Escalation Is Not The Answer
The violence we see on our screens is a symptom, not a cause. By the time people fill the streets protesting, it’s too late.
In the last two days, I’ve seen things escalate. Large masses of people are now confronting teams of police. People are getting hurt, arrested, and driven away. Some drivers are using their cars as weapons against a mob instead of using their brains to navigate around disturbances. I’ve seen people on Twitter encouraging the police or the mob, depending on their politics, to use greater force against the other side.
Yesterday, I wrote about how we must make government officials liable for the intentional miscarriage of their duties, for intentional acts that would deprive another person of their rights. While it is clear that some government officials may act without regard to the rights of the people, making them accountable requires vigilance. In this perilous time, that vigilance is something that most people cannot afford.
While many of us are working one or more jobs, hustling extra money on the side, raising families, or just spending our evenings watching TV, we’re not participating in government. If we don’t participate in government, we will be ruled by our lessers. Then our lessers, at times incompetent people, seize the reins thinking that this is their time to plunder the people by passing acts designed to deprive the people of their rights.
The people rioting in the streets are too late. They are protesting policies that took years to develop and implement. Such policies were put in place without the input of the people who are protesting. This is governing without the consent of the governed.
The people who are protesting now, are not just protesting the death of one man at the hands of a few sociopathic police officers. They are protesting decades of stagnant wages, a constant fear of running out of money, a constant fear of losing their homes, a constant fear of a confrontation with law enforcement, and a fear that they will somehow not get their needs met. They have been groaning for decades under layer upon layer of minor offenses until they could bear no more. And now they’re out in the streets.
I’ve been working from home. I’ve been staying out of harm's way. I’ve seen the videos of drivers charging their cars at people and being mobbed. I’ve seen cops being mobbed. I’ve seen the escalation on both sides, and I know it’s not the answer. Escalation will only lead to more escalation.
While it may be true that the solution is for people to get more involved in government there is something else. There is a certain lack of empathy on both sides. When a police officer trained for battle, trained for confrontation, trained in the art of using force, applies overwhelming force against an unarmed, untrained person, he does so with impunity and without empathy for the person he has sworn to serve. Impunity and empathy cannot exist in the same room together.
I’ve seen substantial evidence that most of the protests are peaceful and that there are only a few instigators of violence. I’ve even seen video of protestors who caught someone instigating violence and they pushed him into the police, who quickly detained the would be saboteur. I’m not totally sure that those who are committing acts of violence share the same concerns as the protesters.
But one thing that I can say for sure is that escalation is not the solution.
As a husband and parent, I know this all too well. I have found that escalation only leads to more escalation. I have made a point to de-escalate when others around me escalate. I have become skilled in removing the wind from the sails of others. I have become the peacekeeper and peacemaker in my family, in my house, and in all of my affairs.
If I feel a disturbance, I find out what disturbs me and I quell that disturbance. If I feel a disturbance within me, I am quick to take responsibility for it. I am sure to keep that power to make myself happy to myself. I have the mental discipline to make myself happy.
My view of the protesters and their antagonists is simple. They both want the other side to change. Those who would use force against another actually believe that if they use enough force, they will get the other person to change. To be generous, this is a misguided approach. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Each side will learn from the other, and with each escalation, rather than learning how to build peace, they will learn how to wage war.
When two parties engage in escalation, there is no empathy between them. One side does not see the other as human. Each side sees the other as adversaries through a red filter. When I see a video of a physical confrontation between people, I see no empathy. I see people who believe that if they applied enough force to the other party, the other party must change.
I have never, ever, seen this work out to be a lasting peace. The defeated party, now subjugated, will always harbor resentments. They may even plot revenge, harboring their plans for years, waiting for the right moment to come. For truly lasting peace, we must share power and collaborate together to solve our problems and to determine our collective fate.
I believe that the rioting, the protests, and the police brutality that gave rise to the former, are behaviors we learned long ago. I believe that much of the unhappiness we see on TV and on our phones comes from what we learned in the home, during our childhood. Those people living out their dramas in the streets are telling the stories of what happened to them. To me, they are telling the stories of the abuse that they sustained at the hands of their parents or caretakers.
I want to use one example from my article yesterday to illustrate my point. In that article, I mentioned the story of a police officer who picked up a five-foot-tall, unarmed and untrained woman clad only in a bathing suit and drove her head-first into the ground, knocking her unconscious and breaking her collarbone. What kind of a man could even think this is an appropriate response to someone else who lacks the capacity to defend herself? I’d say that the police officer in that story has some very real, very dangerous unresolved issues with the way he was brought up by his parents. Somewhere, he learned that it was appropriate to treat another person in a very cruel way.
I’ve had the police at my home. They are usually over 6 feet tall. They are big, they workout, they train, they have a gun holstered on their side. They can be really scary to be around. The bullets in their guns are real. Their strength is real. Their training has prepared them to handle confrontations with dangerous and unreasonable people. When I am around them, I am hopeful that they have done the work of resolving any unfinished business they might have with their parents.
Why is that unfinished business so important? If you’ve even been spanked, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve lived with an alcoholic parent, you know what I’m talking about. When a parent acts crazy, we don't get to have a conversation about it later. When a parent has applied overwhelming force against a child in an effort to extract compliance, the child has no one to talk to. I was thinking of all that when I watched videos of the confrontations between the crowds and the police.
Most parents think that they have to punish their kids to get compliance. Those kids who have been spanked, sat in the corner, subjected to isolation or beaten by their parents, have had first-hand experience with a totalitarian form of government. They have been taught that might makes right. What I’m seeing in the streets could lead to a totalitarian government.
The civil unrest we see today is not the cause. It’s a symptom of a very deeply rooted problem in our culture. It’s a symptom of the mindset that says, “that person deserves to be punished”. As the police officer with his knee on a cuffed and prone man’s neck — he acted like his actions were totally justified like his victim deserved to be treated that way. The moment we begin to believe that punishment is justified is the moment we lose empathy for others, especially the target of our wrath.
I submit that both sides could do better. Police departments could emphasize de-escalation in their training. They could learn the art of negotiation and reducing tension. The protesters could learn about civics and get involved in government. They could run for office and “infiltrate” the government so as to implement policies that give the people room they need to breathe.
What the world needs now is more people who believe that they can meet their needs without doing so at the expense of another person. We need more people who can meet their needs without taking advantage of another person. We need more people who are trained in the skill of empathy.
I believe that a more empathetic and collaborative society is within our reach. I believe that we can be more civilized by practicing collaborative problem solving as a replacement for top-down authoritarian punishment and reward systems. We start with our kids and when they grow up, they will have already mastered collaboration. They will know how to be civilized and humane. They will know that the joy of collaboration is far greater than the fleeting high of imposing their will upon another.
If we want other people to be civilized, we must be civilized. If we want peace, we must be peaceful. The human race is filled with great imitators. All we have to do is be the change we want to see, and let the human tendency to imitate others do the rest.