TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2023
Quite often, the answer is neither: As we noted yesterday, David French offered some sound advice in his debut column for the New York Times.
His advice was especially good and sound at this time of "massive partisan divide."
"How do we fight past our partisanship to become truly curious about the truth?" French asked, near the end of his column. This is the answer he gave:
FRENCH (2/6/23): The lesson I’ve taken has been clear: Any time my tribe or my allies are under fire, before I yield to the temptation of a reflexive defense, I should apply my principles and carefully consider the most uncomfortable of thoughts: My opponents might be right, my allies might be wrong and justice may require that I change my mind. And it may, in all likelihood, require that I do this again and again.
On its face, French's advice seems extremely sound.
When partisan disputes arise, we should refuse to "yield to the temptation of a reflexive defense," he says. We should consider an uncomfortable possibility:
We should consider the possibility that, in the instance under review, our opponents—i.e., the other tribe—may actually have it right. We should even consider the possibility that our own tribe might be wrong!
On its face, that seems to be sound advice. That said, we'll disagree with a suggestion which lurks within that formulation—the suggestion that, in any given tribal dispute, one of the tribes will in fact be "right" while the other tribe will be fundamentally "wrong."
Is that really the way the world works? We're going to say that it isn't.
In his column, French was talking about the recent event in Memphis in which Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by five police officers. Because Nichols was black, as were his five principal assailants, the videotape of this event produced a challenge to the prevailing Storylines of our warring political tribes.
As a conservative, French says he's been inclined to follow his tribe in matters involving claims of police misconduct. He described the situation in this part of his column:
FRENCH: [R]espect for police officers has long been vital to the very identity of conservative Americans. Men and women in uniform are ours. They’re part of our community, and—as the Blue Lives Matter flags in my suburban Nashville neighborhood demonstrate—we’ve got their backs...
There are good reasons for respecting and admiring police officers. A functioning police force is an indispensable element of civil society. Crime can deprive citizens of property, hope and even life. It is necessary to protect people from predation, and a lack of policing creates its own forms of injustice.
But our admiration has darker elements. It causes too many of us— again, particularly in my tribe—to reflexively question, for example, the testimony of our Black friends and neighbors who can tell very different stories about their encounters with police officers. Sometimes citizens don’t really care if other communities routinely experience no-knock raids and other manifestations of aggression as long as they consider their own communities to be safe.
Members of French's political tribe have been inclined "to reflexively question" the testimony of black citizens concerning their encounters with (some) police officers.
French says that he was once part of that tribal syndrome. In this passage, he says he has "changed his mind" about this important area of concern:
FRENCH: I used to fit that partisan mold. As a conservative, I could clearly see the problems in American universities...When it came to the police, however, I was skeptical. I knew there were some bad apples. But was there a systemic problem? I was doubtful.
I have since changed my mind, but it took shedding my partisanship and applying my principles to allow me to see more clearly.
According to French, he was once inclined to believe that there were "some bad apples" with American police departments, full stop. He doubted that there was "a systemic problem."
He says he has changed his mind. This seems to suggest that he now believes that there is a "systemic problem," though he never tries to explain what he means by that claim.
We offer three very loud cheers for French's overall admonition—for his suggestion that we should all attempt to avoid reflexive tribal thinking. We'd only suggest that he seems to oversimplify the situation in his otherwise helpful piece.
For starters, there plainly are a certain number of "bad apples" within American police departments—people who should never have been police officers in the first place.
Presumably, though, there are "bad apples"—unprincipled actors—within every field of endeavor. Does that mean that there's "a systemic problem"—whatever that means—within American policing?
The statement is hard to define. It isn't clear what French means when he says he has come to accept it, and vague accusations of this type will inevitably produce a lot of unhelpful partisan pushback.
So how about it? Is there some sort of "systemic problem" within American policing? Unless we're simply trafficking in accusatory Storyline, there's no way to answer a question like that until the person making the claim says what he or she means.
In every current matter of dispute, we tend to encounter dueling Storylines from our red and blue tribes. In the general area of police conduct, the red tribe has tended to adopt the "some bad apples" talking point.
The blue tribe has tended to rail against "systemic problems." Rarely the twain has met.
Absent attempts at specification, our blue tribe's "systemic problem" Storyline seems to lodge a sweeping complaint against American police. We're not sure it really helps to abandon the talking point in which police departments include "a few bad apples" in favor of a talking point which is quite hard to define.
Alas! At aggressively polarized times such as these, it will often be the case that the Storyline of neither tribe is perfectly right. It may not be especially helpful to switch from the Storyline of one warring tribe over to the Storyline of the other.
In many areas, it may be that there are elements of truth found within the hardened viewpoints of each of our warring tribes. Applying French's overall plea, the person seeking a helpful consensus should try to keep that fact in mind.
With respect to police misconduct and police culture, French has learned to look beyond the reflexive behaviors of his own red tribe. Can we in our blue tribe do the same? Our tribe's track record in such endeavors is often extremely poor.
Tomorrow, we'll start to look at some of the ways the vicious beating of Tyre Nichols was discussed within our own tribe.
We'll look at the standard talking points our blue tribe reflexively brings to discussions of this important topic. We'll also start to look at some of the things we can imaginably learn from events on the ground in Memphis.
Our own blue tribe quickly stopped discussing what happened in Memphis. We love to say how much we care, though it sometimes may seem that we don't.
An innocent person was beaten to death by a gang of Memphis police officers. Our own blue tribe tends to fall back on Storyline when such events occur.
Tomorrow: The New York Times editorial board