I was relieved, and surprised, to see that Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. Relieved, because the jury was able to see the obvious. Surprised, because seeing the obvious isn’t always our strength.
Many years ago, when I was teaching a civil liberties unit in an Intro to American Government class, we got on the subject of police brutality. A student asked, skeptically, why a beatdown is worse if a cop does it than if anyone else does it. I responded that if someone else attacks you, you can call the cops. If the cops attack you, whom do you call? So yes, it is worse. With a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence should come some pretty strict rules on the word “legitimate.”
The universalist approach to ethics — everyone is entitled to basic protections, human dignity and the like — is often and easily caricatured as idealistic. It’s anything but. It’s based on a realistic, even gloomy, sense that absolutely everybody is flawed. We all have shortcomings, ethical lapses and moments of ignorance. That includes the wealthy, the powerful and the connected. And we all have moments when we show genuine care. We’ve all been admirable, and we’ve all been embarrassing. If you start from that premise, then the idea that some people are just right and others are just wrong starts to look absurd.
(What Akil Bello calls “highly rejective colleges” are getting some bad press these days, but I have to give Williams College real credit for dispelling any undue deference I felt towards the wealthy. Having spent four years among the scions of wealth and power, I can attest that they’re no better than the rest of us. Since graduation I’ve had a few moments since in which I gasped in disbelief, “They elected LUMPY?”)
If everyone is flawed, then giving anyone (or any small group) too much power is a bad idea. That’s not an argument for gridlock; some things need to get done. It’s an argument for basic rules of conduct: the rule of law, for instance, or the respect for human dignity. The rule of law, for instance, assumes that the law applies as well to those who enforce it. After all, they’re as flawed as the rest of us. Like the rest of us, they need rules of conduct. Precisely because they’re like the rest of us, they need rules of conduct. We all do.
Universalism is, at its core, antiracist. Vanity, shame, shortsightedness, pride and sloth exist in every race and culture, as do love, sacrifice and loyalty. To assume otherwise is hubris at best, if not sociopathy. That’s not fuzzy idealism. It’s a clear-sighted recognition that people are complicated.
Good rules, and good enforcement of rules, start from a premise of basic human dignity. Nobody deserves to be killed like George Floyd was, let alone by someone entrusted with the duty to serve and protect the public. That should be beyond dispute. The fact that it’s even controversial indicates how far we have to go.
Universalist ethics extend to more mundane matters, too. I was heartened to see that the USDA has announced that it will provide funding to extend universal free school lunch for another year. The Washington Post story mentions, among other things, that doing away with means testing and just throwing it open to everybody makes the program dramatically easier and cheaper for schools to implement, since they can dispense with much of the paperwork. If everyone gets lunch, then there’s no stigma. Teachers don’t have to keep track of who’s eligible and who’s not. Nobody has to be ashamed. At lunchtime, the students get lunch. That’s it.
That’s how it should be.
When our kids were younger and we lived in Agawam, Mass., the schools provided free breakfasts on the days when the statewide standardized tests (the MCAS) were administered. The argument was that kids do better on tests when they’re fed, and not every kid gets a good breakfast at home. We could never figure out why that should only be true on test days.
I’d love to see universal breakfast and lunch provided in schools, and, as Sara Goldrick-Rab has pointed out repeatedly, a variation on a free lunch program at colleges would make sense, too. Nineteen-year-olds can be just as hungry as 17-year-olds, as any parent of one knows. Yes, of course, people would still be free to bring their own if they want, and I don’t object to some “extras” costing something. But something reasonably suited to get a student through a day of classes doesn’t seem like too much to ask. We know that many students go without food to make ends meet; basic human dignity suggests they shouldn’t have to.
The more we means test, and segregate, and isolate, and grandfather, and carve out, the more we miss the point. Those are all about separating the deserving from the undeserving. But we’re all deserving, and we’re all undeserving. A little more ethical humility, and a lot more political courage, could make for a world in which we could all recognize brutality for the crime that it is, and we could all recognize each other for the complicated people that we are.