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The Riots and the Fragility of Civilization

Our public discourse must be reoriented toward an acknowledgment of our shared humanity and the irreducible dignity and worth we each possess.
June 5, 2020
The Riots and the Fragility of Civilization
A shop owner looks over damage in a looted souvenir and electronics shop near Times Square after a night of protests and vandalism over the death of George Floyd early June 2, 2020 in New York City. Thousands of protesters took to the streets throughout the city to express their anger after Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was filmed kneeling on George Floyd's neck before he was later pronounced dead at a local hospital. Floyd's death, the most recent in a series of deaths of black Americans at the hands of the police, has set off days and nights of protests across the country. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The widespread protests over the last week began as a response to a grave wrong in modern America. The death of George Floyd is a tragedy. Racial injustice is real and intolerable. It is abhorrent that so many Americans mistrust law enforcement—often rightfully.

In some cases, as we have seen, what began as peaceful protests devolved into violence—from rioters and from law enforcement officers seeking to restore order. We have seen footage of police cars driving into crowds and other police cars being set on fire. We have seen businesses—both big corporations and small family-owned stores—looted and destroyed. We have seen dozens of police injured, some grievously, and at least one killed. We have seen protesters and reporters injured, too—shot with tear gas and smoke grenades, and sometimes badly wounded by rubber bullets. In Beverly Hills last weekend, luxury goods shops along Rodeo Drive were destroyed and plundered as over 2,000 people chanted “Eat the rich!” There have been moments of grace, yes, but real pain and ugliness as well.

The violence and destruction that emerged from the protests, and the speed with which they emerged, should cause us to reconsider some of our assumptions—some of the fundamental social facts we misunderstand or take for granted. In particular, the events of the past week provide a valuable reminder of the fragility of our civilization and our way of life; they refute the notion of inevitable human progress; and they underscore the way in which a truly civilized society is underpinned by a respect for equal human dignity—without which we are lost.

First, the fragility of civilization. Many of us ordinarily and unthinkingly assume that the civilization—and perhaps even the peace and prosperity—we enjoy are somehow natural, the default state of things. Students of history, of course, know otherwise. And even before the events of the last week, 2020 has been an education in overturning such comfortable assumptions.

The riots remind us that civilization and community are not foregone conclusions. They do not simply spring up from the earth, but are the work of centuries; they are the fruit of institutional and social arrangements that must be cultivated and nurtured in our every interaction, every day. Democratic governments in particular depend upon most individuals choosing to follow the law, respect their fellow citizens, and act for the common good. As we saw over the last week, when even just a few citizens choose not to do so, chaos ensues.

Second, the riots also refute the conceit of human progress—the notion that we are continually evolving to have moral and ethical codes superior to those of our forebears. In his autobiographical book Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis referred to this way of thinking as “chronological snobbery”—“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

Whether today or two millennia ago, the right conditions can unleash the worst of human nature. We remain as vulnerable to fear and rage and tribalism and a “mob mentality” as we have ever been. Social science research suggests that when people act in groups, individuals suppress their moral codes and dispel some of the social and societal constraints that otherwise inhibit violence and destruction. Relatedly, research also suggests that the sense of self—and the individual moral codes that come with it—are diminished in crowds. Anonymity is easier to maintain in large groups, and responsibility is easier to spread across large numbers.

Thanks especially to advances in technology, our overall standards of living have risen dramatically in the last several hundred years. But it is a mistake to think that because our species is improving materially, we are also improving socially and morally. The chaos we observed across the country over the last week reminds us of the truth of an unchanging human nature. We each have within us tremendous capacity for both good and evil, and just as in the past every moment of every day we are forced to choose between them. Our political and social arrangements do not eliminate our baser, selfish natures—but they do limit them, allowing our social, cooperative natures to flourish. And it is for this reason that they are so important.

Finally, the events of recent days should provoke us to reflect on how we think, talk about, and respond to issues of racial injustice. Our public discourse must be reoriented toward an acknowledgment of our shared humanity and the irreducible dignity and worth we each hold as persons.

This message of recommitting to recognizing our shared humanity and respecting one another accordingly has promoted healing in the face of gross injustice and racial violence before. On the night of April 4, 1968, parts of many American cities were engulfed in flames. Martin Luther King had been assassinated that evening, and as word spread, violence and destruct did, too. In Indianapolis, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was about to deliver a stump speech as part of his presidential campaign. He would be speaking to a large, predominately African-American, audience. It was his unhappy task to inform them of the tragic, infuriating news.

We would do well to learn from how he did so. Kennedy reminded his listeners of the way in which Martin Luther King had dedicated his life to—and died for—the message of love and justice. “In this difficult day,” Kennedy said, “in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. . . . What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” He then encouraged the crowd to go home in peace and to pray for the family of Martin Luther King and for our nation.

RFK’s words of grace, healing, and reconciliation are widely credited for the relative peace Indianapolis experienced that evening, while other cities across the country saw destruction. Kennedy’s words—and Martin Luther King’s example—are what we need today.

G.K. Chesterton’s poignant insight into why we each bear dignity and are worthy of respect—despite deep difference—is salient. When we say that people are equal, we mean something like what we mean when we say pennies are equal:

When we say that all pennies are equal, we do not mean that they all look exactly the same. We mean that they are absolutely equal in their one absolute character, in the most important thing about them. It may be put practically by saying that they are coins of a certain value. . . . It may be put symbolically, and even mystically, by saying that they all bear the image of the King. And, though the most mystical, it is also the most practical summary of [human] equality that all men bear the image of the King of Kings.

Only by constantly keeping in mind the irreducible dignity of our fellow man will we be able to navigate the fraught but necessary conversations in the days to come.

Like civilization itself, the idea that we possess an irreducible dignity that makes each of us—no matter our race or wealth or social status or abilities—worthy of respect is not natural. Much like the maintenance of civilization, we must work tirelessly to keep it in view.

Alexandra Hudson

Alexandra Hudson, an Indianapolis-based writer, is the author of a book on civil discourse forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. She is also the editor of Civic Renaissance, a newsletter and intellectual community dedicated to moral and cultural renewal. Twitter: @LexiOHudson.