Saturday, August 1, 2009

Man Trouble

By Stephen Lautens

July 24, 2009

What is it with men? Why are we always doing stupid things even when we are given an out?

We may never know what happened in Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr’s house. There are competing versions of how he came to be arrested, but one thing seems to be pretty clear - either man could have just walked away with nothing more than temporarily raised blood pressures.

According to a press report, veteran police Sgt. James Crowley – who is white - confronted Henry Gates – who is black - in his home after a woman passing by called police about a possible burglary. The sergeant said he only arrested Gates after the professor “repeatedly accused him of racism and made derogatory remarks about his mother”.

I am certain that inside the prof’s house, many stupid and offensive things were said, likely on both sides. I'm sure race had a role to play in both sides making initial assumptions about the other, long after everyone had realized that no crime was being committed. I'm sure professor Gates has personally experienced racism, and was offended about being challenged in his own home.

Being a white, middle class male myself, I can’t imagine the scars that are left by being on the pointy end of discrimination. Go back far enough and my family’s heritage is Austrian, and the movie BrĂ¼no aside, the world doesn’t take too much notice of us. For a while my brother and I tried to come up with an offensive name for Austrians, and finally settled on “Schnitzel”, but as you can see, it lacks that visceral impact that other racial slurs have. Besides, I like schnitzel.

But as the facts come out, it starts to look less like the product of racism and more a product of testosterone. For one, the arresting officer, Sergeant Crowley, was chosen by a black police commissioner to teach recruits about avoiding racial profiling. I would also venture to guess that as an 11-year veteran of the Cambridge police force he would have a certain hesitation about arresting any Harvard professor in his own home.

Still, men do stupid things, and you don’t need racism to explain it. Men start and fight wars, scuffle in bars, race strangers at stop lights, and trade insults and fists rather than walk away from trouble.

I wasn’t there, but you wonder if all the fuss in Cambridge could have been avoided if either one of them had stopped and said: “This is stupid. Let’s just forget it.”

Professor Gates – after getting over his initial anger – could have said, “Sorry I was upset when you came in. I understand you were just doing your job when someone reported a break in. Now good night.”

Sergeant Crowley could have said: “Sorry I came in like gangbusters. Confronting a robber can be a dangerous thing, so you’ll understand I had to yell a lot, point a gun and secure the situation before sorting out who you are. Otherwise I could be killed. Now that I know who you are, I bid you a good night.”

But you know one or both couldn’t leave it along. Testosterone kicked in and it became a “yo mama” match.

When are we men – black and white and any other colour you care to mention – going to learn to solve our problems in a less manly way?

© Stephen Lautens