Sunday, August 7, 2016

Question Everything

(This relates to a video on the Mic Facebook page where Mr. Darnell Moore "lays down the definitive take down of All Lives Matter everyone needs to hear.")

First, few are interested in a thoughtful nuanced response to complicated and emotionally fraught topic. It is my premise that many of the people whom I consider to be my ideological brethren are in such a scramble to be on “the right side” of an issue they may fail to question and consider. I know this because I have, more often than I would care to admit, been in that fray. All of us want things to be, dare I say it, black and white. This is understandable. Things are tidier if we can put them in a discrete box, label it, and move on.

As to the video, the speaker is entitled to his opinion but his rant is, at minimum, logically flawed. A red flag went up in his first sentence. "Here is the problem with everyone who says all lives matter, they don't really mean it". Everyone? Really? This gentleman knows what is in the hearts of others? He presumes to sit in judgment of, and lumps into one group, all those who have a different or simply more nuanced position than himself?

I am confident I could ask any high school class the following question and expect a high percentage to arrive at the correct answer. Be assured, in any class I taught or was responsible for it would be one hundred percent. What is the word we use to describe the situation where a person draws inferences about an entire group of persons based on little or no evidence? We call that bias or prejudice. Furthermore, we know from scientific evidence, prejudice is a condition to which we are all prone. Luckily it is also a condition we can learn to manage with some training. Because this tendency is part of the human condition, it behooves us all to be on the watch for evidence of this behavior in ourselves. Sadly, too many of us, after having been taught about the negative effects of prejudice, have come away with the idea that prejudice is a condition of those “other people”. Rarely us. In fact, I would argue, one of the ways to gauge whether or not a person is deluding themselves is if I hear from them some form of the expression, “I’m not prejudiced”. 

Special note here. I am trying to eliminate the words race, racism, racist from my vocabulary. Why? For several reasons which I will briefly touch upon here. First, the words are outdated as the classic ideas of race have been obviated by science. Second, but perhaps more important is my assertion that these words have become angry epithets or cartoon-like bombs we throw at each other. To be clear, there are a very real and sobering set of problems here but these words, at best, are not helping us understand nor solve those problems. In fact they tend to accentuate our differences rather than our overwhelming similarities. Some will remember the old saw, “How do I get out of this hole”? To which the answer is, “First, stop digging”.  

So, let’s go back to the beginning. If the argument is, there have been and continue to be marginalized populations in America and that is a problem with ramifications running the gamut from inconvenience to some really heinous behavior then, without reservation, we are agreed.

However, what exactly does the gentleman mean when he says, all lives didn't matter when this or that bad thing happened? I am not certain if this is more sad or ironic. His story is one broad brush painting America. In one swipe he attempts to negate every example of the good and decent. Such rhetoric turns a real and serious problem into a cartoonish version of itself. The speaker refers to hurricane Katrina during which there were systemic failures, the burden of which fell more heavily on the majority black communities. It was also true that the moment people were allowed in, folks of every type and color (both individuals and government workers) were risking life and limb to pull people from rooftops and flood waters and provide them with life sustaining supplies. While one might reasonably argue it was all too little too late, I did not see the television footage of first responders in helicopters flying past black people to save the white people. So, if we want to tell the story, let us tell it. It is all true. The good and the bad. The color of a person’s skin too often has an negative effect on the outcome of various interactions both on a personal and systemic level. That is vile and we should not stand idly by as it persists.

With that preface, it appears our speaker has confused certain bad events or actions with the "ideal". It may seem a bit of a non sequitur but allow me to give an example.

Some folks get their panties in a twist when somebody burns an American flag. The offended parties seem to feel that burning a flag has somehow hurt the ideals the flag represents. Now, I am not into flag burning myself but, I am proud to say that I can distinguish between the lofty ideals, to which I also subscribe, and a piece of fabric. Am I keenly aware that my country has fallen short of those ideals? No question. I suggest it is a very good thing for us all that ideals are not flammable. In fact our ideals do not exist imbedded in some material thing. A situation for which we should be thankful as objects are corruptible and subject to decay and destruction. To our great good fortune, our ideals reside inside us, prompting us to be our better selves. And while each of us is also subject to decay, those ideals are passed from old to young like a beneficial virus. In past generations the belief was in heavenly spheres where goodness and truth resided eternally. Now our better understanding of the world shows us both the fragility of our truths and ideals, as when tyrants attempt to stomp them out, and how amazingly persistent and hearty they can be when we nurture them through generations.

If the argument is, The ideal of Black Lives Matter is good thing. Done and done. Likewise, All Lives Matter. If the argument is, too often the lives of minority populations are assigned less value either implicitly or explicitly, sadly true. 

However, I think it begs the question. If we are responding to prejudice/inequality/injustice (and we should be) and our efforts are leaning toward more unity and more fairness, how is that served by dividing ourselves up into smaller and smaller “tribes”? How does this apply to BLM? First, I do not accept unquestioned and in toto the BLM narrative. Further, I suggest some of the BLM tactics and rhetoric promote tribalism and eschew help from allies by attempting to quash thoughtful critique. The gentleman in the video has the audacity to say, What people are saying when they say all lives matter is, those lives matter only rhetorically. While that may apply to some, I wonder how the gentleman came to accept this statement as some sort of truism to be applied in this blanket fashion. Where is his evidence for this? I came away from viewing the video with the distinct sense that because bad things happened to certain people at some point, everything now being said must be swallowed whole. The video didn’t welcome me into the struggle or ask me for my thoughts on how to advance the cause, it assaulted me. And I am an ally.

Though it does not seem to fit here, I am open to saying more about my resistance to the BLM narrative at another time. Hint, skin color is only a part of it.

In short, to the extent that BLM calls attention to problems and advances thoughtful policy (noted in Washington Post piece below), I am supportive. On the other hand, when BLM as an organization or people speaking on its behalf are bullying others by taking questioning and criticism off the table, I can not support this. That sot of rhetoric promotes a tribal Us v. Them attitude thoughtful people are working to attenuate. 

Do not be fooled. I, like other thoughtful observers, see the dangers that are cause for legitimate concern. It is clear there are some people who will use inclusive language as a veil in an attempt to cover their hateful ideology. Some will use the phrase All Lives Matter as a way to deflect attention from their politics of anger, division, and hate.  However, we do not want to color everyone with that brush. Good ideas (ideals) can be turned to bad purpose. This says more about the twisted intention of the user than the idea.

My assertion is, the last thing we want to do is to say: ideas can not be challenged or questioned. Can this lead to a messy business out in the public marketplace of ideas? Absolutely. Of course we wish the road to a better world was straight and smooth and we were all pulling in the same direction and people were without duplicity.  But, as messy as the public marketplace of ideas can be, it is, by far, preferable to the alternative where thoughts are dictated from above by some form of thought-police and are not to be questioned. I am by no means a qualified historian but I seem to recall we have tried several versions of that scenario (kings, queen, pharaohs, dictators, warlords, priests, and thugs of every variety). I do not recall the chapter where everyone lived happily ever after.

Finally. Well, okay, what’s the word for almost finally?

I considered putting this bit at the beginning but I had concerns. I worried that some would be moved by emotion and therefore be unable to evaluate my arguments based on their merit. I later considered not saying this part at all. In the end I decided I needed to say it because it is true and it informs my thoughts on this topic.

The issue of prejudice and inequality in the wider world, but especially in America, is a very personal concern for me. My immediate family includes black and mixed race persons.

I would like to conclude by saying that we have pressing problems as well as thoughtful policies and solutions. Anything from any quarter that inhibits us from getting on with that business is something about which I will continue to raise my voice. I will make every effort not to be disparaging with those I disagree with except in the most extreme case and I will keep my criticisms pointed. It is not to our advantage to shotgun the whole business because we disagree over this or that point. 

Now for the quiz. Aw, go ahead, just for chuckles.

**For our purposes here my use of the word questioning does not mean cavalier dismissal either of a person’s ideas or the struggles of a group of disadvantaged people. It merely means that one might wish to evaluate what is said and apply critical thought to the topic in the same way one does (hopefully) with other issues in life.**

First, these questions are intended to be answered in your own head and you may then choose to share the answers here, somewhere else, or not at all. Second, this is not intended to embarrass anyone or hurt their feelings. It is simply about self awareness in a way I think we do not often consider. Please feel free to partially or entirely disagree with me. However, if you feel this way and would be kind enough, I request that you tell me the argument for your position. This way, I can check to see how others view things and how I may come to a more thorough assessment of the topics rattling around in my brain.

1) In the third paragraph where I mentioned prejudice, how many were comfortable applying that term to the speaker in the video even after I had clearly shown how he had exhibited that behavior?

2) Did you feet comfortable owning the fact that we are all prone to bias and prejudice?

3) Who, upon seeing the video for the first time, questioned nothing about it and basically walked away thinking, yup?

4) Who did not even consider questioning anything that the speaker said because he was black man speaking about prejudice in America? 

5) Who essentially felt like whatever a black person says about prejudice or the events surrounding that sad fact in this country, I as a white person, need to simply listen to uncritically because I am of a privileged class and therefore I have nothing to think or say about this except what I am told?

6) Who, upon hearing words like racism and prejudice thinks, they must be referring to white people?

7) Who believes that a person who has been the object of prejudice is somehow immune from prejudicial thoughts/behaviors in their own lives?

8) Who, when they they hear words like prejudice, immediately infers the speaker is talking about skin color? And why do you not think about mental or physical disability, whether a person is considered too fat or too skinny or too short etc., social status, sexual preferences, or other reasons for which people are maltreated?

And finally, you might wish to take a deep breath before this last one. On second thought, bartender, make that a double.

9) Is there anyone who thinks it is remotely possible that we have gone from recognizing a set of problems then quietly arriving at the unspoken idea that solving the problems would be very difficult so, instead, we began to fetishize the problems?

**I know, that last one is a weird one and you do not need to accept it. But just for giggles, let it roll around in your head awhile. Even if you eventually arrive at the opinion that it’s just plum crazy, I submit it might be an interesting journey.


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