FERGUSON AGAIN What’s the Real Problem? – Meta Reflections 2015 #35

August 17, 2015

Creating Response-Able Persons #2

This past week was the one-year anniversary of the original shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson Missouri which then led to thousands protesting and then to rioting which involved burning down businesses, looting, stealing, etc. That was a year ago. Now it seems to be happening again. At least this week there has been more protesting and rioting and more shootings. So, what is this all about? On the surface, the protesters say that it is about police brutality. Then there are the criminals among the protesters who use the protest as a cover for violence. Yet is it really about police brutality?

In the past year Eric Holder led a Federal Investigation directed by Obama and in the end they completely cleared and vindicated the policeman who shot Mike Brown. Meanwhile more Black policeman have joined the Ferguson Police Department, other African Americans have been joined the City Counsel and other community organizations. So, given these improvements, what’s the real problem? What do the protesters really want? What do the rioters really want?

In asking this question, I want to go deeper than the surface answers. Many people and the media keep perpetuating the false narrative that Mike Brown had raised his hands and said “don’t shoot.” The evidence however has shown that to be false. Brown actually attacked the policeman, grabbed his gun, caused it to go off. Then there’s the shallow and false answer that young black men all around the country are being targeted by police everywhere. To prove that, the pundits collect every incident where a white policeman shot a young black man and then over-generalize to draw this conclusion of police racism and brutality. The problem with that narrative is that it over-generalizes from a few instances by a few individuals assuming it is all the same. It is not.

Deeper Questions

Let’s go back and ask some deeper questions:

What is the real problem? What do all of the participants in these protests and riots want? What drives human beings to protest and what motivates human beings to become violent?

I’ll start with the subject of violence. Obviously violence against persons and property is a physical response and yet it inevitably occurs within a psychological context. So what is that context? It is powerlessness. It is the sense of impotence in feeling that one has the ability to effectively make one’s life better, to change things for the better, to address perceived injustices, and to unleash one’s potentials for being fully one’s best self. When one feels powerless to effect change and to make things better—violence becomes the person’s only option.

Now the idea that powerlessness lies at the heart of violence is an idea that numerous people have suggested for a long time. It is a central theme in Rollo May’s book, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. The premise is that when people feel powerless then their felt sense of life is such that they have nothing to loose. This is what makes them dangerous. Rollo May (1975) said that those who act violently in our society are largely seeking to establish their self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they too are significant.

“Violence arises not out of superfluity of power, but out of powerlessness.” (May, p. 23)

“Violence is a symptom. The disease is variously powerlessness, insignificance, injustice— in short, a conviction that I am less than human and I am homeless in the world.” (p. 243)

Powerlessness and Violence

It is true that more young black men are arrested, and even killed, than those of any other group. Yet that fact alone does not tell us why. It does not account for all of the factors that come together to make that so. What is at the source of all the violence? How is it that many others can get caught up in the violence, into the mob mentality, and start to do senseless acts of destructive violence which pushes their own people and communities?

Given this, why is there so much of a sense of powerless among young Black men and in the urban Black communities? As a psychologist, one thing that stands out to me is that there are so few pathways for opportunity to the American Dream for them. By the time so many of them become adolescents, the key pathways to opportunity are seemingly gone—education, excellent role models at home or in the community, and mentorship in business acumen.

The power to control their lives and manage their future which they could have is mostly no longer available to them—at least in their perspective. For the majority of young black men, the culture of home and ethnic race mocks learning and education, “That’s for nerds and whites.” Their school systems has failed to provide a context of learning, mentoring, and role modeling. The Hollywood and Sports Cultures have dangled the idea of “get rich quick” and “get fame quick” via sports, music, and entertainment. The drug culture has provided a context for escaping the pain and anxiety but carries the price of addiction and then the need for more money for more drugs. Then the vicious cycle of all these factors and more leaves young urban people in a state of feeling powerless to do anything positive about all of this.

Powerlessness and Personal Significance

Here then is the real problem: by making people powerless in these ways, we have unintentionally promoted violence. Often violence is the end result of repressed anger and rage. So what are they angry about? They don’t sense that they have a legitimate way to struggle for a sense of significance. And, after all, “power and the sense of significance are intertwined.” (May, p. 35). And because no human being can exist for long without some sense of his or her own significance, the possibility of violence increases.

If this is the case, then people are looking for something whereby they can assert themselves and affirm themselves. This is a basic psychological principle, namely, we can only develop as a person to the extent that we can affirm ourselves and assert ourselves. Take that away, and there will inevitably be anger and rage. Recognizing this Rollo May wrote:

“The challenge before us is to find ways that people can achieve significance and recognition so that destructive violence will not be necessary.” (p. 179)

What then do the protesters want? What do the rioters want? Is it not a structure whereby they can attain a strong sense of personal dignity, value, and meaningfulness? This points us back to the problem of the black culture in which the protesters and rioters live. While many come out of that culture just fine, many do not. Many come out with a set of values that they learned at home or church— others come out without such. That’s what’s missing—a set of values, personal discipline and responsibility that values self and resiliently handles the challenges of life. But with 72% of black babies born to unwed mothers (and the majority are teenagers at that) they are set up for poverty and all of the banes of urban life. The young black men are set up for lacking a strong responsible male image in the home.

Others are victims of other sub-cultures dominant in the black community such as the Victim Culture which frames the problem as centuries of slavery, that they are victims, that they cannot compete on even footing with others, that they should be entitled to special privileges, etc. Yet others have been programmed by the hip-hop culture that seems to think it is cool to call women bitches and hoes and each other by the N-word and to sing and dance about violence— assuming that it is just music and entertainment and it will do no damage. That’s the delusion.

Violence and Interpretation

There’s another factor about violence however that we must face: Violence is not automatic. Just because a person feels mistreated, unfairly treated, is frustrated and angry, is even outraged, that alone does not guarantee violence. Where there is a violent response by a human being, there is also a human interpretation. The reason for this is because we do not just react as humans, we respond. We choose our responses (and hence we are ultimately responsible for our choices and actions).

What does this mean regarding violence? It means that how you interpret a situation determines your readiness to strike back in hostility or perhaps to simply smile and move on. This means that how you see and interpret the world about you is crucial to whether you respond in violence or not. If one’s interpretations are decisive, then where are people getting their frames by which they create their interpretations of things?

From their culture! That’s why the culture of ideas, beliefs, understandings, etc. — the Hollywood culture, the hip-hop culture, the victim culture, the school system culture, the family culture, the church culture, the political culture lies at the heart of the problem. Here’s another way that we are responsible for the violence in our society. We are feeding these ideas which people then use for interpreting which creates their anger and sense of injustice in the first place. The real problem lies in the ways that people are interpreting their perceived sense of injustice.


What’s the solution? Let’s go back to the solution Rollo May suggested in 1975.

“The challenge before us is to find ways that people can achieve significance and recognition so that destructive violence will not be necessary.”

The problem isn’t power, power is the solution. Power is the birthright of every human being and that’s why each person has four fundamental powers of response (Meta-Reflection #34). Power provides each of us a source for a solid sense of self which enables us to like ourselves and feel interpersonally significant. Power enables one to have response-power (response-ability) which lets him know that he or she can make a difference to improve one’s life.

If powerlessness is the problem and source of violence, then the more we empower people to take charge of their lives, take ownership of their responsibilities, embrace the power of learning, the more we undercut the need for violence. Doing this will actually reduce the sense of injustice. By taking responsibility for how we interpret things, we will stop over-generalizing, stop framing ourselves as victims, stop waiting for someone to rescue us, and start taking creative action.

To undermine powerlessness, we need to reframe the current cultural interpretation. Too many people interpret what a person is by what he does or what she has. They make self-esteem conditional and dependent. Do that and then the lack of knowledge and skills, the incompetence to handle life’s demands create a sense of impotent powerlessness which, in turn, leads to violence. Let’s change this to your value as a human being is unconditional—so assert it. Affirm it. Don’t let a toxic culture tell you that you’re a nothing if you don’t have things or can’t achieve things.

The interpretation that the injustices of 2015 are equivalent to those of 1960 is another source of anger and violence. The protests today are very different from those of the 1960s and are not a continuation of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Then there was segregation and unjust laws on the books which disadvantaged the Blacks and privileged the Whites. But all of that has changed. Today, where there is racism, it is in a few individuals, it is no longer in the system. From time to time, a rouge policeman is discovered picking on Blacks and today, with everyone having a phone camera that person is usually identified and dealt with as he should be.

Interpreting things in these inadequate ways and undermining the pathways that would empower people with a sense of significance, choice, responsibility, and hope lies at the heart of the problem. The challenge today is to change these things. It is to enable people to gain true and authentic personal power to take charge of their lives in healthy ways, then the violence will go away. What the protesters and even the rioters really want is what we all want— to be able to actualize ourselves to be fully alive and human. This is the self-actualization drive within all people and is what we in Neuro-Semantics are dedicated to.

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.