Individuals, in the Tide of Culture

I just saw a tagline from someone’s personal profile on a social media site. This person is a social and political conservative, and an active commentator on the current state of social unrest. His tagline reads, in part, “I will NEVER apologize for things I didn’t do!”

That’s just heartbreaking. As David Foster Wallace once wrote, in his remarkable talk later published as This Is Water, we all have “the freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” This is the heart of contemporary masculinity, this notion that we are responsible only for the things we do as individuals. We take no responsibility for the things we do collectively as a culture or a society; we also take no responsibility for the things we did NOT do, those sins of omission where we COULD HAVE stepped up but chose not to.

That kind of voluntary isolation, that emotional self-quarantine, leaves us hard and cold and bitter and angry and defensive. Like a dog left alone and chained to its coop, we bark and lunge and snap at everyone who passes by.

Our role is not self-aggrandizement, or personal accumulation. We know those people; they are hollow, and thus must constantly build a thicker and harder shell to prevent collapse. No, our role is to belong. To sit with the hard conversations and the difficult histories that have brought us to be a member of our community and our culture, and to learn ways to enhance the lives of all around us. To fail, and to be okay with failure if it was in the service of trying to do better. To forgive, over and over and over, and to ask for forgiveness for the things we haven’t done but should have. To rebuild the things that our ancestors had broken.

Individual snowflakes will melt. But together, we can form a blizzard that will transform our landscape, and lead toward the healing of spring.

Changing the Frame

Image from Guardian UK

The frame we create to address a social issue can only hold some specific things, and the shape of the frame forms its contents. So let’s talk about one frame we’ve constructed, the one we call law enforcement. There’s two words there, and they both matter.

First, law. Laws are the boundaries we place around unacceptable behavior, the fence we put up and say, “no further than this.” By their very design, they have nothing whatsoever to say about a good life; they define the bad, the offense, the criminal, the fraudulent. The focus on law is a capitulation to a particular moment in history: the Calvinist doctrine of utter depravity or the inherent, ruinous sinfulness that lies within all of us, conjoined with Enlightenment beliefs in reason and the perfectibility of human structures. In short, the lawmakers will get it right, which is a good thing since the rest of us are fated to get it wrong wrong wrong.

Second, enforcement, which of course means “to apply force.” If you step beyond the fence of law, you will be met with aggressive response.

That combination, law enforcement, is a bitter recipe that has always allowed the powerful to set their forces against those who will not, or cannot, or sometimes should not, stay within the fence. And the fence always moves, and the position of the fence is set by people with power and money, and so laws tend to exclude the reasonable interests of those who are less able to establish them.

Law enforcement is, in both terms, a deeply masculinist construction: the faith in reason to achieve the correct law, and the faith in aggression to enforce it.

So let’s imagine an entirely different frame with which to hold a similar function. Let’s call it civic protection. Like law enforcement, civic protection has two words, and again, both words matter.

First, civic. Rather than focusing on an external tool—the law—attention to the civic means diagnosing and resolving problems to the civitas, or community. The community is made up of everyone around us, of every age and every race and every history and every gender. It’s made up of consumers and businesses, made up of workers and employers, made up of streets and houses and shops and skyscrapers. The fundamental question is the health of the community, which is a matter of collective judgment about which disagreement might reasonably be expected. So a core skill of civic protection would clearly be mediation, in which a disagreement is aired, tested, and (temporarily) resolved.

Second, protection. The basic work of civic protection would be to protect the members of the community from harm. Rather than law enforcement, which focuses on the violator, civic protection would focus on the violated. In domestic violence, for instance, civic protection would start by removing the woman and kids and pets from danger rather than beginning with a confrontation with the man. Police engaged in civic protection would fundamentally be observant for things being harmed, rather than for those engaged in harmful behavior.

Similar work might get done under each frame. Police might pull over someone who’s driving erratically, for instance, but their response would be entirely different. Right now, the law enforcement protocol would be to do a field test for intoxication, with a hard threshold of 0.08% blood alcohol that would trigger an arrest or a release. A civic protection protocol would be to say, “You’re driving erratically, and we’d like to get you home safely. We’ll send someone tomorrow to follow up and see what’s going on.” The goal would be public safety in the shorter and longer term, not arrest and prosecution.

There’s a long tradition of restorative justice, in which the harmed and the one who caused harm are brought together to build a reconciliation. The idea is to restore a healthy community, which is considered to be the normal, baseline state rather than the presumption of criminality we begin with now. Restorative justice is slow, and it can be expensive, though you can pay for a lot of mediators for the price of an armored personnel carrier. But the current system of publicly sanctioned revenge leaves everyone wounded, and works against rather than on behalf of civic protection.

Officer Patrick Skinner of the Savannah GA police department describes better than I ever could what civic protection can look like, and what it can accomplish.

More tomorrow. 

Apologizing for Doing the Right Thing

Photo from the Atlanta Black Star

So many of the awful things we do come from the underlying frame we’ve built them upon. 

Let’s take a look at a news story from last week. During the protests in New York City, there was a humbling and hopeful moment, during which at least a few police officers stood with the protesters, talked with them for a bit, and then knelt together in a show of solidarity and unity. For just a few seconds, they weren’t occupier and occupied; they were fellow New Yorkers hoping for peace in their city.

One of those officers, Lt. Robert Cattani, subsequently apologized for this moment of humanity. In a letter to his colleagues, he wrote: 

To The Men and Women of Midtown Precinct South,

I know most of you hate reading emails and are probably too exhausted to keep your eyes open long enough to read this so I’ll try to keep it as short as possible.

As most of you know on Sunday during the protest at Foley square, I made a horrible decision to give into a crowd of protestors demands and kneeled alongside several other officers. The conditions prior to the decision to take a knee were very difficult as we were put center stage with the entire crowd chanting. I know I made the wrong decision. We didn’t know how the protestors would have reacted if we didn’t and were attempting to reduce any extra violence. I thought maybe that one protestor/rioter who saw it would later think twice about fighting or hurting a cop, I was wrong. At least that what I told myself when we made that bad decision. I know that it was wrong and something I will be shamed and humiliated about for the rest of my life. We all know that the asshole in Minneapolis was wrong, yet we don’t concede for other officers’ mistakes …. I do not place blame on anyone other than myself for not standing my ground. I did not consider the consequences or facts of what I was doing …. Anyone who really knows me, knows that this goes against every principle and value I stand for. I would like to think that being up for almost 40 hours and walking over 32 miles in two days might have clouded my judgement, yet still no excuse …. I was there for the peaceful protests, I was there for the fights with the rioters at night. I walked, I fought, I bleed and I still kept showing up. I spent the first part of my career thriving to build a reputation of a good cop. I threw that all in the garbage on Sunday.

So from the bottom of my heart and soul I am sorry and ashamed. Since then I have been struggling with the decision I had made, not being able to eat, or sleep. I at one point came to a rash decision to leave the department. I could not imagine the idea of ever coming back to work and putting on the uniform I so wrongly shamed. However, I decided that was the easy way out for me and I will continue to come to work every day being there for my personnel.

I want especially apologize to everyone from MTS: I let you down, I understand your frustration and anger. I know the cop in me wants to kick my own ass. I want you to know that I don’t expect anyone to accept my apology, nor do I deserve it. Please know that just like the first half of my career I will work every day for the rest of it to rebuild the confidence you once had in me.

Thank you and may god watch over you all.

So the fact of apologizing for attempting to find common ground with protesters is a sad state, and the reaction of the police unions that they’re “out there battling” and demanding that politicians and the media “stop treating us like animals and thugs and start treating us with some respect” shows us how long the road to civic health will be.

But as bad as those are, it’s the language beneath it all that shows the rotted frame that any meaningful police reform must dig out.

  • Lt. Cattani apologized for “giving in,” for not “standing his ground.”
  • He apologized for attempting to use personal judgment rather than following orders.
  • He apologized for trying to reduce tensions.
  • He apologized for taking some responsibility for the bad actions of some police colleagues.
  • He believes that being a “good cop” means that he walked, he fought, he bled, but he still kept showing up.
  • His apology includes other manhood-markers like he was “up for almost 40 hours and walk[ed] over 32 miles,” the valorization of stoic suffering.
  • His own assessment of his reputation is now “in the garbage.” 
  • When someone makes a mistake, the appropriate police response is to kick his ass.
  • He hopes that god will watch over his fellow officers rather than the entirety of a city in crisis

This is the abbreviated anthem of our stunted, wretched beliefs about manhood. And that’s why efforts toward police reform are so difficult; we’re applying policy tools to a culture problem.

More tomorrow.

Hoping for A While Rewarding B

Peace officer?

One of the primary arguments of The Adjunct Underclass is that we can’t claim that we’re interested in serving low-income college students and having them make the successful transition from high school to college, and simultaneously give them a teaching force that is made up of people who are not supported by their institutions, who don’t really even belong. But that’s only one of thousands of practices, across all areas of society, that work directly in opposition to our desired outcomes.

Our careers, for instance, are full of gateway experiences that absolutely don’t prepare one for the life beyond the gate. I’ve often described architecture school, for example, as a bait-and-switch, in which training as a theoretical sculptor is the threshold for entering a profession that mostly builds cost-effective rectangles. As a culture, we do an awful lot of things that lead directly toward ends that we claim we don’t want.

In writing, for instance, the path to being noticed goes through short stories and flash fiction, building credibility through small publication credits. MFA programs create short story writers, because that’s the amount of story that semesters can hold. But being a novelist is just a different practice, and our novels have been reduced in possibility through being molded from the wrong model.

Hannah Gadsby said something similar in an interview with the New York Times, about the necessity of success in the short-story form of club standup to get a chance to do the longer-form work she thrives in:

What I was talking about there is club comedy. Because that’s the world that built comedy. Our comics come out of this gladiatorial setup/punch line shock. People celebrate club comedy like it is the art form. I love long-form comedy, but in order to get to that place where you can perform it, you’ve got to fight it out in the clubs. I know how to do that. I know how to tear someone a new [expletive]. I don’t feel good about it. I don’t like going onstage after other people who’ve done rape jokes, and that’s how I had to cut my teeth: Make a group of people who’ve just laughed at a rape joke laugh.

I’ve been thinking about this while watching police violence around the country. And I’m surprised that we’re surprised at it. When law enforcement agencies hire, they privilege ex-military members, sometimes by policy and law. They place enormous logistical and cultural barriers to participation by women, reinforcing all of the travails of fragile masculinity and instant reaction to perceived disrespect we talked about a couple of months back. And then we put them into armor, give them tanks and a broad array of sophisticated weaponry, and we’re somehow then surprised when we see American streetscenes that look like Kandahar.

We can’t be surprised by that. We select for it. We’ve written it into policy. We’ve abandoned the idea of the “peace officer,” and created an occupying army instead.

We’re hearing conversations about “Defund the Police.” And the immediate leap is that the inevitable next step is “eliminate the police,” which is absolutely not the point. It’s a handy claim to make, though, because it scares people, and scared people are easier to manipulate.

We could, though, scale way back on the weaponry. We could bring large numbers of police officers to a scene in school buses rather than armored personnel carriers. We could recognize that desert or forest camouflage uniforms are just symbolic in an urban American setting, a shorthand for the brutality of warfare that could be unleashed without warning. We could stop pretending that “non-lethal force alternatives” don’t cause lasting injury. And we could acknowledge that communities of color have been the occupied nation for America’s entire history.

We could shift our funding toward mental health first responders, so that every public instance of mental illness or domestic disturbance or neighborhood dispute aren’t met by an armed response. We could work in policy to end unannounced or “no-knock” warrants, remembering that the Fourth Amendment is at least equal in importance to the Second. We could put a lot more policing and prosecutorial power behind the control of white-people crimes like fraud and insider trading and conflicts of interest that cost all of us vast amounts of money and opportunity.

Our rethinking of police can’t just be logistical and tactical. It is, at heart, cultural. We’ve trained our law enforcement personnel through years and years of high school football and military service and masculine enculturation; we can’t ask them to instantaneously reject all the training that we ourselves have provided and steadily rewarded. We have work to do to heal ourselves on every front; there are none among us who have not been dyed in this pot.

This is the time for us to have a lot of serious cultural conversations. The nature of law and order, and law enforcement, is high among them. The alternatives are not binary, a choice between no police at all and exactly the police we have today. The alternatives are endless, and the deliberations must not be only among those who benefit from the status quo.