Respect for What Is Other and Different

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Since the killing of George Floyd by police officers–just one of a long line of incidents of police violence against black people–the public has come to recognize the need for profound changes. Not only the Black Lives Matter protests, but countless formal and informal discussions have taken up the topic around the clock. Yet within the drive for racial justice, an injustice is taking hold. People are being shamed, canceled, driven out of their jobs–for saying the wrong thing, saying the right thing but not strongly enough, or saying the right thing, strongly enough, but not coupling it with immediate and acceptable action. Such shaming hurts not only the individuals involved (including the shamers, who bring out the worst in themselves), not only democracy, language, and human dignity (a handful already), but even the protests. There will be no real progress against racism in America if people cannot participate with integrity, if they cannot speak their minds, doubts, and feelings, if they cannot hear others out. Instead there will be heartbreak as the movement fails not only the larger public, but its own participants and supporters.

On June 6, Mayor Jacob Frey was booed out of a protest rally in Minneapolis because he stated–upon being questioned repeatedly–that he did not support the full abolition of the police. You can watch the exchange here.

Another video suggests that many members of the crowd were not booing him but rather letting him pass through. If this is accurate, the booing does not represent the whole, but still drowns out everything else.

For the sake of what? Mayor Frey had already said that systemic change was needed. The woman with the microphone pressed him further by asking him repeatedly whether he supported defunding the police. What does that even mean? The Minneapolis City Council has since vowed to dismantle the police force, but no one knows what the end result will look like. In other words, a mayor was driven out of a rally–which he had come out to support–for the sake of something unknown.

The ganging up on perceived enemies has affected not only politics, but medicine, poetry, theater, art, science, sports, and other spheres. It is not exclusive to the left. Health workers and officials have been pushed out of their jobs and subjected to harassment and death threats by groups protesting coronavirus protection measures–groups that regard the coronavirus as a hoax perpetrated by Jews, for instance. According to The New York Times, Dr. Amy Acton, the state health director of Ohio, dealt with “anti-Semitic attacks and demonstrations by armed protesters on her front lawn,”. While widely different in political orientation and aim, groups from the right and left punish those who do not meet their demands exactly. Whether Trump sets an example here or follows an existing trend, he displays a similar tendency in his tweets to all the world.

Back to the left, or a segment of it. A letter to the Poetry Foundation–presented by thirty individuals, most of them Poetry Foundation Fellows, and signed by over 1,800 individuals–demanded that the Foundation replace its president, take specific action to eradicate racism and other discrimination, acknowledge the harm it has committed already, move toward redistributing its funds, and more. All signatories pledged not to work with the Poetry Foundation until the demands had been met “to a substantial degree.” The president, Henry Bienen, has already stepped down. The letter came in response to the organization’s antiracism statement, issued on June 3, which was not deemed strong enough:

The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.

As an organization we recognize that there is much work to be done, and we are committed to engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism. We acknowledge that real change takes time and dedication, and we are committed to making this a priority.

We believe in the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair, and to empower and amplify the voices of this time, this moment.

The Guggenheim Museum and other museums, theaters all over the country, and other institutions are being told to espouse certain values, statements, and actions or face consequences. Those who delay in doing so are named on lists; those who comply are often suspected of not meaning it. A public Google spreadsheet, titled “Theaters Not Speaking Out” and open for anyone to edit, lists 486 theaters as of this writing. According to the Los Angeles Times:

More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, [Marie] Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

Beyond the arts, countless corporations are churning out antiracism statements–and it is no surprise that some of them ring hollow. In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” environment, many probably figure that they can mitigate their damnation somewhat with a consultant-crafted mission statement.

I think back on the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain.” As the tactics of shaming and demanding become a way of life, so does the damage. The tactics hurt much more than the targeted individuals and institutions.

First of all, they hurt democracy. If, to be treated as an acceptable human being or institution, one must adopt a prescribed line and course of action, then there can be no exchange of views. Without an exchange of views, there is no democracy. We have already seen this, in different form, with Trump’s long series of purges. Democracy depends on a plurality of opinions–an opportunity to discuss, deliberate, and decide. It also depends on a mixture of priorities. Social justice–as usually conceived–is not the only kind of justice worth fighting for, nor can it stand alone.  To be viable, it must consider and combine with other justices, including justice within an individual, justice between two, and public justice.

Second, these tactics hurt language. If those making the demands reject all criticism and challenges, they lose a chance to exercise imagination and logic. In a bizarre Rolling Stone article, EJ Dickson argues that Olivia Benson, a police officer in the TV show Law and Order, (that’s right, a fictional character) should be canceled because she appears as a good cop and could therefore confuse viewers about the true nature of the police force. What, should Marge Gunderson be canceled too for her smarts and tough charm? Should fictional characters from other professions–teachers, mayors, doctors, priests–be nixed as well, while we’re at it? And what price will the mind pay for this? How can anyone “reimagine” the police, for instance, if we are not supposed to imagine in the first place? (Not to mention that literature would disappear.)

Third, these tactics hurt human dignity–the presence, in each person, of something that goes beyond measure, beyond others’ knowledge. If people are so sure of their assessments of others, so quick to name enemies of the cause, then anyone, at any moment, can be flattened to enemy status; not only that, but the flattening will become a way of life and thought. The “I-Thou” relation as described by Martin Buber and referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” becomes a thing of the past, a relic in an antique shop.

Fourth, these tactics hurt the Black Lives Matter protests themselves–not only over the longer term, but now. To accomplish something durable, protesters must be willing to work and speak with a range of people, including those who disagree with them on some points, express ideas differently, or have different priorities. Through such work, the protest efforts can grow and strengthen over time. But just within the coming months, the protesters’ conduct will influence the outcome of the election in swing states. Setting a principled example, showing regard for others, the protesters can help the country overcome Trump (along with his effects and affects) and move toward a saner and kinder world.

The alternative–the extreme self-righteousness, the thronged castigation of dissenters–will dishonor the protests, harm decent people, and destroy the very things worth fighting for.

Painting: Marc Chagall, The Revolution (1937). “I think the Revolution could be a great thing if it retained its respect for what is other and different,” Chagall had written in My Life (1923).

Correction: The Minneapolis rally mentioned here took place on June 6, not June 7.

Update: See “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published online in Harper’s on July 7. It will also appear in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue.

Slowing Down and Stepping Back

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The sickening news of George Floyd’s death under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin brings up lessons I have learned from teaching. One of the most difficult things in a charged moment is to slow down, look around, listen, figure out what actually is and isn’t going on, and respond appropriately to the specifics.

I do not know what was going through Mr. Chauvin’s mind: why he kept his knee pressed for eight minutes and forty-six seconds on Mr. Floyd’s neck, even though Mr. Floyd kept gasping that he couldn’t breathe. It’s possible that through a combination of racist reactions, general anxiety, and trained responses, he failed to see that Mr. Floyd posed no danger and that he was going to die. (A racist reaction, in this case, is one that would have been more solicitous and respectful had the man under arrest been white.) This failure to see may have led to Mr. Floyd’s death; that is, if Mr. Chauvin had taken stock of what was happening, he might have shifted course. In any case, how could he not have heard Mr. Floyd? How could he not have heard the bystanders? Whatever else was going on in him, it seems he failed to hear.

For a teacher, one of the greatest challenges of “classroom management” is sheer overload. People who advise teachers don’t always realize this. There are all sorts of books written on managing a classroom, but none of the advice will do a bit of good unless the teacher knows how to take in the details and the whole. When there is too much happening at once, it can become one big blur.

The first challenge is to take apart the blur: to step back, look at the specifics, and respond to them one by one. This can be very difficult when there’s a lot of noise. I have found in Hungary that it is easier to address minor situations that come up, simply because it’s easier to see what they are. The atmosphere can be lively, but it isn’t noisy, and with one look around the room, I can tell what is happening.

But even years ago I knew the importance of stepping back and looking around, even though I found it difficult. There was one day in 2012, at Columbia Secondary School, when I was introducing my students to Locke (see the post “Locke and Beads“), and some students were talking loudly and persistently. I stopped to address what was going on, and we talked about it for a few minutes. Then I heard a clatter. My necklace had broken–a beloved necklace given to me by teachers at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute–and the beads were spilling all over the place. The students immediately started helping me gather them again. The sun was streaming through the window, making some of the beads glitter. We ended the lesson by considering the words of Locke, “But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.” Everything, or almost everything, had come together: disruption, conversation, necklace, and Locke.

Those particular students graduated from college two years ago (except for a few who took time off for one purpose or another). I often remember them. Standing back now from the difficulty of that class, I see how much was happening in it, and how much more could have happened if I had let myself see more of the particulars.

People who tend to get overwhelmed–by noise, distraction, or other stimulus–need to practice slowing down and looking around. In seemingly chaotic situations, this does not come naturally. Kids often want the teacher to respond individually to them. Few things in school are as frustrating or annoying as when a teacher generalizes about the class without noticing distinctions. Also, kids will instinctively play on a teacher’s weaknesses and vice versa; it takes conscious work to build up each other’s strengths.

When race, ethnicity, or another group difference is at stake, it takes all the more work–and practice–to separate actual threat from imagined threat, and to respond to the situation at hand, not to something conjured out of prejudice and fear. In addition, it takes diligence and humility to interpret the situation correctly. Many conflicts arise out of misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

This is true about all sorts of situations, even those without racial conflict or positions of authority. Most of us have known people who at some point reacted to us without taking in the full situation.  Most of us have done so ourselves. In fact, this probably happens most of the time; we are partially blind to others, even those closest to us. But when authority and race are involved, the wounds and consequences go far beyond the individuals involved.

I don’t know if any of this applies to Mr. Chauvin. But those in positions of public responsibility should learn, during their professional training, how to decelerate and take things in, to see the person in front of them, to distinguish the actual situation from an imagined one. There are teachers, police officers, and others who do this extremely well–who save lives and see lives during the course of their work–and who go unrecognized. Their wisdom is badly needed. They should be seen and heard.

 

Update: I made several edits and additions to this piece after the initial posting.