The Right to Be Imperfect
My kids don’t appreciate when I publish what I write about them. Let me clarify, they hate it. We live in a small, one-degree-of-separation town. And they’re kids, which is hard enough without your mother writing about your travails in the local paper. I get it.
So, we made a deal: As long as I leave no breadcrumbs leading directly to either of them or divulge any sensitive info about them or their relationships, we’re good.
So what I’m about to say is not about either of them personally. It’s merely parental advice I dispense periodically, and also occasionally give to myself: If we are only willing to accept perfection from our friends, and nothing less… if we have a zero-tolerance policy for flawed or occasionally annoying people in our lives, then we will have no friends. Or role models. Or heroes. And no one will have us.
I explain this to my kids by way of my Moldy Cheese Metaphor. That is to say, just because a block of cheese has some mold on it doesn’t mean you throw out the whole block. Now how much mold is too much is a matter of personal tolerance. Some cheeses have a very high mold content, as we all know, and yet we still enjoy them. In fact, if you reject outright the concept of mold you’ll miss out on some of the world’s best cheeses. Read on if you want to know what this has to do with JFK, Gandhi and George Floyd.
After weeks of protests over the police killing of George Floyd and the tearing down of statues, the latest statue being torn down is George Floyd himself. Anyone who has been glued to the news is beginning to hear rumblings that Mr. Floyd had “run-ins with the law.” “Did time in jail.” May have “had drugs on him at the time of his arrest.” And to all of that I say: So what?
I don’t care if George Floyd was a good person. The point is he was a person. Regardless of his record of goodness, and whether or not he was always on the right side of the law, he deserved to be treated with fairness and dignity and justice and certainly not killed while in police custody. Or killed period. The minute we judge the victim’s character whatsoever we’re detracting from the facts of the crime.
I dread the trial of the Minneapolis Four. I already lived through the trial of the LAPD Four, so I feel like I’ve seen a preview. There’s a well-established playbook for the defense in these excessive force cases which is to discredit the victim in order to try to justify the unjustifiable. But the fact is, it doesn’t really matter what kind of person George Floyd was.
Devaluing the Target
The Floyd incident has been compared to lynchings (like that of Emmett Till). But in fact, in some ways I find the killing of Floyd more similar to the Rodney King incident, even though Mr. King survived, because of the over-zealous arrest component as well as an apparently incriminating video. Because there’s so much commonality with the King incident, that earlier incident may also provide a vade mecum to where things are going next. Consider the LAPD Four:
As with Mr. Floyd, Mr. King had an arrest and prison record. As with Mr. Floyd’s arresting officer Chauvin, King’s arresting officer, Stacey Koon, was both proud of the arrest and even initially pleased, as Mr. Chauvin appeared to be, that the entire incident had been videotaped. Mr. Chauvin certainly wasn’t camera shy. Meanwhile Mr. Koon said at the time, “I was proud of my officers, and proud of the professionalism they’d shown in subduing a really monster guy.”
In both incidents, there was bystander video that seemed to incriminate cops. So before their trial, lawyers (and publicists) for the LAPD Four engaged in a time tested smear campaign against their victim known as “devaluing the target.” Just as Mr. Floyd’s failings are starting to emerge, so too were Mr. King’s failings paraded as if the victim could have possibly wrought or motivated the use of such excessive force upon himself. It may sound like a farfetched strategy, but let’s not forget – it worked. The LAPD were acquitted, followed instantly by the L.A. Riots.
In an odd twist, the final episode of the Cosby Show was scheduled to air during the L.A. riots, and Mr. Cosby’s network questioned if the timing was right to broadcast it. Mr. Cosby himself went on TV to try to quell the protest and suggested people watch his show instead. The show must go on, right? Ironic? Or is Mr. Cosby just another example, albeit an extreme one based on what we know about him today, of the moldy cheese?
“Just a Man”
After weeks of mayhem there was eventually a civil rights case brought against the LAPD Four, a case which this time the LAPD lost. Tom Owens, an LAPD officer who worked on the King side and later wrote a book about it, ultimately concluded that Mr. King was neither a hardened criminal nor a hero, but “just a man.”
On occasion I’m asked who my heroes are. A question I’ve always found hard to answer. Because if you look closely enough at any of us, every cheese has mold. Certainly there have been many people I’ve admired. But mostly I find my inspiration in moments. In a single action that impressed me. Or in an act of bravery or kindness that moved me.
But no one is beyond reproach, none of us. Nobel Laureates are not always noble. In fact, Alfred Nobel created his eponymous prize over guilt he felt for having invented dynamite and other weapons of mass destruction. Further down the line, the Nobel Prize winner William Shockley (inventor of the transistor and the silicon chip) turned out to be, in addition to a prolific scientist, a guy who moonlighted as a white supremacist. Shockley actually proposed that individuals with IQs below 100 be paid to undergo voluntary sterilization. Really?
Even widely embraced heroes were not uniformly heroic throughout the entirety of their lives. One could fill a small library with the tomes written about JFK’s less than admirable actions. Did you know he voted against President Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Act in 1957. And even Gandhi has been accused of a number of crimes and oddities, like sleeping naked with teenage girls to test his chastity, racism against the blacks of South Africa, and referring to Adolf Hitler as a “friend.”
The Simplicity of the Binary
Personally, I think our overtaxed brains have a desire for the Simplicity of the Binary: for people and things to be good or bad. Right or wrong. Thumbs up or thumbs down. Cops or robbers. Our heroes bring us exhilaration. We want to worship people. And then we love to knock them down. Because somewhere deep down it makes us feel good (relieved even) that they are flawed. Like us.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the person we once worshiped also brought about certain things, like monumental change or profound ideas or brilliant art. Or a world record. Or simply expanded our notion of what a single human being could do.
As I see it, we are all flawed and we are all Floyd. The people who will defend Floyd’s accused killers are flawed. As are the protesters who have taken to the streets to protest Floyd’s death. The leaders of BLM, flawed. And the longer we try to pretend that any of us are without our failings, and without moments in which we have behaved badly, that we are always politically “woke” – then the longer we will live with the burden of aspiring to something of which we are simply not capable: perfection.
Over time, we can all strive to move closer to the best possible versions of ourselves. But in the meantime, let’s ALL cut ourselves some slack. And allow ourselves the Right to be Imperfect. Because when you really boil it down, very few things or people are completely black or white. In the case of George Floyd, it is a criminal act that will be on trial. It’s about how a life was taken. Not how that life was lived.