Submitted by Aaron Arkin.
This week they buried George Floyd. His death at the hands of the police has galvanized the country. For me the saddest image, and the one that makes me tear up, is that as he was being choked with his face pressed into the ground he gasped, “please.” He was begging his assailants to recognize his humanity. It was a cry to see him as a human being: and it went unheard.
I had read that the “muscle” hired to gain control over the airplanes during the 09/2011 attacks had been carefully trained in order to be able and without hesitation slit the throats of the flight crews. To do this they had to see them as less than human. To get them acclimated to this way of thinking and able to perform this horrific act, they were given goats on which to practice. The working theory was, it’s easy to feel superior to and lack empathy for goats. So too, I’m guessing that the policeman who took the life of George Floyd had conditioned himself to believe he had the right to do this because he was superior and George Floyd could be treated without empathy and as less than human.
In this country the belief in white supremacy is grounded in the diminished worth historically given to people of color. If we are to hold to The Declaration of Independence’s truth that “all men are created equal,” that formulation based on a false premise. It has been my experience also that when given authority, any authority, there’s a temptation to diminish others and see oneself as superior. I have seen this conceit in some business owners, supervisors, judges, policemen, servicemen, firemen, politicians. The historical record shows that whole societies have embraced such views: witness the genocides that have taken place even up to the present time. When one has been given authority it takes strength of character to maintain one’s humility: to recognize that having special powers does not make one special. Rather it should be a reminder that if one has been chosen for a special task or to provide a service with authority over others, that duty should be carried out with the recognition that one is acting among equals.
The temptation to see a Position or a Title as making one superior is powerful. Vaclav Havel, a former president of Czechoslovakia, talked about the false standing that comes from being given a Title. He said even he, the titular head of his country, was awed by his countrymen with official titles. And in many cases, it was he who had given them the titles in the first place! And “there’s the rub”: we must remember not to support the idea that people who have been given authority are somehow superior. They may be gifted or have special talents. We may admire them and for a number of good reasons. But we should never feed into a belief system that elevates them above the rest of us.
There’s a lot of talk now about reforming police departments to achieve ‘equal justice’, and that what’s needed is only a matter of better training and redirected funding. But unless we learn humility, commonality and Vaclav Havel’s surprising insight, how can we ever get there?
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.