Jeffrey B. Rubin, Ph.D.

Jeffrey B. Rubin Ph.D.

The Art of Flourishing

Please Don't Kill the Messenger

What the protesters can teach us.

Posted Jun 06, 2020

The protests in the United States — even when they turn violent — are an attempted solution, not the problem.

They are a response to being brutalized by the cancer of structural racism and pervasive oppression in a country that still denies its illness and fails to address the extraordinary harm it foists on the people it oppresses. Annihilated, silenced, and voiceless, protestors strike out.

At this point in our fraught history, shame on us if we try to spin it that their goal is to burn cars, loot stores, or deface buildings. They are trying to be seen and heard. And we are still not listening. And then in a supreme act of gaslighting, we blame them for the ticking bomb that we created.

And that’s why telling the protesters to go home is sound — and incomplete — advice. Home is a safer place for all of us to be right now, but it ignores what the protests are communicating. And in the rush to either condemn or threaten the protesters — like our racist divider-in-chief — or send them home, I fear we’ll miss the message. And that will only have more deadly consequences.

Let me tell you a story to explain why I am saying something that may, at first, sound strange and provocative. Toward the end of a session many years ago with a teenager and her parents, my young adult patient gave her mother the finger, mumbled “f**k you” under her breath, and slammed my office door as she stormed out of the session.

“I’ll handle it,” I said to her parents as I quickly left my office. Their daughter was halfway up the driveway. I caught up to her and said: “Could you see your way clear to coming back to the session? I promise you I’ll protect you.”

“Don’t ever give your mother the finger, mumble 'F you' under your breath, or slam a door again,” her father chastised her as soon as she and I sat down in my office.

“Well that’s a disaster,” I blurted out. “Let’s say you were successful in muzzling your daughter and shutting her down. You would have killed the messenger and eliminated the possibility of understanding what she is upset about. And that’s what we should be focusing on.”

The father stopped attacking her and both parents eventually became curious about what was bothering their daughter. They learned about how they were emotionally harming her, which they were unaware of, and that generated fundamental changes in the way they treated her. And that fostered significantly greater emotional intimacy in the family.

I think of the teenager’s father as I read about the protests in America.

We are at a fork in the cultural road: There’s a massive danger here — and an unexpected opportunity. The danger is both the continued deafness to the message — the disenfranchised are hurting and no one in power cares — as well as continued violence and bloodshed.

We can simply blame the protesters, which kills the messenger. That is a double-edged danger: It tragically silences people who have already been rendered voiceless. And it ensures that those complicit in racism — like many white politicians and those white policemen who murder black people and white citizens who passively stand by — will not heed the messages of those people who continue to be murdered and oppressed.

The opportunity within the tragedy is that like the teenager’s parents, we can be curious about the message of the protests, which opens the door to the possibility of facing what is broken and needs to be fixed, which can lead to constructive change and transformational healing.

There is little reason to be hopeful as long as those in power in the United States keep turning a blind eye toward and remain emotionally deaf to the agonizing suffering of those people who have been crushed — by racism, sexism, or the coronavirus. And that raises the vital question: What would it take for our current leaders to wake up out of their stupor and hear the pain of oppressed people? 

I don’t fully know what helped the teenager’s father stop attacking his daughter and look at his role in her anger. Perhaps he trusted me. Maybe what I said made some sense. Or possibly what I said triggered a memory of an earlier time in his own life when he had been unfairly attacked and silenced, and that fostered a modicum of empathy for his daughter.

I fear that what it would take for our current leaders to hear the message of the messengers would be exactly what they furiously avoid — a profound and emotionally intimate reckoning with their own disavowed vulnerability and pain: the times when they were bullied or marginalized, silenced or annihilated.

That takes enormous emotional courage and strength. No one wants to face humiliation, rage, and shame. But if they don’t, they should not be surprised when the self-loathing they cover over — or the contempt and sadism they feel and express toward fellow Americans — comes right back at them.