Memphis isn’t Boston, which isn’t Peoria, which isn’t Houston
It’s getting harder to maintain perspective in a world of screaming headlines
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On Jan. 27, the Memphis police department released footage showing five of its officers brutally beating a young black man, Tyre Nichols, who later died of his injuries. The officers—all fired and charged with second-degree murder—were themselves each black, but that didn’t stop activists like Al Sharpton from attributing Nichols’ death to his skin color, or prevent protesters across the country from carrying signs emblazoned with slogans like “Stop the war on black America!”
Thankfully, most protests were peaceful, a far cry from the wave of violence unleashed by the killing of George Floyd in 2020. Nevertheless, they still highlighted unsettling trends in the continued fraying of America’s social fabric.
Even before the video had been released, President Joe Biden felt the need to issue a statement calling for national calm, as the story splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the country and even international media. Over the ensuing weekend, protesters took to the streets in cities from Los Angeles to Boston.
Many activists basked in the publicity, some using their soapboxes to call for the U.S. Congress to take action to prevent such tragedies in the future. And in an age of social media, of course, everyone was expected not only to have an opinion on the situation but to voice it, with celebrities taking to Twitter to express obligatory denunciations of police brutality.
Increasingly, it seems, we live in a country where not only is every incident, every tragedy, and every wicked act politicized, but nationalized as well. What happens in Memphis doesn’t stay in Memphis but becomes an occasion for collective outrage, finger-pointing, and hand-wringing across a sprawling and diverse nation of 330 million people. To be sure, police brutality is a real problem, and it is hardly confined to Memphis. We should debate the systemic reforms that might be needed to prevent another George Floyd or Tyre Nichols, and some of those reforms may even need to come from the national level. However, there are several dangers with living in a society where any local incident can immediately be transposed into a nationwide sensation.
The first is loss of perspective. In a world where every tragedy is splashed across the homepage of CNN.com and starts trending on Twitter, it becomes almost impossible to know whether it reflects a trend or an anomaly. Is police brutality increasing? Is racial tension on the rise? It’s hard to imagine that they aren’t, and the public, convinced that they are in the midst of a national crisis, demands immediate solutions with only the dimmest sense of the actual contours of the problems.
The second is loss of discrimination—in the good sense of the word. Believe it or not, the problems of Memphis, Tenn., are not identical to those of Los Angeles or Boston. But each of us is tempted to read our own communities through the lenses provided by sensational headlines, especially when the president of the United States invites us to do so. During the 2020 protests that followed the death of George Floyd, BLM demonstrators descended on small towns like Marion, Va., to try to convince the locals that they, too, had a race-driven police brutality problem. In fact, there are thousands of communities across America that enjoy the blessings of good policing and in which citizens and law enforcement have a good relationship—or did, at least, until citizens were taught by Twitter to imagine otherwise.
The third is loss of responsibility. The effective wielding of responsibility always requires boundaries; I cannot be responsible for everything, but I must be responsible for something, and that something often has a lot to do with the place where God has put me and the people he has entrusted to me. Effective police reform in Memphis will ultimately depend upon the people and institutions of Memphis. They must take responsibility for their own community and its failures.
Increasingly, however, we have imbibed the idea that every American everywhere is responsible for what happened in Memphis—and for what happens everywhere around the country every day. The result of such responsibility overload will in the end be a culture of irresponsibility—for a society in which everyone feels responsible for everything is one in which soon no one will be willing to take real effective responsibility for anything.
We are too apt to confuse moral sensitivity with moral maturity—the more attuned I am to the evils happening all over the country and the world, the more I can think of myself as a person of conscience and justice. In fact, however, the hard work of doing justice requires a humble recognition of our limits and a close attention to the particular contexts within which God has called us to act.
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