Jamelle Bouie/Shutterstock.com
Source: Jamelle Bouie/Shutterstock.com

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice—Albert Einstein

The line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces—Philip Zimbardo

Over the weekend, one of the authors was visiting family in the Midwest. While standing in line at a popular attraction, (a really cool zoo in a pretty sketchy neighborhood), he noticed a couple of Black families near him in line. One of the families included two middle aged women, two young boys, and a tall, overweight teenage boy. The teen was upset about his ice cream ("Where are my sprinkles?"). One of the women yelled at him, "Oh, just eat it or don't get any ice cream." A moment later, one of the younger boys turned, looked up at him and offered to trade ice creams. The older boy, still visibly upset, replied, “Shut up, n****, I don’t want your ice cream!” and, resisting the forced compimise, stalked off. 

The Ferguson riots were going on not very far away at the time. It was easy to wonder just how easily something like that could break out here or anywhere.

On the evening of August 21, 2014, the same author was watching a movie at his apartment in downtown Manhattan while his spouse was out with a friend. From outside he suddenly heard screams and sirens, shouting and thumping. Anxiously, he stepped out onto the balcony to see what was happening. He was able to make out a crowd, dimly visible in the street light, surging back and forth, corralled by police vehicles, flashing lights and bullhorns. They were shouting “F*** the police!” He wondered, frightened, could a riot could break out here too? Would his spouse be safe coming home? But he also felt a confusion of other feelngs: he was drawn by a certain solidarity with the protestors, while at the same time, he was concerned that well-meaning, decent police officers may be unfairly accused and even scapegoated. 

Another of the authors recalls working in a large community empowerment project in response to the civil unrest in South Central Los Angeles in 1992 in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and acquittal of the perpetrators. 

If we take past and current issues to heart and add the irrelationship perspective, we can see incidents such as the shooting death of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson as a symptom of ignored society-wide issues around safety and anxiety, both in specific relationships and in specific communities. The task of protecting and serving (by "the state") and acting as if imposed "care" is effective (for "the people") is similar to the dynamic in irrelationships when those  “cared for” (the "Audience" role) are expected to act as if the care offered (by "Performers") is actually effective.

Such an unspoken compromise can become dark and implicitly destructive.

Studies of community expectations of police work consistently support that the most important issue to the public is the expectation of fairness. (A blog series on Race, Racism and Law Enforcement can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/mvly6w5.) "The police"—both corporately and individually—can easily fall into the role of the absent, apathetic, unhappy, even abusive parent charged with the impossible task of providing "security" to people living in unsafe communities. Conversely, the people living in such communities are expected to act as if  the police officer-caregiver's work, is effective when it often isn't. Nevertheless, "satisfied consumers"of police protection are expected to follow rules and adhere to constrictive behavioral and interactive rituals that define their "community character" (unconscious rules and regulations about acceptable and unacceptable behavior and interactive patterns in a specific community).  Without realizing it, each community member's behavior (i.e., performance routine), is directed at making the caregiver (i.e., the police officer--who, for many, represents a violent, oppressive system) and the care-taken (i.e., residents), unconscious of how dysfunctional--perhaps dangerous--the system is. This is a complicated routine where the care-taken and the caretakers interact to dissociate the impossibility of a specific task: protecing and serving effectively in unsafe environments.  

Ferguson and South-Central LA are  the places where systemic crises are easily catalyzed into violence by the trauma of the killing of an innocent teenager (or any incident that breaks through community-level defenses and makes the chronic injustice of every day life become visible). We are again made aware of the impossibility of "protect and serve" in communities in which unsafety is driven by multiple, complicating factors. Police perform rituals intended to connote the maintenance of safety and community members act as if this is somehow effective—until the song-and-dance is proven not to work by another eruption, and we're once again faced with how dangerous our world really is. The "protect and serve" meme is exposed, once again, as a tool enabling us to dissociate from how anxious we feel about the unsafety surrounding us.

As if this weren't enough, events abroad can impinge on our lives almost as immediately: Israel and Palestine; ISIS in Iraq and Syria; Ebola outbreaks in Africa; even civilian airliners shot down without apparent consequences to the perpetrators. Even the lives of celebrated artists—Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams—clearly aren't immune to the impact of the provocateurs of our anxiety. And events involving the police seem to multiply before our eyes: Eric Garner's death by chokehold by a New York City police officer, more shootings in St Louis and elsewhere of people who apparently had their hands raised in surrender.

Those of us apparently distant and privileged enough to reflect on these events do so from a position allowing us to "wish things were different" and muse on "how tragic life is." But we deceive ourselves if we believe that a chance turn of events can't make us instantly as helpless and without recourse as those living less privileged lives. That being said, the fact is that many of us have power enough to opt for constructive change for ourselves and our communities. A case can be made that the expectations of society generally are increaslingly intolerant not just of the violence discussed above, but of the causes of anxiety driving the violence. Steve Pinker makes the case in The Angels of Our Better Nature that statistically, things are getting better; but that lighting a match to see where you are while  living in a powderkeg still feels pretty risky.

We will continue to offer thoughtful analyses in future blogs, and hope you'll join us for that discussion. For the time being, however, below are ten actions—some more serious than others—that we can consider as ways to go about defusing our anxiety and helplessness and, perhaps, make some space in our heads and hearts for finding meaningful ways to respond to the pain in and around us.

1) Be in an irrelationship: Using relationship itself to hide out from what is truly threatening (and anxiety-provoking) about taking risk and making real emotional investment in another person. More about this in our other blog-postings.

2) Be in real relationships: learn tools and techniques for offering strength and support to one another. In a REAL-Relationship, both parties consciously give and receive compassionate empathy and intimacy; in short, they can take the risk of genuine emotional investment in one another.

3) Get angry and take it out on an innocent bystander—but be aware that this often backfires, and ends up not feeling as good as you thought it was going to at first.

4) Get angry and take it to the streets, perhaps chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot”—the increasingly popular chant of protestors in Missouri and elsewhere.

5) Become socially and politically active

6) Get to know or know about your local and national public office-holders. Become informed about and involved in legislslative process.

7) Stay with—don't run away from—feelings of sadness and helplessness: instead, channel them into acts of compassion toward yourself and others.

8) Ignore anything that sounds important or scary. Instead, bury yourself in you work or the day-to-day operation of your home.  

9) Compulsively immerse  yourself in social media, perhaps going as far as pouring a bucket of icewater on your head and posting it on Facebook.

10) Remember that humor is not out of bounds when it comes to acknowledging and discussing the troubling things happening in our world. In fact, humor can open parts of us that create useful ways of addressing those things. 

We know we said ten actions, but we lied: it's eleven: 

11) Stay High: See Tove Lo's current hit song: http://tinyurl.com/njqawc2

Okay—it's twelve:

12) Visit us here again and get involved in this discussion. Your input is wanted and needed!

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*The Irrelationship Blog Post ("Our Blog Post") is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. We will not be liable for any loss or damage caused by your reliance on information obtained through Our Blog Post. Please seek the advice of professionals, as appropriate, regarding the evaluation of any specific information, opinion, advice or other content. We are not responsible and will not be held liable for third party comments on Our Blog Post.  Any user comment on Our Blog Post that in our sole discretion restricts or inhibits any other user from using or enjoying Our Blog Post is prohibited and may be reported to Sussex Publisher/Psychology Today.  Irrelationship, LLC. All rights reserved. 

About the Author

Mark B. Borg, Jr, Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, MD, & Daniel Berry, RN, MHA

Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, MD, Daniel Berry, RN, MHA are the authors of Irrelationship.

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