wholepeace

There is No Such Thing as an Isolated Incident

In PeaceAble on July 18, 2016 at 8:24 am

Nothing occurs in a vacuum. Life is an ecological system. And in the age of ubiquitous social media we are ever more aware of how events are interconnected.

Whenever something terrible happens we naturally look for causes; but there is a tendency, especially in the current atmosphere of divisiveness, to look for causes that suit our various agendas. And there are some usual suspects for us to assemble: racism, out-of-control police, protesters, “he shouldn’t have resisted, had a gun, had a record,” “she was dressed provocatively,” gun control, lack of gun control, and so on ad infinitum. And as soon as we get enough people to agree that something specific is, indeed, the cause, a chancy prospect at best, then we vow to do something about it; and sometimes something specific to the agreed-upon cause is in fact done. But the problems, of course, aren’t actually solved.

First, let’s try to be honest with ourselves. We have not solved or erased or outgrown or moved into eras of post-anything. Our culture continues to harbor and express deep systemic strains of racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, religious fanaticism, militarism, and economic inequity and oppression. And that is not an exhaustive list. And let us also recognize that these are the diseases of the privileged and the powerful, but the symptoms are most notable in their effect on the disenfranchised and disempowered.

So, when a Muslim gunman shoots up a nightclub that caters to homosexuals and we try to decide if the cause is “radical Islam” or homophobia or mental illness or the American relationship with guns, or whatever; the answer is “YES!”  And when a clearly disturbed white man shoots up a church full of people of color and the pundits weigh in on whether it is properly an instance of mental illness or racism or right-wing Christian fanaticism, or (again) issues of gun control, or a media narrative that is helping to create an atmosphere of violent rhetoric and violent action, or any of a dozen other proposed causes; again the answer is “YES!” What we are seeing are not isolated instances of any one of those things, they are the meeting points of them all, and a whole raft of others that we haven’t even thought of.

And the truth is, I believe, that we all know this. We all know; and our cultural messages through our media and our general behavior confirm it and reinforce it every day. The American culture, as defined by the norms it establishes, is dominated by a white, male, Christian, oligarchic, individualist, and nationalist voice. And all attempts to counter that voice are met with suppression, dismissiveness, deliberate misrepresentation, and polarized divisiveness. Because all of those problems are things that challenge the cultural norm, and cultures are built on power, and power does not yield itself easily, and cultures change only very slowly.

But cultures do change. And they change most rapidly (for good and ill) when the masses of people subject to them begin to make the changes and insist upon them.

But does that mean we should not try to determine proximate causes and correct them? Do we have to say to ourselves that none of this will change until we change the whole culture? Of course not. But is necessary that we be careful not to get too caught up in one or another cause; that we should be careful and deliberate in our analysis of every incident – both major traumatic and catastrophic events and the smaller events of our daily lives – and see the broader picture as well as the immediate exigencies.

Keeping people on a no-fly list from purchasing guns won’t by itself prevent future mass shootings (or at least we won’t really know if it does, since one can’t prove a negative), but without a careful look at the very existence of a no-fly list and its relationship to our collective fear and easy suspicion of the other and the erosion of our basic civil liberties and the reality of the risks and dangers that we face, both from “others” and ourselves, it has the potential to make things worse. What, in other words, will be the cost to all of us if we get it wrong?

Arming police departments like military assault units and deploying them against citizens not only doesn’t solve the problems of violent confrontations, it exacerbates them. “All Lives Matter” isn’t a statement of inclusion and acceptance, it’s a failure to recognize that “Black Lives Matter” identifies a particular area of special need, and it attempts to diminish the very real and special importance of that need, and in doing so it makes the need greater and the problem worse rather than better.

The positive aspect of all this is that cultural change is always within our personal grasp. It is, in fact, the only place it’s ever been. But it requires us to strive consciously to practice every day what we claim to want in the world. Do you want less violence? Avoid the use of violent language, violent metaphors, and even small violent actions. Do you want a more equitable world? Stop holding onto what you don’t need, examine the degree of excess and privilege in your own life and try to spread a bit of it around to others who have less. Do you want us all to “just get along?” Pay attention to how your own actions and language create or encourage or unintentionally support bias, prejudice and discrimination (including in what you find funny or what click bait you chase, for example). Would you like to see a healthier world, the end to the terrible diseases that affect people? Examine where in your own life you choose to support unhealthy practices, and give some of your junk food money to health-focused charities or to support legislation and legislators fighting for better and less expensive heath care. Do you want to reduce the effect of hate in the world? Examine your own feelings of hatred and look inward for compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and love. Ask any question about what change you would like to see and look first at your own life to make those changes.

Once we begin to realize how challenging it can be to make the small but significant changes in our own lives, we can begin to see what needs to be done to bring about those changes in our communities, our nation, and our world. Perhaps we will see that the answers aren’t out there somewhere in the hands of a super hero who has the power to change it all. And perhaps we can see that most of what passes for solutions is at best just using a teaspoon to drain the ocean, and at worst, throwing gasoline on the fire. Because everything is connected, everything makes a difference, there are no isolated incidents and we are neither alone nor powerless.

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