Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pride and Prejudice

Since I started writing about Black Lives Matter I’ve started to feel like I’m presenting myself as their  opposition. It’s a strange feeling because I truly do believe that greater oversight of the police would benefit public safety. I also agree that the black community is disproportionately  targeted by state violence, and only one of the reasons for that is economic. I even agree with BLM that those people who wave facts about black-on-black violence, or the greater number of whites shot, or that all lives matter aren’t really interested in the facts that they’re waving. Rather, those fact-wavers are using their facts as a way to deflect attention from the very real problem of police violence that BLM is trying to address. None the less, I do have a problem with BLM, and that problem is with the self-destructive nature of their tactics. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe they have a strategy, so I can only criticize at their tactics. I suppose that those problems, like the specious reasoning of BLM’s opposition, are a byproduct of one of the great fallacies of our culture – the fallacy of the logical mind.

Both BLM and their opposition are facing their particular situations like a platonic dialog, where the most reasoned argument wins. Both sides fail to realize that humanity is in no way logical, the majority of our decisions are in fact emotional and justified with logic after the fact. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: those emotions are our instincts and have helped us survive and thrive in very hostile environments. Thinking and acting emotionally only becomes a problem when you live in a society that believes all things are logical, and then tries to deal with an emotionally reasoned action with logic.

The human mind is ridiculously convoluted. We are a product of past experience, cultural standards, and both acknowledged and unacknowledged personal desire. Prejudice, as I discussed in an earlier article, is simply a prejudgment about a person, place, or thing. Those prejudgments are often based on past, limited, or no direct experience. We need to look at how our prejudices against people develop, and how they affect our behavior. As I pointed out in my previous article, the history of systemic racism in our country has been gradually corrected through civil war, civil disobedience, and reform. Where we once legislated the non-personhood of blacks, we have now given them legal equality. Of course legislating someone’s equality does not mean they are automatically treated as equal, and it is that separation where the mark of history is most keenly felt.

Our society has made great strides in abolishing many of the injustices that have oppressed the black community, but legislation cannot undo socialization. Every society has lessons and habits it passes on to its young by direct and indirect means. We are taught, or socialized, by our society to behave in specific ways. This process is called socialization and it can be very beneficial or very dangerous. When we are young we see our parents and other respected members of our community behave in specific ways toward others. For example. in the US we are taught to be deferential toward legal authorities such as the police. We are also taught to dehumanize those who are confronted or questioned by the law. The process of socialization is often subtle, such as when we joke about prison rape, or it can be quite direct, such as when we say, “people who haven’t done anything wrong do not need to fear the police.” Over time these statements, and a thousand other subtle and direct experiences, shape our subconscious minds to respond as our society deems appropriate. Not everyone reacts the same way, but we’re all affected by the process. We do not always know why we behave or react in the ways we do, but that’s just how the subconscious works. Events and words leave an emotional imprint and those imprints influence our thoughts and actions in the future. Prejudice of any kind is usually based on a generalized emotional experience. 

Governments and most organizations are excellent at using this process to their advantage. Constant streams of propaganda convince us to believe or support the standards of whatever organization is producing the propaganda. Several studies have demonstrated that when a person wears a uniform people only see the uniform, not the person wearing it. So whatever emotions that we’re taught to associate with the uniform are the emotions we will experience when we see someone wearing it. Personal experience can overcome propaganda, but only if the personal experience leaves a strong enough emotional imprint.

Strangely, even the absence or presence of people can alter our perspective of people. In the U.S., the absence of blacks in politics and businesses is noticeable, and this influences people to associate blacks with where they are visible - primarily in low income areas. A large part of public perception is based on media coverage, what news and other media sources choose to emphasize is often what shapes public prejudice. Here is where history matters, because past socialization efforts were about convincing the public that blacks were the other, and any attempt to change that perception runs up against deeply entrenched emotional perspective. Each positive public representation of blacks is a step forward, while each negative representation is two steps back. It is far easier to demonize someone than it is to lionize them.

Social standards have changed. That fact that a black man has served as our country’s leader for two terms is proof of that, but that change doesn’t mean that racism is dead. Societies can change their standards rapidly, but past social norms leave very long imprints on behavior. People change far slower than social standards. Currently there is a great deal of shame associated with racism, and any act or statement associated with racism can destroy one’s social standing. None of us desire to be seen as bigots by our peers, nor do we wish to see the worst in ourselves, so we must find some way to justify our actions. After all, if prejudice is subconscious, and the subconscious causes us to act instinctively, and those acts can risk our social standing, then it is inevitable that people will seek to justify those acts. That logic is especially true for the police, who could see their careers destroyed and face worse penalties for an instinctive act. Racism against blacks, especially black men, describes them as dangerous and criminal. The mind plays tricks when it is under stress, and will cause people to perceive danger where there might not be any. The mind will even invent reality to justify an action. No one should be surprised that putting poorly trained officers in stressful situations would result in violence against a group of people who are already technically an underclass.

However, organizations have mastered the skill of training people to control their instinctual reactions by indoctrinating us to conform to new behavioral norms. That would not be possible for our whole society, but it is very possible for the police force. Increasing training standards and accountability will rapidly reduce instances of fear and stress based reactions. The wider public can even be reached if citizens’ groups, like BLM, start to hold meet-and-greet events to allow neighbors to become familiar with each other. One gentlemen, a black man and blues musician, even managed to help KKK members leave behind their prejudices by befriending them. Emotions are the basis of prejudice, so it is absurd that BLM is trying to fight prejudice with logic. Compassion and goodwill are a far more viable tactic to overcome a history of prejudicial socialization than all the facts in every book in the world, yet we are stuck in a society that sees logic as the only useful kind of rationality.

BLM needs to realize that a clear understanding of the social situation in America is the only way to produce viable strategies to resolve the problems putting us all in danger. Make no mistake about it, the increasingly violent actions of the police is a result of a mentality of subservience from the public. We do not have the courage to face an overly militarized force that is supposed to protect public safety, but is treating the public like enemy combatants instead. The black community, since they are our country’s social underclass, serve as the canary in the coal mine. Unfortunately, BLM isn’t capable of providing us the unity needed the deal with this dire situation. Whether some other group will rise to deal with the problems we face remains to be seen.

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