Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking • For October 1 weekender, 2016
What We See and What We Know
David W. Hegg
Edmund Burke, the 18th century British statesman, is the first one credited with saying “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” It looks like we are rushing to prove him right.
Some years ago I quit playing racquetball for a couple reasons. First, I moved away from both the club I frequented and my playing partners. But I was ready to quit anyway for the second reason. The game had become quite predictable. I became convinced racquetball only has a few dozen situations that are played over and over and over again. After some time, my playing partners and I learned how to address every situation. Simply put, we learned how to face each challenging serve and kill shot, and without the element of surprise, the game ceased to be engaging.
Like racquetball, history has a way of putting us in the same situations over and over and over. And, as Burke so cogently pointed out, if we face each situation as though for the first time, never learning from past experience, we are never going to overcome the challenges each situation poses.
Is it just me or are we seeing the same episodic mini-series being played out in cities across the country starring a law enforcement officer and a black man? What’s going on? And haven’t we learned anything from the previous episodes? Apparently not, because we keep seeing the same outrage, the same inflammatory charges, the same politicizing of the events, and – tragically – the same evidence of our societal loss of moral integrity and neighborly love. Most of all, we continue to see death, and the unrestrained hatred that both fuels it, and is fueled by it.
While there are myriad issues involved in these events that pit police against citizens, and black against white, I want to address one that is common to all of them. In each case, what we see is immediate, while what we actually come to know as fact takes days, weeks, even months to materialize.
As one pundit put it, there is a gap between the optics, and the facts. We see it every time. Someone shoots someone else, and immediately the visual, whether fixed in video, or painted in our minds by those describing the event, fuels outrage. This outrage constructs a narrative that plays well, and forms the basis for protests, movements, political pronouncements, and, sadly, often further violent speech and action.
But hidden behind the outrage is the investigation. Over the course of days and months, the facts are brought forth slowly, without much fanfare. When the facts are in, and the real story is pieced together, it most often overturns the original narrative but no one is listening anymore. Sadly, by that time, we’ve gone on to the next violent event, and believe we are on an unstoppable roller coaster of egregious hatred, prejudice, and violence. Over and over again the optics play better than the truth, and we march on ready to make every new episode fit into the narrative we’ve constructed out of outrage.
There is no denying deep, racial and ideological hatred in our country that is just plain evil. We are a nation of proud and angry people, the combination of which is easily ignited into a flame of violent words and despicable actions. None of us is innocent simply because we are either part of the problem, or not involved enough in the solution.
But it is also true there are those who feed on the violence. They are satisfied with the optics alone because it allows them to craft a narrative to their own liking. This is true on both sides of the racial divide, and it is escalating.
Perhaps we need to be reminded, in America, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Optics may raise ratings, but the sentiment they raise must not become a substitute for truth. In our system, “proof” cannot be public opinion regardless of the optics. We are a nation of laws and must trust the legal process, doing all we can within the bounds of law to make it fair and just for all, if we intend to dwell in peace.
Our nation is plummeting down a steep hill, pushed ever faster by the fuel of seething anger, explosive outrage, and a growing belief that violence is an acceptable response to injustice. It isn’t, but neither is turning our eyes away as injustice continues. We must learn from each situation in order to get back on the right track. After all, we have enough history behind us to learn from, and – hopefully – enough unmade history ahead to insure America will continue to be a place where there is liberty and justice for all.