Authority Sickness

22:44 Tue 18 Sep 2007. Updated: 00:36 10 Oct 2012
[, , , , , , ]

The story about a University of Florida student being tasered by campus police at a John Kerry speech is all over the net at this point. It’s fairly grotesque, although I think the UCLA campus library incident from last year was even worse. As then, however, one of the most disturbing things about it are the commenters who emerge to justify the violence perpetrated by the authorities.

In this particular case, the student was obnoxious and strident. He was clearly somewhat angry at Kerry (although not in any way threatening Kerry). Many people applauded when the police took him away—however, it’s not clear why they took him away, given that he had finished asking his question and Kerry was answering it. I mean, what’s the point of that, exactly? He wanted to ask three questions, he got to ask them, why remove him at that point?

Anyway, just as with the UCLA library affair, it comes down to whether you think it’s reasonable for police officers to electrocute people in order to make compliance more convenient. It clearly is about their convenience, because with six of them, they could have continued moving him along without much difficulty. He was never violent, just kept trying to shrug them off.

I don’t see how that’s even a question. It’s simply wrong for them (or anyone) to move to electrocution for their own convenience.

Yet many people side with them. Perhaps a small minority of those only side with them in a particular case, seeing something about this incident that excuses the police behavior. More likely, however, most who applaud the police here also applauded them regarding the UCLA case, and all the others that are similar. Why?

It seems to me that a significant chunk of the population has a sickness about affairs like these. They get some emotional payoff from seeing those who “transgress” get punished by the authorities, and will rationalize their stance with all kinds of justifications. I think there’s a related mode of thought here in support: the mode that wants everything to run “smoothly”, without impediment, and blames the impediments for their temerity in slowing things down. People who go nuts at protesters who block traffic, and justify police violence against the protesters as a result, are firmly in the grip of this mode.

I do think that’s secondary to the emotional payoff of witnessing defiance being punished. I’ve experienced minor schadenfreude at, for example, seeing the guy who who used the hard shoulder to zoom by the traffic jam getting pulled over by the Highway Patrol. Was he doing me actual harm? No. Was he really inconveniencing me directly? No. Was he doing something that made me envious that I would also not do because I’m aware that it could be extremely disruptive? Yes. But maybe I also don’t do it because I don’t dare. Even if that’s not the bulk of my decision (and I don’t think it is), it remains that even if I thought it right to use the shoulder to overtake for a few miles, I might not dare. I’m aware of that fact even if it’s irrelevant… and that might add to the glee at seeing the other guy get his just deserts, right?

That’s a minor example, but I feel that thread goes through the authority apologias that crop up in the aftermath of things like unwarranted taserings. People who know they wouldn’t talk back to police (either out of morality or fear) might well get a kick out of seeing the punishment of someone who does talk back. Also, too, things run so much more easily if nobody makes a fuss. Then there’s no drama, no upset—but if you cause that upset, well, you’re just asking for it, aren’t you?

As I said, I think it’s a sickness. I also think it’s a very bad sign in a society, when it accepts things like this. I don’t know if the US is getting worse in this regard, although it feels to me that the last six years have seen more of it. When people are scared, of anything, the tendencies to look to authority, and to despise those who rock the boat, grow stronger.

Even though “the boat” is a vast complex whose goals are not at all those of the ones who prefer not to disturb its progress. Besides the schadenfreude and the desire for smooth running, there’s the fear, the fear that everything would collapse if people could just do their own thing, the fear that without the strength of authority to control people (and it’s always other people, you’ll note, who need controlling) there would be mayhem. That underlying lie, and the system that rests upon it, of course help create the emotional payoff at witnessing punishment and the overwhelming anger at minor disruption.

Some notes:

If you, too, fear that it could all go horribly wrong without the state to hold it together, it might be worth your while to read The Uses of Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit.

If you ever find yourself in a position where you’re accosted by police, it might be best not to take the approach taken by the student here. Unless you have a pre-planned act of resistance to carry out, e.g. as part of some demonstration, you have a choice between co-operation and resistance. Resistance splits into passive and active. If you’re going to resist passively, it looks like you’re going to get tasered (The UCLA Police Assistant Chief says police are allowed to electrocute passive resisters) or, perhaps, put in pain holds and/or choked. Active resistance, or the threat of same, will likely get you beaten and possibly shot dead.

If you’re willing to get tasered, which could be quite dangerous as well as painful, then passive resistance might be an acceptable option. Otherwise, you have to go along with them. In that case, the right things to do are to ask if you’re being arrested, if arrested to comply and state that you are not resisting, give your name and address if asked, and reply to anything else with “I respectfully decline to answer any questions until I speak with an attorney.” See the ACLU’s “What to Do If You’re Stopped by the Police” for more details. I’m not clear on what you should do if they don’t answer your question about whether you’re under arrest, or what your rights are in refusing to comply with orders they give you without arresting you. Later, of course, if they mistreated you or falsely arrested you or otherwise overstepped their bounds, you have recourse to legal action, which might have some chance at success. Also note that if you plan to exercise your rights in dealing with police officers, you might want to capture everything on video.

Leave a Reply