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Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Dehumanization

During the Vietnam War, Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University, replicated the experience of a prison for a psychology experiment. His student participants were divided into guards and prisoners. The guards were given uniforms and sunglasses. The prisoners were stripped of their clothes and their names.

The experiment had to be stopped in less than a week.

Zimbardo later wrote a book about the Stanford prison experiment called The Lucifer Effect, and he provided his expert testimony in the case of the Abu Ghraib abusers. In short, whenever you allow some people to have absolute power and authority over other people, you will have dehumanization, abusive behavior and acts of evil. Zimbardo outlined his ingredients for how good people are able to do bad things.  They are deindividualization, anonymity of place, dehumanization, role-playing and social modeling, moral disengagement and group conformity

In the past couple of weeks, I have witnessed a lot of moral disengagement and group conformity. I have heard some shocking excuses for the behavior of the police officer that shot Michael Brown. Generally, they go like this: “That’s the way they behave”, “If you try to tackle a cop, you deserve what you get”, “They don’t care about other people’s stuff. They just want to take everything they can get”. These people laugh at the social media snips they pass around to each other about how any killing of an unarmed black male must be just an excuse to go looting.

It’s disturbing not just because of the content of what “they” are supposed to think, feel and do. It’s disturbing because it usually comes from the mouths of white people that I work with or other white people I used to think were above that kind of talk. And they talk like this to one another because they think it’s Ok. They think that they will not be censured or excluded from polite society for trivializing death or the desecration of a body by leaving it to bake in the summer sun for four hours without the decency of anyone to heap on a sacred handful of soil much less load it into an ambulance.

When I’m just trying to eat my lunch and I hear this kind of justification to treat other people as less than human because everyone is under the impression that it’s OK to behave like we’re back in 1954, well, let’s just say it makes me mad and I lose my appetite. I have to get up and rest my hand on the shoulder of the only other person in the room with a differing opinion and say, “I’m with you. It isn’t decent” and then leave.  It just doesn’t seem like enough. It’s not enough.

It’s not just the outrageous treatment of african americans that bothers me. It’s the way we treat anyone who is poor too. Oh, gosh, that means me now. If you’re poor, most people think you did something wrong to get that way. You must have a drinking habit or do drugs even if you don’t or you were lazy at work when you weren’t. It doesn’t matter if the economy sucks or that you were in an industry that was slaughtered. It doesn’t matter that your kid got seriously ill just when your insurance ran out. It doesn’t matter that you graduate with a mountain of student debt during the worst recession since the Great Depression and can’t find a job. It doesn’t matter that so many Americans are enduring the trials of Job, losing their jobs and their houses and their family’s sense of security. All that matters is that some people have now been given permission to kick their fellow citizens when they’re down. That’s enormously satisfying to some people. And when those people get together, they reinforce their belief that they can make themselves feel powerful and good by making others feel powerless and bad.

We may not be anywhere near as destructive and evil as Germans were in the 1930’s. But we’re getting there. You are not safe from evil just because everyone around you is making the same derogatory remarks.

**************

Honor your mayor and keep it peaceful out there tonight while you’re protesting.

 

 

 

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Twitter campaigns necessary but probably insufficient.

There’s a “Hands up/ Don’t shoot” Friday campaign going on over at Twitter. It’s a nice gesture, no pun intended. But I can’t help thinking about how much more powerful the message would be if we could get ordinary Americans, not just the social media savvy and political activist types, out on the sidewalks banging pots together.

I used to think that internet campaigns would be enough.  Not anymore.  Non-violent, but non-silent demonstrations are probably the way to go.

MLK Jr. would approve.

Update: My sisters-in-law were a little uncomfortable with me using the word “thug” to describe Michael Brown in a post the other day.  I see their point.  I based my assessment on the video that was released of his actions in the convenience store.  One of the things that struck me as I watched it was that I really couldn’t tell what was going on with him and the clerk behind the counter.  Reaching over the counter to get something doesn’t mean stealing, not that stealing something in a convenience store is justification for getting shot 6 times.  It’s not, by the way.  This is not 18th century Williamsburg where a servant could be hanged for stealing a silver spoon.  But I couldn’t tell with any certainty what was transpiring at the counter. Plus, the volume on the video was off so for all I know, he might have had a perfectly friendly interaction with the proprietor.  There just wasn’t sufficient data for me to determine what was going on there.  I would not be friendly to the prosecution on a jury if the charge was shoplifting or robbery based on that video.

No, what bothered me was when he left the store and roughed up the clerk on the way out.  The clerk clearly looks distraught and Brown’s actions looked aggressive and unnecessary.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pointing that out.  But “thug” is a right wing word, apparently.  I’m not a cable news junky so I’m going to have to rely on the SILs here when they tell me to refrain from using it to avoid looking like a right wing nutcase.  Maybe “bully” would be more appropriate.  Still not a killing offense, though probably more prosecutable than we can feel comfortable with, considering what happened shortly afterwards.  It looked like a minor assault to me.  I guess it would have been up to the clerk as to whether it was worth pursuing.  For sure Brown needed a stern talking to, but, um, not 6 shots to the torso.

I’m troubled by this piece of footage for many reasons.  Matt Taibbi’s book, The Divide, describes so many instances of young black men being arrested and harassed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like on the sidewalk or the stoop in front of their apartment buildings.  And the trouble they face because of these arrests is unconscionable.  Really, it’s overkill and debilitating.  Then I see this video and I think, that kid definitely needed correction.  Maybe not jail, and not a mark on his permanent record and certainly not death, but something.  Like, maybe his grandmother should have been sent that tape so she could see he wasn’t a choirboy.  Shaming your grandmother might have been enough.

So, this one time, I’m correcting my language from the right wing “thug”, which I came to independently of cable news based on my first impressions, to “bully”, because that’s what Brown’s actions show.

We shouldn’t be afraid to tell it like it is though.  That kind of behavior is unacceptable.  Not worth dying for but certainly not good.  It doesn’t diminish the horrible and unnecessary impact of Brown’s death.  Or of Eric Garner’s death as he was chokeholded by police.  Or any of a number of tragic deaths at the hands of people who think black people are less than human.

So, to all you Fox News watchers out there, there is a reason why racism is not acceptable, in thought, word and deed.  If you are thinking it, it becomes OK to hurt people who are not like you.  You need to ask yourselves if it’s Ok to be an anti-semite in your head as well.  Of course it’s not OK.  What we are seeing in Ferguson is a variation of the dehumanization and malignant behavior described by Phillip Zimbardo based on his Stanford Prisoner Experiment and his investigation of Abu Graihb in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

It starts in your head when you allow yourself to think other people are less than you are and it’s all downhill from there.

Don’t start down that road.

 

Supercitizens

Michael Brown was a thug who was caught on video doing some thuggish things in a deli.  He was also shot 6 times by a cop.

I don’t like the way the internet is taking over from the justice system.  Regardless of what Michael Brown may have done or what the police officer might have done, this story is starting to resemble a mediathon event a la Nancy Grace.  And I really don’t like Nancy Grace.

You know what would be great?  It would be great if we let the justice system do the work here.  And yet, after I read Matt Taibbi’s recent book, The Divide, before it devolved into yet another obligatory polemic against Bill Clinton who seems to have been the only politician in the last twenty years with any agency, I realized that there really isn’t justice in this country anymore.  Once you have committed a crime, even a small one or one you didn’t know existed, you’re pretty much screwed.  The system is set up to find you guilty if you don’t have a small fortune to prove your innocence.  It’s prepared to throw you in jail and deprive you of all you own at the slightest provocation.

On the other hand, if you’re wealthy and well connected, you can ruin people’s lives with impunity, risk other people’s retirement funds without consequence, and practice the equivalent of global and domestic economic terrorism and get away with it.  No one shows up at your door to arrest you for loitering where you shouldn’t or threatens your livelihood or keeps putting you back on the Start square in a real life game of Sorry!  Once you reach a certain level of wealth, you are untouchable.  (Well, at least until some clever vigilante individuals figure out how to circumvent the neo-feudal curtain walls.  It’ll happen eventually.)

But if you are a person of color or a woman or just poor, your life and belongings are inconsequential.  You’re not entitled to anything.  You’re lucky if you escape with your life.  And if you complain, the system will bring out a militarized police force and technology that will make you sick, to put you back in your place.  I saw it in Denver in 2008 (where was Claire McCaskill during the convention?) and at Zucotti Park in 2011.  And now we are watching it happen in Ferguson.

That’s because Americans have been allowed to indulge themselves in thinking that some people “deserve” better treatment than others.  But to the Supercitizen, no one below them is deserving of anything.  The dehumanization of the average American starts with race and women and poor people but sooner or later if things keep devolving at this pace, everyone but the supercitizen will be affected.

Internet coverage is not the same as due process, evidence, trials and justice.  And a justice department that has settled for weregild when it comes to global economic catastrophes and corruption, while bringing down the hammer on ordinary people has lost all credibility. It’s part of the problem.

When you’re deep in a hole, stop digging.