Justice

Unity is NOT the Answer

Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest to police brutality.

President Biden’s clear goal for America is unity. He called for unity many times during his inaugural speech, and here’s how he advises Americans achieve this lofty goal:

“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”

POLITICO, Full text: Joe Biden inauguration speech transcript

At first, I was convinced. I day-dreamed plans for how I might work toward peaceful conversations over dinner with Republicans and even Trump supporters. I’ve had many fruitful conversations with conservatives in the past, and I was brainstorming how I might use these skills beyond Facebook debates. I was moved to action by Biden’s words. 

Then I reflected on how this call for unity might sound to others, such as Colin Kaepernick, and I came to the conclusion that unity cannot be the goal, and empathy cannot be the means. Only justice can lead us forward. In today’s essay, I will focus on an argument for why I believe unity cannot be the goal. I’ll take up the justice path in a subsequent post. 

“Unity cannot be the goal, and empathy cannot be the means. Only justice can lead us forward.”

Biden offers good advice to one portion of Americans: the Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen and who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Yes, I can see how peace, progress, and the state of the nation are threatened by Trumpism. I appreciate the command to “get in line.” But those folks were not listening to Biden’s speech, and if they happen to hear about it later, I promise it will not convince them to change their behaviors or modify the contents of their souls. 

That’s because unity cannot be demanded. If part of America simply won’t listen to your calls for unity, then your calls will not unify them with the rest of the country. 

The deeper reason unity cannot be demanded relates to the institutional power imbalances in America. The command to “be more unified” must always be directed at a collective that is already divided. The person commanding unity cannot force the collective into unification (though with enough power, they can certainly force the collective into behaviors that appear to be unified, typically at the expense of the oppressed). In forced unification, the oppressed assimilate to the will of the oppressor in what appears to be unification but, in reality, is more of the same old subjugation. Thus, demanding unity can only create the false appearance of unity, not actual unity. 

Only those in power can demand “unity,” and they will only achieve assimilation. Only those with the privilege to make the rules can demand an “end to division,” and even then, any success will be at the expense of those without the power to refuse. Consider a few absurd scenarios of someone without power demanding unity from someone with power using Biden’s words from his inauguration speech.

Imagine the absurdity of a wife pleading with her abusive husband for a united front: “honey, it’s time for you to treat me as a partner rather than an enemy. I demand we treat each other with dignity and respect from now on. We must join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.” Here, too, the wife is offering some great advice to her abusive husband, and yes, if only he would do these things (and more), they may have a shot at repairing the relationship. This scenario is absurd because we know the world doesn’t work this way. The abused wife does not have the power to command her husband change his ways.  

Imagine another absurd scenario in America: a Black man stating his case to the local police, “officer, surely we can see each other as neighbors not adversaries. I know that my outrage at the deaths of innocent Black men is exhausting to you, but we must treat each other with dignity and respect. If not, then there will be no peace—only chaos, only bitterness and fury. We must join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.” Amen. Absolutely. This is all true, and I am a huge fan of everything this hypothetical Black man says to the police officer. This scenario is also absurd because, again, we know the world doesn’t work this way. 

Oppressed people cannot simply ask their oppressors to treat them with more respect and have their requests honored. That is part of what it means to be oppressed: your requests don’t matter. They have no force. They will not change a damn thing. 

Here’s how the real world works. It’s the abusive husband who says to his wife, “why do you always have to be so combative? Can’t we just get along for once? Can’t we just go to one nice dinner without getting into a huge fight?” Translation: can’t you just always say and do exactly what I want you to say and do? 

Or the police officer who says to the Black man, “if you weren’t so violent, I could trust you. If only you protested in these allowable ways, we wouldn’t have to bring the pepper spray and rubber bullets.” Translation: can’t you just always say and do exactly what I want you to say and do?

The reason the “helpful, unifying advice” only goes from abusive husband to wife and from police officer to Black man—and not vice versa—is because men and police officers have the power to dictate what women and Black men think, feel, and do. The opposite is simply not the case. Calls for unity can only made by those with the power to control what others do. 

When the oppressed comply with the oppressor’s calls for “unity,” it is mere assimilation. It is survival. It is what they have to do, not what they want to do. That’s why true unity cannot be demanded because if it is demanded, it will be nothing but the appearance of unity.

Even if the call to unity were possible for those without power, true peace cannot come from joining forces with the oppressor. Some rules (white-only lunch counters) are not worthy of respect, and disrupting the status quo is the only way to change them. Some things are worth shouting, (“Say her name!”  “Breonna Taylor!”) even if the shouting and anger feels divisive to those in power. Yes, outrage is exhausting, but that does not make it any less of an appropriate response to the outrageous. A calm, polite, ordered, unified society is not thereby better than a chaotic one. We need “good trouble” to disrupt the false unity, which is mere assimilation, before we could ever grow true unity in it’s place. 

Even if calls for true unity were possible, it would be morally wrong to ask the oppressed to:

  • Join forces with their oppressors
  • Show empathy/sympathy or compassion toward their oppressors
  • Walk a mile in their oppressor’s shoes
  • Forgive their oppressors
  • Stop being angry with or displaying hatred toward their oppressors

What kind of sadist would ask a slave to walk a mile in her master’s shoes “for the union”? It is a great harm to demand the powerless endure BOTH their own oppression and empathy towards those who oppress them. In addition to being morally wrong, such calls for empathy, too, can only come from those with power, such as the abusive husband and police officer. It’s the abusive husband who demands his wife understand how it feels to be him, and then diminishes all of her feelings. Police officers demand empathy for how life-threatening their jobs are–as if choosing a career is equivalent to being born Black in America–and then offer no empathy of their own.

Forced unification or requests for empathy, commanded by those who have the power, causes additional harm to the oppressed, and so unity should certainly not be our goal, and empathy should not be the path to unity.

If unity cannot nor should not be the goal, then what is? 

A start to an answer is justice. Not a bloodthirst, retributivist justice as is doled out by the American Criminal Justice System. Rather, justice as fairness, as developed by philosopher John Rawls. More on that next time.