Thursday, August 20, 2009

Superfluous Man at Networked Blogs

I wanted to let everyone know that if you're a Facebook user, you can now join this blog's network via Networked Blogs. I also have a feed on Twitter under the name "superfluousjohn."

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Making violence easier

The taser has become almost omnipresent in stories of police misconduct and brutality. (Rad Geek and The Agitator are good sources on this and related issues.) Despite the fact that it was largely sold to the public as a less-lethal alternative in situations that might otherwise result in a suspect being shot dead or pummeled into submission, I suspect the taser encourages violence and tolerance for violence by looking less violent than conventional instruments of brutality.

Conscience is not a purely intellectual affair. Feelings like compassion, indignation, and revulsion don’t come only from being aware of an act or situation that we regard as bad according to the moral principles we hold; they also come from gut-level reactions to sensory stimuli that are in turn shaped by our attitudes, psychology, culture, and biology. This is well-known, of course, but I don’t think the implications of it are discussed enough.

While being tasered is painful, and potentially dangerous or lethal, I suspect that for a lot of people, seeing it done to an innocent person doesn’t cause the same horror as seeing someone being beaten with a nightstick or pummeled with bare fists. A beating looks brutal; prodding someone with an electronic gadget doesn’t look as bad, even though it may still be terribly painful and dangerous. Thus, less horror and less public outrage. Perhaps it’s an instinctive response; humans and their forerunners evolved facing the threat of blunt force trauma, but not anything like an electroshock weapon.

They may make it easier for the perpetrators as well. It makes me think of the Milgram experiment, in which a significant number of average people were willing to torture another person with increasingly painful electric shocks, even after their “victim” (actually an actor in cahoots with the researcher) started screaming for mercy, and in some cases even when they were given reason to seriously believe that their victim was dying.

How many of the people who were willing to inflict what they believed was agonizing pain with electrical shocks would have been willing to inflict the same amount of suffering if, instead of a button to trigger an electronic device, they had been given a club and told to beat a helpless victim with it, and go on beating them even as they screamed and pleaded for mercy? My guess is very few. Because, in the same vein as before, poking someone with an electric doohickey is unlikely to feel as viscerally violent as brutally beating someone, and so a conscience that would recoil from the latter might be able to live with the former.

This isn’t to say that removing the tasers would be a panacea; there are deeper cultural problems behind police brutality, in both the cops who do it and the citizens who tolerate and excuse it, and there’s plenty of police brutality carried out with lower-tech methods. However, I think it does have an effect on the margins. Equipping those who wield coercive authority with a means to inflict suffering that partially bypasses the usual mental mechanisms that restrain violent aggression is a recipe for trouble.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Race and police misconduct

I’ve been following the case of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates with some interest. (Here's a quick bit of background, in case you've spent the last few weeks living in a sensory deprivation tank or on some sort of eremitic desert religious retreat.) On the one hand, I’m glad to see a police abuse of power get some serious attention. On the other hand, it’s saddening (though not unexpected) to see how much attention is paid to a Harvard professor being wrongly arrested and briefly detained when cases like the cold-blooded murder of Kathryn Johnston by Atlanta police and their subsequent attempt at a cover-up barely seem to warrant mention at all.

It’s interesting and unfortunate how mainstream opinion on the issue has split into the following two camps:

1. The police officer who arrested Gates, James Crowley, was motivated by racism, and therefore the arrest was not justified.

2. The police officer who arrested Gates was not motivated by racism, and therefore the arrest was justified.

This conspicuously leaves out the possibility that the arrest of Gates was not motivated by racism, but was nevertheless unjustified. I don’t doubt that black men are more likely to suffer mistreatment from law enforcement, but there’s ample evidence that there are plenty of police willing to abuse anyone who irritates them on an equal-opportunity basis, and thus far there does not seem to be any evidence that the arrest was racially motivated.

So, why the focus on the supposed racial angle to the almost total exclusion of everything else? I think part of the answer actually ties partially into my recent post contrasting the far left with mainstream left-liberals. Remember, one of the defining traits of the mainstream Left is that government-related unpleasantness is never the product of systemic flaws in the nature of the government itself.

If this is your worldview, the idea that the police are racist is paradoxically comforting.
Suppose it were the case that the unjust arrest of Henry Louis Gates, as well as the more extreme and gruesome examples of police misconduct that ironically get much less attention, were all motivated by racism. That means that the problem can be fixed with just a modest tweak to the system: all you need to do is get rid of the racists in the police department and replace them with non-racists, and things will be fine. There are no deeper issues with the underlying system, just some individual bad apples. There is no need to worry about the possibility that there are problems with law enforcement that might be inextricably tied to other aspects of American statism, aspects that many people like.

(As an added bonus, this also redirects the blame to voluntary society. If the behavior of the police is not the product of something inherent in the system they work for or the position they hold in it, then presumably it must be the result of the society they came from- their families, communities, churches, popular entertainment, or just the culture in general. The more dysfunctional voluntary society is perceived to be, the more pressing the need for the government’s help will seem.)

For those who reflexively defend the police, focusing on race also has benefits. People frequently treat a refutation of the most commonly heard argument for a proposition as a conclusive disproof of the proposition itself. If the case of alleged misconduct against Gates (or anyone else) turns out to have no racist motivations, and racism is the only imaginable cause of police misconduct, then the police are vindicated.

This is not to say that racism is not a genuine factor in police misconduct; there are ample cases where it clearly is. However, I think the focus on it here actually serves to shield police misconduct rather than expose it. The public is presented with two possibilities, both of which absolve the system itself. This tendency is reinforced by the dominant ideology of journalists and other opinion-makers themselves. The good-government progressivism that dominates the mainstream media rules out the possibility that statism is inherently damaging or corrupting, whereas the idea that everyone outside a small clique of enlightened liberal thinkers is a bigoted neanderthal seems almost omnipresent.

Potential factors coming deriving from the nature of the government and laws themselves- an environment where so many peaceful and largely invisible acts are illegal that the police are encouraged to treat everyone like criminal suspects or hostile foreigners under military occupation, the invasiveness and brutality needed to effectively enforce such laws, attitudes among both police and the general public that turn law enforcement officials into an elite quasi-military class that is largely unaccountable to civilians, the sort of personality that is disproportionately likely to be drawn to a job with broad coercive authority- do not come up. This is an outcome congenial to both sides of the mainstream political spectrum, since neither side is eager for the public to seriously question the near-infinite reach of the modern state into daily life.

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