For Some Reason UC Davis Did Not Make Me Give Up On Humanity

When something like this happens, it either makes you despair about the world, or it makes you want to fix it. And despite all appearances, I think it’s fixable.

Nov 21, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment



Nothing makes you ready to give up on the world forever like a cop in riot gear pepper-spraying seated college students at point-blank range -- unless it's the fact that some members of the anti-Occupy contingent think it was a great idea.

Normally this would make me feel totally overwhelmed by the enormity of the darkness humanity faces and whatnot -- but as enraging as this is, when I sat down to write about it I found myself being uncharacteristically hopeful.

The brilliant Captain Awkward (and if you’re not reading her blog, what are you waiting for?) got the ball rolling for me when she admonished the UC Davis cops on Twitter: “No one looks back at Kent State and sides with the National Guard, OK? Get on the right side of history for fucking once.” She wasn’t the first person to connect UC Davis to Kent State, but that got me thinking about history’s right side and wrong side.

It’s not the case that nobody sides with the National Guard at Kent State -- terrible people abound -- but it’s definitely true that history condemns them. We can’t reconcile the massacre of protesters, even less-than-peaceful protesters, with our idea of democracy. We do not condone it when soldiers slaughter unarmed teenagers on US soil. We ‘re not willing to be that country.

We were then.

A Gallup poll conducted after the shootings showed that 58 percent of respondents blamed the students for the massacre. Nixon’s prepared statement said that the protesters’ behavior “invite[d] tragedy” -- in other words, they were asking for it. You can bet your ass that if there had been Internet comments sections in 1970, they would have been full of misspelled missives about how those hippies only got what they deserved. Since there weren’t, those people sent hate mail to the victims’ mothers instead.

Improbably, we’ve grown a little since then. This country still teems with warmongers, but there are no longer 100 million people who think college students deserve to be shot and killed for protesting. Forty years later, what looked to many at the time like a moral morass now has a clear right side and a wrong side, and the people being lifted into the light are the ones who were the good guys all along.

We’ve evolved in other ways too, ways it’s easy to forget because so much injustice remains. In the 60s, many Americans would have cheered the police who set their dogs on civil rights demonstrators; now, most people learn as early as elementary school that these were shameful actions in a shameful time. Tacit racial discrimination is widespread and insidious, and maybe harder to eradicate than the officially sanctioned kind -- but segregation is no longer state policy, and people who want to discriminate in education, employment or medical care now do so in spite of the law, not because of it. We are not good, but we are better.

And if we keep zooming back through time, we see this again and again: a group of people who reject the status quo, who frighten and anger the majority by refusing to accept ingrained injustices, but who in retrospect are understood to be the first wave of a better, gentler world, a society made incrementally more kind by their influence.
 
Agitators become prophets, over and over again, and their hard-won “privileges” become self-evident human rights. Look at suffragettes. Look at abolitionists. Look at any number of revolutionaries. They’ve all changed society’s baseline for what’s considered moral and good.

It’s not that things always get better across the board, or that they do it on any kind of predictable rising slope. Inequalities expand and contract. New wars replace the ones that met protest and were ended, or met protest and fizzled shamefully out. Police forces quietly gird themselves like they were invading armies. Corporate interests latch on to the government, and the government’s skin grows over them like a wounded tree. And the arc of history bends so slowly that it doesn’t seem to move at all.
 
But over the decades the baseline shifts, slowly and in nearly invisible ways, toward something just a little more benign.

I don’t actually think most people are basically decent at heart. People are bastards, on average. But at the societal level, there can be a kind of emergent decency, where civilization becomes more humane than the sum of its parts.
 
Emergence, as a scientific concept, means complex large-scale patterns arising out of simple small-scale actions -- no one bird can choreograph an undulating sky dance, but a group of them can. That beauty comes from hundreds of individual movements, hundreds of birds watching the guy next to them and steering accordingly. It’s not the fastest way for a group to move forward, but it’s organic and real, and there’s something lovely in the meanderings.

 
Humanity can do the same thing: Large-scale patterns of progress arise from our daily interactions, not only resistance and activism but also basic interpersonal respect and compassion. It’s hard to notice this emergence happening day to day, or even within a lifetime. But looking back along the arc we can see it bend, like the horizon visibly bends when you get up high enough. Society is still an asshole, but it’s a slightly less immature asshole than it used to be.

It’s not like me to be this positive, honestly. But when something like this happens, it either makes you despair about the world, or it makes you want to fix it. And despite all appearances, I think it’s fixable. Not quickly, not completely, not by any one of us -- but by all of us, a little at a time.