Can one affirm — without reservation — that vestiges of racism and racist social and political structures are manifest in authentic present disadvantages for people of color, and also sincerely ask what “systems” are now in place that really are racist in a similar and similarly pertinent sense?
Can one ask the question without being accused of denying the assertion that preceded it?
Can one emphatically agree with the verdict in the Chauvin case and yet express reservations about making George Floyd a martyr?
Can one be sympathetic to the possibility of a system of reparations while harboring reservations about how we might go about fairly and equitably making them?
In short: is there room for public thinking in the space we have painstakingly carved for public discourse over centuries?
The recent conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd has pressed the question on us with burning urgency, and starkly illustrated the difficulty of rational public discourse about race.
The loudest noises come from demagogues and race-baiters bent on staking out ideological ground and eager to demonize anyone who dares to ask honest questions. These provocateurs have no interest in civil discourse. Their noisy rhetoric frustrates efforts to conduct our public conversation.
Like all demagogues, they foster a climate of intellectual timidity, which inhibits thoughtful argument, and thus impedes authentic discussion and progress. At best they make civil conversation difficult; at worst they shut it down.
Even when we can cut through the haze of demagoguery, we often find ourselves without a common moral language in which to conduct constructive dialogue.
In his landmark 1981 book, After Virtue, political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously posed a thought experiment about an imaginary world in which all scientific knowledge and the institutions that sustained it have been annihilated. In a later attempt to revive the sciences, bits and pieces of inconsistent and contradictory theories and practices were thrown together into a great jumble.
The stories that made sense of the bits and pieces were lost.
The upshot: what looked like “science” after the annihilation, was never more than partially intelligible and frequently nothing but babble, the morphemes and phonemes of which were so many shards of smashed scientific terminological pottery.
MacIntyre suggests that this imaginary world of pseudo-scientific chaos is an illustration of the actual world of moral and political chaos that we inhabit.
We possess residual bits and pieces of a variety of moral vocabularies disconnected from any coherent theory of morality that gives them meaning. What little meaning these fragments do convey comes from and refers to contradictory moral languages. We try in vain to fashion the bits and pieces into a coherent moral grammar, and hope against hope that we are able to make ourselves understood – known – to someone else.
Our interlocutors are right there with us in the moral chaos. We all use terms and phrases that do not even mean what we think they mean, much less what the other person thinks they mean.
MacIntyre expanded on the theme in another book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? “Some conceptions of justice make the concept of desert central,” he posits as an example, “while others deny it any relevance at all.” He continues:
Some conceptions appeal to inalienable human rights, others to some notion of social contract, and others again to a standard of utility. Moreover, the rival theories of justice which embody these rival conceptions also give expression to disagreements about the relationship of justice to other human goods, about the kind of equality which justice requires, [and] about the range of transactions and persons to which considerations of justice are relevant.
MacIntyre goes on to note that the state of affairs indicates not only interpersonal division and conflict, but also division and conflict within our own attempts at moral reasoning.
“For what many of us are educated into,” he says, “is not a coherent way of thinking and judging, but one constructed out of an amalgam of social and cultural fragments,” created in the crashing collapse of moral rationality MacIntyre described in After Virtue.
Not infrequently, people of good faith — believing that they are speaking from well-considered, rational points of view — find it incomprehensible that anyone else of good faith could reasonably disagree. Because these are people of good faith, their circumstances do not provoke in them a hostile disposition. They do not cast with the demagogues. Rather, they are befuddled.
Their befuddlement is mirrored in the counterparty, and everyone attempting to converse ends up questioning the rationality or good faith—or both—of everyone else.
When we use terms and phrases like “reparations,” “systematic racism,” or “black lives matter,” it is often not clear that we understand the words, much less what the words mean when we speak them to others. If we ask honest questions, or express qualifications, about any of these notions, the dialogue often stalls.
How is a conversation to come from that?
The answers to these questions are important – vital – and only the work of getting at them will sharpen our focus on the real issues rather than to blur it on rhetorical ones. That work is back-breaking at the best of times, and ours are not the best of times.
Many of our friends and interlocutors — our fellows in citizenship — labor with us under a heavy centuries’ burden of injustice for which we are responsible (sometimes mysteriously, sometimes nakedly); while others of us, sympathetic to our fellows’ plight, are mystified by their apparent indifference to our sympathy.
We are all of us tempted to give up, to walk away.
Parting, however, is not really an option. If we cannot find a way to the answers – a way that must needs lead us back to each other – then we elect to leave the public square to the demagogues who really do want to burn it all down.
There is work to do, and daylight yet, in which to do it.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
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