LET'S TALK GUESTS

Clive Crook

Bloomberg Opinion) -- On the merits, campaigners for racial justice in the U.S. are right about the main thing: African Americans live with the legacy of slavery and decades of officially sanctioned discrimination. Segregation, poverty and disadvantage linger, holding them back — and apart.

Most Americans have either denied this or, at any rate, have failed to grapple with it. America itself — despite great progress in many respects — has yet to adequately address it. So the campaigners are right about another big thing, this one less about what they say than how they say it: Loud and angry protests are sometimes necessary to jolt society into awareness of injustice. Their rage, which has no patience for moderation and counter-argument, has made a difference — not just reflecting but also shifting national opinion. Without this fury, campaigners are right to ask, what would’ve changed? The answer might very well be nothing.

From time to time, in other words, moral certainty is necessary. And this certainty can be sudden and enlightening — not “blinding,” as the authors of that now-famous (or, if you prefer, notorious) letter to Harper’s Magazine put it.

And yet. In a liberal society, moral certainty can’t be unbounded. In weighing contending values, people can and should disagree. Democracy’s main purpose is to let people who disagree live together peacefully and productively. If moral certainty can’t tolerate legitimate disagreement, it becomes fundamentally anti-democratic.

On some questions, to be sure, moral certainty is sufficient. Nobody should defend overt racism that sees members of other ethnic groups as deserving of less respect. Views of that kind don’t need to be entertained. (Whether they should be silenced is another matter.) But in America, racial injustice is subtler and more complicated than overt racism. In asking how it can best be remedied, decent people are going to disagree — and it’s essential that they should. Now that minds have been opened, moral certainty needs to make space for debate over what happens next.

A constructive discussion would shed light on the nature of the problem and the most promising solutions. So far, however, the racial-justice movement has been mostly animated by anger. It doesn’t help that many of its leading thinkers are drawn to dense abstractions and use familiar terms — racism, privilege, oppression — in unfamiliar ways.

This language can be useful by unsettling entrenched ways of thinking, but it isn’t well-suited to analyzing policy. It also points in distinctly unpromising directions. One main strand of thought sees racism as so bound up with capitalism that society must give up both or neither. A related school, believing power and who exercises it are all that count, sees reason itself as an instrument of oppression. These ideas express a revolutionary mindset that sees incremental, consensual change — the only kind that’s likely to succeed — as a kind of betrayal.

Advocates of workable reform are trying to be heard, but their ideas are getting drowned out by slogans that repel skeptics (“defund the police,” “silence is violence”), concepts that shut down conversation (“White Fragility”) and calls for cultural upheaval. Believers needn’t renounce the high priests of critical race theory or the tenets of social construction — liberal democracy accommodates many faiths — but they do need to make space for practical politics.

Aside from the need to develop workable prescriptions, this is also a matter of tactics. In a democracy, true reform requires sustained majority support. Silencing doubters won’t change minds. To do that, you need to engage.

Supporters of the racial-justice movement often object to this charge. What silencing? Social media have expanded and democratized society’s channels of expression, they say, so there’s more speech than ever. True, you might be shunned, shamed or fired for saying the wrong thing. But people are free to shun, and institutions can hire or fire at will. You won’t be punished by the government, and though you might struggle to keep your friends or make a living, you can always find a new platform to keep on saying bad things. Free speech isn’t blocked by “cancel culture.”

What nonsense. A climate of intolerance policed by eagerly submissive CEOs or university administrators, with or without government intervention, can still be harsh and unfair. It can still shut speech down by making people reluctant to say what they think — and this appears to be happening. In many cases, that’s the very purpose of the intolerance, and denying as much is simply dishonest. Campaigners for justice should be the last people to need reminding that culture matters, and that culture can be cruel and oppressive.

Moral certainty has created an opening for progress. But continued progress now requires the kind of debate that doesn’t see every kind of dissent as a bad-faith distraction from what really matters. What matters now, in fact, is action — on complex and disputed issues such as housing desegregation, public-school management and financing, affirmative action, economic opportunity, and police and criminal-justice reform. In all these areas, change is needed but the right answers aren’t self-evident. That means people must be allowed to disagree.

Once the subject turns to policy, moral certainty just doesn’t cut it. Unless today’s righteous anger finds a way to harness reason, persuasion and patience, it will most likely surrender to exhaustion or backlash — and a historic opportunity will be wasted.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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