Who Is Allowed to Defend Themselves?

Image of woman with tattoos leaning and posing against a bookshelf
Elsa Dorlin at home in Toulouse. Photo by Clémence Polès
A new history shows the elite origins of self-defense.

By Sohum Pal

You may not remember the names Mark and Patricia McCloskey, but it’s likely you remember their faces, screwed up in frustration and rage. They are the white lawyers who stood on the portico of their Italian revival “palazzo” in St. Louis, Missouri, and threatened to shoot protestors grieving the murder of George Floyd. Despite the peaceful nature of the demonstration — not to mention the fence on the couple’s property line and their small arsenal of weapons — the McCloskeys saw themselves as the ones at risk. While it was clear they were trying to inspire fear, the moment was mostly absurd. Perhaps no recent image more neatly encapsulates the contradiction at the heart of the mainstream American discourse on self-defense. As Elsa Dorlin writes in her new book, Self-Defense: A Philosophy of Violence, the main problem is that while self-defense is often presented as a universal right, its beneficiaries have always been members of the white propertied class defending themselves against Black and proletarian revolt.

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