As protesters clash in occasionally violent street confrontations that spread via online video, provoking emotional conversations that could touch almost anyone on Facebook or Twitter, millions of Americans feel pressure to pick a side, to support or denounce a faction, knowing that whatever they say about white supremacists, Antifa, or Black Lives Matter, they risk being criticized for failing to condemn violence on “their side,” or for suggesting a false equivalence between groups.
How can a conflicted observer find clarity?
One way forward is to distinguish between a group’s ends and its means. Diligently doing so can help anyone to formulate a defensible position, to better understand those who disagree, and to emphasize common ground that too often goes unrecognized.
Take some uncontroversial examples.
Against Malaria Foundation is one of my favorite charities. Their stated goal is protecting people from a devastating disease, malaria. There is no reason to doubt that claim. And the means they’ve chosen, providing people at risk of malaria with bed nets, is morally unobjectionable and practically effective. They’re praiseworthy across the board.
ISIS is at the other extreme. Their stated end is the creation of a repressive theocracy. There is no reason to doubt that claim. And the means that they’ve chosen, terrorism, rape, slavery, plunder, and pillaging, is abhorrent, regardless of whether or not it proves to be practically effective. All should condemn their means and end.
Now consider Lance Armstrong. His stated and actual end was winning the Tour de France. Nothing wrong with that! His chosen means included cheating. That was objectionable, despite being highly effective. And how about the Berlin Olympics of 1936? The ultimate, highly objectionable end was elevating the stature of Nazi Germany. An unobjectionable means to that end was hosting a successful sporting competition.
We needn’t go through all the permutations to illustrate the overarching point: It often makes sense to condemn a means that a group uses without objecting to their stated end; or to forcefully reject a group’s ends while granting that their means are unobjectionable.
Apply that mode of analysis to factions that have recently taken to the streets. Some of these groups have initiated extralegal violence. For example, police say that James Alex Fields Jr., who appears to have Nazi sympathies,…