Monday, August 31, 2020

The Dangerous Power of Examples

 Updated publication date to reflect actual time of writing. Posted much later on 6/24/2022. Also lightly edited to remove a redundant paragraph from the original. Note that as of this posting, the video is still live and accessible.

This video is getting a lot of attention on FB and Twitter and probably other places right now. 

I saw it on Facebook (don’t start with me, yes I do keep that window on humanity open). I even broke my usual pattern by taking the bait and commenting on it. 

I’m going to go through my best recollection of how I experienced this and how I reflected on it. Recall and self-reporting being the untrustworthy witnesses they are, take it for what it’s worth.

First, I saw the intro frame and the accompanying headline “Is this noncompliance?” and knew I was going to see a white guy get away with some egregious behavior towards a cop. So now I’m already primed - by the way, my own decidedly liberal worldview has also primed me very specifically on this over the past few months. So I play it - first without the sound because I’m home with the kids and don’t know what it’s going to be. I see the lone white cop, gun out, and the large white man next to the large black pickup. The two are not happy with each other. 

I decide I need to hear what they are saying. “Fuck you, you stupid fucking pig!” repeatedly features pretty prominently, as ultimately does “you point your gun at me in front of my kids, I’ll fucking kill you!” (Yes, he does literally threaten to kill a police officer - to his face, during a heated altercation). The officer  - alone, mind you - stays in control of himself, and repeatedly asks for the man’s ID. The female passenger of the truck gets into it briefly too… Anyway, watch the clip if you want to see it. You don’t need a play-by-play from me. 

Also relevant is what’s not shown:
  1. What led to the officer pulling his weapon - The clip starts when it’s already reached that point.
  2. The outcome - the clip ends with the officer still at the driver’s door, which is still open (the driver appears to be closing it). 
I can only assume that the most important outcome - nobody got shot - is what actually happened. There is no mention of injury to the officer or the driver of the pickup, or to any of the passengers. Hopefully that is not simply an omission.

Why talk about this? There are countless clips like this, and even more dramatic ones at that. We’ve all seen them.  

Here’s how I felt myself respond, again to the best of my remembering. 
  1. If that guy had been black, he’d be dead. I’ve said it a million times when seeing footage of the outrageous behavior of armed white people in public places. 
  2. You know that guy has at LEAST one gun in that truck. It was a big dude, with a big attitude, in a HUGE truck, apparently in Washington state (or so said some of the comments). I imagined the bed of that truck was no stranger to deer carcasses - which I'm not against, but again, "weapon visible in the car" is a pretty common determinant of outcome in these situations.
  3. How can anyone see this and still dispute white privilege? See points 1 and 2.

Looking at my response above, it is unfair and unfounded in all three points. 

Point 1 is unfair to the officer. Assuming he would have pulled the trigger on a black person in the same situation does him a disservice, when clearly in that situation he seemed, by what was captured in the clip, to handle himself and the situation with admirable self control and emotional maturity - certainly compared to the driver (whose behavior was reprehensible). If there is ever a difference in the maturity level between an officer and someone they are stopping, I would hope that the balance always tips in the direction seen here.

Point 2 is unfair to the driver - who again, was behaving horribly, presumably in front of his kids. But there is no reason to assume he’s a gun-toting vigilante, even if he is a hunter (which we also don’t really know - that truck does look pretty clean, after all). Also having a gun pointed at you can have a pretty strong effect, particularly if say one is a veteran or has some other past trauma coming to bear.

Point 3 is unfair to anyone who is honestly trying to parse through and make up their own mind about things, with nothing but particular incidents and individual anecdotes to work with. If we are asked to have an opinion and make a judgement about individuals in a concrete situation, we should have all the facts - and we don’t.

Now, I DON’T need all of the individual details of each case one by one to tell me that there is a strong pro-white bias operating in our policing, justice, and economic systems. A disparity like we can all see readily in outcomes makes the truth clear. You can either judge that one population - black and brown people - simply tend to make worse life choices inherently than white people, or you can judge that some combination of systemic factors - and they may be many and self-reinforcing at multiple levels - is in operation. The outcome of a function is always due to input conditions (the populations) and the function itself (the operations, however complex, carried out on those inputs). 
But again - critical thinking is critical (it's right there in the name, people!) when examining anecdotes, examples, and clips that "go viral" - no matter which opinions we hold. If we feel our opinions being immediately and strongly validated by an example like this, THAT is when we should ask questions.

Stories are way more powerful than data when it comes to influencing people, precisely because they make the abstract concrete and personal - and thus emotional. Emotions aren’t bad - we should all feel happy that nobody gets killed in that clip, and we should all feel outraged when ending a life is the solution chosen to resolve a conflict. 
All that said, emotions and confirmation bias should not be the foundation for judgement in any individual case, especially one making the rounds on social media.