On Baltimore: Imprudent Protests and Real Grievances

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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.