Is Complexity Obsolete?

I break with a lot of my fellow liberals when it comes to negative, largely anonymous, internet-based rushes to judgement of people who feel they have the right to decide what is and isn’t socially acceptable.

Often the mob is right, the offending person deserves to be censored and/or fired, and/or made to stand trial, especially if the people they lead would suffer those consequences from saying or doing the same things.

But sometimes the mob is not right. Which they realize once there’s some context. But then it’s usually too late. The offending person’s reputation, and sometimes livelihood, is ruined.

Consider the case of Al Franken as detailed in this Jane Mayer New Yorker article from 2019.

“A remarkable number of Franken’s Senate colleagues have regrets about their own roles in his fall. Seven current and former U.S. senators who demanded Franken’s resignation in 2017 told me that they’d been wrong to do so. Such admissions are unusual in an institution whose members rarely concede mistakes. Patrick Leahy, the veteran Democrat from Vermont, said that his decision to seek Franken’s resignation without first getting all the facts was ‘one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made’ in forty-five years in the Senate. Heidi Heitkamp, the former senator from North Dakota, told me, ‘If there’s one decision I’ve made that I would take back, it’s the decision to call for his resignation. It was made in the heat of the moment, without concern for exactly what this was.’ Tammy Duckworth, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, told me that the Senate Ethics Committee ‘should have been allowed to move forward.’ She said it was important to acknowledge the trauma that Franken’s accusers had gone through, but added, ‘We needed more facts. That due process didn’t happen is not good for our democracy.’ Angus King, the Independent senator from Maine, said that he’d ‘regretted it ever since’ he joined the call for Franken’s resignation. ‘There’s no excuse for sexual assault,’ he said. ‘But Al deserved more of a process. I don’t denigrate the allegations, but this was the political equivalent of capital punishment.’ Senator Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, told me, ‘This was a rush to judgment that didn’t allow any of us to fully explore what this was about. I took the judgment of my peers rather than independently examining the circumstances. In my heart, I’ve not felt right about it.’ Bill Nelson, the former Florida senator, said, ‘I realized almost right away I’d made a mistake. I felt terrible. I should have stood up for due process to render what it’s supposed to—the truth.’ Tom Udall, the senior Democratic senator from New Mexico, said, ‘I made a mistake. I started having second thoughts shortly after he stepped down. He had the right to be heard by an independent investigative body. I’ve heard from people around my state, and around the country, saying that they think he got railroaded. It doesn’t seem fair. I’m a lawyer. I really believe in due process.'”

That’s a remarkable paragraph.

Have we completely stopped thinking about how we’d want to be treated in a similar situation? Are we not smart enough to recognize and acknowledge subtlety, nuance, and complexity?

These are the questions I’ve been asking myself when thinking about the great policing debate. From my vantage point, there are only two choices. The Left’s “Option A” is to believe that police are an occupying force that does more harm than good. Consequently they need to be defunded. Which the Right consciously and continuously misrepresents. Most Black Lives Matter activists argue:

“Police forces have been receiving an increasingly disproportionate amount of a city’s budget. Instead of paying for such things as extensive officer overtime and expensive military equipment, cities should reallocate that money to a city’s social services, such as mental health, education, and housing.”

That filling in of context is still an anathema to the Right and their “Option B”. These “Blue Lives Matter” people argue the Left is exaggerating the problem of police brutality. Why rethink policing when it’s only a few bad apples?

I’m holding out hope for a third option which is neither centrist or moderate as much as it is intellectually honest because it acknowledges the complexity that’s inherent to any discussion of an institution as large and consequential as policing.

Somehow, in “Option C”, we’d muster the intelligence to do two things simultaneously. First, we’d get a whole lot better at identifying the particular police behaviors and police departments’ activities that are so far outside the common good, as to be unredeemable. The badge-wearing Derek Chauvins of the world. And we’d break the hold of police unions so that we could prosecute them for their brutality much more often than we have so far. In short, we’d get even more angry and determined to purge the police of the “too far gone”.

Equally important, we’d get a whole lot better at identifying the particular police and departments that are building positive working relationships with their communities and consistently and competently upholding the common good. This is especially important for those of us on the Left. Most simply put, we have to reject the utter mindlessness of “All Cops are Bastards”.

There either are important differences between individual police and their departments or there are not. I believe there are. I believe the most intelligent option is neither Option A or B. It’s C. For complexity.

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