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  • Writer's pictureLaura Brzyski

The Dangerous Hypothetical

I have always been the type of person to create scenarios in my head for the sole purpose of planning my reactions. For example, when I first became a teacher, I created action plans for myself with solutions to situational questions such as “What happens if a student throws up in my room today?” or “How am I going to behave if a student calls me a bitch in the middle of our discussion?” I have pre-determined responses for these: Send the student to the bathroom or nurse (whichever is closer), call maintenance, and have all other students exit the room, and Say, ‘Well, you’re not the only one who thinks that,’ resume class, and then talk with the student after class, respectively. I have a mental list of other ‘what ifs’ with accompanying reactive measures for both my professional and personal life. Despite my plans, I often wonder if I would actually enact my intentions. I question whether I would claw somebody’s eyes out if they attempted to viciously attack me (as my dad taught me when I was ~6 years old), or if I would freeze in terror, or simply run away, hoping to not get outrun or tackled or shot.

My proclivity for pre-planning reactions comes from my self-awareness. I know I am someone who doesn’t process thoughts as quickly as others, who needs an extra few minutes to craft a verbal response that is semi-eloquent, who is better with writing than with speaking. If I skip the drafting phase, my thoughts become a jumbled mess. For someone who is imaginative with words and has a strong hold on composition, I honestly lack thoughtful verbal responses (if not given a few moments to think first, that is). In addition to this, I am also extremely impulsive and brazen by nature. If I actually don’t stop to think first, I can be the culprit of saying uncouth things. Knowing and actively acknowledging these traits about myself catalyzes me to “expect the unexpected.” After all, that is what a “thoroughly modern intellect” does (thanks, Oscar Wilde).

I think creating these kind of situational ‘what-ifs’ is safe because these may actually happen in my life. Pre-planning in this regard has benefited me in that it has allowed me to imagine situations in which I need a pre-determined plan of action for myself and for others (i.e. my students, people I become acquainted with who I hope not to offend upon first meeting). It is productive and efficient to establish strategies and procedures for the circles in which we navigate daily &/or need to navigate due to our environments because they keep people safe, intune, and equipped.

The danger in hypotheticals emerges when we begin to make judgments about another’s decision to act or not to act, &/or when we claim, in public circles especially, we would act a certain way only to boost our own ego or appearance. I’ve seen this happen at an alarming rate in the aftermath of tragedy. I’m thinking especially of reactions to police officers’ decisions (i.e. Trayvon Martin, Charles Kinsey, Sandra Bland); actions & inactions from assault victims (i.e. Harvey Weinstein’s accusers); and most recently, to school shootings (i.e. Trump’s declaration). Upon receiving information or imbibing a news story, many of us are quick to begin sentences with “If I had been there, I would have….” and finish those sentences with our own theoretical assertions. Around the aforementioned events, I have heard and read claims as “I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger, how could he?!”; “I would have just kicked him in the balls and ran away”; and “I would have attacked the assailant, even if I didn’t have any weapons.” And yet, what do these sentiments offer traumatized communities, especially after the fact? As stand-alone judgment-based hypotheticals (that is, “pointing fingers” statements that lack evidence or the lived experience as support), I don’t see them offering solace. I don’t see them being beneficial. And I surely don’t see them as forms of activism. Sure, some  versions of these sentiments may catalyze change, but in most cases, “I would have done x instead of y” proclamations follow with harsh criticism rather than productive dialogue.

It is one thing to practically prepare for unknowns and to respond critically to injustices. It is another thing to make claims, blanket statements, or generalizations without either having experienced the same (or a similar) event or imagining (in full, with total empathy) the lived experiences of others (without appropriating or rendering your imaginative process as truth, of course). The difference lies in motive. If we are inclined to judge, we should first consider why we are compelled to do so. In other words, we should determine what exactly is prompting us to *not* reserve judgment. Is it to highlight and combat injustice? Is it to enact change in community? Is it to protect oneself or guarantee one’s survival? or Is it to discredit another’s decision? Is it to pit oneself against another, as if to say one is better than the other? Is it to promote or enact a mask–a performance for the sake of public image or persona? This also urges us to consider the forces influencing our judgments, which may or may not cause us to wear different masks. Is what we claim in our private sphere the same as what we claim in the public sphere? What has impacted our beliefs, and are these beliefs upheld regardless of the circles in which we find ourselves? This means we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves–something many of us find uncomfortable. And yet, residing in uncomfortability often yields self-aware, conscientious people.

Again, all of this is not to say that we shouldn’t push back on, question, &/or critique others’ behaviors. I am concerned when I hear a story of an officer shooting an unarmed person, especially when there is evidence that multiple other officers reported that person was, in fact, unarmed. I do question women who contend that being a “strong woman” comes with pre-requisites and designates specific behaviors. And I am doubtful of a person who asserts that he would run unarmed, unbiased into a school that is being terrorized, yet does not acknowledge the human dignity of allpeople. Despite my suspicions, I try my best to avoid succumbing to dangerous hypotheticals. Because the true danger of hypotheticals is when the hypothetical is elevated to a higher position than the actual. We enter dangerous territory when we offer sentiments that sound awfully similar to, “You behaved poorly. Clearly, the ‘correct’ thing to do is what I would have done.” This not only sounds egotistical, but lacks consideration and empathy for the one who actually did something. Moreover, these “If I had been there, I would have…” statements haphazardly assume that events happen the same way every time for every individual. An assailant doesn’t always use the same weapon. Maybe they use a knife on a Tuesday, a pistol on a Friday, and bare hands on a Sunday. Thus, I would react differently due to the difference in my assailant’s choice of weaponry. I’d like to say I’d claw at my assailant’s eyes (as I mentioned my father taught me long ago), but I can’t say, with 100% confidence, that I would do just that. Although this is an unrefined example, it does highlight a key problem with blame-based scrutiny: If a moment will never be replicated in precisely the same way, why do we believe in “one-size fits all” judgments?

Essentially, there is a major difference between pre-planned verbal statements and post-aftermath uninformed evaluations, between thoughtfully-considered action plans and  ‘I would have done my x instead of your y’ attitudes. Just because I don’t know for sure what I would do if I were one day assaulted doesn’t mean I am a weak woman. And just because I don’t know if I could do the same that Aaron Fies did for his students doesn’t mean I am a negligent teacher. Instead, it means I am aware of the complexities of my mind and body (especially in terms of decision-making during fight-or-flight moments) and the complexities of the situations in which I am involved. It means I know I will not react in the same ways as others will react, nor will I react in the same ways as I did previously. In theory, I would fight back every time. In theory, I would sacrifice my own life for my students any day. But theory does not always actualize. It does not always transform into reality. What is intended or desired is not always what actually takes place. Therefore, we should avoid blaming, shaming, and claiming that we “know better” or “would do better.” This is the ultimate danger.

Let us be more mindful in our critiques by first taking our ego out of the equation so that we can then focus on the action itself. Then, may we articulate a more efficient alternative once we have a fuller understanding of the action and the context surrounding that action. By eschewing the dangerous hypothetical, much-needed change might actually occur.

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