Protests, Riots and the Rebbe’s Message of Positivity

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

A teenager held her phone steady enough to capture the final moments of George Perry Floyd’s life, as he suffocated under the weight of a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck. The video went viral — like COVID-19.

What happened next has played out time and again in American cities after high-profile cases of apparent police brutality. Vigils and protests were organized in Minneapolis, around the United States and around the world to demand police accountability. People, especially from the Black community, are hurting deeply. But while investigators and officials called for patience, unrest has boiled over. News reports soon carried images of property destruction, buildings up in flames, and police in riot gear.

For many, the reactions to scenes of mayhem in Minneapolis and beyond over the past few days were predictable. People throughout the political spectrum, progressives, conservatives, conspiracy theorists, secular-humanists, religious fundamentalists, all have their “take” on why this is happening. The savvy information consumer most likely knows how diverse media will report on the very same event in an attempt to validate the conclusions already reached by their respective viewership or to indoctrinate the newbie.

I couldn’t help but wonder what this turmoil all means. I’m isolated in my home in Montreal. There have been some peaceful protests here and destruction and mayhem as well. But, nothing really in my own backyard. I would say I’m a bit… removed.

I think, through a mix of nature, nurture, and free will, we each possess a certain lens that frames and forms the way we see ourselves, others, and the world around us. It is simply not possible to erase all traces of our past experiences and deeply-held beliefs from our observations, expressions, or actions — no matter how hard we may try. Frames of mind that we adopt, whether consciously or unconsciously, deeply impact the way we perceive reality. These matrices of understanding become our operating system, so to speak — they become the default mechanisms through which we contextualize, react, and interpret every event and interaction we experience.

If our biases inevitably colour the way we interpret and experience the world, it follows that a primary focus of life should be to assess and reset our biases. What are my biases? How can they be adjusted or changed to better serve myself and others?

Am I a white privileged male unable to empathize with my Black brothers and sisters? Is my initial reaction to the civil unrest to just shut it out of life? Do I too have an innate bias against others? It’s really easy to paint everyone with the same brush. Can I be empathetic to a cause that has long been left unheard, like a stone left unturned?

This week, I started teaching a zoom course called Positivity Bias, presented by the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI). It’s based on the book Positivity Bias by Rabbi Mendel Kalmanson, which I highly suggest you read. The premise of this course is the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s “Positivity Bias.” The default lens or frame through which the Rebbe viewed others and the world at large was fundamentally positive. We are actually a month from the 26th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing and the course I’m teaching is going to end a few days before Gimmel (the third of) Taamuz, the anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing, so, I thought with everything going on in the world, it would be a perfect time to attempt to learn to look at the world through the Rebbe’s eyes.

The Rebbe’s Positivity Bias is impossible to miss. There are countless documented stories, letters, anecdotes, and vignettes from the Rebbe’s life and behaviour that demonstrate how the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias illuminated every corner of his thoughts and every nuance of his speech, and infused his every action, reaction, and interaction with the power of Positive Living.

The Rebbe’s optimistic and redemptive perspectives on an/and all issues — or what we call the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias — were definitely not reflective of the Rebbe’s incredibly challenging life circumstances. Actually, the Rebbe’s positivity is almost in stark contrast with the “cards he was dealt,” so to speak, in life.

The Rebbe lived through waves of pogroms, the killing fields of World War I, a Typhus epidemic, a refugee crisis, the persecution and forced exile of his father (whom he never saw again), the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Communism, World War II, the brutal murder of his brother, grandmother, and numerous other relatives at the hands of the Nazis, and a life of childlessness.

Add all of that to the fact that the Rebbe personally absorbed and carried the crushing pain of hundreds of thousands of individuals who sought him out for healing, comfort, love, acceptance, help, and sometimes, simply a reason to live.

I’ve always wondered, where does the positivity come from after such darkness? How do we find the positivity in a world filled with COVID-19 and the complete mayhem of riots after the needless and gruesome murder of countless Black people? It’s interesting that bias is almost synonymous with something negative. We are conditioned to look at the world through a negative lens. Actually, in and of itself, bias just means a predisposition. We each have one. The question is, what is ours and can we change it?

Social scientists talk about a negativity bias we each possess. They speak of this negativity bias as part of our DNA, our genetic composition. Over time, it helped us deal with dangers and threats that were lethal. The problem is, we’ve taken thousands of years of that type of conditioning and we are now applying the same degree of hyper anxiety to things that are relatively benign and non-lethal. We are conditioned to immediately focus on the negative, on the drama; we are conditioned to fan the flames of violence.

Actually, positivity is a choice. It’s not just a matter of circumstance. And, it derives from perspective, not just personality. And the greatest case study of positivity is the Rebbe himself.

Let me share a beautiful story that I’ve been living with over the past few years. There was a fellow who circumvented the protocol, if you will, at 770 (the loca