Recently, many people have come out publicly to share their stories of police brutality. In response, some people have asserted, “Not all police officers are bad.”
Recently, many people have come out publicly to share their stories of racial discrimination. In response, some people have asserted, “Not all white people are racist.”
Recently, many women have come out publicly to share their stories of sexual assault. In response, some people have asserted, “Not all men are sexist.”
This common exchange exists because of a fundamental misunderstanding. In all of these cases, there are people who are demonstrating tremendous vulnerability and courage in order to point out that there is a problem. But in response, some people, instead of acknowledging the individual victim’s problem, assume that the victims are talking about another problem altogether (namely, that a certain demographic of people is bad), and as a result, they try to defend or justify that demographic that they think is being accused.
I created a few simple diagrams to illustrate where the disconnect is. When victims of abuse speak up about police officers, white people, men, or anybody else, they are trying to bring attention and awareness to a certain problem: that the status quo needs change. But how does the status quo need change? What exactly is the problem? It seems like someone can be communicating one of three things.
Argument #1: Some of them are bad.
In this argument, people are accusing some police officers, some white people, or some men of being bad. They do not intend to say that all police officers, all white people, or all men are bad. You can debate how big the bad circle should be in relation to the size of the overall circle, but it is clear that the bad circle is smaller than the overall circle.
Argument #2: The system is bad.
This concept may be a bit foreign to some people, so I’ll try to explain this the best I can. In this argument, people are saying that the system–and not the individuals that make up the system–is bad.
For example, one can say that a certain police department needs reform. Perhaps they need better training. Perhaps they need body cameras. Perhaps the police officers need to reflect the demographics of the communities they serve. When they say these things, they do not mean that all police officers are bad. They are talking at the organizational level.
This is also true of racism. When people say that there is systemic racism, they usually do not mean that all white people are racist. What they mean is that our country has had racist policies and practices throughout history that have now created a society where ethnic minorities are underprivileged. From African American slavery to Native American forced displacement, such policies (whether intentional or not) have drastically affected the living conditions of non-whites, so that even today there are statistically significant discrepancies in living conditions (e.g., education levels, income levels, suicide rates) between whites and non-whites.
And lastly, this is true of sexism. Again, people using this argument are not accusing all men to be sexist, but they mean that there are many things in our society that contribute to a systemic sexism. Such things include the social expectations of gender roles, the objectification of women in the media, the lack of female representation in leadership positions, etc. This also includes the exploitation of women in the pornography industry, the verbal abuse of women in the gaming world, and the prominence of rape culture on college campuses.
This argument is very different from Argument #1 because it is not just claiming that some people are bad, but it is claiming that the badness has become so prevalent that all of society has been affected.
Argument #3: All of them are bad.
In this last type of argument, people are actually claiming that all police officers, all white people, or all men are bad. There is not one who is good.
Here’s where the misunderstanding takes place. The large majority of victims of abuse are talking about Argument #1 or Argument #2. Either they are claiming that there are some bad apples who need justice, or they are raising awareness to issues in the system, or both. Very rarely do they actually use Argument #3. Nonetheless, when people say, “Not all ___ are bad,” they automatically are assuming that the victims are employing Argument #3, which is why they feel the need to deny Argument #3. And they are subtly shifting the conversation away from Argument #1 or Argument #2 into the arena of Argument #3.
In other words, instead of addressing the victim’s very real problem (Argument #1 or Argument #2), they pretend that the victim is bringing up another problem altogether (Argument #3), and they then deny that this other problem exists.
It can be easy to point fingers, but I believe that we all do this to some degree. For example, when my wife brings up a problem, sometimes I deny that another semi-related problem exists. And in those conversations, what I have done is the same thing these problem-deniers do. I redefine the problem, and I refuse to believe that my redefined problem exists.
There are all sorts of potential reasons why we do this. Maybe it’s because we want to protect the status quo, and we cannot bear to think that there is something wrong with it. Maybe it’s because we are just not loving enough to want to tackle the problem, so we give ourselves the illusion that there is no problem. Maybe it’s because we don’t like feeling guilty, and we assume that people who want to point out problems want us to feel guilty about it, so we find a way to maneuver ourselves out of the guilt.
Regardless, this subtle response that we employ when we are presented with cries for help allows us to do nothing. It makes us think that we are off the hook, and that it is no longer our responsibility. And when enough people have this mentality, it ensures that the problems will never be resolved, and the victims of abuse will continue to be victims of abuse.
As a Christian, I believe that once upon a time humanity had a major problem, and that was the problem of sin. And when we cried for help, God did not redefine the problem, nor did he deny the problem, nor did he ignore the problem, nor did he justify the problem, nor did he politicize the problem.
Then what did he do? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In order to address the problem of sin, God sent his Son Jesus to become sin for us. And Jesus immersed himself so much in the problem of sin that he walked among sinful people and suffered a gruesome death at the hands of sinful people. And he did that for us. The irony is that in order to rescue the victims of sin, Jesus became the truly innocent victim of sin.
So when we hear problems of abuse, let’s not resort to these argumentative tactics to excuse ourselves. Let’s follow the example of Jesus and dive in. Let’s listen, engage, empathize, and serve.