Many of us try to deal with life’s choices in a binary fashion. It is either this, or it is that.
Do we order the steak, or the seafood?
Do we rent, or do we purchase?
Buy on credit, or pay as we go?
This either/or mindset makes a lot of sense in a variety of contexts, especially where money is concerned. I simply can’t afford to buy the efficient compact and the rugged SUV. I must choose between an apartment in this complex, or one in that complex; I can’t afford two apartments.
The same thinking seems to apply to many areas of learning. Either the answer to the math problem is right, or it is wrong.
Even more generally, we tend to dichotomize the claims people make. Either it is true, or it is false.
We’ve seen this, of course, in this and in every election season. For that matter, we see this in every competitive setting in which individuals form attachments to a side. Think of the polarized attitudes of football fans toward, say, the New England Patriots, as evidence for the case.
It’s just easier to pick a side and stick with it. In some contexts, it’s a lot more fun. In others, it feels necessary to our psychological survival.
When a leader or an organization steps out before the public, we expect a one-sided declaration. It follows from the combative nature of so much of public life today, and from our own internal processes that prompt us to adopt an “either/or” perspective. We are more comfortable when we are right . . . so, we are right. Any evidence (even solid evidence) that we are wrong is . . . wrong.
Which is what makes the declaration on Monday by the International Association of Chiefs of Police so inspiring.
Speaking officially on behalf of the IACP, Terrence Cunningham, chief of police in Wellesley, Mass., and president of the association, said this:
“The history of the law enforcement profession is replete with examples of bravery, self-sacrifice, and service to the community. At its core, policing is a noble profession.”
And he also said this:
“[I]t is also clear that the history of policing has also had darker periods. . . . For our part, the first step is for law enforcement and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”
Then, affirming both realities and envisioning the future, Chief Cunningham concluded, “It is my hope that, by working together, we can break this historic cycle of mistrust and build a better and safer future for us all.”
I’ve known many police officers and a few police chiefs and county sheriffs. I know, from my time with them, how proud they are of their profession.
Pride can act as a blinder, one powerful way we learn to exclude the criticism and embrace the praise. We are great, and we know it, we can say to ourselves. Anyone who doesn’t see that doesn’t truly see.
But pride can coexist with humility, confidence with openness to criticism. We can be fully cognizant of our strengths and virtues and, at the same time, be sadly aware of our weaknesses and failings.
I think many people have trouble with that particular “both/and.” Whether we believe what we say or not, we often take one-sided views of “our team” and “their team” . . . and of ourselves.
But we don’t have to.
Being able to accept the truth in criticisms leveled against us, even as we know the truth of the good we have done, is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. It allows what is good in us to be refined even further, and what is not good to be reduced. The friction of conflicting perspectives both illuminates the truth and provides the heat to melt and mold us more firmly in the image of the good.
Given all that has been unfolding in our nation over many, many months, I confess to being profoundly moved by the action of the IACP’s membership. Men and women who have risen to leadership positions in law enforcement, a profession deeply imbued with cultural associations of power, have found the wisdom and the courage to say the “both/and” of their profession. They have proclaimed the virtue of law enforcement officers, and justly so. And they have acknowledged and apologized for their failings . . . a necessary step toward healing.
In other words, these leaders have demonstrated the kind of leadership we need in our troubled land.
And that’s the truth.