When Detective Kima Greggs is learning the ropes as a murder police in HBO’s The Wire, her mentor advises her to look at the scene with soft eyes. Hard eyes will focus on the wrong things and miss the big picture. Soft eyes will tell you the most about a crime scene.
A lot about the world is that way. A lot has been said about the problem of our media misrepresenting issues and politicians misleading us on the nature of problems on their own gain. A lot of it is true, too, but the real problem is how it all changes our own way of seeing our own world.
When we discuss poverty, we start talking about Welfare to Work programs and jobless rates and what you should be able to spend food stamps on. When we talk drugs, we debate policing strategies and mandatory minimums and race. When we worry about schools we do so in terms of class size, standardized testing and school taxes.
We look at our world with hard eyes, scrutinizing the details of dauntingly large pictures. We find the details most pleasing or upsetting, set up camps and draw knives to defend our understanding of them. Why? Because it’s easier to demonize the specific application of a specific welfare system by pointing out potential abuses than it is to address the more general problem of increasing poverty among families. That’s how we roll.
There’s no way to solve the endemic problems of the manner in which we live with hard eyes. It takes soft eyes to understand that our worst demons cannot be thought of as a collection of symptoms and anecdotes, to see our issues as the complicated beasts they are. Poverty can’t be addressed through a debate on how many months someone should collect welfare. Frankly, poverty may never be addressed at all. The same goes for education, crime, health and global politics. But if we’re going to do battle at all, we must do so with a clearer understanding of what we’re fighting.
Details matter. They do. At some point, you’ve got to address them, and if you get it wrong, you’ll screw up the big picture. It’s the distraction from the fact that there even is a bigger picture that destroys us. It’s the petty arguments over meaningless minutia that divides us and allows us to be conquered.
Hard eyes will notice the bullet casing on the ground next to a victim’s head. Soft eyes will see that the shot could never have come from the same side of the body as where the casing now lies, the subtle drag marks in the dirt and a bullet hole and some blood on the wall thirty feet away. Hard eyes may catch a shoplifter, but soft eyes catch a murderer. Which crime would you rather solve?