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Beyond Reason in Charlottesville

Among a variety of other freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution, the right to peaceful assembly occupies a uniquely sacred place in American civic life. It is one of the few constitutional guarantees that we have memorably captured and celebrated not only in words like those that make up the First Amendment, but also in pictures like those which were taken of civil rights activists experiencing the blunt force of brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

With this sacred place in American life comes a sort of reverence for the right to assemble peacefully; when we’re taught about social movements to which we’re now sympathetic utilizing protests and demonstrations in their activist work, perhaps we can mistakenly conflate the rightness of those causes with the right to protest.

This weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, the immense reverence which we’ve placed on the right to assemble peacefully was torn off, and we saw something dark and unholy underneath. We watched as a teeming mob of white supremacists filled with racist bile casually exploited that same right which we’ve been so formed and shaped and taught to revere.

To say that these hate-mongers “exercised” a constitutional right to assemble peacefully would be an immoral inaccuracy. No, these naziphiles exploited an opportunity to assemble — by Saturday night, we all knew that the outcome had been anything but peaceful.

The authors of the constitutional amendment which guaranteed Americans that right, the right to assemble peacefully, had been fundamentally formed in their thinking by the Enlightenment’s intellectual tradition, with its emphasis on the role of reason, of reasonable persuasiveness, and of reasoned persuadability. Many of the freedoms which we see articulated in the First Amendment are (at least in part) the result of that tradition as well; someone who believes that most human beings are capable of rational discourse (which involves being able to persuade other people of the right choice and being persuadable of the right choice) must of course believe that the freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly are important to uphold in society.

Of course, when talking about some of these intellectual origins in American life, there are a few ironies worth mentioning directly here. The first is that most of the American Founders, for all of their credentials in Enlightenment-style thinking, were clearly and painfully not as enlightened when it came to race and the American slave trade. The tragic consequences of this profound moral transgression have been felt throughout American history, and they’re still felt today.

The second irony is that even as we’ve lost touch with many of the American Founders’ ideas and ways of articulating them, the Enlightenment notions of rational discourse and the importance of reason have persisted in American society, perhaps most prominently through the continuing and expanding role of science in our lives. Even when we’re deeply frustrated with people with whom we disagree, many of us believe deeper still that we’re somehow capable of persuading them to see things in the ways that we do and that they themselves are still reasonable enough to be persuaded by obvious, indisputable facts, especially when we think that deep moral issues are involved.

Racism, however — not only its prominent role in our national past but also its continued presence in our public life today — is itself an existential critique to our fantasies about the role of reason in our country’s past and present. After all, racist hatred and white supremacy, the likes of which were on grotesque display in Virginia this weekend, exist on a plane of thinking that is beyond reason, perhaps even beyond our ability to, no matter how articulate we are, “persuade away” with the spoken or written word.

This, of course, is no excuse for white supremacists, and raw ignorance is certainly not absolution for racists and bigots. Whether or not something can be rationalized and whether or not it exists on any reasonable plane of thinking doesn’t determine whether or not it’s right.

Yet, whenever we’re confronted by this hatred-beyond-reason, our notions about the connections between free speech and rational discourse and our own powers of persuasion can prompt us to grasp for something new or seemingly profound to say or write about the stark evil that is white supremacy in America. Sometimes, however, there are limits to our ability to discuss reasonably that which is so blatantly irrational and morally wrong.

So, when we’re confronted by a kind of evil that is neither surprising nor informed by reason in any way, what should we do? An admirable start would be to steer far away from the kinds of “all/many/both-sides-ism” and “what-about-ism” that grant these xenophobes a shred of intellectual credibility or social acceptability.

We can also recognize that, even as there is a hatred beyond all reason threatening to tear apart the fabric of our society, there are also unifying elements in our society that we can sometimes find difficult to identify, articulate, or explain. One American who tried to describe these elements was Abraham Lincoln; in his first inaugural address on the eve of the American Civil War, our sixteenth president talked about the “mystic cords of memory” binding the Union together.

I believe that when Lincoln described some of the nation’s unifying elements as “mystic,” he wasn’t doing so simply for the sake of soaring oratory; I believe that he described them in that way because sometimes the things which hold our nation together really go beyond our ability to explain them reasonably. When I think about why Heather Heyer, the woman murdered so senselessly in Charlottesville this weekend, would be counter-protesting on behalf of people whose experiences were different from her own, “mystic” is a word that comes to mind. Her sense of responsibility and advocacy for the dignity of marginalized people around her went beyond reason, beyond our ability to put into words — it was almost spiritual.

We live in the shadow of a racist hatred that is sometimes so difficult to rationally explain or “persuade away,” because it’s so tangled up in the fabric of our national past and present. Even so, those of us who are committed to living together peacefully in the midst of difference are bound together by “mystic cords of memory,” the likes of which we also can’t really explain. And our nation’s hope lies in these mystic cords being stronger, tighter than a dark racism beyond reason.