaticism, no matter from which social class it originates, is not siding with the “powerless”, but with power. Trudeau, he insists, is “taking the side of theocrats”. And he “probably would never imagine himself taking the side of the Pope against Galileo or Bruno, or the Inquisition against witches,” Luklanoff quips.
One could simply dismiss Trudeau’s “self-deception,” as Luklanoff labels it, as one more, egregious and passive aggressive gesture of political correctness. But something even more unsettling is afoot here.
In a globalized and culturally hybridized society of competing social values, worldviews, and behavioral patterns, where pluralism is no longer simply taken for granted, but aggressively advanced and in some ways even manufactured by what I would call the “difference industry”, it becomes impossible to establish easily recognizable standards of “rightness” or “wrongness”, from which any consensus about the nature of “justice” arises. Even murder and terrorism can be easily excused.
Nuanced and balanced judgments become nearly impossible when every grievance is crying out for recognition. Relative ethical hierarchies are abolished, and every single cause becomes equally its own categorical imperative.
In consequence, our own overactive ideological glands that produce the hormones designed to intensify our moral outrage end up generating insoluble controversies. This week’s flap at Princeton University over whether rapper “Big Sean” Anderson should be disinvited from starring in the school’s showcase music festival because of often brutally misogynistic lyrics is a case in point. It has pitted feminists and anti-rape activists against the black student community., who view the outcry over Anderson’s music as one more manifestation of embedded racism.
And if what the phiilosopher Derrida would term the “undecidability” of seemingly irreconcilable demands for justice were not becoming the rule rather than the exception, the trend toward conjuring ever more rarefied tokens of wrongful exclusion continues as well, fortified with novel pretexts defining them as species of self-evident universal moral truth, where previously they were regarded merely as forms of dissent, or avant-garde lifestyles.
Opining in the online version of CNN, District of Columbia activist for the legalization of marijuana Adam Eidinger goes so far (in an article entitled “Don’t Call Us Potheads”), as to maintain that his cause is no longer just about allowing people to get high without fear of going to jail. On the contrary, it is about achieving social equality as a protected class along with women, blacks, Latinos, and LGBT people. “Now it’s time to end official and unofficial social bias against cannabis users,” he asserts without winking.
The irony is that such a contention would not seem at all ridiculous to many these days. Eidinger, a supporter of a fast-growing, multimillion-dollar industry that has gained huge financial as well as political leverage in just a few years, has made the smart, but cynical, move of branding what is at best an indifferent life-style choice as some kind of moral, if not quasi-sacred, prerogative. Does transcendental “justice” also require we stop making cracks about rednecks, Iowans, and vegans?
As the vision statement of the Human Dignity Trust puts it, “the dignity of the human person is not only a fundamental right in itself, but constitutes the basis of fundamental rights in international law.”
Treatment of all persons with dignity should be a simple given in all our social dealings, especially as we learn to value the diversity of people’s identities and lifestyle options. But dignity and justice demand that we must first recognize as well as seek to reconcile the complex, messy, and infinitely negotiable subject positions through which we face off with each other in a pluralistic society.
The ancient Latin saying fiat iustitia pereat mundus (“let there be justice though the world perish”) is in real danger of becoming the casual norm for today’s “society of the spectacle.” And the familiar American attitude of “I’ve got mine, Jack”, or “if I ain’t got it yet, I’ll get it from you”, is no longer an option, even when we are talking about excluded constituencies.