“Does shoutin’ bring about change? I doubt it.
All shoutin’ does is make … you … lose … your … voice.”
~ from Fishin’ 4 Religion by Arrested Development
There’s a lot of shouting going on in America right now. And as with so many hot button issues, both sides are right, both sides are becoming increasingly shrill in their screaming, and both sides are talking right past the other … because maybe they aren’t looking at the same things.
What follows is the product of watching a deeply frustrated African-American community interact with a increasingly pressurized law enforcement community (which in many ways serves as a surrogate for an Anglo-dominated power structure), but the myths that fuel that conflict seem to fuel a great many conflicts in the United States.
The myths themselves are tedious and really quite boring. Instead, here are two truisms that would serve us all when our goal is to accomplish change rather than stoke the adrenaline of our rage.
- The use of power, force, or leverage is inherently oppositional. It only works on an enemy with whom you are not seeking peace, but domination or detente. The application of power, force, or leverage makes either enemies or victims of the people upon whom it is used.
- Justice is only justice when it does not create an injustice in someone else’s world. The only exception to this is when someone else absorbs an injustice as an expression of love on behalf of the person who benefits from the injustice. Otherwise, it’s just revenge or theft.
It’s too early to know how things will settle out with the current racial and law enforcement conflicts, but the wounded hearts of people engaged in (or too frustrated to bother with) conflicts like abortion, religious freedoms, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and a host of other polarized and recalcitrant American battles may well have been spared if these simple truisms had been added to their letterhead. Maybe it’s not too late to add them to today’s kerfuffle.
Assuming people of goodwill from both sides of today’s conflict are less interested in digging trenches than blazing a new trail together, three words may be of some value in their thinking.
The first word to explore in healing today’s conflict: margin.
The speed limit says 55, but you know you won’t get pulled over until you’re driving at least 63. That 8 miles per hour is the margin between the letter of the law and the reality of its application.
Another word for that margin is grace. As in a grace period between a payment’s due date and when an extra fee is assigned. Straight justice is the letter of the law, without margin. The extra 8 miles per hour, a grace, is technically an injustice absorbed or tolerated in the practical application of the law, as practiced by law enforcement professionals.
There are other realities in our world where the person who may experience the consequence is the one who extends the grace or offers the margin. Consider a downed power line as an example. We may be able to walk right up to it without a punitive consequence, but most of us know it’s wiser to give up some ground as we walk around the danger.
There is something intuitively correct about some level of margin existing. No doubt grace or margins are less perfect and produce lower efficiencies than systems that run with tighter tolerances, but consequences are vastly less efficient still. It may be a worth while discussion to compare the levels of grace and consequence – and the resulting latitudes and efficiencies – of our culture to options around the world.
Here’s where it gets trickier, though. Margins look different for different people and different situations. The application of email server rules being a current example with Hillary Clinton. It has always been thus, and probably should be. After all, the letter of the law must necessarily be the most conservative, lowest common denominator rule in a society where the lawmakers agree to shoulder a paternalistic burden for the well-being of the people (it’s worth noting that this burden is less something American leadership seeks out than it is something the history of humanity has pleaded for … from the first laws, priests, judges, kings and senates to every cultural norm along the way, the history of humanity is the history of us putting something, anything, between ourselves and God or our sense of accountability for how we spend our mortal existence).
In a society where margins and grace are pooled, understood, determined, managed, and received to varying degrees by different people for the sake of some collective benefit, it should be no surprise that there are variations in the way rules and margins are navigated. And it would be somewhere between naive and suicidal for a society to urge otherwise.
But margins and the distribution of grace bring up the value America claims to prize above all else, and that’s the second word the parties in today’s conflict may want to explore together.
The second word to explore in healing today’s conflict: freedom.
One way of thinking about freedom is to think about a person’s range of prerogative. A driver’s prerogative, or freedom, is the 55 miles per hour they may travel according to the letter of the law, plus the margin or grace allowed them before consequences reign in their prerogative.
Hillary Clinton has greater freedom than many other people have.
And today, many people would argue that black people have less freedom than white people.
What’s at issue is not the codified laws – the first 55 mph.
What’s at issue, with Secretary Clinton and with the everyday American, has to do with the way the margins are managed.
If you’re told you’re safe driving 63 mph, and if you see others moving freely at that speed, and if most of the time you also have no problem moving with traffic, it’s reasonable to expect to travel that way. But if, to your surprise, you get pulled over and issued a full ticket at 55, things will change for you. Suddenly the grace has been stripped from you, and the burden of margin management has been thrust back into your lap. When, being the wise and realistic person you are, you slow to a cushion below that speed, your effective, credible freedom is smaller by the difference between your safe traveling speed and the speed others experience.
It’s not justice that hurts. It’s the experience of expecting and trusting that the margin will live on one side of the law, and then getting zapped. It is the experience of a known and assumedfreedom being taken away.
Civil disObedience Idea: What if, as a way of communicating "We don't trust the margin," people drove exactly the speed limit and followed all traffic laws precisely? What if they engaged other aspects of our society to the letter of the law, highlighting how much we depend on grace to make our lives flow?
We should expect Hillary Clinton to have greater margins and greater effective freedoms than the average citizen; our system is built that way. If she was belligerent or irresponsible in the way she appropriated those freedoms – if she leveraged those freedoms against the people who extended those freedoms to her – then she created an oppositional dynamic and an injustice against the people that our system must either agree or refuse to absorb.
The same is true for each of us. Our system promises a guaranteed minimum – a 55 mph baseline of freedom in our lives – and while there are times when that minimum is not met, the system is arguably pretty good at making efforts to keep its end of the bargain. Where the system gets very slippery, though, is in the application of margin and grace. And we get very confused when we try to figure out and argue for our dose of margin and grace.
Because here’s the thing. Justice, as reflected in the guaranteed minimum, may not be blind, but it has to sit pretty darned close to the television. But grace, and the resulting distribution of effective freedom, is far more dependent on the wide eyes of its emissaries. And that, from Secretary Clinton to you or me, means we’ll be exactly as free as the filters grace’s representatives arrive with, and what they make of us when we influence their perceptions.
The third word to explore in healing today’s conflict: ascension.
So margins exist, and the person with the smaller margin has less freedom. It’s naive to think the solution is to enforce a single rule in all things. The question really should be “how does a person acquire more freedom?” And the next question should be “how can systems improve everyone’s freedom?”
A few years ago, a Fortune 50 company faced a class action law suit brought by black employees who were able to show that they were being promoted at an unfairly slow rate. And they proved their point. What the company found was that the problem hadn’t existed when their management training program was in place, but when it was abandoned, mentoring and training fell to informal social dynamics. And it turns out there is still enough of a cultural gap between races, even in highly educated corporate settings, that without a formal process for training people – especially on things that are more subjective or nuanced – the white employees received better training and earned more positions.
It wasn’t that the rules were skewed or that the people offering the promotions were bad. The reality is that the company simply operationalized a foolish ignorance that failed to extend the margins of some of its employees, while also failing to equip executives to see beyond their own filters to a smarter future.
Say what you will about the burden of training from a simple justice or fairness perspective, but it’s dumb business to fail to train all of your employees, or to foster racially or culturally defined distinctions within your team. The same is true for a society.
Mostly. Some may contend that we’re not all part of the same company, for example. They may say that there are multiple companies, each with their own agendas and their own lives to scrap for in their respective markets.
But here’s a different perspective on that. A famous teacher was once asked, after teaching people to love their neighbors as themselves, “but teacher, who is my neighbor?” The short answer is this: we are neighbors to those to whom we show mercy. To whom we extend grace and margin, and whose freedom we seek to expand.
There are only two options on this point. We can have neighbors, or we can have enemies. There are no strangers or “none of the aboves,” because the determining factors are what we choose to do with power, force, or leverage, and what we will do with the debts of injustice.
In this current conflict, as with so many before, there are all sorts of options for becoming entrenched and bitter. And man is that a boring option. It’s been done to death, and there is no life in that legacy.
For the people who choose to work to blaze a new path, and who are willing to think about lives downstream from their own in history, it seems there are really just two questions.
The first question is “what do I need to do to move the burden of margin-granting from myself to the entity charged with enforcing limits, and how do I grow that margin?”
And the second is “how do other people learn and choose the same?”
Sometimes there needs to be training to help “limit enforcers” (whether that’s cops or executives making hiring decisions) translate or see beyond their own filters more effectively. But the burden for success within a power system rests first with the people who choose to engage it and seek to climb within it. The system itself is just smarter and will be more successful and powerful if it is able to learn and adapt as well.
Here’s to more conversation and more answers, and less voice-killing shouting in your world.