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“In Ferguson And Beyond, Punishing Humanity”: Subordinated People Are Mistakenly Viewed As Brutes Or Even Nonhuman Animals

On Sept. 26, two peaceful protesters were arrested in Ferguson, Mo. Watch this video (warning: includes profanity) and you will see two white officers arresting a young black woman who is wearing a red hoodie. One tackles her in a chokehold and yanks her hands behind her back. She whimpers, and they force her face down on the pavement. They then carry her off with one officer holding her by an arm, and the other holding her by a leg. Her body has gone limp; they dangle her between them carelessly. Why were these two men handling her “like an animal?” asks the protester recording the scene with her cellphone. It is a good question. And its answer is not obvious.

One possibility is that people are treated brutally because those who mistreat them fail to grasp their common humanity — or, similarly, their personhood. The idea is that seeing another person as a fellow human being is not only a prerequisite for ethical relations with her, but also strongly disposes us to treat her as we ought to. In George Orwell’s experience, when you see another person as “visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, [then] you don’t feel like shooting at him.” (Or her — presumably.) Moreover, man’s inhumanity to man (and women, too) often stems from overlooking our shared human capacities, an appreciation of which would tend to give rise to empathy. Subordinated people are mistakenly viewed as brutes, subhuman, or even nonhuman animals.

This line of argument regarding the most virulent forms of racism has been developed in detail by David Livingstone Smith, among others. It is also accepted in some form by many different kinds of humanists in philosophy, variously inspired by Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein. And it has echoed loudly in the blogosphere in the two months following the Ferguson protests — which erupted when Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by a white police officer. It is not hard to see why. When, three days after the shooting, another white officer called the (primarily black) protesters “[expletive] animals,” it cemented many people’s fears that Brown had been slain in a similar spirit — the thought being that the officer responsible, Darren Wilson, saw Brown as an animal, or at least as less than human. Witnesses are on record saying that Brown had his hands up, that he was posing no threat to the officer, but that Wilson “just kept shooting” — even after Brown backed down, in a classic gesture of surrender. Wilson shot at Brown as if he felt powerless to stop him, almost as if he were faced with a bear or an ape or a zombie.

I used to be a humanist in this sense of the term. But I am fast losing my religion. Dehumanization increasingly seems to me to be merely a symptom of the problem. The problem being precisely that black people are being seen as people — and they are seen as being threatening, and taken down, because of it.

The humanist line on Ferguson is unduly optimistic, and rests on a psychologically dubious assumption. Namely, that when people who have historically enjoyed a dominant position in society (in this case white men) come to recognize historically subordinated people (racial minorities, women) as their moral and social equals, they will welcome the newcomers.  But seeing others as similar to ourselves can lead to hostility and resentment under certain conditions. It’s true that Orwell’s vision of a person running across the battlefield holding up his trousers during the Spanish civil war transformed an enemy combatant into a vulnerable human being in his eyes — someone who must have been undressed or indisposed moments before the gunfire started. But this humanizing vision involved no loss of status for Orwell. He felt sorry for the man. He saw him as ridiculous.

The situation is different when it comes to white men’s perception of non-whites and women. Over time, as the fight for equality has allowed some advancement and social mobility for racial minorities, as well as for women, toward what we might call the inner circle of humanity, white men have experienced a relative loss of status. And they now have more rivals for desirable positions. Add to that the fact that they may find themselves surpassed by those they tacitly expected to be in social positions beneath them, and we have a recipe for resentment and the desire to regain dominance.

None of this is likely to be conscious, nor to manifest itself at all times; nor is it true of all white men, obviously. Rather, it is likely to come out in momentary flashes of aggression for some white men when they are feeling threatened. That “Bring it, you [expletive] animals, bring it!” that the Ferguson police officer spat at the protesters back in August should be heard in this vein as a slur and a battle cry. As Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued, those accused of dehumanizing others often “acknowledge their victims’ humanity in the very act of humiliating, stigmatizing, reviling and torturing them.” The cop put these people down by likening them to animals — an insult that depends, for its humiliating quality, on its targets’ distinctively human desire to be recognized as human beings. The cop also declared his readiness to fight for his position in the existing social hierarchy. And the hierarchy assumes that we are all people — some of whom are more equal than others, naturally. This is the nature of domination and subordination relations, which have been theorized by Catharine MacKinnon and Sally Haslanger, among others. They require that there be people ranked above and/or beneath you. And it is important that we all know our place, if only tacitly.

Consider, too, what the people involved were doing in two of the above cases. They were engaged in that uniquely human activity of protesting. They were behaving as no animal besides us ever behaves. They were being “political animals,” to use Aristotle’s term for human beings. Many philosophers say that it is our capacity for rationality that distinguishes us as human. But at least as distinctive, one might think, is our capacity to be political.

The humanist line on Ferguson hence fails to explain what seems to provoke the aggression — namely, acts of political and personal defiance, which only people can demonstrate. Moreover, it is hardly surprising that historically subordinated people should be perceived in this way when they try to assert themselves around, or over, dominant group members. They are liable to be perceived as belligerent, “uppity,” insubordinate or out of order.

This is a plausible hypothesis about what happened in Michael Brown’s case as well. The exact events remain in some dispute, but most agree on the same basic sequence. What seemed to set Wilson off was that Brown challenged his authority. The incident began when Brown ignored Wilson’s orders to get out of the center of the street, where he and his friend had been walking. Wilson drove off, apparently cowed. He then seems to have changed his mind, decided to stand his ground, have a do-over. He slammed his car into reverse; by some accounts, he was taunted by Brown, following a physical altercation. In the end, Wilson shot Brown at least six times, including twice in the head, and reportedly kept shooting after Brown surrendered. But at that point, it seems, it was too late for deference.

The humanist line on Ferguson also fails to explain the quality of the aggression, which has a resentful, vindictive tenor. After he was killed, Brown’s body was left uncovered on the street for some four hours afterwards, to add deep social insult to fatal physical injury. And when another young black man, Kajieme Powell, was shot and killed a mere 10 days later in St. Louis, the police officers who shot him did something extraordinary. After they had killed him, they handcuffed his dead body. Powell had been staggering around with a small knife, apparently trying to commit so-called suicide by cop. The man clearly needed some help to raise him up again. Instead, the police shot him down, and arrested him post mortem.

These actions, as well as being shameful, reveal a resentful and punitive mentality behind the aggression, which are classic examples of what the English philosopher P. F. Strawson famously called the interpersonal “reactive attitudes.” These attitudes are held to be both distinctive and central to our dealings with other human beings — that is, with people who we recognize as such, or as fully paid-up members in this club we call humanity. When it comes to animals and children and people we regard as (temporarily or permanently) not in control of their actions, we may try to correct, manage, deter or restrain their behavior. But, ordinarily and ideally, we do not resent it. They are not moral agents. We can’t really blame them.

And resentment and blame, along with punitive behavior and the associated social practices, are precisely what black people in this country are being systematically subjected to at present, at every level of the criminal justice system. Black people are proportionately far more likely to be stopped, frisked, searched, arrested, tased, charged, tried, convicted, incarcerated and executed (by means that are often grossly unconstitutional). Black bodies are routinely being policed and punished without mercy. And we don’t police animals in this way. Nor do we punish them in this spirit.

Unfortunately, seeing people’s humanity is only the moral beginning. Sometimes people will be punished for the crime of being people.


By: Kate Manne, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University; Opinionator, The Stone, The New York Times, October 12, 2014

October 14, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Please Shoot Me”: Police Are Entirely Committed To The Logic Of Deterrence, While Ignoring The Costs Of Escalation

In the first part of VICE News’s extraordinary five-part documentary on ISIS, released earlier this month, a bearded and strangely innocent-looking young press officer who goes by the name Abu Mosa invites America to attack his movement. “I say to America that the Islamic Caliphate has been established, and we will not stop,” Abu Mosa says with a shy smile, a Kalashnikov leaning easily in his right hand. “Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”

America has since begun attacking ISIS with air and drone strikes, and on Wednesday, in response to the beheading of James Foley, a photojournalist, Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to the fight. But the president has not obliged Abu Mosa’s wish for America to send in ground forces. For one thing, the airstrikes seem to have been reasonably successful in attaining the limited American goal of aiding Kurdish forces to recapture territory from ISIS. Inserting ground troops risks subjecting American forces to casualties and mission creep. In the video of Mr Foley’s death, his ISIS executioner threatens to kill another hostage unless America ceases its airstrikes. Mr Obama shows no signs of letting any of this affect his decisions. As a rule, it is a bad idea to let your actions in a confrontation be guided by the other guy’s provocations.

Not everyone understands this rule, though. In St Louis on Monday, two police officers responded to a report that a distraught man had stolen two cans of soda from a convenience store, and was carrying a steak knife. The officers stepped out of the car and immediately drew their guns on the man, 25-year-old Kajieme Powell, ordering him to drop the knife. Mr Powell refused, and instead began vaguely walking towards them, saying “Shoot me!” The officers opened fire, killing Mr Powell just seconds after they had arrived—nine shots in all, pop-pop-pop, some fired after Mr Powell had fallen to the ground. All of this can be clearly seen on the video of the confrontation that a bystander recorded on his smartphone, released Wednesday by the St Louis police department in the apparent belief that it exonerates the officers involved.

To my eye, the notion that this video is exculpatory evidence seems absurd. A report of a disturbed man waving around a steak knife and making angry pronouncements is supposed to end with a team of police officers surrounding the offender, trying to talk him down, and, if persuasion fails, eventually subduing him and sending him in for psychiatric evaluation. Nothing suggests police officers faced an emergency requiring them to use their guns. The video convinced me only that the officers should be prosecuted, and that the St Louis police department needs to be completely overhauled, starting with its rules on the use of deadly force. Missouri should also revise its justifiable-homicide laws, which, as Yishai Schwartz explains in the New Republic, make it “almost impossible” to convict police officers who claim they acted in self-defence.

But there’s an interesting similarity here. In both of these cases, someone is provoking an attack from a more powerful actor. Why would anyone do that?

When force is used, it is often to influence or change the behaviour of a foe. The logic is that of deterrence: stop misbehaving, or we will attack you. Yet adversaries often understand that the deployment of force is not cost-free. The risk of escalation may ultimately make a conflict more costly than the initial deterrence was worth. This trade-off is a characteristic of many classic confrontations: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and so on.

In the case of ISIS, at least some elements apparently believe that luring America into a ground conflict will help them achieve their aims. For Islamic radical groups, fighting America is also great for recruitment, particularly if there is an opportunity to kill American soldiers. And if ISIS can escalate the conflict to the point where America no longer wants to bear the costs and pulls out, it will have scored a tremendous victory.

It is a bit hard to figure out what Mr Powell was trying to accomplish in St Louis, as he appears to have been mentally off-kilter, at least on that afternoon. (In a tragic moment in the video, before police arrive, a passerby advises him to back down: “That’s not the way you do it, man.”) But he was clearly trying to provoke police to shoot him, perhaps in the belief that this would illustrate the inequities of police brutality. More importantly, the police who confronted him, like police throughout the confrontations in Missouri, seem to be entirely committed to the logic of deterrence, while ignoring the costs of escalation. This is a problem of culture, of attitude, of legal impunity, and above all else of the pervasive use of firearms, which rapidly escalate minor disputes into potentially deadly confrontations. The police’s deployment of force have left two dead and a town overwhelmed by protests and riots.

In Iraq, America seems to be weighing the risks of escalation very carefully before deploying force. In Missouri, however, the police seem to be deploying force without thinking about the consequences at all. And the cost of attacking the city’s poorest and most beleaguered people is proving very high indeed.


By: Matt Steinglass, Democracy in America, August 22, 2014

August 25, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, St Louis Police Department, Terrorists | , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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