more on the mania for unanimity

Theodore Dalrymple writes,

Lewis Hamilton, the six-time world champion British Formula One driver, recently criticised his colleagues in the sport for saying nothing in the wake George Floyd’s death.

If any answer to this accusation were required, a reasonable one might have been that it was not their place as mere car racers to comment on such matters. If they had wanted to engage in polemics, however, they might have pointed out that Hamilton had remained silent about many terrible events in the world, for example (to take only one such) the war around the Great Lakes of Central Africa, which so far has claimed not one life, but several million lives. Black lives matter to Hamilton, they might have said, but apparently not the lives of these Africans.

Now, Dalrymple is nothing if not a curmudgeonly traditionalist; and he fails to note that Hamilton linked racism in the U.S. with racism in his own country and the rest of Europe; but still, doesn’t Dalrymple raise an interesting question here? That is: How exactly does a narrative coalesce such that “silence is violence” about some forms of suffering but not others, even if the others have greater scope?

Consider this: Several of the largest tech companies in the world have banded together as The Technology Coalition: “We seek to prevent and eradicate online child sexual exploitation and abuse.” Why is no one — literally no one — demanding that businesses and other institutions make statements against the sexual exploitation of children? Why, for that matter, did I feel that I needed to write something about police brutality in America but not one word about Central African wars, or child sexual exploitation, or China’s treatment of the Uighurs, or a dozen other atrocities that by any rational comparative assessment are worse than police brutality in America?

Well, at least in part I felt the need to write because, as I commented in this earlier post, I’ve been thinking and writing about American racism all my adult life. But as I also note in that post, it wasn’t that long ago that I had to deal with people who criticized me for focusing too much on racial relations. Why has that topic now become something about which there are universal demands for public statements?

Three reasons. The murder of George Floyd (1) happened in America, (2) was captured on a video that seems agonizingly long but is just short enough for people to watch fully, and (3) was shared widely on social media — American social media.

(1) What happens in this country will for obvious reasons be more evident and relevant to Americans than what happens elsewhere, but the U.S. is also the media center of the world, and all eyes are typically drawn here. That’s why anything that Americans obsess over is likely to become at least a point of interest for non-Americans.

(2) George Floyd’s murder was captured on video, and video has power that text does not have. Everyone could see just how long Derek Chauvin crushed George Floyd’s neck, the remorseless asphyxiation as onlookers pleaded with him to stop. But the murder wasn’t bloody and wasn’t grossly violent, and so it could be shown. (The very slowness that makes it horrible also makes it publishable.) Compare that with child sexual exploitation, which is often recorded on video but which Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t allow anyone to post; or with depredations that never get filmed at all. We are often at the mercy of the emotions aroused by what’s put before our eyes. We feel the need for catharsis, for some kind of purging of what we have seen. Our visual cortex orients our attention and our moral response.

(3) Social media are force multipliers for America-centrism and visual stimulation; and they multiply these forces in the way they always do, by generating herd effects and the madness of crowds. The particular kind of madness generated here is a mania for unanimity that doesn’t just punish dissent, but even punishes agreement if the agreement isn’t loud enough or phrased in precisely the correct way. And this moment certainly leaves no room for those who aren’t paying much attention to George Floyd because they’re concerned with the seemingly endless wars in Central Africa or with the horrific specter of child sexual exploitation.

By contrast, I think there are so many cruelties and injustices in this world that anyone who is working to constrain any of them should be applauded. And no one should assume that others are inactive simply because they’re not strutting and fretting their hour upon the social-media stage. It turns out that the biggest problem with the herd mentality is the hatred generated for anyone who won’t — for any reason — join that herd. There’s no violence in silence about a problem the great majority of the angriest weren’t thinking about in April and won’t be thinking about in August either. I am glad that the death of George Floyd has forced many Americans to confront injustices that we have ignored or minimized for far too long; but if you’re just using Floyd’s death as an excuse to coerce and threaten others, you’re not helping.