It's Not About Them (It's About Us)
The class after lunch is always a colorful time. Students have just had a rowdy half-hour of the most freedom they’ll experience during the school day, and most are loaded up on sugar, caffeine, and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
It’s in that hour that I have Dalton, a fascinating young man who’s often dressed more professionally than I am and who I adore. I assume he’s somewhere on “the spectrum” – a little Asperger’s and a dash of OCD, maybe? Whatever, it’s all good – he’s genuinely warm and friendly, despite an ongoing, irresistible itch to provoke. It keeps the day interesting.
Also in that hour is Tiandra, a theatrical young lady who will likely change the world, but who in the meantime occasionally falls prey to melodrama and emotional exhaustion. Her random outbursts in the name of social justice are technically dead-on, but her timing and presentation lack… refinement. She and her circle periodically break into explosive laughter over things no one else understands. But the joy – who can resent that?
Both of these young people are antagonists in their own ways – hence my particular affection for each. And they drive one another crazy in the most volatile ways. What starts with muttered comments or provocative grunts easily escalates into locked eyes across the room. Emotions escalate and volume rises. It can get ugly if I don’t find some way to redirect or quash it – Every. Flipping. Time.
The conversations I’ve had with them individually in an effort to avoid actual disciplinary action (which I prefer to reserve for overt defiance or repeated, intentional disruption) are built on the same non-negotiable premise: your choices – your actions – are not about them. They’re about you. We are not gracious or patient because someone else deserves it; we walk with character and style because of who we want to be. Because of our values.
It’s not about them; it’s about us.
I don’t hold the door for someone because I sense they’re a good person with underutilized insight; I do it because it’s the decent thing to do, and I want to emulate that decency as often as possible. You’re not polite to your in-laws because they’ve always tried to understand your point of view; you do it because that’s the right way to be, and the type of character you want to model for your spawn.
I worry we’ve lost sight of this in larger society. In politics and policies, certainly, but even in our underlying ideals and values. I worry we’re letting go of something fundamental to who we claim to be as a people.
Several years ago, Oklahoma officials botched an execution and put Clayton Lockett through 45 minutes of excruciating pain before his heart stopped. While there have been some calls to improve the system (turns out asking Siri about various chemicals halfway through the thrashing and suffering isn’t universally accepted protocol), others were quick to point out that Lockett was a very bad man who probably deserved to suffer. Some students wondered aloud why we cared how he died if he’d done horrible things to other people, and far too many adults suggested that death by lethal injection was “too good” for his sort.
But it’s not about Lockett and what he did or didn’t deserve. Vengeance isn’t the basis for the system of laws we claim to value so highly. The Eighth Amendment doesn’t ban cruel and unusual punishment solely to protect the convicted; it makes a statement about who the rest of us want to be. About what we value. About what we’re willing to endure to hold ourselves to a higher standard than most cultures throughout history.
It’s not about them; it’s about us.
When Terence Crutcher was killed by police last year, there was heated debate over whether he was behaving in a threatening manner, or potentially reaching through a closed window to retrieve a weapon. Valid debates to have, I suppose.
But a larger discussion, unfortunately, developed over what kind of person he was. A student, a father, a common-law husband? Or a drug addict? A “bad dude”? Another drain on society?
It shouldn’t matter for purposes of due process what someone’s grades are, or whether or not they pay their child support on time. Our legal rights aren’t about merely making sure good people are protected from bad power – they’re about what we want power to mean in the first place, and how we want it to be used. It’s about being a nation of laws and not men.
It’s not about them; it’s about us.
The Trump Administration is trying to iron out specifics for how to best round up undocumented immigrants who’ve allegedly committed crimes other than being in the U.S. to begin with. This is not a completely insane or transparently evil policy to consider. The Obama Administration was surprisingly energetic about deportations themselves, albeit with less white-supremacy-flavored rhetoric and a better track record of thinking the “Bill of Rights” matters in most situations. But the idea is at least defensible, even if you don’t like it personally.
News of these round-ups prompted rhetorical outrage from all sides. Some were understandably worried about “ICE Raids” in their neighborhoods while others questioned the logistics of deporting tens of thousands of people based on a sliding scale of unclear factors. Many were concerned about what this would look and feel like in practice. Fair enough.
The rhetoric which should concern us most, however, involved variations of “but they don’t deserve such and such protections,” or “we don’t have to protect these or those rights because these people aren’t citizens.”
Technically there may be some truth to this. The legalities of undocumentation (if that’s not a word, it should be) are often blurry. And it may not make sense to grant full legal protections to folks who aren’t citizens – who on paper aren’t even supposed to be here. Maybe.
But our national birth certificate argues that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Even the alt-right can cite what follows – “that among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” According to our Declaration of Independence, it’s in order to secure these rights that government even exists.
These rights which are unalienable – which cannot be justly denied or separated from the individual, even by their own choice.
These rights given by the Creator to ALL men. All of them.
Not just citizens – that wasn’t a thing yet. America didn’t have its own government or constitution when these words were written. Our Founders insisted on the undeniable reality of God-given rights for ALL.
That claim is followed by a list of complaints against the King of England, most based on the premise that unlike themselves, he did NOT believe all men were entitled to the same natural rights. He believed, as had his progenitors for many centuries and across many borders, that some people were by design born into superior positions and power and that things ran much more smoothly if we simply accepted this and kept it that way.
The policies the American colonies found so offensive assumed that some people deserved a voice in how they were treated, while others – well, we can’t make everyone happy. Besides, we’re doing enough for you as it is!
I’m not going to argue immigration policy, despite my belief that we’d be far better off with more open borders than less. I’m not suggesting that every last member of the human race can comfortably move in and we’ll somehow accommodate them. I realize there are realities to consider, and that laws are laws, and that sometimes we have to do unpleasant things for the larger good.
I’m not making my usual case about holding police accountable for the choices they make, despite deeply appreciating what they do to keep us safe. I’m not even going after the death penalty, loathsome though I find it. I accept as general principle that sometimes we have to do unpleasant things to maintain a society in which most people can remain free and do good.
But while we wrestle with such complications, let’s keep in mind that how we choose to approach this or that situation shouldn't be about which people are good people or hard workers or drug addicts or criminals or educated or orphans – not primarily.
It’s about what kind of people we want to be. Who we claim to be. What we actually believe. We can have borders without basing them predominantly on fear, and we can have restrictions without shaping them around stereotypes and accusations. We can incarcerate or punish without dividing the world into “us” and “them.” We can make hard choices without becoming hard people.
At least that’s what our Founders believed was possible… IF we’re willing to maintain certain values and limits no matter how emotional or unpleasant the circumstances. IF we're able to seek what's better instead of simply hating and fearing what could be worse. IF we insist that our ideals take precedence over our comfort, our biases, or at times even our safety.
Doing otherwise hurts all the wrong people. That's messed up, but it's not the primary reason we should do better. We need to do better because it’s not about them; it’s about us.
Or have I mentioned that already?