January 29, 2015

The Polite Absurdity

A dear friend's wife was mugged recently here in Chicago right on the street in the afternoon outside her building by two thugs who pointed a gun at her. They took her phone, wallet, and purse and left her terrified and sobbing. 

The scariest realization: when she left her loving husband and two-year old that morning, he did not expect to hear from her for several hours - she could have been bleeding to death on a dirty sidewalk and never been the wiser. 

The question arose, could anything have been done differently to alter the outcome?

The likely answer is, no. In that moment of truth, when a gun is pointed at your heart, you comply in the hope the gun will not go off. The context of the brazen incident - daytime on a busy street - may have shielded her or even provided some sense of security, but this can never be relied on - had they gunned her down, we'd be appalled by the senselessness, but surprised? Not here in Chicago where the violence is a never-ending game in overtime with players, refs, and attendees emotionally spent and numb to atrocity. 

But the overall answer is, yes, and here's why. It was only later she commented to her husband that when she first noticed the two young black males approaching her on the sidewalk, she knew something wasn't right. 

Now you can take that for what it's worth. You can jolt upright and yell she "profiled" them, that here's just another white woman making snap judgments and preconceived notions - bigoted and racist even - upon two young men, who most probably in any other situation would never mean her any harm. That may, in fact, be the case. It's just that in this particular case it was not. 

When she saw these two men an internal voice of warning spoke up. And according to her, she was, in fact, about to listen to it and cross the street - she had the time and space to jaywalk across traffic. She was well aware of the moment in which she could act. And then she decided not to.

One can only speculate as to why she did not - there could be a hundred reasons. But if I think plainly on the matter and reflect upon my own and others' similar experiences, the answer is simple. She is a well-educated, liberal woman (who is positively lovely) and another voice was present with her that day, a louder one, more critical of the reason that first spoke up. This new voice told her to ignore that first pang of common sense, perhaps ascribing it the motives of soft bigotry that far too often in our America today labels the thoughts, words, and deeds of others, with whom we disagree. 

Being the nice, polite woman she is, she would never dream of hurting the feelings of strangers just trying to make their way in the world. And perhaps on some level, reflecting our national conversation on race at present, she did not want to appear in the least bigoted and/or racist for crossing a street to avoid an encounter (I have since confirmed this with her husband, it was exactly what she was thinking). And so she gave them the benefit of doubt. And it was this "noble" feeling that took precedence over a gut instinct trying desperately to warn her she should act now to protect herself. These young men had made her a victim. But I hate to ask, have we already victimized ourselves by capitulating to an unreasonable standpoint we have no need to acknowledge

We have reached the point of farce when compassion and empathy causes regular folks to tacitly risk their own and others' safety so as not to potentially hurt the feelings of others. This polite absurdity is the practical effect of the kind of impotent drive to "do something" and force solutions upon situations out of everyone's control, like trying to paint a house burning itself to the ground. 

It's a sad state when our social and political arguments all too often end with folks being called "racist" because of differing ideas and solutions to age old problems (is America really that racist? How did Obama get elected twice?). It makes folks not want to have that conversation and then nothing gets done. The issues of racism in America today exist both in reality and in the perception of it - what is and what people believe is - making it awfully difficult to get to the truth of the matter. 

How we think we ought to be treated varies by culture and creed and it is this perception that causes all kinds of trouble, which is why we should judge behavior by universals, not particulars. The issues surrounding race will certainly not be solved by simple folks like us risking our safety just to satisfy a fashionable notion that the actions we might take to make us feel safer (like crossing a street) might hurt someone's else's feelings. Fuck their feelings. Not sorry. If you make me feel weird, I'm leaving.

This isn't a license to "profile" and it doesn't mean you shouldn't treat people with the very same kind of respect you would want paid toward your children. But I get tired of hearing pablum like, "no judgments." This is nonsense, as in, "not sensible" - humans are judgers and have been since the dawn of time. If we hadn't been we could not have survived the myriad decisions that come with surviving. Everything we do on some level is a judgment call: turkey or ham for lunch? Maybe the meter maid won't catch me? Here, lemme stick my hand in there! Call that a drunk flip - watch and learnBut a potentially dangerous moment? No judgments! Ya know, if you're going to ween yourself off a habit, make it kicking puppies or tipping old people over to watch them flail for their Medline "footy" canes, not a genetic survival instinct.  

First off, if you at all feel threatened - maybe you're the super-sensitive, Linus-type who carries a blankey, or you're Eminem OCD, or you're some battle-hardened Marine scout sniper - it doesn't matter, make a change: walk away, cross the street, get off, get on, whatever. Don't ignore what common sense may be desperately trying to say. 

And secondly, don't feel bad about it - it's good training to maintain a high level of awareness and act upon it when it tells you to. Know what's not good training? Willful ignorance (like any racist of the content of character). 

There was a time just recently when Loyola University, a good Jesuit Catholic liberal school, was sending out campus security "crime alerts" describing the various incidents on or near campus providing a heads-up to the student body. But the alerts were conspicuously omitting one important aspect of description - the race of the suspects involved in said incidents. Every alert read blandly alike, "Be on the lookout for a twenty-something, six-foot male, with a red cap." With alerts like these, who needs alerts? 

I even asked a roomful of Jesuits I was taking class with at the time, which was more offensive, that the alerts were willfully ignorant of relevant facts-of-the-matter allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions regarding the race of the suspects, or that the powers that be were intellectually dishonest purposely obfuscating the facts, which could inadvertently place others in jeopardy, just to uphold some foggy sense of "social justice?" The good gentlemen, normally verbose, had no answer. Loyola has since thankfully abandoned the practice.       

It's always a poor idea to obscure the truth with varnish (like political correctness does), even to defend some apparent moral high ground, because the high ground is only useful if it is actually the high ground and not merely ground we declare to be "high."

I am hopeful the polite absurdity reached its apex last November with the story of Oliver Friedfeld, the young Georgetown University student who wrote the piece, "I Was Mugged, and I Understand Why," when he was actually mugged on campus at gunpoint

This sweet young man, who not only didn't blame his attackers, ascribed to them non-violent motives (a contradiction - being mugged at gunpoint is motive by violence), and advised us all to "get comfortable" with muggings and break-ins because, you know, income inequality and stuff:  
Who am I to stand from my perch of privilege, surrounded by million-dollar homes and paying for a $60,000 education, to condemn these young men as "thugs?" It's precisely this kind of "otherization" that fuels the problem.
Who is he? An equal human being, that's who. Even from his "perch of privilege." His life is not worth less just because he has more. I suspect young Oliver does not see the irony of his statement, that his muggers also "otherized" him to the point they were (potentially) willing to shoot him had he not complied with their wishes - an actual offense than merely acknowledging "thuggery" makes one a "thug." 

And I don't blame young Oliver for not condemning his assailants, moral relativism is a virus and its symptom is ethical befuddlement - it makes us dumb. If he truly believes his life is not worthy of the kind of respect that demands it not be placed under threat of murder, then he is all of the terms in Word's Thesaurus for "appallingly" - like frighteningly, horrifyingly, terrifyingly, shockingly - confused: 
We must temper our abundant compassion and empathy with the common sense to protect ourselves and others, even when we are trying to protect our enemy. Remember, our common sense speaks to us as a voice of collected experiences, context, environment, and variable, informing us we ought not disrespect ourselves.  
Nobody has the right to take advantage of you or anyone you love - your life is just as valuable to you as your attacker's lives are to them. By that reasoning, we should also not take advantage of ourselves by taking our own safety for granted in the hope we won't offend the feelings of others. 
You ought not think of yourself unethically, due to post traumatic stress, believing there is no blame to assign for a crime upon you, and by that logic, no crime committed. To think this is a lie, for it shakes and weakens the very foundational values of the natural rights and social justice you no doubt place great faith in. What else justifies and authenticates such lofty notions if the value of life is so meaningless as to be arbitrarily harmed over the money in our pockets or the digital trinkets of our modern lives by those twisted enough to threaten violence for them, or by the intelligent folks like yourself, so adrift in moral relativity they are unwilling to stand up for even the dignity of their own life by condemning those violent actions as immoral and unethical.   
Respect for one's own self-dignity is to know respect for the dignity of others. To know a crime was committed, to assign blame, to name the "thug" as anyone who engages in "thuggery" is to pay homage and keep sacred this value of life and not allow arbitrary, relative concerns, like desire, greed, or even poverty's desperation (or our compassion and empathy for that matter) to supersede in importance this universal connection of our common humanity. 
To believe otherwise is to lie to oneself and disorient from truth.
It is to be mugged and not understand why.


Hapkiyusool said...

James, a fantastic post once again. If you haven't, I would highly suggest reading Gavin De Becker's book, the Gift of Fear. As the father of two daughters, it will be required reading for both of them with a thorough quiz at the end. Had this young lady read this fantastic book, things may have turned out differently. As you mention, moral relativism and political correctness only exist to water down liberty in an effort to make those that aren't willing to think for themselves dependent on those that see value in subjugating the populace. I pray this country wakes up soon and rejects the above notions! ~Jeff Y. Des Moines Hapkido

Rob Beckmann said...

Its always weird to me to see someone’s ideology override their sense of self preservation. Recognizing that people can be screwed up by their environments is one thing, because that’s ultimately a big part of addressing systemic problems if you feel like that’s a cause, but the time to address that is NOT when you feel like you’re in a threatened position. If you’re scared, move! Maybe its the whole being small thing and the near omnipresent “That dude is a lot bigger than me” concerns, or listening to my dad’s horror stories about growing up in the South Side in the 50s, but if I notice people moving in an obvious intercept course, I turn a different direction, preferably toward more lights and people. At worst, they might think you’re weird. Sorry random dude smoking a cigarette with both hands in his pockets, but if you want to talk we can do it by the big group of folks by the restaurant.

I have to attribute Oliver’s essay to trying to bring some rationality to the horror he just experienced...or I hope so for his sake. Even being the bleeding heart leftist I am, treating a mugging like that as anything but violent and wrong, even if you knew for 100% certain of the chain of sad desperate events that possibly led to it (or maybe they’re like their white collar criminal brethren and are just greedy scum that don’t care who they hurt, crazy notion), is just plain wrongheaded. You can’t fix a problem by refusing to acknowledge it as a problem.