Viewpoints Michele Miller: George Floyd and the truth about your beautiful (limited) heart

  • The makeshift memorial and mural outside Cup Foods where George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on Sunday, May 31, in Minneapolis, Minn. Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/TNS

  • A woman prays outside a mural for George Floyd in Houston in June. The Washington Post/Joshua Lott

  • In this March 10, 2016, photo, graffiti depicts drowned 3-year-old refugee Aylan Kurdi on the banks of the river Main in Frankfurt, Germany. The boy was found dead in September 2015 after a number of migrants died while boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. AP FILE PHOTO

  • Michelle Miller Michelle Miller

Published: 8/9/2020 7:36:09 PM

When I was a child my mother carried a picture of a small Filipino girl in her purse, sometimes with a drawing or letter from the child addressed to her. The details are still clear in my mind — the girl’s dark hair almost as long as her body, her warm smile that made me want to climb into the photo and be her friend.

In 1985 more than half the population in the Philippines lived in poverty, but this girl in my mother’s purse was the only one I cared about. Save the Children, founded in 1919, understood something about human compassion. Now, more than a hundred years later, the response to George Floyd’s heinous murder teaches us a similar lesson.

In an influential 2014 study published in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) journal that focused on compassion, participants were asked to review profiles of either one or more children at risk of starvation and decide how much money they were willing to donate to each. The study found that the amount a participant was willing to give was significantly higher for one child than for two, and went down with each additional child.

Co-authored by Paul Slovic, an expert on decision research and apathy toward genocide, the study illustrates a psychological phenomenon called “psychic numbing”: humans care greatly about individuals in need, but are not good at extending empathy to larger groups. We see this with mass atrocities and natural disasters, especially when they occur far away from us.

This same phenomenon has been seen in the public reaction to the death of George Floyd. Racism toward Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) has pervaded our nation for hundreds of years, and the killing of Black men and women by police is hardly new. In fact, there were only 27 days in 2019 where police did not kill someone, according to — and Black people were 24% of those killed despite being only 13% of the population.

Yet the brutal murder of Floyd, a man known by many as a “gentle giant,” at the hands of the police, has sparked a massive uprising across the country, including some of the largest and most prolonged protests we’ve seen since the civil rights movement.

Given our long evolutionary history of living in small tribal communities, this makes sense. We are programmed to care for and protect the few people closest to us, and in Floyd’s case, the intimate footage captured by a bystander placed him in our inner circle — giving us access to our empathy and activating our desire to seek justice.

In a paper in the journal Judgement and Decision Making, Professor Slovc pointed out that our feelings grow more engaged with certain forms of assault on human beings. The slow, unarmed murder of Floyd hit closer to home than other methods of killing we’ve become desensitized to seeing. For all intents and purposes this man died in our arms, inside our living rooms — and we felt it deep in our bones.

Window of opportunity

Floyd’s tragic death has afforded us a window of opportunity to make radical, lasting change. But the receptivity period is finite, and as we’ve seen with other major individual losses in history, the momentum will slow and we may become numb again.

In 2016, Slovic’s team did a study to test this window: They tracked the public reaction to a photograph of a drowned young Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi, on a beach in Turkey. Prior to the image surfacing worldwide on social media, the death toll in Syria had been rising to hundreds of thousands. Yet this image suddenly woke people up to the Syrian war and the plight of the refugees it created, in a way that statistics had not.

In Sweden, where 160,000 Syrian refugees had been taken in, daily donations to the Red Cross for their care increased from $8,000 to $430,000 following the surfacing of the photograph. The response was powerful, though it only lasted for about a month.

Yet there are ways to overcome the limitations of human compassion and extend the life of this window for long enough to activate systems that could transform our society. As someone who teaches, researches, and practices mindfulness with a focus on the development of compassion, I have gained insight into how we might do this.

First, we must find something related to the situation that we can actually do, in order to keep it in our minds as our feelings begin to diminish. A good starting point, particularly for someone who’s not Black, Indigenous, or a person of color, is to formally identify our own privilege and conditioning so that we can start to address it.

Rachel Ricketts, an international thought leader, speaker and healer, has a smart and comprehensive list of anti-racism resources to help enlighten and educate. Two excellent books, “Me and White Supremacy,” by Layla Saad and “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo, can help us to ground and begin the process.

It’s also important to get involved with others doing the work of dismantling racism and promoting organizational and structural change. The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and of course Black Lives Matter are excellent resources to help people both learn more and find a way to play a role.

To be an effective ally we must break our silence, and in more than just a performative way. Our actions must rise up from the genuine intention to understand and support people of color, without the need for anything in return. There are many ways to do this: like supporting a BIPOC-owned business, discovering BIPOC artists and writers, and engaging in BIPOC led activities, to name a few.

Empathy, compassion

The second part of the solution is to focus our attention, individually and as a society, in ways that naturally promote empathy and compassion. Given what we saw after the deaths of George Floyd and Aylan Kurdi, along with the results of Slovic’s studies, it seems that seeking out and sharing stories about individual lives — and using imagery to convey the value of those lives — is critical.

There are many ways to do this: In mindfulness practice, the use of an ancient teaching called metta (or loving-kindness), can dramatically increase one’s capacity to feel emotion; it works by encouraging the practitioner to choose an individual — oneself, a benefactor, a stranger, a difficult person — and focus on sending friendly wishes to them.

For many years I practiced metta by simply repeating phrases like, “May you be happy,” “May you be safe” while picturing the person. In more recent years, I have adapted the practice to include the use of imagery and more specific visualization — say, looking at a photo of the person, or reflecting on a shared memory — and have found a significant increase in my students’ capacity to access their feelings. As a society, shifting the paradigm to focus less on statistics and more on personal stories and imagery can lead us to becoming a more compassionate human race.

Organizations like Save the Children and GoFundMe are moving the needle, and journalists and others with platforms must also do better to understand the limits of human compassion and report in ways that our hearts and minds can connect to emotionally. Artists have also long known the power of identifying the individual beneath the numbers, and this is an excellent place for us to grow as a society.

The movement to deface and remove statues that have for hundreds of years symbolized the roots of institutional racism in our country is an opportunity to reimagine art that represents and honors BIPOC.

George Floyd is “the one” who woke us up, but he is also “one of many” as part of a much bigger problem. White supremacy, individual and systemic racism, and our archaic criminal justice system are complex and deeply ingrained problems that will require us to work actively for a continuous period of time.

True and lasting transformation will require the long-term engagement of individuals and organizations, and the work will be deep and uncomfortable, as dismantling hundreds of years of oppression, patriarchy, and hate will take courage, persistence and patience.

It doesn’t matter what political perspectives you hold or from what place you are entering; the work of anti-racism is our civic and moral duty as human beings, and the future of our world depends on it.

Michele Miller lives in Amherst with her two children and is currently working on a petition for Reparations in Amherst.a petition for Reparations in Amherst.
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