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Ferguson and the Blind Virtue

November 27, 2014

Down in my basement, I have a nearly seven year old desktop computer that I only occasionally use. It's from 2007, and accordingly, it's excruciatingly slow to do anything, much less be as productive as working on a fresh 2013 laptop that's my main device. It's got a few missing parts, so even streaming a YouTube video on it is pretty painful to watch. I've considered replacing it with newer parts, getting a new monitor and faster internals to fix it up, so I can refurbish it into something useful. But ultimately, there's one thing that prevents me from doing so: with the costs and time needed to replace many of the parts, I'd be much better off straight-up buying a new desktop. If I wanted to fix it with newer parts and a better monitor, what I would have spent fixing it would have been dramatically more than what the computer's worth in the first place. I think this situation occurs in every part of life, where you start with something meaningful or valuable, but after it's through with a series of events, it loses its original essence and becomes blown out of proportion.

Protests ensued for several days in Ferguson against racial profiling by the police force. (CC BY-SA 4.0, Loavesofbread from Wikimedia Commons, modified)

All things considered, you probably don't have much affection for my aging desktop. But unless you've been living under the metaphorical rock the past few days, you're probably familiar with one of the most discussed and shared events this week, the indictment (or the lack thereof) on the police officer who lead to the death of Michael Brown, an African American student who lived in Ferguson, Missouri*. I genuinely think that there is some common ground between my dying computer and the society's reaction to the events at Ferguson. Hear me out.

The Internet has revolutionized communication, and that spreads information faster, more reliably, more often. But it also acts as an amplifier; a single, 140-character message typed out hastily by a single person can light an entire city on fire with notions of injustice and unfairness. What seemed like a rather harmless idea can sprawl into a chain of thoughts and events that dramatically overshadow the original, just as my now-cheap computer would have led me to spend more fixing it than what it's worth**. It's so easy for things to grow into something disproportionately bigger than what it was meant to be. Although I am by no means trying to nullify the numerous impacts of the events at Ferguson, I think this effect of "false amplification" of ideas applies really well to this situation. Ferguson was a community in which there was already a tension between the white-dominated police force and the minority-heavy civilian population. Like dropping a matchstick on a ship full of gunpowder, when the shooting happened, it gave the emotional room and publicity needed for the many ideas to spread out incredibly fast, snowballing into a national incident -- the idea instantly amplified itself into something uncontrollable, out of proportion. As the media caught on, there was no slowing down, and debates about the duty of the police force and racial profiling*** sprouted in all manners of places. Having such a wide reach and a large audience certainly helps raising the awareness of the issues that may be at hand, but at the same time, in such emotionally charged circumstances, overly sensationalist or dramatic images often lead to distorted looks at the reality, and that hardly helps to solve the core issues that we need to address.

It's so easy for things to grow into something disproportionately bigger than what it was meant to be.

While the Ferguson story was one of the most talked-about topics on Twitter, there was an interesting study done on those tweets that related to the case. The study looked at people and tweets who stood on the affirmative side of the decision not to indict the police officer, and it looked at the people and tweets on the negative side of the decision, that said the officer was guilty and should have been indicted. Naturally, when looking at one side of the debate, the interactions, replies, retweets, were densely packed. But when the researchers looked at the interactions between the tweets and tweeters on either side of the dichotomy, the frequency of interactions dropped off dramatically, not to mention the frequency of positive interactions nearly vanished. When we're not openly discussing the ideas that form the backbone of such a sensational event, and if we are not willing to bother to listen to any other opinions but those that match ours, there's no chance we can get anywhere close to getting a glimpse at how these events can be avoided in the future. Communication is a key factor in solving conflicts, and right now, we're firmly refusing to listen to anyone but ourselves -- and the data shows it.

So ... is it enough to get people on either side to talk to each other? Would that help solve problems? Sort of. I think that's half of the equation, and a very critical step. But communication isn't about interpreting the words on a page or on a screen and crafting a reply in response; it's the process of understanding the words and the emotion behind them, to get a broader field of view for what's really happening. If everything that we see, hear, and read agree with our position, that would be convenient, but get nowhere meaningful. It produces a distorted view of what's really happening. I think a necessary step when situations like the Ferguson event come up is to talk to people who disagree with you, to try to understand their position genuinely, and try most of all to get a better, picture of the reality. We can't ever be truly objective in anything; we're human. I don't think if we communicate and share opinions better, we won't have any more racial profiling, ethnic discrimination, or gender identity conflicts, and that's the reality. But I think if we aim to reach that goal instead of aiming to find things that only reinforce what we believe, we could get a good enough glimpse of the reality to know the detriments of the blind virtues. And hopefully, that can make a world with a bit more understanding, and a bit less ignorance.

* Here is the extremely abridged version of the story, provided by Wikipedia: "Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson were walking down the middle of the street, shortly after stealing a box of cigarillos from a convenience store, when Wilson drove up and told them to move to the sidewalk. An altercation ensued with Brown and Wilson struggling through the window of the police vehicle until Wilson's gun was fired. Brown and Johnson then fled in different directions, with Wilson in pursuit of Brown eventually firing several more times. In the entire altercation Wilson fired a total of twelve shots, Brown being hit by six, with the last being the fatal shot. Witness reports differ as to whether and when Brown had his hands raised, and whether he was moving toward Wilson when the final shots were fired." Nearly three months after the incident, the grand jury of Ferguson decided collectively not to indict, or press charges on, the officer who shot Brown.

** See what I did there? Yeah.

*** In case you aren't familiar with the term, the law enforcement phrase racial profiling refers to the act of deciding whether or not to attack or "engage in enforcement" with an individual based largely on his or her race/ethnicity.