By Mike Vinopal
Sometimes I am able to ignore the feeling that I get thinking about the state of the world.
Most of the time I can push it to the far reaches of my back-mind, the cheap seats, where it merely nags at me to do something or say something about our situation politically, socially.
It scratches and urges me to speak up against injustice. It pokes and begs me to try and bridge the gap between political ideologies of the left and right. The Great (Again) American Divide.
Then there are those days that it screams like speaker feedback, searing and blinding, “Do something! Say something! What are you waiting for!?”
But for the first time in my life, I am downright scared and my do-something-say-something is immobilized with that fear. I don't know where to start.
I don't know how to say what I want to say without stepping on the ever-present, ever-growing minefield of inflammatory phrasing, syntax triggers, diction, that can stop my intended message dead in its tracks. I want to write something to reach outside my echo chamber.
You step on one of those mines, you blow up. You blow up and your intended message gets lost, never reaching the other side of the divide, never closing the gap, even by a millimeter. It never had a chance. Precarious. We are not walking on eggshells. We are navigating a field of erratically placed explosives. I say “We” because I want everyone to consider the following very carefully.
The World as We Know it Today
With our new cultural technology and the way in which we exchange information, one single word or phrase nowadays can stop a person—often a person you are really trying to reach and that really needs to hear you out—dead in their tracks. This person, who you hope will really give your ideas a fair shot, will cease to digest whatever you are trying to communicate at the first sign of a landmine.
And there it is. Exchange of ideas done before it can even begin.
Landmine words may trigger some implicit bias that makes them feel uncomfortable. It may become something that can be used as a distraction from the intended point. Words like fill, in, the, and blank. And then you’re left preaching to the choir. More often than not, the exchange of differing ideas is much too inflammatory. And all I can think is, “Are you fucking kidding me!?”
On a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon, I had a wonderful talk with my girlfriend and super-chill roommate, Erin Dunbar, about this internal struggle, and she helped me gain perspective, as the best people in our lives often do. She said something to the effect of, “I don’t really have any people in my life that disagree with me much politically, so in a sense, my reality is an echo chamber. You’re in a special place where you have loved ones, friends and family that don’t necessarily agree with you, but have heard you out before because it’s you writing the article, not just anybody. You may be able to open their minds to some things that no one else would.”
Then I said something like, “If I could just change one mind…” and she said, “Not change their minds. Open them. That’s all that matters.”
I’ve got to give her credit. She’s absolutely right. So here goes.
If a person says, “blue lives matter,” it completely misses the point of the Black Lives Matter movement. But for someone to say that, it is to provoke family members of police officers everywhere and even less frequently, actual police officers. Black Lives Matter then turns into anti-cop when the original intention was pro-humanity, anti-violence, anti-racism.
And perhaps the Blue Lives Matter argument is distortedly well-intended in the minds of people that come from law enforcement families and communities. But in reality, it is just co-opting the message of marginalized people of color while also failing to acknowledge that there is a problem with our current system that can be fixed, if addressed.
But alas, Black Lives Matter will be misunderstood by the people who are triggered by this collection of words. And there will continue to be white people who perceive it to be anti-white and anti-cop. And those same people will go on the defensive, saying things with varying levels of ignorance like “BLM is a terrorist organization,” calling them “thugs,” or much worse.
Among the top complaints that I’ve heard about BLM protests is that they blocked traffic with some of their demonstrations.
If your commute to work was disrupted once or twice due to efforts aimed at improving the way we treat each other in this society, sorry-not-sorry.
If you were inconvenienced, that’s the point. Because these people of color have been inconvenienced every day of their lives. And what part of Black Lives Matter is actually inflammatory? Is it the word “black?”
Is that why people replace it with words like “blue” and “all” to feel more comfortable?
Erin and I also discussed this topic further when she recently shared an article from November 27, 2016, rife with these landmines, written by Katie Tastrom, titled 7 Tips for White Parents to Talk to Their Kids About Police Murders of Black People from an online magazine called thebodyisnotanapology.com. It engaged a comments-section-debate that really got us thinking.
For some context, it’s worth noting that on November 16, 2016 in St. Anthony, Minnesota, just 11 days before Tastrom’s article was originally posted, John Choi, the Ramsey County Attorney in the case of Philando Castile, announced that Jeronimo Yanez, a St. Anthony police officer, was being charged with three felonies: one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm.
Choi went on to say, “I would submit that no reasonable officer knowing, seeing, and hearing what Officer Yanez did at the time would have used deadly force under these circumstances.”
The police shooting of another black man, this time in the presence of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter, was captured on a Facebook live-streamed video, not to mention plastered all over every media-outlet since the shooting took place in July earlier that year. Kids of all colors watched it unfold.
I am disgusted to say that despite this statement from Choi, eye-witness testimony, not to mention police dashcam video and audio, Yanez was acquitted of all charges on June 16, 2017, the same day he was fired by the City of St. Anthony, Minnesota.
What is wrong with this picture?
If you are a white parent, your child has seen or heard these news stories, or many others over the years, as they will inevitably continue to do. We might need some guidance as how best to field questions coming from our impressionable children about it.
If you read the article, Tastrum rounds out her seven-tips-list-intro with this, “Here are some tips that have worked with my kids, but of course all families and kids are different so feel free to use what’s useful and discard the rest.” Noble intentions for a piece of writing if you ask me. Tastrum’s trying to throw a grappling hook across the chasm but alas, many won’t get past the headline. By no means is her list perfect, but it’s someone trying and she has some great ideas to consider in there.
There are lots of landmines to unpack in that headline, most polarizing of which is the string of words “Police Murders of Black People,” along with the fact that this article addresses some real issues that don’t feel good to confront.
Upon sharing it, Erin’s Facebook friends weighed in. A white woman essentially agreed with the article in her comment, however came across as upset by clickbait where the headline is negative but the article is constructive. Did the author use such a headline as click bait? Or did she just want to accurately label her piece?
For this white woman, the word “murder” is her landmine and she went on to say so. She said that “you start with using accurate terms. ‘Murder’ implies intent. Pouring fuel on the fire is counterproductive.” I’m sure it just bothered her that such a heinous headline could exist. It bothers me too. Another white woman reached out privately to Erin to tell her how much she appreciated the article and that she was using it to help her talk to her kids about this stuff. So I guess Erin broke even on this one.
Aside from the headline and the first sentence, the article doesn’t mention police. The article doesn’t mention Castile or any others involved in police shootings. Not once. She carefully managed to write a compassionate list of succinct statements regarding her feelings as a parent navigating these troubling issues that are a modern reality. Sadly, that big landmine of a headline stopped some people from reading it that perhaps would benefit most from it. But what else could she have called it? Would have changing the word “murder” to “manslaughter” made it more or less palatable?
President No. 45’s Role
Those kind of disconnects happen all the time now. And at the risk of throwing another landmine in my own path, I am going to talk a little about our current president.
President No. 45 has got us yelling at each other, spewing vitriol all the time now. 45 is the embodiment of those who disconnect when they are merely put off, or conversely thrown into a tweet-fit by a few bits of word choice they don’t agree with. This kind of behavior has been normalized by our current president.
The things 45 is doing and saying are increasingly scary and unprecedented. And to stand idly by with no comment is just as scary of a prospect to me. It is very apparent that he has very little plan to better our nation. He never really had one to begin with, aside from using his position of power for his own personal and financial gain. I bet he believes climate change is real but would never say so on record merely because of his vested business interests. He’s that kind of shady.
Not one thing he has done has pointed us in the right direction of providing a better future for our children, our children’s children, etc. who, in all reality, will feel the full consequence. I know that we have grown closer as an Earthling culture with the advent of social media, the prolific, all-encompassing junk we’ve become addicted to, but I wouldn’t say we’ve evolved. Not as a society, not as a nation.
We have dumbed ourselves down. We have eliminated delayed gratification. From experience, we have eliminated our children’s ability to attend to a mild stimulus like a human teacher in a classroom by sticking phones in their faces in the cradle in lieu of soothing a child the old-fashioned way.
We have turned the whole population—kids and adults alike—into junkies stuck in the scroll, learning things at random just long enough for entertainment value. Then we let it slip right out of our heads as we scroll on to the next random bit. We Google the answers to questions we once knew the answers to but can no longer remember. Then we Google it again when we didn’t make the effort to retain the information.
A Bit of Hope
I know it sounds like a bleak outlook, but within it there is a silver thread of hope for us as a species. Why not take another approach and give structure to your screen time? Give yourself 15 minutes to mindlessly zombie-scroll but then maybe commit a half an hour of your time to learning something new from a YouTube tutorial, from an article. Commit an hour of your time to catching up with old friends around the world through FaceTime or Skype. Utilize this magnificent technology to bring that person into the room with you even though they’re so far away geographically, to be together, to see their face, alive and full of emotion, to share a cup of tea and a conversation that doesn’t require typing.
Try your hand at making a new dish. Maybe you want to go out to get Thai food but you opt instead to pick up the key ingredients to try out cooking it yourself. It might not be as good as the restaurant you’re used to on the first go-around but then again, it might turn out just as good. Then you learn from that experience and tweak your approach and refine your procedure. You grow and get better at that one thing. You prove to yourself that you can focus all of your mind on one thing, living in the present to deeply immerse yourself in it, rather than to forget it with all the other fleeting knowledge you amass, held captive by the scroll.
I know there have been times that we’ve all gone to our phones or our tablets with the intention of doing one thing, but once the screen is open to home, we almost involuntarily cycle through our ever-growing list of social media apps instead, get stuck in the scroll and lose track of what we originally intended to do.
How about taking 15 minutes to instead of bitching about politics in the form of a status update or heated comments on someone else’s post, devote that time to making a real productive contribution in hopes of changing the course of the politics you are so livid about. It still amazes me the awful shit people are able to say from the safety and isolation of their computers. New rule: If you wouldn’t say it to the person’s face, don’t type it in a comment or a tweet.
Try to find common ground with people rather than getting nowhere and screaming yourself hoarse into your echo chamber. Start with your immediate surroundings and try to make that piece of the world better incrementally. Try to close the Great American Divide, millimeter by millimeter. The ripple effect is real if you ask me. Try. Care. And even when you don’t agree, listen. Embody the Golden Rule. It doesn’t cost a thing to be kind. One can respectfully disagree.
And for goodness’ sake, say hi to your neighbors, to strangers, or exchange a smile or nod, at the very least. It’s all of our world. Though it’s full of struggles, something as small as a smile can affect your immediate surroundings and your ripples will touch people you’ll never know. If nothing else sticks from this, at least try to remember that.
Good luck to you all in the struggle to avoid setting, and certainly stepping on, the landmines. I hope you win.