16th Reflection, “Ethical Loving Relationships”
Almost a year since the event, the rush to judgment is still coming in from last fall’s MTV Awards: demonize Kanye West as a bad person and give Taylor Swift her wings and proclaim her for sainthood as an innocent victim of Mr. West’s crime. That’s what we tend to do in media generated events especially crises that are not personal to us: assign extreme, absolute roles and vilify or glorify based on those roles. This is exactly why we struggle with our ability to engage in effective decision making in a multicultural democracy. Our own lived experiences don’t match up with the way we rush to judge others.
When I was arrested, I felt the same wrath: extreme overreactions in how law enforcement addresses domestic disturbances, assigning me the role of the perpetrator and my wife the role of the victim. Those gender based stereotypes found their way into the media leaks, and even into the courtroom, as each has norms and procedures for how these systems operate that reinforce an absolute dichotomy that is simply false. Truth doesn’t live in extremes, it lives in nuanced, balanced places and our ability to find it must start with a process that can preserve the context of complexity where it rests.
Whether law enforcement decides not to ask the man his side of the story before passing judgment, the media conflating the meaning of an arrest with a conviction calling for consequences before the legal process played out, or informal judicial processes that create incentives to “overcharge” that generate pressure on those arrested to obtain convictions without formal legal proceedings, all of these are inhumane acts of administrative expediency to produce goals beyond just finding the “truth”.
My wife and I were two human people, each making some good decisions and each engaging in some poor behavior the night of my arrest. It’s that simple: but none of the non-human systems reflect that reality.
And that is a systemic problem with how we make societal decisions.
Kanye is obviously not dealing well with the loss of his mother, and we all know of similar situations in our personal life. If he was “yours,” would your negative judgment be as absolute and condemning of a grieving family drunk who acted out of turn publicly?
The full context of his actions that he is a troubled man who has brought many of us great joy in his music and for that, I want to work to help him, understand him, and create the appropriate level of human responsibility for a human flaw, not demonize him absolutely. The societal criticism of several black celebrities from last fall has been on my mind of late: Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, and Kanye. It bothers me that many of us are fair weather fans: we love it when they give us what we desire, want, and are attracted to, but quick to absolutely condemn human flaws that we all share in some degree. Our flaws usually just aren’t newsworthy.
And it’s not just Kayne, we do this all the time, on all sides of the political spectrum: whether Don Imus, Charlie Sheen, Public Enemy (for you old school hip hop heads), or Puerto Rican American Supreme Court Justice the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor, the process of absolute and quick condemnation for selective mistakes is a recurring and growing consequence of our technology. Somehow, conservative political sex scandals are worse than liberal ones from the liberal media and vice versa when more conservative pundits judge their counterparts. It’s a crazy, unbalanced, cycle of overreaction for some type of political gain that has become our approach to almost all media news and opinion. Our technological soundbite world destroys the impetus for the broader context of a story, until AFTER it has become sensationalized, instead of before we make it a major media event.
An honest account of who Kanye is, together with a balanced understanding of the context of his actions will allow us to draw much more compassion for him, which he deserves because of the joy his music brings to so many. Just like the emotional high of a powerful Serena serve, or the high flying art when Jordan became airborne, and especially the beauty of a monster Tiger drive. A full context of their body of work requires more balanced, nuanced criticism, not absolute condemnation in a particular moment. That’s how we want to be judged for our transgressions and at a minimum what they deserve.
While the societal overreaction in the condemnation of Kayne was absolute, let’s take a closer look at Beyonce’s actions later in the show. She didn’t just give Taylor her moment, she also made a choice on how to address Kanye. If we really pay attention that is exactly what Beyonce did when she repaired the situation through her ethical and moral leadership. It’s an example that we can share.
You see, Kayne is like family to Beyonce, as her husband and Kanye share a longstanding friendship and working relationship. She felt compassion for him, even though Kayne used Beyonce by presupposing that her honor needed defending by him. She demonstrated and rebuked him in a quiet, implicit way, sending him a message, while showing us publicly that she understood the need for Taylor’s reparation due to the injustice that had occurred. Although it was not loud, violent, nor vindictive, it was still justice, and it likely continued beyond the moment as Kanye’s friends and family would later intervene further into his life.
In that moment, Beyonce engaged in what I like to call ethical loving relationships with both Taylor and Kanye. She read the situation, decided upon her purpose based on that situation, and simultaneously engaged each person relative to that purpose, demonstrating compassion to both, while never losing sight of the task at hand. It wasn’t sensational, nor would her quiet disciplining of Kayne become a media focus. Why? Because she wanted the moment to focus on the celebration of Taylor, unlike the aggressive public condemnation of Kayne for over the last year. An absolute condemnation which easily loses the institutional memory of what Kayne’s music has meant because we are unwilling to think about the broader context of the high levels of both self-confidence (even arrogance) and pain necessary in a person to produce a music that touches our souls.
Dr. Cornel West talks about the role of love in challenging institutional oppression. It just seems like the human consideration of love and compassion provides an opportunity to tear down non-human unfeeling systems. Striving for ethical loving relationships between people can be a great start towards truth and justice, and tough love that doesn’t forget compassion is superior to demonizing those we should care about for what they have given us.
I hope America doesn’t just consider what Beyonce did for Taylor, but they observe how she handled Kayne as well. The class she demonstrated reflects the type of decision making through ethical loving relationships that we all need to strive for with each other, and the outpouring of hostility demonstrates that we aren’t there quite yet. Thanks “B”.
As I reflect on my inability to effectively create ethical loving relationships as a coach and administrator since I started the “Louisville Project” in 2000, a couple of thoughts come to mind. Prior to 2000, when I generally excelled as a contemporary college debate coach with a unique small school niche of having a predominately white debate team effectively debate race arguments in the existing system, I was generally well-liked and a solid administrator able to maintain the program who met the expectations of the two organizations key to the program’s growth and development, the intercollegiate debate community and the University of Louisville.
However, the decision to introduce a radical difference into both environments created more variables than I was prepared to handle. A population of students choosing to not compete in familiar ways was a coaching and administrative nightmare at many levels, most stemming from the uncertainty created and my inability to articulate the long term value because I was forced to live “in the moment” without a broader context to reference. I lacked the context of a stable history, curriculum, or set of norms and procedures to guide my actions and I quickly became Kayne: antagonistic, aggressive, impatient, but most importantly, highly, highly defensive. Many of my actions were borne from a personality who was incapable of balancing the crisis that I had created. I learned that I lacked the political skill set so masterfully demonstrated that night by Beyonce.
Over the years, I have studied effective decision makers with power over people and whether they are capable of maintaining ethical loving relationships, especially during times of crisis. Trust when I say, there aren’t many who can do so, but I’ve seen a few recurring personality traits of those who do. Compassion, a desire to nuture, and task oriented are a few of the central personality traits I’ve observed. But those managers have something else I see: process.
Generally, they are effective communicators who establish clear boundaries based on goals on the front end. Usually involving those they have power over in the boundary creation process before creating rules and norms, effective administrators are participatory in their approach. But they also are quick to enforce those boundaries once created, recognizing the importance of having all members of a collective responsible for their actions if the group is to succeed. Generally, these decision makers maintain the ability to be both liked and respected, although any one with power who uses it will find detractors.
I’m sure that I am still not on the level of those I’ve learned from because effective decision making for groups, especially during times of crisis is so much more an art than something that can be taught. But make no mistake, my observations have made me a little better than what I was in 2000. I have also learned that much of my success prior to 2000 was due to the certainty of my circumstances and decision making in that environment usually fails to produce real social change because only in times of uncertainty can that type of change occurs. It’s important that we think about that as we move forward to create better institutions and structures that are not comfortable with change.
In July, 2009, I, Dr. Ede Warner, Jr. the Director of Debate at the University of Louisville, was arrested on four charges, and later plead guilty to a different, lesser crime. I spent a night in jail and received two years probation.
Brazilian Educator Paulo Freire believes that critical consciousness comes from reflection and action. Scholar bell hooks (she doesn’t do capitalization either) says that purpose should guide our educational choices. My purpose since 2005, as stated in the mission of the University of Louisville Debate Society that I direct has been to “increase effective decision making in a multicultural democracy.” The events in my life over the last nine months created what I call “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Professor.” This reflection is about “ethical loving relationships.”
Director of the Malcolm X Debate Society/Associate Professor of Pan African Studies, both at the University of Louisville