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“I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”
This descriptive passage comes from Officer Darren Wilson’s account of his shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. It puts a sharp mental image into the mind of the listener: a small child trying to restrain a massive celebrity wrestler. It tells us nothing about Michael Brown, but only conveys what Darren Wilson felt about himself in comparison.
Ex-officer Wilson’s subjective description, like everything subjective, is “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.” Some synonyms include: personal, individual, emotional, instinctive, intuitive.
Subjective descriptions do not convey knowledge about reality. So let’s look at the truth, the reality, what we can actually know about what happened when a white police officer shot an unarmed 18-year-old African American teenager and sparked a huge outcry over race and injustice.
In reality, Mike Brown and Darren Wilson both stood about the same height—6 foot, 4 inches. An 82 pound weight difference separated the two men (Wilson’s 210 to Mike Brown’s 292). One man was an armed, trained law enforcement professional; the other was unarmed and much younger—a teenager who just graduated from high school.
These important facts convey objective knowledge about reality–even though they’re not nearly as dramatic and emotionally engaging as that image of a five-year-old confronting Hulk Hogan. They fail to stick in the mind the way that simple picture does of a small, defenseless child trying to control a powerful foe.
In further testimony, Officer Wilson commented that: “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
Again, this is subjective, not factual. “It looked like” Brown meant to run through the shots. “It looked like” being shot at was making Brown mad rather than scared. Wilson had the impression that Brown was “looking straight through” him. These subjective descriptions tell us nothing about what Mike Brown actually did—something that witnesses do not agree on.
Finally, Officer Wilson offers a vivid description of Michael Brown as something less–or maybe more–than human. He remarks on the “intense aggressive” face Brown made at him. He tells the Assistant District Attorney, “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Later, in response to a question, he would say, “I just felt the immense power that he had.”
Was Michael Brown “a demon” in possession of “immense power”? Of course not, and the fact that Darren Wilson’s bullets killed him proves it. But the impression hangs in the air like a hologram overlaying and blurring the reality—in truth, Michael Brown was a large young man whose battle prowess didn’t even run to martial arts training and who, at the point Wilson fired the lethal shot, was falling to the ground from loss of blood.
In the writing workshops I teach, I often advise aspiring writers not to pen descriptions like this for the simple reason that no one knows what a demon looks like or what a demonic expression entails. Writers use these kinds of subjective descriptions not to convey facts about the characters or to allow the reader to visualize settings and events, but to evoke emotions; to overlay or coat reality with emotion. The emotional component doesn’t tell the reader what actually happened, but only how the writer feels about it. Moreover, it tells the reader how to feel about it.
Demons are creatures of our imaginations; personifications of our fears. This evocative word calls upon a deep-seated primal terror of beings so powerful they cannot be stopped by mere mortals—not even with bullets. The problem? That word doesn’t tell us about the actual expression on Mike Brown’s face–it only tells us how Darren Wilson responded emotionally to seeing it.
What would a factual description of Michael Brown look like? It would answer questions like these: Were his brows furrowed? Had he bared his teeth? Were his eyes wide or narrowed? Were his arms close to his body or held out or up in front of him? Was he sweating? Crying? Swearing? Only Michael Brown ultimately knew whether his grimace was one of rage, as Wilson suggests, or whether it was a grimace of fear and pain, or a grimace of blind, reactive panic. How can anyone tell the difference from 100 feet?
We hear Officer Wilson’s words and form impressions of Mike Brown based on how they make us feel. I think most of us have had a friend or acquaintance tell us they interpreted our facial expressions or body language in ways that surprised us. In college a close friend told me that when she first met me she thought I was aloof and snobby, until she got to know me and realized I was merely painfully shy.
When these terrible incidents occur, we naturally want to know the truth. We want to see the objective reality, not someone’s subjective impressions. We hunger for what’s real, for the facts:
Never can reality and the mere semblance of reality be one, and wide is the difference between fancy and fact, between truth and the phantom thereof. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 177.
Please follow along with this short series of essays, as we try to look beyond the fancy and the phantoms surrounding Michael Brown’s tragic death.