Israeli scholar Avishai Margalit wrote the following in his book, The Decent Society: “A decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people.” I have re-read that sentence many times this week.
As he continues, Margalit offers us even more wisdom: “I distinguish between a decent society and a civilized one. A civilized society is one whose members do not humiliate one another; while a decent society is one in which the institutions do not humiliate people.”
America is not a decent society and, using Margalit’s definition, we are not a civilized one either.
George Floyd’s murder was callous. It was reprehensible and it was simply too much for too many of us to bear. What pains me the most, however, is the intent by the officer to humiliate. Pinning Floyd’s neck onto and then into the filth of the street reveals what the officer, and so many others, truly think of us. For too many, and for too long, we’ve been treated like filth. We are disposable byproducts of a capitalist system predicated on a lie.
That’s why this moment is so raw and so intense.
If you’re searching for the proper perspective from which to ‘better understand’ what has unfolded in this country, reflect on George Floyd’s death in the context of Margalit’s words. The officer’s intent when he readjusted his knee to exert maximum pressure on George Floyd, when he ignored George Floyd’s pleas for help, when he continued to suffocate George Floyd minutes after he was unresponsive, were all designed to humiliate.
And, when the officer looked callously into the camera of the person filming, he intended to humiliate all of us who saw ourselves in George Floyd.
This protest, violent and non-violent, is a rejection of the humiliation we’ve suffered for too long. It is a demand for decency. What you’re observing is the conclusion reached by many that our institutions are indecent, by design, and that includes so much more than our system of policing. We see the indecency of American institutions in health care, in employment, in criminal justice and even the indecency of Amy Cooper in public spaces like Central Park. This indecency is like a cancer in the body politic and today we are at stage 4. Indecency has metastasized.
If the body is unable or unwilling to heal itself, maybe it’s time to cut the cancer out forcibly. That’s the conclusion so many reasonable people have drawn. They are willing to destroy their own bodies (literally and figuratively) to excise this cancer. Killing cancer can be a violent process.
America’s original sin was not slavery. America’s original sin was revealed by a desire to humiliate the many for the benefit of the few.
Now, to be clear, I don’t want to see more bloodshed. I don’t want to see any property destroyed. For those of you who rightfully argue that looting and arson distract us from the message of the moment, you are correct. But I fear you have missed the message. Perhaps, you never wanted to acknowledge the message in the first place.
The message to America is this: Civilized people lose their own humanity when they settle for being a bystander in an indecent society.