Criticism is Not Hatred, Deference is Not Love: Reflections on Policing and the Cult of Authority

At the risk of sounding preposterously trite, I love my daughters. I love them the same way my parents loved me, I suspect, and their parents loved them: unconditionally and forever.

That said, I also see their flaws and shortcomings. They are teenagers after all and human beings, and their membership in both clubs provides ample opportunities for imperfection. But those frailties also provide opportunities for growth, for betterment, for improvement; and those occasions in turn produce some of the most exciting and rewarding moments for parents and kids alike: the ability to see a child move from one place to a better place with some support, and some constructive (if yet critical) feedback.

Importantly, when we admonish our children for true wrongdoing in the hopes of helping them to do better, to be better, no one would accuse us of hating our kids. Indeed a parent who was satisfied that their teenager had reached the pinnacle of moral and behavioral development — such that they shouldn’t be criticized when they make horribly wrong and even destructive choices as they sometimes do — wouldn’t be much of a parent at all. If anything, it would be they who demonstrated a kind of contempt for children; the kind that views them as incapable of better, as if they were too damaged or stunted to grow and to change. Like I said, I love my daughters. They are amazing 15 and (almost) 13-year olds. But if, at 25 and 23 (or even 16 and 14) they are the same people they are right now, then something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

The same is true (and should be recognized as such) when we criticize our country, or (since the nation’s attention is focused on issues of police misconduct vis-a-vis people of color), law enforcement. To criticize one’s nation or police, even harshly, for wrongdoing, is not to hate that country or its cops. Indeed, such rebuke implies a kind of love, truth be told; a love built on the belief that both can do better; that they can be better. If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t bother. We would just give up. And while some, like Dallas shooter, Micah Johnson, may have decided all cops are the enemy (or at least the white ones are) — and that they are incapable of responsible interactions in black communities — almost by definition the activists in the Black Lives Matter movement who have been in the streets demanding police accountability and reform, are not among those people. They are demanding change because their lives depend on it, and because they believe in the potentiality of a different society—a society built on justice, however hard it may be to bring that place into existence.

Even those within the movement — and I would be one of them — who believe in the need for substantial de-policing, and the creation of alternative forms of dispute resolution, still insist that whatever law enforcement remains, even in such a society as we desire, can be better than what we have now. We are not the cynical ones here. Cynicism is the voice of Rudy Giuliani. It is the voice of police unions that tell black people they can’t expect better from cops until and unless black communities eradicate all vestiges of their own dysfunction, and that to demand otherwise from one’s law enforcers is to desire those law enforcers dead. Which makes no more sense than to suggest calling out doctors for malpractice is but the first step towards assassinating surgeons, so blinded by a hatred of physicians must one be to demand that they do their jobs the right way.

To confuse criticism with hatred is to exalt silence and complicity and call it love. It is to counsel nonchalance in the face of incalculable pain, all for the sake of blind patriotism or hero worship. It is to make of citizenship a cult, within which no dissent can be allowed, even when that dissent is itself vital to the functioning of the society in which the citizen resides. It is to ignore the tumor even as it grows and to believe that our casual dismissal of its metastasis will render it benign. It is to believe that deference to authority is a secular sacrament, and that people of color should adopt amnesia as a positive cultural value, taking no notice of the long history within which authority has been precisely the source of their marginalization, their injury, and their death.

I have little regard for patriotism, so readily does it spill over to hyper-nationalism. But if there is any such thing as a positive version of it, then surely it must be the kind that says America can do better than to be a place where unarmed black men are seven times as likely to be killed by police as unarmed white men. If that’s the best we can hope for then one is forced to wonder as to whether we deserve a country at all. And if that’s the best we can hope for then it remains a very open question as to whether our children — the ones we claim to love so dearly — will return our positive regard once they become adults and inherit the mess we have left for them. One thing is for certain: even if we somehow manage to still deserve their love, we will have done very little to earn their respect. They will curse our memories, and we will have most certainly merited their disdain

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