The Importance Of Picking The Right Cause Célèbre

Alasdair Denvil Freelance Writer
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We get agitated about political causes because they’re moral causes. We care about them because we want people to be treated with the respect they deserve.

Hence our anger — and our errors — in the UVA rape case and the death of Michael Brown.

Take the latter case first: if hasty generalizations are being made by law enforcement about people on the basis of their race — generalizations that assume the worst — then it’s an injustice that can’t be tolerated. Given that black men are much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than men of other races, it looks like there’s real reason to be worried about racism when it comes to African-Americans and the U.S. criminal justice system.

But it makes a difference how we fight against it. Accepting that there’s racism in some U.S. policing doesn’t mean it’s present in every interaction the justice system has with African-Americans, or in the Ferguson shooting of Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. The facts of that case have been murky from the outset: eyewitness testimony has been contradictory; some witnesses have been caught lying (saying they saw the altercation between Brown and Wilson when they didn’t); and still more said they weren’t comfortable testifying at all, fearing what law enforcement, neighbors, or someone else might do to them if they gave the “wrong” account of events.

The point is, we don’t know whether Brown’s death resulted from an overuse of force or a legitimate act of self-defense. As such, to use Brown’s death as a rallying point against police racism is itself to draw a hasty conclusion — a conclusion not supported by the evidence — that assumes the worst about Wilson.

The same thing appears to have happened in Rolling Stone‘s (now-retracted) story by “Jackie,” a woman who claimed to have been gang raped at a University of Virginia fraternity. We know there’s a problem with sexual assault against women on college campuses, and so we’re eager to believe the veracity of a story that claims to be an instance of this injustice. Rolling Stone, at least, jumped to that conclusion, publishing the story without doing enough basic fact-checking to confirm the details of Jackie’s account, an account which now stands in doubt.

And so what happens? President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder use Brown’s death — and not, say, the shooting of Levar Jones by Officer Sean Groubert — to call for initiatives to improve cooperation between law enforcement and the neighborhoods they police, and to pay for body cameras for cops, even though they could have done this five years ago. It’s just as wrong-headed as the attempt to use the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) as a catalyst to address political invective, despite the fact that political invective played no role in the motivation of the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner (now diagnosed as schizophrenic).

Meanwhile, because it was also drawn in by the popular appeal of a dubious story, UVA suspended the activities of all fraternities.

What happens, in other words, is that being too quick to punish the guilty risks creating more innocent victims. When our opposition to racism or rape leads us to make questionable accusations of bigotry or sexual assault, it makes people suspicious of the next accusation they hear, and we wind up hurting the fight against racism and rape.

We see it in the case of comedian Bill Cosby. A number of women have come forward with allegations that he drugged and raped them. But knowing that some claims of rape are false (e.g., Tawana Brawley, or the Duke lacrosse case), we don’t leap to their defense. False allegations make justice harder for the real victims. Cosby’s accusers may all be truthful. And Brown and Jackie may very well have been victims, too. But we don’t know for sure.

Politicians, when caught in a false anecdote, like to retreat to the truth of the “broader point.” This is what President Obama did after he falsely claimed Otto Raddatz and Robin Lynn Beaton (and his own mother) to be victims of a broken health insurance system.

Now, maybe his underlying point was true. But if there’s a forest of truth out there, you should be able to point to an actual, undisputable tree. An epidemic of police racism or college rape should be easy enough to illustrate, not with good stories, but with verifiable facts.

We want justice to happen quickly. We want to identify the wicked. We speed up so we can see the face of the driver who cut us off in traffic.

Unfortunately, ignorance is a regular feature of human life. Even in matters of justice, we don’t know everything. We can only acknowledge our ignorance and move forward in spite of it, doing our best not to make the situation worse.

Rushing to declare the death of Michael Brown and the gang rape of Jackie as obvious cases of broader injustices doesn’t help the situation, it only makes it worse. It only makes it harder to fight for an end to rape and racism.