Online Exclusive

The Importance of Perspective

I love online media. 

I’ve always been a devotee of newspapers and magazines, able to be wholly absorbed into as many as I can get my hands on; a trip to the doctor or dentist, although maybe not all that much fun in itself, has always held the favorite and peculiar fringe benefit of allowing me to go early and dig through the waiting room magazine racks without the guilty feeling I’m simply wasting time.  I have to be there, right?  And in college and graduate school both, countless trips to the library – with all good intentions of focused and efficient academic research – devolved into hours spent digging through and pouring over articles completely unrelated to my original intentions. 

So now, in an era where almost every major, minor, and specialty daily and periodical has an easily accessible – and usually free - online presence, we have ascended to reading junkie heaven!  We are firmly entrenched in the information age and more people than ever are able to instantly connect with literally thousands of media sources through their own personal computer – just like you’re doing right now.

Online media is uniquely revealing about its readers.  Rather than being one-way conduits of information, most online media follows the philosophy of the internet as community and allows and encourages readers to talk back, either by creating comment boards for individual articles or the publication in general, or by maintaining a social media presence wherein content is posted for all to see, share, and talk about.   

Unfortunately, what’s often revealed through comments made in response to articles or news stories is a glaring lack of historical and cultural perspective.  That’s probably not a surprise to most of you; that most Americans lack such perspective is hardly news, and has been decried for generations by those who have it and care about it.  What really concerns me about it, however, and is the central point of this article is twofold: 

First, reading comments posted by law enforcement professionals on this and similar online police sites clearly shows many of us have no better grasp of those historical and cultural perspectives than the common citizen and,

Second, that lack of perspective may promote a sort of fatalism within the profession that threatens the well-being of officers afflicted with it, the morale of their agencies and peers, and ultimately the communities they serve as morale bleeds effective police service.     

Distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye. - Samuel Johnson

Perspective is most easily understood when first considered as a function of vision and how the “view” changes relative to distance.  If you’ve ever flown into a relatively poor tropical area you may be able to relate to this.  As you approach for landing and peer out the window of your plane, a lush green landscape unfolds below.  Small settlements and villages, suburbs of sorts for the busy tourist area you’re traveling to, pop into view and you are struck by their picturesque quaintness and how simple life looks from above.  You see buildings of bright pastels, meandering streams flowing through the villages and specks of what must certainly be children splashing in them and playing on their banks.  Interspersed with the green vegetation are brightly colored trees and flowers, lending an exotic beauty to the scene.  The villages pop out of sight as you get closer to the airport and eventually land, and then you’re whisked off to the resort. 

Later, on a tour to the jungle, you are driven through one of the villages you earlier passed over at 3000 feet and are shocked by how relative distance changes impressions.  The people are living in abject poverty.  Children indeed play on the riverbanks and cavort in the water, which your senses tell you doubles as playground and raw sewage reservoir.  The angry screams of a man and woman, and the fearful cries of an infant, emanate from a shack - the tongue may be foreign but you’ve been a cop long enough to know a domestic when you hear one – while a surly crowd of youths stand outside and pay the fight no mind as they eye your tour bus contemptuously.  A dead animal, decomposing beyond recognition, lies rotting in the street where it fell days before.  No one can be bothered to move or bury it.

What a difference a little distance makes!

But time can also be a measure of distance, and “point-of-view” can distort over time.  When “Occupy Wall Street” and its cousin movements (“Occupy __________”) emerged it was interesting to watch the reaction within the online law enforcement community.  Stories about OWS and their shenanigans, especially as they related to how they and the police interacted with each other, created quite a racket on the comment blogs of this and other police sites.  Overwhelmingly condemned, the OWS activists were castigated for their crimes - real and imagined - and for many of the things they said all in pursuit of some rather ambiguous, unlikely, and poorly articulated goals.  Fair enough, but what became unfair was how many commenters were quick to jump in with sweeping generalizations - “The OWS protesters are all (Liberals!  Communists!  Criminals!  Anarchists!  Dopers!  Lazy!  Unemployable!  Etc, etc, etc!!)” - was just one set of epithets.  To some, they represented the whole of a generation, uniformly spoiled and unfit to be heard or trusted. 

Worse, many of the LEO and LEO supporters who commented seemingly embraced a fatalistic view of the future, taking as evidence the OWS movement.  Surely, with attitudes and young people such as these, society is on the verge of irreparably crumbling into anarchy and despair!   

Since then (and before, truth be told) ever more harbingers of doom clearly show society teeters on the edge of chaos:  Mass murder in a Colorado theater; more campus shootings; flash mobs (NOT the fun, come together to dance in the street then disappear kind) in Chicago robbing and beating people on the Miracle Mile; murder and infanticide.  Clearly, collapse of our way of life, and all we struggle to protect, is imminent!

Really?  Because I simply don’t think so.  History is on our side. 

History discredits the notion that ours is a time somehow worse than ever before, or that the trials we face differ greatly or pose greater threats than earlier generations somehow managed to overcome.  Violence and lawlessness within certain communities is nothing new, and from a historical perspective is not nearly as bad as through much of our past.  Violence against children is always especially vicious and disturbing, but I would wager that, while occurrences are more prominent today than ever – a function of greatly expanded media and growing awareness – crime rates against children are no greater than in decades past and their prominence may actually increase awareness and overall safety for the vast majority of kids.  And the criminality and impact of organized criminal enterprises shocks the senses, but they always have. 

Of course it seems things are so much worse now, and to a great extent I blame the very expansion of online media I also love and participate in as both a producer and consumer.  “If it bleeds, it leads” is an old axiom of media, and what would have once been horrible but strictly local or regional stories just a few years ago now go viral in minutes.  Is it any wonder we feel so inundated with tragedy?  Is it any wonder we so easily give in to fatalism?  Life has always been precarious for individuals, and more so for some than others.  We all face disease and physical threats, and someday some is going to get each and every one of us, but expected life spans are much longer than for our parents and grandparents and, even if we choose not to live a healthy lifestyle, the knowledge of how to is easily accessible.  The continued existence of humanity is far more certain.  Society, in some form, will survive.  We’ve not quite reached living in a  Mad Max world.

Our concern is to help you, as police and protectors of society, to not fall prey to fatalism.  My undergraduate degree was a BA in History; thinking historically is second nature to me.  To most people it is not.  Both Althea and I, holding Masters of Social Work degrees, are trained in social ecology and see human behavior through a cultural lens.  We’re not really surprised or shocked by much – people are people and behavior is surprisingly consistent across generations.  We tend to view behavior somewhat objectively.  Without historical perspective inherent in our backgrounds, however, it is sadly easy to become discouraged or depressed by the world around us. 

We don’t want you to be discouraged or depressed!  It’s not good for you, your families and friends, your colleagues and department, or your communities. 

We will continue with this study of perspective and overcoming fatalism next month, with some alternative – and more positive - ways to view your world.