Brutal systemic racism is a vast tragedy where both complacency and resistance lead to frightening outcomes. In such a tragedy, the first duty of observers is to listen to what is said in broken glass and wailing sirens.
You’ve probably already heard the line from Martin Luther King Jr., “a riot is the language of the unheard”. The speech, delivered at Stanford in 1967, is an extraordinary example of embracing moral ambiguity. King reiterates his advocacy for nonviolent tactics, saying that acts of “violence will only create more social problems than they will solve”. Yet he insists riots are not mindless destruction; they are communicative acts, drawing attention to decades of poverty and neglect. They are reminders “that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity”.
King’s insistence on seeing beyond simple judgement is echoed in recent trends in moral theory. Traditionally, western philosophy tended to focus on theorizing what makes actions count as right or wrong. But many philosophers now see this as an overly limiting project. Elise Springer, in her recent book Communicating Moral Concern (2013), writes that “nothing bars us from framing our practical life as a chronicle of individual actions, each with a stand-alone moral status; but it is as insightful as conceiving dialogue as a chronicle of individually chosen words”. Instead, Springer focuses on the importance of attention; moral communication is first about getting others to recognize that something morally important is at stake, not simply adjudicating its place in a table of rights and wrongs.