There is a paradox in mass movements wherein a person or group of people will commit some terrible act, claim an association with a particular movement, and then people outside the movement will demand that the people inside of it disavow those who committed the terrible act.
It’s pretty typical, for instance, of Islam. The narrative goes like this: some terrorist group or individual terrorist does something terrible, and non-Muslims call upon Muslim leaders to disown or disavow the terrible acts and their perpetrators. There are a few problems with this response, whether the case is terrorism or not. Here are some.
1.) To call upon “moderate Muslims” to disown “extremist Muslims” is to suggest — just as the terrorists do — that Islam is a big continuum with the most committed people perpetrating acts of violence, and the lesser committed people not perpetrating acts of violence. This is a handy way to reinforce the idea that whether or not you commit acts of violence is a good litmus test for whether or not you’re a real [whatever].
2.) Disavowal has a kind of transitive property. What I mean by this is that when we call upon groups to disown violent factions we oftentimes wind up expecting these ‘good’ people to offer a blanket disavowal, a total disassociation, a complete rejection of everything the violent faction claimed and/or stood for. Because demands for disavowal usually come at moments of fervor — nobody is calling upon Christians to mass-disavow the Serbian Christians who committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims, because it happened twentysomething years ago — it is hard to render a nuanced response in disavowal-form. The whole genre of disowning is about performing an act of penance, which you can’t do in measured tones. (Thus the language often used to demand repudiation/disavowal of Muslim terrorists from everyday Muslims extends even to demands that Muslims ‘refudiate‘ the construction of mosques in particular places, because 9/11.)
3.) Disavowal doesn’t even do much, especially when it is preferred to other forms of (actually targeted) accountability. Look at Ron Paul: he was more than happy to disown fans of his who hate Jews and Black people, and he was more than happy to accept their money and support.
4.) Demands for disavowal can reify movements in way that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Movements are multi-valent, they have a lot of moving parts, and usually an array of primary and secondary goals. More vexing yet, goals and motives can be separate things. One’s motive, for example, for participating in the Catholic worker movement might be a belief in the universal value of human life and dignity, and a sense that workers are being abused on those counts; but the goals can be enumerated in much more concrete terms — having to do with wages, benefits, labor protections, and so on. So, do we categorize movements by their goals or motives? This is fraught ground, but when you demand that group x condemn person y, you’re presuming the movement is ‘about’ whatever they seem to share, when that might not be quite true. (Libertarians will also tell you they care a lot about human life/dignity, but they certainly share few goals with the Catholic worker movement; likewise, pro-Israel Evangelicals and Zionists have the same short-term goals, but I don’t think it would be an honest gesture to say they belong to the same movement.)
So the urge to call for disavowal isn’t very good for politics. It can encourage the behavior it intends to discourage and it can cripple movements that have good intentions by conflating them with ones who have only bad intentions. Further, it can distort good messages and engender further resentment where it already exists, which is the last thing anybody should want in a particularly tense political moment.
This post is about the police officers who were killed today in New York. Evidently the person who killed them did so out of vengeance, which I detest. I sort of suspect we will soon begin to hear calls for disavowal directed at protesters and leaders of the protest movements spurred on by the killings of black men by police recently. None of those protests have anything meaningful in common with this event, which was indisputably evil. I just hope that a more constructive approach is chosen than the usual I-demand-you-disown-this approach, because it is not a very good one, and certainly doesn’t sow peace.