On (Not) Becoming a Moral Monster: Democratically Transforming American Racial Imaginations

Dewey Studies 4 (1):41-49 (2020)
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Abstract
James Baldwin wrote: "People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster." When people impute meanings to events--such as the 2020 killing of George Floyd, the shooting of Jacob Blake, and subsequent upheavals--they do so with ideas that already make sense to them. And what makes most sense to people is typically due to others with whom they share identities and experiences, and from whom they’ve inherited their basic intellectual scaffolding. But making sense of an event isn’t enough. We’re driven to mobilize action by convincing ourselves that our cause is morally or politically in the right. So people build on their stable-yet-evolving intellectual scaffolding and explanatory schemes to rationalize, justify, and sanctify their conduct. The easiest part of becoming what Baldwin called a moral monster is to build up these self-justifying rationalizations. The more complicated part is to construct a justifying consciousness that insures we’ll arrive safely at foregone conclusions with little risk of confronting others’ experiences in a way that might unsettle our equilibrium or sap our vehemence. In this way, people avoid facing realities that might upend their pretenses, so they are now ideally positioned to be, in Dewey’s words, “profoundly moral even in their immoralities."
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First archival date: 2020-10-10
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