September 25, 2018

Conversation about Race, Part One: Ethicist, Not Activist

Conversation about Race Part One – How to Have the Conversation


In my “Seeking the Good” columns, I want to address areas including the spiritual life, and the Jewish connection thereto, but also areas of ethics, social ethics and moral questions in the political life.

I, like many of you, am transfixed by the racial drama played out regularly in the American media, punctuated by calls for a “conversation about race.”  I have decided to use this blog as a way to participate in that conversation, and to publicize some places to actually gather and talk (for example, Saturday afternoon 22 August 4 PM, at The HUB on Venice. We will be discussing Shelby Steele’s book “Shame.”)

When I devote a column to this discussion, I aim to keep the focus tight; therefore I can’t address every aspect on the conversation in one go. I hope, however, that after some time, I will be able to share a rather complete point of view.

I come at these issues as an ethicist, not an activist. This is a crucial thing to know. An activist for a given issue is hyper-vigilant for some (apparent) transgression against that which is valued. An activist wants to mobilize the media, draw public focus, and become an agent for change. From what I have seen, most activists don’t wait until more facts are known and for the justice system to try to work through the issue. The activists want to use an event to advance the cause.

Activists on race assume, it seems to me, that police are guilty until proven innocent, that the system is corrupt or “broken” (as President Obama recently described our justice system), and often that some insidious, unseen force shapes events more than what meets the eye. In the activists’ views of right and wrong, the right and wrong are clear from the start. I have personally experienced the problem with challenging the conclusions of activists. I disagreed with one at a public forum, and was quickly labeled a “racist” (whatever that means), since I did not agree with what seemed to me an ideological stance, not rooted in reality.

As a trained ethicist (my doctorate is in Religion-Social Ethics), I have a rather ingrained approach to ethical issues, i.e., any issue where we are trying to find out, for example, if someone did something legally and morally wrong, what they did, why, and how much shared responsibility there is.

For this kind of disciplined thinking, I need to find out what premises I am bringing to the issue, and what premises others have that seem to be at stake here, what the facts are as best we can know them, and what recommendations we are making in light of those facts.

I know this really irritates some of my activist friends when we discuss a hot issue.  They have wanted me to jump on the bandwagon of hate and denunciation. I sometimes feel like that small town newspaper owner in one of those movies where he is being threatened with being shut down if he does not go along with the crowd. I don’t feel brave when I hold my ground (and I have almost most been shut down by refusing to be cowed).  It just does not occur to me to dissemble when I am asked direct questions. Call it what you want. If you disagree, share with me your premises, facts, values, and recommendations. (Calling me names does not tend to persuade me of the righteousness of your cause, though I do form a few opinions about your maturity and intellectual ability.)

In any conversation that I will be a part of, my standard is that we approach the problem as ethicists, not activists. Activists in debate tend to posture and attack. I am not interested in that. I am really curious and want to grow from the experience.

I want to start a conversation about race with one salient issue – being rousted by the cops.

First, some premises. There are better and worse police officers, just as there are better and worse physicians, psychologists, rabbis, clergy, lawyers, teachers, politicians, generals, bus drivers, drivers in general, pilots, and so forth. You have all experienced people better and worse at their professions – perhaps as a professional, you have had clear “worse” experiences.

When I judge the action of a person, therefore, I don’t judge by some platonic value ensconced in the higher realms; I ask according to the standards of human beings, across the board. The problem is, when some people make a mistake, the repercussions are minimal. The mistake of another, like a police officer, depending on the context, can have life changing or life destroying consequences.

In this world of making mistakes, I believe that not only the police have a moral duty to act righteously– we as citizens have a similar duty. One premise of the liberal state is that we have assigned the right to violence to the police. We the people retain that right to violence only in immediate self defense or defense of another. In other words, we have chosen to train and arm fellow citizens to keep order, and otherwise, we generally stay out of it.

But the fact that we are out of this immediate problem of keeping the order, does not mean as citizens we have no duty. Here is an analogy. Let’s say the members of our synagogue hire an armed security guard to keep order at synagogue events. This does not license the same people who hired the guard to now antagonize, insult or provoke the guard.

Of the many moral premises that I will share about being rousted by the cops, this is one important one: shared moral responsibility between the citizen and the police officer. Cops roust for a reason, but they can go too far. We can get rousted, and we can act in ways that make it better or worse.