During the last month turmoil around the nation has been dizzying. From Officer Derek Chauvin’s hideous killing of George Floyd to the wave of protests and riots which followed to BLM’s calls for defunding the police to the CHAZ/CHOP protest occupation of downtown Seattle to a rash of firings and public shaming of college professors and other professionals who have critiqued some of BLM’s tactics. More recently, Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe has been charged in the murder of Rayshard Brooks, and protesters have begun to topple statues and monuments all around the country.
While these events seem to highlight a deepening rift in our nation, one thing about which nearly all Americans agree regarding all of this is that Officer Chauvin’s killing of Floyd was a horrific act which warrants severe punishment. And we should all agree that racism in this country has been and remains a serious problem. But there is disagreement over whether Chauvin’s act was racially motivated or a manifestation of systemic racism, whether Chauvin should be charged with manslaughter or second-degree murder, whether this heinous act is symptomatic of widespread police corruption in the U.S., whether such corruption warrants a fundamental restructuring of law enforcement, whether there is any merit to the Black Lives Matter call for defunding the police, whether the Black Lives Matter protest tactics are morally legitimate, whether local law enforcement responses to the protests and riots have been appropriate, whether Officer Rolfe’s killing of Brooks was justified, and whether Rolfe should be charged with murder. It is tragic that despite the gravity of these questions, cool-headed, rational discussions have been rare over the last several weeks. Many insist that high-pitched emotions are understandable and appropriate, given the issues at stake. While this may be true, none of us should allow our emotions to cloud our judgment or prevent us from a rational appraisal of evidence and coming to logical conclusions about these issues. Allowing feelings to reign over reason can only lead toward more division and turmoil as many of the residents of cities impacted by the rioters can attest.
Oxford University ethicist Neil Levy has observed that “part of the reason that controversial moral and political questions are controversial is that there is something to be said on each side.” Levy says that a belief is controversial when “conflicting beliefs are held by a significant number of relevantly well-informed, intelligent, and rational people over an extended period of time” (from Open-Mindedness and the Duty to Gather Evidence, Public Affairs Quarterly, p. 56). It is interesting to note that while everyone will readily admit that the above noted issues are controversial, many people will refuse to admit that there is, as Levy says, “something to be said on each side”—and by this I suppose Levy means that there is something reasonable to be said on each side which should be acknowledged and respected by those who disagree. There are, after all, intelligent and well-informed people on all sides of the current debates over racism and law enforcement in the U.S. So why are we seeing so much hysteria and so little respect between people who disagree on these issues?
In recent years I have published several articles and book chapters on open-mindedness and am currently working on a book on the subject. Most people believe, as I do, that open-mindedness is an intellectual virtue. It is a trait which, as virtue epistemologist Jason Baehr would say, involves a willingness to transcend one’s default cognitive standpoint on an issue. This means that the open-minded person is willing to consider that her view on an issue might be false and to seriously entertain evidence which contradicts her perspective. Open-mindedness seems especially appropriate when it comes to controversial issues, for the reasons that Levy notes: whatever view you hold—on say, the nature of racism in America and how it should be addressed—there are well-informed, intelligent people who disagree with you. So, as difficult as it is, you have an intellectual duty to listen carefully, respond patiently, and proceed respectfully as you engage the debate. To do otherwise is uncivil and does little to advance dialogue and productive work toward solutions. If we are going to remain (or return to being) a rational and civil culture, we absolutely must conduct ourselves with at least a modicum of intellectual virtue, especially open-mindedness.
I have despaired at the level of dogmatism and foreclosure when it comes to many of the above noted issues. This is especially dismaying when I consider how many important moral and epistemic questions are being ignored or particular answers to them are being taken for granted (despite the fact that intelligent, well-informed people would demur at those assumptions). Here are just some of those questions. As you read each one, ask yourself: How would I answer that question? And what are my evidence-based reasons for my answer?
- What is the primary carrier of human sin? Is it systems and institutions or is it individual human hearts?
- What exactly is “systemic racism”? What are the criteria for ascertaining when a system or institutional structure is racist? Are these criteria statistical? If so, then what are they? If not, then what is the nature of these criteria? In any case, how are they established?
- Given one’s view on whether the sin of racism is fundamentally rooted in individual human hearts or institutional systems, how does this impact our approach to addressing this sin? In either case, what are the prospects for fully eradicating racist sin from society?
These are just some of the more foundational questions which are being widely overlooked, ignored, or only dogmatically addressed. There are many other questions that are not as foundational but still very important, such as these: Why is it no longer acceptable to question or critique some of the tactics and precepts of the Black Lives Matter organization, even if one emphatically affirms, as we all should, the understatement that black lives matter? Since many college professors and other professionals are being fired for critiquing BLM, how might this affect our national conversation about racial issues? Is the firing of people for raising critical points about BLM likely to make people more or less sympathetic with the BLM cause? Also, what criteria should be used to evaluate the continued display of historical statues and monuments? And how can we balance historical relevance with a desire to atone for past injustices?
Again, these are just some important questions. No doubt other questions come to your mind, perhaps even questions about why I list the questions that I do. That’s fine. The point is that we need to address these and other vital questions in a rational, evidence-based, and open-minded way. Such is essential to the maintenance of a civil society.
In closing, it is fitting to recall the standard set by Martin Luther King, Jr., who consistently demonstrated an evidence-based, rational, and civil approach. It is also noteworthy that he grounded his civil rights work methodology in the biblical themes of imago Dei, unconditional love, and non-violent resistance. (See my recent article on the subject here.) Why are these ideals not prevailing during our current unrest? What would it take for these values to take root (again) in our society? Without these values becoming preeminent today is there any real hope for pervasive racial justice and reconciliation in this country? These, too, are challenging and controversial questions, and they are more urgent than ever.