By Hendrik van der Breggen
July 3, 2020
My conversation with Trevor Noah
Note/confession: The above title is my clickbait title. I didn’t really have a conversation with Trevor Noah. A more accurate title for this article is “Transcript of Trevor Noah’s talk ‘George Floyd, the Minneapolis Protests, Ahmaud Arbery, and Amy Cooper’ interspersed with Hendrik’s comments in red font.” But now that I’ve got you here, grab a beer and read on.
For those (few) who don’t know, Trevor Noah is, according to Wikipedia, “a South African comedian, political commentator, and television host. He is the current host of The Daily Show, an American satirical news program on Comedy Central… In 2018, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.”
On May 29, 2020, Trevor Noah presented an 18 minute non-comedic video monologue in which he set out his thoughts about the murder of George Floyd plus various thoughts about Ahmaud Arbery (another black man who was murdered), Amy Cooper (a white woman caught on video making racist remarks), and the protests and riots in Minneapolis. As far as I can tell, this monologue has been viewed at least 10 million times.
Like millions of people, I was (and continue to be) interested in—and horrified by—the senseless murder of George Floyd and the lootings and killings in the aftermath, so I also viewed Trevor Noah’s monologue. It gave me much to think about. So I viewed it again. There was much I agreed with, and there were some significant bits that I disagreed with, so I viewed it once again. And again. I viewed it at least five times. I got so interested that I took notes. And because I think more clearly about what someone has said when I see what’s been said in print, I even made a transcript of the monologue. I toyed with writing an article based on my notes on the transcript, but the project involved way too many quotes and way too many assumptions about the reader actually having viewed as well as remembering the video. So, for better or for worse, I came up with the idea that I would simply set out the whole transcript of Trevor Noah’s monologue coupled with my comments interjected along the way. I like to think of what I’ve done as a kind of a “conversation” with Trevor Noah. But I realize it could easily instead be seen as me simply interrupting Trevor’s talk. So, to avoid the nasty interruption interpretation, I decided this: I would encourage readers first to view and carefully listen to Trevor Noah’s talk—see video link below—and then I would encourage readers subsequently to read the transcript along with my comments. I think Trevor Noah is a smart and good man who has some important things to say, but I also think he says some things that are deeply problematic. I know much more than what I’ve written needs to be said, and I know I don’t have all the answers. Nevertheless, I hope my “conversation” with Trevor Noah is helpful in getting us closer to truth, goodness, and beauty.
2. Trevor Noah’s monologue
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Facebook (18 minutes), May 29, 2020. The video is also available on YouTube.
3. Transcript of Trevor Noah’s talk “George Floyd, the Minneapolis Protests, Ahmaud Arbery, and Amy Cooper” interspersed with Hendrik’s comments in red font
Trevor Noah’s words are in black font and my comments are in red font. If a reader thinks the black font is racist, please get over it. In the wise words of Kimberly "Sweet Brown" Wilkins, “Ain't nobody got time for that!” So why do I get to use red font? Well, to paraphrase Lesley Gore, it’s my blog—and I’ll font how I want to! Also, when I was a philosophy professor I liked to use a red pen to comment on essays. The red nicely stands out from the text, and helpfully distinguishes my voice from that of the writer of the essay. If the red font “triggers” the reader by bringing back bad memories of school, I’m pretty sure that says more about the reader than about me! Also, it’s now July and COVID-19 has taken its toll. This means, as Alice Cooper points out, school’s out for summer (and perhaps longer). Okay, let’s proceed.
Transcript and Hendrik’s comments
Hey, what’s going on everybody?
Hey, Trevor Noah, it looks like a lot of terrible stuff is going on—as I’m sure you’ll agree! Your talk about the goings-on concerning George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Amy Cooper, and the protests and riots in Minneapolis has been recommended to me, so I thought I would give a careful listen. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve transcribed what you said, so I can think carefully about it. I admit that before coming across your talk, I didn’t know much about you. About 10 years ago, when the “rabbit ears” antennae of my wife’s and my TV stopped working, we stopped watching television, so I’ve never seen you on The Daily Show. I’ve heard, though, that you’re a comedian. In fact, I asked one of our daughters-in-law about you, and she loves you—she says you’re a great comedian! (Okay, I love comedy too, so please indulge me for a moment as I make a couple attempts at humor:  When I was in my mother’s womb, I thought I heard an angel say, “You will be a comedian.” Turns out I misheard. The angel actually said, “You will be a Canadian.” Badum-tish!  After I drink a German beer, I thirst for power. After I drink a communist beer, I thirst for the redistribution of everyone else's wealth. After I drink a Canadian beer, I apologize for my beer jokes. Badum-tish! Truth be told, my kids don’t laugh at my jokes anymore.) In the last few weeks I’ve also learned that you are a political commentator besides being a comedian, and that many people take you seriously when you voiced your observations about George Floyd and the reaction that’s occurring across America and elsewhere (from what I can gather from YouTube, your talk on George Floyd apparently has at least 10 million views). Please know (though I couldn’t resist my attempts at humor) I am taking you seriously, too. Besides me having transcribed your talk, I hope also that you don’t mind that I’ve added a few comments and observations of my own in the transcript. There’s much that I agree with you about, but there are also a few points with which I disagree—seriously disagree. I think we both want what’s best for our society, which is an important common ground and goal. Hopefully my comments and observations will be helpful in getting us closer to that goal. Thanks for the “conversation”!
You know what’s really interesting about what’s happening in American right now is that a lot of people don’t seem to realize how dominos connect, how one piece knocks another piece that knocks another piece and in the end creates a giant wave. Each story seems completely unrelated and yet at the same time I feel like everything that happens in the world connects to something else in some way, shape, or form. And I think this news cycle that we witnessed in the last week was a perfect example of that. Amy Cooper, George Floyd, and, you know, the people of Minneapolis. Yes, I agree. I suspect that the “way, shape, or form” is deeply complex and includes a philosophical/moral and even spiritual dimension. The philosophical/ moral dimension probably includes some faulty reasoning. (This is a bit of a “tease”—more on this later.) Regarding the spiritual dimension, this morning I saw a video in which a black police officer said to a white protester, “It’s not a skin problem, it’s a sin problem.” I think that officer gets it right. Human brokenness connects us all. In the words of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, who observed the atrocities of the Soviet Union, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” The deep historical complexity of connectedness—and the universality of the sin problem—can be seen in the following article: Africa’s Role in Slavery. It’s important to remember these things, Trevor, so we remain humble—and so we don’t unwittingly promote injustice in our attempts to fight injustice. At the end of my comments, I’ll add a link to an article by a friend which addresses the spiritual dimension.
Amy Cooper was, for many people I think, the catalyst. And, by the way, I should mention that all of this, is, like, against the backdrop of coronavirus, you know. Good point to keep in mind, for sure. People stuck in their houses for one of the longest periods we can remember. People losing more jobs than anyone can ever remember. People struggling to make due more than they can ever remember. And I think all of that compounded by the fact that there seems to be no genuine plan from leadership, like no one knows what’s going to happen, no one knows how long they’re supposed to “be good”—how long they’re supposed to stay inside, how long they’re supposed to flatten the curve. No one knows any of these things. Yes, more good points. I should add that here in Manitoba, Canada, I think we’ve been getting some good leadership. I am grateful for that, though I know that this isn’t the case in many other places. And so what happens is you have a group of people who are stuck inside—all of us, our society, we’re stuck inside. And we then start to consume. Yes, we’ve been consuming much news (and much food!). (The parenthetical bit was another attempt at humor. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I don’t mean to downplay any of the importance of what’s going on. I sometimes find that humor helps me get through difficult times. During quarantine, I even learned how to make an “egg salad sandwich” using Cadbury Mini-Eggs! No more attempts at humor, I promise.)
We see what’s happening in the world, and I think Amy Cooper was one of the first moments, one of the first dominos that we saw get knocked down post-corona, for many people. And that was a world where you quickly realized that while everyone is facing the battle against coronavirus, black people in America are still facing the battle against racism and coronavirus. Good points, again, Trevor. It’s good to be aware of this additional problem—racism—that still faces black people in America. Thanks for making this clear. The coronavirus adds to and exacerbates ongoing problems.
And the reason I say it’s a domino is because I think about how many black Americans have read and seen the news about how black people are disproportionately affected by coronavirus. And not because of something inherently inside black people but rather because of the lives black people have lived in America for so long. You know, coronavirus exposed all of it. It’s so sad that black people are disproportionately affected by coronavirus. I hope and pray that special protections are soon provided for black Americans to alleviate the dangers and negative effects of the coronavirus. I notice that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has some guidelines for reducing the impact of COVID-19 among racial and ethnic minority populations, which is a step in a good direction.
Now here you have this woman who—we’ve all seen the video now—blatantly knew how to use the power of her whiteness to threaten the life of another man and his blackness. I’ve taken a look at the video of Amy Cooper. Her response to the black man Christian Cooper (no relation) is horrible and, as you go on to say, reveals an embedded racist attitude. What we saw with her was a really really powerful explicit example of an understanding of racism in a structural way. When she looked at that man, when she looked at [Christian] Cooper and she said to him, “I am going to call 911 and I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she knew how powerful that was. And that in itself is telling. You know, it tells you how she perceives the police; it tells you how she perceives her perceptions or her relationship with the police as a white woman; it shows you how she perceives a black man’s relationship with the police and the police’s relationship with him. It was powerful. Yup.
Because so many people act like they don’t know what black Americans are talking about when they see it, yet Amy Cooper had a distinct understanding. She was like, “Oh I know, I know that you’re afraid of interacting with the police because there is a presumption of your guilt because of your blackness. I know that as a white woman I can weaponize this tool against you, and I know that by the time we’ve sifted through who was right or wrong, there’s a good chance that you will have lost in some way, shape, or form.” Yes, I agree: Amy Cooper’s behavior is horrible. It’s horrible that people still think the way she does. I appreciate your assessment here, Trevor. Thank you. It’s important. Yet … I think more needs to be said. More below.
And so for me that was the first domino. And so now you’re living in a world where so many people are watching this video, so many people are being triggered, because in many ways it was like a “gotcha.” You know it was like the curtain had been pulled back: Aha! So you do this! It’s always been spoken about but it was powerful to see it being used. And I think a lot of people were triggered by that. A lot of people were like, “Damn, we knew it was real but this is like real real,” you know. Again, I think your assessment concerning Amy Cooper is on target. Her behavior and attitude are despicable. I’m glad this was exposed via video. Again, it’s horrible that people still think the way she does. Again, I appreciate your assessment here, Trevor. It’s important to be aware of this. Thank you. Yet … I think more needs to be said. More below.
I think a lot of people were also angry that some of the outrage that came to her was because of her dog. I mean I get it. You know, but it was… a lot of people felt like it would have been great if the dog shelters had the same, I guess, power or if police departments were run by the people who run dog shelters. Because they seem to act like this—they didn’t waste time. They were like, “Nope, we’d like our dog back, lady.” Which I’m going to be honest, that was a hell of a punishment. Her job is one thing; taking a white lady’s dog—that was a nice dog. Amy Cooper’s handling of her dog was horrible, too. And I’m also glad the dog shelter could act without wasting time. Yes, if only our police departments and government bureaucracies could be as quick to act justly!
Okay, I wish to pause. As I mentioned, I think more needs to be said. I think you’re right, Trevor, about the racism that Amy Cooper displayed. Yet … I think there may be more to the story that’s significant. I took some time to gather more information about the interaction in the park between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper. It turns out that Christian Cooper said the following to Amy Cooper (for not leashing her dog when she should have): “if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.” I think we should allow for Amy feeling threatened. Christian Cooper admits he said what he said, but he claims he intended merely to lure her dog away from Amy by giving the dog treats. I have to admit that I’m not so sure everyone would understand that particular interpretation of Christian Cooper’s words! If my wife was walking our dog and, say, some large white guy said what Christian Cooper said, I suspect my wife would call 911 and say something like, “There’s a big thug threatening me in the park!” The thug would be identified as white, but, arguably, the notion of “thug” is in some significant way prejudicial (I was once told that the use of “thug” is dehumanizing). My point: My wife would probably say things she probably wouldn’t say normally because of stress. To allow for Amy Cooper to feel threatened is not to condone the racism you’ve identified, but it is to consider immediate context and thereby show some concern for a fellow human being who apparently—and perhaps reasonably—felt some duress because of the words spoken to her. We should show empathy to all parties concerned. Okay, let’s move on.
And so that was the first domino, you know. That was the first domino where I felt like you could feel something stirring. And all of this again is in the backdrop: coronavirus has happened. The numbers have come out. You know, the story of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, that story has come out. I’ve taken some time to carefully examine the story of Ahmaud Arbery. It’s horrific and truly terrible. And so sad. And wrong. Really wrong. A young man getting murdered while out for a jog—in broad daylight even. Wrong, even if the killers thought he was a burglar. I mourn his death, and I mourn with his family. And I’m glad that his killers are facing murder and other charges.
All of these things are happening. And then the video of George Floyd comes out. (In case readers haven’t seen it, here is the horrific and terribly, terribly sad video of George Floyd.)
And I don’t know what made that video more painful for people to watch: the fact that that man was having his life taken in front of our eyes, the fact that we we’re watching someone being murdered by someone whose job is to protect and serve, or the fact that he seemed so calm doing it, you know. I think the pain stems from all of the above.
Often times we’re always told that policed feared for their life, it was like a threat, and you know you always feel like an asshole when like, “You didn’t fear for your life. How/ why did you fear for your life?” But now more and more we’re starting to see that it doesn’t seem like there’s a fear, it just seems like it’s “you can do it so you did it.” There was a black man on the ground in handcuffs and you could take his life so you did, almost knowing that there would be no ramifications. I don’t know what was going on in the police officer’s heart and mind (I hope an investigation will figure this out, but ultimately God only knows for sure). Nevertheless, it’s clear that the police officer should not have had his knee on George Floyd’s neck to begin with, the officer definitely should not have continued with the knee on the neck when Mr. Floyd said he couldn’t breathe, and the officer should not have continued with the knee on the neck when Mr. Floyd passed out! The onlookers who were videoing were right in their comments to the police that the knee to the neck should be removed. So senseless. So horrific. It’s wrong. Truly wrong, period. Evil.
And then again everyone on the internet has to watch this. Everyone sees it. It floods our timelines as people. And, and I think one ray of sunshine for me in that moment was seeing how many people instantly condemned what they saw. You know, and maybe it’s because I’m an optimistic person, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that, especially not in America. I haven’t seen a police video come out and just see across the board—I mean even Fox News commentators and police chiefs from around the country immediately condemning what they saw, no questions, not what was he doing, not just going no, what happened here was wrong. It was wrong. This person got murdered on camera. For clarity’s sake: What was wrong was that this person—George Floyd—got murdered, period, whether on camera or not. I believe that’s what you mean, Trevor. I don’t mean to come across as nit-picking, but it’s important to be clear. Probably you should have dropped the “on camera” bit and merely have said, “It was wrong: this person got murdered.”
And then the police were fired. Great. Amen. But I think what people take for granted is: Is how much for so many people that feels like nothing, you know. How many of us as human beings can take the life of another human being and then have firing be the worst thing that happens to us. And, yes, we don’t know where the case will go, don’t get me wrong. Right, it’s good to let the investigators do their work, and it’s good to give them time to do this.
But it feels like there is no moment of justice. This is no… you know if you’re watching a movie you’d at least want to see the cops… you’d want to see the perpetrators in handcuffs. You’d want to see the perpetrators facing some sort of justice. Yes they might come out on bail, etc., but I think there’s a lot of catharsis that comes with seeing that justice being doled out. I’m glad to report that at the time of my writing this (June 25, 2020) the police officer who had his knee on George Floyd’s neck, i.e., Derek Chauvin, is being charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter, and that the other three officers at the scene, i.e., J. Kueng, Tou Thao, and Thomas Lane, are being charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and manslaughter. Yes, Trevor, I agree: sometimes “it feels like there is no moment of justice.” And, yes, “there’s a lot of catharsis that comes with seeing that justice being doled out.” But, no, life isn’t always nicely compacted into a 2 hour movie, or even a mini-series. As human history has shown, life is often unjust and messy, and we have to be patient in our actions—without promoting injustice—for justice to prevail. Speaking of justice, I recently noticed U.S. Senator Tim Scott is promoting something called the Justice Act. I also noticed that here in Canada, Senator Don Plett has launched a Senate inquiry on the presence of racism and discrimination within Canadian institutions. And I noticed that some very serious thought is being given to justice and police reform: e.g., see this article by Anthony Bradley, PhD: “When police get it wrong (repeatedly): The rule of law and police reform.” Hopefully, these sorts of things will be helpful. I know that some will say “justice delayed is justice denied.” Yes, if it’s deliberately delayed, it’s being denied. But we must take time to gather all the facts, view video evidence, hear witnesses, listen to the accused, think carefully, and then take morally appropriate action to achieve justice. The danger of rushing to judgment is that it may become indistinguishable from pre-judgment/ prejudice—and mob rule—and thus may lengthen the arc of the moral universe and bend it away from justice.
When the riots happened, that for me was an interesting culmination of everything. I saw so many people online saying, “These riots are disgusting, this is not how a society should be run. You do not loot and you do not burn and you do not—this is not how our society is built.” And that actually triggered something in me where I was like, “Man, okay. Society. But what is society?” And fundamentally when you boil it down, society is a contract. It’s a contract that we sign as human beings amongst each other. We sign a contract with each other as people, whether it’s spoken or unspoken, and we say amongst this group of us, we agree in common rules, common ideals, and common practices that are going to define us as a group. That’s what I think society is: it’s a contract. And, as with most contracts, the contract is only as strong as the people who are abiding by it. Yes, the notion of social contract is important in understanding our society. But there’s more to a just society than mere contract. More on this later. Hint: there is also law above the law, i.e., moral law.
But if you think of being a black person in America who is living in Minneapolis or Minnesota or any place where you’re not having a good time, ask yourself this question when you watch those people: What vested interest do they have in maintaining the contract? My answer is coming.
Like, why don’t we all loot? Why doesn’t everybody take? Because we’ve agreed on things. There’s so many people who are starving out there. There’s so many people who don’t have, there are people who are destitute, there are people who when the virus hits and they don’t have a second pay cheque or are already broke, which is insane, but that’s the reality. Yes, it is reality, and it’s sad. In my view of morals (influenced by Jesus) we who are fortunate, whether through effort or luck (or both), should as individuals help our neighbors who need our help, even though we might differ on the best ways to do this politically.
But still, think about how many people who don’t have—the have-nots—say, “You know what, I’m still going to play by the rules even though I have nothing because I still wish for the society to work and exist.” And then, some members of that society, namely, black American people, watch time and time again how the contract that they have signed with society is not being honoured by the society that has forced them to sign it with them.
When you watch Ahmaud Arbery being shot and you hear that those men have been released and were it not for the video and the outrage those people would be living their lives—what part of the contract is that in society? The killing of Ahmaud Arbery is an outrage, for sure. A moral outrage. As I mentioned previously, it’s wrong—really wrong. And it’s definitely not part of the social contract. It’s good that there was video, and it’s good to remember that the killers have been charged.
When you see George Floyd on the ground and you see a man losing his life in a way that no person should ever have to lose their life—at the hands of someone who’s supposed to enforce the law—what part of the contract is that? It’s wrong—really wrong—and definitely not part of the contract. That’s why the police who are responsible have been charged. It’s good to remember this.
And a lot of people say, “Well, what good does this do?” Yeah, but what good doesn’t it do? That’s the question people don’t ask the other way round. “What good does it do to loot Target? How does it help you to loot Target?” Yeah, but how does it help you to not loot Target? Answer that question. I will answer that question. See below.
Because the only reason you didn’t loot Target before was because you were upholding society’s contract. There is no contract if law and people in power don’t uphold their end of it. Here, finally, is my answer (at least the beginning of it; there’s more further below). Trevor, social contracts are not the whole of ethics. There are moral reasons for not looting. “Do not harm innocent people” is a moral imperative, not merely a social contract. There are moral reasons, not just contractual reasons. So it’s not true that “the only reason you didn’t loot Target before was because you were upholding society’s contract.” Some things are right, and some things are wrong, regardless of contracts. Some things are right, period, and some things are wrong, period. Murder is wrong, period. So is otherwise harming an innocent human being. Harming someone can include destroying their livelihoods by looting or burning their life’s work. Rioting—lawlessness—can lead to murder, which has occurred. Permit me to get philosophical (I am a former philosophy professor, after all). You seem to be espousing a view of ethics known as contractarianism. Contractarianism is the view that morals are merely agreements. But it turns out that contractarianism has very serious problems. If you value consistency and if you think there are real wrongs (such as the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, which I think you believe are truly wrong), then these problems should lead you to abandon this view of ethics. Contractarianism locates the wrongness of an act merely in the breaking of an agreement. But this means that on the contractarian view, obvious evils such as murder, rape, torture, child molestation, and otherwise harming an innocent human being are not wrong in themselves, they are wrong only insofar as a contract is broken. This is mistaken, surely. What is worse, it would actually be okay to murder, rape, torture, etc. if I didn’t mind paying the price for breaking the contract if I got caught. By “buying” my way out of the contract (by paying a fine or going to jail) I in effect live up to my end of the contract, and so my murder/ rape/ torture/ molestation isn’t actually wrong in itself. On contractarian ethics, there is no real wrong; the problem is merely my lack of enlightened self-interest—I simply wasn’t smart enough not to get caught! In other words, contractarianism is deeply problematic because it fails to account for two facts: (1) that human beings have objective moral value (intrinsic worth/dignity) and so, at the very least, should not be violated; and (2) we—you and I—know this. The moral value (intrinsic worth/dignity) of human beings is violated when they are murdered, looted, or otherwise harmed. Sure, agreements are important, but they are not the whole story about ethics. Do you see this, Trevor? It’s important for you to know this, Trevor, for the contractarian view of ethics will take us down a dark, dark path—it boils down ethics to the will of those powerful enough to make agreements. It turns ethics into a form of might makes right. History is covered in blood because of this principle. The fact that you have a huge following and influence—power—makes it all the more important for you to know this. (For more on contractarianism, see my article Morals by agreement?)
And that’s the thing I think people don’t understand sometimes, is that we need people at the top to be the most accountable because they’re the ones who are basically setting the tone and the tenor for everything that we do in society. For sure, yes, definitely. But we need to hold them accountable by holding them accountable, not by wrecking other people’s lives and livelihoods! Wouldn’t you agree? Not only was Target looted, but so too were many small businesses, including businesses run by blacks. Moreover, as reported in Foundation for Economic Freedom: “Economic research and basic economic theory indicate that local residents [of Minneapolis] will suffer from myriad cascading consequences ranging from business flight, reduced capital investment, higher insurance costs, and lower property values. All of these effects will be especially hard on underprivileged communities.” To avoid these nasty consequences for innocent others is how it helps you not to loot Target. Are you not aware of this? If not, you should be. Because you are one of those “people at the top”—after all, Time Magazine in 2018 named you one of the 100 most influential people in the world—you should be setting the intellectual tone and tenor in our society.
It’s the same way we tell parents to set an example for their kids. It’s the same way we tell captains or coaches to set an example for their players. The same way you tell teachers to set an example for their students. The reason we do that is because we understand in society that if you lead by example, there is a good chance that people will follow that example that you have set. Sure, of course. And so if the example law enforcement is setting is that they do not adhere to the laws, then why should the citizens of that society adhere to the laws when in fact the law enforcers themselves don’t? Again, we need to hold accountable those who are accountable; we shouldn’t wreck the lives of innocent others. Permit me to repeat myself: Not only was Target looted, but so too were many small businesses, including businesses run by blacks. Moreover, as reported in Foundation for Economic Freedom: “Economic research and basic economic theory indicate that local residents [of Minneapolis] will suffer from myriad cascading consequences ranging from business flight, reduced capital investment, higher insurance costs, and lower property values. All of these effects will be especially hard on underprivileged communities.” (End of me repeating myself.) Moreover—and what is worse—the lawlessness of the looting ended up promoting even greater lawlessness. Not only were the livelihoods of innocent people destroyed, but also innocent people were killed. Surely there are pretty good reasons for thinking that citizens should adhere to the laws when in fact the law enforcers themselves don’t. We need to hold the law-breaking law enforcers to account since they are breaking the law. Looting and killing of innocents is unjust to those innocents and serves to deteriorate the laws needed to bring law-breakers to account. Don’t you agree? I hope you do.
There’s a really fantastic chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath where he talks about the principles of legitimacy. And he says in order for us to argue that any society or any legal body or any power is legitimate, we have to agree on core principles. And those three principles, if I remember correctly, is: Number 1: We have to agree on what the principles are. Number 2: We have to believe that the people who are enforcing those principles are going to enforce them fairly. And: Number 3: We have to agree that everyone in that society is going to be treated fairly according to those principles. Malcolm Gladwell is smart, definitely.
It is safe to say in this one week alone, and maybe even from the beginning of coronavirus really blowing out in America, black Americans have seen their principles completely delegitimized. Because if you’re a black person in American right now and you’re watching this, if you’re a black American person specifically and you’re watching this, what principles are you seeing? But please pause and think: delegitimizing more principles doesn’t de-delegitimize the illegitimacy. It just escalates further delegitimization. This will not help the ones who need help. In fact, it hurts them further.
I think sometimes the thing we need to remember, and it’s something I haven’t remembered my whole life, like it’s you start to learn these things, you know, when you travel the world, when you read, when you learn about society I think is that like, when you are a have and when you are a have-not, you see the world in very different ways. And a lot of the time people say to the have-nots, “This is not the right way to handle things.” When Colin Kaepernick kneels, they say, “This is not the right way to protest.” When Martin Luther King had children as part of his protests in Birmingham, Alabama, people said that having children at your protests is not the right way to do things. When he marched in Selma, people said, “This is not the right way to do things.” When people marched through the streets in South Africa during Apartheid, they said, “This is not the right way to do things.” When people burn things, they say, “It’s not the…”—it’s never the right way because there is never a right way to protest. And I’ve said this before, there’s no right way to protest because that’s what protest is. It cannot be right because you are protesting against a thing that is stopping you. I notice that you don’t finish your sentence about when people burn things. I like to think that maybe you realized that you were going too far in your justification of looting and burning, i.e., destroying the property and livelihoods and lives of innocents. Perhaps I’m mistaken. I hope not. But let’s let that pass. You say there is never a right way to protest. Really? With all due respect, Trevor, that’s simply not true. Protesting an unjust law or event can be done rightly, that is, justly. The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is that he taught us that the right way to protest is to do so forcefully and peacefully—without violence. Isn’t that the hard-won lesson of Martin Luther King Jr.? Surely it is. Also, on a philosophical note, about your claim that protest “cannot be right” because it’s against “a thing that is stopping you”: this is weird, philosophically. Trevor, your claim seems to assume that the nature of what is right is wholly determined by power/socio-political forces only, so because protest is going against such forces, protest cannot be right. Significantly, however, this ignores the reality of the moral realm that is more basic or higher than mere power/socio-political force. There is moral reality, or what some philosophers call “law above the law” (for example, see John Warwick Montgomery’s book The Law Above the Law, published, interestingly, in Minneapolis; according to Montgomery, because there is a law above the law we can judge that Nazis were really wrong, not “wrong” merely because they lost the war and thus lost their power/ socio-political force). Surely, then, it can be morally right to protest an unjust law or event. If something terribly and truly wrong occurs, it’s morally right—and even one’s moral duty—to protest. The “thing that is stopping you” against which one is protesting can be wrong morally. In fact, Trevor, as even you acknowledge (earlier in your talk), the murder of George Floyd by a police officer is wrong, period. It’s wrong, really wrong; it’s not merely something that’s against the law or contract (though it is that, too). So, if what one is protesting—e.g., unjust police action—is in fact wrong, protest can be right even if the thing one is protesting is stopping one (or attempting to stop one) from doing so. Think about it. And, again, think of Martin Luther King, Jr. See especially his Letter from Birmingham Jail. According to MLK, it can be right to protest against a wrong. So, Trevor, I think you are mistaken on two counts when you claim “there is never a right way to protest” and “protesting cannot be right.” You need to get clear on this, for the sake of truth, and for the sake of the many innocent lives that can be protected because of your social influence. Reminder: Time Magazine named you as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. With great power comes great responsibility (Luke 12:48).
And so I think what a lot of people don’t realize is the same way you might have experienced even more anger and more just visceral disdain watching those people loot that Target, think to yourselves… or maybe it would help you if you think about that unease that you felt watching that Target being looted, try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day. Because that’s fundamentally what’s happening in America. Police in America are looting black bodies. I do try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans, and I am sure it is terrible. Please know that I—and many others—care. Truly. We are human, too, and we can and do empathize. And we are disgusted by the injustice many black Americans face every day. I think you need to give me and many others credit for realizing that our anger over the looting wasn’t just about the looting, it was in addition to our anger over the murder of George Floyd, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and the racism of Amy Cooper. Permit me to speak merely for myself. I am a retired philosopher. So I’ve got some thoughtful years behind me. I’m familiar with philosophy and with history. I’ve studied ideas and the history of ideas. Also, the study of ethics was one of my areas of specialization. I know that murder is wrong, philosophically and intuitively. I know that racism is wrong, philosophically and intuitively. I also know via reason and experience that responding to one wrong by doing another wrong doesn’t make things right. So when I saw the looting I knew that wrongness was being compounded on top of the wrongness of the murder of George Floyd because more innocent people were being hurt. I knew (or at least very reasonably believed) that looting would lead to the destruction of more innocent lives, which it did. I suspect many people besides me were thinking similarly. Please give us some credit here. When it comes to careful thinking about morality and justice, we can work together.
And I know someone might think that’s an extreme phrase, but it not because here’s the thing I think a lot of people don’t realize. George Floyd died. That is part of the reason the story became so big is because he died. But how many George Floyds are there that don’t die? How many men are having knees put on their necks? How many Sandra Blands are out there being tossed around? We don’t, we don’t, it doesn’t make the news because it’s not grim enough, it doesn’t even get us enough anymore. It’s only the deaths, the gruesome deaths, that stick out. But imagine to yourself if you grew up in a community where everyday someone had their knee on your neck, where everyday somebody was out there oppressing you every single day—you tell me what that does to you as a society, as a community, as a group of people. And when you know that this is happening because of the color of your skin. Not because the people are saying it’s happening because of the color of your skin, but rather because it’s only happening to you and you’re the only people who have that skin color. These are seriously concerns, definitely. And they need to be addressed in such a way that justice does in fact prevail.
And I know there’s people who will say, “Yeah but like, well, how come black people don’t care when black people kill?” But, man, that’s one of the dumbest arguments ever. Of course they care. If you’ve ever been to a hood anywhere, not just in America, but anywhere in the world, you’d know how much black people care about that. If you know anything about under-policing and over-policing, though, you would understand how that comes to be. The police show black people how valuable their lives are considered by the society, and so then those people who live in those communities know how to or not deal with those lives. Because best believe if you kill a white person especially in America there is a whole lot more justice that is coming your way than if you killed some black body in a black neighborhood somewhere. Your point about under-policing is important, and I admit that I don’t know much about the phenomenon of under-policing. But I suspect there’s more complexity. And I suspect a breakdown of family life is relevant here. It’s pretty much common knowledge that fatherlessness occurs an awful lot in black American “hoods.” Now, consider these words from former President Barrack Obama: “We know the statistics that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of schools, and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They're more likely to have behavioral problems or run away from home or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.” (Transcript, Obama's Father's Day Remarks, New York Times, June 15, 2008.) Maybe a strengthening of family life in which kids have both a mom and a dad would be helpful?
And so to anyone who watched that video, don’t ask yourself if it’s right or wrong to loot or—don’t ask yourself what has looting helped—no, no, no. Ask yourself that question. Ask yourself why it got to you that much more, watching these people loot. Because they were destroying the contract that you thought they had signed with your society. No, it got to me not “that much more” than the horror and wrongness of George Floyd’s death, rather it got to me in addition to the horror and wrongness of George Floyd’s death. The killing (murder) by police of George Floyd is wrong. But does this justify looting and killing (murdering) innocent others? Nope. The murder of innocent life is wrong—terribly, terribly wrong. Rioting, looting, causing the suffering of innocents by destroying their livelihoods may be less wrong—but they are wrong, too. Deeply wrong. It’s terribly, terribly wrong to murder someone, AND it’s deeply wrong to hurt innocents. Rioting, looting, causing the suffering of innocents by destroying their livelihoods, and the killing of innocents—these taken as a justified response to a wrong is to fall prey to the reasoning that two wrongs make a right, which is a textbook fallacy of logic. It’s also dangerous. If the faulty logic is accepted, then another wrong can be justified to make the latest wrong right, and so on. This faulty logic fuels ongoing and escalating feuds. For further discussion of two wrongs reasoning, I encourage you to take a look at my article Two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy. I wrote this article because of your monologue.
And now think to yourself: Imagine if you were them watching that contract being ripped up every single day. Ask yourself how you’d feel. Even though I am repeating myself here, I would remind myself that the murder of innocent life is wrong—terribly, terribly wrong. Rioting, looting, causing the suffering of innocents by destroying their livelihoods may be less wrong—but they are wrong, too. Deeply wrong. It’s terribly, terribly wrong to murder someone, AND it’s deeply wrong to hurt innocents. And I would remind myself that rioting, looting, causing the suffering of innocents by destroying their livelihoods, and the killing of innocents—these taken as a justified response to a wrong is to fall prey to the reasoning that two wrongs make a right, which is a textbook fallacy of logic. It’s also dangerous. If the faulty logic is accepted, then another wrong can be justified to make the latest wrong right, and so on. This faulty logic fuels ongoing and escalating feuds. (End of repeated material.) I would also remind myself that peaceful protest and peaceful political action, as difficult and slow as they may be, are the way forward. This was the way of Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement of the 1960s (see the movie Selma); this was the way of William Wilberforce in the abolition of the slave trade (see the movie Amazing Grace); and this was—and is—the way of the pro-life movement (read the story of Mary Wagner, a peaceful protester who has been in prison many years and whose life will, no doubt, inspire many). Also, International Justice Mission (a bunch of lawyers) engages in peaceful legal action via courts to help oppressed people.
Yes, there are race-related tensions and concerns and injustices. Let’s address these tensions and concerns and injustices, even if it requires protests. But let’s also keep in mind that a just peace can best be served through careful truth-seeking coupled with actions in which we show gentleness and respect to those with whom we disagree—and to all others. And, if our protests end up requiring civil disobedience to change an unjust law, let’s keep in mind these words from Martin Luther King, Jr., from his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly … and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.”
A lawful, just society is important for the well-being of all of us. In a just society, we show respect to others when we also treat the laws that govern us with respect—even as we seek to change unjust laws.
Thanks, Trevor, for the “conversation.” As I’ve been writing, I have also been thinking of you in my prayers. I sincerely wish for you God’s blessings during these difficult times.
Speaking of God, I’ll close with providing a link to an article that a friend of mine wrote recently. I think my friend’s article gets to the heart of it all: Racism: The solution will cost you everything--but the reward is unspeakable.
Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosophy professor who lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada.