Moving Pictures

We live, undoubtedly, in a time in which brevity is praised…this has resulted in modes of expression that restrict thought. We attempt to state what is happening in less than 40 characters, and attempt to piece together images and words to make some larger meaning or point.

In terms of short 40 character messages, truck drivers have been doing this for decades; in terms of images and words, artists have been doing this for centuries. Often, however, what are used as “memes” are just crude attempts to belittle someone, or to make vague generalities about something that has meaning and is significant.

Mostly these attempts, though banal, are innocuous…with all the sentiment and ephemerality of greeting cards…their digital form, and the lack of reference to a place or person that physical cards have, mean that, thankfully, they cannot be stuffed in a shoebox under a bed, only to be discovered later.

At other times, however, these attempts are infuriating. This week one that has been floating around Facebook goes like this:

The real problem is not police “brutality”. The real problem is that we now have an entire generation of spoiled, entitled brats, who believe rules and laws don’t apply to them…”

It goes on, and in some fashion blames parents.

I wonder how, statistically, the person who created this cartoon, and those who share it, reached the conclusion that kids are somehow worse now than they were in some identified time (the 1950s? the roaring 20s? 1835? 1400?). I imagine the cartoon’s author went to households across the country and did an ethnographic study of childhood. They observed families from all contexts and backgrounds, wrote notes, then went into archives to find evidence of childhood in this mysterious, unnamed time period, and did a comparison. In addition, those who subsequently posted this must have done their own studies, because the original seems to have not included footnotes…and they would not want to just trust something as true without knowing.

I doubt this scenario really happened, for both the creator and subsequent people who shared it. And you may, at this point, state, come on, it’s just a cartoon. It isn’t just a cartoon, however; it is taking the stance that police brutality is a myth, and that everything would be find if kids were better and parents more responsible.

The intonement of “kid’s these days” is nothing new; it is a cliche in our culture. Cliches often have truth behind them, but often this truth is only found by looking beyond the statement itself. The truth is not that kids were better behaved, and more respectful in the past, and are not so now; the truth probably has more to do with romanticizing the past, along with a resistance to cultural and social changes that seem threatening. Television, rock and roll, video games, walkmans, and now social media, youtube, all of these things were, to some people, the sign of the end of our society. Somehow our society has survived all of these things; we continue to have CEOs, writers, artists, doctors, lawyers…and continue to show love and kindness to our neighbors. We also continue to have wars and violence.

What has changed, of course, is our ability to record moments…today I was in the dog park with my dog, and an aggressive dog bit another one. An older man instinctively took out his phone and took pictures of the dog, the motivation presumably being to report it. 10 years ago, that would not be possible; the man would have to rely on physical description, unless he had a camera handy. And, even if he did, the social acceptability of picture taking with a phone is arguably much greater than the acceptability of taking a picture with a camera was a decade ago; in fact, the owners of the offending dog just smiled as the man took pictures…they made no connection to why he was taking pictures because its significance is less. It is significant that the person who took the picture with the mobile was not a young person, but a man in his 70s…it seems kids are not the only ones who have become influenced.

Over the past few years, we have had the results of this easy short film making technology…and some of these short films together have formed a documentary of police seeming to act violently and brutally towards citizens. The sheer number of these videos, and the varied geographic areas from which they come, make it impossible to consider them as random, insignificant events: one bad cop, one citizen who “had it coming to them”…

This is troubling, of course, but it is troubling in a way that is deep, that goes to our very essence of being. We operate on a paradigm that police are there to protect us, and that the order of our society is kept because they are there. When it seems they are not doing this, and in fact hurting people, disregarding the rule of law, it seems like an important foundation is cracking…if those who are there to gives us faith that there is order and control are in fact out of control, the question becomes, who can we count on?

When confronted with something this deeply troubling, one reaction is to respond viscerally…I would posit blaming kids and parents is a visceral response. Blaming parents and kids is easier…more than that, what could be behind such blame is not necessarily blaming the larger pool of kids and parents, but a specific set of kids of parents…those “other people”..if the one who created it, and those who share it, are parents, they are not including thmselves or their children in this blame…though not explicit, their judgment implicitly implies this. We can then start to make assumptions about what others they are talking about (African Americans, those who do not have as much money as they do, non-Christians…or just some unnamed parents in some distant place).

I’m not saying that this is the wrong reaction…after all, who am I to say how you should react…what I am arguing is that a response to something so significant that is not thought about significantly beforehand is not honoring your instinctual feeling. If you deeply, instinctively feel like something is wrong, why would you not take time to understand this? You may find that some of your close friends or family have experienced injustice or harassment from police, that your cartoon which you by default believe to be true could be hurtful to someone you care deeply about.

The evidence is overwhelming that police are in many cases too violent, too ready to shoot and attack. To discover why this is the case would require looking at the lives of police officers, what is, undeniably a job whose daily stress most of us cannot even imagine. It requires us to be critical of how society is, and how specifically we would like to change it. This work would lead to a humane response…equipped with understanding, we do not have to rely on visceral reactions that are often unsteady and are based on fear, which often leads to feelings of hatred. Instead, we could find a solution that would treat police officers and citizens with dignity, understanding each populations context and responding.

This past week’s RadioLab podcast gave me hope that society can change, and can be less violent and more peaceful…that podcast reviewed evidence that peacefulness can be learned and accepted. I can’t express that in a short cartoon or meme, not easily; but I hope that is true, and that we all work in a unified way to realize it.