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The Green Grocer’s Sign

Readers will likely have noticed the many expressions of “support” for the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial.  I am also happy about the outcome because, from the evidence I have seen, Derek Chauvin pretty obviously did something grievously wrong.  By the same token, I haven’t seen or heard all the evidence, and to be honest, I don’t have sufficient knowledge to say whether he is guilty of second-degree murder as that term is defined in the Minnesota legal code.

One thing that amazes me is how many other people seem certain they know what that legal standard is and how it would be applied properly in this particular case.  One could, for example, assert vigorously that someone has done a grievous moral wrong, but not conclude that he or she has committed a first-degree or second-degree murder.

But given what I have seen of the trial, the verdict seems just, and so I am pleased – to the extent that one can be pleased that justice has been done, although it cannot bring back the dead man and knowing that the results of one trial cannot (and are not meant to) cure the ills of an entire society. Legislatures frame laws that apply generally; judicial proceedings are always about the particular case at hand.

Be that as it may, I continue to wonder about some of the expressions of “support” and “relief.” I worry about the expressions of “relief” because it seems obvious the “relief” comes from the belief that, if the verdict had not been “guilty,” there would have been violence in the streets.  There is always something troubling about this kind of mob pressure.  Did it affect the jury’s guilty verdict?  I hope not.  I have no reason to think so.  But if others closer to the trial find that it did, this jury’s decision might be nullified.

With that in mind, one wonders why, if the evidence is so clear (as I believe it was in this case), people who cared about justice would try to pressure the jury?  If you’re convinced of the evidence, you let the process go forward and work itself out.  If the verdict is unjust, then you demonstrate against the injustice.  But you endanger the validity of the verdict if you threaten to do violence if the verdict is not the one you want.  If the verdict is unjust, you make the argument why it was unjust and then you fix the problem legislatively.

But Derek Chauvin was found guilty, so the threat of violence seems to have passed. What I am interested in now are the various “statements” coming out from CEOs and university presidents.  I don’t want to deny the impulse to say, “Yay,” so I don’t want to be overly critical.  But there is also a part of me that is suspicious.

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Are these statements really about the writer’s deep concern for justice, or are they the contemporary equivalent of Vaclav Havel’s greengrocer putting the sign that says “Workers of the World Unite” in his shop window, knowing that if he does not, there will be trouble.  The greengrocer puts the sign in his window not because he is thinking about the workers of the world.

Nor are the neighbors who report him for not having the sign or the Communist bureaucrat who questions him about it really concerned with the workers of the world – since our little greengrocer is one of those “workers of the world.”  No, says Havel, the sign is a kind of lie.

It is not about the world’s workers; it is about showing that one is obedient to the governing authorities.  The sign proclaims, not that I or you care or will do anything to help the workers of the world (that large, abstract something out in the world that no one can point to).  No, the sign proclaims, “I am one of you; you can depend on me; I do not oppose the ruling ideology.”

Now, if that is what is behind these statements of “support” for the Derek Chauvin ruling, then they concern me.  First, because this is a kind of lie, and we must, as Havel affirms, “live in the truth.” How many people making these statements are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to see that justice is done more broadly?  Statements are easy; changes in behavior are hard.

But there is also the question of developing certain dispositions.  Once one gets oneself in the habit of “virtue signaling” in this way, it can become addictive.  You start by putting the “Workers of the World Unite” sign in your shop window.  What’s the problem?  But then you start wondering about someone else who hasn’t put that sign in their shop window?  Why does he think he is so special?  How dare he consider himself so special that he needn’t obey the requirements that bind the rest of us!

Pretty soon you too are looking for any sign of disobedience to report to your overlords so you can feel united to “the party,” to “those who know,” those who are members of what C. S. Lewis called “The Inner Ring.”

I am absolutely against injustice in any form, including the injustice that comes from judging too quickly and/or stupidly.  This is why we have court cases: to sort through the evidence to see whether we can discern what actually happened and what the culpability is.

So when I see these statements of “support,” I wonder what “message” this is.  Does this person have any greater knowledge of the trial than we’ve already been given?  If not, then what are you telling us?  Nothing about the trial; only something about yourself.

And if by signaling your “support” for a certain verdict, you are saying, “True or false, guilty or innocent, I want this guy lynched,” then perhaps you should just remain silent about the case, and just quietly work for greater justice.

 

*Image: Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) [1] by Georges Seurat, 1887-88 [MET, New York]

 

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: randallbsmith.com.