Society’s Cudgels vs. Moral Values

People kneel in exhaustion
From a burden
Borne too long
People kneel in reverence
Calling a nation
To right it’s wrongs

I challenge people to see kneeling as an act of reverence for the people suffering due to failure of the nation to meet the standards of liberty and justice for all. It can be a deeper act of respect for the nation and it’s highest credal values than patriotism that is narrowly defined as obedience to traditional social norms.

All Americans have the right to criticize our nation and to call attention to the need for a reckoning with the values and commitment to the freedoms defined in our constitution.

If you are more upset by an act of conscious that conflicts with your social norms than the injustice those acts are calling attention to, your attitude is part of the problem. Your outrage highlights the psychological distance between creating liberty for all and compelling compliance with socially normative behavior.

Socially normative behavior has given us a nation quietly at ease for decades with the new Jim Crow that replaced the old Jim Crow that replaced racial segregation that replaced slavery. This quiet ease of a comfortable life is insulated by myths that provide explanations of injustice and suffering so that one doesn’t have to discomfort oneself by thinking to hard. We have a culture that dissuades the comfortable from deep exploration of the dark aspects of our society. People push back hard against others in their social circles getting too much spirit in their veins about righting these wrongs or even discussing them “in polite society.”

Our society has only ever had a veil of politeness.

No one ever said to me, “in compassionate society we do x.”

No one ever said to me “that’s not compassionate.”

They said “It’s not nice to make a fuss. You should be nice. Don’t be impolite.”

Then I went to war. Politeness didn’t mean anything anymore. I saw real injustice and real suffering and had to face the systems that led to these outcomes from within those systems. I saw how traditions and ritual gave people means to prevent deep introspection and moral reckoning. Ritual and tradition lubricate the systems that perpetuate injustice and suffering just as they lubricate the necessary social interactions and civil interactions in a society. Ritual and tradition are indiscriminate. People provide the meaning, or the lack of it. I began to resent indiscriminate adherence to ritual and tradition. I especially resented it in those who never served but who draped themselves in a shroud of flag worship and loudly proclaimed patriotism that willfully ignored facts and actual events.

I never had the moral courage to make a public display of that conflict. So I admire those who do. Their actions forced me to more fully confront my own attitudes.

Social compliance to traditional norms are used as cudgels to control people—to prevent social disruption, the essential factor for social change and progress. While that can be necessary, when it becomes toxic, when the impulse is to revert to social attitudes and behaviors that deemed disastrously immoral decades ago, we have a moral duty to question our own complicity in the perpetuation of these efforts.

If we continue stand for something that is actively harming others, perhaps we should consider what purposes kneeling might serve. Humbling ourselves in reverence for the lives taken and families terrorized by improperly aggressive, improperly targeted, often intentionally racist, and tactically poor techniques of policing is not an act of disrespect. Is is an act of disruption—intentionally so. It forces a confrontation between learned rituals of respect with actual facts and actual events in the world. Our psychological impulse is to lash out at the confrontational act—which is the point of the act. Then, after reflection, the overreaction raises questions, forces investigation, forces comparisons between the act and the issue.

What is more patriotic, a conditioned behavior toward a symbol of our nation, or a lived dedication to the highest values of that actual nation and it’s living people, combined with a dutiful knowledge of its full history and how that history is carried into every aspect of our collective social lives today?

An easy patriotism of learned behaviors and social compliance will not make this nation well and whole. It may even contribute to division and sickness.

Some will take a knee. Others may work to register voters. Others may fight to reform criminal justice systems, help addicts, feed the hungry, house the homeless, educate our children, care for our families and neighbors.

Some acts will be symbolic, some will be practical. We should look to the deeper values, the deeper stories at play, rather than the manufactured narratives that give us a side to pick instead of values to explore.

Do the work of citizenship. Learn the history, wrestle with the deep values of our constitution, and be a bit more fully conscious about your own response to traditions and traditional narratives. Consider what can sustain and build on our progress to the full flourishing of those values, and what holds us back.

I also see the kneeling as a sign of moral exhaustion. Why do those who suffer have to always be those who do the moral, social, and intellectual work of challenging, educating, and making others comfortable?

When I see these men taking a knee, I hear a call to action. It’s time for me to take up the burden they have born for far to long. It’s time for me to use my capabilities to live the values that were much repeated but often not modeled. It’s time for me to do the damned hard, urgent, necessary work.

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