I’m late on this, I suppose, but late is better than never.
It’s awful to see the level of police brutality that exists in the US today. The killing of George Floyd is a really clear example of this. The Minneapolis police showed a clear disregard for the value of human life, in a way which seems impossible to reconcile with my values.
How can this happen? America has a really distinct culture problem. America really strongly expresses values of self-determination and individual freedom, but I think these values trade off in subtle ways against antiracism and it’s going to be a time for a cultural reckoning.
For example, if you deeply believe (or want to believe) that America is a self-determined meritocracy, then you will find it hard to see the myriad ways people get “stuck” in bad places through no fault of their own. Additionally, if you think free speech tops the list of important values, it’s harder to notice when speech harms people - especially on a subtle long-term basis. We can condemn and even ban clearly racist/hateful speech, but we can’t ban the sort of subtly racist, classist, violent stuff that ends up spreading and driving most people’s viewpoints in the long run.
It’s hard to predict, but this really does feel like an inflection point in America’s history, a point where we have the option to come together as a nation and redirect history. Enough people can see that this isn’t the way the world should be, and are motivated to fix it.
The hard part seems to be to agree on what our values should be. This requires making trade-offs, even if such trade-offs aren’t made explicit. The self-determination value is the one I think we are in a great need of re-considering. “Rags to riches” and “the American dream” have been a part of mainstream American culture for a long time, but I think we need to seriously question these memes.
I get the sense that there’s this really strong racial divide – that white and black people in the US view “the American dream” really differently. I don’t know this firsthand, but I sort of project the hopelessness I feel about the racial divide onto what I imagine black people in America must feel, and there’s not much resonance there. (For what it’s worth, I just Googled “black vs white american dream” and sounds like there’s some disagreement about whether or not white vs. black people believe in it more. I suspect there are many arguments we can have about definitions here though.)
Regardless, I’m not here to make a claim about what our values should be, simply to note that it seems like we’re at a point where we may be forced to decide. And I hope we can make some change. If we go up there, to the polls or our city council meetings or protest in the streets, and things don’t change, we’ve failed each other as a nation.
(And yes, I’m aware that the previous sentence has some suggestion of the value of self-determination, by saying that we are collectively all responsible for making change in this nation.)
So, start thinking about cultural values not just as “platitudes” or things to cheer for, but instead as the guiding stars, which will help us choose when there are tough trade-offs in the future.
What should we do? By default, I think that policy debates should not be one-sided. There are probably good arguments for why we should not change things in America. But honestly, this seems like one of the most one-sided policy debates I’ve seen in a long time. We should change the policing system because it’s not serving the public. Why should we not change the policing system? I think the argument in favor is something like, “crime is low and it works well enough” – but from the recent and not-so-recent instances of blatant police brutality, it clearly doesn’t work. I feel pretty convinced. Let’s change the policing system.
I think the Campaign Zero folks are pointed in the right direction. Check it out and show up to your local city council or town meeting. Let’s rebuild the culture of the US, starting with making better policing.