Focus, part 1

Despite this largely being a photography blog, the ‘focus’ of this topic is mental, regarding critical-thinking, and so for that I apologize. I started this some time back when some of the events were ‘current,’ (for whatever applies to the webbernets-influenced definition of that,) and then left it off because things were changing so rapidly. That, and the fact that I cannot write about most of this without getting seriously annoyed and despondent about humanity. But I regret letting it slide, and it still needs to be said, or at least, I need to say it, for my own sake – call it armchair activism if you like; if you have a method of reaching a bigger audience that’ll work for me, let me know.

Second, I know I avowed some time back that I would not get political on this site, and depending on your viewpoint, this may be going back on that promise. If you consider ‘political’ to mean, ‘regarding any form of government or voter stance or activities,’ then no, it will not be. If you consider it to mean, ‘social behaviors and cultural hotbuttons,’ then yes, it will, but that definition can be applied at will to just about anything, if you’re so inclined, so I don’t care about definitions like that anyway. I just wanted to throw out some thoughts, in the vague chance that it might cause someone to pause and ponder a little bit.

When I started writing this, protests across the country were turning into riots and/or looting following the death of George Floyd during his arrest, and the same protests soon became widespread vandalism of statues, a saga that itself has been going on for a few years now, including only a few kilometers away from me here at UNC Chapel Hill when ‘Silent Sam’ was torn down by activists. At this point in time, it now has become ‘Woke’ activism over anything that, so it appears, anyone might find the slightest bit offensive, regardless of whether A) someone can be considered even remotely affected by said offense, and B) the actual potential for harm of any kind. This is why the posts are being split into multiple parts.

Right now I’m going to address the death of George Floyd and some of the reactions, because this is rife with everything from unwarranted assumptions to outright stupidity.

Let’s start with, Trial By Media. We’ve been seeing this for years now, and to put it at its mildest, it’s something we shouldn’t even be slightly engaged within. When the video of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck was paraded around, this was enough to set off countless thousands of people who were entirely convinced of not just the guilt of Chauvin, but the intent of the action, the racism of said officer (because Floyd was black, Chauvin white,) and the inherent racism in, and I’m not kidding here, all police forces across the country. The irony here is going to be sharply displayed very shortly.

I am coming right out and saying that the death of anyone in police custody, save for self-inflicted, is evidence of improper conduct; it doesn’t matter who. Officers are supposed to have both the resources and the training to avoid such things. At the same time, accidents happens, coincidences (such as a heart condition being aggravated) happen, and most especially, initial impressions can be wildly mistaken. This is why, after decades of such issues, we have established trial procedures to become cognizant of all of the details and circumstances; a minute of video is nowhere near adequate enough to base any decisions on whatsoever. People want to believe what they see with their own eyes, and are supremely reluctant to accept that A) what they didn’t see is also germane, and B) they’re almost guaranteed to be lending their own interpretations to what they saw in the first place. That’s why we want, need, to get all of the facts, all of the accounts, and follow the proper procedures.

And we were and are: the officer in question was both fired from the force and charged with 2nd degree murder, and these were plainly in evidence right from the start. We should not and can not abandon these practices at any point in time, no matter how angry anyone gets. Our justice system plays out slowly, and admittedly not always accurately, but abandoning it is certainly no substitute, and neither is lynching.

The second part of this equation is the error of trusting the media, or making any assumptions whatsoever about their lack of bias, accurate representations, and so on. The media exists to make money, and this is done by drawing eyes to screens, and often this is accomplished by intentionally stirring up controversy. While numerous people can point to how often a black person dies in police custody, not one of them can give the subsequent numbers of any other ethnic group, the number of arrests, the number of violent and resistant reactions,… – in short, they have no idea whether any kind of trend is present or not, much less what the causative factors of any such (undetermined) trend might be. Studies of such things have to take countless pertinent factors into account before offering even tentative conclusions, and it’s safe to say that we have none of that at hand right now – much less can glean it from any given news report. While our media can be extremely useful in bringing important things to our attention, it can be abysmally bad at it too, and should only serve as the impetus to gain more information. Full stop.

Moreover, media attention is very good at fostering an inaccurate impression of any given event or potential trend. There are a few thousand arrests that take place every day in this country – two occurrences of any behavior within a month or so isn’t exactly statistically significant.

Presumption of Intention. We’re not even sure (because, as of this writing, the trial has not begun so the evidence has not been presented) that Chauvin’s actions were the sole or primary cause of Floyd’s death, but most especially, we don’t know that it was in any way intentional, or even semi-accidental (the officer using more force than necessary from having any form of bias.) And to be blunt, intent can be a very hard thing to prove, especially since police officers must, frequently, use forceful restraint against suspects or perpetrators. While there is a subset of the (large and diverse) group of protestors that believe officers should never have to use that kind of ‘violence,’ I’m happy to call this ludicrous and inexcusably naïve – the moment someone starts exhibiting uncontrolled and violent behavior, ignoring their actions is simply putting others at risk, including the officers themselves. Regardless, we are nowhere near establishing that Chauvin had any particular intent or bias in his actions.

Nor is it likely that the trial will be able to answer such questions, or will even try. The charge of 2nd degree murder only seeks to establish that the act was intentional and not a necessary part of police actions – it has nothing to do with why or whether this is common. While evidence presented may support or deny the idea that Chauvin was biased in any way, that will only be in direct relation to his guilt or acquittal on this particular charge. Determining, for instance, that the Minneapolis Police Department is rife with such things, or even knew of Chauvin’s potential bias and ignored it, is way beyond the scope of any such trial, and requires an entirely different sort of investigation. Expecting anything else from the trial is unrealistic.

People are complicated, as any psychologist or therapist knows, and determining root causes of behavior is exceptionally difficult, in many ways impossible – this is something that way too few people understand, instead (somehow) believing that personalities can be determined by offhand comments, forum posts, or the use of expletives. But there are no shortcuts in this area, and no simple guidelines or ‘key indicators’ – that’s utter nonsense. Having any kind of confidence in any conclusion regarding anyone’s personality is, bluntly, stupid.

[This seems like a good point to throw this in here: Personally, I am not a fan of police officers in general. I’ve seen far too many that weren’t very competent, that were far too full of themselves and their authority, that made countless excuses for not doing the actions that they could and were expected of them, and so on. I’m firmly of the belief that police institutions can stand a much better evaluative process for officers to begin with, but definitely should have a hell of a lot more emphasis on critical thinking at the very least, and more frequent evaluations of performance. Yet, most of this comes from my personal experience, which is a really shitty set of guidelines, but much more pertinently, my bias in no way reflects how any particular action of any officer should be judged. The only way we could possibly know if I’m right or wrong – whatever degree of accuracy or lack thereof – is by seeking hard evidence and viewing it, all of it, with reason.]

Extrapolating events into a larger problem. Now we’re into the inexcusably ludicrous territory. There really are far too many people who believe that a black man dying at the hands of a white officer is evidence of ‘systemic racism,’ and the problem with ‘police’ (as if this is a cohesive entity,) and on and on. All of this is incredibly ignorant horseshit.

To start with, there is no cohesiveness to police, even within any given county, much less nationwide. Police forces are extremely local, even down to wide differences between precincts, and overseen only by very local authorities such as police captains and, perhaps, county commissioners (in my experience, most of those have no interest in even monitoring the police departments under their purview.) City police, county police, state police, sheriff’s departments, highway patrol – they’re all separate entities with little communication and no overriding authority. Even if we could establish that, for instance, a county sheriff’s department was run under a banner of overt racism, it’s unlikely that everyone connected with such would never reveal this, but regardless, this has no impact whatsoever on any other police force within even the same county, much less across the entire fucking nation. Some of these concepts are so horrifically stupid as to make us ponder what brain-dead fuckwit could possibly believe them.

Also note that the assumption that ‘police’ is an entity united in habits, behavior, or outlook is, essentially, racism. Though it’s not an ethnic group, the belief that everyone within a certain demographic exhibits the same traits remains exactly the same thing. If we want to eradicate prejudice and bias, we certainly have to recognize it every place it exists, and not practice it in demonstration of total fucking hypocrisy.

That leads to ‘racism’ isn’t a firmly defined concept. Countless people would try to argue this, but I contend that you couldn’t even get two of them to agree – we don’t even have a decent definition of ‘race’ to start with. Worse, far too many people believe it exists as a binary state: you’re either racist or you’re not. But again, people are complicated, and exhibit biases in every facet of their lives – all of us. I’m not denying that prejudices against black people exist, and far too much, but this is often defined at will, with little consistency and little recognition of the bare facts. There are degrees of bias, huge grey areas with difficult-to-establish boundaries, and it’s ludicrous to try to conflate someone that believes there’s more crime in black neighborhoods with someone that would lynch a black person if they thought they could get away with it. It’s easy to say that neither one is acceptable, but A) addressing them effectively would require radically different approaches, and B) one of them might at times be supported by the bare facts.

Which is where you run into the asinine concept that even pointing this out is considered racist, as if A) this is a judgment on everyone within a given race, and B) anyone in the fucking world could be considered completely innocent. There’s an interesting (read: stupid) dichotomy here, in that black people (or any given ethnic distinction that you like) can widely be considered victims of their circumstances, but white people are guilty of theirs – this is exemplified in the oft-repeated “systemic racism” and “white male privilege” accusations. It is amply demonstrated in the Floyd/Chauvin case where a white officer that was responsible for the death of a black suspect must be racist, because there’s no other possible explanation. Is it the same when a black officer is involved in the death of a black suspect, or a white one? Is it the same when any black person kills another? How are these distinctions being defined, and are the rules consistent throughout all circumstances? And if not, why not?

The hypocrisy of far too many activists starts to become apparent when we ask pertinent questions, because the entire goal of eradicating racism/prejudice/bias is that we don’t even pay attention to skin color/ethnicity/nationality/gender/et cetera. Yet in order to make the accusations that are being leveled, they not only have to see these distinctions as primary and overriding, but assume that everyone else is, too. In many cases, they have to assume that their chosen victimized class is either innocent of any wrongdoing, or ‘driven to it’ by, again, some privileged class. It is remarkably similar to the parent that automatically blames the teachers when their child isn’t doing well in school. And in case my point isn’t being made clearly enough, these automatic assumptions are racism themselves – or, since we don’t have a good definition of that, we’ll go with unwarranted prejudice. Doesn’t matter – it’s still hugely hypocritical. But let me say it again: it is just as racist to assume there is a ‘white male privilege’ as to assume that there is a ‘black criminal tendency.’

Determining the bare facts first, and recognizing that these can apply only to a given individual, might actually be a worthwhile practice before pronouncing any kind of judgment. Chauvin might be revealed to be a virulent white supremacist – or he may be found to be over-excitable, or exercise bad judgment, or innocent of all charges because Floyd died from circumstances other than his arrest (a broad clue here is that, if you can’t breathe, you can’t keep repeating that you can’t breathe, because that takes breath.) We won’t know until we at least get to see the evidence presented. That’s the requirement of being both rational and responsible. Moreover, the verdict will tell us only about Chauvin himself, and nothing at all about anyone else, any institution, any culture, any systemic whatsis.

But here’s the unfortunate aspect: if Chauvin is found guilty, countless assholes will feel completely justified in their pronouncements, secure in the fact that ‘they called it’ and never recognizing that they never bothered to even consider the other possibilities. Should anything less than a full conviction occur – and remember, this is a 2nd degree murder charge implying willful intent, not accidental death or criminal negligence – countless thousands of people will insist that ‘justice’ was never served, deny that they were dead wrong about the situation, and continue to believe that ‘the system’ is inherently racist (as if there’s any aspect whatsoever in our lives that we could put down to ‘the system.’) It’s extremely likely that there could be riots. And while it indeed remains possible that the practices of the trial, of seeking justice, were or are flawed, I’ll bet heavily that very, very few people who decide to take action would ever bother to confirm that it was, or how.

More on that aspect in part 2.