here at sinkhole, we’re explorers, not explainers – our goal is to chart the world's complexities, to resist the echo chamber, and to engage in the difficult work of empathy.
letter | 4.10.17
A state police officer pulled me over this past Thursday. I’m black. I live in Maine.
I was driving to work, and the officer caught me driving over the speed limit in a lane next to a toll plaza. Definitely my fault. And especially reckless because I always give myself about an hour to get to work, even though I live about thirty minutes from my job. Part of the reason I give myself all this extra time is because, this instance of speeding notwithstanding, I’m a cautious (read: slow-ish) driver. The other reason I give myself twice the amount of time I need is because I kind of expect to get pulled over every day.
There’s a rest stop directly ahead of where the officer hailed me with his lights, so I decelerate immediately, signal, pull in to the rest stop, and park. It’s been about a year since the last time I was pulled over, so I worry that I’ll leave something off the mental checklist I scroll through whenever a police officer is about to approach my car.
I turn off the radio. I roll down my window. It’s a beautiful, sunny day, about two p.m., but I turn on my dome lights anyway. I look at my passenger seat where I keep my backpack. It’s there. Does it look suspicious, holding my work shoes and homemade chicken soup?
I keep my hands on the steering wheel. Ten and two seems too relaxed, and I adjust to eleven and one. Then nine and one.
The officer is young, my age or younger. He keeps his head shaved, like I do. He’s much smaller than I am, but he has a gun. Part of the job.
He tells me he pulled me over for doing 49 in a 30, and I believe him just as I believe he has my life in his hands. I apologize, and explain, and apologize again. He asks to see my license, and I tell him my license is in my wallet, and my wallet is in my right hand back pocket, and he gives me permission to reach for my wallet to produce my ID. When I reach, I remember I have a utility knife holstered in a not-un-weaponlike-looking holster that hangs from the lip of my front right pocket.
Part of the job.
I keep reaching for my wallet, because stopping suddenly seems more dangerous than explaining why I have a box-cutter holstered on my hip. As I struggle to slide my license out of the special ID coverlet in my wallet, I explain that the knife is a work tool—that I’m on my way to my job.
“Where do you work?” he asks.
I tell him.
“Do you know Jordan?”
What the fuck, I think. Oh. Wait. I work at a place with other people. Jordan, Jordan, oh, yeah.
“Jordan Davis?” I ask.
“Yeah, Jordan’s my guy.”
The officer nods his head, and tells me he’s going back to his car to run my license.
This is new for me. Until last year, I’ve lived in big cities where, when you’re pulled over, or when I’m pulled over, no officer has ever asked me who I know. The city I lived in before moving to Maine is 60 times the size of the city where I now work.
He comes back and hands me my license, tells me that my registration has been suspended for a couple weeks for an unpaid toll and that he should tow my car. What’s more, just by being on the road, I’m committing a crime and he’d be following protocol to arrest me. My heart, which had been pounding up to this point, sinks. I don’t feel endangered anymore, just defeated.
“But I can see that you’re on the way to work, and I don’t want to ruin your day. But you need to get this registration and the toll violation handled. Like yesterday. All right?”
My heart pounds again.
I thank him three times, and he tells me to have a good day, and to give his best to Jordan next time I see him.
I understand what is happening, but it doesn’t make any sense until I’m stress-smoking my second cigarette as I arrive at work.
The magic of white male friendship saved my life. For a few minutes on a Thursday, that police officer afforded me the same courtesy he would have given to Jordan, just because they both train at the same gym. Jordan gifted me about 300 seconds of whiteness, and he didn’t even know it.
The institution of male friendship is changing, and the change is killing us.
I’ve been thinking broadly about the idea and practice of friendship (white-on-white and otherwise) regularly since I uprooted my life in central Florida and moved to Maine. I’m 30 years old, and while several of my closest male friends—men I went to junior high and high school with—lived near me in Orlando, it was almost always an event for us to see each other.
This was no one’s fault, really. Most of these friends of mine have wives and young children, and they put in the same long hours at work that I do, and the 20-30 “free” hours that they have in a week are necessarily going to be dedicated to their family or their work or to the little bit of alone time you can eke out in a full house. That’s the default. To reset the default, special effort needed to be made, or we had to stumble into lucky little pocket dimensions of coinciding free time.
And we made the effort sometimes. And sometimes we got lucky. But mostly, even when we all lived near each other, our friendship subsisted on a group chat. It still does. We share jokes, we roast each other, we talk sports and politics and movies, and we never talk about the fact that we don’t see each other all that much.
Last week I listened to the March 23 episode of On Point with Tom Ashbrook, and Ashbrook interviewed Boston Globe writer Billy Barry about his feature story, “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” Barry uses himself as his primary example: he’s a guy with a wife and some children, who let friendships lapse to devote time to his family and to his career. But as Cambridge University psychiatrist Dr. Richard S. Schwartz explains in the story, the public health risks of that choice are staggering. Here’s what Barry gleaned from Schwartz:
“Beginning in the 1980s, Schwartz says, study after study started showing that those who were more socially isolated were much more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected neighbors, even after you corrected for age, gender, and lifestyle choices like exercising and eating right. Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and the progression of Alzheimer’s. One study found that it can be as much of a long-term risk factor as smoking.”
Even the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, agrees. In his conversation with Ashbrook and Barry, he flatly named social isolation as the greatest threat facing American men.
If you think about it, it’s obvious that an erosion of friendships is crucial to trends like hyper-partisanship that chip away at our society. All the concentric circles of social support—family, then friends, then neighbors, co-workers, and the rest—have embedded in them the material to help a person cope with whatever can go wrong in life. By forgoing friendships in favor of family, or in favor of whatever social support is closest to you (after all, some people may interact only with co-workers), we miss out on the hard and rewarding work of building stronger, real-life social capital.
Social capital, put another way, is the energy of a social connection. It is what accumulates when you meet a friend for lunch, or join a choir, or take an adult education class, or go to happy hour with some co-workers. And honestly, when we go through difficult, painful things in life, we spend that social capital by calling on friends to help us. Helping a friend move burns capital. Talking a friend through a break-up, or a career change, or through the first steps of quitting drugs or alcohol—that all takes social capital. But you have to earn the capital before it can be spent, and if you’re “broke,” hard times can break you.
And when social clubs and churches and rec leagues and other institutions that promote the maintenance of friendship become rarer, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to accumulate social capital through friendship. Besides that, we are inundated with technologies that effectively simulate some of the feelings associated with gaining social capital—likes, retweets, mentions, etc.—and this dulls us. Dulls us to the point where we now think that the only social capital that matters is this kind of currency: how many followers we have, and what they can do to reinforce our self-worth as we curate the funniest, most endearing, most adventurous version of our lives for people we don’t see IRL much, if at all. We are, perhaps, passively letting experiential friendship devolve into something more capitalistic. And when it’s so easy to get the next best thing, we can put off the best thing for another day, another week, another month.
It maybe seems obvious, but the decline of in real-life friendship-cultivating institutions has political implications, too. When friendships move online, significant features of those friendships (non-verbal cues, facial expressions, the texture of voice, the impact of context and setting) are lost. Without these features, communication hardens, loses subtlety and nuance. We revert to stereotypes. Our ideologies, relatively plastic among in-person friends, calcify. We become more prone to confirmation biases, to echo chambers. And then we carry our calcified ideologies out into the real world: we limit our circle of friends to those who think like us, who won’t in any way challenge our worldviews. And as we fall victim to what John Suler calls the Online Disinhibition Effect, we bash strangers and acquaintances over the heads with our facts and opinions instead of doing something productive with that difference. It’s a vicious cycle. And uniformity of thought, unchallenged worldviews, a sort of primitive tribalism, have lead to some pretty awful things, historically (essentially: every single war humanity has ever waged). That’s why Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, argued so powerfully for what he called the “freedom of association,” calling it a “safeguard against the tyranny of the majority” (i.e., mob rule), which he regarded as even more dangerous than traditional tyranny.
I want to be clear. I’m not an Andy Rooney type. I’m not against technology or progress or the fact I’m in the upper quintile of roasters in my group chat. But amidst all the talk since November of saving institutions, the institution of friendship gets short shrift. And when it is unclear whether truth matters, friendship must.
One person for whom friendship is paramount is Daryl Davis. Davis is a musician and a lecturer. He’s done a little acting, too. And when he’s not following these pursuits, he befriends members of the Ku Klux Klan. Through his friendship, he’s collected some two dozen Klan robes—each one signifying a Klansman who abandoned white supremacy after spending years getting to know Davis.
Davis is black, by the way.
I first heard Davis’s story on an episode of the Love + Radio podcast called “The Silver Dollar,” but there is also a Netflix documentary about his efforts called Accidental Courtesy. To see him practice this very radical form of tolerance is unsettling at times, and his hostile interview with Tariq Toure and Kwame Rose of the Black Lives Matter movement reveals the limits of both sides’ methods.
Toure and Rose march, they petition, they hold signs that present to the world the facts of police brutality, the truth written on black bodies every day. And Davis talks at kitchen counters with racist people until they come to know him, like him, and respect him enough to forsake racist ideology for the benefit of friendship.
Does friendship somehow outrank race on the hierarchy of tribalism? I suppose I’ve been wondering, since last Thursday, if there’s anything to learn from what happened. I studied logic and rhetoric at good schools. I know how to argue, and I’ve battled racist trolls and satisfied my Facebook friends with superior application of facts and history. I have been right. But on Thursday, I felt what it was like to win. I was in the wrong, and I won anyway. And when I step away from the blue glow of screens and into my real life, the life where friendship and all its attendant currency carries the weight of consequence, winning is more important than being right. Isn’t it?
I don’t know.
As a black man in Maine, it is easy to feel adrift in a white sea. When I saw Davis and Rose lay into each other, in a truly tense and chilling confrontation, it echoed the same debate that I’m confident rages inside many black people. The debate exemplified by the false binary of Malcolm against Martin. Militancy against friendship. Truth against reconciliation.
But in terms of our politics and our culture, we have to reject that binary. We can be in the streets, signs up, and at the dinner table, sitting across from someone who fears or misunderstands us. The only way to engage fully in the world is to do both.