Sometimes we find ourselves involved in situations that are no doing of our own. We just happen to be in a certain place at a certain time, and are subjected to stimuli that may or may not be related to anything we’ve done. For example, you’re driving along the highway and you see a car ahead swerve off the road and flip over into a ditch. Or you are walking down the street and a young child runs out of a house, screaming and crying and bleeding from a head wound. Or you are in a crowded room and someone you don’t know accuses you of touching them innappropriately, when you never got closer than 5 meters from the person accusing you. Or you have trouble getting into the front door of your home and resort to kicking the door with your foot to make it open and a cop happens by and thinks you’re breaking in.
The recent controversy surrounding the arrest of the African-American professor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an example of a situation similar to those mentioned above. He was seen on his own front porch trying to force his way into his own house when a neighbor spotted him and apparently thought he was not the homeowner but someone trying to break in for illegal purposes. The police were called and a cop showed up after the professor had managed to get into the house. There were words, emotions heightened, insults were probably thrown, and the homeowner ended up in handcuffs and was arrested. I have to say I’d be pissed off if this happened to me.
It just happens that the homeowner and the cop are of different races. This has expanded the controvery into the national arena, creating a windfall for bloggers and radio talk show hosts. There’s nothing like the incitement of strong emotions to whip up interest in the media that emphasize conflict, fear, and hatred.
I think that the professor and the cop will eventually meet and work out their differences. At least, I hope they do. They are both victims of an unfortunate encounter and misinterpreted events, and neither should be blamed for their responses to one another and the assumptions they made during their encounter. Humans judge each stimulus as it happens, often assuming that what they are observing is something other than what it really is. How often have we heard that someone sees a violent event and initially misinterprets it as a joke, or a staged event? How many times have you heard someone say something, thinking they were talking about you when they were talking about someone you don’t even know? Or how often have you observed others that you suspected of being thieves or rapists, when it turned out they were just average people, going about their own business just like you were – except that you saw some threat in their behavior or appearance and you judged them to be someone whom they were not?
We’re often victims of chance. We all know this, and see it almost every day. When chance encounters are mixed with misread signals and heightened emotions, the potential for disaster suddenly looms. We can only hope that reason and understanding can take control before chaos does, and that the resulting conclusion becomes instructive rather destructive.