Trevor Noah is a comedian, but in a deeply personal and thoughtful video released 30 May 2020, he is a philosopher. It’s wonderful. Seriously, it is a brilliant piece of philosophy. You can view it here and even if you don’t read another word of this article, watch his video and listen to him.
I will delve into the specific brilliant points Noah raises but first, his talk reminded me of something I witnessed a few years ago in a philosophy symposium that to me, speaks to what Noah is talking about.
A whites on black symposium
I won’t mention any names to protect the innocent, but the symposium was discussing a paper written by a black philosopher. The black philosopher’s topic was critical race theory and the symposium participants were all white university philosophers, mostly professors with a few PhD students. Full disclosure: I am a white American philosophy professor.
The discussion had reached a point in the paper where the black philosopher was discussing what critical race theory can contribute to broader philosophy, specifically the branch known as “critical theory.” As philosophers often do, the conversation turned to the question of what the author meant by a certain concept in his critique of philosophy. I tend to be a shrinking violet in these symposiums, listening far more than speaking, but after at least ten minutes of round and round about what the author could have possibly meant, I spoke up.
I shared that I had taken a seminar course from the black philosopher. In multiple sessions, he spoke specifically about his thoughts on this concept because it was very important to him. I shared what the philosopher had told us about the passage the philosophers in the room were struggling with. I pointed out a passage earlier in the paper under discussion that explained why the author took this interpretation. I tried to be as basic as possible: this is what the author said and what his explanation was for his position.
What followed was total silence. Not a word among any of the all-white participants for about 15-20 seconds. Finally, one of the senior faculty in the room changed the subject to a different passage.
A domino of deafening silence
Trevor Noah in his video talks about dominoes falling and how one domino leads to the next to raise people’s awareness of how things are. That silence was a domino for me. It spoke to race relations and it spoke to how one-sided is the social contract. There were many previous dominoes that fell, but I won’t go into that now.
If the people in that room doubted my credibility, that’s fine. But if they had, they would have questioned me about the specifics of what I was relating. Their silence showed that their real difficulty was the thought that the black philosopher’s own words could supersede their discussion of what the black philosopher meant. Injected into the bell jar of their all-white discussion of what a black philosopher had written was that black man’s own voice. Even second-hand, even related by a white person, the presence of the black voice made them uncomfortable.
Now, time out. I want to stress that the people in that room are, in my opinion, good people. They are my colleagues and some of them I consider friends. They were reading this paper written by a black philosopher because they were, in their own way, trying to understand issues of racial justice. I don’t doubt that. But there is an unbearable whiteness in the social contract and that is especially true in academia. The white world does not fully include black people in it.
We need to listen to black voices
The point is that non-white voices and perspectives are largely absent from social consideration. This is not news to non-white people. The old adage that you can’t understand others until you walk in their shoes is one everyone knows, but few take in. You can never know what life is like for others unless you live their lives. That’s usually not possible, so you have to do the next best thing: listen to them.
Certainly, white people have a voice and a seat at the table. The problem is that white people are much better at talking than listening. This is especially true of academics. White intellectuals are easily given to whitesplaining social justice issues. What happened in that philosophy symposium is a tiny taste of a very common phenomenon. Even people who think they are listening, aren’t really taking in the words of People of Color. They aren’t making room in their internal space for the perspectives of others.
Listening to and taking in Trevor Noah’s words
Trevor Noah’s video will get many views. Anyone who appears on television will garner many views on social media. How many people will listen to his full video? How many people will take in his words and truly reflect on what he is saying?
In his video address, Noah makes several important points:
- People’s reactions are prompted by a series of events—dominoes, as he calls them.
- White people and black people have different life experiences.
- White people learn that society is set up to give them more power than it gives black people, and they use that power against black people.
- The riots are a reaction that calls for us to question the meaning of the social contract.
The first domino: history
More on this in due course, but the life experience of people structure how they see the world. Each new event is viewed in the context of a person’s life history. We can’t ignore the whole history of how blacks and whites have very different life histories.
The second domino: Amy Cooper; the curtain is pulled back
Noah talks about how Amy Cooper knew how to weaponize her whiteness, knew she could hide behind the police and the justice system to manipulate a black man. It’s a fortuitous accident that the black man she tried to oppress was also named Cooper, because the lives and social realities of White Cooper and Black Cooper are starkly different.
White Cooper’s action needs to be understood within the broader context of white oppression of black people. In 1955, white racists knew they could murder Emmett Till. In 2020, white racists knew they could murder Ahmad Aubrey and Derek Chauvin knew he could murder George Floyd. That White Cooper didn’t try to murder Black Cooper doesn’t alter a fundamental truth: still today white racists know they can get away with oppressing black people. As Noah observes, we got to witness White Cooper’s attempted oppression, but these things are happening all the time, all over. We should not be cheered that she didn’t get away with it. The problem remains. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: White Cooper lost her dog and her job, but Black Cooper could easily have lost his life.
The third domino: George Floyd; the curtain is pulled back further
Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. It was filmed for everyone to see. Even the bigots can’t defend him. The white racist cops’ excuse for killing black people has been that they “feared” for their life. Noah says it plainly: Chauvin didn’t fear for his life. He had no reason to do what he did to George Floyd except that he knew he could to it. And Chauvin had every reason to believe that the structural racism in America would let him get away with it. The world got to see him do it, got to see a cop murder a black man while three other cops aided and abetted the murder. The curtain had been pulled back.
The world got to see Amy Cooper and Derek Chauvin use the power that structural racism had given them. Thanks be to mobile phone cameras showing what police do. Police should be held accountable for their actions just like every other human being. That has nothing to do with anyone’s race, ethnicity, gender, or anything else. If you are a human being, especially if you are a police officer, you have an obligation to not harm your fellow human beings. That leads us to Trevor Noah’s next point.
The social contract: what is it? why is it?
The concept of the social contract was identified by philosophers in the 17th century. In practice it has been around as long as there has been human society. The basic idea of the social contract is that there are a set of largely unspoken agreements among people to respect each other and do unto others in fair and reasonable ways. Mostly, we agree not to harm each other. The social contract is an expectation that everyone has an obligation to respect each other. People have the reasonable expectation that if they play by the rules, they will be treated fairly and with respect and not be mistreated.
Noah phrases it well: The social contract is common rules, common ideals, common practices that define us as a group. But as with any contract, it is only as good as the people who are abiding by it. Good people say, no matter how destitute I am, I’m still going to play by the rules. Noah astutely observes what some philosophers miss, that the social contract is not a cudgel against others but a hope for a just and peaceful society.
Now let’s listen to a black person’s voice
Philosophers also tend to miss something else about the social contract. That’s probably because, however well-meaning they are, they are white. They have lived a different life than black people have lived. And rather than sitting around talking about racial justice like Monday-morning quarterbacks, they should listen to black people talk about justice and injustice.
Noah asks, what part of the social contract is a white cop murdering an unarmed, non-violent black man? No one has an answer for that because unless you are one sick bigot, you can’t say that murder is part of the social contract. Noah asks the right question here. Why aren’t more people talking about how the oppression of black people is a violation of the social contract? People are sure eager, as Noah is quick to point out, to condemn rioting and looting as a violation of the social contract. People ask, what good does it do you to loot Target?
Then Noah asks the big question.
What does it help you to not loot Target? Answer that question.
What does it help you to not loot Target? Answer that question.
Noah’s question gets to the heart of what most white people don’t want to think about, much less discuss. The social contract is violated many, many times every day when black people are denied basic rights and respect many, many times every day. And despite the racist stereotype that all black people are thugs, the vast, vast majority of black people are ethical people who live up to their side of the social contract.
The reasonable expectation of the social contract is that if you play by the rules, you will be treated fairly and with respect and not be mistreated. Black people play by the rules, but they are mistreated anyway. To not loot Target is to uphold the social contract, but as Noah says, there is no social contract if the people in power don’t uphold their end of it.
Leadership isn’t ordering other people around (sorry Trump). Leadership is, as Noah says, “setting the tone and tenor for everything we do in society.” It is setting a good example and being held accountable for your actions. That’s leadership. It doesn’t come from grand speeches. It doesn’t come from a gun. It comes from upholding the social contract in a way that sets a positive example for everyone.
We expect parents, teachers, and coaches to lead by example. Why don’t we hold law enforcement to the same standard, Noah asks. If the law enforcers don’t follow the law, why should the citizens of society? Noah is too diplomatic to say it, but when law enforcement doesn’t follow the law and still demands that citizens do, that’s tyranny.
Noah then quotes Malcolm Gladwell, a writer from outside the ivory tower and to their detriment thus largely ignored by academics. In his book David and Goliath, Gladwell writes about the principles of legitimacy. He says that for us to argue that any society, legal body, or other power is legitimate, we need to agree on three basic principles. Noah in his video doesn’t get it exactly correct paraphrasing from memory, but here’s a good summary of Gladwell’s three principles:
The three principles of legitimacy
- Those being ruled need to feel that they have a voice in the arrangement (e.g. no taxation without representation)
- The rules must be predictable and consistent (e.g. rule of law and due process)
- The rules must be consistently applied and appear to be fair to all being asked to follow the rules (e.g. equality before the law) Source
Noah is absolutely correct that black Americans have seen these principles completely de-legitimized. He is also correct that everywhere in the world, the Haves and the Have-Nots see the world in different ways because their worlds are different. (See: Chauvin and Floyd might as well have come from different planets.) Basic principles of the social contract are not applied predictably and consistently. There is one set of rules for the Have, and one for the Have-Nots; and the Have-Nots have little to no voice in the arrangement.
One big fat illegitimacy
The Haves tell the Have-Nots, “this is not the right way to protest.” As Noah, points out, there is no right way to protest. Because protest cannot be “right” because you are protesting against a thing that is stopping you. In other words, the Haves will never accept a “right” way to resist their delegitimite way of doing things. They benefit from an unjust system, so why would they accept a rebellion against that system?
Noah then asks, if you felt a visceral anger at the video of looting, try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every day. Police loot black Americans’ bodies. And Noah could have used many more examples of how the Haves loot the Have-Nots. But he sticks with the police to make the important point that we are only talking about any of this because George Floyd died. How many George Floyds are there who didn’t die? Great question. We don’t know because, as Noah says, everyday police brutality is not grim enough to make the news.
But black people know, Noah says.
If you grew up in a community where every day someone had their knee on your neck, where every day someone was out there repressing you, every single day, you tell me what that does to you as a society, as a community, as a group of people.
And yes, all because of the color of your skin and you know it’s only happening to people of your color of skin. The police show black people how valuable their lives are considered by society.
Noah sums up with a final challenge. If you watched the video of the looting, don’t ask yourself, “what does looting help?” Ask yourself what it would be like to see the social contract being ripped up every single day. Ask yourself how would you feel?
In Trevor Noah’s 17-minute speech, we hear more philosophy than we hear from most philosophers. One of the things I say to my philosophy students is that everyone can be a philosopher, all they have to do is think deeply. But no matter how deeply a group of white philosophers think, they lack the life experiences and resources to understand how black people experience the world and how they feel about it.
The answer to this dilemma is not radical. Listen to black people. Of course, first you have to stop closing the door on black people. You have to stop denying that black people are being excluded from the social contract. And you have to stop condescendingly saying blacks suffer injustices but then carry on talking amongst yourselves.
White people aren’t conscious of how closed they are to black voices. The white people in that philosophy symposium weren’t. And these are highly learned people educated specifically in matters of ethics, law, and social justice. If even these people aren’t open to black voices, how much less are others? The police don’t listen to black people. Politicians don’t listen to black people. The media doesn’t listen to black people. They all want black people to obey the social contract (and keep voting and buying to keep the system going), but they don’t want to live up to their side of the social contract in return.