Abandoning Dehumanizing Systems

Once, an eleventh grade student came to me during break in between classes. He looked excited. I was gathering my things and getting ready. This is a busy part of the school day, especially for the kind of teachers, like myself, who had 5 classes with 30 students each to teach within the day.

Needless to say, I was distracted.

He came up on me quick, “Patrick!”*

(*There were a few students who used my first name, even though I’d asked them all to.)

“Down the hall, there is a local police officer giving a presentation to one of our classes.”

“That’s nice. Why are you telling me this?” I didn’t look up at him because I was busy, though I did feel confused about why this student was so excited.

“Do you hate him? Don’t you want to tell him?”

Now I knew exactly why the student was there. In a rush I remembered that earlier that month I’d had an open conversation with a group of students about pacifism. I’d told them that I couldn’t morally approve of any profession that put someone in the position to kill another person. They’d processed this through a series of questions. They were particularly interested in my thoughts on about police, the military, and other areas of enforcement and how could I oppose them and not have an alternative in mind for if they went away.

I spoke to them of the tenets of pacifism and introduced ideas around the military industrial complex. They were extremely engaged, but the conversation was cut short and the students had to hurry on to their next classes. To this student, the one who approached me later about the policeman, a comment about how I did not support the police stood out to him the most. He knew me well, or so he thought, and he thought I would easily decide to argue with another adult, the policeman, about how wrong he was.

I turned to my student, “I don’t hate him specifically. I actually try not to hate anyone ever. I’m a bit offended that you would think I would, but I do understand how you could have thought that.”

“But, I thought you had said that you hated the police.”

“I never said that. I said I didn’t agree with the function of the policing system and that I believe that the existence of a police force is counterproductive towards the pursuit of peace.”

“Ok. So if you were to walk down the hall and meet the police officer in the other room, what would you do?”

“I don’t know.” I realized that I really didn’t know.

Failure Always Sticks With Me

This moment, this exchange, has stuck with me. This conversation happened around four years ago. It has stayed with me.

When I envisioned this officer, down the hall from my classroom, I couldn’t imagine being mean or vile to him as an individual. I actually don’t think I could be mean or vile towards anyone as an individual. It isn’t in within my value structure to condemn any one person to be just bad. I don’t, however, agree with his decisions as an individual. Even more than that, I don’t agree with the perverted system within our society that has resulted in him needing to do the work that he does.

I think that the biggest reason that this interaction struck me was the sadness I felt that I hadn’t conveyed the complexity of the pacifist belief system that I support to my students. If this student had heard my lecture and had only taken away the fact that I “hated the police” and had completely not heard my thoughts on pacifism – well then my attempts within that conversation were failed.

Failure always sticks with me.

Violence Never Leads to Peace

It wasn’t until the last couple of weeks that I understood this interaction and my lack of understanding of why I was saddened by it. After the presidential election naming Donald Trump the president elect, I’ve felt, along with a great deal of my friends and family, powerless over the direction our society is moving in. Instead of crumpling into depression I decided to do something I’d only done passively towards politics: I decided to study and learn.

I’ve been drawn to the works of David Graeber and found this lecture he gave at the tail end of leaving Yale titled “Beyond Power/Knowledge: an Exploration of the Relation of Power, Ignorance, and Stupidity”. Specifically this part of the presentation has stuck with me:

“Violence’s capacity to allow arbitrary decisions, and thus to avoid the kind of debate, clarification and renegotiation typical of more egalitarian social relations, is obviously what allows its victims to see procedures created on the basis of violence as stupid or unreasonable. One might say, those relying on the fear of force are not obliged to engage in a lot of interpretative labor, and thus, generally speaking, do not.”
(Graeber, p. 7)

This is a point where, in the talk, Graeber is making a point about how systems tend to be methods where efficiency is applied to deal with ethically challenging subject matter.

Whenever I’ve talked to people about pacifism and my stance against the very idea of enforced peace through means of violence (aka the police, military, etc.) the conversation suddenly gets challenging to the person I’m talking to. The person talking to me usually starts asking me questions about what I would replace the system with.

I always respond with, “I’m not sure – but I know that violence does not create peace, so by definition the product of law enforcement can never be about peace and therefore I cannot abide or support it.”

Bureaucrats With Weapons

People then seem to always want to dismiss my conclusions saying that I’m living in a dream world of hippy peace and pacifism.  This talk of Graeber’s was very attractive to me because he is talking about how systems work from the perspective of  anthropology, his profession.  He is dissecting the design and looking at the pieces of it. As a designer myself, this analysis style is very appealing to me.

Graeber goes on to talk specifically at the way we relate to violence as a society and uses law enforcement as a place to extrapolate meaning from:

“Now, in contemporary industrialized democracies, the legitimate administration of violence is turned over to what is euphemistically referred to as “law enforcement”— particularly, to police officers, whose real role, as police sociologists have repeatedly demonstrated, has much less to do with enforcing criminal law than with the scientific application of physical force to aid in the resolution of administrative problems. Police are, essentially, bureaucrats with weapons. At the same time, they have, significantly, over the last fifty years or so become the almost obsessive objects of imaginative identification in popular culture. It has come to the point that it’s not at all unusual for a citizen in a contemporary industrialized democracy to spend several hours a day reading books, watching movies, or viewing TV shows that invite them to look at the world from a police point of view, and to vicariously participate in their exploits. If nothing else, all this throws an odd wrinkle in Weber’s dire prophecies about the iron cage: as it turns out, faceless bureaucracies do seem inclined to throw up charismatic heroes of a sort, in the form of an endless assortment of mythic detectives, spies, and police officers—all, significantly, figures whose job is to operate precisely where the bureaucratic structures for ordering information encounter, and appeal to, genuine physical violence.” (Graeber, p. 9)

This archetype of the honorable police officer is intoxicating. I particularly enjoyed televisions shows about the “hero cop” such as the Fall, Luther, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and many more. When I read Graeber’s dissection of the “hero cop” fictional media I realized how strange it was that I had this sharp dissonance between my imagined “hero cop” and the very real police. Specifically, I support one by watching countless hours of media dedicated to it and I disapprove of the other by speaking openly about trying to attain pacifism in modern society.

3 Archetypes

I’ve realized there is also a third medium – one that is more real than the two others: the police officer that was down the hall that my student wanted me to argue with. He was a real person. I have different governing values when dealing with actual people in actual specific moments than I do when imagining the future of society or absorbing entertainment.

I’ll elucidate my meaning:

The Political Agitator 

If I were to go and talk to the cop down the hall from my classroom only seeing the situation through the lens of attempting to create a future of peace and pacifism for all humanity I might have ended up, as my student wanted me to, in a debate where I would condemn this police officer’s profession. This could get heated and I’d start fighting with him, trying to change him.

The Crimefighting Fanboy

If I were seeing the world through the lens of wanting to be entertained by the existence of evil and the pursuit of defeating it at all costs, like the shows and entertainment I like to absorb, I might have gone to the police officer down the hall and asked him curious questions about his profession in an attempt to have this shining knight tell me how he defeats criminals on the streets to keep all of us safe.

The Obidiant Citizen

If I were to see the world through my own classic values of human to human interaction I might have approached him, asked him his name. We would have made small talk and I would probably make a joke, we would part ways – him, none the wiser that I in any way disapproved of his actions and profession.

Subsequently, I did none of these things; I was none of these archetypes. I believe the reason that none of these actions came to be was because I couldn’t decide, in the moment when presented with the opportunity of defining who I am, which one of these people I was going to be. I was afraid of option 3. The very idea of just making small talk gave me the idea that I was latently approving of his profession and actions as a human being. But actively condemning him or glamorizing him also felt wrong.

So I froze. I tried to repeat my conversation from the month before with my student and let the situation pass. That police office down the hall never became anything more to me than an unsolved problem in my own existence. I never met him. I never talked to him. None of the realities in the three examples above of what could have occurred came to be.

The situation has stuck with me. I even would bank money on the fact that the student doesn’t even remember coming to talk to me about this. I actually know he doesn’t because we’ve kept in touch and I’ve asked him about that day.

People Are Not Their Systems

I read and watched Graeber’s talk twice last week. This morning it occurred to me that I didn’t know what to do because I have no conception of how to interact with individuals within systems I do not agree with. I also realized that it might not be my fault.

The student thought that because I’d disapproved of police as a concept that I logically also disapproved of that particular man and thought of him, as an individual, to be morally reprehensible. I did not. In fact I disagree that one has to do with the other.

I want to believe we can be kind and honor each individual of any background, belief structure, and ideology. That is the narrative of American values I’d been taught since I was a child. There is a problem there though – how do we disagree with each other about ideologies, systems, and belief structures while honoring each other? Even asking that question makes me realize that I’ve never actually seen this done. Sure, I’ve heard it said to me. I’ve read stories about Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus, Buddha, and zen monks – but I’ve not actually had much first hand experience with it happening.

I believe that that is precisely why I froze and didn’t act that day. I also think that a nagging feeling of personal irresponsibility in the situation is why that story has stayed with me to this day. I still don’t know what to do.

This is the Paradox

I don’t want to feel impotent in those kinds of situations any more. I, for example, think that Donald Trump is deserving of love and kindness, as all people are. He is a person. He isn’t just an idea, an ideology, a system, or a belief structure. He has those things, as do we all, but we are not only a sum of those things. If we judge him, or a police officer, just for those actions are we not just enacting the same system of dehumanization that we are judging them for enacting?

There has to be another way.

There has to be a way forward that honors what we know to be true. We know that all people deserve love and empathy because we know that we personally also deserve to have those things. Deserve comes from the latin word “deservire” which means to ‘serve well or zealously’. When I say that all human beings deserve to be loved that I believe the onus is on us all to serve humanity with the love and kindness we wish to see for ourselves.

The mistake, however, is in the quick and easy correlation that my former student made when he asked if I hated that police officer. He thought that because I righteously disapprove of the system that I also disapproved of the man. But, I don’t. This is the paradox. Both exist and there isn’t one easy path to follow forward when trying to deal with those kinds of situations. I do righteously oppose any and all systems of violence and perversions of peace through systems that result in violence.

My Crime

As Tolstoy once said, “…if the production of any commodity necessitates the sacrifice of human life, society should do without that commodity, but I can not do without that life.” 

I’d further this thought by adding that we can also say that:

If the mental alignment towards any system of belief results in the dehumanization (i.e. the reduction of an individual to just be the sum of their thoughts, ideologies, belief structures, etc.) of others, we should do without that mental alignment, for we can change our beliefs but we cannot afford to dehumanize because the cost is the dehumanization of ourselves.

In an ideal world I would have approached that officer without fear. Greeted him, smiled, and asked him about his life. Befriended him. Humanized him. Perhaps knowing this person would have created avenues for both of us to change and evolve in our understandings of the world and our individual belief structures.

My crime was that I didn’t humanize him.

I wasn’t ready to let go of my own righteous judgement about his system of profession to humanize him. This was my crime. I gave into fear.

I’m writing this because I need to imagine a new way forward, and I cannot do this in isolation any more. Online platforms can allow our words to be found. For conversations to start. The need to move away from dehumanizing systems, whether as large as political and international rationalizations of violence or as small confronting our own personal actions dictated by fear, is vital.

We need to change.

We need to create peace.

I need to change.

I need to create peace.

Forgive my stumbling through this piece of writing – I’m new to this. I’m new to publicly processing my fears. My hopes are that doing so, out loud on this online platform, is a first step towards my own personal confrontation of my fears and a step towards un-isolating myself.