Friday, June 5, 2020

Double Standards: Not All Injustices Are Viewed as Equal, But They Remain Unjust

“When you see a nation, an entire nation simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”

—Bill De Blasio, Mayor of New York City

“However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators' ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders.”

—Open Letter of 1200 health care professionals

One thing that shows up during the protests#—just as they have any other time there is injustice—is the attitude of “But, what about X? Why are you focusing on Y instead of X?” Alternately, we see “Why are you focusing on this now when you were silent all these other times?” These comments usually spark internet brawls, where the people who think Y is more important than X respond with anger, thinking that these objections show that the people who say them “don’t care” about injustice.

It’s true that some people do say these things because they don’t care. But others have legitimate concerns about injustices that others either don’t care about or don’t understand. I think the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12a) is important here: Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. If we want others to care about the injustice we suffer, that shows caring about the injustice others suffer is a moral imperative. Saying Y is more immediately urgent than X is one thing. But holding a double standard based on one’s own biases of what is important and what is to be guilty of injustice as well. 

In other words, before you say, “That’s different,” remember that some people think the same way about your cause. If you don’t want others to dismiss your cause, don’t dismiss theirs, even if you think one cause is in more urgent need of correction than another.

I began reflecting on this when New York City mayor De Blasio announced that he was going to tolerate protesters violating quarantine rules but keep them in place for religious services, because these cases were an exception to the rule. Since the (presumably) peaceful right of assembly is included in the same amendment as the freedom of religion, we have a clear-cut case of the double standard. If the laws of health are so important that religious groups cannot hold services because of the risk of increasing the spread of COVID-19 then, logically, the risk of thousands of people gathered in close spaces to protest must be held to the same standard. And health experts are expressing grave concern over the rioters spreading contagion. Some “health professionals” have apparently signed a letter saying that the need to protest outweighs the need to quarantine, but it’s the same double standard. What determines a “need” is based on what the person considers important and what others consider a need is not.

But that’s precisely the attitude behind the injustice that is currently being protested—the recognition that the treatment of certain people and issues are being handled unjustly based on what those in charge think is important and what they don’t care about. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the protestors’ perception§, they resent that what they have seen as injustice for decades was dismissed as not important or not as bad as they thought. 

This is why the Golden Rule is important in all times and all circumstances. If we want to have people treat our cause justly, we must make sure we treat the causes of others justly. That doesn’t mean “give in to everything.” Justice is giving to others what is their due by right. A human being must be treated like a human being in all circumstances. But when a demand unjustly harms others, giving into it is not just. For example, we cannot give into the demands of a manifestly unjust group like Planned Parenthood in the name of “justice,” because their promotion of abortion harms other human beings, treating them as less than human.

Having one standard of treatment for one group, and a different standard for a second group is unjust, regardless of whether the second group is treated better or worse than the first. If seeking the public good is a requirement of good government, it cannot be selective in making or enforcing laws out of sympathy for one group or antipathy for another.

In dealing with the quarantine laws, regarding the protests and the freedom of religion, we must not have different standards for different people. If the conditions of contagion bar large groups from meeting, we must apply that to all large groups. But if the conditions do not bar all large groups, then we need to make clear what differences make one group safer than another.

Otherwise, especially if it becomes clear that the different standard is based on indifference or antipathy to one group, we’re guilty of injustice.    



(‡) At the time of my writing this article.

(#) When I speak of protests, I am of course speaking of peaceful and lawful protests, not rioting.

(†) For example, I find it sad to see some people are angrier over the symbolic actions taken to protest the death of George Floyd then they are over the actual death of George Floyd.

(§) I’m more inclined to think now that they have a valid objection than I was ten years ago. That’s because I have ten more years of experience in what goes on in the world and ten more years of studying Church teaching than I had before.

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