On Riots and Folly

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We’ve all heard the news of the riots in Vancouver after the Canucks lost their bid for the Stanley Cup. Pundits and Facebookers alike blamed the losers’ fans, while others shot barbs of criticism toward the city, the police, the organizers, etc. Seems everyone knows whom to blame.

While many (especially many in the press) seem to want to find a way to pinpoint a few fringe “non-fans” as standing at the root of the riots over against the upstanding moral majority, there remains a deep sense of distress over how such things can still happen in a civilized “world-class city” such as Vancouver.

As Christians, we are sometimes secretly smug in our belief in sin, and for us, the news of a riot is simply empirical confirmation of the “evil hypothesis.” Unlike those “secular humanists” and “moral relativists” who have relegated the term to the dustbin of outdated ideas, we confidently assert that the moral depravity, sin and evil of humans explains very well what just happened in Vancouver.

But here’s a question: Is it sufficient to pinpoint “evil” as the cause of making everyday people getting caught up in and participating in a post-Stanley Cup riot?

Of course, there is something to the Christian teaching on the universal moral depravity of humanity. Judging by the fact that otherwise “normal-looking” men and women were photographed running out of department stores with loot under their jackets should be good empirical evidence there is still such a thing as temptation, sin and evil. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that even the concept of evil can suffice to explain how suddenly hundreds (if not thousands) of everyday, otherwise run-of-the-mill citizens can suddenly do–there’s not many other ways to put it–stupid things. What prompts someone to light fire to a car that just happens to be sitting on the street? What prompts someone, who just hours previously may have been sipping a latte in Starbucks, to smash windows and loot a department store? Evil hearts? Yes, maybe. But is that all there is to it?

Listen to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to say.

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defence. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved–indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can be just pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.
(From “Of folly” in Letters and Papers from Prison. Emphasis mine)

Does not Bonhoeffer’s description of folly explain very well how “normal people” can suddenly become violent looters and rioters? It isn’t simply that people are bent toward evil (which I believe we are) but also because, well, sometimes they (we) simply are–fools.

Interestingly, Bonhoeffer distinguishes between evil and folly, not as two completely separate concepts, but as concepts with enough difference so as to be distinctly defined.  To be sure, he goes on to describe what he sees as the nature of folly, noting especially that folly is “a moral rather than an intellectual defect.” So folly does have some overlap with evil; both are indeed to be viewed a moral defects. Nevertheless, not every negative human behaviour is a simple outworking of moral evil.

To carry through with Bonhoeffer’s terminology, I am quite certain that the majority (if not all) of the rioters in Vancouver weren’t intellectually incapable of knowing that it is stupid to burn cars and smash plate glass windows. But neither were they necessarily acting in direct response to their moral ability to distinguish between good and evil.  On the contrary, the distinction between evil and folly, as Bonhoeffer defines it, helps us to see that these rioters were acting as if moral compulsion was simply not a factor in their actions. They acted as if one’s moral compass had nothing at all to do with it. In other words, rioters do not necessarily riot as a choice to do evil any more than as choice against the good. Is it possible that sometimes–sometimes–people simply do incredibly stupid things against any moral sensibility? They aren’t necessarily rebelling against their moral compass as much as something invisibly and inexplicably removes the moral magnetic field that normally would be sensed.

Evil, in other words, could be likened to going South when the compass says “go North.” Folly, however, is like going “down” against North, South, West, and East alike. It is as if folly is a third dimension in an otherwise two dimensional world. This also helps to understand why “folly,” like evil, cannot be comprehended in rational terms. It not so much an “anti-rational” concept as much as it is an “irrational” concept.

Unfortunately, folly, like evil, cannot be easily defined because folly and evil together lack a kind of content. To speak in Augustinian terms, evil is the “privation of good,” while folly, shall I say, is the “privation of moral judgment.” It is not that (many of?) the rioters simply make an evil choice over against a good choice; rather, (many of?) the rioters acted as if morality had nothing at all to do with it.  That, indeed, is the epitome of folly. It is also why the Psalmist says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no god.'” (Psa 14:1). For to say that there is no God is to act as if there is no such thing as good and evil in the first place.

In the days and weeks to follow, there will be certainly many in various levels of public office and administration seeking to draw some lessons for maintaining public control. Undoubtedly, there will be (and have already been) many criticisms that public officials did not dispatch the police soon enough or decisive enough. No doubt, an few pounds of prevention here would have likely helped. But in the end, as Bonhoeffer says, the evil of men and women may be prevented by sufficient force, but folly that arises (as if from nowhere) cannot be contained, advance planning notwithstanding.

Bonhoeffer insists that these thoughts on folly “in no way justify us in thinking that most people are fools in all circumstances.” Indeed, there are many historical precedents to prove that hordes of disappointed hockey fans do not deterministically devolve into a herd of fools. If that were the case, then no amount of public planning or policing would be of use. If morally depraved people universally resorted to folly, as Bonhoeffer defines it, then truly they they would be beyond containment. But, Bonhoeffer concludes, “What will really matter is whether those in power expect more from people’s folly than from their wisdom and independence of mind.”

In other words, public officials, by all means, need to plan to be ready to prevent evil by a reasonable show of force. That is, I think, what the Apostle means when he said that the civil authority is God’s “agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4b). But in the end, they (and we) should not be surprised when even a well placed, well-trained, well-equipped, riot squad cannot contain a riot.  Sometimes some people–the Bible calls them fools–simply act as if there their moral compass has nothing to do with their actions at all. In such instances, Bonhoeffer says, “‘The fear of the Lord’ . . . is the only real cure for folly.”

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3 thoughts on “On Riots and Folly

  1. Absolutely love this David! Good old Bonhoeffer. This distinction helps me understand myself better and where I have been journeying the past 5 years. Thanks.

  2. Very good essay, David. Helps clarify the sometimes unseen nuances of the human heart. These were some of the Provers that came to my mind:

    – “fools despise wisdom and instruction”
    – “O simple ones, learn prudence;O fools, learn sense”
    – “a babbling fool will come to ruin”

    It’s amazing the number of verses that speak of the “fool” in Proverbs. What strikes me here is that it would seem whether from folly or pure evil the response ought t be the same, should it not?

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