Friday's note about assumptions
was supposed to be a two-parter, but I got distracted by a massive backache and just didn't feel like writing anything at all (I still don't, but after a while I get bored with sitting around and whining).
An assumption is really just a conclusion we come to based on our prior experiences. We all do it, all the time. You have to, because there's no way you could process and research every piece of scant information that comes your way. Just imagine what it would take to drive to the grocery store-- you'd have to make well-informed decisions about every single car on the road, without proceeding until you know FOR CERTAIN what they're going to do. It's much easier to assume that the other cars do not want to pull into your driveway, that they'll continue going when they have the right of way, that they will stop at stop signs and red lights, and that they will signal if they intend to do something other than go straight.
Whoops. There's a problem in our assumptions right there, isn't there? How many times have you seen someone turn or merge without signaling? I'm guessing you've seen it a lot, a guess I make based on my own past experiences with people not signaling and with people complaining about people not signaling. So we make a complicated set of assumptions about people who are slowing down or who have moved into a right-turn-only lane, to cope with our past experiences teaching us that not everyone will continue to go forward.
Those past experiences don't even have to be our own. We tell our children stories about kids who were abducted by strangers, though we were never abducted ourselves. We read news stories and internalize them, subtly changing our behavior because of them. Have you ever had your house or car broken into? If you answered no: do you lock your doors anyway?
It's not a bad thing to learn from others. You can't possibly make every mistake there is to be made all by yourself, and some mistakes are fatal, so you'd have to choose only one of those mistakes to make. And then at the end of it, you'd still be dead. All in all, it's probably better to make some assumptions based on things that have happened to other people.
Let's turn our attention to a recent media debacle: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Gates is a Harvard professor who was arrested, either for breaking into his own home, for being obnoxious, or for being black, depending on who you ask. By now, you know how to use search engines[*] for yourself, and searching for "Henry Louis Gates Jr" will give you plenty of results. Plus, I don't really care about the facts of the case, as I plan to speculate wildly on it and then use my speculation to point out alternate possibilities and places where various people made assumptions that may or may not have been true. Thus, I'm only going to use the police report itself
and my own opinions and speculations.
Should I point out one more time that these are my own speculations, about something I did not witness firsthand, or have I already said it enough to get the message that this is my wild guess, based on nothing but my own speculations, which are built on my own assumptions? Should I mention that I don't know a damned thing about Gates except what I've read on the web, and that I don't much care if my assumptions are right or wrong so much as I care whether or not I can make my point about assumptions?
Seriously. I don't want responses about Gates's case. I don't care.
Now then, about Gates.
He was arrested because someone called in a report of a possible break-in. Already, we're working on secondhand information, because the cop himself didn't see anything that made him suspicious of a break-in. Here's our first and second assumption: the cop had to assume that the caller really did see something. The caller had to assume that what she saw was suspicious.
Neither of these are bad things. By the accounts, what the witness saw was a man who took an inordinately long time fooling around with the door to a house, and then wedging his shoulder against the door as if to force entry. I know that if I saw the same thing, I'd call the police, and that if someone were to see a person doing that to my front door, I'd want them to call the police. I'd want the police to take them seriously, and to come out and investigate.
As it turns out, the witness's assumption was wrong. The man fooling with the lock and then pushing hard against the door was not breaking and entering, but was the homeowner having trouble with his key.
Incorrect assumptions CAN be sorted out civilly. The officer might have calmly asked to see Gate's ID. Gates might have calmly handed over his ID, and politely inquired why the officer wanted to see it. The officer might have calmly explained that a witness called in a report, and the police department is obligated to check the situation out when a witness calls in a report, even if the report is based on false assumptions. Gates might have tempered his annoyance over someone calling in a report with a realization that having to force your own door open does look a little suspicious.
That didn't happen. Exactly where it failed to happen is up for debate. According to the police report, Gates hit the roof as soon as the police officer identified himself. However, it's worth noting that the police report is written by the police officer, who has a vested interest in not writing reports that make him look like an asshole, and it was written after the incident was over rather than as it was happening, which means it is based in part on the officer's recollection of his behavior.
Based on what I know (from past experiences of my own, from past experiences of others, and from stories read/watched/forced down my throat-- never assume that fiction doesn't have a say in your opinions), police officers who are investigating a crime walk into the situation assuming that everyone is guilty. It's all well and good that we take an "innocent until proven guilty" stance, but that applies to punishment, not to suspicion. It's the police officer's job to figure out what's going on and whether anyone is committing a crime, and they can't do that if they walk in assuming everyone present is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Building on that assumption means that I assume that the police officer went in demanding to know who Gates was and what business he had in that house.
On the flip side, I assume that Gates wasn't having the best of days, based on the mere fact that he had to force his way into his own home. The door sticking might not be that big of a deal on the face of it, but I'm a homeowner, and I know that nearly every time I encounter something wrong with my house, my reaction is along the lines of "Damn it, another thing that needs to be fixed." I also know that my reaction gets stronger if it's something that has happened often, but intermittently (like a door sticking only on humid days)-- if it's not constant, it's got a lower chance of being fixed right away, so when it happens again it serves as a fresh reminder of YetAnotherThingThatMustBeDone(tm). So I can sympathize with Gates a little, snapping at a police officer who is accusing him of doing something wrong, when he's not actually doing anything wrong and is already having a bad day.
But here's the question: which one of them played the race card first? From the way this has escalated, it's easy to assume that the other followed suit at some point, but... was it as the police report claims, that Gates immediately assumed he was being targeted because of his race rather than his behavior? Or did the police officer react more strongly to the presence of a black man than he has in similar situations with white suspects? Has the police officer ever investigated a burglary before? Maybe he was recently taken off a desk job and was nervous over being a first-responder in a potentially hostile situation.
We don't know. We don't know if Gates has been targeted because of his race in the past (which would reinforce his assumptions that others will target him because of his race in the future). We don't know if the arresting officer is actually racist; there's plenty of evidence to suggest that he might not be.
We may not know, but that hasn't stopped bloggers from citing racism in Gates' arrest. It hasn't stopped Gates' colleagues from openly wondering if the same thing would have happened if Gates had been white. It hasn't stopped political officials from commenting on it, and it hasn't stopped bloggers from reacting to the comments from the political officials. It hasn't stopped friends of mine from condemning the arresting officer for arresting Gates for B&E-- even though what Gates was actually arrested for was disorderly conduct, after shouting at the police officer about how racist the officer was. Maybe Gates accused the officer unfairly. Maybe he didn't. Maybe Gates' accusations weren't meant for the officer at all, but rather for the witness. Could it have been that the witness was racist, and called in her report just because Gates was black?
What assumptions have you made about Gates, now that we're this far into the discussion? What assumptions have you made about me? What assumptions do you think I've made about Gates? What assumptions do you think I've made about you?
More importantly: what assumptions do you make, day in and day out, about the people you interact with? Do you assume that they're there to annoy and harass you, or do you assume that they're there to protect you? Do you assume they have your interests at heart, or do you assume that they care only for their own interests? No matter what you assume, you could be wrong.* I'd have said "Google" here instead, but I know that a certain Microsoft employee could have pointed out that you could just as easily use "Bing". I don't really care one way or the other. I like Google, but I'm not going to push my opinion on others.