The recent media attention has centered around incidents of perceived law enforcement abuse that have become a catalyst for riots stretching across three continents. Incidents, such as these, have been a constant reality and potentiality in poor urban areas for a long time and the recent attention is the product of switching the collective focus to this pervasive and contentious social infraction. Bubbling to the surface are the timeless questions of racism and classism, but additionally it brings up the question of law enforcement, our relation to law enforcement and, lastly, the requirements and necessity of utilizing lethal force.
Sam Harris notes in his book Free Will that if he had lived the exact same life (including genetic makeup) as a killer, neurologically speaking, he has to resign to accept that he would have been a killer too.[i] Accepting that any given moment in time we are merely the product of our genetics and all environmental stimuli that proceeded that moment. This “veil of ignorance”[ii] suggests that we must perceive ethics through a lens that understands that circumstance of birth differs in all people and ethics is contextual and singular.
The aforementioned ideas come into play when we examine the sudden rise in attention of police brutally, as the deeply rooted ethical paradigm that dominates American culture is, figuratively speaking, a narcissistic psychopath who believes that objectivity is something we can assert through mere proclamation. Meaning that a law enforcement officer may persist that they are fair and just and that they perceive every decision through the objective lens of some logical ethical calculus, but this persistence only reinforces their illusory proclivity towards cognitive dissonance.
Human beings are subjects and are completely incapable of being objects. We want to project our objective-selves into the world through our projects and virtual persona and deny our authentic potentialities. What if I was a law enforcement officer and I believe my capacity to perceive reality objectively is valid. But, then I live in a community that is completely atomized based on class and race— grooming me to perceive the observable and institutional divide as being the product of an objective reality, of which I believe to be true. As humans, our ability to relate and connect to the Other is rooted in how we see our own qualities reflected back at us in the Other. But, what happens if you do not see any reflected qualities— what if the Other seems foreign and distant?
If I draw my gaze upon the Other and do not see any sameness, nothing similar— I will become prone to assume they are unlike me, different and, even more, a threat. I am a logical and rational human and they are not like me and for that, they must be illogical, irrational and non-human— a barbaric inferior human variant, perhaps. I, in order to promote and validate my own reality, dehumanize all Others that I find different and removed. Even if I, as subject, perceive them as less I will delude myself into perceiving my subjective reality as an objective reality that is, henceforth, logically sound. The Other, who is unlike me, is akin to an irrational small child and it is my duty to be the objectively rigid authority that serves and protects.
My power to stand over you as objective authority — as I perceive you as an objectified subject, or rather an irrational automaton that acts from mechanically repetitious impulse — has been deservingly and pridefully granted by the brass badge I wear upon my shirt. But, how, in all reality is such a thing possible? A badge is just mere object and it contains no authority, no value, no content— it’s a hollow void of nothingness. You can see the badge as a symbol and you can project whatever virtues you want upon the symbol— justice, loyalty, courage. These signified projections do not alter the symbol. It does not matter how hard you try, the symbol, the signifier and the badge will not become a container of virtue that, through some transitive property, transfers its virtuous contents to whomever clips the badge to their shirt.
Life, as we all know, is finite and the process — or rather the existential angst — of trying to render meaning from the void of nothingness pushes us into asserting that we can create the universal from the singular. I am a finite being with a singular existence, but with faith, I can become an infinite being with a universal existence. We all know deep down that ultimately we will fail at this transcendence, but to throw in the towel is to forego that resilient will to power that makes humans so damn special. To resolve this conflict we project ourselves on to symbols, in hopes that the symbol will out live us and henceforth, transcend our values beyond the finite. I see myself as loyal, patriotic and compassionate— therefore, I will project those values upon the badge, the flag and the cross. I know I will die, but those symbols will live on, and to some regard, so will I. Any act that negates my symbols will, in turn, negate me— reducing me back to the singular. I will fight to defend my symbols.
Police brutality is a problem and more than just being a problem that hangs in the limelight of the moment, it is a symbol of the systemic malevolence. It symbolizes that the subjective divide between law and man is also a division of race and class. It symbolizes that our ability to see ourselves and the Other as subject, as fragile, as finite or as human takes a backseat to maintaining the illusory objective infrastructure. The inability of the justice system to recognize this injustice symbolizes that we would prefer to objectify the Other in defense of our symbols and ego. And, beyond that, it symbolizes that we would rather negate the leak by creating another leak and never recognize that we keep frantically repairing a broken ship— that is indeed sinking. Or in short, as Nietzsche says, we would rather will nothingness than nothing at all.[iii]
So what then? How do we transcend this vacillation of collective defense mechanisms and find solace and hope? Gun laws and police training will do nothing. Wearable cameras will do nothing. We can’t stake our claim in the future by assuming that the objective lens of a camera will serve to detach the illusion between subjective and objective reality. People will see what they want to see.
The path of hope will come from our ability to gaze upon the Other and see a subject— a human looking into the eyes of another human. A grocery store clerk, a barista, a telemarketer— all people, all subjects, all the time. My pain is your pain and your pleasure is my pleasure. My unbridled hope in the human spirit is a hope and burden that we all share equally. Our subjective spirit is the empathic contents that make up our objective spirit and beyond our empathic gaze, we all must turn and look forward together— recognizing our humanity for what it is and dreaming of what it will be. Freud claims that the malaise of civilization and the malaise of the individual are attached at the hip and, for that, the only way we can step out of the shadow of the industrial revolution — that ideologically persists that we, as humans, can be reduced to a commodity, a cog and an object — is to declare ourselves as subjects, as humans, as empathic beings. And from this declaration we must authentically act in defense of the individual qua collective, and the collective qua individual. When a law enforcement officer casts his gaze upon the Other he should see himself, his own pains and fears, his own hopes and dreams and his own eyes and spirit: and act accordingly. We are all, in fact, in this together.
[i] Harris, Sam. Free Will. New York: Free, 2012. Print.
[ii] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1971. Print.
[iii] Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. London: Verso, 2001. Print.