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The lost art of not having an opinion on everything

"Slavery is not real. Have you ever seen a picture of a slave with dreds? White people just tell y'all that to make y'all's dumb asses serve them and be inferior. And y'all just listen like sheep."

This article first appeared on Salon.

This is a paraphrased example of a social media post by an old high school friend of mine I'll call Tim. Ignoring the hundreds of years of research and brilliant scholarship on the topic — not to mention the 13th and 14th amendments, the millions of pages written, photos from the pre-Photoshop era, personal testimonies from actual people who were once enslaved like Fredrick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano and Harriet Jacobs, and the whole Federal Writers Project in general — to offer a hot take on a topic nobody asked him to weigh in on.

I usually don't reply to posts like this. But his words irked me in a way I shouldn't have let myself be irked. Against my better judgment, I replied.

"Believe it or not, your opinion on this topic is really not necessary," I commented.

"Don't tell me that brainwashed you too, Watkins. SMH," he spat back. "Please don't tell me you bought into the whole slavery myth. That is the oldest white man trick in the book!"

"What did you study, Tim? What have you unearthed in a world where many Black people can trace their American roots back to the plantations where their families were held hostage?" I responded. "What qualifies you to make these claims?"

"Hold tight," Tim wrote. "I'll send over some links. And Watkins, be careful with this information I'm about to give you, this ain't for the weak-hearted."

I know this is a wild and crazy idea — and I realize I already violated it by telling Tim what I thought about his absurd theory — but I truly believe everyone should consider trying this very simple practice: You don't have to give your opinion online. We could all try shutting up more often and keeping our two cents to ourselves.

Watch a big news story that explains a topic you truly know nothing about? Agree or disagree with how that story was presented, and its conclusion? Look away from your phone. And if you can't, at least look away from your texting apps. Look away from your social media accounts. Do not touch the keys. Look away from your desktop or laptop, look away from the guy next to you at the bar, look away from the woman sitting alone in the airport, look away from your kids, even. And as you are looking away, do us all a big favor and pack up that rickety soapbox you might be tempted to climb upon to offer some corner store commentary and instead, please, keep it to yourself.

Social media, mobile phones, algorithms that elevate debunked garbage theories, the 24-hour news cycle, 80 billion podcasts and countless think pieces written by people who don't think, this digital ecosystem encourages too many self-proclaimed geniuses and meme-educated amateurs who think Googling is research to give into a burning urge to share their opinions on any and every topic, regardless of whether they are qualified to do so.

A clear example of the need to stay in one's own lane came a few weeks ago from comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan, when he downplayed the need for the COVID-19 vaccine, claiming, "If you're a healthy person, and you're exercising all the time, and you're young, and you're eating well ... like, I don't think you need to worry about this." Of course nothing in Rogan's bio indicates anything about him studying immunology, virology, or any kind of medicine. After the backlash, Rogan backpedaled. "I'm not a doctor, I'm a f**king moron," he said later. "I'm not a respected source of information, even for me."

But I don't blame Rogan for jumping out there with his bogus vaccine statement in the first place. He's a comedian and that's what comedians do. They get paid to make jokes and shouldn't be taken seriously, even when they're on their own podcast trying to be taken seriously.

Rogan has a substantial platform –– millions of people follow his podcast and his social media accounts where they are exposed to his commentary. And in today's world, the products of digital celebrity — follower counts and engagement levels — equal currency. An abundance of currency. Everyday people with platforms who never had any interest in medicine or science until we found ourselves in a pandemic suddenly found their words and opinions holding as much weight with the public as doctors who have dedicated their lives and careers to studying medicine. Pseudo-experts compete with experts now — not because of earned authority, but based solely on their ability to attract likes to their posts, even if their accounts are largely focused on unrelated matters like cats, fashion, fitness or half-naked photos of themselves or others. Because it doesn't matter where or how you built your platform; your followers just have to be real people, and you need a lot of them. Build that army of followers out to 100,000 or more and you too can identify as an expert on whatever you like. You can be more relevant than Dr. Fauci.

I want to be clear: I do believe in the First Amendment. People should be legally allowed to speak their minds and state their feelings. However, like owning a firearm, raising a child, operating heavy machinery, or driving a car, we should understand that the privilege of doing so comes with great responsibility. Words can and do hurt others. Fake news and fake history is divisive and harmful.

I also know I'm writing commentary right now. I offer my opinion for a living, which sounds pretentious, but I take it seriously, bringing my life experience — all of my trials and errors — and my research into my work. And as a rule, I don't speak on what I don't know. For example: the other day I got a message from a former student telling me that he had been discriminated against in a hospital because of his skin color. I did not give him spiritual advice. I did not tell him to organize a BLM protest. And I didn't tell him that he had a $1 million lawsuit on his hands. I simply told him, "I know this is rare and strange, but I do not understand your situation, and I do not have the skill set to instruct you. Please contact a lawyer or a person who specializes in discrimination. I wish you the best." It is very simple to walk away from things we do not understand. It is easy to avoid being reckless in our reactions. I think and interview and study before I put words to page or open a social media app.

Back to my old friend Tim. After sending me his dangerous links that are not for the weak-hearted, I saw yet another outrageous social media post of his. This time he wrote about the pandemic.

"COVID is not real! And you people wearing those dumb ass masks and taking that poisonous vaccine are lost sheep!" Tim posted, ignoring the record number of hospitalizations and the more than half a million Americans who have lost their lives.

I thought back to the Tim I knew in tenth grade — a chubby, lovable, shy kid who sat at the end of my lunch table eating school-issued mashed potatoes, who never really said anything unless he was complimenting me or one of the other kids on our Air Jordans. I remember him getting punched in the mouth and not fighting back. I remember him dating a girl whose face he had airbrushed onto a t-shirt he wore religiously. I remember him always laughing, but never really contributing to our jokes. Was he shy, or was he dreaming up conspiracy theories even back then? Was he in history class with us thinking Frederick Douglass was some made-up folk hero played by Morgan Freeman, or that Harriet Jacobs was just a novel character dreamed up for our delight? I never heard him debate anything in class, on the basketball court, or even when our classes had our best arguments on days when teachers were absent, leaving a substitute to fill in. I never really knew what he thought about anything until I joined Facebook. I friended him and was greeted by a long rant he penned claiming Beethoven, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Bruce Lee, every Native American, and a few people I can't remember, were all unarguably, 100 percent Black.

The explosion of Facebook must have birthed the monster in Tim. His false history lessons began getting more shares and likes over the years, to the point where he built up a small platform of over 1,000 followers. He started dressing differently, wearing headwraps, multi-colored dashikis and long wooden necklaces with heavy ankhs dangling from the end. Along with this new platform and image came a confidence he never really showed when we were young, and now like a Joe Rogan in miniature he has an incentive to issue hot takes on everything from Obama being a clone with a fake birth certificate to the microchips Bill Gates is planting in all of us by way of the coronavirus vaccine.

Right now, a platform is a currency more valuable than Bitcoin, and the stage has been set for anyone to cash in on bad opinions, dreamed-up medical advice, and fabricated history. I'm not picking on Tim or even taking shots at Joe Rogan. But 2016 should have been the breaking point for all of us, and yet this behavior persists. A 2018 Ohio State University study showed that fake news spread on Facebook helped elect Donald Trump — a racist, sexist, classist windbag who downplayed COVID-19 for political capital, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths in the process.

Here are the false stories, along with the percentages of Obama supporters who believed they were at least "probably" true (in parenthesis):
1. Clinton was in "very poor health due to a serious illness" (12 percent)
2. Pope Francis endorsed Trump (8 percent)
3. Clinton approved weapons sales to Islamic jihadists, "including ISIS" (20 percent)
Overall about one-quarter of 2012 Obama voters believed at least one of these stories, and of that group 45 percent voted for Clinton. Of those who believed none of the fake news stories, 89 percent voted for Clinton.

Trump — another self-proclaimed expert, gassed by his own opinions and made-up theories — actually raised the money to further back up his BS and rode a wave of privilege and lies all the way to the White House. The time this guy got on TV and speculated about whether you could kill the coronavirus by injecting yourself with bleach wasn't even the wildest claim he made in his presidency. Trump lowered the bar so much that I'm afraid now that any BS artist with a sizable platform can become the leader of the alleged free world. Is Joe Rogan next? Tim? A person like Tim is not harmless just because his platform is smaller than Rogan's or Trump's (before he was banned from mainstream social platforms). Small pockets of people are listening to him. They're liking his comments, reposting his memes, and helping his platform grow. They understand that platform is currency and will try to do the same for themselves so they can cash in, too.

We need a better educated and more media-literate public to balance the effects of the unchecked platform. In the meantime, what I can do is check myself and make sure I'm not giving commentary on every topic imaginable, especially on public forums. It is tempting. I have a platform, too. Sometimes I'm guilty of the same things I'm criticizing Tim and Rogan for. Opinions are fine on occasion or when requested. But like everything else they should be doled out in moderation. At the end of the day, minding your business is really not that hard.

I sent Tim a message telling him that I had checked out those YouTube links he sent me. Like an idiot, I clicked the first one, which sent me down a rabbit hole of conspiracy videos packaged so well I began to understand why so many people believe that crap. But I couldn't resist poking holes in his theories.

"I still got respect for you brother," he responded. "But you are brainwashed." Then he unfollowed me.

America is not on trial -- Derek Chauvin is

George Floyd's accused killer, Derek Chauvin, is on trial and I can't turn away.

Since the video showing the kneeling on the neck of a 46-year-old unarmed Black father, who then died, by a police officer with a history of fatal force went viral, so did their names, sparking one of the biggest social justice movements in global history. So yes, Derek Chauvin's trial, which is set to conclude early next week, will be televised.

This article first appeared in Salon.

TV both creates and feeds our obsession with viral murder trials. We can't fault the networks for it, because so many of us refuse to turn away, just as we will stop and watch wild fights that break out in supermarkets, slow down on the beltway to gaze at flipped-over cars, and stand outside of burning buildings that have nothing to do with us. We are hooked on other people's trauma. We are thirsty for it and can't wait to drink as much as possible.

The trial has been playing on every device and TV in my house since it began in late March. As I watch, I wonder how many people I grew up with are cheering for the prosecutor, the one profession (next to cops and meter readers) we normally despise. I grow angry when the defense speaks, when Chauvin's name is mentioned, when Chauvin looks up, when he scribbles into his yellow legal pad. And then that video, over and over again, references to it, clips and screenshots, makes me even more angry. And yet I binge this trauma.

I told myself to look away, because nothing good can come from watching this. I've watched trials on TV before: George Zimmerman, the wannabe cop and armed neighborhood watchman who followed and killed Trayvon Martin, an innocent unarmed 17-year-old child, after real members of law enforcement told him to leave the teenager alone. And of course, despite overwhelming evidence, Zimmerman went free. These trials incite a visceral rage in me. Obviously guilty people get to sit on TV and play innocent while demonizing those they killed — the Mike Browns, the Trayvons, the Freddie Grays, the real victims who never got their day in court because their lives were snatched away. It is heart-shattering. Why should I watch a trial knowing that these people — often cops — too often will go free? It's like begging for punishment. But I guess I crave the pain, because I can't turn away.

I know everybody in America is entitled to a fair trial. But trials for Black people never seem fair. Chauvin is accused of killing an unarmed man on camera in one of the most harsh ways I have ever seen. So civilians like me, many of whom have sat in courtrooms before, will never truly understand why this trial experience seems a bit elaborate. Does Chauvin deserve to be heard? I think we all heard him loud and clear when he slid his hands into his pockets after resting his knee along with all of his body weight on George Floyd's neck as Floyd called out for his late mom, face pressed against the warm concrete. What else can be said?

I try to look away, but that means I also can't watch the news because the trial or commentary about it is on every channel. I check in on my wife who is working from home in the next room, and she's streaming the trial during every break that she gets. All of my friends are posting about the trial on social media and every group chat on my phone. Even when I try I can't escape it. It's a weak excuse, I know, but still, it's just enough to make me give in and watch.

One thing I do appreciate about the Derek Chauvin trial is that people are actually calling it "The Derek Chauvin Trial." This is not "The George Floyd Trial." Floyd did not get a trial because he died before he could have his day in court. Remembering that, repeating that, and reminding people of that is extremely important. Years back, when Michael Brown and Freddie Gray were killed, I remember being frustrated not just at the sight of their killers, but with how the public referenced the trial as if the victims were the subjects facing charges, not the killers. All heard was, "What's up with the Freddie Gray case? Any updates on the Freddie Gray case?" The names of his killers: Caesar R. Goodson Jr., Garrett E. Miller, Edward M. Nero, William G. Porter, Brian W. Rice and Alicia D. White should have been incorporated into the narrative and actively used because they were the suspects on trial. Defense attorneys in all of those cases wanted to frame the trials around the victims instead, digging through through their pasts in the most racist ways possible, wanting to justify their deaths. They are trying this with Floyd as well.

What I don't appreciate is how some cable news outlets and pundits are pushing this idea that "America is on trial" right now. America is not on trial. Derek Chauvin is on trial. Chauvin's indictment has not changed the standard procedures of police in America. We see this with the new body camera footage released that shows how Officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker treated Lt. Caron Nazario in Virginia, pulling him over and pepper spraying him even though he was in uniform and following their orders. (That really doesn't matter in America.) About 10 miles away from where Chauvin is being tried, 26-year police veteran Kim Potter shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old unarmed Black man, and the department claims she mistook her gun for her taser, which is the dumbest excuse I have ever heard. It's like these people don't even care to try harder in their own defense. It's like they know they don't have to.

Add those brutalities to the scores of cases that don't go viral, and that's our system. If Derek Chauvin is convicted, it will not erase hundreds of years of enslavement, oppression and racism dumped on Black people of the past, present, and babies who aren't even born yet. Unborn Black children in America will be guaranteed to feel the effects of racism. It is a traditional part of the Black American experience. Would I be happy if Chauvin is convicted? Absolutely. Will I feel like equality will finally be granted to Black people in America as a result? Absolutely not.

A Chauvin conviction would be a good thing for Floyd's family because that is what justice means to them. But it will probably not apply pressure to the many reckless officers policing poor communities of color without care. If convicted, Chauvin will not be the first cop to serve time. Cops know they can go to jail for killing unarmed Black people. Sometimes it does happen. And yet they still do it.

So what could a Chauvin conviction mean to our country as a whole?

I image it could have an Obama effect: The kind of result that will allow people of privilege to assume, falsely, that a particular manifestation of racism has been vanquished. This has happened to me at so many functions, and events I've keynoted, over the past five years. I'll give a talk about racism in America and what it is like and how we survive and sometimes thrive. Then some white dude with glasses and flannel will make his way to the microphone for questions, and he'll scratch his head, thank me for coming out to the event, and say something that boils down to, "We elected a Black president, so racism is over, right?" As if I didn't just spend the previous hour going into detail about how racism remains America's number one cash crop. As if I haven't traveled the world, taught and spoke and vacationed in all kinds of places, and encountered people who don't speak a word of English, but strangely, somehow, everyone knows what the N-word means.

America is not on trial. Derek Chauvin is on trial. We need the larger conversation to be about meaningful police reform, accountability, community investment and police defunding — topics that many people in power run from. It's easy for me to say "defund the police," I suppose. I don't call the cops, even when something bad happens. I don't expect them to care about me, and they have proven it time and time again. My taxes do pay their salaries, but they don't work for me.

But since we can't collectively acknowledge that policing in America is a failed system that doesn't deserve its power over us, then I will leave with one question: If we are in the age of cancel culture, living in the so-called wokest climate of American history, why does it take so much to convict an agent of an institution that executes and arrests a disproportionate number of Black and brown people every year?

Answering it honestly would be a first step in putting America on trial. I don't expect to see that happen any time soon. Meanwhile, I will continue watching to see if Derek Chauvin is convicted. This is what we get for now.

Sick of being stuck at home -- but ready to go back into the world?

After a full year of coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home life, all of it — face masks, social distancing, constant anxiety, Zoom calls, and COVID-19 itself as a potentially lethal disease — may finally be coming to an end thanks to vaccine programs growing across the country.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Some of my anti-medicine friends who were initially nervous about being vaccinated have been watching the news, seeing that essential workers are good after having their shots, with little to no side effects, and now even they feel more confident and willing to take their shot with a shot. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one dose and doesn't have to be stored in freezers, which will make it easier to get folks in for a one and done shot.

This is a real turning point. Outside may be opening up soon.

The threat of COVID kept us indoors for most of the year, but even then we weren't all safe. Three of my friends — Egan, Dante Barksdale and Dro — were murdered in the last year. Two of them were victims of gun violence. The last thing I expected during a pandemic was to lose friends that way, but it happened. And I am powerless. Normally, when deaths occur in my city, we link up, decorate the place where the incident occurred, attend vigils, throw block parties, take food to the victim's family and then all spill over to a bar for fellowship, sharing the stories of our fallen brothers and sisters. Connection has long been our only tool for coping. COVID stole that, and we were forced to mourn alone before masking up to hit the church to get a glimpse of body now while gatherings are prohibited and funerals have been dramatically reduced in size, or canceled altogether. Mourning alone creates a different type of pain, one that I'm sure I'll have to face in the future.

Despite the deadly impact this virus has had on the world, and the loss of those friends while the pandemic raged around us, this year has also been magical for me. Transformative, even. My daughter was born a month or so before we reached pandemic status­­. Being forced to be at home, just the three of us, for all of that time means my wife and I have had the luxury of witnessing and capturing all of her first moments. Her first giggle. Her first wet tears. Her first bath. The first time she rolled over. All of it is stored in our camera rolls. We captured her eating solid foods for the first time, first rice cereal cut with breast milk and then, when she advanced to smashed vegetables, we were there for that too. The first time she sat up on her own, the first time she held her bottle, played peek-a-boo, laughed so loud it sounded like screams. We saw her identify her nose, my nose, my wife's nose and ears, and then we captured her standing up. We saw the first time she crawled, the first time she fed herself, the first steps she took. We saw it all and filmed it all. We could literally make a 200-hour-long documentary on her young life. I wouldn't trade having this time with her for anything in the world. But I am sick of being in the house.

We've been on lockdown for so long we've entered a strange place where people will shame others for not wanting to be in the house anymore, let alone not accomplishing enough during the pandemic. They're the most responsible, they cook the most French meals, practice yoga six times a day, which causes them to lose 38 pounds (and yet they're also the most spiritual), and they're double-masking even when they're all alone, because nobody is handling this stay-at-home pandemic life better than they are. But this is not normal life. And I'm OK with acknowledging that.

I hate this. Before the pandemic, it was so easy to find antibacterial wipes and spray and hand sanitizer. We had boatloads of that stuff because nobody washed their hands or sanitized anything except me, it seemed. But I'm sick of wiping stuff down while my wife and daughter look over my shoulder. And yes, I'm sick of being in the house. My wife is sick of being in the house. And if my daughter could talk, I imagine she'd say she is, too.

We aren't at the finish line yet, but we can see it in the distance. Herd immunity, whatever that means, is coming. My daughter will finally learn there are more than two other people in the world, because we're going everywhere when the pandemic ends.

Everywhere.

Cocktails with David Duke and Little Rudy Giuliani at the bar where Candace Owens does karaoke? Text me the address. If Trump starts having campaign rallies again, even if he's not running? We're pulling up with our tiki torches and pressed khakis.

If there's an Airbnb on Elm Street to book, we're sleeping over. If my wife wants a romantic hiking trip to Camp Crystal Lake, I'm booking their best cabin. Celebrate Halloween in Haddonfield? Trick or treat. Groupon could sell me a luxury stay at the Bates Motel right now — I'd pack my fancy robe and extra champagne.

We're going anywhere and everywhere. Diversity rallies with that white family from "Get Out." Dinner parties at Hannibal Lechter's house. I don't care what it is or where. We're going.

Or at least I think we are. Because honestly, I don't really know. I'm going to have to re-adjust to going out the same way I had to adjust a year ago to staying inside all the time.

This deadly virus has quickly claimed more than 500,000 lives in the U.S. and I think about that number every time I leave the house. I put on my two masks, drench my hands in sanitizer to the point where it burns inside of my fingernails, fill the console of my car with more masks, more gloves, more sanitizer. Every time I see a person talking or coughing or sipping their drink­­, it freaks me out. I never really liked hugs, but now I don't even shake hands. I'm not comfortable around people anymore. I feel like contact with anybody could make me or my family sick. How can I get back to hanging out and having a good time without thinking about shortness of breath, loss of taste and excruciating headaches?

Recently I attended a small celebration for a friend who received a huge promotion at work — the kind of promotion that guys like us don't normally get. This was such big news that even I left the safety of my home to come celebrate. There were ten of us, and even though I was the only one who stayed in the corner with three masks on, barely able to breathe, I enjoyed myself. I had missed this. It felt good to laugh, to talk trash through my layered N-95s, to enjoy fellowship with friends I hadn't seen for a year. But once the eleventh person walked in the door, I stopped being comfortable and had to leave.

How long will I feel like this? Will I be that weirdo still wearing a mask years after this ends, waiting for Nike to start making matching hazmat suits? Will I have any skin left on my hands from the excessive washing and sanitizing? Will I keep wearing gloves and keep 12 feet of distance between me and everybody except my wife and baby, constantly whipping out my phone to Google Dr. Fauci's latest news, scanning his Instagram and Twitter for updates? (Is he on Pinterest, or Black Planet?) Will I still avoid events and parties with more than ten people, or will I be able to readjust?

I think about this a lot, too: How will the people who lost family members to COVID readjust? Death is normal — it will happen to us all — but it shouldn't have happened like this, so suddenly to so many, in such a short timeline.

What we shouldn't re-adjust to is a society that fails to save lives because of poor leadership, systemic poverty, and science denial. Collectively, we are going to have to figure out what life after COVID should be, and the small roles we can all play in making sure it never goes down like this again. We can start by not rushing back into normal life without taking all of the still-necessary precautions just because we're sick of being in the house. We still need to wash our hands, wear our masks, and get vaccinated as soon as we can.

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