Swept away on the Tides of Narrative

I made an observation on Twitter about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri this morning, and a helpful reader noted that C.S. Lewis had already expressed the same idea with great eloquence:

There are many different ways for a society (which includes both people and their government) to create the foundations of harmony and prosperity.  In fact, I’d say there’s no single formula, no single combination of elements, that would be adequate for creating and preserving those foundations.  The process is one of constant adjustment and maintenance.  We must forever rediscover what brings us together.  It’s not always a delightful process.

But there’s really only one way things fall apart.  The one crucial element, without which nothing else functions, is goodwill.  I’ve written about this before.  A few more days of goodwill’s absence in Ferguson make its necessity even more obvious.  The rule of law is vital, but that really only functions when goodwill is present in adequate supply.  That minimum dosage of vital goodwill is actually quite modest – a society can function quite well without being any sort of utopia, and one of the fastest ways to burn away goodwill is for a powerful elite to impose utopian visions on a populace it no longer respects.  When the minimal level of goodwill is gone, the rule of law collapses swiftly.

For example, the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” evaporated almost instantly in Ferguson.  As more facts of the case emerge, it’s more clear than ever that the initial “racist white cop shot an innocent black teenager for no reason” storyline was bunk.  It is sadly necessary to pause and explicitly state that this does not absolve Officer Darren Wilson of all wrongdoing.  (We’ll come back to why that’s “sad” in a moment.)  But within a matter of hours, a sizable number of townspeople were willing to discard the rule of law without ever having given it a chance.  It’s not as if this controversy is boiling around a fishy investigation that ground along for months and ended with a “free pass” for the police officer.  This situation blew up before anyone had a chance to investigate anything.  There was no logical reason to expect a whitewash.

The agitators raising hell in Ferguson would doubtless say they don’t trust the racist system to conduct a fair investigation.  Why, the town is 67 percent black, but 50 of its 53 police are white!  This line of thinking, combined with the immediate assumption that a police officer blew a randomly-selected teenager away for no reason at all (or, to use the less aggressive formulation, shot him under circumstances that would have brought a white teenager no bullets) represents the atrophy of essential goodwill I mentioned.  It’s one thing to protest when you feel The System has failed.  It’s another thing to pre-judge The System incapable of success.

This loss of goodwill is not a new problem.  A great Tide of Narrative has swept the original shooting incident out to sea, so that it no longer makes all that much difference to learn that Michael Brown robbed a store not long before he encountered Officer Wilson, or that Officer Wilson’s injuries from his physical altercation with Brown were significant (an “orbital blowout fracture to his eye socket,” according to sources in the police department and District Attorney’s office) or that a sizable number of witnesses have backed up the police account of Brown charging at Wilson.  For many people, we’re past all that now.  Deeper Truths and Social Forces are more important that what Wilson and Brown did during their fateful meeting.

That’s another way of saying that individual responsibility has little place in this discussion.  Brown and Wilson were flotsam heaved upon those Tides of Narrative, puppets manipulated by social forces beyond their ken.  Even the people who want Wilson burned immediately, without trial, aren’t really concerned with his personal responsibility for the shooting; they see him as an avatar of greater forces they despise.  They frown, puzzled and angry, when asked why a six-year veteran of the force would suddenly decide to murder a randomly-selected stranger, based on nothing more than hard feelings over a heated verbal exchange.  They grow angrier when confronting contextual evidence that Brown was not a saintly young man who would never have hurt a fly.  When Brown and Wilson became props in a political drama instead of people, such considerations became annoying distractions.

Reasonable people focused entirely on the incident at hand think it’s essential to understand what both Wilson and Brown did, and they’re ready to give law enforcement time to build  the case.  But when the Tides of Narrative roll in, we are swept far away from those questions of fact and flung into tempestuous questions of meaning, where conclusions have already been reached.  We end up talking past each other, because we have lost the minimal level of goodwill necessary to communicate effectively.  We are no longer extended the goodwill necessary to choose our own words and speak our own minds.  That’s why the angry activists spend so much time insisting they know what everyone really thinks, no matter what they actually say.

That’s why I said it was “sadly necessary” to state that I don’t think Wilson has been completely exonerated by anything the public has learned thus far.  I was in a conversation with a liberal yesterday where merely mentioning that Brown’s involvement in a strong-arm robbery brought the enraged accusation that I wanted him gunned down in the street by Robocop for the crime of shoplifting.  When we hit the point where discussing Brown’s responsibility for his own actions is considered tantamount to reveling in his death, we’re running dangerously low on goodwill far beyond the boundaries of Ferguson, Missouri.

In a similar vein, when a straightforward discussion of the shooting incident in Ferguson escalates swiftly into shouting about Trayvon Martin, Rodney King, the civil-rights movement, and the abolition of slavery, we are allowing the Tides of Narrative to push us apart.  If the response to a simple question about objective fact is a hot stream of historical grievances, people will stop asking the simple questions.  Just as many aspects of Trayvon mythology endure long after George Zimmerman’s trial ended, and there are people who insist on believing Martin was a cherubic waif who was shot down in cold blood for no reason by a kill-crazed “white Hispanic,” there will be people who insist on believing demonstrably false or incomplete things about Michael Brown for years to come.  He’s being presented as a saint, a figure of veneration, by people with vested interests in keeping politically useful narratives pumping.  Even the Washington Redskins football team felt moved to run onto the field of a pre-season game with their arms raised in solidarity to Brown.

But what, exactly, are these people expressing their identification with?  Doesn’t it matter if the story of Brown as a helpless innocent victim of racist police bloodlust, or callous police indifference to the life of black youth, turns out to be wrong?  If Brown was shot while attacking the police officer, rather than plugged in the back while he had his hands raised in surrender, then what the hell are you doing marching around with your hands up?  Shouldn’t you take the responsibility of finding out if such a powerful message is valid before you send it?  People are still getting looted and injured in Ferguson, with a reduced police footprint clearly inadequate to the task of protecting the innocent.  How is it helpful to send messages that make the situation even harder for the people who are trying to restore order?

There goes the last of our goodwill, as young people are told to abandon every vestige of personal responsibility and see themselves as pop-up targets in a white cop’s videogame.  This whole fiction of a White Cop Bloodbath is incredibly toxic, and not just because it’s unfair to the police (although it unquestionably makes their jobs harder.)  It’s demeaning, demoralizing, and dehumanizing to the black youths who choose to believe the story.  At a minimum, it conditions them to believe they have no prospects, no hope of victory in a game rigged against them, no reason to share themselves with a society that institutionally despises them.  At worst, it’s setting them up to emulate behavior that could get them killed.

Easy for me to say, right?  I’m just a middle-aged white guy.  But there we have the last drop of goodwill draining away: the belief that people are unfit to even participate in a discussion, based upon the color of their skin.  That’s called prejudice, and I was raised to believe it is wrong.  Communication cannot occur without the minimal mutual respect of allowing people to speak their minds, and giving them a little benefit of the doubt for good intentions.  I’m talking about a really tiny amount of benefit of the doubt here – just the merest droplet, really.  Nothing more than allowing that everyone who belongs to Group A does not take pleasure from Group B’s suffering.  That’s enough to nourish the first tender sprouts of society and community.

From there, a society can grow strong in countless different ways, very few of them involving anything like “harmony” or “unity.”  We just have to get along.  We just have to agree that the words, deeds, and destiny of individual people matters more than anyone’s political narrative.  We just have to agree that the rule of law matters, even when the outcome is frustrating.  We need to agree that riots, vandalism, and looting are absolutely wrong, and the police should stop them… and also agree that the good people of a community have an individual responsibility to help restore order.  There are many ways to nourish a society, and one sure-fire way to lose it.