Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Other

Read a review today of the book and it got me thinking- more about ripples, more about what each person brings to an experience. The review was positive and even said I was insightful- uncomfortably so on some of the gender differences in violence. But the reader was disturbed at the way that I presented violent predators as "other". That this attitude, taken to extremes could justify terrible abuse. That it might be something I need to do because part of my job has been to use force on another human being and, separate from policy or law, I have to justify it to myself.

Good points, and these are things that I do have to keep in mind. You have to step back, you have to be able to step back and remember and see what things looked like before you'd seen them a hundred times.

But there is an assumption here, (or maybe I am reading it wrong, but I've heard it enough that it is worth discussing here). At some point a lot of people decided that all people are pretty much the same. Whether it is Sting singing, "The Russians Love Their Children Too" or a thousand different variations on the idea.

It's one of those things that is both very true (we couldn't communicate without a huge amount of commonality) and very untrue (which may be the source of a lot of miscommunication, FWIW).

There are- or so I have heard I haven't actually met one since the seventies- people who will say that men and women are just the same and any differences are purely cultural. That's horseshit, obviously. I apply this to violence and it is uncomfortably, but usefully insightful. The reader is cool with it because of familiarity with men and women. Intimate familiarity allows you to understand and appreciate the similarities and the differences.

If you count waking hours over the last 17 years, I have spent more time with criminals than with any other group. That is not an exaggeration in the slightest. I know them and they know me, well enough that force has become very rare. I know the common ground and whenever verbal communication has a chance, I work from the common ground. It is very effective.

But a predator is different. I go back in my head to one of my first criminals. He raped and sodomized an eighty-year-old woman. Who among your friends, the people that you know really well, could do that? Most wouldn't be capable of it even (or especially) with a gun to their heads. That is a difference, a profound difference. Almost all normal people experience a feeling called 'shame' and it is a different feeling than regret for the negative consequences of an action. Even most low-level, non-violent career criminals do not feel or even truly understand the concept. That is a difference.

Linguists and anthropologists have theorized for years that language limits cognition and conception. That is something that is very apparent when you find yourself working with a different culture.

Riddle me this: What's the difference between management and leadership? Only managers think they are the same thing. I can't write about stuff I learn here, but a very huge implication hangs from that question.

"Your" doesn't mean the same thing all the time to normal people. Your shoes you can use or throw away or trade for drugs. Most people recognize that these rights, derived from 'your' do not extend to 'your' daughter... but I've had a criminal completely unable to grasp why there was a difference between using his shoes and using his daughter. They were both 'his'. That is what 'his' means, right?

Some of these differences are so fundamental (the shame one, for me. It was right in front of my face for ten years before I read Fleisher's "Beggars and Thieves" and suddenly understood that all the bullshit talk about 'respect' had everything to do with face and status and nothing to do with conscience) that they are almost impossible to see, the way that some people miss a near-by elephant because the mind sometimes won't wrap around an animal that big.

No two people are completely other. No two are completely the same, either. To deny either of these facts is to leave yourself vulnerable. Probably more important, to deny either of them is to blind yourself to part of the world. Not all differences are to be cherished, nor are they to be feared- but if some one cannot see something that is obvious to you, such as the difference between management and leadership, there will be a disconnect. To ignore that disconnect in the name of brotherhood will prevent you, forever, from bridging that gap. This is common ground that has to be built, not found.

Simultaneously, if someone has a capacity that you lack, especially a capacity that you lack specifically for the good of society (because if you have the power and the inclination, there is no difference between your daughter and your shoes until somebody steps in and stops you- this is a brutal jungle thing and the distinction is implanted for the good of society. It is artificial, but right) to ignore that difference not only maintains your personal vulnerability but empowers the predator and makes it safer and easier for them to move among prey.


Anonymous said...

I see you as someone who has navigated the dialectic of "other-criminal" and "not-other-person" pretty well. Based on what you've written.

I don't think that, for example, someone would have said to you, "You gave me every opportunity to do things the easy way, and I turned them down" if you were wholly devoted to "other".

The question of how human beings can get so broken is of less immediacy to someone in law enforcement than the question of how to cope with such human beings. As it should be. But I remain curious about it.

Illogic said...

Dammit, wrote a long comment just now, but blogger decided to screw me over.
I tried posting it 4 times even, and yet it seems I failed.
Essentially, communication is important, even if you have no way of communicating, it is better to create one than to forget about the whole thing.
That how I understood this post at least.
Cheers for the brain food!

Kai Jones said...

Failure to understand and incorporate the necessity of othering people based on their actions has extremely poor outcomes. There's a price for being in the tribe: adherence to its standards of behavior. Failure to adhere is an attack on the tribal identity and justly punished.

Some people are threats to the very fabric of society; some are only threats to individual tribal members. In both cases they are "othering" themselves by their choice to prey on their fellows.

Anonymous said...

I think the reviewer is someone who has never faced real violence, or looked into the face of a true predator. I'm not talking about the 2 bit petty crook; I'm referring to the small subset of criminals who wouldn't think twice of killing someone for daring to ask them to change the channel or just being part of another gang.

You can't explain this difference to people. They either get it or they don't. And, for the most part, if they don't -- they won't, unless it slaps them in the face and makes them wake up. It's beyond words.

In reading Meditations on Violence, I never got the idea that you devalued the person of the predator. But to pretend that the are otherwise is like pretending a wolf isn't different from a German Shepherd...

Kai Jones said...

There's a post today at Megan McArdle's blog that is on point. Look at the linked articles, too.