Seven global lessons from a teachable event

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Ontario — Apparently Sgt. James Crowley’s arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Boston on July 17 was “a teachable moment.” Here are seven lessons relevant to world affairs.

First, it is possible for intelligent, reasonable, good and honorable people to interpret the same event differently and draw contradictory conclusions.

Second, the reason for this is that we view events through the prism of our respective historical narratives and life experiences. American police officers work in a hostile and life-threatening environment, are correspondingly more heavily armed and operate with a mind set that prioritizes securing compliance from a suspect over other considerations of politeness and nicety.

On the other side, the racially differentiated statistics of those stopped, charged and convicted for all manner of offenses, for example “driving while black,” are deeply disturbing with respect to separate and unequal status of whites and others. They can therefore see racial slights even when none may be intended.

Third, it is possible for both sides in a disputed confrontation to be right. Crowley was responding to a concerned citizen calling the police about a suspected break-in. (The woman caller has since received flowers as a thank you gesture from Gates.)

Having established that the person effecting forcible entry was the legal owner and resident, Crowley was preparing to leave. He said nothing racist or offensive to the professor. Instead of being thanked by a grateful resident that the police were on the job and alert to burglary, he was shouted at and unjustly abused.

Gates had just returned home from a long overseas trip to find his front door jammed. Annoyed and irritable, he entered through a backdoor and asked the driver to help him force the front door open. Accosted by a police officer demanding proof of identity, he was entitled to feel aggrieved at having to bow to white authority in his own home.

Fourth, it is possible for both parties to be wrong. Gates was wrong to hurl charges of racial bias without evidence to that effect, seeing racial slights where none existed. It turns out the sergeant teaches courses against racial profiling. Yet Crowley was wrong to arrest Gates. Hurling verbal abuse at a police officer, so long as it does not trip over into action, is constitutionally protected freedom of speech.

Courtesy is a civic virtue, not a legal duty. Disrespecting the police is not “disorderly conduct” and does not warrant being cuffed and arrested. There is no such crime as contempt of cop.

A senior and respected professor at the world’s most prestigious university, Gates has clout. Many victims of this particular police excess don’t. This is why some are still urging Gates to sue, not as an act of personal greed or vengeance but of civic virtue, to highlight, through a high-profile case that will garner national and worldwide publicity, the daily misuse of police powers against vulnerable individuals.

Fifth, combining the last two, it is possible for any one party to be both right and wrong at the same time. This is why it is often said that the color of truth is gray, not black and white.

Sixth, it is dangerous to ascribe patterns of behavior to groups based on assumptions of monolithic identity. Many whites have been critical of Crowley’s behavior and openly acknowledge the reality of racially segregated justice in the U.S. legal system and law enforcement practices. On the other side, several blacks have criticized Gates for over-reacting against an officer doing his duty and faulted President Barack Obama for having rushed into judgment prematurely.

Seventh, despite these individual variations, it is still possible to generalize at the group level. Proportionately, far more blacks and Hispanics than whites will have readily empathized and sympathized with Gates, for they come out of the same historical narrative and collective consciousness.

Similarly, in world politics, at a certain level of analysis, it is possible to argue that in general, developing countries are more suspicious of claims to a right of humanitarian intervention; more interested in justice among rather than within nations; more concerned about the root causes of terrorism like poverty, illiteracy and territorial grievances; more interested in economic development than worried about nuclear proliferation; and more committed to the defense of national sovereignty, over the promotion of human rights, than the industrialized Western countries.

The fact that there are individual differences within developing countries and among Westerners neither negates nor invalidates the generalization. And to the extent that developing country viewpoints rarely get an airing, let alone a respectful hearing, in Western mainstream media, Western publics and governments typically have a seriously distorted understanding of many international issues.

The other lessons are relevant to international politics too, particularly to those from the peace research and conflict resolution community. Between different nationalities in world affairs as between groups within countries, we tend to remember the harm and damage caused to us by the actions of others. If this fits into a pattern of behavior over time, it festers as a group grievance in our collective consciousness.

By contrast, we know the reasons for our own action toward others, which then makes it an understandable action even if it caused harm, which in turn leaves us puzzled as to why the other side holds a grudge instead of understanding why we acted as we did.

Alas, inviting the two sides to share a beer of a lazy afternoon on the lawns of the White House is not a realistic option for resolving international disputes.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario.