Henry Louis Gates
by Dr. Dennis Becker.
“Isn’t human communication fascinating?! This whole Gates-Cambridge Police-Crowley-Obama flap is just the latest in the ongoing saga of humans attempting to communicate with each other. By this time, we all pretty much know what happened:
Gates lost his keys to his home and couldn’t get in, Gates asks help of his limo driver to push the door in, Neighbor observes two “black men with back packs” doing this, Neighbor, being good neighbor, calls the police and reports attempted break-in, police arrive, Officer Crowley knocks on door, Gates comes to door, Crowley asks for identification, Gates retrieves Harvard ID card to verify his ownership and occupancy, Crowley accepts response and turns to leave porch, Gates complains about being harassed because of being a black man, Gates emerges from house onto front porch and continues commentary, Crowley replies with comment on Gates being public disturbance or disturbing the peace and arrests Gates.
Gates is placed in handcuffs behind his back, Gates complains he uses a cane and can’t walk with hands behind him, different officer intervenes and handcuffs are changed to front of Gates as he is taken to jail.
Now, obviously I’m summarizing broadly here. You can watch the video of both Gates and Crowley describing what happened.
I realize that there were nuances of inflection, facial expression, body language, volume, vocabulary, and more which were in play during the actual incident. I realize that it is important for us to engage in rhetorical analysis of the micro elements of this communication, if for no other reason than to learn from it. All of this can be justified from the perspective of wanting to help others who may be confronted with similar situations. I get that.
So, as a communication coach with more than 40 years of experience, allow me to suggest what would have served better for both Gates and Crowley. These two intelligent, accomplished professionals should be embarrassed for themselves for not being able to simply chalk this up to poor, but understandably human judgment at the time of the incident.
Each of these men entered that situation with personal and professional “baggage,” probably harkening as far back as early childhood, regarding issues of authority, privacy, race and respect. Each of these men, in retrospect, is still being controlled by those same long-standing attitudes which enable the “baggage” they carry. Gates should have thanked the officer for doing his duty. He should have overlooked the “attitude” that may have been conveyed in body language, vocabulary, etc. He should have immediately called his neighbor and offered thanks for the caring, watchful eye.
Crowley should have, after verifying the identity of Gates, apologized for any inconvenience and explained that he was simply responding to a report of a break-in and following usual protocol. He then should have simply turned and left the premises. He has probably done this many times before. So, as my Jewish friends would say, “Why should this night be any different than any other night?” Well, that’s human nature. We get very defensive as an initial means of interaction in what appears to be a threatening situation. No, not necessarily physically threatening, but threatening to authority, privacy, race and respect. Most of us lash out with the first two human communication tools we have – body language and speech. That is, we give a “look,” a “gesture,” a “mumble,” a “snicker.” You all know what I’m describing. We have all done it on occasion. It’s a human’s way of “defending” turf and self. On the receiving end, it gets regarded as disrespect or a challenge. If the reaction isn’t strong or obvious enough, there are always onlookers who can add “Ooh, are you gonna’ take that?” and we all know where it goes from there. Suddenly, all our “baggage” starts to unravel and the humans have two options: one is verbal/nonverbal and the other is physical.
Both of these men were at fault. Each should have acted more responsibly in recognizing the setting and circumstances that brought them together. Both of them should simply recognize their actions as the heat of the moment, while not being “wrong” were triggering and were triggered.
To top it off, now Obama is in it! His remarks did not serve him well. His vocabulary did not serve him or others well. He does not have an equal right to proclaim positions and expect little or no repercussion. He too has “baggage.” He’s human. All humans have “baggage,” but he is the President of the most powerful nation on the planet. He is a historical figure in so many ways. Whether we agree with him or not, he must be a bit more accepting – his casual, over the back fence, friendly, neighborly opinion just ain’t that. He’s The President of the most powerful nation on the planet! However, the rest of us must also accept his humanness and be able to step back from the fake heat that is generated by those who live off the “baggage” of others.
There are so many more critical issues in the world. Why are we not blogging about Darfur, or child molestation, or hunger, etc. Come on folks, keep it real! Try carrying your “baggage” in the other hand for a while.”
Dr. Dennis Becker is CEO , Principal & Senior Coaching Partner at The Speech Improvement Company.