Photo by Joe Yates
For the most part, what makes a great horror film so scary is not what it shows you, but what it doesn’t.
We are hardwired to fear the unknown, and so the most frightening antagonist is the one that remains in the shadows, its true nature concealed. This is why we’re so afraid of the dark: that which conceals, preventing the unknown from becoming known. The best horror filmmakers understand this. As such, they resist the temptation to create the scariest monster they can and simply put it on screen, thereby rendering it known and limiting its scare potential to the singular, one-size-fits-all product of one filmmaker’s imagination. Instead, they show its devastating effects while veiling their cause, leaving us to fill in the blank with a complex superposition of all the worst things we can imagine.
This is also why there’s comfort in simplicity; even if what we see is horrific. When a problem is veiled by the darkness of complexity, it’s far more frightening. But when we can describe a problem in its entirety using just a few words, we feel like we’ve captured and bound the source of our suffering in something we can easily grasp: a simple idea, solid, immovable and, most importantly, known. Moreover, straightforward problems tend to have similarly straightforward solutions. Whether or not the solution is also easy is beside the point. What matters is that, with a simple problem and solution in hand, we feel oriented. We know where we are, where we must go and how we might get there. Drugs are bad, so they should be banned. Gender is a social construct, so all inequalities in outcome between men and women are the product of sexism. The police are racist, so we should disband them. Such black-and-white views are seductive not because they offer happy descriptions of the world—they obviously don’t—but because, just as a horror film is less frightening when we can see the monster, a problem feels less overwhelming when we believe it to be simple enough such that we fully understand it.
Unfortunately, though, many problems are not so straightforward as a single demon we might slay. If we want the comfort of black-and-white, then, often our only option is to believe a simple lie. Whereas, if we want to fix the problem, we must be willing to see the shades of grey that constitute the complicated, uncomfortable truth.
On the 25th of May, 2020, George Floyd died at the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. The official post-mortem report declared Floyd’s death to be a homicide, with the official cause of death listed as “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression”1. In some ways, the video of what happened to Floyd is even more harrowing than past videos of police shootings. To see an officer make a split-second decision to squeeze the trigger of their gun, thereby killing an unarmed black man, is one thing. But to see Chauvin pressing his knee down upon the neck of the unarmed and restrained Floyd even as he pleads with Chauvin to let him breathe and, later, as he lies unresponsive, is quite another. This was no split-second decision. It was a decision taken and repeatedly affirmed over the course of almost nine minutes. Perhaps this has something to do with why the fallout has been more explosive than any I can remember. Maybe this happened to be the final twist that opened the valve of righteous anger. Most likely, it was a little of both.
While the response to the death of George Floyd has once again brought the vital issues of police brutality, racism and racial injustice to the fore and sparked many peaceful protests across the US and elsewhere, not all of the reaction has been positive. A relatively small number of protestors have turned to violence, many of whom are members of Antifa—an organisation principally made up of privileged white kids who claim to oppose fascism by saying and doing surprisingly fascistic things. The sight of white rioters destroying the property, businesses and livelihoods of innocent people, many of whom are themselves black, and often in the face of opposition from black people, is truly bizarre. But even if you thought such acts were an understandable reaction to what has happened to George Floyd and others like him, we must surely oppose them on pragmatic grounds. Time and again, history has shown us not only that violence is less effective than peaceful protests and other nonviolent measures at achieving positive outcomes, but that it tends to make adverse outcomes more likely. For instance, a recent study2 found that peaceful activism in the 1960s, especially that met by repression from the state or vigilantes, increased the share of votes for Democratic candidates in proximate counties whose platforms tended to emphasise civil rights. Meanwhile, protester-initiated violence tended to shift discourse away from the issue of civil rights and towards matters of law and order, thereby increasing the vote share in proximate counties for Republican candidates whose platforms tended to emphasise social control. If such violence played into the hands of Nixon in ’68, the violence that followed the killing of George Floyd may yet play into the hands of Trump in November. Make no mistake: those of us who took part in or even just supported the rioting acted against the interests of those of us who are black.
As reprehensible and detrimental to racial justice as physical violence is, at least most of us agree on its counter-productiveness. Unfortunately, we appear to be far more blind to counter-productive words, both from others and ourselves. Particularly nauseating has been the self-righteous hectoring that many of us have directed towards those of us who, for whatever reason, have made few to no noises on these issues since the killing of George Floyd on the basis that the only possible explanation for such silence is racism. Those of us who have engaged in this kind of rhetoric in the name of compassion would do well to remember that other people face challenges about which we know nothing, many of which take up enough of their cognitive and emotional bandwidth such that they have none left to devote to causes outside of themselves, no matter how worthy. Sometimes, the best thing we can do for the world is to focus on fixing our corner of it. (Indeed, some of us who have been particularly vocal in recent days might want to give that idea some serious thought.) And even when our lives are going well, we all face a bandwidth problem. The world faces many challenges just as urgent as that of racism, and it isn’t possible to be passionate about them all. For instance, over the past few years, China has rounded up and detained up to 1.5 million Uyghur and other ethnic Muslims in internment camps for “re-education”. When was the last time any of us did anything to challenge this crime? A week ago? A month ago? A year? More likely than not, whether or not we knew about it, we never have. And though awareness of this issue should be much higher than it is, there is an abundance of problems at home and abroad against which we might take a stand. Of course, we should all do what we can to further the issues about which we are passionate if we have the capacity to do so, while also challenging specific wrongs as and when we encounter them. But it’s also true that to stand for everything, all the time, is to stand for nothing. Those of us who have denounced people for not being sufficiently vocal about racism should, therefore, think twice about promoting such a stance. Because, one day, there will be another issue to which we have paid “insufficient” attention. And when that happens, we will rightly hope for the same kindness we denied to those we condemned.
We can find more counter-productive words in the prevalence of well-intentioned, yet overly-simplistic, black-and-white takes on the issues of police brutality, racism and racial injustice, accompanied here in many cases by further self-righteous hectoring directed towards those of us guilty of the crime of being nuanced in public. Such takes are, to some extent, understandable. If acknowledging shades of grey is uncomfortable at the best of times, expressing nuance at a moment in history when righteous anger surrounding the already-radioactive issue of racism is at a peak can be especially costly. But in exchanging the unease and risk that comes with seeing the shades of grey that constitute the truth for the comforting falsehoods of black-and-white problems and solutions, we sacrifice the knowledge we need to make meaningful progress.
A couple of years ago, during an event for which I was in the audience, Sam Harris said something that has stuck with me: that, to live a good life, we must be “increasingly motivated by love and guided by reason.” As cities across America and beyond have descended into chaos and the social media conversation has grown increasingly toxic, the question I have been dwelling on is: what does it mean to be motivated by love and guided by reason right now?
The first part of that question is easier to answer. If the human cost of racism is the suffering it causes for those of us who, almost entirely in the west, aren’t white, then to be motivated by love in this context is to be sufficiently moved by that suffering such that we want to see it eradicated. For those of us unfortunate enough to have experienced such suffering first-hand, this isn’t a tall order. But for those of us who are white and, therefore, significantly less likely to have ever been on the receiving end of racism, the next best thing is to experience the stories of those of us who have. On this point, at least, the overall response to the killing of George Floyd has been pretty good. Of course, we can never fully appreciate what it is like to experience racism first-hand through second-hand experiences. But they’re better than nothing. And without them, the motivational force of love has little with which to work.
What’s more, to be motivated by love is to want to do not what merely seems right, but what is right. So, to be motivated by love is, on some level, to be guided by reason, because reason is how we try to comprehend the stage upon which these stories take place and figure out which actions are most likely to give rise to positive change. This means that, if we want to understand the prevalence, causes and potential solutions to racism, racial injustice and police brutality, it isn’t enough to listen to those of us who are black or, if we are black ourselves, to consult our lived experience, because lived experience makes us the authority on nothing except that experience. To understand the bigger picture, then, we must turn to data.
Data are often accused of being dehumanising. There is some truth to that. The numbers can’t do justice to the suffering that they represent and we ultimately want to remedy. But to dismiss the data on that basis is to make a grave mistake, because the only way to effectively communicate facts about what is happening to a large number of people is to do so quantitatively. And without an understanding of the overall picture of racism, racial injustice and police brutality, any view on how we might make progress will be a shot in the dark.
Questions worth asking of the data might include, among many others:
– How many people do the police kill each year?
– Of those people who are killed, what proportion are unarmed? Black? White, or of some other race?
– How do these numbers compare with the racial composition of the overall population?
– Of the homicides committed each year, what proportion is committed by people of each race?
– What proportion of homicide victims are people of each race?
– What happens to crime rates in black neighbourhoods as levels of police activity increase and decrease?
– How do these numbers differ between black people of different cultures and cultural origins, and what might explain these differences?
– How have these data changed over time?
Asking such questions is difficult, and not just because analysing the data is challenging. It’s difficult because doing so requires that we be willing to confront the unexpected shades of grey that they will inevitably reveal about reality. But if we truly want change, people of all races must be prepared to face the truth in all its complexity. As such, we should be suspicious of any suggestion that our views on what is to be done about racism, racial injustice and police brutality should be determined by those of us who are black. It feels strange to have to point this out, but those of us who are black have a range of views on the prevalence of racism and police brutality, the extent and underlying causes of racial disparities, and what is to be done about it all. That being so, those of us who are white and believe that our views on these issues ought to be determined by those of us who are black will find ourselves confounded at every turn, beginning with our first encounter with a difference of opinion between black people. The idea is workable only for those of us in denial of the diversity of black viewpoints, a denial that arises from the condescending prejudice that those of us who are black all think alike and, therefore, that to know the views of one black person or several is to know the views of all black people.
For the rest of us, then, our only options are to either think for ourselves, or refrain from taking a position on anything to do with racism, racial injustice and police brutality, and instead leave those of us who are black to work out the best way forward. However, should we take the latter of these options, so long as absolute consensus among black people remains out of reach—which is to say, forever—those of us who are white will have no basis upon which to act. That being so, to say that those of us who are white should have no views on these issues is to say that we have no part to play in the fight against racism. Given that the racism we’re talking about is either perpetrated by white people or through structures and contexts over which white people often have a great deal of influence, for those of us who are white to simply stand aside and do nothing would be to guarantee the perpetuation of racism.
So, those of us who are white must make a choice. Do we stand aside and allow those of us who aren’t white to fight the scourge of racism alone? Or do we stand together, and accept that disagreements, even the ones between those of us who are white and those of us who aren’t, are not just acceptable, but can actually be both amicable and productive? If we’re to be motivated by love and guided by reason, there is no choice here.
Which brings us to the most difficult question of all: how can we bring reason and love to bear when so many of us, regardless of the colour of our skin, are in the grip of unreason and perhaps even hate? In answer, all I know is that each of us, as individuals, must apply the forces of love and reason to our corner of the world. That’s not enough. I know that. Though we have made tremendous progress in fighting racism over the past century, much of that progress has been made against its most black-and-white aspects, such as the abolition of Jim Crow laws. Today, for the most part, we are left with racism’s slippery and elusive shades of grey. Positive change, change that brings us closer to a world in which the colour of our skin is as unimportant as the colour of our eyes, requires a critical mass of reason and love that no one of us can achieve. But it’s a start. Because it is not whether we disagree, but how we disagree, that determines whether we are enemies or brothers and sisters. Beyond that, right now… I don’t know.
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