A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Saturday, June 20, 2020

What Colonel Jessup Taught Me About Empathy and Race Relations

Experience #1: Growing up Mormon, many of my friends were (and still are) political conservatives. One friend in particular, let's call him Jay, is very conservative. In high school, I liked to push Jay's buttons by imagining hypothetical scenarios that would test Jay's theories of politics. I don't remember what we were discussing (it could have been any number of issues), but one day I went too far. I *do* remember that the hypothetical scenario I concocted was completely beyond Jay's experience, and he replied "there are no *actual* people like that" (to be fair, I was given to dramatics so he may have been right, given that I don't remember the particulars). However, at the time, I remember thinking that this was a failure of empathy on his part - he literally could not imagine someone in the circumstances I described.

Experience #2: Recently, I was discussing President Trump's decision to hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Juneteenth in the wake of mass protests on racial justice topics with a friend. We'll call this friend Steve. I was explaining that this was a very insensitive date and place to hold a rally given current events and the history of Tulsa (see here and here or listen to this podcast if you don't know what I'm talking about). Steve, an intelligent and well-read conservative who was aware of the history, responded with something like "I understand why African Americans are upset, I would be too!" I was momentarily blindsided - he could see their feelings as rational, without feeling the least need to identify with them in their quest to get the rally cancelled (I should note that the President has since moved the rally to the day after Juneteenth).

What ties these experiences together?
A couple of my friends have posted things about supporting police in the wake of large scale protests against police violence following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I have seen this op-ed "America, We Are Leaving," by a police officer, floating around social media and I wanted to address it head on, because I feel it represents the same failure of empathy as my stories about my friends Jay and Steve. It also represents those who often respond to "Black Lives Matter" with a discussion that "Blue Lives Matter." Reading through the op-ed, I would describe it as having strong "Colonel Jessup" energy (stay with me here!).

Colonel Jessup, of course, is a fictional character in the Aaron Sorkin drama "A Few Good Men." In the movie version, (which features peak Tom Cruise) Jack Nicholson plays Jessup, a commander at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Jessup is arrogant and high handed. An enlisted man under Jessup's command, Private William Santiago, has died in mysterious circumstances, and two marines are charged with his murder. Tom Cruise is the marines' defense attorney, Kaffee, and sets out to convince the jury that Colonel Jessup ordered a "Code Red" to torture Santiago for being a snitch, thus absolving the marines of murder because they were just following orders.

In a classic legal courtroom confrontation scene, Kaffee confronts Jessup and draws him out. Jessup eventually admits that he ordered the Code Red, but not before he provides a totally morally abhorrent rationale for strongmen with guns keeping us safe. At one point Jessup says "You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall....I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it!" Jessup is incensed that Kaffee (or anyone) would dare to question the manner in which Jessup operates - he claims that we need strongmen without morals to protect us from worse threats.

The police officer op-ed linked above has that same attitude as Colonel Jessup - "how dare someone question the police, we are providing your freedom and you should thank us and go on your way." While this op-ed may be extreme, this op-ed brings forth some dangerous ideas, for several reasons:
1) The police are employed by the people. They should be answerable and accountable for their actions. The fact that this officer is mad that citizens are calling bad police officers to account means that he is prioritizing his comfort and view of himself and fellow officers as "good people" over the very real suffering of the citizens he is sworn to protect.
2) His attitude towards those he arrests seems to be "they deserve this, they brought this on themselves because they are criminals." He remarks that those he arrests have a bad attitude about being arrested (yeah, I would too!). In America, you are innocent until proven guilty, even after you are arrested. One of the things that makes America truly exceptional is that everyone deserves respect and due process of law (it's one of the things our country was literally founded on!). He may not like this, but this officer is required to treat everyone fairly - our constitution and bill of rights gives everyone the benefit of the doubt and rights to fair trial and fair treatment by law enforcement authorities rather than presuming they are guilty because they were arrested.
3) He complains that police "used to be believed" and now have to produce video evidence to support their assertions. Well, there are several cases that might have led to reduced police credibility, including, but not limited to: (a) the case of Walter Scott, who was shot by a police officer who claimed he felt "threatened" by Scott even though video evidence surfaced that showed Scott was fleeing the scene and the officer shot Scott in the back; (b) the case of George Floyd, where one police officer sat on a citizen's neck for nine minutes, and three other police officers watched and did nothing to stop it (and the Minneapolis police department initially claimed Floyd was resisting arrest); (c) numerous videos during the current protests which show police officers initiating violence against peaceful protesters. All of these incidents (and more) have reduced credibility of police and made it harder for us to trust them when they tell us their version of events. Trust has to be earned.
4) The author claims that he has never seen anyone treated differently by cops because of their race. Well, unfortunately, study after study after study after study has confirmed that just isn't true. Black people are more likely to be arrested, more likely to receive longer sentences for the same crime as a white person, and yes, more likely to be shot by cops (even when unarmed). There is systemic racism present in our justice system, and if this officer is unwilling to acknowledge that, then he isn't listening to the Black friends he claims to have.
5) One line of the op-ed claims we live in the "...most violent society we've ever seen." However, violent crime has actually declined since the 1990s crime wave. In fact, from 1993 to 2018, violent crime decreased by either 51% or 71% (depending on which database we're using). This perception that we are living a violent society all too often leads us to endorse heavy-handed police tactics against a society that is actually becoming less violent overall. This is endorsed when we emphasize killings of police and point out how dangerous their job is, as if that somehow justifies cops murdering unarmed people. In fact, statistics show that it's safer to be a cop now than at any point over the last 50 years. Cops don't even make the Top 10 list of most dangerous occupations in the U.S.

I could go on (this article gets me pretty worked up and I've been thinking about it way too much this week), but I'm going to stop here. We (and I'm speaking about "we" the white people here) need to be able to empathize with Black people - until we identify with Black people as much as we identify with cops, and see Black people as full human beings, we are not going to be able to make the difficult changes that need to be made in our society. We need to be just as mad about racism as Black people, even if it doesn't personally affect us. We need to be able to imagine and understand what it is like to be a Black person in America. I'll close with this TedTalk about "How to Be Black" in America. We white people need to feel this experience, and understand it.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

On "Not Wanting to Be Bishop"

One of the book clubs I'm in recently read the book "The Priesthood Power of Women: In The Temple, Church, and Family" by Barbara Gardner, a BYU professor. During our (Zoom) book club meeting, we discussed whether we think women would ever hold the priesthood. One of the women made the comment "I don't want to be Bishop." It's a comment I've heard many times from female members of the Church.

Well, ANY member of the church, male or female, who *wants* to be a Bishop probably shouldn't be. Wanting power is pretty antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in my opinion - leadership is about service, not seeking for a particular office or calling.

As someone who personally believes that women will someday hold the priesthood, I really want to engage with this "I don't want to be Bishop" sentiment. Wanting women to have the priesthood isn't about "taking away" something from men. It's not about a power grab where I want women to have control over others' lives. It's about wanting women to have ability to grow spiritually and exercise all their spiritual gifts.

It's not about ME wanting to be Bishop (I've had administrative callings enough to know I'd be a terrible Bishop) - it's about looking at women who are phenomenal Relief Society presidents and YW Presidents and Sunday School teachers, and saying THEY should be bishops. Wards would be blessed by women serving in priesthood roles.

Saying "I don't want to be Bishop" I think fails to engage in the fundamental questions: if God loves men and women equally (and I hope/pray that most Church members agree that He does), why do we have a leadership structure that relies heavily on male members of the church? Aren't we missing the wisdom and experiences of many of our members by having a gender-specific priesthood? If the goal is for men and women to achieve exaltation and become like God, aren't women going to exercise the power of God (i.e. the priesthood)?

That actually leads back to my main beef with Gardner's book. While it had some good insights, I think fundamentally the book an exercise in the mental gymnastics required to reconcile an unequal power structure with equality amongst the sexes. Essentially it felt to me like we are trying to come up with a justification for a system rather than engaging with the fact that the system is unequal and asking God if that's really what he wants. Does God really not want women to be Bishops? If so, why?

Anyway, it's been on my mind and thought I'd get this down while I was thinking about it.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Alone But Not Lonely

Well, it's day 3,867 of our quarantine due to Coronavirus (or it only feels like it!). I don't know if I'm going to be publishing this post, but being alone with my thoughts means that I need to write down what I am thinking about, at least.

There was a moment in the most recent Little Women adaptation that hit me right in the feels. Jo March refuses to marry Laurie, her best friend of many years. After traveling to New York from her Massachusetts home, and then returning and losing her sister Beth (it's not a spoiler alert if the book has been out for 150+ years, right?), Jo is reconsidering. Should she marry Laurie? He's a good man and a good friend. In a scene with her mother, Jo talks about knowing that she doesn't "need" a man, but she's still just so lonely.

I do not know if I am more or less selfish than the average person, but I do know that I think about myself and my own concerns a fair amount. As I've previously blogged, I do know what it's like to feel lonely and want to be loved, which is why I identified with this scene so much. I'm also someone who spends a fair bit of time wallowing, rather than doing anything about it. I do want to be loved, and sometimes I ache for it. In the immortal words of SmashMouth, sometimes I really wish that someone "loved me for me," and not because they were "required to" by already being related to me. That sentiment betrays my privilege - I am super lucky and blessed to have a very loving set of parents, siblings, and in-laws who care about me.

Of course, the way I deal with these feelings is to ignore them and not talk to anyone about it (super healthy, yes, I know). Post-traditional singles ward, I spent some time in a "mid-singles" ward for singles older than 31, but right now I am in a "family" ward full of people who are mostly in different life circumstances than I am. This doesn't always bother me, but sometimes I feel my "outlier" status.

It was a sucker punch to the gut last week when I received an email message from my Stake President that they were advising that no one take the sacrament to people outside their home for the next few weeks. I know it wasn't meant this way, but it felt like a flashing red sign that I don't "belong" in the church. It made me feel like I wasn't important or necessary to the church's functions, and it didn't matter if I couldn't have the sacrament. Obviously the majority of people in our stake live with someone who can bless the sacrament for them, and I'm glad that's the case. I also understand the reasoning behind the request - I don't want to endanger anyone and give them Coronavirus. Ironically, I had decided that I would not ask my ministering brothers to come that week, because they had come last week, but I was still upset about the mandate.

When I'm at my most bitter, moments like that make me question whether I'll show up to Heaven only to find a "Married People Only" sign (of course, there are plenty of other reasons I wouldn't make it to heaven, ha ha). Our church is devoted to marriage and kids, and it makes me feel less than others sometimes. Even though I believe it isn't deliberate or intentional, I can't help feeling so alone because of this.

As a single person who lives by herself, I do spend a lot of time alone normally, but Coronavirus obviously means that is multiplied by a factor of 1,000. Now that I'm working from home full time, I can go days without talking face to face with another person (other than brief hellos from fellow dog walking neighbors). Because of that, I've been thinking about this Mary Chapin Carpenter song, Alone But Not Lonely. I don't know how to be alone but not lonely - it's not something that comes easy to me.

One of our Mormon hymns ends with a prayer that resonates with me - I hope I can have the faith to walk the "lonely road" even if it is hard. And sometimes it is very hard.

O, Give me thy sweet Spirit still,
The peace that comes alone from thee,
The faith to walk the lonely road
That leads to thine eternity.
(My Redeemer Lives, Hymn #135 in current Hymbook)