During his sermon Sunday morning, Reverend Gary McCann talked about names. Quite simply, the name given to us at birth that we’ve spent our lives growing into. The name we answer to when called upon and what has become the core of our identity.
Reverend Gary talked about how we are much more than the labels given to us and that our name sets us apart as individuals.
As I was listening to the words, I couldn’t help but correlate the message to policing.
Police officers have a tendency to assume the worst in people. This is quite normal given that we see the worst of society and we learn early in our careers that human beings are capable of committing heinous and atrocious acts against one another. This might sound like an excuse to justify clinging to our callousness but the psychology of this is actually quite basic. The result of being lied to is distrust. The fact that most of the people we arrest lie to cover up their transgressions makes not trusting others a natural consequence. The result of being attacked for no other reason than the uniform we wear results in walking around believing someone is trying to harm us – even off duty.
So when Reverend Gary said that we tend to label others without seeing their humanness, I couldn’t help but think of all the times I have done that throughout my career. Because we often criticize what we don’t understand, I used to struggle in finding compassion for any “criminals”.
And then I started having conversations with people and asking questions. That’s how I learned about Scott. He’s a heroine addict and he has a felony record for possession. He wears the label “addict” and “felon” but he’s more than that. He is a mechanic by trade but he lost his job, his family and his home as a result of his addiction. Before he was addicted to heroin, he played the trumpet as a hobby. He can hardly remember just being Scott because all anyone sees is “heroin addict” affixed to his chest like a scarlet letter.
Scott has successfully completed drug rehabilitation court and he’s been clean for over a year. I don’t know what it’s like to have an addiction that takes over your life and pushes out the good things in it like family and friends, but I can tell you that hearing his story makes me think twice before putting people in boxes because Scott is a good man fighting the demon of his addiction.
I still grapple with the very concept of gangs. At this time in Aurora when we are seeing an increase in gang-related crimes, I struggle to feel any sympathy for these criminals whose violent acts cast a dark cloud over the city that I love.
The game they play is the epitome of labeling. They hate one another because they are in rival gangs. It’s barbaric and it’s weak and I wonder if they ever stop to think about how preposterous it is.
Then again, humans are conditioned to label and judge everything from appearance to race to socio-economic status. Granted, only the barbaric go around physically harming one another but we are all guilty of carrying out our judgments in other ways.
The police have a tendency to label someone a criminal because they’ve committed a crime. What if we still held people accountable for the acts they’ve committed without defining them? I subscribe to the notion that when people are labeled they tend to behave in alignment with those labels.
Perhaps if we spent less time generalizing one another for the label that is affixed to us and more time learning about the human being behind the label we would begin to see similarities instead of differences in one another.
Maybe it starts as simply as asking someone, “What’s your name?”