A friend whose work I admire recently posted a photo on social media. It was of a policeman who had come into to see an art exhibit about the “double pandemic of 2020.” He looked at the expression of the pain of the Black community and wanted to know why police weren’t represented. In the discussion that followed, I offered an opinion, as I am often wont to do.
I actually likened the situation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
No, these issues have nothing to do with each other.
But yes, there is a shared kind of binary thinking going on here.
“That is, articulating one issue (be it wanting change or supporting an entity) is often interpreted as negating the other issue or ‘side,’” I wrote. I added that “positioning any issue as binary gets in the way of seeing how everyone ought to have a single goal. Wanting justice shouldn’t be a zero-sum game or something wanted by just one side. The goal — whether it is the end to discrimination and brutality and unfair treatment under the law or to attain sovereignty and security as a nation — ought to be seen as a shared goal, but instead conflation and defensiveness get in the way.”
In terms of the exhibit itself, I wrote, that “this exhibit is this exhibit. It isn’t another exhibit. Art is visual expression of what the artist is feeling and thinking. No one is obligated to present ‘sides’ within the framework of expression or reflection.” I think about this often, that is, that no one story is everyone’s story just as no one facet of a human being is the only defining part of any individual.
I tried to bring both these thoughts and several others together in a blog called Embracing complexity, and I do recommend taking a look at it and at the other content it links to, but for the purpose of today, I’d like to put aside the related issues of binary thinking, and conflation and focus solely on the issue of shared goals.
Do we want a society where all citizens are treated fairly by police, the courts, teachers, doctors, realtors, etc.? Shouldn’t that be a goal of us all?
And if it is, wouldn’t it behoove professionals to better understand the biases they as individuals and the systems they work within propagate? For that to happen, not only must people admit that consciously or not, their thoughts and behaviors may not be fair. For that to happen, they must understand that they cannot get caught up in taking it personally and getting defensive. Admitting our society which is made up of people who create laws, enforce them, live within them – does not treat everyone fairly should not be a roadblock. Wanting to make this world a better place, not only for ourselves, but for others, ought to be a shared goal.
And so we get back to this horrific framing of situations as Black vs. police or Israelis vs. Palestinians. When you posit issues as oppositional based on the people involved, there is no way forward. But when you define your goals as issues that concern all people, such as justice and equality or as sovereignty and security, and you decide that your focus should be on achieving them, then you can begin to attack the problems and not each other. You can begin to find solutions to some very disturbing inequities.
For this to happen, even those who benefit from the status quo must understand that benefiting at the expense of someone else is simply wrong. Neither should every man be an island nor should he be out for himself. Let’s instead think of ourselves as sharing a boat. If we want it to get somewhere, we must row together and in the same direction.
Only by recognizing our common goals can we redirect energy that has been focused on distancing ourselves from one another towards achieving something better for us all. Otherwise we may find ourselves sinking where we are…