(White) Tyranny and the Democratic Value of Distrust

The Monist 98 (4):391-406 (2015)
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This paper makes an argument for the democratic value of distrust. It begins by analyzing distrust, since distrust is not merely the negation of trust. The account that it develops is based primarily on Martin Luther King Jr.’s work in Why We Can’t Wait. On this view, distrust is the confident belief that another individual or group of individuals or an institution will not act justly or as justice requires. It is a narrow normative account of distrust, since it concerns a specific normative task. Distinctions between vertical and horizontal distrust, as well as trust and agnostic trust are also discussed. This paper argues that distrust’s democratic value lies in its ability to secure democracy by protecting political minorities from having their voices ignored. As such, distrust can be viewed as a kind of Madisonian “check and balance” that works to prevent tyranny. Distrust also works to secure democracy by forging new or alternative forms of democratic participation. The main example discussed in this paper is King’s involvement in the Birmingham Campaign during the Black Civil Rights movement in America. In this case, King and his supporters’ distrust of fellow White citizens and political institutions led to alternative forms of political expression such as non-violent protests, boycotts, and other forms of civil disobedience, all of which led to greater racial justice by working to alleviate White tyranny.

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Meena Krishnamurthy
Queen's University


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