Apramāda

Buddhist perspectives on society and culture

An Immoral Panic

Posted in: Politics
An Immoral Panic

One of the simplest yet most important forms of abstention from false speech and cultivation of truthfulness is that of factual accuracy. This consists in telling what one has seen, for example, or what one has heard, with scrupulous fidelity to the facts as they actually occurred, neither adding nor subtracting anything, nor exaggerating or minimising anything, and without failing to recount any relevant circumstances. The observance of the Fourth Precept even in this limited sense is extremely difficult, and there is no doubt that we need to school ourselves in factual accuracy much more rigorously if we are to have any hope of observing this Precept in its subtle, refined and advanced forms.

Sangharakshita, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism

When Everyone Goes Crazy

From time to time, society witnesses a phenomenon of the type that sociologists call a ‘moral panic’. This is a widely shared fear that an evil group of people is menacing the safety of the community, especially of some innocent and vulnerable section of the community. But the fear is illusory, or at least grossly exaggerated. In mobilising to defeat the imagined danger, society usually does itself more harm than was ever likely to come from the thing it feared. That, of course, is the nature of any panic.

An example often cited is the ‘ritual abuse’ craze. This first appeared in the USA around 1980, when a psychiatrist claimed that children were being physically and sexually abused in the rituals of satanic cults. Books were published, conferences were held, and sensational reports appeared in the media. Christian fundamentalists stepped in to fan the flames. Yet as time passed, professional investigations of the alleged ‘satanic abuse’ repeatedly drew a blank, and the panic faded.

In mobilising to defeat the imagined danger, society usually does itself more harm than was ever likely to come from the thing it feared

This does not mean that every allegation associated with the ritual abuse scare was untrue. Child abusers are, sadly, all too real. And occasionally, occult or ritualistic trappings might have played some part in the behaviour of abusive individuals. However, the panic undoubtedly produced many false allegations, causing immense anguish in the lives of those who were falsely accused and sometimes convicted. And its central claim — that the abuse was committed by an organised group of devil worshippers — was eventually discredited. Abusers there certainly were, but far fewer than imagined, and they did not constitute a cult.

The moral panic phenomenon has several typical features. Firstly, there must be a ‘threat group’. In the case of the ritual abuse phenomenon, the threat group seems to have been imaginary, or at most a case of isolated abusers being misconstrued as a cult. But in other panics, a real and cohesive group is singled out for suspicion; as has been the case in persecutions of the Jews across the centuries. Secondly, there must be a vulnerable ‘victim group’ as a logical correlate of the threat group. Children often figure in this role. The third requisite for a full-blown panic is the support of powerful or prestigious people or institutions. In a democratic society, politicians and the media perform this dubious service, often with contributions from celebrities, ever eager to garnish their good looks or charm with a sprig of virtue.

But the key agents in a moral panic are those whom sociologists call ‘moral entrepreneurs’. These are individuals who seek to bring about a radical change in the moral framework of society. They want to redefine the meaning of virtue and justice. As the name suggests, moral entrepreneurs are also highly enterprising individuals. They spot a market and sell to it. They might sincerely believe in their product, and their original aim might not be to profit from it; but at the same time, they often manage to do rather well for themselves out of the panic they inspire.

Truth is the first victim of any widespread panic. Indeed, the essence of a panic is a collective straying from truth — an epidemic of exaggeration and irrational negative emotion. Anyone who cares about truth should therefore be on guard against such infectious craziness. Likewise, all people of goodwill — all those who care about the true welfare of their fellows — should be ready to stand firm against panic and the trail of destruction that may pursue it. In mindfulness of which, should not Buddhists, for whom truth and goodwill are both of paramount importance in the scale of values, be voices of calm and reason?

The Panic of the Moment

Are we in the grip of a moral panic right now? If so, what is it? My answer is likely to whip up a storm of indignation, but here goes. In my view, the most extraordinary moral panic of the present era is the belief that police forces and whole systems of criminal justice are thoroughly racist. And that they are persecuting black people in a way that is tantamount to an organised hate crime.

For the purpose of this series, I will name this belief ‘the police racism panic’. The spearhead of the panic is the organisation called Black Lives Matter (BLM), and that name has become almost synonymous with the panic as a whole in the last few years. For that reason, much of what I shall have to say will refer specifically to BLM.

Although it has gone global, the panic is originally an American phenomenon. Accordingly, to keep a complicated topic within manageable bounds, I am going to focus, in this series of articles, upon BLM’s primary manifestation in the USA. An examination of BLM in Britain will have to wait for another occasion. It is important not just for Americans but also for us here in Britain to see the American panic for what it really is. Panic is infectious and dangerous.

any facts of racial bias in policing have long since been swamped in a tide of exaggeration

Although Black Lives Matter first appeared (as a hashtag) in 2012, the roots of the panic go back at least three decades to the pioneers of Critical Race Theory, and arguably much longer. But the panic has spread like wildfire throughout the USA and beyond since the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis in May 2020. As with the ritual abuse panic, the police racism panic is not wholly without foundation. The American police do indeed sometimes use grossly excessive force, meted out on both white and black offenders or suspects. (It should also be said that, in a country where so many people carry guns, and where there is a much higher homicide rate, it would be unrealistic to expect British standards of gentility in policing.) Perhaps too some US policies on law and order, such as aspects of the ‘war on drugs’, have been flawed and racially discriminatory in effect, if not in intention.

But any facts of racial bias in policing have long since been swamped in a tide of exaggeration. The police racism panic strives to persuade us that the police, the very institution whose function is to protect the American people from crime, are cruelly killing the most vulnerable and historically oppressed section of the population. Like the ritual abuse panic, this idea grips us with the grisly fascination of a well-crafted horror movie. Its claims are extreme. Take, for example, the black attorney Benjamin Crump, who has become prominent over the last decade in legal cases involving race. In 2019, Crump published a book called Open Season — Legalized Genocide of Colored People. The title tells you all you need to know.

The use of that word ‘genocide’ parallels the statement on the website of Black Lives Matter that the lives of black people are ‘systematically and intentionally targeted for demise’ by vigilantes and the police. Politicians too are echoing the idea, as we would expect in a moral panic. Joe Biden, as a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2020, commented as follows on the death of George Floyd: ‘Every day, African Americans go about their lives with a constant anxiety and trauma… Imagine if every time your husband or son, wife or daughter left the house, you feared for their safety from bad actors and bad police [my emphasis]’.1

And how about this, from none other than former First Lady Michelle Obama? Speaking of the conviction of Derek Chauvin, Mrs Obama welcomed the verdict but cautioned that people in the black community ‘still live in fear’ – meaning fear of policemen like Derek Chauvin. She cited her own anxiety at allowing her daughters, Sasha and Malia, to get driving licenses: ‘They’re driving, but every time they get in a car by themselves, I worry about what assumption is being made by somebody who doesn’t know everything about them…that they are good students and polite girls, but maybe they’re playing their music a little loud…The innocent act of getting a licence puts fear in our hearts.’ In these words, the celebrated and affluent Michelle claims to believe that her daughters are at risk from thuggish or trigger-happy white cops, simply because they are black.2

Was George Floyd’s death a racist murder rather than just a murder? Many choose to believe so, though even the Minnesota Attorney General, who supervised the prosecution, admits there was no evidence that Chauvin was motivated by race. Hate crime laws are on the Minnesota statute book, but were not used in the prosecution because no conviction could have been secured through them.3 But even if one believes that Derek Chauvin is a racist, his action provides no basis for the sweeping assertions made by Crump, Biden and many others.

Those nonsensical assertions look to me like symptoms of a moral panic, or some other form of collective irrationality, comparable to a moral panic, for which we don’t have a precise name. But in saying this, I do not deny that racism persists in the USA. Nor do I claim that the behaviour of the police towards black people is never racially biased. But the situation is comparable to the ritual abuse scare of the 1980s. A real but relatively small danger has been vastly exaggerated and achieved widespread credence. Worse, the exaggeration is doing serious harm, as it did in the ritual abuse panic. Yet the claim is so extreme that it is easy to recognise it as irrational if only one engages in some reflection and investigation of the facts.

The Truth in Brief

What then are the facts? I am going to explore them in detail in this series, but here is a short preview.

As you would expect in a country where they are the majority, far more white people than black have been killed by the police in each of the last seven years in the USA (a period for which we have unusually complete data).4 While it is true that black people get killed by the police more than you would predict from their share of the population, that disparity disappears when placed in the context of demographic and crime data. African Americans encounter the police in violent ways more often than whites because they both suffer and commit more violent crime per person.

The bitter irony of the panic is that violence and disorder has been growing steeply since the birth of Black Lives Matter

To some degree, this is because the age group that commits much of that crime (late teens to early forties) forms a higher proportion of the black population than it does of the white. But even allowing for that, young black men do indeed commit more violent crime per head than whites (just as Asian Americans commit much less). This is not to suggest that black people are naturally predisposed to crime. High levels of violent crime are found in association with certain geographical and social conditions, especially in poor communities in inner cities. Although most African Americans are now in the middle and upper-income groups, about 18% remain in poverty. But this poverty can no longer be explained as the result of continuing white racism. Nobody can rightly deny the damage done by racism in the past, or that the effects of that historic injustice still linger. Nevertheless, the persistence of poverty and high crime rates in parts of the black population is better understood in terms of cultural factors — factors that are known to vary among ethnic groups. Foremost among these is family cohesion, but there are others too, such as attitudes to educational attainment.

For the same reasons, the danger that African Americans face from either the police or from white ‘vigilantes’ is statistically tiny compared to the threat to their lives and livelihoods from violence and disorder at the hands of other African Americans, especially in the inner cities. The bitter irony of the panic is that, after a decades-long fall, such violence and disorder has been growing steeply since the birth of Black Lives Matter, in part because of its successful demands for cuts in policing.

If any of the foregoing information seems surprising or unbelievable, that is a consequence of the wide reporting of police violence against black victims, as compared to the under-reporting of closely comparable instances involving white victims. This, in turn, is because swathes of the mainstream media, both in the USA and here in the UK, have lost balance and objectivity, and are paying fascinated attention to the anti-racist narrative. This bears the hallmark of the moral panic type of social phenomenon.

Anti-Racism

An exaggerated and over-racialised view of police brutality is merely one aspect of a currently influential ideology, which could be defined as postmodern anti-racism. For brevity I will call it simply ‘anti-racism’, which indeed is the name preferred by those who champion it. These advocates emphatically distinguish anti-racism from its rival, the older ideal of non-racism. This is a crucial distinction. The hope of non-racism, given classical expression by Martin Luther King, was that racism would fade away in a world where people ‘will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’.

But according to the new anti-racism, that hope is forlorn, and non-racism is simply one of the tools that white people use to maintain their own supremacy. As long as there are differences in outcomes between races — whether in status, income, or deaths at the hands of the police — we may be certain (say the anti-racists) that the stain of racism has not yet been washed from white hearts. It’s there, even if you can’t see it. Everybody must be induced to admit this ‘truth’. What is more, all institutions must take whatever steps the anti-racists prescribe — unconscious bias training, diversity policies, economic reparations and so on — to eliminate those differences in outcomes.

The theoretical background to anti-racism is called Critical Race Theory (CRT), a set of doctrines that took shape in the late nineteen-eighties and nineties, springing from roots in Marxist humanism and postmodernism. An important strand of Critical Race Theory is the idea of ‘intersection’, which seeks to build a political alliance between black people and other groups, mainly minorities, which are also thought to be oppressed or (in the fashionable terminology) excluded or marginalised. Alliances are intrinsic to the eternal jostling for power in human societies. In the case of intersectional identity politics, the alliance is fragile and riven with contradictions, but is enormously influential. However, let us leave discussion of CRT for another occasion. In this series I am going to focus on the specific claims of the anti-racist movement regarding the police.

Buddhists and Anti-Racism

Apramāda is dedicated to sharing ‘Buddhist perspectives on culture and society’. Up to now, I have mentioned Buddhism only once. Some readers may be wondering what is Buddhist about the perspective I am sharing here. Other readers will have already worked out the answer for themselves, taking the hint from my choice of epigraph.

The first of the speech precepts enjoins truthful speech. More fundamentally, Buddhism is a teaching that is dedicated to truth, to ‘seeing things as they really are’. Sangharakshita, the founder of the Buddhist Order to which I belong, has said that telling the truth, even in the limited sense of sticking to the facts, is ‘extremely difficult’. We all tend to exaggerate some things and to minimise others. Likewise, we all sometimes fail to ‘recount relevant circumstances’. These habitual tendencies have played a crucial role in the seeding and spreading of the police racism panic.

But the difficulties of telling the truth lie not only in struggling clear of our own partial views and biases. One also needs to know the truth. As Ratnaguna pointed out in one of the first articles published here in Apramāda, knowing the truth is not a simple business.5 There are very few things that one truly knows. Most of what we think we know has come to us from other people – people whose judgements and access to reliable information may be as imperfect as our own. In modern life, a great deal of what we think we know comes to us via the media. In the matter of police racism, the picture presented by the media has often been shallow, one-sided and sensational. In my research for this series, I have striven to go behind the news and comment media to primary sources of data and more authoritative sources of analysis.

For Buddhists, to feed the flames of a panic is not an innocent mistake but a moral dereliction

When trying to understand the truth of an important and controversial social issue, we should be willing to consider claims that are well grounded in facts and carefully reasoned, whatever their provenance, and whether or not they are couched in Buddhist terminology. Whatever brings us closer to truth is in accordance with the Dharma. For Buddhists, to feed the flames of a panic is not an innocent mistake but a moral dereliction. Hence the title of this series.

Having taken that point, readers still might reasonably ask me two questions. The first is, ‘How firmly can you ground your critique of postmodern anti-racism and BLM in traditional Buddhist teachings?’ I will address this question at various points in the series, and more fully in a separate article. The second question is, ‘Why choose a specifically Buddhist forum to make a case about the police racism panic?’ My answer is that I want to speak to those western Buddhists who have succumbed, or feel tempted to succumb, to the anti-racist narrative in general, and to the police racism panic in particular. Unfortunately, voices sympathetic to both the narrative and the panic seem prominent in western Buddhist circles whenever the topic of race comes up. This is a worrying development. Buddhists should be calming panic, not fomenting it.

For instance, amid the publicity surrounding George Floyd’s death, there appeared an article written by a Buddhist and published in a Buddhist online forum. The article appealed for readers’ solidarity in protests against ‘a world of policing that terrorizes black people’ and against ‘an increasing project of criminalization and surveillance and othering of non-white bodies’. The vocabulary of this appeal was lifted straight from the extreme rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, and the view expressed distils the essence of the panic — as I will make clear in the second part of this series.

Featured Image:
Photo by Tony Zhen on Unsplash

Footnotes

  1. Joe Biden on George Floyd’s death – YouTube
  2. Former First Lady Michelle Obama reacts to Chauvin verdict – YouTube
  3. The prosecution team in the Derek Chauvin murder trial speaks to 60 Minutes – YouTube
  4. Police shootings database 2015-2021 – Washington Post Apply filters for race. The full figures for victims for the whole seven-year period, as they appear in the Washington Post database, are: 44% white, 23% black, 16% Hispanic, 4% other, and 14% unknown. The ‘unknown’ category may result from the Post’s practice of using newspaper reports as one source of data (some reports may fail to mention the race of the victim). If the unknown 14% is apportioned pro-rata between the other groups (and rounded to the nearest integer), we get: 50% white, 26% black, 18% Hispanic. Also, nearly all Hispanics would appear as ‘white’ under other classification systems (black Latinos account for only 2.5% of the US Latino population, and the Post is probably following the practice of the US Census Bureau in using the words ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’ as interchangeable.)  Thus, if we count Hispanics as ‘white’, we get the following figures for victims of police shootings: 68% white, 26% black.
  5. In Praise of Uncertainty – Apramada
Subhamati[1]

Subhamati has been a member of Triratna Buddhist Order for thirty-one years. He has led a varied career as a university administrator, a language teacher, and a teacher of meditation and Buddhism. He has worked as an editor or co-author (with Dharmachari Subhuti) on several books, including Buddhism and Friendship and Mind in Harmony: the psychology of Buddhist ethics.

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