Understanding and UNDERSTANDING

Over past years, I tried to explain what my wife the voice and opera professor does, day in and day out, and why what she does is so brutally exhausting. I’ve largely given that up, because no amount of explanation seems able to convey the totality of what she does to people who don’t already understand the profession and little explanation is needed for those who do. I also tend not to talk about certain aspects of writing for similar reasons.

Since I am most obviously not a racial minority, gay, or a person of color, I hesitate to make comparisons, but I do think the same mental mechanism is at work in the majority of people of any culture or society. There’s an old saying about not judging until you’ve walked and worked in another person’s shoes, but in today’s digital and data-driven world, all too many people make judgments based on their own experience… and data. The problem with data is that it reveals demographics, distribution, and results… and, for the most part, not much beyond that. Sociological data can be so badly skewed by a multiplicity of factors that it’s difficult to determine which studies are truly valid for what purposes. Add to that the fact that today’s American society is perhaps the most segregated it has ever been in terms of income, occupation, and education. On top of that, pervasive but subtle racial and cultural segregation also still exists, and sometimes and in some places, that segregation is still anything but subtle. Not only are there glass ceilings for women, but those ceilings exist for others as well.

Yes, there are those who have lived with or in sub-cultures or groups outside those into which they were born, raised, or educated, but they often remain a minority, often untrusted by those in the group from which they came and often by those in the minority group.

Data, statistics, policies, and bureaucratic programs don’t solve the problems of feelings, especially the feeling of not being understood, especially in a society that has become more and more centered on the “me culture.” People, especially those with light-colored skin, tend not to look outside their own self-selected groups. And the less they do, the less they can even come close to understanding.

All one has to do is to look at some of the numbers. Despite all the rhetoric about police killings of blacks, for example, in New York those deaths are a fraction of what they were forty years ago. What hasn’t changed significantly is the ratio of black men killing black men, compared to whites killing whites. Death is far more omnipresent in black minority communities than in even the poorest of white communities. Yet while police killings of minorities have dropped, the other homicide levels have not fallen to the same degree, and the discrepancy between black and white homicide rates remains.

Under these conditions, it shouldn’t be that difficult to see why minorities, especially black minorities, are protesting and essentially saying, “You don’t understand!” And they have reasons for making that claim, because they believe if the rest of us really understood, we’d make a more meaningful effort to address the problems that lie at the root of all those black-on-black homicides, and not just to address police behavior alone.

2 thoughts on “Understanding and UNDERSTANDING”

  1. Daze says:

    A long but fascinating read: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, argues (after a lot of statistical evidence to back his claims) that death by violence of all forms has been on a steady downward trend since at least the 14th century, continuing today. He says that most of the variables that people use to explain this aren’t borne out by the evidence – the key seems to be the growing tendency for people to see strangers as like themselves, not as ‘other’, in widening circles – in brief ‘civilisation’. The key exceptions are ‘honor-based’ societies, where ‘eye-for-an-eye’ is the prevailing culture. This would seem to apply to a) gang culture, and b) the huge differences between murder rates in (e.g.) Kentucky and (e.g.) Maine. (Not to mention ISIS/Daesh).

  2. D Archerd says:

    A professor of American history whose course I took made the point that what we now call the “wild west” was actually the “wild south”. The northern colonies were settled by religious types, small farmers and merchants; the southern colonies by “gentlemen” who made their living through land and plantation agriculture and who brought with them their tradition of blood sports (bear-baiting, cock & dog fighting, and a curious sport where horsemen attempted to rip the heads off chickens suspended from a tree with their bare hand while riding by at a gallop, the successful ones getting showered with blood and earning them comments of “good blood!” from the spectators). Furthermore, the gentlemen’s code of honor the Southern leading citizens adhered to required avenging insults with violence and duels (he suggested that the famed Southern courtesy grew out of the very real need to avoid giving offence for fear of bloodshed). But when you think of the Wild West, you think of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas…not Oregon or Washington. So that may help account for the difference in the murder rates of Kentucky vs. Maine.

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