On Baltimore: Imprudent protests and real grievances

Old wisdom apt for Baltimore: riots, though bad things, can still be signs of pressing grievances. Mobs arise from injuries.

Regarding what’s going on in Baltimore, there are three separate questions. First, are the citizens of Baltimore (especially the African-American ones) justified in noting, and opposing, what seems on excellent evidence to be rampant, long-standing, and unpunished violence committed by police? Second, is rioting, including the burning down of a drugstore and a half-built community center, a wise and effective way of expressing that opposition? But third, how should the obvious answers to the first two questions affect our overall intellectual and emotional judgment?

The first two questions have received enough attention. On the third, an old British source—not Hume, for once—gets it just right.

If you do not carefully distinguish the feelings of the multitude from their judgments; if you do not distinguish their interests from their opinions; attending religiously to the one and utterly despising the other; if you lay down a Rule that because the people are absurd, their grievances are not to be redressed, then in plain Terms it is impossible that popular grievances should receive any redress at all, because the people when they are injured will be violent; when they are violent, they will be absurd—and their absurdity will in general be proportioned to the greatness of their Grievances.

[If one pursues the rule that grievances opposed through mob-like protest should be ignored,]

The worse their [the people’s] suffering the further they will be from their remedy.

Who said that? After the jump..

Edmund Burke, in a speech regarding the Wilkes and Liberty movement—as quoted on p. 142 of David Bromwich’s amazing book. (If you’ll be in New Haven tomorrow, May 1, a distinguished lineup will be discussing that book.)

The lesson, from this writer hardly prone to endorse mob rule and radical methods: If people are willing to run the risks of rioting over something, that’s not a good reason for rioting—but is a good reason for thinking that the object of their anger may be a real grievance and that we should address it. If we make civility the grounds for agenda-setting, we’ll guarantee that we pay attention only to small and fleeting abuses, not those that are huge and long ignored.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

4 thoughts on “On Baltimore: Imprudent protests and real grievances”

  1. I guessed Burke right away, him or Adam Smith. The counsel seems wise.

    How would you apply this to the situation in Texas, where an upcoming military exercise known as Jade Helm has the Tea Party types alarmed that it is being done as a precursor to the imposition of martial law and the confiscation of guns from the citizenry? The governor of Texas has gone along with these fears, and has asked the State Guard to monitor the training exercises, lest they lead to a hostile military takeover by the nefarious Obama. There are military bases all over Texas, but suddenly a right-wing conspiracy theory has its adherents fearing that the US Army is about to turn Texas into North Korea. Do these citizens even have a grievance? They are absurd, but is there something to be redressed?

    Can we compare and contrast Texas with Baltimore, as the AP history exams used to ask?

  2. I think this is just as true person to person. Usually, angry people are angry for a good reason. And just as usually?, they are taking it out on the wrong person, or doing something counterproductive. So I agree with you — the best thing is to try to understand the root of the emotional issue first. Ask people why. Listening is a totally underrated skill.

    Actually, somebody smarter than me probably has a better way to get people to tell you what's wrong. Direct questioning might not always be the best way.

  3. I grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s, in a moderately affluent white family. In 1953 the public schools of Baltimore were segregated by law. In 1954 our Republican (but progressive) governor, Theodore McKeldin announced that the Supreme Court had ruled, and that's that. Schools were desegregated by law, and the process went smoothly. I was only 11 in 1954, but for years after that, I puffed my chest out with pride in the word Baltimorean.

    In 1968, when Dr. King was murdered, I watched in horror as my city burned. I remembered the smooth desegregation in 1954, and the ensuing years of racial non-strife, and I wondered "Why? Why this, why now?" And I came to realize exactly what that quote from Burke explains–that emotions are not generally rational, and emotional reactions are not generally a tactic to achieve any rational end.

    1. The "smooth desegregation" you witnessed was from the point of view of black people a long long overdue and minimalistic, foo-tdragging response to Brown V. Perhaps Baltimore schools were indeed immediately integrated. Just down the road, in Virginia, public schools were actually closed as a response. In NC, where I lived then and still live, our legislature came up with the "Piersall Plan," which desegregated schools in such a fashion that a school was considered desegregated if it had two or three black pupils. By 1961, when I started college at UNC Chapel Hill, the law school had one or two black students. By 1963 there was a tiny handful of black undergraduates. Dean Smith integrated the basketball team in I believe it was 1964 or '65, in an effort comparable to the Jackie Robinson integration of professional baseball in the late '40s. In 1966 the first all black basketball team played for the National Championship in the NCAA. It is still considered a land mark moment. When Dr. King was assassinated, in 1968, the anger and despair in the black community generally was gigantic, and justified. To understand it, from the "outside", as a white observer however sympathetic, is nearly impossible. I might refer you to Nina Simone's "The King of Love Is Dead," if music reaches your heart. In my opinion, 50 plus years later, the assassination of Dr. King is one of the most terrible historic moments in our country's tragic history of race. We were founded on slavery. Racial prejudice, and its twin, white privilege, remain predominant features of our social fabric. King was offering the country a possibly last way out. We killed him. And, at the same moment, Richard Nixon instituted the "southern strategy," which institutionalized racism in the Republican Party, where it thrives today. The so-called race riots surrounding Dr. King's murder were not "constructive." They were monumental grief personified.

      As for the brief Monday night riot concerning the murder of Mr. Gray–here's a link to consider, from a Baltimorean of long standing:
      https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/04/29/dav

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