This country currently faces an intense ideological divide on multiple fronts. The issues that divide us are not simply pro-life vs. pro-choice (though we still argue passionately about this), but about police rights vs. police brutality, free speech vs. racial justice. For the sake of this essay, I am focusing on the latter issue, though police brutality is certainly a major issue that has caused much pain in this country for years.
It is comforting (and convenient) to think that there are simple solutions to the divide this country currently faces. Suzanne Nossel, in a somewhat confusing op-ed for The New York Times, essentially argues that both groups must compromise and work with each other to solve these issues. Nossel’s mistake, however, is assuming that these groups can work like political leaders. These groups are not structured nations; rather, they are a series of sub-groups of one ideological umbrella or the other. They cannot merely sit together and compromise, for there is no single leader to speak for them.
Much of this is due to social media, which has allowed for groups to be easily fractured and overly individualized. Advocates for free speech and racial justice typically use Facebook or Twitter to present their arguments. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal place for discourse: Anyone who’s read an comment section can tell you that most people exchange insults instead of ideas, shouting rather than debating.
Furthermore, the rise of social media has made it much harder for a social justice movement to create specific, achievable demands. The conversation has become, in a sense, too broad and all encompassing for groups to cause institutional or legal change. This is because many contemporary issues of social activism cannot necessarily be pinpointed by legal action; they are broader issues of microaggressions and discrimination, making this an issue of de facto inequality as opposed to inequality under the law. Solutions to these issues are either possibly unfeasible, such as tremendous redistribution of funding or borderline Orwellian systems of speech monitoring, or else too abstract to implement.
When people demand their rights or fight social norms, there is a tendency for violence to follow. This is certainly happening now, as there have been several reported, anonymous death threats through the app Yik Yak (as of writing, two people have been arrested for said threats). My heart goes out to those who must live in fear because of these threats.
Conversely, there is the story of Tim Tai, a Mizzou reporter trying to photograph a protest, who was repeatedly interrupted with the use of physical force by protestors, claiming they did not want media at the scene. One professor asked protestors for some “muscle” to remove Tai from the scene. Tai fought back, stating, “The first Amendment protects your right to be here—and mine!” Again, when people demand rights, violence follows. Tai’s rights were violated because a minority group’s chronic suppression boiled into a misguided fury that misinterpreted fundamental constitutional rights.
This circle of violence is widely discussed, but what is under-acknowledged is how this debate will affect those who take part in it. Many of the think pieces online (of which there are many) tend to vehemently support the ideology of one side or the other. But none of them (from what I have read) focus on what the human consequences of these debates will be. Each side seems to focus on why they have the moral upper hand; neither side acknowledges how this conflict, not its outcome, will affect all of us.
Civil rights movements have, historically, been lengthy, chaotic and violent, usually ending with some small steps towards progress, and lasting emotional resentment on both sides of the debate. When the Union wanted to abolish slavery, the Confederacy seceded and waged war. When U.S. workers moved to unionize and improve working conditions, they were brutally beaten. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted the right to vote to be protected, he led protests for more than 10 years before any substantial legislative change took place. There are many more important civil rights movements to discuss and honor, but if they all have one thing in common, it is that they were drawn out and violent, and they left emotional scars on both sides. The South still fights for its right to the confederate flag, and minority groups must still fight for their right to vote.
There has been progress, though. As comedian Bill Maher recently put it, “The fight to cleanse America of our original sin of racism takes different forms, and that’s progress. It used to be about slavery, then it was about hanging people, and then it was about fire-hoses… Denying racism is the new racism. And that’s progress, that’s where we are.” Maher acknowledged this still must be infuriating, but seems to have summed up the nature of progress: moving from absolute atrocities to slightly less terrible atrocities (that are still abhorrent and immoral).
These are merely surface observations of civil rights movements, yet an aspect of them that is often not discussed is how they divide people absolutely. Because of the absolute emotional intensity of civil rights movements, there is little room for moderate opinions on the issues. As Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian writes of the Corcyran civil war, a bloody battle between the ideologies of Democracy and Oligarchy, “any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly manner; [the] ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action,” (as translated by Rex Warner). This is not to say that the efforts of either side are misguided, but rather that in times of divide, anyone who isn’t fighting in the name of a belief is the enemy of all beliefs. In an age where arguments are summed up in 140 characters or less, Thucydides’ observation is more relevant than ever, as social media has encouraged the use of absolutist arguments over nuanced ones.
Which brings me to my final point. What nobody seems to be acknowledging is what is happening on campuses are not a series of minor incidents: Instead, we are likely looking at the beginning of a new civil rights movement (or, a continuation of a broader movement), that has tremendous consequences for everyone. Regardless of belief, sides have been drawn, and those who do not choose one will be called out and criticized for their indecision by everyone. Both sides will attack the other for their beliefs, by means of written criticism, verbal assault and (in the most extreme cases) physical violence. Tragically, most of this violence will be aimed at minority groups. They are the ones stuck in a Catch 22: Fight for their rights and be attacked and harassed, or do nothing and be attacked and harassed regardless.
In a way, it doesn’t really matter who is “correct” on the issue: Progress is a bloody battle in which everyone suffers for a small compromise that pleases no one and leaves both sides permanently wounded. Fight for your beliefs, but be wary of the consequences.
Spiro is a member of the Class of 2019.