Straightjacketing

The purpose of a straightjacket is to hold its wearer immobile so that she is unable to harm herself or others. It restricts movement so that arms cannot flail and balance cannot be easily kept. It can eventually induce a sense of calm in its irrational and/or panicked wearer, subduing her into a more manageable state. For some, I would imagine that the straightjacket becomes a source of comfort. It allows the wearer to feel that she is being cared for and watched to make sure she stays out of trouble. She believes that those who put her into the straightjacket have her best interests at heart, and eventually the wearer may choose to spend more and more of her time in the jacket.

The straightjacket analogy is an apt one for those who voluntarily lock themselves in to a particular ideology. The straightjacket of beliefs keeps the wearer calm and gives him a sense of control over his world. Those who constructed and applied the jacket are clearly looking out for the best interests of not just the wearer, but everybody. Alas, this is only comforting when we are surrounded by other people who are wearing the same jacket – that is, those who believe what we believe. When we are confronted with those who think differently, the world can again become a remarkably frightening place, and we retreat to our belief jackets and take comfort there, wrapped immobile in our own ideas.

This is a false comfort. The straightjacket may be soothing and familiar, but it restricts our ability to engage with other points of view. Remember, the straightjacket is meant to calm and immobilize a person who is a danger to himself or others. The analogy starts to break down if you take it too far, but I think it is safe to apply it to the idea that we may be so accustomed to our jackets that we don’t even realize we are wearing them. Instead, those with whom we disagree or by whom we feel threatened are the ones we think are, or should be, wearing the jacket. This is to protect ourselves, not them. It is much easier to believe our ideological opposites are crazy and dangerous than it is to acknowledge our own jackets. I believe we need to step away from the straightjackets and take our chances with the sometimes frightening, irrational, and crazy world as it is. If we engage with others perhaps we will see that they are not as dangerous as we thought – and vice versa.

Sadly, even when people are faced with evidence that what they thought to be true actually isn’t what they thought, they remain straightjacketed in their beliefs and will turn to increasingly strident rationalizations for maintaining their original belief. I recently felt the restraining pressure of my own straightjacket when I made the mistake of immediately accepting a conclusion in a news story that aligned neatly with my already formed beliefs. The case of actress Daniele Watts being detained by the LAPD for alleged inappropriate sexual behavior in public was presented as a matter of clear racial discrimination in this article from Jezebel. I read the article and was instantly outraged. I posted the article to Facebook and defended my position that the LAPD had acted inappropriately by essentially accusing Watts of “kissing while black,” in particular because the man she was kissing was white. It turns out, based on new information, that I had knee-jerked to the wrong conclusion. The investigating officers were answering a call from a member of the public who believed Watts and her husband were having sex in public. The responding officers requested both of their IDs. The husband, Brian James Lucas, complied. Watts did not, claiming that since she had done nothing wrong she was not required to present ID. This is technically true in some circumstances in California, but not when officers have reason to believe a crime may have been committed, which is the case when a citizen makes a call to the police. Audio recorded by the responding officers shows that Watts immediately escalated their request into an accusation of racial discrimination. She ended up in handcuffs as the officers verified her ID, and then let both Watts and Lucas go on their way.

When I heard the audio I immediately realized I had made a mistake. I do not believe that there was any racial motivation in what happened. I am open to new information on the incident potentially changing this conclusion, but based on other things I have read I do not believe the LAPD officers were acting on bias. I also believe, not incidentally, that just because there was no apparent discrimination or bias in this case does not mean that discrimination and bias by cops never happens. I ABSOLUTELY believe that it does. But I do not want to let that belief straightjacket me into thinking that every single interaction between a cop and a person of color is discriminatory, or even potentially discriminatory. As I am so fond of saying to others, you have to gather the facts. You have to get context. As your opinion forms it must be provisional and await further evidence before solidifying. I did not do that in this case, and I am ashamed of myself for it.

My mistake has been a lesson to me about recognizing my own straightjacket. It is hard to escape our own places of comfort but it is vital that we do. Remember that the straightjacket is NOT for comfort – it is meant to restrict us. Don’t let your straightjacket lull you into a false sense of security. Instead, we should shrink from ideological straightjacketing and learn to be comfortable in a world that is sometimes infuriating, frightening, or irrational. We need to keep our minds free.

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