The events in Wisconsin late last month, I think, truly made our collective heart ache. Following a cycle of increasing polarization for decades on end, and the violent paroxysms of the past few months, the last week of August into September was a soul-rending chain of unmitigated pain. The horrific shooting of Jacob Blake set off a renewed wave of protests, in which the ultimate price has been paid by supporters of each side.
This felt, and still feels, like the most dangerous moment for our country that I have ever experienced, at least in my half a lifetime. And what creates this danger is our constant habit of viewing the actions of our opponents in the worst possible light in order to achieve our full moral separation; our maintenance of the view of ourselves as in the right, and them in the wrong. We’re constantly nudged one way or the other in our interpretation of the intentions and the motivations of those we disagree with, and when we add up all those little nudges, it puts us on the other side of a vast gulf.
These are usually subtle distortions of the truth, and they don’t in fact serve us the way we have intended. They just push us toward less understanding of our foes, while failing to sway the opinions of others toward our viewpoint, and most unmistakably, provoking the fierce defensiveness of those opponents.
Let’s take the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who was captured on video shooting three people, killing two of them, during the protests against the Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
To the left, he’s a monster. He’s a mass shooter who came to Kenosha looking for trouble and found it, and when confronted for it took the cowardly way out. To the right, he’s a patriot, who came to help free the city of Kenosha from the violence and destruction of rioters, to support the police in their mission to keep the streets safe, to clean up after vandals, who even sought to give aid to anyone harmed that night, on either side.
Of course, neither of those images is even remotely complete, since the story of how Rittenhouse got into this situation is, as usual, complex and heartbreaking, and at points even a bit pitifully funny. And all of this is recorded on video. If you take the time to watch not just the shootings themselves, but the preludes that lead up to them, even in the days preceding, you see a lonely, bullied kid who had sought acceptance and community with a group that claimed to be the allies of the police, a profession which, according to nearly every news report about his personal life, he “idolized.”
He fully believed in the message that the breakdown of law and order threatened the very fabric of our society, and he saw this moment, for which he’d been preparing for years, as his chance to not only stand up for what was right, but to be seen doing it as well. As an interesting presage to that last bit, a TikTok page belonging to him apparently contained videos of him assembling guns, with the profile bio line, “Bruh, I’m just tryna be famous.”
This performance, as I think it can be accurately termed, started well before last week, with Rittenhouse getting into a fight on July 1st which resulting in him punching a girl multiple times, caught on video. I don’t know about any other history of violence he might have had, but I can imagine a scenario in which he saw this as one of his first real moments to make his presence felt by standing up to someone who had picked a fight with his friend, never mind that that someone was smaller than him.
Fast-forward to the day of the shootings, and you can see his tense excitement as he declares his role in the protection of property and safety to a reporter from the Daily Caller, Richard McGinnis, calling it his “job,” and promising to rush into harm’s way for anyone under threat, including the reporter himself. “We’re running medical, and we’re going in and getting people.” Rittenhouse also claims to have helped stop two local buildings from being set ablaze, including a church, surmising that he and his group were able to “de-escalate” the situation more effectively than the police would have. And in fact, earlier in the day he made an unambiguously positive contribution, helping to scrub graffiti off a local school, which might lend credence to the idea that, even if he were inflating his sense of self-importance, he at least wished to use it for good.
But as we continue following McGinnis’ video, the role playing gets even more absurd. Rittenhouse is joined by an older man who suggests they go see if there are any injuries they can attend to as “Medical” personnel. That man turned out to be Ryan Balch, a follower of the “boogaloo boi” movement that has been preparing for a race war. They had met earlier in the day, and Balch apparently took him under his wing for a while. As we follow this walk, perhaps the most desperate and cringe-worth declaration of the night is uttered, and it comes not from Rittenhouse, but from the man who’s taken charge of his wellbeing. McGinnis is asking the 17-year-old about his “EMT” credentials, which Rittenhouse is clearly inflating—he’s actually just a lifeguard with some emergency training, a far cry from a real emergency medical technician—but then declines to inquire about Balch. So after a beat, Balch offers up, “And I’m forward army infantry, and I got a whole bunch of [unintelligible] training.” In this exchange we can see an entire universe of insecurities represented, with both the underaged kid with a gun and the man accompanying him—who had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan—desperate to be recognized for their importance and experience.
The scene takes its first dark turn as we see Rittenhouse announcing “Medical!” in another awkward attempt to be taken seriously as a courageous defender of public safety. As he walks up to a group of young black men, we immediately get a clearer picture of what he’s been up to earlier in the day—one of them tells McGinnis that Rittenhouse had shooed him away from a car at gunpoint. By this time, having been confronted with this, Rittenhouse has already moved on, not denying the accusation, but continuing to shout offers of medical help.
McGinnis was still with Rittenhouse when the night went fully south, beginning with his confrontation with his first victim, Joseph Rosenbaum. And here’s where we encounter one of the main problems standing in the way of a clear-eyed understanding of what happened and why. To get such an understanding requires progressives be willing to take a fair look at Rittenhouse’s claim of self-defense, even as we maintain a healthy skepticism of the motivations of many of those touting it. And to do that requires that we actually look at the people he shot, especially the first.
As I type this, I can feel the rising agitation of my fellow progressives. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel rightly points out, we cannot judge an incident like this based on the past actions of the victims. And there’s a long history of motivated reasoning distorting the backgrounds of victims of violence to justify that violence, particularly in the cases of the black victims that Rosenbaum was there to speak up for.
But refusing to look at the negative aspects of a victim is not the same as impartially weighing the circumstances of the violence. When trying to piece together what happened that night and evaluate Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim, evidence of what Rosenbaum did in his final moments is key. We don’t know yet—and may never know—what he did, but we do know that earlier in the night he belligerently confronted armed militia members, daring them to shoot him. This doesn’t mean he acted in the same way toward Rittenhouse, but he might have. Clearly this is an aspect that those who paint BLM protesters as rioters would never ignore, and those protesters don’t help their cause by denying its clear relevance, especially when there’s really no good footage showing in detail the moment of the shooting.
We should certainly take into account the fact that Rosenbaum was chasing Rittenhouse across a parking lot, and that in the moment right before the fatal shooting, another person in that lot clearly fired a gun into the air. And the only close-up eyewitness account of the shooting has the victim grabbing for the gun of the shooter, to take it from him. In the scene that followed, it’s also pertinent that Rittenhouse was being chased by a group that was trying to disarm him, and received a drop-kick followed by a skateboard to the head, as one person tried to grab his gun and another approached him with a pistol.
With a situation like this, I think it’s important look inward. With all of these factors piling up, who do we think we’d be in this situation? We can choose to assume the best of ourselves as we think the worst of Rittenhouse, but I think that’s a disingenuous approach.
Sure, what you’re thinking now—if you’re a progressive like me—is a fair point: we wouldn’t be in the middle of a hostile crowd with an AR-style long gun. But what this points to is that the conversation should seriously focus around why he was there in the first place. And our reactions to this catastrophe point to the very reason anyone would be there in the first place. We have come to embrace only the aspects of the story that support our narrative, and it amps up the rage on both sides to the point where we’re driven blind to any nuance.
This bullied boy, who had come to Kenosha convinced that he was doing right by history and those around him, found himself in an utterly terrifying situation, and he did exactly what we would expect him to do.
That reality makes it no less true that at the same time, black people are exhausted from the terror they must live with every day. It’s a terror based on the fact that in the same country in which a white kid with a fully loaded AR can walk up to a police vehicle and be thanked for being there, and who can walk towards those same police right after having shot 3 people with his hands raised to surrender and be told to go home, that a black kid playing with a toy gun would be shot before the officers’ car had even stopped.
Support for the Black Lives Matter movement hit a peak on June 3rd, shortly after the death of George Floyd, as the nation finally seemed to approach the long-awaited reckoning with its tragic treatment of our black citizens. White progressives have been eager to show themselves as allies to black people during this time. Now, however, that progress has been undone by the behavior of a few in the protest crowd, setting cars and buildings on fire and taunting the militants in their midst. And from what I’ve seen, many of these people have been white.
This is no way to be an ally, especially when many of the businesses are black-owned. Not only is this violence harming the very communities that the perpetrators claim to be advocating for, but it directly enables the cynical message from the movement’s detractors, that violence is a tactic to achieve the larger aim of destroying our country out of hatred.
Each of us, from progressives to pro-Trump conservatives, must come to terms with the fact that the other side’s belief in our side’s compliance and complacence with the rise of fascism, is sincere—and that this is a problem. Indeed, that very polarization is how fascism wins, by convincing everyone involved that each provocation from their opponents must be met with equal force, lest they be emboldened. But we can break that cycle, by choosing to judge with more humanity the actions of those who oppose us. To see them as the flawed humans that they—and we—are.
This is not to draw a false equivalence. Each of our tribes has made no secret they abhor that. And I have no doubt about which side of that debate I’m on. But believing in one’s own righteousness does not require demonization of those who you see as committing unjust acts.
Some progressives argue that oppressors should be denounced and exposed as violent monsters. They argue that this was the strategy of Dr. King’s non-violent resistance, to win over the moderate middle. But I think this misses the point of King’s philosophy, and that of his intellectual forebears. They stood firm in the face of violence and made it very visible to the public, so society was able to look upon itself. Their words were important too, but those words didn’t tear others down—they called them up to join the Beloved Community, to invite even their oppressors to join in that community when it is realized.
This philosophy hinges on a universal potential for redemption, which I see as a core component of humanity. To call someone an evil monster based on their reaction to a provocation is to not only deny their humanity, but to further assert that because of the difference in our DNA that we are incapable of the sins of our enemies. But human behavior is a product of experience and circumstances—more so, I believe, than genetics—and leaning on the concept of “evil” to explain it denies our own potential for acts of extreme good or bad.
This is a most classic of cognitive distortions, as we’re so fiercely protective of our self-images. But believing ourselves immune from humankind’s most acute fallibility is the quickest path to our own fall.
What does this mean for our outreach to those who we see as fallen? For myself, to truly live the principles of the philosophy of King and his ilk, to truly behave as though I believe in the possibility of redemption for all, means that there is no line for me, no ideological distance I will refuse to try to bridge. My involvement with Braver Angels has reinforced for me that regardless of that distance, I will always believe in the value of reaching out to someone, of trying to understand them. I would have that conversation with an open mind to their perspective, with no expectation of changing their mind about their actions, regardless of how deep their sins.
And what if through this act we did truly connect, sensing one another’s humanity and developing a deep sense of empathy for one another? Extending empathy to someone who has done wrong does not equal condoning their behavior, or necessarily even forgiving it. But it does open the door for repentance, and given that the harm has already happened, would there be a better result than that?
After all, what is the function of punishment? Is it purely to deliver pain in equal measure to the crime? Or is it to achieve the reckoning that the guilty needs to face their own guilt and actually feel remorse? Do we just say an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, or do we act in a way that shows we’ve internalized that lesson? And if that is the goal that we can agree to among humanity, then how can we pass up a chance to open our ears to those who have wronged us? To hear about their pain, to hear about what drove them to the moral descent they’ve suffered?
Which is all to say, if this message makes any sense to you, then in order to judge Kyle Rittenhouse, or Michael Reinoehl, or any of the other people involved in the escalating violence that threatens to carry us to the brink of a real civil war, we must be willing to truly know them. To hear their stories, to try to feel their pain, their fear.
This is not to say that asking an oppressed people to turn the other cheek, insisting that it’s the only way forward, is right. But while strong condemnation of violence and hatred has obvious value, so does a sincere offer of redemption. And the combination of the two can be so powerful. These approaches are truly complementary. An unwillingness to countenance voices of hate can make outreach to those voices more powerful. But the offer of redemption, I believe, makes that condemnation more promising.
There’s a different path available to us, away from this escalating cycle of violence and contempt. It’s much easier if we walk this path together, but since we can only control our own approach, the responsibility begins with us.
For my fellow progressives, I would argue that we need to support civil rights leaders with a real plan to mobilize the BLM movement in a way that it would mind its own limits, where those who made decisions that distracted from the message of the movement were reined in, rendering the power of public support undeniable. The protesters would be able to occupy the streets until true change is enacted. It would take hard work and vigilance. It would take thorough documentation of every time someone within the opposition hurts us, a video of every time that someone is shot with a paintball gun or pepper sprayed without provocation.
And this principle extends across the divide. Law-and-order conservatives may very well declare that violence and destruction is unacceptable, highlighting any time a store is looted or a car is set alight, but must seriously question whether these actions invalidate the underlying movement for racial justice.
About our own side when we are the perpetrators, we should say, this is not who we are, and we condemn this behavior. And about our opponents we should say, this is not who you are either, and we know you can do better. But we refuse to retaliate.
Let us all make this promise, to see the best in one another, instead of assuming the worst, lest we help to fulfill our own dark prophesies.