Monday, October 3, 2016

Our Biggest Problem?

"What we've got here is failure to communicate."  (Captain from Cool Hand Luke)

I could write novel-length blog posts about communication failures, both in my own life and in society at large. They are a huge deal, and can be poisonous to people both as individuals and as groups.

Not being one who likes to air my personal problems on the World Wide Web (and not being arrogant enough to think anyone wants to read about them), I am instead here to write about what I think are extremely destructive communication failures in our public discourse. Unsurprisingly, many of them turn largely on the question of race.

It has long seemed to me that if you were to place a gray boulder in the middle of a field, with a bunch of white people at one end of the field and a bunch of black people at the other and poll each group about what color the boulder is, 90 percent of the white people would say it's green and 90 percent of the black people would say it's red. This has always fascinated me, but what troubles me is that nobody asks why there is such a difference in perception. I suspect that if anyone ever did, most people wouldn't listen to the answers because they would assume they already know.

We are constantly told we need to have a "national conversation" about race. Legions of white people immediately stop listening when they hear that phrase because they think (with reason) that race gets talked about all the time and that the talking is usually a one-way monologue rather than a two-way dialogue... while on the other hand, legions of black people think (and I can't blame them) that when white people don't listen it must mean they don't care about racial equality.

Meanwhile, most white people who stop listening never stop to consider that black people might actually want a dialogue... and they certainly don't stop to consider that by not responding to the call for a "national conversation," they themselves are largely to blame for it being a monologue.

On the other side of the coin, many black people who suspect that "silent whites" don't care about racial equality never ask actual white people why it is that so many of them zip their lips whenever the "national conversation" gets recommended.

This ain't healthy in an ethnically diverse country that calls itself the United States.

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I know black people who say "black lives matter" and not one of them is racist. I know they would be troubled by the unjust death of a white person at the hands of authorities. Therefore I don't get worked up about the whole "black lives matter" versus "all lives matter" spat -- but I do understand why so many white people start get involved in the spat, and it can be summed up in a five-word question: "Michael Brown or Eric Garner?"

I don't care for the phrase "Black Lives Matter Movement" but I don't know another one to use, so I'm gonna use it anyway; and what I'm gonna say is that one of the worst things to happen to race relations in America was that movement embracing Brown as a symbol when it got going, thereby elevating him to the level of martyr and relegating Garner to an afterthought.

Recap #1: Eric Garner was a disabled man who engaged in a non-violent, no-victim effort to earn a buck by giving another man a cigarette and accepting money in return. In response to this, four police officers were dispatched to arrest him and haul him off to jail for "violating" an asinine statute that would never -- and I'm going on record with this, never -- be enforced against my Scotch-Irish ass if I was the one taking part in that minor act of minor capitalism on the sidewalks of Staten Island.

The officers handcuffed Garner, brought him to the ground, and left him in a prone position that every cop knows you're not supposed to leave a handcuffed man in for the specific reason that it can cause positional asphyxiation. When Garner complained of not being able to breathe -- i.e., when he gave them a crystal clear indication that he was asphyxiating -- they still left him in the prone position, and he died.

Recap #2: Shortly after Michael Brown violently robbed a store, Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department approached him because he matched the description of the robber (remember, he was the robber) and asked him legitimate questions without threatening to arrest him. Then Brown, who far outweighed Wilson, charged him and tried to get his gun. With a split second to react, knowing his physical safety was in danger and with every reason to believe his life was in danger, Wilson responded by shooting Brown in self-defense at extremely close range.

In response, members of what we now call the Black Lives Matter Movement came to Ferguson and perpetuated a lie that Brown had been slaughtered in cold blood while running away from Wilson with his hands in the air pleading "don't shoot." The activists did not simply protest the shooting, they went so far as to publicly demand that Wilson be killed.

The deaths of Garner and Brown happened just three weeks apart and each received a lot of press immediately after it happened, but it was Brown (who died second and was the aggressor rather than the innocent) whose death ignited the passions of the activists, who in turn anointed him as the face of their movement.

On the other hand, Garner (who was truly innocent, and who can legitimately be said to have died because of a racially discriminatory law, and who in fact died because of bad policing) got flushed down the memory hole and forgotten by the same activists who continue to speak of Brown as some kind of folk hero.

Many white people saw that discrepancy and decided to forever close their ears to anything said by anybody who says "black lives matter." You can quibble all you want about whether they were right or wrong to close their ears, but there is no denying they had a rational reason for doing so.

Again, what we've got here is failure to communicate. Most black people know the difference between innocents like Eric Garner and less sympathetic figures like Michael Brown; but your average black person does not have access to the mass media, and the mass media is shamefully addicted to images of drama, so large numbers of white people saw only that activists were embracing Brown and ignoring Garner. And with that in mind, they withdrew from making any public comment on any racial issue, deciding it was better to remain silent than risk being branded a bigot for saying anything critical of black activists or of one of the people the activists use as a mascot.

And going back to an earlier point, large numbers of black people perceived that mass white withdrawal as a sign that white people don't care about injustice.

Pardon the cliche, but this is a vicious cycle.

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Of course, failures to communicate exist not only between groups but within them. Consider the schism that has been convulsing the Republican Party and conservative movement ever since Donald Trump announced his candidacy last year.

Tired of leftist politicians and entertainers promoting PC fantasies at the expense of truth, reason, and common sense, some conservatives were instantly thrilled by Trump's maverick way of flipping the fantasies off with his volcanic verbiage. Let's call those conservatives the Trumpians.

Other conservatives looked at the Trumpians and thought, basically: What the hell's wrong with those guys? Don't they realize Trump has a long history of promoting liberal viewpoints, that he's a known liar, and there's no evidence that he has even one conservative bone in body?

Next thing you knew, longtime allies were at odds. Trumpians accused non-Trumpians of wanting Hillary Clinton to be president, and non-Trumpians accused Trumpians of being crass careerists who don't really care about conservatism. This division continues today and is even worse than it was a year ago.

Some conservative stalwarts like Victor Davis Hanson make rational cases for voting for Trump, while others like Jonah Goldberg make rational cases for not voting for him (at the same time stressing they wouldn't vote for Clinton either). But for the most part, those who fall into either camp talk about those in the other one as if they were morally empty chest-thumpers with mental deficiencies; and remember, the people talking like that would otherwise be allies. How can their defamatory posturing possibly help move conservatism forward and win over converts?

Isn't winning over coverts by speaking not to the choir the main point of political and philosophical writing? How can you do that if you can't even communicate amongst your own fellow travelers?

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So how do we fix this massive communication failure that seems to inflict every aspect of our being? I don't know. All I am sure of is that we can't fix it "as a society" -- instead we must recognize it in ourselves and fix it individually, humbly, in our own lives, and discuss our fixes with others.

That is a slow process and because of human nature it will never span all of society.

But also because of human nature, it is a process that can work wonders for those who try it. And if those who try it "give testimony," it will spread, and that would be good.

A former boss of mine once gave me a steel-eyed gaze and told me to stop thinking about what I was going to say. She said to put all those thoughts aside, to listen to what she was saying and be in the moment, and then ponder what she said and respond only after thinking about it.

She later fired me. She was wrong about a number of things over the years, but was not wrong about those two things, and I've never forgotten it.

From now on, maybe we should all make a point of forcing ourselves to listen when others speak. We might be surprised what we learn by doing that.

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