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Aiyanna Jones and The Practical Limits of Outrage

Posted by JD on Sunday, May 23, 2010 , under | comments (7)

Courtesy of Xiando.livelyblog 
 My absolute favorite writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, never ever disappoints me with his blog over at "The Atlantic." I don't look up to very many writers, but Coates is concise, exacting, and his opinion is always fresh. I think the best part of my own writing is the different angle at which I approach analyzing information and situations, but Coates easily bests me in that regard.

About a week ago I ran across an older post by Coates in which he addressed the "practical limits of knowledge." He writes:

"The Aspen Ideas Festival begins with a few of the invited guests standing up to propose a "Idea" which they think would move the country forward. Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, was one of the guest invited to speak this year. His idea was to attack the deficit, and not pass on debt to our kids. It all sounded noble and well--Who likes the idea of passing on debt to children? But what really struck me was how ill-equipped I was to evaluate anything he was saying.

This happens all the time, to me. Someone will be opining about Israel, cap and trade, or health care, and I'll understand the arguments, but really be in no position to argue. I can smell blatant dishonesty, but the subtleties are harder for me."

In other words, Coates can smell a lie from a mile away, but when it comes to dispelling the lie, despite being well-informed and intelligent, he often finds himself at a loss to develop a counterpoint. Coates goes on to lament the fact that none of us will ever have a complete understanding of...well...anything (and not for a lack of trying).  

"I wonder about how much we can know. It will make you crazy to understand, in any detail, the history of black people in this country. It will make you even crazier to consider how much of that history will almost certainly be forgotten. It will make you crazier, still, to consider that it isn't just being forgotten because of intense efforts to bleach history, but because of the limits of humanity, itself."
This last point really struck me. I find it frustrating that knowledge is never complete. Although there is intellectual comfort in knowing that there is limitless information to consume, decisions about what to consume, from where, and how much can be frustrating especially as you seek to make good decisions (and conversation) in the meantime. The way humans typically handle these limits (whether we are aware of it or not) is to pick a few knowledge areas or courses of study on which to focus and consuming other types of information at our leisure. 

Coates's post combined with news about the tragic death of Aiyanna Jones brought another subject to the forefront of my mind. And that is, if there are practical limits of knowledge, are there practical limits of outrage as well?

Last week 7 year old Aiyanna Jones was killed in a tragic accident in which her home was raided by Detroit police and, at some point, an officer's gun discharged a fatal bullet. The details surrounding Aiyanna's death are as yet murky but what we do know is that this is unfortunate accident no matter who is to blame.  We also know that race is a factor in both how the raid was executed and also why it took place. 

What's frustrating about the reactions to Aiyanna's death is that, in particular on the internet, there was a drive to get people to discuss the incident or show some sort of emotion, preferably anger, about what happened. Many people couldn't understand why there were people like me who didn't seem particularly moved. A prolific tweeter, I probably mentioned the tragedy twice at most, and neither blog post I've written on the incident espouses an opinion on the situation--this being one of those posts.

Here's where the limits of outrage and also subsequent action begin to come into play. On any given day, there are a zillion tragedies that take place in America and zillion more across the world. Many of them specifically involve people who are disadvantaged in part due to race. In inner cities and corporations across America every time a child wakes up or an adult puts on a suit they step into a life that is, in its entirety, a racist incident.

Add on to the constant barrage of bad news in other parts of the world, from earthquakes to volcanoes to plane crashes we're inundated with situations about which we must decide how much to concern ourselves if at all. Add to that the personal tragedies people experience from cancer and diabetes to sudden deaths through car accidents or domestic violence. Finally, add the every day stresses of relationships, finances, and family--and you have family in other countries there's even more to worry about.   

Together, it all becomes difficult to process and there are limits to what average human being can address.

Given the wide spectrum of things there are in life to be upset about, I have a personal policy of not allowing myself to become outraged about things that I intend to do nothing about. For those things on which I do intend to take action I am constantly ready to discuss those things and in many cases not much else. I've approached the practical limits of outrage in much the same way as I approach the limits of knowledge--I've chosen a few manageable areas of focus. 

After all, what is the point of outrage when it isn't paired with some sort of action. The time you spend blogging or tweeting about Aiyanna Jones could be better spent putting together a community group that assesses the needs of police or visits schools to encourage young black men to consider law enforcement as a career.

This isn't to say that you can't do both...but it is to say that you can't do it all. And neither can I.