It’s been a tough week in the world. Derek Chauvin’s trial, where he was sentenced to prison for second-degree murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, might be considered as a positive. But Floyd is still dead. That justice was served in this situation is a meager gruel for him and his family. Minneapolis not seeing riots is not a plus — rioting isn’t what people in a civilized society do, regardless of trial outcomes. And the fact that the news media pumped the hype for riots, broadcasting view after view that the jury on the case would let Chauvin off also shows how we as a nation have decided our fellow citizens should not be trusted.
I watched Floyd’s death on video. Some video evidence is ambiguous — but this was not. The old quip, “who you going to trust — me or your lying eyes?” never crossed my mind.
One of the hats I wear in my job is as a complex systems scientist. The challenge of the discipline, which I actually teach my students in the context of designing systems, is where to draw what’s called the system boundary. The idea is that inside the system boundary, you have control of enough variables to get the system to perform the way you’d like it to. When you draw that big circle in a different place, then you’re really tasking yourself with a different set of assumptions. The fact is that everything really is connected, and we draw these circles at our peril.
But in the case of societies, we have to draw these circles. Social media, and broken mainstream news have forced down our throat for the last five years circles of decreasing size. COVID-19 is about killing grandma. Trump is about betrayal to Russia. Justice is about sending Derek Chauvin to jail. Americans as jurors cannot be trusted, and so on.
The realities are far more complex. COVID-19 is far more than about killing grandma, especially now with vaccine supply exceeding demand. Russiagate is turning out to be a big BS bust. Americans as jurors did just fine in the George Floyd case. So much of all these policies is really about how we’re shoveled a stream of nonsense about how Americans are untrustworthy — that somehow, as Americans, we are uniquely evil.
And to be sure — we have our problems. Because we didn’t draw our circles big enough, we have the lingering disaster in Afghanistan. We were a primary cause of deaths of millions in Iraq and Syria.
But we are not uniquely evil. Consider the latest take on anti-Asian violence. If you look back at the history of almost every country in East Asia in the last 80 years, you’ve got at least one case of genocide. I think we should be concerned with any minority group being harassed. During the Iranian Embassy affair in 1979, I put up my own dukes in fistfights with other stupid young men about my ancestry. But it passed, relatively quickly. Whether or not I should hate this country is all dependent on how I draw my circles — not just in space, but in time as well.
We might consider the fact that in the Constitution itself, it contains the words “more perfect union.” It doesn’t declare perfection out of the gate. It’s a work in progress. One thing I do know, though, is we’re not going to get there through a diet of constant blame. All blame does is drive ideas for solutions underground. The loudest, most emotional voices may own the day. But then all those people who were screamed at roll out and vote. And that’s the end of that particular plurality.
Partisans on both sides of the aisle might consider that lesson. Instead of screaming about a lack of perfection, offer up solutions with implementation paths that can work. And make sure in every one of them, you build in the concept of trusting your neighbor. A large, diverse society can’t function in any other way.
Pezeshki is a professor in mechanicaland materials engineering at Washington State University.