“BLM and the Analogy of the Forest”
One helpful way to understand the Black Lives Matter response to such things as police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic racism is by thinking about the analogy of a forest.
Forests are often populated with a multitude of different kinds of trees. Each kind has its own unique “skin,” (i.e. bark) which can be red, green, gray, white, orange, or even striped. The texture of each tree’s skin can be thorny, smooth, rough, or deeply furrowed.
Trees have a variety of “hair” color as well (i.e. leaves), with green being the most common color. The fall adds more variety to the color of their hair: yellow, orange, or red being the most common of the fall “styles.” In the winter, some trees shed their hair after their experimentation with bright colors in the fall.
Trees provide oxygen, shade, and shelter for animals. Without trees, life could not continue. Without tees, all of Creation would be heard saying, “I can’t breathe.” Trees also provide aesthetic pleasure to a species that also occupies the world in huge numbers, human beings.
Like trees, human beings come in various shapes, sizes, skin tones and textures, and hairdos. Most of these humans come in some shade of brown, from light to dark, with a slight hue of red or yellow for some.
Humans often live in places where a majority, like trees in a forest, look much like they do, called mono or single-dominance systems, and yet some dwell in places that are as diverse as the Amazon rainforest. Regardless of where they live, both trees and humans, along with other species of flora and fauna, are Children of God and therefore deserve to be respected and cherished. Yes, they all matter.
Like the diversity of trees in a forest, in this country there is a great variety of people of different ethnicities. For the most part, people get along with one another like trees in a forest, often living side by side, drinking from the same undergrown streams, water ways, and drops of rain from the sky.
The snow collects on their leaves or hair indiscriminately. They fight the winds that blow through their limbs or arms, they offer shade and protection to their younger saplings or siblings, and they mourn when one of their own has fallen. Yes, all lives matter.
And yet, sometimes it is appropriate to focus on one kind of tree or ethnic expression of humanity, perhaps an endangered species, one that is either near extinction or devalued. Sometimes we need to focus our attention on their worth and value.
One can imagine a parallel universe, for example, where a variety of trees have yard signs that read “Dogwood Tree Lives Matter,” which is not meant to exclude other trees. No other plant or animal is devalued simply because a specific plant or animal is intentionally valued.
That is the landscape for what is happening in America today. So, when we reflect on the reasons why there is such a vibrant modern-day Civil Rights movement called “Black Lives Matter,” we can refer to two truisms and one question, all using the analogy of a forest.
The first truism is this: We can’t see the forest for the trees.
We all suffer at times from an inability to see clearly what is important. We lack the ability to see the big picture because we are too narrowly focused on one or two specific trees. We cannot see the background, setting, or context, because we tend to focus on the trees directly in front of us.
Because of confirmation bias, we extrapolate from the “truth” we discern about these one or two trees while ignoring the plight of other trees, trees that are failing or falling.
If we want to believe that few or no trees are in distress, that few or no trees are being burned in wildfires or cut down by the lumberjack’s axe, then we will focus on one or two trees that are not burning up or falling down, even if there is ample evidence that many other trees are burning up or falling down.
In terms of the plight of people of color, “we can’t see the forest for the trees” refers to the fact that many white Americans choose to focus on a relatively small number of events that confirm their suspicions that black America is crying wolf about such things as police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic racism.
Obviously, some of the events that have been reported in the news and spread all over social media are more egregious than others. Yes, there have been a few examples where an act of constraint or even violence may have been “justified” according to existing laws. However, most incidents that have led to public outrage were not justified and thus were rightly protested.
In the forest/world, people of color do suffer from police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic racism. That’s the forest. And it’s an old forest. So long as white America cannot see the forest for the trees—trees that conveniently confirm their biases—there will continue to be trouble in the forest.
Truism #2: Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire
According to Science magazine, the summer of 2020 witnessed the worst wildfire season on the West Coast in at least 70 years. The blazes have killed at least 35 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, and caused extreme air pollution that has threatened the health of millions of residents. Ecologists fear the wildfires could also inflict lasting damage on species and ecosystems.
Even if one can’t see the fires, almost everyone in the Western part of the United States and beyond can see or smell the smoke. Any reasonable person will conclude that the smoke proves there is fire. Where there’s that much smoke there’s always fire.
Because of the ubiquity of smart phone cameras, there is more than enough evidence of fire (i.e. police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic racism) than is needed to support the Black Lives Matter movement. And yet, even if we didn’t have all that physical evidence—the George Floyd murder being the most obvious and egregious example in the past year alone—even if all we had was eyewitness testimony from victims or bystanders, there is still enough smoke to claim that the fire is real.
So far, we have two truisms: 1) We can’t see the forest for the trees; and 2) Where’s there’s smoke there’s fire. Both truisms serve as appropriate analogies for the plight of black America in the 21st century, as they have for the last four centuries.
Both truisms can help us overcome our natural prejudices and our confirmation biases to become part of the solution rather than the problem. Both truisms can help us open our eyes, followed by our hearts.
But now I would like to bring a question into this conversation, one that has been asked on many occasions, often for the sake of intellectual frivolity. It’s a fun question, but in the context of the analogy between the plight of forests and people of color, it is one that is worth pondering. Here it is:
If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
The Canadian songwriter, social activist, and environmentalist, Bruce Cockburn posed that question in the chorus of his 1989 song, “If a Tree Falls” and frames it within the context of deforestation.
I suggest that the plight of people of color in America today is analogous to deforestation. Trees are being “cut down,” too often, and for unnecessary reasons. In this analogy, law enforcement officers, a justice system that applies the law unequally, and white supremacists are the lumberjacks.
“If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a thought experiment that raises questions about observation and perception. Like the two truisms I stated earlier, this is a question that uses one of our five senses in an analogous way.
Think about it this way: If we can’t see the forest for the trees, does that mean we can’t see what is happening to people of color? If we can’t smell the smoke, does that mean there is no police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic racism? And if we can’t hear the sound of falling trees, does that mean people of color aren’t really falling?
Although, I can’t breathe seems pretty clear to me.
This is the dilemma for those who support, even indirectly with their inaction, such things as police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic racism: We can see it, we can smell it, and we can hear it. Once we wake up and conclude that everyone in the forest matters, then, and only then, can we say, unequivocally, All Life Matters. Until then, we need to give voice to those that do not seem to matter.