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Moral Order And Civil Conflict

What blinds the Left to the complexities of the recent police brutality cases
Trump lands in a divided Kenosha after Jacob Blake shooting

I have been thinking of this clip since I first saw it last week. It’s NBA commentator Chris Webber, on the NBA players refusing to play to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake:

I don’t follow basketball, so I don’t know who Chris Webber is (I looked it up; my point is that he was a stranger to me before this clip). He speaks with emotion, and from the heart. He strikes me as a very good man. He begins by telling his audience — and he’s speaking to young black men — that voting isn’t enough, that they have to get out there and change the world to make things better. He seems to mean protesting against police brutality, but his initial comments suggest something more. He starts by saying he’s speaking for the “marginalized,” and reflected on how much it meant to him as a kid when the NBA great Charles Barkley came to visit his school. Role models are important, he said. And of course he’s right.

Here’s the thing that baffles me. It doesn’t make me angry, let me be clear, but it does give some potential insight into why, as a conservative, the various conflicts around race — the shootings, the protests — land within me so differently than they land within others. As you read this, whatever your views of the protests and the shootings, I ask you to suspend your defensiveness for a second. What I’m trying to do in this post is not say I’m right and you’re wrong; I’m trying to understand why so many of us have such strong but opposite reactions. I hope that my fellow conservative readers will watch that short Chris Webber clip. I find it impossible to listen to that man and not feel real empathy with him, even if he’s mistaken (and I think he is, more on which in a second).

If you’ve been reading this blog for at least a month, you’ll recall the huge uproar over a post I did when new George Floyd police bodycam footage came out. I wrote that the new footage, which showed him violently resisting arrest for nine minutes before he was put on the ground, caused me to reject the received narrative of the Floyd death. Prior to that, I knew he had resisted arrest, but I thought that meant that he gave the cops some lip, and then they brutally slammed him into the ground, put a knee on his head, and choked him out. That’s not how it went down at all. They struggled with him for nine minutes to subdue him. He refused over and over to get into the squad car, and kicked and struggled when they tried to put him in. That’s what led to him being put on the ground. Plus, as we now know, he had enough fentanyl in him such that if he had not been subject to police restraint, Floyd’s death would have been ruled an overdose.

I argued at the time (and still believe this) that these material facts will be important in the Minneapolis police officers’ defense — and they may result in all of them being acquitted. I don’t want to get into that again; I’m just reminding you. More recently, I argued that in the Jacob Blake case, the fact that he was wanted for felony rape, violently resisted arrest (perhaps with a knife), resisted tasing, and defied legitimate police orders to stop, even reaching into his van (where, for all the cops new, meant he was reaching for a gun) — all these facts may result in no charges against the officers involved. I’ve talked to lawyers who say they will be very surprised if the cops face charges here. Again, I don’t want to argue the legal merits in this space. The point I want to make is a moral one: to some extent, Jacob Blake is morally responsible for what happened to him. That doesn’t mean he deserved to be shot in the back seven times; the DA and possibly a jury will decide that. The point is that if he had obeyed the police officers’ legitimate orders, he would be walking today. Maybe in a jail cell, but he would be walking.

Same with George Floyd. If he had not violently, for nine minutes, resisted arrest, and if he had not ingested a ton of fentanyl, he would be alive today. Understand me: that does not mean that the police aren’t still guilty of brutality and abuse. They might yet be! Both of these things can be true at the same time: the cops behaved with criminal brutality, and George Floyd is in some moral sense complicit in his own death.

I think most conservatives would agree. Why is that? I’ll offer a theory in a second, but let’s bring up one more case.

Breonna Taylor was the innocent black EMT in Louisville who died in a hail of police gunfire when cops tried to execute a no-knock warrant on her apartment. They were looking for her ex-boyfriend, a drug dealer, and had reason to believe he was there. They were looking to arrest her in connection with her ex-boyfriend, a drug dealer with whom she had been involved on and off. Taylor’s then-boyfriend didn’t know who was trying to break into her apartment, and opened fire on police. That was when they started firing into the apartment, killing Taylor.

From a strictly legal point of view, the cops may walk because they were fired on first. That is the conclusion of seven Louisville defense attorneys, including black ones, interviewed by the local paper:

LeBron James wants them charged. So does Beyoncé.

And so do 10 million other people who have signed a petition at change.org demanding justice for Breonna Taylor — and that Louisville Metro Police Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, Officer Myles Cosgrove and ex-Officer Brett Hankison be charged with killing her.

But in interviews and emails, seven experienced Louisville defense lawyers who are not involved in the case — and who have an average of 37 years each in practice — say the officers should not be charged with murder or manslaughter because they had a legal right to defend themselves once her boyfriend shot at them.

Three of the attorneys are Black.

“It is unfortunate that this young lady was killed,” said Aubrey Williams, a former president of Louisville’s NAACP chapter who has spent much of his 40-year career fighting police in court.

“But for the life of me I don’t see them indicting or convicting.”

Jan Waddell, another defense lawyer who is Black and has likewise frequently tangled with police, also said Mattingly and Cosgrove are likely immune from prosecution because Kentucky law allowed them to return fire in self-defense when Mattingly was hit in the leg with a bullet fired by Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who said he didn’t know the intruders were police and thought the couple was being robbed.

“The seemingly unending list of unarmed Black men who have been and continue to be gunned down by white police officers … does not and cannot justify the return of an indictment based on revenge rather than the facts of the case and the law,” Waddell said.

This is why due process is so important. And it’s why we have to resist jumping to conclusions about these cases. I do not like no-knock warrants, and instantly sympathized with Breonna Taylor. She should be alive today. But I am finding it hard to imagine on what grounds the cops could be indicted. It’s a tragedy, what happened, but was a law broken? That sounds heartless and legalistic, but if we don’t have the law, what do we have? Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, in the wake of this tragedy, has introduced a bill — the Justice For Breonna Taylor Act — that would ban no-knock raids in the US. I support this.

Yet reading this powerful, long piece in The New York Times by Rukmini Callimachi, about everything that led up to Taylor’s death, paints a more morally complex picture. I urge you to set aside any idea that I’m trying to “blame” Taylor for her own death. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m trying to think through the circumstances that lead an innocent person like Taylor to such a violent death.

Callimachi writes about how Taylor had been involved romantically with Jamarcus Glover, a drug-dealing thug. Excerpts:

The daughter of a teenage mother and a man who has been incarcerated since she was a child, Ms. Taylor attended college, trained as an E.M.T. and hoped to become a nurse. But along the way, she developed a yearslong relationship with a twice-convicted drug dealer whose trail led the police to her door that fateful night.

The story picks up with police surveilling a drug house where Glover did business:

At 5:53 p.m. [in January], a white Chevrolet Impala pulled up in front of the house, and Mr. Glover exited. The car was registered to Breonna Taylor, the report says.

Over the next two months, the new squad surveilled the Elliott addresses where Mr. Glover operated, and Ms. Taylor’s apartment 10 miles away. A GPS device the police put on Mr. Glover’s car tracked it to her apartment complex six times, according to the internal report. And Ms. Taylor’s new car — a Dodge Charger — was seen at the trap house on multiple occasions; she was photographed in front of it in mid-February.

The police thought that Taylor was alone in the apartment on the night of the raid. More:

Although Ms. Taylor had no criminal record and was never the target of an inquiry, Mr. Glover’s frequent run-ins with the police entangled her. She had been interviewed in a murder inquiry, and paid or arranged bail for him and his associates.

When Mr. Glover called from jail after an earlier arrest in January, she told him that his brushes with the law worried her, according to a recording; each said “I love you” before hanging up. A GPS tracker the police placed on his car later showed him making regular trips to her apartment complex, and surveillance photos showed her outside a drug house.

In a series of calls hours after her death, as Mr. Glover tried to make bail, he told another woman that he had left about $14,000 with Ms. Taylor. “Bre been having all my money,” he claimed. The same afternoon, he also told an associate he had left money at Ms. Taylor’s home.

Mr. Aguiar, the lawyer for her family, said that no drugs or cash were found at her apartment after the raid. Thomas B. Wine, the Jefferson County prosecutor, countered that the search was called off once the shooting occurred.

So we don’t know for a fact if she was holding Glover’s drug money. Yet she still seems to have been tangled up with him. More:

Christopher 2X, a longtime community organizer whom Ms. Taylor’s family turned to after her death, said her relationship with Mr. Glover had to be acknowledged. “You can’t just look away from it and act like it’s not there,” he said. “My hope is courageous people will say: ‘There it is — it’s what it is — but was this shooting justified? She should be alive today.’”

Why did a judge authorize the no-knock warrant? Look:

The warrant cited five pieces of information establishing what the police said was probable cause: Mr. Glover’s car making repeated trips between the trap house and Ms. Taylor’s home; her car’s appearance in front of 2424 Elliott on multiple occasions; surveillance footage of him leaving her apartment with a package in mid-January; a postal inspector’s confirmation that Mr. Glover used her address to receive parcels; and database searches indicating that as of late February, he listed her apartment as his home address.


But since Ms. Taylor’s death, what has emerged in bank statements, cellphone records, bail paperwork, audio recordings of police interrogations and other documents is a trail of evidence pointing to a complicated liaison between her and Mr. Glover, dating back to 2016.

Mr. Aguiar said in a statement last week that the police department had gone to “great lengths after Breonna died and this case received national scrutiny to dig up all of her past.”

But the lawyer also apologized to the public for having previously understated the extent of her relationship with the drug dealer, saying he had been unaware of the jailhouse recordings.

Court records show that Mr. Glover was convicted of selling cocaine and spent years in prison, starting in 2008 in his home state of Mississippi, where he was handed a 17-year sentence. In 2014, after moving to Kentucky, he was convicted of a second drug offense. He began dating Ms. Taylor in 2016, according to a statement he gave the police.

That December, a favor he asked of her — renting a car and lending it to him — ensnared her in a murder inquiry. A man was found slumped over the wheel, eight bullets riddling his body. Inside the car were three baggies of drugs and Ms. Taylor’s rental contract, court records show.

Breonna Taylor came from difficult circumstances. Her father was incarcerated for murder. She wanted a different life for herself. But she made a terrible mistake:

“Graduating this year on time is so important to me because I will be the first in my family to accomplish this,” she wrote in her scrapbook during her senior year, next to a photo of herself in a cap and gown. “I want to be the one who finally breaks the cycle of my family’s educational history. I want to be the one to finally make a difference.”

She enrolled at the University of Kentucky and a year later, in 2012, began a banter on Twitter with Mr. Walker, then a student at a university two and a half hours away. He was 20, she was 19. The flirtatious tweets grew into a friendship, and then a romance four years later, according to his account.

“I kept on telling her, I don’t want to be friends no more,” he recalled in an interview. “But I’m a Gemini, and she was also a Gemini. So, you know, some days it was, ‘Yeah let’s, let’s get married and have a kid,’ and another day it’s like, “No, let’s be single and live carefree lives.”

They began dating in the summer of 2016, he said. But a few months later, she started seeing Mr. Glover. For nearly four years — until weeks before her death — she went back and forth between the two men, Mr. Walker told the police.

She had a good boyfriend — Walker — but she could not shake the bad boy, Glover. And that is part of the reason she is dead.

Read the whole thing. Me, I don’t understand why the police, if they wanted Breonna Taylor, couldn’t have simply arrested her outside her apartment. Why did they need to do this dramatic raid? Even if it is found to be legally defensible, in the end, you have to wonder about the judgment of the police department here. But you also have to wonder about the judgment of Breonna Taylor, in continuing her relationship with this dirtbag Glover who just used her, and dragged her into his dirty business.

I bring this all up not to say “Breonna Taylor is responsible for her death” — it seems clear to me that there was a serious flaw in policing here — but to point out a major factor in drawing lessons from what happened to her, from the arc of her short life. What does her death mean?

Here’s where I’m going with this. My father taught my sister and me never to get mouthy with a police officer if we have an encounter, and always to obey them if placed under arrest. This was not part of an “or they will kill you” story; this was rather part of a story that said police are invested with legitimate authority, and even if you are innocent, you should obey them and let the legal system sort it out. I have passed on the same culture to my own children. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in light of what’s been going on in our society, and I’ve been realizing how grateful I am to my late father for the gift he gave to us kids of moral order.

He was not perfect, and not a saint, but my dad, born to a factory worker and the first in his family to go to college, raised us kids in a modest home where my sister and I absorbed a sense of order naturally. I sometimes write about that much-discussed 1994 piece Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic, titled “The Coming Anarchy” — I’m not going to waste one of my free Atlantic stories to link to it, but you can look it up. In it, Kaplan writes of a long journey he took from West African, through Egypt, Turkey, and on to southern Asia. He was trying to figure out the geopolitical future of that part of the world. The thing that has stuck with me through the years since reading it was his comparison of the slums of West Africa to those in Cairo and Istanbul. The difference was not money; everybody was dirt poor. The difference was that the West African poor had no sense of internal order, but the Egyptian and Turkish poor did — this, concluded Kaplan, was the gift of Islam. They had internalized the tenets of the Islamic religion, and conducted themselves according to its teachings.

Now, West Africa is both Islamic and Christian, but one has to wonder to what extent these Abrahamic religions have been internalized by the people within those cultures, and to what extent they are still under the sway of their traditional pagan gods. Islam and Christianity could be a thin veneer over resilient traditional paganism. Note well: I’m making a sociological claim here, not a theological one.

Broadly speaking, the traditional pagan religions of West Africa (which were imported to the New World with the African slaves) hold that the cosmos is fundamentally chaotic. Mankind lives at the mercy of the gods. Reality is controlled by unseen forces. The best a man can do is to keep those forces at bay by propitiating them, or perhaps by controlling them to do his bidding. In a society determined by this kind of pagan cosmology, it can be rational to live by irrationality. If the gods might destroy your field because they are mad at you, then what sense does it make to live by agricultural practices that would bring order to your farm? Ideas have consequences, and so do religious ideas.

My dad was not much of a churchgoer, but he imbued his children with the unquestioned sense that the universe was rational, ordered, and moral. This was our reality, an unseen reality made manifest in the way my dad and mom governed our house, and taught us to regard the world. I think my dad believed too much in moral rationality: he really struggled to deal with the fact that his daughter, who had lived 100 percent by the code he believed in, was struck down by cancer in her forties. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. She had done everything right, and this happened. Some things really are beyond our ability to control.

But my father was more right than wrong. I write a fair amount about how he came from rural poverty, and understood what it was like to have nothing. After World War II, when the GI Bill opened up opportunities for poor and working class men to go to college, he took advantage of that. The self-discipline and (if you want to be fancy) metaphysics he was handed by his parents and their rural Southern culture allowed him to prosper materially. My dad was a Christian, but not a big churchgoer. What he believed in was hard work, self-discipline, and personal honor. In his view, the world rewarded those who lived by that code — and if a poor man who did was mistreated, or a rich man who didn’t prospered, then that was a sign of injustice.

I’ve thought a lot about how my dad rose from poverty, and why people who haven’t risen from poverty are stuck there. This is a big topic, but the point I want to bring up here is tied to the West Africa vs. Cairo and Istanbul story. I’ve written here in the past about a family I know up in my home parish — a white family who would be classified as “the working poor.” When we were living up there, we regularly saw the matriarch of the family, who kept us updated on the travails of her sprawling clan. The stories she would tell — some of which involved drugs and booze — were hard to grasp for middle-class people like my wife and me.

We tried to help them materially on a couple of occasions, but we finally realized that it was futile. These people constantly sabotaged themselves. Here’s the key: it finally became clear to my wife and me that this family lived in a chaotic cosmos. They believed that bad things just happened to them. They had almost no sense of cause and effect. If bad things happened, it was either bad luck, or someone else wishing them ill. The matriarch was a dear woman, a hard-working woman, but she was saddled by a bunch of no-account men, and reckless women who followed their passions wherever they led. Materially, this clan had far more resources than my dad, a child of the Great Depression, ever did. But they lacked a sense of internal order, and a sense that reality was governed by laws — the Tao, if you like.

This was the West Africa vs. Egypt and Turkey story, played out among white Americans in the same parish. I was raised in a lower middle class home, in terms of personal wealth, but my father, our patriarch, was extremely rich in wisdom.

He taught us to stay away from drugs, because they would ruin your life. Alcohol was permitted in his world, but drunkenness was taboo. A man who can’t hold his liquor is shameful, he believed. When I was arrested as a college freshman for drunk driving, the shame of it was what upset him so much. Look at you, with your name in the newspaper, disgracing the family. You were raised better than that. 

He was right: I had been raised better than that. It didn’t happen again.

My father imbued us kids with a strong sense of personal responsibility. Yes, the world is unfair, he would say, but that doesn’t give you the right to “act up,” as he put it. He despised self-pity, and considered it a moral fault. He warned us that keeping bad company would lead to bad things for us. Don’t go along with the crowd, he would say. Do what you know is right, no matter what it costs you. Respect others, and respect yourself. You could pick up the Book of Proverbs, and there you would find the world of my father, pretty much. He was so old-fashioned, and I thank God for the gift of that old-fashioned country man. When I read Clarence Thomas’s great memoir, My Grandfather’s Son, about how his strict grandfather, who raised him, saved him by impressing upon him a rock-solid set of values, I realized that Justice Thomas’s grandfather was a harder-edged version of my own dad.

I go on about this for a reason. What happened to George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and Breonna Taylor would not have surprised a man like my father. Floyd was a career criminal and a drughead. Blake was a violent man too. Taylor’s extended romantic relationship with a career criminal brought her to ruin. All of these cases, regardless of how they are adjudicated in a court of law, would have been seen by my father as examples of what happens to people who refuse to live by the Tao (I mean this in the C.S. Lewis sense of “natural law”), or who entangle themselves with those who refuse to live by the Tao. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis wrote:

The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or…ideologies…all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.

I have a friend, a Catholic convert, who used to be addicted to cocaine. Once he was speeding on his motorcycle, flying high on the drug, when he heard a voice say, “If you want to live, stop this.” (Or something close to that.) He knew it wasn’t a hallucination. He stopped. He found God. He radically changed his life. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if he continued on that path, he would die. He had to get rid of his drug friends, and, well, repent in every way. But he was walking the road to death.

Why am I going on and on about all this? Because all of this is part of the worldview of conservatives, a moral orientation toward the world that conditions how many of us interpret these high-profile cases of police violence against black people. When I saw Chris Webber’s moving statement, I wondered if he really does believe that the problem of police violence against black men is solely one of out-of-control police who need to be reigned in by lawmakers. Does he truly not see that this problem is far more morally and culturally complex?

I’m sure he doesn’t. You can’t watch that Chris Webber statement and think that that man is a cynic. Again, he comes across to me as a good man, a moral man. But I think he is a liberal, and that the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has taught us a great deal about the differences in moral foundations between liberals and conservatives. I’ll get to that in a second.

Last night, I corresponded with a reader — an academic who is an Evangelical Christian — about all this. He gives me permission to quote his letter below. I brought up in our conversation how much I struggled to understand the worldview of people who regard Floyd, Blake, and Taylor as nothing more than people acted upon, and as not having some moral responsibility for their lives, and how they ended up in these terrible situations. The reader wrote back:

I’m in the same boat. I can’t fathom what other people are thinking. The best explanation I have is that other people are not thinking in legal terms of responsibility/duty and what sorts of duties are conducive to a lawful and peaceful social order.

That led me to talk to the reader about how deeply grateful I am for the gift my father gave me and my late sister — the gift of internal moral order. My dad was a man who placed immense stock in moral authority. He worked in government, as a health inspector, and he had to deal with people all the time who tried to flout the moral order. A couple of times people tried to bribe him to give their facilities a pass on health inspection. That made him fighting mad, mostly because these men assumed that he was the kind of dishonorable man who would take a bribe. In my recollection, Daddy never really sat us down for straightforward moral instruction, but everything about the way he lived, and the stories he told about the world, conveyed to us kids that if we wanted to live in a peaceful and lawful social order, then we had individual duties toward that end.

When I was in third grade, I read Roald Dahl’s book Danny, The Champion of the World, about a little English boy whose father was a poacher. I could not get over the idea that this kid, who was about my age, had a father who broke the law, and taught him that lawbreaking was normative. I bring this up not to condemn the book, but to give you an idea of the work of moral formation that my father was accomplishing within my sister and me. The father was supposed to be the incarnation of moral authority, and goodness. When he wasn’t, then the whole world made no sense. That’s how it was for me, for better or for worse. Maybe you can see why the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and the moral corruption of so many Catholic bishops (who did not enforce the moral law), tore me down to the foundations.

Anyway, my academic Evangelical reader wrote back:

They say if fish were scientists, the last thing they would discover is water. It is less an object in their world than the condition upon which their world is founded. It may be similar with the social order. Maybe the social order of mid 20th century America was so successful as to render it invisible to those of us with functional homes. We just take it for granted.

Stephen Wolfe, recent LSU PhD, has made the claim that the problem with elite Evangelical political theology (think what Mere Orthodoxy and The Gospel Coalition have become) is that it came of age at a time when the civil society was so healthy that Evangelicals could take the stability of the social order for granted and never had to think of politics in terms of the social order needing to be established or sustained:


“Since Christian political theory for decades has developed in conditions of abundance and under a modern state, it has emphasized ethics and just distribution of resources (which the state can easily extract and redistribute). But it has largely neglected the foundations of political order. And so we have highly moralistic political theory that is fearful of power and control of civil institutions, especially since modern institutions facilitated Christian space for moralizing. The result is political theory that is incomplete, for it assumes (often in the background) the modern state’s ability to order society, and we lack the ability to address conditions of disorder. What we need today is a complete Christian political theory — one that is itself sufficient for political order. What we have now is entirely dependent on secularist ordering. We require new (or the old) ways of thinking that oppose the dominant posture towards politics found among our Christian leaders.”
Jonathan Haidt talks about the six foundations of conservative morality:
and three foundations of liberal morality:
I’d guess that with Floyd, Haidt’s analysis would be that liberals feel compassion for him (I mean the poor guy died a horrible and pitiable death) and that hits on the Care/Harm, and I suppose they come in with a narrative of racial oppression and the compassion activates the Liberty/Oppression circuit.
But conservatives start off not terribly sympathetic because the dude degraded himself with his hedonistic drug use (Sanctity/subversion), and broke the law which could hit on Fairness/Cheating and resisted police (Authority/subversion). That doesn’t leave as much room for the conservative Care/Harm to play a huge role.
My main area of research is connected to Haidt’s stuff, but I won’t give my reorganization of his schema here, I just think he leaves things sort of unfinished.
A really really really simple way to break it down would be the Order vs Chaos (experience of pure subjectivity). Here I am thinking in the key of Nietzsche who emphasizes the tension between the Apollonian spirit (rationally ordered where the self is perceived as distinct from objects of its understanding) and the Dionysian spirit which is experiential and in which the distinction between self and world and other self breaks down. You might also think of it in more complementary terms: Logos and Spirit. I believe Male and Female largely manifest, represent, and symbolize this intra-Trinitarian complementarity and this is built into the structure of the cosmos. (CS Lewis seems to have thought this way too though he would have emphasized analogy to the Dao and yin and yang rather than Nietzsche)
We tame this tension in marriage, domestic life. The home really is the first political society. The father orders the home–imposes order on it–but the mother makes it habitable: mother invites you in to share a world of experience. When in balance, it’s great. What more could you want? But order without this intersubjective and shared experience becomes tyrannical and oppressive. There are fathers who impose an arbitrary and life-stealing order on their homes–their homes are unlivable. Subjectivity without order becomes chaos. Single moms who can’t say no, who invite everything in court chaos. I think there is a wonderful illustration of this in [the Terrence Malick film] The Tree of Life.
I think something has happened in the Western world where women are unable to manifest their role and achieve the sort of transformative intersubjective experience they seek (perhaps breakdown in home and cessation of reproduction) and their repressed maternal and feminine instincts are being expressed in politics and activism and a feminization of the social order.
There is a lot in that letter, and certainly contestable. Feel free to argue with him. I should say that my father did not at all impose an “arbitrary and life-stealing order” on our home. For my sister and me, his authority was mostly something life-giving, something we craved. It made us feel safe. And because our home was where we first learned about the world, we were conditioned to regard authority as something natural and good and life-giving.
I get that many others have not had that experience. I’m bringing it up here, though, for the sake of discussing the conflict within American society over the way we interpret this terrible conflict over race, police violence, and society. Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory is quite helpful in giving us a framework to understand all this. I don’t want to make this already-lengthy post even longer by quoting Haidt’s definitions of the moral foundations (my reader quoted them in his letter), but about them, Haidt writes:
The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation.
That’s absolutely the case with me. My reader, who is also a religious conservative, explained pithily why people like us interpret what happened with Floyd in a way less sympathetic to him. Similarly with Blake, the reason police were there was because he had broken into the home of a woman, who called 911. The reason they were arresting him was because he was wanted on a felony sexual assault warrant for allegedly breaking into a woman’s house and raping her digitally.
Even if true, that has nothing to do legally with Blake’s shooting. Remember, we’re talking about judging what happened morally. Blake starts out in a bad place with moral conservatives (in the Haidt scheme) because he is an accused lawbreaker who allegedly raped a woman.
It strikes me that every one of these three cases — Floyd, Blake, Taylor — involve a radical failure of men to be good men. And this, I think, draws us back to where I began this long blog post: with Chris Webber’s moving appeal to young black men to get involved to fight police brutality. You can’t know the fullness of Webber’s thinking on the matter from a short television appeal, but if he thinks this terrible situation is solely the fault of brutal policing, well, how can he possibly think that? How can he (and other liberals) not recognize the dominant role that a culture of male lawlessness plays in these violent encounters? How can we expect a culture in which nearly three out of four babies are born into fatherless families — as is the case in black America — to produce well-adjusted men?
It seems to me that liberals lack the conceptual framework to deal holistically with grave and complex problems like this. (Something similar happened regarding rampant gay male promiscuity in the AIDS crisis; for some reason, many liberals seem unable to hold people they regard as society’s victims responsible for their own behavior, even if the suffering of those people is to some degree society’s fault too.) We can and we should fight brutal policing through reform legislation and policies. It’s not an either-or situation.
But if you want to avoid having potentially fatal run-ins with police, then you should stay away from the drug world. If the police arrest you, you should obey them. If you have friends or lovers who are involved in criminal activity, you should get away from them at once. You should not valorize lawlessness, and you should reject a culture that does.
This 2011 video, filmed in the violent and poor black part of my city, by a rapper who is now quite famous, is an example of this last point. You tell me how young men acculturated by this kind of thing are going to avoid a life of lawlessness, and not risk violent conflict with law enforcement. It’s not going to happen. Common sense tells you that. But common sense is quite lacking today. People who grew up in functional homes, in functional social orders, may take for granted the internalized sense of lawfulness that gives us the freedom to carry on our lives without violence. Maybe we have forgotten this, and this inhibits our understanding.
What do you think? Serious, thoughtful comments only. If you only want to rant, from the left or the right, I’m not going to post your remarks.