Yes, all lives matter, and yes, “all lives matter” is an ill-considered and ignorant response to the cry of pain that is the black lives matter movement. Yes, capitalism is destroying our environment, creating inequality and condemning billions to meaningless labour and desperate poverty in the midst of an unprecedented availability of food and commercial goods. And yes, capitalism has raised billions out of poverty, increased food production, invented new medicines, provided freedom and meaningful social roles for millions of people and solved countless material struggles. Quite often, the people on both sides of an argument are absolutely right about most of their claims. The world is complex enough to provide valid and defensible evidence for seemingly contradictory positions. It has taken me half a lifetime of reading, talking, travelling and observing the workings of my own mind to really understand this in my bones. The world has more relationships, both seen and unseen, than any theory of the world could ever have. Our models will always be partial and the world will always go on being the world, undermining and outpacing different aspects of our attempts to understand it. Our greatest social and political problem today is our commitment to our personal models of the world — our desire to be right at the expense of productive dialogue with people who see things differently. We need to model our world in order to make decisions, but instead of trying to shout down opposing models, we should think of these clashes as opportunities to add detail and intricacy to our own models of the world. Getting to sit down and really talk with someone who has a completely alien worldview is a stroke of good luck, a rare and engaging experience not unlike travelling to a distant land. But it’s easy to get off on the wrong foot and end up bickering. The first question to ask yourself is whether or not you could summarize your opponent’s view in a way that they would agree with. Can you could state their position without a trace of sarcasm, without belittling or demeaning their view? If you cannot, then ask more questions. If you can, then you have the starting point for a discussion. When disagreements inevitably begin, the easiest adjustment to make is to simply say ‘Yes, but it’s also like this’ rather than ‘No, it’s like this.’ ‘Yes, police are doing a difficult and dangerous job, but they also fuck up badly sometimes and many people live in fear of those who ought to be protecting them.’ If you have strong opinions on political issues — which you should, because the world needs passionate people to bring about change — you will likely find yourself disagreeing with some of the things I say here. You will think ‘God, you’re so wrong, it’s not like that at all.’ But just for a moment, try to entertain the possibility that I am partly right and really listen to what I have to say. We can talk about the details later.
Whether or not this rush to intractable disagreement is anything new is hard to say. Some commentators have blamed it on the media. Certainly the ‘sound bite’ culture makes nuance and complexity difficult — simpler models of the world are going to have more trouble finding common ground. In his famous appearance on Crossfire, Jon Stewart called out the show’s hosts for turning what should be reasoned public dialogue into drama. Not every discussion needs to be an argument. Carrying on the Daily Show’s proud tradition of saying obvious things that everyone else on T.V. seems incapable of even considering, Trevor Noah recently made the bold claim that you can support the police AND the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time!
The reason that you can simultaneously support and critique the police is that nothing in our world is monolithic. For example, people on both the left and the right claim to be opposed to the state. And governments do cause many problems, so there is plenty of evidence that those opposed to the state can appeal to, but governments do a lot of good as well. Even within individual ministries or federal agencies there are disagreements between managers, between politicians and bureaucrats, between those who want to make change and those who want to go home right at five whenever possible. The “government” is rarely the enemy, individual policies or practices should be the focus of our ire. Inside every police department there are good and bad officers and inside of every police officer there are good and bad tendencies. Even individual tendencies can be good and bad in different circumstances — solidarity amongst officers can carry them through difficult situations that they might not be able to face alone but it can also create an uncooperative wall that hinders efforts to correct or expel bad officers. The same is true of religions and cultural groups and capitalism and political parties and unions. Having a view that any large institution or social force is either purely good or purely bad is almost certainly wrong, because everything is riddled with good and bad, in the same way that our own bodies are a precarious struggle between vital energy and impending collapse.
On issue after issue, we have a tendency to sort different facts together into opposing models of a problem and then try to deny or downplay the facts that support the model that we disagree with, rather than doing the hard work of developing a more complex model that can account for both sets of facts. Generally, the core beliefs of people on both sides of any debate are correct. For example, Israel really is allowing the ongoing oppression of a poor and powerless community and it really is under assault by extremists who will not compromise. Denying either of those claims will quickly cause some people to stop listening to you. And if we stop listening to each other, it will be difficult to make progress on complex and challenging problems. Instead of smashing our superficial models of social problems against each other repeatedly, we have to look at the finer grain details, consider the day-to-day lives of people on both sides of the conflict. Do ordinary Palestinians actually support their extremist leaders? Or do they fear them? If they support them, why do they support them? It is pointless to argue that these extremists shouldn’t exist — because they do. Instead, we have to understand how they gain and hold power. Similarly we must look honestly at the actual conditions in which ordinary Palestinians live. Is there a path to peaceful and enriching lives available to them? If not, why not? How can we improve their lives? No high-level model of the situation can possibly account for the different views, habits and histories of so many different individuals in Israel and in Palestine, let alone the fact that any given individual probably feels different things at different times on the same day. Instead, we should start considering which small actions set a few individuals on a path towards peace and which cause people to double-down and entrench themselves. I certainly don’t know enough about the daily lives of all these millions of people to have a firm opinion on what needs to change, but I do know that the solution will be complex, not simple, and that anyone who is 100% convinced that they understand the whole problem is more likely to hinder than advance progress.
Atheists are right about some things and their criticism of dogmatism is spot on, but some evangelic atheists also fail to see that religion provides many people with a meaningful and absolutely accurate way of understanding the miracle and complexity of existence. Religious fundamentalism will only grow stronger and more dangerous in the face of arrogant proclamations that God doesn’t exist. Religious people will have more chance of convincing atheists of the value of their position if they stop labeling atheists as inherently immoral and atheists will have a better chance of opening dialogue with the religious if they can say ‘I see how these practices and beliefs are meaningful to you, but this particular aspect of your worldview leaves you vulnerable to being led astray by a charismatic preacher.’ All of us are trying to make sense of the world as best we can based on the evidence of our experiences — if we try to deny something that another person has seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands we will only convince them to stop listening.
North American police departments are violent and terrifying and they expend too much energy protecting dangerous, racist officers and too little energy working to reform themselves AND they are also a necessary social institution filled with good people who are risking their lives and genuinely trying to make our world a better place. Instead of arguing about whether policing as a whole is good or bad we should start publicly examining the day-to-day complexities of policing. I don’t know enough about what goes on in police departments to offer any solutions, but I do know that I learn more about the issue from an article like this which makes concrete and nuanced points about the internal politics of police departments than I have from op-eds and Facebook posts defending or critiquing the police as a whole. Did the officer in this particular shooting have a history of excessive force or poor-decision making? Is there any pattern across police shootings? Could these problems be corrected through training or discipline policies or different hiring practices? Which officers are doing a difficult job with composure and skill and how can we replicate their practices? Could social workers be sent to some emergency calls instead of armed officers? THESE are the discussions we should be having in public and in the media and yet here we are arguing about whether or not ‘all lives matter’ at a moment when public attention is finally focused on this long-standing and devastating problem. (Primarily because people decided to say ‘all lives matter’ instead of hearing the black lives matter message and taking small concrete actions that made sense to them).
Terrorism is a real problem that is tearing societies apart AND it is statistically irrelevant compared to deaths from traffic accidents or disease or poor nutrition. The vast majority of Muslims are good caring people who love their families and cities and enjoy jokes and movies and looking at sunsets AND it is possible that religious fundamentalism and stigmas about mental health in pockets of the Muslim community are allowing extremist views to spread from one mentally disturbed individual to another. On this issue, and other issues I have discussed here, I fully admit my own ignorance of the day to day lives of Muslims. My point is that if we want to talk about terrorism, we have to look at individual cases and patterns which develop out of them, rather than trying to make pointless claims about Islam as a whole or Muslims as a group. Why did this specific individual find Islamic extremism appealing? To say that the Muslim community is capable of harbouring terrorists is not to say that the white or Christian or secular community is not. Similarly it is possible to consider radical Islam as a possible source of terrorism without ruling out oppression, inequality or mental health problems as additional causes. People often argue that terrorism is always a mental health issue or always the result of hateful preaching or historical oppression or social isolation. In all likelihood, each terrorist act has a unique and complex mixture of these different causes at its heart. We must take seriously the question of how these attacks come about, just as we must take seriously the question of how police violence actually occurs. Were the terrorists disturbed and socially excluded before or because of their contact with extremist ideas? Did they have mental health issues that went undiagnosed? If so, was it because of cultural forces or a failure of the state-sanctioned mental health system? Or both? This Danish police force is attempting to fight terrorism by contacting potential extremists and giving them help with their day-to-day lives, rather than labeling them, tracking them and curtailing their freedoms. If we disagree with such a program, can we try to rephrase our disagreement as ‘Yes, but they should also be contacting and assisting isolated and aggressive Christian teenagers’ or ‘Yes, but we should also be preventing these youths from going abroad?’
Terrorists and fascists are the extreme caricatures of the simplistic mind-states I am attempting to critique here and we can see how they both manage only to strengthen their own enemies. Every time a terrorist bombs a market, they increase military funding across the globe and increase public support for those who want to root out terrorism with torture and further violence. Every time the United States bombs a funeral or tortures a brother or father, they only succeed in creating ten more terrorists somewhere in the not too distant future. Every time a racist idiot tells a mother or aunt or sister to go back where they came from, they only increase the anger and isolation pushing that woman and her family members to lash out. The same vicious cycle exists between black bloc protesters who hope to weaken the police state by smashing windows and the belligerent officers who want to teach those damn hippies a lesson by busting a few skulls. When we are wounded, we fight back and when we are treated kindly we look and listen with wonder and curiosity. When someone attacks our core beliefs, we get defensive. When someone genuinely tries to understand our perspective, we are more likely to admit our own uncertainties.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for political protest or speaking truth to power. Protest is important to bring attention or urgency to a neglected issue. But those who are serious about making change rather than just exercising their own righteousness should also think about how to improve dialogue and make nuanced progress after the protest is over. Shouting might get a conversation started, but it will never resolve it.
In Part II, we will take a look at how we can talk to one another in a way that leaves space for people on both sides of a discussion to be right about some things while also beginning to see for themselves where they might have gone wrong.