Off-Centre | Society

The Amy Cooper incident shows why we need to return to liberal values

Christian Cooper

Christian Cooper

On the day George Floyd was killed, another incident in New York’s Central Park went viral and led to a furious social media backlash. We must consider it because it offers some important insights into not just racism but also the paradoxes of today’s man-woman relationships, and the need for situational analysis.

Christian Cooper, a birdwatcher, cited park rules and asked Amy Cooper, a white woman, to leash her dog, which appears to have enraged her. The video footage, taken by Christian, shows an infuriated Amy threatening to call the police and report that an “African-American man” was threatening her life, indicating that she is all too conscious of the relationship between black men and the police. And when she calls the police, she is heard affecting a shaky voice. The video sparked widespread outrage, forcing Amy to apologise, but she was later fired from her job.

Two things strike me. One was the extraordinary understanding with which Christian responded to the backlash against Amy. In an interview with The New York Times , he condemned the death threats to Amy, saying her life need not have been torn apart. “Any of us can make, not necessarily a racist mistake, but a mistake,” he said.

Christian’s anxiousness not to have Amy’s life picked apart by social media was heartening; it is the sound of empathy, something very different from the political shibboleth of the Twitter Left. According to Christian, Amy’s apology was sincere. She said she isn’t racist, and Christian seems to think that it’s true. And this is the second thing that strikes me about the incident: Amy most probably is not racist but it is the opportunity racism offers that compelled her to take that wild swing in the park.

“She went racial,” Christian says, “There are certain dark societal impulses that she, as a white woman facing a conflict with a black man, thought she could marshal to her advantage.”

The opportunity

The incident proves that in an illiberal world one cannot trust oneself to be good; to not exploit certain chinks in culture and law to victimise one’s opponent. Because, often, it’s the opportunity of crime that compels crime, and not a criminal mind in itself. More importantly, it shows that if one can’t trust oneself to be good, far less can one trust another person’s word. The Central Park incident advocates for a return to some old-fashioned liberal values — objectivity in law and temperament, or at least faith in (a pretence of) objectivity.

One might examine some fiercely guarded slogans of the women’s movement in this regard, not merely because they are illiberal and Amy could have easily used them against Christian with as much power, but curiously because they are ignorant of black history. For example, #BelieveWomen, a woke slogan now used widely in India, has its origins in the West, but seems incredibly unaware of the long history of white women falsely implicating black men on sexual assault charges.

Amy Cooper in Central Park

Amy Cooper in Central Park

One among the many victims in this history is Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was kidnapped, beaten up and shot in the head in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly being “menacing and sexually crude” towards a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Years later, Bryant confessed that parts of her testimony — especially where she accused Till of verbal abuse and of touching her inappropriately — were fabricated.

That black men threaten the bodily integrity of white women was a widely believed theology of the racist South. It was the moral force behind several lynchings. A similar belief was used against Indians during the British Raj — it influenced E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India , where a white woman accuses an Indian man of sexually assaulting her in a cave and nearly ruins his life.

If a woman can frame a man on a sexual assault charge motivated by racism, why would she not do so for personal and, therefore, more intensely felt reasons like jealousy, envy or malice? Similarly, if a man can frame false charges against a woman knowing he will get away with it, what prevents him from doing so?

Credible danger

This is in no way to imply that any women might have lied in the #MeToo movement. On the contrary, the high risk of misuse of #BelieveWomen comes from its high credibility. If a woman accuses a man of sexual misconduct, it is likely to be true, which is why #BelieveWomen can be a potent weapon in the wrong hands. Say you are the CIA and you want to smoke a man out of an embassy where he has taken asylum, what is the most cost-effective way to do so? Do I hear a sexual assault charge?

The man’s reputation would be ruined — as advocates of #BelieveWomen rightly point out, there is overwhelming historical evidence of women being true with such charges. The man’s case of being a persecuted political prisoner will suddenly pale in importance to the sexual assault charge because the latter will come with the whole weight of women’s experience behind it, just as Amy’s spontaneous ‘racist mistake’ had behind it all the weight of knowledge of how the scales can be turned against a black man by a white woman. History can be a potent weapon to wield, even more so when you are aware of its power, as Amy probably was.

Maybe this is why we must bring back the faith in the original values of a liberal order, in due process, objectivity and situational analysis, no matter how frustrating they can be. If the liberal faith is bad, every other faith to hang your belief on will be worse, because in an illiberal world one cannot trust oneself to be good.

The Mumbai-based author writes on literature, culture and film.

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2022 3:24:59 am |