False dichotomies play out in black and white
There are people who believe that the reason black men seem to keep getting shot and killed by police officers is that they simply will not obey orders or “show respect” for authority. There are people who believe that this is a media-created problem, and not a race problem. There are people who believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is racist by definition, as if the implication in saying black lives matter in the first place is that no other lives matter, as if the suggestion that context matters, too, is just liberal hogwash.
There are people who believe that if there is a race problem at all, it is the fault of blacks who simply will not let it go, who will “play the race card” every time they perceive injustice, which is always. There are people who believe that the race problem, if there is one, is the fault of President Obama, who has, in their view, divided the country. There are people who believe that “we” must “take our country back,” without being specific about who “we” are or who “they” are, these people who have somehow taken possession of the country.
Then there are people who believe that all white cops are racists, or at least most of them are. There are people who claim to be part of Black Lives Matter who advocate violence. There are people who do not believe that there has been much progress on racial issues at all since the Civil Rights movement.
One thing that does seem clear in all of the chaos of the past week is that when we look at things, we tend to see them in terms of how they reinforce our own biases and worldview, and this tendency, in turn, can lead to certain damaging false dichotomies. For example, the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement reinforced the bias that some people have that black citizens tend to “play the victim” and desire a status above that of other groups, as if the name of the group were not Black Lives Matter but Only Black Lives Matter, which is not the same thing at all. Even worse, the perception is that the Black Lives Matter movement implies a wholesale indictment of law enforcement across the United States. That is one reason we have seen reactionary movements, positioned very much in opposition to Black Lives Matter. You have probably seen them. Blue Lives Matter. All Lives Matter. Serve and volley.
These days, it is as if there are two sides, a right and a wrong way to look at things, and it is just that simple. The problem, of course, is that it is almost never that simple. For example, why isn’t it possible to believe that there is still a race problem in the country, while also acknowledging that race relations are, in many ways, better than they have ever been? Why can’t we admit that too many black men are being killed by police officers, while also acknowledging that many police officers are not closet racists with hidden agendas?
I have written many columns about another problem that is related in some ways to this one, and that is the gun problem, which comes with its own false dichotomy. It seems that the perception some people have is that we must either choose either total disarmament or the freedom to own any weapon we want. Without fail, every time I have written in favor of banning assault rifles, I get letters accusing me of supporting the ban of all guns.
That’s like believing that if I am in favor of speed limits, I am against the right to drive a car. I know this may seem strange, but it is more likely a symptom of our shirts and skins, choose-a-side mentality. There is no room for nuance, complexity or compromise. We’ve become an all or nothing nation. We’ve become a nation that believes our patriotism depends on taking rigid, extreme views, and then ridiculing anyone who disagrees. I’ve fallen prey to this tendency myself by referring to pro-gun folks as “gun nuts” in other columns.
This has to change. If we are going to change directions, we have to get beyond falling into the trap of false dichotomies. We have to accept that just because problems may fall outside our own life experience, it does not mean they are not real problems. We have to be willing to see and embrace the complexity in issues, and not reduce them to bumper sticker slogans or Facebook memes.
Above all else, we have to realize that empathy, and not rage, is the right place to start, and the best place to finish. We cannot solve problems we do not understand, and we cannot understand problems we refuse to see.