Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sadism and the Police

There have been a flurry of police brutality and misconduct reports over the past few weeks - recently Brian Hutchinson's article in Wednesday’s National Post. 
Hutchinson posits that the problems stem from the difficulties of police discipline. It usually takes third-party intervention to compel the force to call out one of their own, and “the rules don’t allow for simple, straight-forward termination.”

The popular explanation for the repeat indiscretions seems straight-forward: the police have too much power and need to  be reined in. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," said Lord Acton in 1887, quoted ad nauseum ever since.

There is another explanation that's a little more interesting, and I think well worth considering: the underlying issue is sadism, for which the police is a natural breeding ground. It isn't just that a few officers have a "sadist streak," as the Post  speculated a few weeks back, it's that the police as an institution is prone to foster that kind of thinking.

I recently read a fascinating 1996 study by political scientist C. Fred Alford regarding people's attitudes towards violence and victimhood. It turns out that many people see the world in kill-or-be-killed terms -- a particularly problematic view considering how our self-partiality clouds our judgment of just retribution. Given the right circumstances, it appears that most people would act sadistically. 

Alford spent two years interviewing two groups of people: ordinary citizens, and inmates at a maximum security prison. He wanted to find out how their attitudes towards the Holocaust differed. He was most curious to see what they considered evil. 

He asked a simple question: Was the Nazi “desk murderer” Adolf Eichmann responsible for the crimes he committed? Eichmann, though he never killed anyone directly, did organize the mass killings. Did that make him evil?
Nearly all of the ordinary people responded along the same line:
Look, he was just a cog in the machine. If he didn't do it, someone else would. Besides, he would have been killed if he didn't, and you can't ask that of anyone. 
Sound reasonable? Well, it isn't quite right. For one thing, they wrongfully assumed that if Eichmann had refused to do his job he would have been killed. There is no evidence that would have been the case.

The inmates didn’t just use the “cog in the machine” argument. They went hardcore Hobbesian:
"It's total war, man, and in total war there's no bystanders. Everyone is a soldier." Even babies? "Yea, they just don't know it yet." 
The two exonerations are remarkably similar. The response of the prisoners was merely more blunt. They both describe what is essentially a war of all against all -- only the regular citizens prefer to think of things in sanitized, bureaucratized terms. We are not all soldiers, we’re cogs.  
Thinking in kill-or-be-killed terms is close kin to the broader definition of sadism: aggression characterized by an intense identification with the victim, “the form aggression takes when it seeks to inflict its doom on others.” 
In a kill-or-be-killed world, it is understandable that a person would rather be grouped with the killers; identifying with the victims is just too horrible (speaking of which, remember this?).  When harming another person is seen as a way to “inflict one’s doom on others,” i.e. to escape victimhood by victimizing another person, the sadistic impulse takes over.
Law enforcement officials of all stripes are put into a world that is decidedly Hobbesian -- they are the Leviathan. They are the good guys, but they are also the killers. To maintain their position they must subjugate others -- it's part of the job description. That is ample fodder for sadistic thinking.   
The prisoners, writes Alford, seemed no more sadistic than ordinary people -- they had simply taken their violence “freelance.” It was the same kill-or-be-killed mentality, but the inmates lacked Eichmann's all-important desk.
It’s not surprising that the police, who work in an institution which gives them “the opportunity to express, channel, and implement society’s sadism,” would, once in a while, freelance on the side.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Labatt's totalitarian tendencies

Earlier this month Labatt provided a choice example of the "Streisand effect" when they threatened to sue the Gazette over a photo of Magnotta drinking Blue. They bullied the press and demanded that they retract the image that no one else, until that moment, had noticed.

The threatened lawsuit was a clear misstep, but what about the underlying motive of preserving the brand's cheery facade at the expense of reality? Isn't it odd that we accept the general desire to tightly-control the public image of corporations?

Andrew Coyne argues that this aggressive form of branding contains an element of totalitarianism:
In endorsing Labatt’s concern for its brand, we are implicitly accepting the essentially totalitarian assumptions that inform most advertising, and its close cousin, politics: in the world inhabited by this brand or that party, nothing bad ever happens, nothing ever goes wrong, no one ever is unhappy. In such a world it is impossible that there could be any negative associations. Therefore, they must be made to disappear. 
First - I like how this gives credence to Steve Murray's illustration. He was making a far more sophisticated argument than I thought. 1,000 words indeed.

Second - Andrew Coyne has a point. There's a vast difference between promoting the idea that only decent people drink Labatt, and eliminating facts to the contrary. When a company sets out to prove their ad-copy by manipulating the real world, the spin turns sinister.

In politics, transforming lies into prophesies is how ideology becomes total, i.e. how a simple, flawed idea becomes the only plausible explanation. A regular politician might say "our healthcare is the best in the world!" It may not be true, it's likely hyperbole, and it's most certainly debatable. A totalitarian politician will say the same thing, only they will suppress any contrary evidence by destroying all superior hospitals. VoilĂ ! The statement is demonstrably true, the politician is sheltered from the changing winds of reality, and there is no room left for debate.

In totalitarian Germany, when Hitler talked about "dying classes," he meant "classes of people I am systematically murdering." See what I mean? Logical. Prophetic. Unhinged. Any statement can be made valid if sufficiently controlled.

Herein lies the allure of totalitarians: they don't "flip-flop," they make good on their promises. Whether in advertising or politics, logical, unerring consistency sells. Alas, water-tight predictions and infallible statements are exceedingly rare in the real world, so they change the world to suit their vision.