Stopping the bullies

The moral foundation of a civil society


Consider the larger pattern.

Putin invades Ukraine. Trump refuses to concede and promotes his Big Lie. Rightwing politicians in America and Europe fuel white Christian nationalism. Rightwing television pundits encourage racism and spur bigotry toward immigrants. Police kill innocent Black people with impunity. Powerful men sexually harass and abuse women. Politicians target LGBTQ youth. CEOs who are raking in record profits and pay give workers meager wages and fire them for unionizing. The richest men in the world own the most influential media platforms. Billionaires make large campaign donations (bribes) so lawmakers won’t raise their taxes.

All are abuses of power. All are occurring at a time when power is concentrated in fewer hands.

Throughout history, the central struggle of civilization has been against brutality. The state of nature is a continuous war in which only the fittest survive — where lives are “nasty, brutish, and short,” in the words of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Without norms, rules, and laws preventing the stronger from attacking or exploiting the weaker, none of us is safe. We all live in fear. Even the most powerful live in fear of being attacked or deposed.

Civilization is the opposite of this state of nature. A civil society doesn’t allow the strong to brutalize the weak. Our job — the responsibility of all who seek a decent society — is to move as far from a state of nature as possible.

Certain inequalities of power are expected, even in a civil society. Some people are bigger and stronger than others. Some are quicker of mind and body. Some have more forceful personalities. Some have fewer scruples. Some inequalities of income and wealth may be necessary to encourage hard work and inventiveness, from which everyone benefits.

But when inequalities become too wide, they invite abuses. Without laws and norms that protect the weaker, the stronger will abuse their positions of power. Such abuses invite further abuses, until society degenerates into a Hobbesian survival of the most powerful. People with great wealth or celebrity; people who occupy high positions in government, business, the media, or the church; people whose race, ethnicity, religion, or gender is dominant; people who command vast armies — such people may be tempted to use their power to demean, harm, or even annihilate weaker people. Unless they are stopped, an entire society — even the world — can descend into chaos.

Every time the stronger bully the weaker, the social fabric is tested. If bullying is not contained, the fabric unwinds.

Some posit a moral equivalence between those who seek social justice and those who want to protect individual liberty, between “left” and “right.” But there is no moral equivalence between bullies and the bullied, between tyranny and democracy, between brutality and decency — no “balance” between social justice and individual liberty. It is a false equivalence and a false choice. No individual can be free in a society devoid of justice. There can be no liberty where brutality reigns. The struggle for social justice is the most basic struggle of all because it defines how far a civilization has come from a Hobbesian survival of the most powerful.

Defending voting rights or LGBTQ rights or women’s rights is not the moral equivalent of attacking them. Coming to the assistance of refugee children is not morally equivalent to putting them in cages. Prosecuting police who kill innocent Black people is not one side of an equally respectable stance defending the freedom of police to kill innocent Black people. Fighting racism is not of equal moral value to fueling racism. Seeking stronger safety nets for those in need is not on an equal moral footing with seeking to unravel safety nets. Championing stronger unions is not just the other side of pushing for weaker unions. Demanding higher taxes on billionaires is not morally equivalent to demanding lower taxes on them.

We inhabit a society and a world growing more unequal, in which political and economic power is becoming ever more concentrated. To claim that “both sides” — both the more powerful and the weaker — have the same moral standing is to avert one’s eyes to this reality. Lobbyists for large corporations, publicists for the wealthy, lawmakers for the privileged, pundits for the powerful, celebrity peddlers of racism and xenophobia — none deserves equal space in the public square to those fighting against abuses of the powerful. The powerful already have the largest megaphones and the deepest pockets. To allow the richest to own the means by which we receive the truth is to enable oligarchy. To allow the worst demagogues free rein is to open wide the gates to tyranny.

Our duty is to stop brutality. Our responsibility is to hold the powerful accountable. Our moral obligation is to protect the vulnerable.

Putin must be stopped. Trump must be held accountable. Rightwing politicians who encourage white Christian nationalism must be condemned. Celebrity pundits who fuel racism and xenophobia must be denounced and defunded. Police who kill innocent Black people must be brought to justice. Powerful men who sexually harass or abuse women must be prosecuted. CEOs who treat their employees badly must be exposed and censored. Billionaires who bribe lawmakers to cut their taxes or exempt them from regulations must be penalized, and lawmakers who accept such bribes must be sanctioned.

Norms and laws must prevent such brutality. This is what civilization demands. This is why the fight is worth it.


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