The value of outrage

Noah Berlatsky published a piece in The Atlantic on the pernicious (and recurring) trend of policing strong emotions — primarily “outrage” — as “unserious” in favor of “respectability” and “civility.” He looks at some historical examples of amped-up political and cultural outrage from well before the internet age and muses on its role in moving democracy forward. Here’s just a tiny taste:

The Ferguson and Eric Garner protests have been heavily promoted, organized, and in some cases funded on social media. Setting online outrage against “real” organizing neatly sidesteps the knottier truth—which is that outrage and organizing, online and off, are intertwined. The challenge is not to separate out the outrage, but to figure out a way to harness it to meaningful causes.
Outrage will never create perfect justice, because nothing will create perfect justice. It has undoubtedly been and is still used for trivialities, and not infrequently for evil. But the difficult truth of democracy is that without the logic of outrage, it’s hard to strive for a better world.

It’s also a bit frustrating to watch people try to curb or dismiss outrage that comes from a very real place and life experience. What if there aren’t two sides to be heard? (Or at least not two legitimate sides.) What if it’s actually valid to have and express strong emotions? What if being calm, cool, and collected is actually the inappropriate response? The cool cucumbers don’t seem to consider those possibilities.

Which isn’t to say everyone should be outraged, or has reason to be outraged, or should be outraged all the time. But it is to say that it has its place and isn’t automatically unjustified. It also doesn’t make someone automatically less intelligent or less qualified to speak. The content of people’s complaints is probably far more important than the tone.

After Ferguson: In defense of non-peaceful resistance

The regular suspension of due process and the repeated failure to restrain or reasonably manage the use of lethal force by the state against its citizens violates the American social contract on a fundamental level.

The social contract is an “agreement” that the state will have a legitimate monopoly on the use of force, instead of all individual people having the use of force all over the place with no rules, in exchange for meeting those basic conditions and maintaining the safety of all people and protecting their property.

Although it’s never possible to preserve that balance 100% of the time — and the United States has an unusually extensive set of loopholes for normal civilian use of force — it is reasonably considered in effect if it is upheld the vast majority of the time and with consistent, non-discriminatory application. Significant and repeated failure of the balance or failure to apply the principles consistently across the population would constitute a breach of the contract.

With a widespread and ongoing breach in the social contract by the state, the use of force is legitimately de-monopolized and reverts to the people to use on an individual or collective level, against threats and oppressors, including but not limited to — racial supremacists, exploitative businesses, and the state. The data has been clear for some time that a breach of the social contract exists between the state (federal, local, and everything in between) and the Black citizens of the United States.

Therefore: Violent resistance to police and destruction of select private property in the aftermath of a particularly egregious violation such as witnessed in Ferguson last week (suspension of the rule of law and restricted rights to peaceful assembly) is quite easily morally justifiable — though obviously optional — until the restoration of a legitimate social contract between the people and their government, which re-monopolizes the use of force.

To be clear: I’m not calling for violence and destruction; I’m just saying it’s not inherently unacceptable right now, and that decision is a matter of basic self-determination by those for whom the social contract has been broken (a sub-population which does not include me). For the majority of Americans, the social contract remains intact and normal rules of conduct apply. For a regularly legally and forcibly repressed sub-population without redress of grievances, the contract is currently void.
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American Exceptionalism and the Torture Debate

Mark Thompson at the League of Ordinary Gentleman has what I think is an excellent post on how torture runs contrary to this idea that America is an exceptional country.

If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost. But if you are a true believer in American exceptionalism, then you must accept that maintaining that exceptionalism comes with costs, perhaps sometimes in human lives.

Shining cities don’t just appear and maintain their shine without sacrifice and risk-taking by their citizens. It does no one any good to pretend otherwise; nor does it do any good to secretly and gradually apply a bit of plaster and polish to a monument from which you have taken much gold restores the monument to its previous glow. Instead, that monument must be stripped of its plaster for all to see in its newly grotesque shape. Then, and only then, can the people properly evaluate whether the lost shine was worth the increase in safety.

He goes on to state in the post and in the comments that America is not and has often not been the right country or the most free. Instead, he bases his ideas of American exceptionalism on the founding documents of our nation, which laid out the premise that all men are created equal and endowed with certain natural rights. Since I’m in a historical minded mood (I should be studying instead of writing this…), I wondered about this.
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