I was going to write an essay about violence—and some of those thoughts will probably appear here eventually—in order to offer some context for the public discussion about domestic violence specifically and the Ray Rice incident in particular. But as I approached this task I worried about whether the conversation was already over, whether on Facebook, in the news, at the coffee shop, in the locker rooms and on Comedy Central we had all moved on to other things. So rather than an essay on violence offering context for domestic violence, an essay on conversations and context seems more appropriate.
Our public conversations are nearly meaningless. Why? Because they are often no more than an exchange of tweets and shot-from-the-hip opinions. Knee-jerk reactions that are little more than emotive, seldom informative, never transformative of either individual or society. A death, four deaths, a dozen deaths, a thousand deaths burst into our awareness via the media. Those who get paid to respond do so quickly and (because they are paid to be so) evocatively. Then we and others respond to them. Then we tweet and talk among ourselves until the next news cycle. The bodies are buried, and we move on. We take away from the event a word, the name of a place or a person—Dahmer, Columbine, Trayvon, and most recently, Ferguson, but the labels fade.
What saddens me is that the conversation always curses us with false hope and thus false contentment. “Oh! We’re going to talk about it. Now things will be different.” But the intent of the conversation is not what it seems, not conversion, not change. The intent of the conversation is emotional release, reducing our anxiety and allowing us to continue with whatever it was we were doing before we were interrupted.
Remember the movie “Up” and the way the dogs were distracted by seeing a squirrel? If you don’t there’s a brief clip here: http://tinyurl.com/p5gpwb8. That’s us. Squirrel.
So how do we move beyond this cartoon canine consciousness? With great difficulty.
Look, what underlies the behavior is that we enjoy being entertained. And the news, even when it is tragic, is entertaining—as long as it’s someone else’s tragedy. Black people will be talking about Michael Brown’s shooting for a long time. White people, not so much. Women will be talking about Ray Rice’s behavior for a long time. Men, not so much.
The solution is to move from conversation to relationship, from “talking about” to “being with,” and that begins with a conscious shift in perception. It means we stop reinforcing our present perceptions and opinions, and choose to see, “them” as “us,” the other as self. It means for me to see that it was one of us that was shot in Ferguson. It means for me to see that it was one of us who was knocked unconscious in an elevator. And even to see that it was one of us who shot, one of us who hit.
This is neither new nor easy. It is not entertaining. But as I have been told and have seen glimpses of, it is worth it.