A little over six months ago, after a sniper in Dallas took down police officers, Corey Robin’s response could be summed up in three words. “It has begun.”
He was hardly the first the first to make the observation. After Minnesota and Baton Rouge, many people suggested that it’s remarkable such violence – that would shortly occur in Dallas – hadn’t actually happened yet. There was not a statement that such violence is justified, exactly, but that it was to be expected. Robin expresses a desire for it to stop, though he does not exactly condemn it, and he appears to place the burden of its cessation on the people (single person, it later turned out) not shooting police officers. We should fear their response, and among the many reasons we should act is for the fear of that response.
It’s a variation of an argument that we hear with inequality. We need to make sure that everyone from the least among us to the average joe and joan are taken care of, because if they’re not they will revolt. This is usually symbolized by the pitchfork. By extension, whatever you or me or Billy the Billionaire think, inequality is a problem because the masses believe it’s a problem. And if that problem is not addressed, they might-just-might start taking matters into their own hands. Some follow this with a nervous cough and explanation that they are not endorsing this but are merely stating it as a possibility. Something to keep in mind. For all of our benefit.
As a practical matter, though, if you’re discussing [X], and you are against [X], and you are pointing to a bad thing that [X] might bring about, most people will believe you are making an argument whether you mean to be or not.
I often flinch at these arguments. The amorality of these arguments can be difficult to stomach. It often feels like giving in to lawlessness or sometimes even terrorism. It sends a message that as long as the other side can get unruly enough, or violent enough, then we have to take their views into account. It goes beyond Heckler’s Veto all the way to Heckler’s Rule. But for a sense that the violence against persons or property is justified, it seems wrong to the core. And it can be used as an argument for anything. If the public’s dissatisfaction is itself a reason to take action or refuse to take action, one can use it in favor of segregation, slavery, and more.
In fact, it was used for exactly those causes.
At the same time, the argument is also entirely accurate. Which is to say, whether the government is morally in the right or in the wrong, if people’s desires cannot be satisfied through legitimate means they can and often will resort to illegitimate means. The more dissatisfied they are, the more dangerous they can become… regardless of the legitimacy of their grievance. So one really doesn’t have to agree with the complaint to take the ramifications of ignoring or overriding them seriously.
A government requires one of two things to operate: Overwhelming force, or the consent of the governed. It is simply unworkable otherwise. People come up with plans and believe that if the people don’t fall into line, well we’ll just make them. If you’re not worried about the consequences, you can do this, but the cure is often worse than the disease. We’ve seen this most particularly with the War on Drugs, where we have brought the law to bear as hard as we can imagine and the results are questionable at best. In other aspects of life, we’ve made do with random enforcement and a lot of non-compliance.
At a certain point, rioting works. If you make enough noise they have no choice but to listen. Things might be very difficult for you between here and there, but it’s hard to deny the fundamental truth.
Yet as it remains a point that exists independently of moral legitimacy, we have to be very cautious about lending the violent actions themselves any legitimacy. Likewise, we have to be careful about saying that any cause associated with such behavior is de facto illegitimate.
Where does that leave us? It mostly leaves us in a position where giving in to the pitchforks, whether the cause is good or evil and whether about inequality or segregation, is a form of surrender. Sometimes surrender is necessary. Outside of the pragmatic ledger, however, it is rarely virtuous in a system that has a rule of law and a republican form of government. Those are the things that are supposed to prevent the need to begin with. We should resist the notion of romanticizing it, or attempting to justify it. The more extreme the tactics, the more we should resist an impulse to even contextualize it. It is both a symptom of societal unhealth, and a contributor.
To ignore it completely and to bring down the hammer of god upon it, though, is to declare war on your own people.