A rock. And a hard place. And damn, can’t breathe.

The following is a guest post by Michelle Smith, an assistant professor at Barnard College. This essay originally appeared as a public post on Facebook, and it is reprinted here with permission.

The longest facebook status update ever but I couldn’t breathe by the regular means and I had to force it out.

Over on a friend’s Facebook page is a thread about Khadijah Lynch, a black Brandeis University student who has attracted the ire of the right, quite a few white supremacists and a large percentage of everybody else by tweeting provocatively about the deaths of Officers Liu and Ramos. And that discussion is making my head spin and my heart hurt and my soul ache. Actually, it’s doing that on top of everything else that has been spinning, hurting and aching me now for a long, long time. And you know, when your head is spinning and your heart is hurting and your soul is aching, it can be hard to critically reason in a public forum. It is not just that another young black man was gunned down by police in MO last night or that his mother’s keening wail when she found out he was dead keeps replaying in my head. It is not that I am still reeling from De Blasio’s aggressive statement of purpose after the murder of two NYPD officers this past weekend, which stands in such sharp contrast to the vague emoting of his post-Garner decision speech. It is not even that I had to hold my tongue and my fists repeatedly as various NYPD officers put their hands on my body to “kettle” me back on various sidewalks at the night before last’s protest march up 5th Avenue. I can’t catch my breath, in either sense of the commonly used phrase. I cannot stop to breathe. I have not been able to pause to let my body rest and reset. It is like I have been on a treadmill that won’t stop rolling long enough for a breather, much less a protein bar or a sip of Gatorade. [And it’s Christmas.] Worse, if my breath should just…catch (yet again), stick in my throat out of sheer terror, rage, gut-rending sadness but I nevertheless force myself to exhale (and scream and cry and wail and get adamant) all out in the open on some public forum, such is the source of my arrested breath—black lives seem to matter less and less—that I will likely face another gut-punch. Not everyone will respond with an “I feel you” or a “me, too.” Perhaps as in the case of Ms. Lynch, my scream will go “viral” and I will have to run and hide. (“Why can’t you,” an ex-lover once asked, “just enjoy yourself? Just go with it and enjoy it. You stop to think too much.” I could never explain that I wasn’t always thinking. Sometimes, I simply could not breathe. “You have condoned violence, Khadijah Lynch. That is wrong. Period. It was thoughtless, immature, immoral for you to do so no matter how you feel.”)

I want to think out loud, so to speak, about all of this, especially Khadijah Lynch’s tweets, the murders of officers Liu and Ramos and most especially, compassion. I want to think out loud about the ethical/moral force of events and persons. What stokes outrage and arouses ‘our’ compassion? For whom and about what are ‘we’ inclined to be enraged or to feel pity? Who is this ‘we’ to whom I keep referring? Are we an association defined by egalitarian relations, wherein each receives the benefits of outrage and compassion from others when events demand it just as each is obligated to be concerned about others? Or are ‘we’ a group of motley and pitiless antagonists, whose rivalry results from individual failures of virtuous thought, action and communication? (To the non-theorists among my Facebook friends, I am escaping into theory while trying really hard to retain a grasp of current events that I’d just as soon let go. Even before I was trained as a political theorist, I had a real affection for ‘abstract’ thinking. Also, I love Aristotle almost as much as I love Kant. I’d add “to my very great shame” to that but I’d be lying. I love them both like I love Tolkien fantasies, with a kind of pure and unadulterated “I-don’t-careness” that ought to embarrass but doesn’t because only 7 year olds feel it. This is me holding on. To my theory friends, yes, there are other sources. Of course, I’m painting with too broad a brush. Naturally, my interpretations are indefensible. I am whistling in the dark but I am doing so in a theoretical key.)

In “Poetics,” Aristotle famously differentiated between what would strike audiences of tragedy (of the sort performed on a stage) as “pitiable” (or, we might say, compassion evoking) and “terrible” (or we might say, monstrous and spectacular) occurrences. Aristotle believed that the emotional impact of an event, whether audience members are likely to judge it “pitiable” or “terrible,” depends on the affiliation of those it affects. Philosopher Stephen Salkever illuminates the complexities of Aristotle’s thinking about affiliation.

“From the definition of ‘pity’ given in [Aristotle’s] Rhetoric (1385b), i.e.: pain arising from the spectacle of undeserved suffering, we might expect the answer to be that calamities wrought by an unjust person upon a just person are the truly pitiable events. But this is not what he says here; instead, the answer given is that a destructive act (a “pathos,” as defined in 11.1452b) is pitiable only if it occurs among “philoi,” rather than among enemies or persons indifferent to one another. The tragic thrill or frisson (“phrittein;” 1453b) that captures the spectator or reader of a tragedy must be brought on by an unexpected break in a relationship of “philia,” a relationship defined here in a precise and uncommonly narrow way by Aristotle’s examples: events are pitiable when ‘calamaties occur among “philiai,” such as when brother kills brother, or son father, or mother son, or son mother.’ The “philia” intended here is not the broad ‘friendship’ that is the ordinary meaning of the word, but is clearly and uniquely a family or blood relationship…[Tragedies] concern only a few families or households (“gene” or “oikiai”)… Tragedians discovered it was the stories of these families—stories of the fatal disruption of the “philia” of the household—that were most likely to produce a sensation of pity, of serious and unmerited suffering, in the minds of their audience. This use of “philia” is unusual and worth noting. The term occurs frequently in [Aristotle’s] Politics, where it is used to describe emotional ties among citizens that are necessary for the survival of the “polis;” political “philia” is thus said to be ‘the greatest of goods for cities’ (Politics 2.1262b). There we are told there are two causes of “philia:” the sense that another person is in fact one’s own (to idion), and the shared sense that something is truly lovable; the first form of “philia” being familial and the second political.”

Let us put aside the political sense of affiliation given in Aristotle’s Politics for a moment. For Aristotle, a tragedy (again, the sort performed on a stage) was not merely an entertainment. Rather, as Salkever points out, tragedies served a didactic purpose. A good tragedy would warn an audience against the seduction of unjust action. Instead, we should “act with caution…resist the tendency to identify freedom and happiness with power” and understand that “the familial order is as fragile as it is precious, and so requires the support of institutions such as the laws if it is to be maintained.” By arousing pity (i.e., evoking compassion), tragedies could transform an audience by “focusing concern.” An effective tragedy produced catharsis… “neither that of purgation nor of purification, nor yet of direct teaching or enlightenment, but is part of the process of transforming a potentially good democracy (with proper land distribution, economic regulations, and so on) into one that is actually such…”

I am no great student of Aristotle. His work is not the subject of my political theoretical research and writing. Still, I always enjoy teaching Aristotle in my Intro to Political Theory class. Concepts like friendship, family, democracy and virtue that we are accustomed to using in certain off-hand ways become unfamiliar when we read and discuss him. My students and I are sometimes left reeling by how complex a concept and how difficult an ethical/political possibility affiliation actually is even without perhaps foolish attempts to ‘apply’ Aristotle to contemporary events. And indeed his writings are not so easily ‘applied’ here. Recent events contain and stage so many real life tragedies whose audiences are multiple, with divisions among them so sharp and so visceral and indeed, often so willful, as to suggest that shared transformation is impossible. ‘We’ are not often riveted by the same events. Some of us are much more likely than others to play leading roles from which we will not walk away. Current events suggest that those of us most unlikely to be assigned the most difficult part in a tragedy, that of ending up as the event, are just as unlikely to willingly sit quietly in the audience and allow our viewing of the event to focus our concern and to transform us in the fashion Aristotle described. Were he to read this post, Salkever might say, but even if his account of tragedy is not precisely applicable to us today, Aristotle nevertheless can teach us a lesson! Though by focusing the concern of its audience, an effective tragedy might push ‘us’—a series of families and households— toward democratic transformations, the efficacy of a tragedy, i.e.: its capacity for stoking compassion, derives precisely and only from the kind of relationships violated by the tragic event. Only poetic representations of “violations of a certain order of ‘philia’” that of the family and not the “order” of political community generate compassion and catharsis. It would seem that each of us recognizes that “the most important goods are those that are connected with their homes and families” and thus can experience and express transformative compassion.

One might object that the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd and so many others at the hands of police, as well as the murder of officers Liu and Ramos by Ismaaiyl Brinsley are not ‘tragic’ in the Aristotelian sense because they are not events explicable as pure “familial disruptions.” Surely, police and populations subject to their authority are not “philoi” in the sense implied by Aristotle’s Poetics. Apparently, police/community relations are at best indifferent and at worst antagonistic. In many ways, both Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Ethics offer more fitting accounts of “philia” to address the emotional effects and political possibilities of contemporary events. To be dangerously general [sorry, theorists] in Rhetoric and Ethics, “philia” refers to the constitutive actions and intentions of friendship, such as reciprocal regard, cherishing and the like and stand in contrast with those of “misein” or hating. Here “philia” is not a feeling in response to an event as is compassion, but instead an animating objective or motive toward an Other. Reciprocity—shared regard or attention to the well being of another—define relations of “philia” in the context of the Ethics and Rhetoric. Both Ethics and Rhetoric are ‘practical’ (empirical/applied understanding) as opposed to purely ‘theoretical’ bodies of knowledge, “scientific knowledge, combined with intuitive reason, of the things that are highest by nature” (Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 1141b) with the former directed at moral dilemmas and the latter at the theory and practice of persuasion. When effective, both seek justice: Rhetoric because it can help arrive at truth and just outcomes in political assemblies and courts of law and Ethics because it can assist in our attempts to envision happiness, to exercise virtue and to articulate the most appropriate forms of government for a given people.

Many anti-police brutality activists dream of replacing militarized and murderous police departments with community police, whose objectives and methods are animated by reciprocal regard. And thus, when the NY Daily News shouts at us, “Have you no shame?” for continuing to protest after Mayor De Blasio asked us not to, we get on Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs and everywhere else and do our very best to persuade by illuminating the misunderstandings (both willful and accidental) animating such shouting. And yet, despite the obvious objections I raised above and others, chief among them that these are not effective and didactic entertainments but real life events, I want to return to the Aristotelian notion that the tragic representations of events are rife with political potential. But I want to think out loud about the dangers of the blood borne “philia,” which is the only one form of human relation to evoke compassion when violated and to thus spark democratic catharsis.

But first: our lives are at stake. The black and brown among us are at enormous risk of becoming real life/death events at the hands of police. We can’t breathe. And we can’t catch our breath. When we DO exhale in outrage at being exploded or at watching others like us blown up and out from the wholeness of human being that we, like everybody else, were struggling to put and keep together (all the pedestrian and all the grand, all the holy and all the profane) into a life/death (mostly death, though, mostly death) event, as Khadijah Lynch did on Twitter, we get an audience. But when that audience coheres, it does not signal that catharsis or reciprocal understanding has been achieved but instead that a kind of bad translation has congealed. And so, our cortisol and adrenaline-laden breath stinks like ozone. And so, shame on us for we are a nasty and perennial pollutant, a danger to the body politic. And so, instead of all of that, we feel obligated to do better and thus assemble to force out our caught up breath together to convert it from stress hormones into words, actions, demands and we take to the streets. Last night, we caught our breath together and said, “Mayor De Blasio, we are not things that happen. These police don’t just stop and frisk us, knee-to-the-throat-us (to death), shoot-to-death-without-cause-us. Their violence and your opportunism converts us from emergent constellations of human being—moments and choices and assignations and loves and angers and fashions and favorite-songs and faulty-memories and bike rides and photographs and hatreds and successes and attempts and failures and vintage-clothes-we-try-to-wear-but-boy-are-they-wearing us and that- time-I-made-a-perfect-vindaloo and that-next-time-when-I-didn’t and whoa-that-unexpected-in-1994-Q-tip-lead-acid-jazz-hip-hop-cipher-at-den-of-thieves [when the Village was kind of still the Village] and my-first-trip-to-Berlin-when-I-heard-“einsteigen, bitte-and-then “zuruck-bleiben, bitte”-on-the-subway-platform-and-didn’t-know-what-it-meant-but-it-sounded-so-pretty-that-I-had-to-learn-a-whole-other-language [also, I was in love] and cross-country-drives and skiing-downhill-at-Peek&Peak-in-Walmart-ski-clothes [I got WET] and the-Lullaby-Baxter-Trio’s-ever-so-apt-song/description-of-mostly-everything,“The Chatterbox Chronicles” and reading-Margaret-Atwood-the-first-time and asking-Dad-to-pay-my-rent-because-yes-i-did-buy-a-plane-ticket-to-Berlin and too-many-drinks-that-one-night-after-several-nights-of-far-too-few and so-many-break-ups and unwise-facebook-status-updates [like this one] and obligatory-family-dinners and runaways and and and—into things that just happen and are happened upon. Their violence and your opportunism convert us from a series of episodes becoming us to the usefully episodic. You make us minute-by-minute recordable moments like Comstat pocket searches, lifted up shirts (gun check), profane commands that we submit (“get the fuck out of the street!!” These are unrecorded, it turns out, by Comstat) and unwieldy bodies to be “kettled” onto the sidewalk or jailed until whenever. Or you make us life-long but only in memory, like Michael Brown’s bloodied and bleeding, lifeless and dead body lying in the street for four hours after the now no-billed Darren Wilson shot him six times. I am starting to wheeze.” So, we assemble to peacefully and in a constitutionally protected fashion force out our breath in words and signs and actions. Yes, we did hear you tell us not to, but it is an emergency-we cannot breathe so we dutifully force out our breath and shape it into a clear account of the public problems at hand and how we would like to see them resolved but then you join the NY Daily News to ask “have you no shame?” I cannot speak for all of us but I have plenty of shame: seven-different-all-white-but-for-me-and-my-sister-and-maybe-a-couple-of-others-Catholic-schools-in-seven-different-states will do that for you. And yes, I know that’s not what you meant.

Okay, I’ve caught my breath for the moment. But even breathing I am still caught up, stuck between a theoretical rock (or a practical one?) and its practical hard place (or is the hard place theoretical?) Dunno. Aristotelian Poetics and the light it shines on tragedy induced “philia” appeals to me. In the Poetics, “Philia” results not from an already existing and reciprocal intention of regard for others, which while lovely in theory is rare in practice, but instead from an event, an occurrence which with the right kind of poetic/aesthetic representation can potentially scare us into such a powerful feeling of compassion that we become new—freshly oriented towards democratic transformation. And yet, Aristotle immediately forecloses an event-qua- event’s theoretical boundlessness and thus its cathartic-democratic potential by insisting it be recognized as a fouling of a familial (and only familial if you believe Salkever) relations. Only those events affecting familial relations are effective and rife with potential. Those events represent the right kind of dirtying of the right kind of human relations. As such, they become worthy of (or conducive to) recognition. The right kind of event can occur only among those already connected by kinship. [Perhaps Aristotle would like to issue an apology to Toni Morrison, who wrote in “Beloved,” “That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.” Dirty you so bad that you can’t catch your breath. Can’t breathe.]

We might be tempted to simply deduct the kinship part from Aristotle’s logic and, through some sleight of theorizing, substitute political relations. Consider for example, the stated demands of the national‪ #‎blacklivesmatter‬ movement. These demands evince no optimistic or hopeful expectations about anyone’s sentiment or the idea that the events at hand will catalyze reciprocal regard, love, friendship or an intentional orientation to the well being of Others. Instead, precisely because the members of BLM have witnessed repeatedly that police murders of unarmed black and brown folk rarely attract the compassionate recognition that might inspire Aristotelian reversals entered the political fray and proposed to create a “network of organizations and advocates to form a national policy specifically aimed at redressing the systemic pattern of anti-black law enforcement violence in the US.” BLM’s proposals were originally articulated in response to the murder of Michael Brown, whose death was one example of the “systematic pattern of anti-black law enforcement violence in the U.S.” BLM demanded 1) “the immediate arrest of officer Darren Wilson and the dismissal of county prosecutor Robert McCullough” 2) “that the federal government discontinue its supply of military weaponry and equipment to local law enforcement” 3) that Eric Holder “release the names of all officers involved in killing black people within the last five years, both while on patrol and in custody, so they can be brought to justice – if they haven’t already” and 4) “that government decrease…law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing and schools. This money should be redirected to those federal departments charged with providing employment, housing and educational services.” (Of course, if you’ve been watching or reading the so-called “news,” you probably didn’t even know that BLM has demands, what with all the “kill a cop” chanting and so forth going on.)

No such substitutions of political for familial relations are possible. Indeed, even non-event driven “ethics” fail. For white supremacy is damned talented at foreclosing reciprocity. Sitting in the national audience and letting an event play out in the hopes that it will “focus [our collective] concerns” into an ethos that inspires democratic change has never worked for black and brown people in the United States. To cite one example, as 19th century anti-slavery activist-intellectual Martin Delany pointed out, for black folks in the US whether slave or free, faith in ethics/morality was very dangerous indeed. The socio-economic, political and ‘ethical’ system of white supremacy was so powerful that it infected all interracial relations, whether extant or emergent. Referring to white Abolitionists who attended black organized uplift “conventions” during the antebellum period, Delany wrote:

“[white Abolitionists] exhorted the Convention to cease; as they had laid on the burden, they would also take it off; as they had obstructed our pathway, they would remove the hindrance. In a word, as they had oppressed and trampled down the colored people, they would now elevate them.”

Delany’s description of the black participants’ response is instructive. Upon hearing this argument,

“…the colored men stopped suddenly, and with their hands thrust deep in their breeches-pockets, and their mouths gaping open, stood gazing with astonishment, wonder and surprise at the stupendous moral colossal statues of our Anti-Slavery friends and brethren, who… promised a great deal more than they have ever been able half to fulfill.”

But it was not just that (white) Christian ethics was not enough to condition measurable change. The problem was that ethics, however gorgeously Christian (or wonderfully ancient Greek), was still predicated on the notion that, even if freed from enslavement, black people could never be more than objects for the ethical action of others. A rock. And a hard place. And damn, can’t breathe.

But that was the 19th century. Here we are in the 21st, unable to produce or sustain any faith in “ethics” or to rely upon even the very best “rhetoric” but still confronted with apparently tragic events and thus trying our damndest to transform them into democratic reversals. But just look at how they dirty us! Mayor De Blasio says we should “shut down” our protests until after the funerals of officers Liu and Ramos. In doing so, he explicitly suggests that the righteous outrage and the accompanying demands of anti-police brutality activists like those belonging to the #blacklivesmatter movement resulted in the deaths of those officers! “We have to get everyone to move away from anger and hatred,” De Blasio insists, indicating that protestors trying to breathe are not in fact just trying to breathe again but instead full of non-regard, non-love and no concern for the well-being of the immediate families of officers Liu and Ramos or the NYPD ‘brotherhood,’ now conveniently treated as though they are merely ‘our’ brothers (armed to the teeth). “It’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time,” he said. “Let’s accompany these families on their difficult journey. Let’s see them through the funerals … then the debate can begin again.” And so, the deaths of officers Liu and Ramos are identified as eventful tragedies in the Aristotelian sense, tragic “disruption(s) of the household.” At the same time, our canny Mayor De Blasio did not just insist that this event—this tragedy—violated the unity and sanctity of ‘our’ household and should thus evoke “compassion” from us. In the same press conference, he suddenly ‘invited’ us all into relations of political “philia,” too, hoping against hope that we’d mistake the obligations of familial sentiment for political duty. He said, “when a police officer is murdered, it tears at the foundation of our society. It is an attack on all of us. It’s an attack on everything we hold dear.” We should suddenly recognize that we are a “family” of every important sort—not just kinfolk but citizens. Now that, my friends, is an extraordinary representation of an event! Aristotle would be stunned to find the “tragic” impact of an event so enlarged—recognizable as a pitiable occurrence among “family” AND among citizens. De Blasio has demanded total silence in every sector when we already cannot breathe.

Khadijah Lynch couldn’t breathe. And then she forced the caught up breath out of her throat where it was doing things to her that she perhaps could not survive. She tweeted “lmao. I just really dont have sympathy for the cops who were shot. i hate this racist fucking country.” That’s so mean. So cold. So immature. So unwise. So unethical. So hateful. So racist. So not pragmatic. Right? But when you already can’t breathe and they put something else heavy on your chest, like a sudden invitation to a family you didn’t belong to just before and that you know you won’t belong to just after and that you thus cannot trust, you breathe out whatever it is in you that you have left.