A few weeks ago, I took my kids to the playground. There were quite a few other kids. After a bit of playing, one of the kids came over and told me that my son had flicked his ear.
I had seen that this kid had been rough on the playground and often spoke rudely to the other kids. So I listened patiently but didn’t do anything about it.
Over the next several minutes, I kept my eye on him. Every new interaction that I observed, I would scoff and conclude that this kid was trouble. After a few minutes, I was pretty upset.
Then I watched my son flick this kid’s ear again. I’m embarrassed to say this, but my first reaction was, “What did he do to my son?”
I literally witnessed with my own eyes my own child’s bad behavior, and yet my first instinct was to assume that the other kid must have done something to deserve it.
Fortunately, I came to my senses, and I pulled my kid out for a few minutes. The danger is our humanity will be frayed.
The danger is our humanity will be frayed.
Because my son is my responsibility, when he did something wrong, my instinct was to figure out how to blame it on someone else.
As understandable as this defensive instinct may be—and it was once described as “as common as breathing air”—if left unchecked, it can coarsen our souls and destroy our peace.
If every time we (or someone we’re responsible for) do something wrong, we end up blaming it on others, we’re left with this gnawing need to prove it’s all their fault. That can leave us bitter and accusatory.
I tell this story because of the disappointing details released late last week about the murder of Tyre Nichols.
Tyre Nichols was a FedEx delivery driver who was pulled over by police and beaten to death.
Police claimed that Nichols had been driving erratically and tried to reach for their gun, neither of which was confirmed by the recently released video. Although Nichols did try to run from the officers, he was completely apprehended and under control when the beating took place. And there appeared to be no point where the officers were in danger from Nichols.
What happened was a tragedy.
The danger is not in an isolated tragedy, although every tragedy is exactly that on some level. But as tragedies like this continue to enter our public consciousness, the danger is our humanity will be frayed.
Not simply by their frequency. But by the way we may be inclined to respond to them.
These officers were our representatives, representing “we the people,” presumably to help ensure domestic tranquility. It would be all too easy at a moment like this for us to respond in the same callous way I did when I saw my son flick that boy’s ear. What did he do?
The influential Arbinger Institute, in their seminal book The Anatomy of Peace, writes, “Whenever we need to be justified, anything that will give us justification will immediately take on exaggerated importance in our life. Self-betrayal corrupts everything.”
To hold a man down while his head is kicked is a profound betrayal of who we are as a people. But if we aren’t careful, and we find ways to deflect or justify, it can become who we are as a people.
Leo Tolstoy explained the process like this “For the justification of sins, there exist false arguments, according to which there would appear to be exceptional circumstances, rendering the sins not only excusable but even necessary.”
If we are confronted with this kind of violence regularly and find excuses not to repudiate it and change, then that is who we are. We may shrug our shoulders and conclude that this is just the way it is—or worse, the way it should be.
Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest it’s already who we are. Alex S. Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College who focuses on policing, has argued that over the last forty years, we have seen a “fundamental shift in the role of police in society” and that if we are to see improvements, we must change the entire culture.
So in a real way, while Tyre Nichols was the first and primary victim of those officers, if we aren’t careful, we can become their victims too, allowing their actions to coarsen our souls.
What is the antidote? Well, today is a time for grief, a time for indignation. It’s not yet a time for policy. That time will come soon. When it does, we would do well to keep in mind the lessons of Fleet Maull, who founded the Prison Mindfulness Institute while serving a 14.5-year prison sentence for drug smuggling. Reflecting on the same basic scenario as Tolstoy and the Arbinger institute, he calls it a “Victim Mindset.”
His philosophy might best be described by the pithy title of his book Radical Responsibility, which reflects a philosophy that “transcends blame.” For him, the path to peace is to reject blame and accept ownership.
If we are to move beyond this senseless killing enacted on our behalf and by our agents, we must start with responsibility. We must avoid the emotional shortcut of pointing the finger of blame. And it’s through that ownership that we can start the path of ensuring that this tragedy remains only a tragedy and not a new normal.