Mark Greene believes Americans need to rely less on guns and more on situational engagement.
There has been a lot of discussion online about George Zimmerman, the Florida man who is on trail for allegedly shooting and killing unarmed black teenager Trevon Martin. In those online discussions we often hear talk about the need for home defense and maintaining a high level of “situational awareness.” In an article written in 2007 by Stratfor, a subscription-based provider of geopolitical analysis, situational awareness is defined as: “the process of recognizing a threat at an early stage and taking measures to avoid it.”
Situational awareness theory first arose out of air combat training during the Korean War. In air combat, pilots make split second decisions by which they determine and counter a range of variables and threats. Situational awareness is crucial to effective decision making in such circumstances. Since the military first framed the theory, it has been applied to everything from commercial pilot training to professional sports. When trained properly, human beings can dramatically increase their ability to react and respond to events around them. It can be a so-called “hard skill.”
“Your Last Line of Defense”
With the proliferation of right to carry laws in many states including Florida, handgun training has become big business. And handgun training often includes situational awareness training. A cursory Google search for the phrases such as this brought up from a site which offers the following class for $25:
Personal Safety and Situational Awareness Training:
You are your first and last line of defense!
Expect the unexpected!
Do you know someone who has been robbed, stalked even killed? What if that happened to your family? What if it can be prevented? It can be!
And herein lies the problem. Situational awareness training in combination with gun ownership has become the panacea for creating a sense of security in many American households. It has encouraged people to believe that by suspecting the worst of everyone we meet, we can insure our own safety. But the fact is, this over-emphasis on self defense and situational awareness can lead to the very outcomes it is supposed to protect against.
In the article above, Stratfor notes that “Denial and complacency… are not the only hazardous states of mind. Paranoia and obsessive concern about one’s safety and security can be just as dangerous.” Stratfor goes on to note that “Situational awareness, then, is best practiced at a balanced level referred to as ‘relaxed awareness,’ a state of mind that can be maintained indefinitely without all the stress associated with being on constant alert.”
In essence, if you are on combat patrol in hostile territory, a near-obsessive focus on the expectation of being attacked is probably valid. But if you live in a gated community in Florida, it can be a recipe for overreaction, miscalculation and disaster.
A prolonged elevated focus on tracking potential threats can lead to faulty decision making and bad interpretation of facts or events. Moreover, the tendency will exist to filter out non-threat signals and dramatically reduce their importance, especially when interacting with groups perceived as threatening. Gestures of friendship, offers of communication, moments of connection; all these things are marginalized in deference to the primacy of tracking threat signals, real or otherwise. Meanwhile, no bridges are built. No connections made. And the likelihood of a bad interaction increases.
Imagine instead, deciding to mindfully track and encourage subtle gestures of social connection. Situational engagement, as per Dr. Saliha Bava, is the process by which we can choose to track and engage human connectivity. When practicing situational engagement, there are two levels of proactivity. The first level is to track and respond minute gestures of social connection. The second and more advanced level is to initiate those gestures.
Dr. Bava, a couples and family therapist in New York City and an associate professor at Mercy College, believes that the best way to manage our fears is to lean into them through situational engagment. This engagement strategy can be applied to a wide range of personal and professional relationships.
“When we encounter anything that is dark or shadow, anything unfamiliar to us, we seek to push it away or pull ourselves out. That is the fight or flight response. We can instead choose to connect with the unfamiliar. Engagement or leaning in is one of the first steps for connection.” Bava says. “This process of engagement creates a third option. Now instead of just fight or flight, we have flow. This flow comes from being curious and open to the unknown instead of taking predetermined negative expectations into the dialogue.”
Fight or flight keeps us in our fear while engagement or flow helps us see opportunities to connect. Is our fear coming from a real threat or simply from an irrational response to what is unfamiliar to us? This leaning in or engagement is the only way to accurately see past our fears. Engagement is the only way to determine if we are really seeing a tiger. And on an even more transformational level, the tiger may simply be someone else’s fight or flight response. Engagement can create a relational moment and remove the tiger.
Bava’s point is not to blithely seek out tigers. Her point is to engage our fears, and in those moments, discover valuable social connections our fears may be isloating us from. It is about choosing to create the kind of life you want to live. It is about empowerment.
Weaving the Social Fabric
Like situational awareness, situational engagement requires a significant degree of focus and effort. In order to successfully create opportunities for situational engagement, one must be mindful that there are often local cultural gestures that are unfamiliar to us, such as a slight head tilt with no eye contact as a form of initial greeting. In a situation where others’ social nuances are different from our own, our willingness to learn these gestures is what creates a bridging moment. This moment of learning is how we indicate our willingness to enter other cultural spaces in ways that create the possibility for mutual respect.
According to communication theorists and social psychologists, this process of mutual coordination is how we create relationships and move forward to weave a social fabric. It’s more than simply signalling and receiving a message.
In the practice of situational engagement, we seek to focus on the “we” instead of the “me”, and in doing so, we create something new between individuals and their respective cultures. The “me to we” way of thinking comes from Taos Institute founder Ken Gergen’s Constructionist Theories. Gergen believes we are relational beings rather than individual beings. That the way we know we exist, is in relationship to those around us. We are defined by the “we” not the “me”.
Gergen’s lifetime work has been to redefine what he sees as the central fallacy of psychology, which locates understanding of human behaviour as an internal process. Instead, Gergen believes we are located in the relational spaces between ourselves and others.
How we define where we are located, in turn shapes the lives we create. If we locate ourselves internally then security is something we seek to create though steps we take in relative isolation, but if we locate ourselves socially then protection and security is something we create through purposefully expanding our relationship to others. The very survival we seek to insure, is born out of our ever expanding social connectivity.
We all practice situational awareness. Ignorance or denial of potential threats is not an advisable way to live in the world. In fact, it will probably get you killed. If you don’t think so, just close your eyes and step off a curb. But an over emphasis on situational awareness without adequate social connectivity is creating a new set of challenges for American society.
Put simply, we have lost many of our community-building and engagement skills. Skills that were crucial to our survival a hundred years ago. Our public discourses are moving into increasingly binary cultural, political and racial silos. These silos limit opportunities to empathize with our neighbors, our co-workers and any others who might be different than us. This increases the likelihood that when we do make contact across barriers of race, religion or culture, tensions will flare up and potentially trigger dangerous conflicts.
We have all been hurt at one time or another by persons who are not like ourselves. Whether that difference is race, gender, religion or otherwise, it creates a fight or flight response, wherein we continue to see these “others” as the enemy and continue to react negatively. This fight or flight mindset plays directly into the mantra of threat tracking, and can come to permeate all of our interpersonal dynamics.
The moment of courage comes when we make the conscious choice to not let negative events close us off from a lifetime of positive opportunities. Because if we do, we isolate ourselves and weaken our society further.
Courage and the Social Unknown
Situational engagement then is a strategy for purposefully growing community. It is the choice to intentionally track gestures of friendship, offers of communication, and moments of connection, however minute, ESPECIALLY among groups that may not be directly in connection with us by virtue of race, class, gender, religion, politics or culture.
And this requires courage; courage to lean into the questions and the unknown; to engage people and ideas that are different, with the expressed goal of eliminating the isolation and anxiety that can otherwise cause us to put our faith in only in guns. It takes real courage to connect across racial or cultural boundaries but the benefits are both liberating and life expanding.
By engaging opportunities for connection across cultures, we broaden our community and free ourselves from the cultural and racial silos we can become trapped in. When we do that, our threat tracking scales back to a level that represents what Stratfor calls “relaxed awareness.” Moreover, we begin to form the varied and diverse relationships that we need to truly make our communities and ourselves more safe.
Ultimately the question is this. We should take steps to keep our family safe from threats, but what are we creating if we stop there? America is afflicted by a constant low level fight or flight response that is haunting our national culture. And its a lonely, unhealthy way to live life.
George Zimmerman had a range of choices he could have made that night in Florida. The tragedy that occurred may well have been the result of too great a focus on home protection and situational awareness and too little of a focus on meeting and connecting with people who are not like ourselves. When we live by the mantra of threat tracking, we create a world in which too few connections get made. In which, fear, anger and aggression are the default responses because we don’t actively seek to be situationally engaged with cultures, races or religions outside our own.
There are always some people who might wish to cause harm to us. But if we cede the battle to them, by virtue of making our lives about trying to spot them only, we fail to form the larger and more diverse communities on which healthy societies are based. And without those communities, our nation is in great danger of losing the social cohesion that truly keeps us all safe.