"You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” ~ Siddhartha Gautama"


williamsCAUTION: Contents Volatile When Mixed With Anger
Bracha Schefres

After a 20-year absence from formal education, Bracha Schefres returned to college. She plans to transfer to a local Cal State to pursue a degree in Liberal Arts and earn a teacher’s credential. She has been an educator teaching Hebrew language and Jewish Studies in the elementary grades for more than 20 years. At her workplace, Bracha was recently moved to the position of School Librarian, requiring her to earn a secular teaching degree. Bracha is married with three children: Sarah, who will be graduating this year from UC Davis with a B.A. in Sociology and African Studies; Rivkah, who completed her first year at UC Berkeley in the school of Environmental Science and is pursuing a degree in Architecture; and Yaakov, who will be returning to Hamilton High School Humanities Magnet as a junior. She makes her home in west Los Angeles.

Impulsive behavior can lead to damaging consequences and is a result of poor critical thinking. Anger, an emotion that is not inherently destructive, can cause one to lose rational thought, objectivity, and self-control. Therefore, anger is not the reason for an imbroglio; the consequences created by one’s impulsive actions, precipitated by anger, generate the entanglement. Hindu Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, said, “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” This adage speaks volumes to the importance of critical thinking. A recent event involving educated and respected members of the community can be used as an exemplar of this proverb and act as a learning opportunity.

On July 16, 2009, at approximately 12:44 PM, Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department in Massachusetts responded to a 911 call made by Lucia Whalen, an older white lady, regarding “two big black men with backpacks.” According to Ms. Whalen, the two men were on a neighbor’s front porch, and one of the individuals was trying to force open the front door of the neighbor’s home with his shoulder" (Crowley Police Report). Officer Carlos Figueroa, who arrived on the scene later, confirmed this information while interviewing Ms. Whalen (Figueroa Police Report). As the first responder to Ms. Whalen’s 911 call, Sergeant Crowley arrived at Ms. Whalen’s neighbor’s house and walked up to the porch. There, he observed a man fitting one of the suspects’ descriptions through the glass-paned front door (Crowley Police Report). This man was later identified as Professor Henry Louis Gates, the resident of the house. Born in 1950, Professor Gates is a very famous scholar of African American history. He is also a Harvard professor who acts as director of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research. Professor Gates is handicapped, and walks with a cane because of a fractured hip joint, which makes his right leg shorter than his left leg.

When Sergeant Crowley knocked on the door, and Professor Gates opened the door, Sergeant Crowley identified himself, and explained he was “investigating a report of a break-in in progress” (Crowley Police Report). He asked Professor Gates, whose identity he had not yet confirmed, to step outside onto the porch. At this point, Sergeant Crowley’s and Professor Gates’ accounts of their encounter differ.

According to Sergeant Crowley, Professor Gates became very angry when Sergeant Crowley asked him to step outside, responding: “Why, because I’m a black man in America?” (Crowley Police Report) In an interview with The Root, an online magazine Professor Gates co-founded, and for which he acts as Editor-in-Chief, Professor Gates attests that, indeed, he refused to “step outside onto the porch,” but was not combative, and replied, “No, I will not” to Sergeant Crowley. In his interview with The Root, Professor Gates also attests that it appeared that someone might have tried to gain access to his house while he was away: “It looked like someone’s footprint was there. So it’s possible that the door had been jimmied, that someone had tried to get in while I was in China.” In his interview with The Root, he also described himself, during his encounter with Sergeant Crowley, as dressed in “in a navy blue blazer with gray trousers,” not the expected attire of a burglary suspect, and he also contends that he immediately explained to Sergeant Crowley that he was the resident of the house, a Harvard professor, and furnished him with his Harvard ID and Massachusetts driver’s license that included his address. In his interview with The Root, Professor Gates also stated that Sergeant Crowley “asked me another question, which I refused to answer. And I said [that] I want your name and your badge number because I want to file a complaint.” In addition, Professor Gates declares that his request for Sergeant Crowley’s identification was ignored by Sergeant Crowley: “I asked him three times [for his name and badge number], and he refused to respond. And then I said, ‘You’re not responding because I’m a black man, and you’re a white officer.’” According to Sergeant Crowley, while he was explaining the situation to Professor Gates, Professor Gates proceeded to dial an unknown number, asked for the “chief,” accused Sergeant Crowley of being a racist police officer, and leveled threats that he had “no idea who I was messing with,” a contention corroborated by Officer Figueroa who, at this point, had arrived at the scene (Figueroa Police Report). Professor Gates continued to yell to Sergeant Crowley that “he had not heard the last of it” (Crowley Police Report).

According to Sergeant Crowley, he asked Professor Gates to provide identification while Sergeant Crowley was on the radio with ECC (the city's Emergency Communications and 911 Center). Professor Gates provided Sergeant Crowley with a Harvard University Identification card, and Sergeant Crowley radioed a request for Harvard University Police to come. Professor Gates asked for Sergeant Crowley’s name, and Sergeant Crowley provided it several times (according to Crowley, he did so while being shouted at by Professor Gates), and then Sergeant Crowley proceeded to leave. Sergeant Crowley informed Professor Gates that he would be leaving and if he [Professor Gates] “had any other questions regarding the matter, I would speak with him outside of the residence” (Crowley Police Report). Professor Gates responded by saying: “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside!” (Crowley Police Report) After Sergeant Crowley observed several Cambridge and Harvard University police officers as well as “at least seven unidentified passers-by” (Crowley Police Report) assembled on the sidewalk, Sergeant Crowley subsequently warned Professor Gates that he was becoming disorderly. Professor Gates continued to yell, drew the attention of the people gathered around the house, and was asked by Sergeant Crowley to “calm down” (Crowley Police Report). At this point, Sergeant Crowley withdrew his handcuffs. However, Professor Gates continued to shout, “This is what happens to black men in America!” (Figueroa’s police report). He was subsequently arrested for disorderly conduct (Crowley Police Report).

In his interview with The Root, Professor Gates addresses the issue of yelling by asserting that he had a “severe bronchial infection that I contracted in China and for which I was treated and have a doctor’s report from the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing. So I couldn’t have yelled.” However, both Sergeant Crowley’s and Professor Gates’ versions of the events indicate that Professor Gates informed the police of his need for a cane only after his arrest: “I’m handicapped. I walk with a cane. I can’t walk to the squad car like this” (The Root). Therefore, some of the details of the scenarios Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley describe are in agreement; other details are believed either to have happened in a different order or never to have happened at all. A few of the behavioral responses can be explained by understanding the perceptions of the police officer and the professor.

To begin, Sergeant Crowley observes the evidence of the forced entry, a footprint, and Lucia Whalen’s eye witness account, forms the conclusion that there was a break-in, and determines that a suspect or suspects could still be in the residence. Therefore, Sergeant Crowley probably approaches the residence with extreme caution and maintains control of the situation by using strong and assertive behavior when engaging the possible suspect: Professor Gates. However, Professor Gates feels immediately threatened by this behavior: “All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that I was in danger” (The Root). This behavior and response begin the confrontational behavior between the two. Furthermore, Sergeant Crowley believes that he is attempting to diffuse the situation and warn the professor by asking him to “calm down” and removing his handcuffs from his belt. However, this action only serves to exacerbate the state of affairs by creating a condition that further threatens an already angry individual. The confrontation between Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley is representational of Siddhartha’s cautionary message in which Professor Gates’ and Sergeant Crowley’s anger prevented them from using their critical thinking skills and triggered a chain of events that led to Professor Gates’ arrest and an embarrassing situation for all those involved.

By considering the personal history of Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley one may understand the perspectives and motivations of each man. These perceptions form their realities, guide their actions, and contributed to the imbroglio in which each man played a part. J. D. Salinger’s short story “Teddy” explores the concept that thoughts shape reality. Teddy, a ten-year-old prodigy, challenges Nicholson, a professor who is intrigued by Teddy’s spiritual awareness, to explore alternate concepts of thought and reality. In one passage from the story, Teddy delves into complex metaphysical philosophy, telling Nicholson: “You know [that your arm is]…called an arm, but how do you know it is one? Do you have any proof that it’s an arm?” In other words, Teddy tries to encourage the professor to question the labels we place on people and things—because these labels can stop us from thinking critically. Professor Gates’ thoughts and perceptions shaped the outcome of his encounter with Sergeant Crowley. Professor Gates demonstrates his conflicted thoughts of race and identity in his book Colored People: A Memoir: “I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups….So I’m divided. I want to be black, to know black….” Professor Gates’ preoccupation with his race and heritage may have caused him to be hypersensitive to Sergeant Crowley, a white police officer who may have symbolized, in the professor’s mind, white dominance and oppression of black people in America. With this understanding, the professor’s angry declaration at his arrest, “This is what happens to black men in America!” is the culmination of his pent-up anger, which created this reality. Like Professor Gates, Sergeant Crowley, an officer with more than 15 years experience, who has taught a course on racial profiling at a police academy for five years, entered the situation with his own preconceptions. Responding to a call of a break-in at the professor’s residence, witnessing signs of forced entry and encountering a hostile and combative individual, Sergeant Crowley began his investigation with an assumption: If the circumstances point to the suspect being guilty of forced entry, then it is not necessary to find grounds that link the suspect to the claim.

Plato, in his play Euthyphro, investigates the consequences of inaccurate assumptions like those that Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley may have made. In Plato’s work, Socrates discusses the true meaning of piety with Euthyphro, an egotistical individual who claims that “piety” is his justification for charging his father with murder—although he does not have a clear understanding of what this word means in the cultural context of Ancient Greece, the society in which he lives. Well aware of this fact, Socrates warns Euthyphro of the cost of conjecture after a long debate in which Euthyphro cannot provide a sufficient explanation for the word piety: “If you had not certainly known the nature of piety and impiety, I am confident that you would have never, on behalf of a serf, have charged your aged father with murder,” Socrates tells Euthyphro. Nevertheless, Euthyphro is unable or unwilling to emend his thinking, as perhaps was Sergeant Crowley. He may have been unable or unwilling to change his presumption of wrongdoing because of his anger towards Professor Gates for the latter’s disparaging personal remarks toward his mother. Anger, perceptions, and presumptions played an instrumental role in shaping the events that played out on that July day.

Professor Gates’ and Sergeant Crowley’s conduct that day in July of 2009 may have been based on fallacies that led them to make unfortunate choices. Using the Toulmin argument model created by Stephen Toulmin, a philosopher and logician, one may be able to identify clearly the points where the critical thinking process failed. The confrontation began with two independent claims based on Professor Gates’ and Sergeant Crowley’s personal experiences. Sergeant Crowley’s claim of authority over the situation and all he comes in contact with—including Professor Gates—is in direct conflict with Professor Gates’ claim of defiance founded upon his civil rights beliefs. Both men’s account of the facts may corroborate that when the Professor was asked to step outside his residence upon Sergeant’s authority as the responding officer, the Professor defied the Sergeant by instinctively asserting, “No, I will not” (Olopade). Each man is using legal and Constitutional grounds to bolster his claim. The officer is employed with the responsibility to investigate the break-in, and the professor is protecting his right to privacy. However, the critical thinking website Changing Minds cautions people to pay attention to the validity of the grounds for an argument. In an explanation of Stephen Toulmin’s argument model, this source asserts:

The actual truth of the data may be less than 100%, as all data are based on perception and hence there is some element of assumption about it. It is critical to the argument that the grounds are not challenged because, if they are, they may become a claim, which you will need to prove with even deeper information and further argument.

In his interview with The Root, Professor Gates reaches his claim of defiance toward Sergeant Crowley’s demands with an element of perception and assumption: “And the way he said it, I knew he wasn’t canvassing for the police benevolent association. And all the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that I was in danger” (Olopade). Professor Gates’ expertise in African American history legitimized his claim of mistrust of white authority. Unfortunately, Professor Gates’ warrant is not based upon shared values and beliefs with Sergeant Crowley. Although Sergeant Crowley could be considered an expert in racial profiling, his training has also made him seem unlikely to exhibit racism. Therefore, Professor Gates’ premise of mistrust may be unfounded. However, Sergeant Crowley’s claim of authority should have been amended with the modal qualifier; “I have authority to arrest the suspect except when he is the legitimate resident of the residence.” Once the professor established that he was indeed the resident of the house, Crowley’s anger may have prevented him from using this critical thinking process. In a radio interview with WEEI-AM, Sergeant Crowley appears to illustrate his anger and contempt for the professor, stating: “I’m still just amazed that somebody of his level of intelligence could stoop to such a level, and berate me, accuse me of being a racist of racial profiling. And then speaking about my mother, it’s just—it’s beyond words” (Thompson). Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates each seem to have displayed impulsive and heated behaviors that corrupted their rational thought and led to illogical conjecture. The embarrassment that occurred as a result of their combined anger attests to Siddhartha’s Gautama’s admonition that individuals are punished by their anger—because when we become angry, we tend to act rashly, and as a result, we suffer the consequences of our anger.

However, Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates were not the only two punished by their anger. In an uncharacteristic statement issued by President Obama at a news conference, in which the President appeared to link Professor Gates’ arrest to racial profiling, the President said that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” and drew much criticism (Rochman). In the heat of the moment, President Obama suffered the consequences of his anger. By commenting on a situation that the President was not completely informed about but is personally sensitive to, he was pulled into the first racial controversy of his presidency. However, he tried to alleviate the political damage by bringing the two parties together for beer at the White House. He channeled his anger and referred to the Gates/Crowley imbroglio as a “teachable moment,” hosting what became known as the “Beer Summit” at the White House (Olney). In this way, President Obama was able to diminish the consequences of his anger, and only history will determine if he was able to escape them completely.

The story of professor and the police officer is a cautionary tale for all ages. More than 2,500 years ago, Siddhartha began the narrative with the warning, “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” Siddharta wished to convey how anger can become a disruptive force that can impede critical thinking, logic, and reasoning. Like Siddhartha, Plato warns his readers not to allow emotion to overrule reason. Plato challenges his readers to exercise critical thinking by employing the Socratic questioning at play in Euthyphro and offers a commentary to those who are reckless in their thoughts. He encourages prudence by compelling one to fully understand the reasoning used to reach a conclusion. By using Toulmin’s argument model, one can also deconstruct the flawed and irrational thoughts triggered by anger that led to a series of misperceptions and presumptions, causing the embarrassing situation between Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley. As all stories must come to an end, it is up to the reader to write the last chapter and learn what consequences may come from anger.