One of the hardest things to do is to openly, honestly entertain a thought with which you disagree. Turn it over, engage with it and — if necessary — keep parts of it. Otherwise, throw it back out.
Everyone has preconceived notions. It is human nature to accept evidence that supports your own beliefs and reject that which might force you to reconsider your position. It is easy to see the world through your own lens and color it accordingly.
In the current political environment, this reality is elevated. Things seem to be on a hair trigger. Media reports claimed a noose was placed in the garage bay of Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace. Outrage ensued. However, after the FBI investigated, it did not appear to be directed at Wallace; it certainly looked like a noose, but had apparently been there for months.
Tamping down this emotion in favor of reason is more necessary than ever. And it can start with trying to honestly consider “the other side,” whatever it is.
To do so, you have to read past the headline (or the slogan). Candidly, I’ve always chafed at terms like “white privilege” and “Black lives matter.” They are, to me, exclusionary. And if you swap out one group adjective for another — “Jewish privilege,” “white lives matter” — only to have it sound cringey or racist, then it is easy to feel justified rejecting the original proposition.
But that is superficial. And not truly honest.
Take “Black lives matter.” Only truly despicable people would disagree with the basic premise. But the phrase begs the question: “Black lives matter” compared to what?
Hence, you get the counter-statement: “ all lives matter.” Again, only the worst of us would disagree with that proposition. Yet this dichotomy sets people into blocs; verbal warfare ensues.
So, as someone more inclined to align with the latter group, I’ve tried to understand the meaning of “Black lives matter” and give it real consideration. Some of the more recent events have helped elucidate — at least for me — what the statement attempts to convey.
It wasn’t George Floyd. That was a disgusting event that reflects directly on the perpetrators; they will be addressed in due course. Rather, the video of Amy Cooper of New York City helped clarify things for me.
A white woman was breaking the law — letting her dog off leash in Central Park — and was called out on it by a Black man, Christian Cooper (no relation). Her response was to threaten him by calling the police and falsely accuse him of “threatening her life.”
I have a litany of adjectives for Amy Cooper’s behavior, only a few of which are fit for print. Yet, had the police arrived and confronted both of them, it isn’t hard to imagine them believing the well-to-do white woman instead of Christian Cooper. And without the video, probably a lot of others would have believed her, too.
To the extent “Black lives matter” means that Christian Cooper is equal to Amy Cooper, I’m fully in agreement. “Black lives matter” not because they are Black, but because they are lives. People — regardless of their genetic makeup — deserve equal dignity and respect simply because they are people.
Individuals may squander their own deserved respect, but one person’s actions do not corrupt others of their particular race, religion, family, or profession. To the extent anyone reacts to individuals based on superficial characteristics, it is wrong. And it needs to be overcome.
The same holds true for the phrase “white privilege.” No person is born into circumstances of their choosing. You can’t pick your family, you don’t select where or when on the globe you are born, and — so far — you cannot design your own genome. And everyone would much rather be Denzel Washington’s Black child than born to a drug-addicted — but white — single mom.
Yet with Amy Cooper’s false accusations, the fact that Christian Cooper was Black made a difference. If I told you a white gay male science-fiction author was birding in Central Park and got into a tiff with a middle-aged white woman illegally letting her dog off leash and she called the cops, you would probably think it was the pilot for some dumb new TV sitcom.
But when the birding gay science-fiction author is Black, the dynamic changes. So being not Black — white — conveyed an advantage. A privilege, if you will.
The phrases “white privilege” and “Black lives matter” are still challenging for me. If I heard someone spouting off about “Jewish privilege” and announcing “white lives matter,” I’d start looking for Captain America to help punch Nazis. But headlines notwithstanding, the underlying substance identifies real challenges that our country needs to address.
It is hard to engage with unpleasant ideas. However, if it was easy, it would already be done. So read past the slogan and into the details. Keep the wheat, leave the chaff. With luck, we — as a nation — can continue to get better. That is the best part of the American story. It is up to us to ensure it isn’t fiction.
Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan and in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine. He was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace.