Coffin, 1-4-2015

Guest column: A little advice about bad drivers, sex, ‘bad apple’ cops

JimCoffin(Orlando Sentinel, January 4, 2015)

By James Coffin 

 Let’s take driving, for example. There are such things as legally established rules of the road, even if some people seem not to have grasped that reality. Instead, they speed. They don’t signal. They text. They run red lights. In short, they act as if no traffic laws exist.

They’re absolutely, categorically in the wrong. But such narcissists-behind-the-wheel are a reality. Thus if I value my life, I need to drive defensively.

Rape provides another example. The legal rules for sexual engagement are straightforward: There must be consent. Non-consensual sex is rape.

Sex that’s based on threat, coercion or intimidation isn’t consensual. Sex with a person who can’t truly say No — whether because of age, mental handicap or temporary mental impairment, such as intoxication — isn’t consensual.

Contrary to the all-too-common misunderstandings of modern-day Neanderthals, the mere fact that a female happens to be walking along a dark, deserted stretch of road, alone, late at night, isn’t a form of consent. Nor is skimpy attire. Nor flirting. Nor even kissing. No means No — in whatever context it emerges and irrespective of anything that has gone on before.

Neanderthals — whether they’re high-school dropouts, Ivy Leaguers or Ferrari-driving Fortune 500 executives — seem incapable of grasping these nuances.

 Let’s look at another group that’s much-discussed currently: law enforcement.

Law-enforcement officers have a really tough job, and I’m extremely grateful they’re willing to do it despite the dangers. (Need I remind anyone of the two recently assassinated New York police officers?)

I happen to believe that the overwhelming majority in law enforcement are deeply committed to serving the public. They want to do — and actually do — an admirable job.

But every group has its “bad apples” who in subtle or not-so-subtle ways may be influenced by prejudice and bigotry. (And even the “good apples” can make misjudgments at times. Particularly since those in law enforcement have to make so many split-second, reflexive decisions. )

Thus it’s inevitable that the actions of some will at times fall short of justice. Sometimes far short. And this is where defensive living comes in.

No matter how unjustly I feel I’m being treated, it’s a truism that complying in a calm and respectful manner with the demands of law enforcement goes a long way toward ensuring that things won’t escalate to levels that lead to additional charges or even the use of deadly force.

Traffic stops, arrests and other confrontations with legal authorities aren’t the time and place to make expletive-riddled speeches or to physically demonstrate my feelings about the injustice of the treatment being meted out. Rather it’s a time to consider my own long-term self-interests.

Now there’s a potential problem with all the advice I’ve just given about living defensively: Some will say I’m dismissing and justifying egregious behavior that should never be dismissed or justified.

So allow me to clarify: We must forcefully, relentlessly, uncompromisingly educate about, legislate against and speak up in protest of the totally inappropriate behaviors I’ve just enumerated. We must demand accountability. We must leave no doubt as to what is and is not acceptable and where prime responsibility lies.

But we also need to recognize that an array of bad behavior that ignores the rights of others has been around a long time. And it’s not likely to disappear soon.

So while I’m working diligently and persistently to create a more equitable and more just world, I can also take the common sense step of living defensively. It’s a matter of self-interest.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.