Thursday, 24 November 2011

It's like a jungle out there...

The police use pepper spray against peaceful protesters at the University of California.

A history professor at the university made this comment:
"The police officer with the pepper spray, identified as Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis Campus Police, looks utterly nonchalant, for all the world as if he were hosing aphids off a rose bush."
In response to the incident Ira Socol asks the question: "What have we been teaching, in our schools, in our homes, in our churches, in our everyday lives, that has allowed so many completely amoral people to not just be among us, but to rise to positions of responsibility?"

Ira's post is spot on and I have no criticism to make of it, but I can see a risk in the discourse that springs up in reaction to events like this. The problem is when we see only the people involved. In the photo of the pepper spray incident we see the policeman - a campus policeman who obviously spent every working day around the students, and who may have known some of the protesters by name - and we wonder how he could be so insensitive, so inhumane, and we start to think about what was lacking at the schools he went to and in the family he grew up in.

The trees are obvious, but can you see the wood? In this case the wood is the institutions that we live in and that live through us. The police force is one institution. School is another. Arguably, language is a third.

An institution is more than the sum of its parts. When a man puts on a uniform, and a dignitary pins a medal to his chest and puts a pepper spray in his hand, he becomes a different kind of being - a being animated by the institution. At the same time, the institution comes alive in him. Something new, and potentially very ugly, is born.

It makes me think of the Baka tribespeople in central Africa, where from time to time the men disappear into the jungle and then reappear some time later dressed in masks, singing and dancing. To their wives and daughters and sisters and mothers they are no longer familiar relatives. They are the living presence of the spirit of the jungle. The voice of the jungle can be heard in their song.

The policeman is the living presence of the spirit of our jungle. He does not sing, but we can hear the drumming of his truncheon on his perspex shield.

Surely if people are brought up by their families and schools to be nice they would never spray pepper in the faces of protesters? We would like to think so, but Philip Zimbardo's famous Stanford Prison Experiment showed how easy it was to transform otherwise nice students into brutal agents of a totalitarian regime. The experiment had to be abandoned early. Why? Because the students playing the role of prison guards were getting carried away. Carried away by what? By the dark spirit of that particular institutional jungle.

What is clear from Zimbardo's experiment and others is that the darkest institutions take on the ugliest forms of life when they allow their minions to act with impunity. The basic rule is that the people doing the dirty work are not to be held accountable. If I am given a uniform and a pepper spray and told to spray it in the faces of the students, it is also made obvious that I will never be held accountable for my actions (as long as I do what I am told to do). Dark and ugly insitutions - like mobs - thrive on personal irresponsibility.

If we don't change our institutions, the atrocities will continue regardless of how nice people are before they are whisked off to the jungle.


David Warr said...

The idea of zero tolerance is sometimes seen as far right, but in The Tipping Point, Gladwell suggests that it is a liberal view, because we are so easily affected by our environment. We're all more likely to drop litter if everyone else is doing it.

Torn Halves said...

Not sure what you are getting at there. By zero tolerance I assume you mean banning stuff. I haven't looked closely enough into the pepper spray to have an opinion about whether or not it should be banned. My point is about accountability. Institutions in which people do nasty things need to be restructured so that those doing the dirty work can be held accountable and feel that they share in the responsibility for what is being done. Of course it is a mistake to take a swipe at the policeman with the spray can in his hand and ignore the others higher up the hierarchy who are responsible not just for particular acts but also for entire policies, but if the people at the bottom are not also held to account then there is no incentive for them to stop and raise the question: "Hey, is this right?"