Blame Inflames

Laura Hollis
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Posted: Jul 14, 2016 12:01 AM
Blame Inflames

Why did Micah Johnson, the Dallas sniper responsible for the deaths of five police officers, do what he did? If accounts of his conversations with Dallas police are accurate, Johnson said that he "wanted to kill white people, especially white officers," apparently in retaliation for the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castle in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, at the hands of police officers.

In other words, Johnson murdered innocent people to make them pay for the wrongs of others. That is not justice. It is not even vengeance. It is terrorism.

Johnson's crimes are extreme. But they are not isolated. In December of 2014, New York City police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were shot point-blank by a gunman who claimed on Instagram to be avenging the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Last year, Harris County, Texas, police officer Darren Goforth was shot in the back at a suburban Houston gas station, in what was described as a "coldblooded execution."

Cops know that they are always in the line of fire. But according to a recent story in the Los Angeles Times, police across the country note that social media has changed the dynamic, amplifying public sentiment and often distorting facts to suit a popular narrative. This heightens the risks of retaliation by unstable individuals.

It isn't just public reactions to police conduct that have become more inflamed. The national conversation about race generally has changed, and not for the better.

After the Civil War ended, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were written, public policies focused on prohibiting actual discrimination -- individual conduct or specific policies that deprived blacks and other minorities of equal access and opportunities. Thereafter, the focus expanded to include educational efforts to discourage racist attitudes toward minorities -- feelings and beliefs that lacked any factual basis and perpetuated harmful stereotypes. What these approaches had in common was identifying and (where necessary) sanctioning those who were actually responsible for the conduct, the policies, or the attitudes.

By contrast, more recent theories popularized by America's intelligentsia -- most notably the notion of "privilege" -- focus less on individual culpability and more on some vague notion of collective guilt.

This is a favorite endgame for progressives, who are notoriously fond of downplaying individual responsibility, in favor of focusing on the abuses of "the system." But there are at least three fatal flaws with this mindset:

First, the obvious paradox: No one is responsible for what they themselves do, but somehow, everyone else is responsible for it.

Second, the learned helplessness: Your own behavior and attitudes are completely within your control. Inspiring another person to change his or her behavior or attitudes is do-able, if more challenging. But changing a system is beyond any one person's abilities. The former two create a sense of empowerment; the latter, nothing but frustration.

Third -- and most destructively -- "privilege" theorists often smear large groups of people; attributing to them attitudes, which they do not hold, as well as blaming them for something no one in particular did, or even has control over. This creates resentment and anger, instead of fostering support.

By way of example, if someone says to me, "You have benefitted from an intact family, a safe neighborhood and good quality schools. There are children who do not have these things, and need them," then my response, quite naturally, is, "How can I help?"

Imagine if they say instead, "The system is corrupt and racist, and anyone who benefits from it is corrupt and racist. You have benefitted from it, so you are therefore also corrupt and racist. If you deny that you are racist, that only proves that you are racist." That is a very different conversation. Now, rather than devoting my attention, efforts and abilities to helping anyone less fortunate, I am on my back foot, defending myself against unsubstantiated accusations.

Thus does progressivism's preferred narrative about collective guilt create a widespread sense of frustration in the only two classes of people it acknowledges: the victims, who can control nothing, and the oppressors, who in fact have little more control over the "system" than the victims do, but who are forced to bear all of the public shame, hatred and opprobrium.

Confronted with a faceless "system" that neither truly controls, the false "victims" and the false "oppressors" naturally turn their ire on each other. Meanwhile, the ideologues who have lit the match float above the conflagration, enjoying their detachment, their smug moral superiority, and their political perks.

Anyone with a shred of understanding about human nature, and who truly wanted to make things better, would adjust their approach.

Fortunately, Americans have displayed much more empathy and intuitive understanding in the aftermath of these tragedies than progressives' pet theories would have us believe. At an interfaith prayer service in Dallas, people of all ages and backgrounds lined up to hug police officers. Also in Dallas, a group of Black Lives Matter marchers and an approaching group of counterprotesters decided to meet in the middle, converse, hug and pray for solidarity and peace. Two little girls raised $10,000 with a lemonade stand, and donated the money to the slain officers' families. And in Los Angeles, rappers Snoop Dogg and The Game led a peaceful march of men to "introduce the police department to members of the community it serves," which culminated in a productive and emotional meeting with the Los Angeles mayor and police chief.

Each of these efforts refutes the progressive party line about the lack of individual agency. The best hope for healing the racial divide, as well as any other problems we face as a nation, lies in the acceptance of individual responsibility and the rejection of collective blame.