Sunday, November 30, 2014

Black and White Thinking, and Other Things Ferguson

We likely all fall prey to it from time to time – dualistic thinking of the ‘all or nothing’ type. You know, something is either right or it’s wrong. It’s good or it’s bad. Circumstances are either pristinely perfect or they’re an unholy mess. Someone is either with us or against us, friend or foe. Such ‘black and white’ thinking might help us navigate those emotionally stressful situations that arise from time to time, it might even help us make a quick decision that we feel needs to be made, but it doesn’t much help us see the underlying reality of the situation with any clarity. In fact, ‘black and white’ thinking merely preempts our ability to see what’s really going on.

Let’s face it, though, most of the time we’re not all that interested in seeing what’s really going on. Feeling good is what we care most about. And so we gravitate to people who make us feel good about ourselves rather than those who might challenge us to grow in ways that would be healthier for both us and the world. We stay in jobs that provide us with status and material comfort in lieu of accepting work that might be better for our spiritual growth and the planet. We adopt a belief system that bolsters our self-esteem instead of allowing ourselves to see things as they really are. Yes, we feign interest in this thing we call “the truth”. In reality, though, it’s pretty much like Colonel Jessup said in the film A Few Good Men: we can’t handle the truth!

An example of a belief that keeps us from really seeing things as they are is the so-called ‘just world hypothesis’. In the eyes of a ‘just world’ believer people get what they deserve. If someone is poor, it’s because they’re too lazy to get out and find work. If someone is sick, it’s because they didn’t have the discipline to live an active life and eat healthy foods. If someone gets raped, it’s because they drank too much in the company of the wrong type of people, or they dressed provocatively and sent out the wrong vibe. If someone gets shot dead by a police officer, it’s because they were doing something that they shouldn’t have been doing, plain and simple, end of story.

Which brings me to the reaction of some to the killing of an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, Missouri this past August 9, and the unrest that followed both his killing and the decision not to indict the white police officer who cut him down in a hail of gunfire. One needn’t search for long in order to find numerous manifestations of the ‘black and white’ thinking and the ‘just world hypothesis’ of which I speak. The editorial pages and social media platforms and the comments sections below the online news stories are chock full of them. Sure enough, various levels of critical thinking are in evidence in these comments, but if we examine them closely we can see where critical thinking ends and ‘black and white’ thinking and the invocation of the ‘just world hypothesis’ begins.

Sadly, some needed to hear no more than the fact that a black man was shot by a police officer in order to conclude that justice was done. After all, we need to support those who stand for law and order in this increasingly violent world of gangsters and others who hold in contempt all that civilized society holds dear, don’t we? Such commentators would need only pepper their words with a racial epithet in order to remove whatever doubt might exist regarding the true nature of their feelings. Thankfully, the minds of others seemed to have remained open just a little bit longer, until such time as video emerged of Michael Brown appearing to engage in a strong-armed theft of some cigarillos at a convenience store just prior to meeting his demise. Oh, now we see who Michael Brown really was, some were to conclude at that time. He was nothing but a “thug” and now it’s clear that he had it coming to him. Still others were willing to look past Brown’s apparent petty theft in order to focus on what took place during the subsequent altercation between him and the police officer. Darren Wilson claimed that Brown struck him and went for his gun, and the forensic evidence seemed to support what he claimed (although alternative scenarios might also fit the evidence). Nobody can expect to hit a police officer and go for his gun and live to talk about it, can they? Yes, indeed, justice was served, some were to conclude.

Unfortunately, we can also see ‘black and white’ thinking and the ‘just world hypothesis’ being applied during discussion of the protests and rioting and looting that occurred after both the news of the killing and the announcement of the decision not to indict Officer Wilson. The most egregious examples are variations on the theme of considering every single protester to be a rioter and a looter and thereby deserving of whatever heavy-handed and militarized law enforcement retaliation that they might have been met with. So, if someone got wounded by a “rubber bullet” or a teargas projectile…, well, they were looters…, no, they were “domestic terrorists”, and they deserved whatever they got. If someone got arrested for not following the unlawful orders of a police officer…, well, you’ve just got to do whatever a police officer orders, that’s all. We live in a just world, and in a just world if you behave like an animal you get treated like an animal. There’s no reason to look at things any more deeply than that.

And, yet, it really doesn’t take much digging at all for one to discover that the protesters are actually comprised of a very large majority of working class individuals, professionals, students, families, church groups, community organizations, and others who are seeking to communicate their concerns and their frustrations in a non-violent way. Sure, accompanying them on occasion is a minority of others who are either too frustrated to be able to contain their destructive rage or who might actually be looking to engage in a bit of opportunistic looting. However, if we allow ourselves to see this diverse reality, if we allow ourselves to see past the ‘black and white’ conclusions we might be inclined to draw about those “looters” and “domestic terrorists”, then we must also become willing to see that perhaps injustice is being done. Perhaps injustice is being perpetuated. Perhaps we don’t live in a just world after all. Can we handle that truth?

That’s a scary thought, isn’t it – that maybe we don’t really live in a just world after all? For if we don’t really live in a just world, then maybe the good fortune that we enjoy is not really so much deserved as it is the result of a roll of the dice, a grand twist of fate. Maybe we’re just incredibly lucky to have been born into circumstances that made a good education possible, that made employment opportunities possible, that made our hopes and our dreams possible. But what if we’d been born into poverty? What if we’d been born into a neighborhood with terrible schools? What if we’d been born into a situation where people think any number of negative things about us based upon the color of our skin? What if we’d been born into circumstances where the names just keep piling up of all the people that we know who’ve ended up in jail or dead just for trying to do what they felt they had to do to survive?

If we really look at the killing of Michael Brown and its deepest causes, if we really look at the response of the community and the world, and the response of the police and the government, if we can get past our urge to wrap up Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown into a neat little package with a ‘he got what he deserved’ bow on top, then we might actually be able to create something positive from what many perceive as simply the latest case of racial injustice in a long and seemingly endless string of racial injustices. In order to do so, however, we must be willing to handle the truth. And what is the truth? I don’t profess to see it all, but I’ve been paying close enough attention as these past few months have unfolded that I think I see bits and pieces of it.

There is the truth of Michael Brown struggling to graduate from a predominately African-American school district – one troubled to the point of being taken over by the state. There is the truth of the municipality of Ferguson being funded in large measure with money raised from the “crimes of poverty” of its citizenry – the piled up traffic tickets related to the inability to maintain vehicles, for instance. There is the truth of the predominately white government and police force of Ferguson overseeing the civic affairs and the policing of its majority black population, and there is the truth of the tension that resulted therefrom. There is the truth of the long and violent history of racial injustice in this country, and the contemporary truth of episode upon episode in which white police officers are perceived to be perpetuating that injustice via their apparent quickness to use overwhelmingly deadly force against unarmed black men and youth. There is the truth of the community raising its concerns that Darren Wilson would receive preferential consideration given a prosecutor with a perceived history of bias, and there is the truth of these concerns being dismissed out of hand. There is the truth that Darren Wilson did indeed receive preferential treatment in a number of ways*, just as those responsible for past civil and human rights abuses were given special treatment in the white courts of the day. There is the truth that, whether or not Darren Wilson had the law on his side when he pumped a barrage of bullets into Michael Brown’s body, there is still a question in so many people’s minds as to whether he was justified in doing so. Did he need to use force or did he just want to? Was he the provocateur in this deadly altercation? Was he so inept in his handling of this encounter that he bears responsibility for the death of Michael Brown?  Yes, the truth of these open questions (and others) hangs in the psyches of many who know all too well the names of those who’ve fallen victim to the application of overwhelmingly deadly police force, despite the larger white community having forgotten. This is the truth of our nation: that many of its citizens perceive that the apparent quickness to pull the trigger, and the willingness to keep on pulling the trigger, and the willingness of the larger white community to condone the pulling of the trigger, stems from an inherent belief that black lives don’t matter – a belief that is undergirded by the truth of the higher incarceration rates of African-Americans, the sentencing disparities between blacks and whites, and the disparities in the application of capital punishment between blacks and whites.

So, how do we even begin to address this tangle of racial and social issues? Perhaps a good place to start is to focus for a moment on the truth of Michael Brown: that no matter what he might have done he was much, much more than the worst of his deeds. He was a living and breathing human being with family and friends and the desire to be happy and free. He deserved his day in court for whatever wrongdoing he might have been accused of. His life mattered. And the fact that his life was taken away by an employee of the state while acting on our behalf should give us all pause; it should make us curious enough to look closer – much closer than we’ve looked up to this point.

But, but, but…, you might wish to take exception, Michael Brown was ultimately the victim of his very own choices. Perhaps that is the truth; but can you say with certainty that you would never have made the same choices as he did if you were faced with the same circumstances as he was? Is that the truth? Or is it really just the case that you can’t handle the truth?

* Grand jury transcripts reveal that Darren Wilson gave hours of testimony during which he was able to promulgate his explanation of the altercation between he and Brown without adversarial cross-examination. This opportunity to convey his side of the story comes on the heels of him not writing an incident report on the day of the shooting itself, thus providing him with the opportunity to become aware of what evidence existed and to tailor his story to account for it. Furthermore, the grand jury was reported to have been given a document outlining the acceptable application of deadly force that was deemed years ago to have been unconstitutional – thereby falsely lowering the standard by which Wilson’s actions would be judged, and making the decision not to indict just that much more likely. 

Image Credits

Screen shot from the film A Few Good Men manipulated by the author.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? - That Which We Already Know

Chapter Six - That Which We Already Know

Imagine, if you will, that child of tender years that you once were – perhaps four or five or six years old. You’re at a gathering of some sort, with many of your mother’s or your father’s adult friends in attendance, or maybe relatives that you’ve never met before; and as the awkward introductions proceed at least one of the grownups smiles at you and enquires: “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

What would your response have been? Would you have embarked upon delighted imaginings, or begun parroting precocious certainty? Would the question have even made sense to you, or would it have left you instead with a confounded blankness? And me? Well, count me amongst the confounded, for the most part.

Oh sure, I engaged in my share of role-playing fun. As boys did at the time, we played 'Cowboys and Indians' and other war games. From time to time I even dressed up in the Batman costume my mother sewed for me and commenced to pretending that I was as big and strong and smart as the “real” (adult) batman on T.V. When Halloween came around, though, more likely than not I chose to dress up as a hobo.

The author explores ways to manifest his True Self

I’d like to think that that choice of Halloween costume foreshadowed my later appreciation of one of the most highly evolved hobos of all time – the Buddha. To be sure, dressing up as a bum was a fairly popular thing for boys to do back in those days; and, yes, little was required beyond grease penciling a scruffy beard on your face, throwing on one of your father’s big old flannel shirts, and tying a bundle of rags wrapped in a kerchief onto the end of a found stick. That notwithstanding, there does seem to be something telling about my desire to be a hobo.

Do I reveal too much about my adult psyche in saying that – as I drive by one of those still wild places that exist down in the over-grown culverts along the highway or in the odd parcels of land too small or inaccessible to be of commercial value – I think of sitting there in solitude, the quiet observer that I have been for as long as I can remember. I know a little bit of what it is like to be a hobo, I think – to feel that there is little in this so-called civilized world to become attached to – to feel that living amidst the truth of those still wild places, as difficult and insecure as that might be, is better than dying slowly amongst the falseness of this fallen world that we’ve created. Was my knowing this already to the depths of my being what inspired me to dress up as a hobo on those Halloween nights so very long ago?

We so gradually develop the self-awareness of our adult years that we tend to forget those childhood days when we had very little of it at all. When we ask a child what they want to be when they grow up we tend to assume that they have a similarly precisely demarcated and robust sense of self as we do, with the ability to project those aspects of who we think we are into whatever prospective role we might be contemplating in order to determine whether it might be the “right fit”. Children do not yet have the ability to do this in any meaningful way. They are so innately expert at being precisely what they are, with neither effort nor forethought, that the idea of one day choosing what to be is totally foreign to their experience. The world of the child is not yet a collection of puzzle pieces amongst which they must “fit”. No, the developing capacity of self-awareness has not yet taken up the laser beam of the intellect in order to create the myriad separate pieces of the world.

What a child ‘is’ is the totality of everything that they know, their siblings and parents, their friends and neighbors, their home and yard and neighborhood. Like those water turtles that I spoke of back in Chapter One, they settle amongst the flotsam and jetsam of this modern world without judgment or separation. They simply are, and the world simply is, and the two of them are not yet two, although their human karma will one day make it so.

So, what do you want to be when you grow up? The question intrudes into the child's world like a voice calling from someplace far, far away as if to say: You live in oneness now, my child. You have not yet realized the fallenness of this world. You live without wanting to be anything other than precisely what you are, but that cannot last. You must one day learn to be separate from all that is. You must choose what you will be.

Yes, of course, that is the way of the world, and we would be remiss to let our children grow up without contemplating all that is within their power and purview to do and become. The difficulty is that, in doing so, we also tend to foster a sense of separation from all that is – the oneness that is their birthright – the truth that they’ve known all along.

Image References

Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Human Karma Becomes Manifest - That Which We Already Know

With this post I bring to a close Chapter 5 of That Which We Already Know. For those of you who are just happening upon this blog, please note that I am bringing this work to fruition in sequential order and with a minimum of editing being done on previous posts. Each post is written to stand on its own, more or less. That said, I hope you'll consider exploring this work from the beginning. Enjoy!

Chapter 5 (conclusion)

At the moment of our human birth there is no question as to the naturalness of our being. We are each a living, breathing, physical organism arising out of and interacting with this physical world with the totality of our being. But while all the other beings of the animal kingdom remain immersed in their naturalness for the remainder of their lives, we humans are an altogether different animal. We inherit the neurobiology made possible by millions of years of evolution – neurobiology that will eventually give rise to the fully developed self-awareness that makes us stand apart from all of the other animals and the rest of the natural world. We might think of this developing self-awareness in positive terms, as the dawning of the light of our humanness. We might also consider it in negative terms, however, as our descent into the fallenness of our fully mature state of being.

Perhaps it is on account of the latter that we tend to look back on our childhood days with such nostalgia. We were much more firmly rooted in the present back in those days. If not completely carefree, we could at least relinquish those cares with much more ease from moment to moment. We could learn that there are burglars “out there” in one moment, and then we could run off and play without a single care in the world in the next. We could see images on the television of a war raging somewhere “out there” in the world, and then we could run on over to a friend’s house as if we were oblivious to the existence of such darkness. Sure enough, those concerns would return, and many more. After all, we’d only just begun to fall. But it was our orientation toward the present moment that enabled us to return so easily to our gloriously uninhibited and spontaneous childhood state – one of full-functioning engagement with the world.

During those most glorious of childhood days we had just enough self-awareness to keep from tripping over our feet as we ran like the wind down the street. We had just enough self-awareness to know how far up into the tree we could climb without unduly risking falling on our heads. We had just enough self-awareness to keep from burning ourselves on the stove or steering our bikes out into the busy traffic. On the other hand, our burgeoning self-awareness had not yet grown so overwhelming as to distract us from full immersion in whatever activity we were engaged in, or to inhibit us with self-consciousness.

Sooner or later, though, the child must learn to meet the challenges and dangers of the “outside” world, and we adults would be remiss in not helping them along in that regard. And so the list of things for the child to fear keeps growing longer and longer – in part due to the developing child acquiring a more accurate assessment of an already fallen human world, and in part due to an expanding awareness that there is indeed a self to be harmed, and many ways for that harm to be inflicted.

The Buddhist concept of karma makes sense in this regard – not in the sense of some cosmic payback system for all of the good and bad things that we do, but in the sense of created patterns of existence and behavior. There is karma that we share with all living things in that we need to take something from our environment in order to survive. This is the karma that is stored in and expressed by the respective genomes of all living things. There is also karma that only we human beings share: the “hardwired” neurobiology that gives rise to self-awareness, for instance, and the “programmed” karma related to our social mores, myth, and historicity. Similarly, there is the familial karma of shared genetic tendencies overlaid with shared experiences and interpretations that are passed down in story and imitated behavior from generation to generation to generation. Of course, there is also the karma that most of us think of – those idiosyncratic patterns of thought and behavior, whether unconscious in nature or purposefully replicated – stored in our neural networks and in the very muscles that bring it to life.

The children of our Stone Age ancestors had substantially less to learn from their elders when compared to the children of today. Little was required back then in the way of toilet training and personal hygiene, for instance. There was no alphabet to learn or multiplication tables to memorize. There were no schools and no “careers” to prepare for. Learning and work were seamlessly integrated into day to day existence, and day to day existence was seamlessly integrated into the totality of the natural world – just as it was for any other of the animals of the forest. Sure, there were tools to be made – the flint-knapping of spear points, and the carving of needles and fishhooks. Other than a few such notable and uniquely hominid exceptions, however, our Stone Age ancestors hunted in a manner similar to other social predators; they gathered in a manner similar to other foraging animals; they read the seasons and they wandered and roamed similar to other migrating animals. Each and every action grew out of the reality of the natural world. Just as a bird builds its nest in precise fulfillment of its need, with nothing superfluous nor incomplete, so our Stone Age ancestors lived from day to day to day.

Oh, how different life is for we modern humans! How insufficient the sufficiency of the forest has become! How insufficient we have become! With self-awareness has come the nagging sense that we don’t have enough, that we don’t know enough, that we aren’t capable enough – that we are lacking and incomplete. This sense of insufficiency and incompleteness is prominent enough to have earned a central place in Alfred Adler’s very influential theory of Individual Psychology. In Adler’s view, it is the manner in which the developing child deals with these feelings of insufficiency and incompleteness (inferiority) that determines the type of person that she will become.

While our fallen forebears only eventually came to realize their “nakedness” back there in that proverbial Garden of Eden, we modern humans come to realize it all too quickly. With nakedness comes shame and fear of the shame that might be. With nakedness comes fear of harm and insufficiency. With nakedness comes fear that we might lose that which we perceive ourselves having gained, and scheming in order to get that which we fear having to live without. Our nakedness, of course, is simply our human neurobiological karma manifesting self-awareness, blossoming forth from the ground of our being. With burgeoning self-awareness our genetic predispositions become manifest within the social milieu in which we are raised. The fears of our parents and our neighbors and our nation become our own, often keeping us in our fallen state for the remainder of our days. Such is the nature of our karma.

Image References

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Nature's Fan – Girl with a Child by Shu Shen via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank