Many of us feel overwhelmed by the brutality and hatefulness around us — in Israel and Gaza, in Russia’s continued attacks on Ukraine, in mass shootings here at home, in the violence and hostility that erupted at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and continues to divide Americans, in Trump’s vicious lies and rants that fuel racism, xenophobia, and misogyny.
How can human beings behave so inhumanely?
And how should we respond? What is a moral life in the face of such barbarism?
Civilization is the opposite of the state of nature. Nature is a continuous war in which only the fittest survive, and where even survivors’ lives are “nasty, brutish, and short,” in the words of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
A civil society doesn’t allow the strong to brutalize the weak. It doesn’t incite the weak to terrorize the strong. It doesn’t tolerate violence against innocent people, nor does it tolerate retributive violence.
Without norms and laws preventing the stronger from attacking or exploiting the weaker, none of us is safe. Oppressors can ever be secure from the oppressed. Even the most powerful live in fear of being attacked or deposed. Terrorism always lurks in the shadow of brutality.
No one can be truly free in a society considered by many to be unjust. There can be no liberty where brutality reigns.
Our job — the responsibility of all who seek a just society and a decent world — is to move as far as possible away from hateful violence, toward social justice.
This is often difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to find the root causes of hateful violence — to understand who has brutalized whom, to disentangle accumulated grievances and hostilities that may go back generations.
Nonetheless, our moral lodestar must be to end brutality.
Every time the stronger bully the weaker, the social fabric is tested. If bullying is not contained, the fabric unwinds.
The bullies are white supremacists who make it harder for Black and Latino people to vote.
They are people with great wealth who use their money to lobby for tax cuts and government subsidies that impose costs on the rest of us.
They are giant corporations that abuse their workers and drive smaller enterprises out of business.
They are members of a dominant religion or ethnicity who demean or seek to destroy other religions or ethnicities.
They are powerful men who harass and debase women.
They are police who kill innocent Black people.
They are the native born who denigrate immigrants.
They are shooters who commit mass murder.
They are terrorists who kill, rape, and kidnap innocent civilians.
They are governments that bomb and lay siege to innocent civilians.
They are politicians who use hatefulness and bigotry to build their political base.
Unless these bullies are stopped, an entire society — even the world — can descend into violence and chaos.
Our duty is to stop brutality and minimize human suffering. Our responsibility is to protect the vulnerable and hold the powerful accountable.
Trump must be held accountable.
Putin’s aggression must be stopped.
Election-denying politicians must not be reelected.
Politicians who encourage white Christian nationalism must be rebuked.
Pundits who fuel racism and xenophobia must be denounced.
Social media platforms that amplify hate must be boycotted.
Mass shooters must be punished.
Guns must be difficult to obtain.
Police who kill innocent Black people must be brought to justice.
Powerful men who sexually harass or abuse women must be prosecuted.
CEOs who treat their employees badly must be exposed and censored.
Billionaires who bribe lawmakers with campaign donations to cut their taxes or exempt them from regulations must be penalized, and lawmakers who accept such bribes must be sanctioned.
Corporations that seek larger profits by despoiling the environment must be blocked.
Terrorists who murder innocent people must be condemned. Regimes that brutalize ethnic or religious groups must also be condemned.
None of this is easily achieved. Some will never be achieved.
But it is the only moral stance worth taking in this troubled world.