The Moral Perils of Pessimism
First Draft
The Moral Perils of Pessimism
Or, what is social change?
Published on: Aug 08, 2020
Editor’s Note: These “First Drafts” are attempts to work through tensions and incoherences in our own thinking in real time, with you, the crowd, as our interlocutors. Please feel free to challenge us in the comments. If you like this post, consider becoming a member to support our work.

Rod Dreher wrote a post a few days ago titled “Who Killed George Floyd? George Floyd.” (The original title has since been changed in order to be less gratuitously inflammatory.) The outrage that swept through the commentariat was predictable, but I think it missed the mark. Go on and read the post, with its dozen “updates” by Dreher, and come back when you have. I’m not going to engage in a close reading of the full text here.

At the core of Dreher’s argument (such as it is) is a sense of moral whiplash. He claims that he had more or less bought into the Narrative (conservative code for what “the media and the liberal establishment” is telling you, his capitalization is a tell)—that Floyd’s murder was proof of explicit racist intent—and that after watching the full footage of the incident as captured by a police bodycam, he was angered at supposedly being misled. Floyd resisted arrest, and though he didn’t “deserve” to die, for Dreher, Floyd’s death was completely understandable within the context of what really happened. But Dreher didn’t stop there. As if to underline his outrage, he wrote: “All the George Floyd riots, all the George Floyd protests, have been based on a lie.”

Temperamentally, I recoil from the moral certainties of activism, so at least superficially I understand what Dreher thought he was doing with his post. Journalism in the age of Trump has become activism-inflected, with the New York Times, in particular, forcing readers seeking straight news to read more critically than ever before. But at the same time, Dreher’s own response was moralizing in the opposite direction—a kind of funhouse mirror image of that which antagonized him. People are lying! The truth is the opposite of what is being alleged!

Needless to say, it isn’t. It’s complicated.

But I bring up the Dreher episode not in order to wade into a substantive discussion of race or policing—I’m way out of my depth and have nothing substantive to offer—nor to litigate what was really in Dreher’s heart—I don’t personally know him and I don’t really care. Rather, I’d like to shine a light on something that has been gnawing at me for a while now. While I do firmly believe it’s dangerous that we in America are engaged in an escalating standoff between competing moral righteousnesses, our current moment of crisis has also forced me to grapple with the implications of my own preferred stance: that of analytical distance.

Can an individual living in America today really say in good conscience: “Well, the question of race and policing is all very complicated and it doesn’t do us any good to oversimplify”? In a different but related register, a podcast guest recently raised the question (after we had finished recording): at what point does explaining the phenomenon of populist discontent become apologetics for Trump? Is the analytical pose cowardly—an abdication of responsibility as a citizen of a democratic society?

My easy answer is that a politics driven exclusively by activists can lead to bad outcomes. “Defund the police” rolls off the tongue real pretty, but lands like a lead weight when actually implemented. And the kind of overheated rhetoric about Donald Trump—who was after all legitimately elected by American voters—leads to the undermining of democracy itself if taken too far. The analytical pose is at least useful in that context—as a counterweight to the increasingly strident demands of both sides of any debate in an increasingly polarized society.

But that answer elides an important question: namely, by what mechanism does social change work? Most activists will be quick to point out that even if their demands are not accepted 100 percent, they will have forced a mute, inert public to engage on their terms. This “shifts consciousness” and allows for a reframing of questions in ways that were impossible before. In that frame, those of us who analytically “complicate” matters are, in some sense, conservative by default. Real change doesn’t happen if all you’re doing is appreciating the problem. And if you believe that society needs reform, is doing nothing tantamount to acquiescence?

Though I tend to end up to the “right” on many debates, I don’t really consider myself a conservative. A conservative, ultimately, holds fast to a belief that there is something precious worth conserving. That’s not me. I’m a pessimist. When asked to choose between the devil I know and the devil I don’t, I tend to focus above all on the fact that both choices involve the devil. I see most social arrangements as delicate and precarious, and while I recognize that societies can evolve, I fret about when people blithely push for change with the assumption that change can only be for the better.

America, of course, is anything but a pessimistic place. Its relentless optimism is perhaps its greatest strength, and the source of its ability to constantly reinvent itself, even at its darkest moments. And as a (relatively) recent immigrant, I frequently find myself checking my pessimism. I am convinced that it is that very pessimism, so prevalent in the rest of the world, that leaves other societies struggling to cope with challenges as they arise.

Still, old habits are hard to break. And in times of crisis, that dirty old pessimism gains a luster that it doesn’t have when things are going just fine…

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