Shift the Conversation?


Two American Teenagers.
Two American Killers.
Two situations where powers that be reacted with silence.

=  Two powerfully different collective conversations

Who Are Those Boys?
Many of you are aware of Travyon Martin from the wealth of recent media attention, as well as a  9-1-1 recording as he died at the hand of a neighborhood vigilante packing both a gun and a history of violence, who acted under the auspices of protecting the neighborhood.  Protests calling for the perpetrator’s arrest have ensued.  Meanwhile the collective conversation expresses outrage that an adolescent carrying skittles and an iced tea has been murdered while the response to this tragedy amounts to a lackadaisical police process with no criminal charges being filed to date.

Perhaps fewer of you know much about Abdul Rahman Bin Anwar al-Awalki. He is the fourth American citizen killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen since 2002.  Please note the U.S. is NOT at war with Yemen.   This teenage boy was born in Denver, Colorado on August 26th 1995, according to a birth certificate released to the Washington Post.  He became a resident of the Yemeni capital Sanaa after moving there from the U.S. in 2002 - still possessing the American citizenship.  Abdulrahman was 16 years old when he died. Two weeks earlier Abduhlrahman’s father, Anwar al-Awlaki had been killed, also in Yemen.

Context for the elder al-Awalki's death comes from a Salon article posted by Glenn Greenwald: “It was first reported in January of last year that the Obama administration had compiled a hit list of American citizens whom the President had ordered assassinated without any due process, and one of those Americans was Anwar al-Awlaki. No effort was made to indict him for any crimes (despite a report last October that the Obama administration was “considering” indicting him). Despite substantial doubt among Yemen experts about whether he even had any operational role in Al Qaeda, no evidence (as opposed to unverified government accusations) was presented of his guilt. When Awlaki’s father sought a court order barring Obama from killing his son, the DOJ argued, among other things, that such decisions were “state secrets” and thus beyond the scrutiny of the courts. He was simply ordered killed by the President: his judge, jury and executioner. When Awlaki’s inclusion on President Obama’s hit list was confirmed, The New York Times noted that“it is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing.”

To summarize then, one boy, Travyon was killed by a neighborhood vigilante armed with a gun and a history violence.  The response lacked the due process demanded in such a situation here in America.  The other, Abdulrahman, was killed by Americans, armed with a drone and a history of violence under the auspices of protecting the nation. The response by those in power (we the people who elect our leaders to act on our behalf and in our name) has been dominated by a lack of bold outcry then and continues to be as secrecy, silence and the excuse of neutralizing a threat is used at the highest levels of American leadership to excuse the atrocities being committed. 

As a person who believes any vision must be powered by heart - I have to ask myself, "How can my heart generate or pursue any vision when my own positive power is overcome by the negative power of shame?"  When I say shame, I mean around the idea there is still an issue of race in my country that causes a 16 year old boy to lose his life and his parents to have to fight for a proper investigation. Or that acts of violence are being perpetrated everyday, humans killed in my name and on my behalf in countries America is not at war with, like Afghanistan and Yemen.  And all of this without any demand here, in America, for due process. 

Using Blame to Discharge Shame

The stories of the two young men pictured represent two tragedies I would submit we are having profoundly different conversations about in their aftermath. Yet while the majority reaction to each boy is completely different both include strong energy around identifying who is to blame at the core, and the bottom line, “I’m sure it isn't me."  This is a different driving force than say, empathy. 

The lives both these boys surrendered represent a terrible cost paid for our individual and collective obligation to, and engagement with, fear and righteousness, enemy-naming, and weaponry. And this is true whether at the neighborhood vigilante or our national leadership level. Our obligation to these life-costing elements is based in and introduces a great deal of shame to our individual and collective narrative.

It is no wonder our first unconscious instinct is look for where the blame can be placed. This approach allows us to relieve the pressure of shame by outlining to ourselves and others how different we each are from the "others" who perpetrated the crimes.   

It is human to use blame to discharge shame. Well maybe I should clarify, the people who don’t suffer with shame are those with no capacity for connection or empathy, aka sociopaths. I don't believe you or I are sociopaths.  We are good people, with good intentions, who can figure out some way to get through the "Swampland of Shame" without having to set up a house there or settle for the blame game as the only option for navigating to the other side.

The Shift
The conversational shift I am proposing would move the focus from blaming (the police, racism, terrorism, radicals, etc.) to courageously, with vulnerability in our own hearts and minds ask ourselves “What is at the base of these two tragedies for which shame exists?” What are the closely held bits of thought we keep secret, or over which we mercilessly judge ourselves. Things like “I am so afraid of the unknown and the threat of terror ‘out there’ and that harm may come to my brother, sister, son or daughter - that I have willingly ignored the potential that my country can and has assassinated a 16 year old boy.” Or,“I am ashamed to say when I see a young black man, pants bagging, hood over his head, walk slowly across the crosswalk I want to rev up my motor so he gets the message that I have the power over his disrespectful self.” Perhaps others wouldn't call the feeling shame, but more of an unease that resists definition as we struggle to identify what would possibly allow us to balance the fear of change/outside threat with a desire to feel good, justified, right, and endorsed.

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, offers insight based on the work she has done the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She spent the first five years of her decade-long study focusing on shame and empathy.  Her research reveals before we can get to empathy we have to walk through the individual and collective topics shrouded in shame.  Her research reveals shame is an unspoken epidemic and is highly correlated with many forms of broken behaviors such as addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. (interestingly guilt is inversely related to those behaviors. Dr. Brown describes the distinction between guilt and shame this way: Guilt is "I feel bad I did that." Shame is "I am bad.") She articulates another interesting point: for women shame is around unattainable and conflicting expectations, for men it is around the edict “do not be perceived as weak.” As men and women learn to enter conversation vulnerably and be assured of being heard with compassion and empathy, a great deal of understanding, change and creativity will be unleashed. 

In Dr. Brown's latest TedTALK she describes an example where entering into a vulnerable individual and collective conversation allowed creativity, innovation and change to occur on a huge landscape. She outlines how it was when American citizens heard the most compelling call ever to have a conversation about race, that we heard that call, yet could not have had that conversation without shame. As Dr. Brown points out, there is no conversation about race without talking about privilege - and when people talk about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame. She suggests if you put shame in a petri dish and add secrecy, silence and judgment, it will grow exponentially. If you douse it with empathy, it can't survive.

I'm proposing the loss of both these boys is a compelling wakeup call to have a new conversation about how the fear of being perceived as weak permeates us at the individual and collective level.  This fear is killing our children, our fellow humans in countries we are at war with, and our sense of confidence for the future. If we are going to find our way to a safe and joyful future, vulnerable conversations will be the starting point to move us from a model of ever-escalating conflict to something that embodies integrated diversity.

Perhaps the most powerful words we can say when someone articulates their own fear or shame is, "Me too." or, "I can empathize with how you feel." It takes courage to admit something that feels like failure, and courage to listen without judgment as another person articulates what feels like a failure to them.  As Dr. Brown says in her TEDtalk, "It’s seductive to stand outside the arena and think 'I won’t go in until I’m bullet-proof perfect, otherwise I will be perceived as weak. But the conversation we need to have wants us to dare greatly, to come into it with our imperfections and lay the groundwork for something different." 


I invite you to note your thought and emotion as you look at the graphic above.
Did you even know who the boy on the right was?
Is there any thought or feeling that represents an unease of any sort?
What is the feeliing or thought at the opposite end of the spectrum
that would allow you to balance out your current thought or feeling?
If confusion, perhaps clarity?
If defensiveness, perhaps vulnerability?
If grief, perhaps healing?
If overwhelm, perhaps clarity?
If anger, perhaps calm?
Now, breathe in whatever thought and emotion you identified first …
and breathe out the word that describes what would balance it.

For me, I could post a picture of my son right next to
Travyon and Abdulhraman above - and he would fit right in.
Perhaps that’s why this post is from my heart,
rather than a detached study problem exercise.
I am breathing in hopelessness - then breathing out trust.