Saturday, 9 July 2016

Call it cowardice

     I don’t know if it’s the worst thing you can call someone, but it’s still pretty darned inflammatory to call someone a racist. It’s so bad that racist comments are typically prefaced with “I’m not racist, but…”
     Nobody wants to think of themselves as a racist, and so we come up with all sorts of denial and coping strategies, to allow ourselves to pretend that really, we don’t see race, we don’t care what colour someone is, we don’t have a prejudiced bone in our body. And all those little things we do that someone who doesn’t know us might mistake for racist behaviours are really just misunderstood.
     This isn’t completely a bad thing. I mean, overall, I think it’s probably better that everyone recognizes racism as bad in principle, than for people still to be openly adhering to and advocating explicitly racist doctrines. So in a way, it’s progress, I suppose. But it does make it extremely difficult to address one’s own prejudices, if one consistently denies that they exist.

     But you know what? I’m not even going to bother with that right now, except to assert that pretty much all of us have unconscious, maybe even hardwired, presumptions or biases that make some degree of unintentionally racist behavior almost impossible to avoid. This can be measured with cleverly designed testing protocols: see Project Implicit, the results of which show a pretty consistent bias (manifesting as increased processing time to overcome that bias in simple cognitive tasks). I have wondered if the basis of that bias might even be something as tragically simple as contrast; is it just easier for our visual cortex to process and recognize an image as a human face if the eyebrows are darker than the skin? Or are we acculturated to see black as evil and white as good?
     I don’t know, and at this point it really doesn’t matter. The fact is that for some reason, most people of all races have some tendency to see a black person as more threatening than a white person, all other factors being equal. Ideally we wouldn’t, but for some kind of neural flaw or cognitive illusion or learned preference.

     So my point is this: I’m not going to blame a police officer for feeling more afraid when dealing with a black man. Fear has a mind of its own, and doesn’t pay much attention to our rational thoughts. When you’re scared, you’re scared, even if you know you shouldn’t be. Maybe your reasons for being scared are ideologically racist, maybe they’re unavoidable parts of how our brains are wired, maybe they’re reasonable responses to your personal history and experiences. I don’t know why you might be afraid, and I don’t really care. What matters is how you deal with your fear, and you can deny being a racist all you want and we can argue forever about whether or not you’re really deep down a racist, but regardless of why you’re afraid, there is a word we give to people who surrender to fear, and that word is “coward”.
     A coward isn’t necessarily someone who runs away from danger. It’s someone who panics, who is unable or unwilling to act wisely and responsibly in spite of their fear. It’s someone who shoots first, instead of calmly evaluating the reality of the threat. As Frank Herbert memorably put it in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer”. Fear makes you act stupidly.

     Now, I’m not a cop. Apart from a couple of minor fisticuffs in grade school, I’ve never been in a situation where I had reason to think someone was imminently trying to harm me, much less kill me (unless you count that scuffle with colon cancer). So you might well point out that I don’t know what it’s like, and true, I don’t. But what would you be trying to argue with such a point? That fear is powerful, and it’s right to surrender to it? Or just that the level of fear is so great that it cannot reasonably be withstood?
     Look, cops have a dangerous job, I’ll grant that. I mean, that’s actually kind of the whole point: we need our police officers to have exceptional courage, because we need them to remain calm and rational, even when they’re scared and thinking they might be killed in the next few seconds. We need people who will confront potentially dangerous situations and turn them into safe situations. That’s a lot to ask, I know, but if you aren’t able to stay on top of your fear, you really ought not to be in this line of work. A coward with a gun is dangerous and unpredictable, and cowards get people killed: themselves, their colleagues, innocent bystanders.
     I don’t blame the cop who shot Philando Castile the other day for being scared. There’s no arguing with fear. But I do blame him for letting that fear call the shots, because by surrendering to his fear, he not only killed one innocent person, he also contributed to the atmosphere of resentment, distrust and fear in which a sniper in Dallas shot eleven cops, killing five of them. I’m not blaming him for those shootings, for which only the shooter was responsible, but dammit, a cop’s job is to make society safer for everyone, not just for himself in the immediate circumstance regardless of what it means for everyone else.

     There’s another problem with cowardice, a more systemic one, and that is that cowards (being governed by fear) naturally assume that’s what drives everyone else. And so they tend to approach conflicts as contests of fear: they think whoever’s the most scared loses, so they try to pretend that they’re not afraid at all, while they strive to be as terrifying as possible to their enemies. I mean, it’s a natural strategy with a long evolutionary history; even insects do it. But it’s inherently unstable, and degenerates into destructive arms races; every escalation must be met by a greater escalation. And every challenge, every failure to defer to the authority of might-makes-right must be made an example, for fear of showing any sign of “weakness”. And the only place that can end is with everyone being terrified all the time. But that’s fine, I suppose, so long as everyone else is more afraid?

     That’s not what we want from law enforcement. We’re supposed to be less afraid when we have effective police services. Something has gone terribly wrong when they think they must scare people to do their jobs or to stay alive.
     Don’t get me wrong. I think personal and institutional racism in law enforcement is a huge problem. But we can argue until the cows (or chickens) come home about that, because “I’m not racist” is so resilient a belief, and we’ll probably never convince the people who need to be convinced. And in any event, it may turn out to be impossible to fully eradicate the irrational tendency to be more afraid of a black face than a white one. 
     So in the meantime, maybe we should also pay attention to the sheer cowardice driving so many of these shootings, to recognize that part of a police officer’s job is to face dangers so the rest of us can be safer. It’s okay and natural to be afraid, even irrationally (including racistly) afraid. But if you’re so afraid that you cannot do your job without putting other people’s live at greater risk, then what good are you doing anyone?


  1. When I heard the audio from the Castile event I was stunned that a police officer would crumble so completely and irrationally, it could be heard clearly in his voice. Tom, again you have managed to, well not succinctly, but coherently put down what went wrong.
    Killing will not correct this wrong, but given the atmosphere of the USA right now - I _fear_ they will not find any other way... and THAT really does scare me.

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  3. (Deleted a duplicate post.)

    Thanks, Tim, and sorry not to be as succinct as I would like to have been.

    I think there's actually good reason for optimism. It SEEMS like things are getting worse, and it's certainly demoralizing to see this happen again and again and again, but what'a really changed isn't that cops are killing black people more often; it's that we're no longer about to conveniently ignore it, because everyone has a camera now. In fact, I suspect that the rate of such incidents may even be declining though it's hard to find objectives statistics to support this, in part because it was more likely to be dismissed as a legitimate police action back in the days when the only record was from the police themselves.