The Slope of Violence and the Implied Gaze: UC Davis Pepper Spray Incident, Army Killings of Protesters in Egypt, and Recognizing Systems that Encourage Violence
From UC Davis to Egypt: The Slippery Slope of Violence and Justification
It’s so easy to look at an image like what we see above and say it’s terrible. And it is. But how does this happen? And while this happens in the US, this all pales in comparison with what’s going on elsewhere in the world. Nowhere are bodies on boundaries with more at stake right now than the crisis in Egypt. People are dying as the Egyptian army fires on protesters. As those of us in the United States finish Thanksgiving and engage in the massive buying spree of Black Friday, people are dying in Egypt. But perhaps there’s a connection between these, a crucial continuum which can tell us something about ourselves.
Firstly, for info on what’s going in Egypt, there’s a philosophy professor I know there, Graham Harman, at AUC (American University of Cairo), and his blog is quite informative. For a day by day account of what’s been going on, from the perspective of an American over the last few days, here’s a link to his November blog posts, read from November 19 forward and you can see his account of the increase in violence.
There’s one particularly disturbing video posted by Harman in which you see the army firing extensively on protesters. Warning, this is a graphic video, at one point there is someone bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound. While much of the start of this video is people talking, at about 2:09 you begin to see extended footage of the army firing on protesters. You can’t see the faces of the army members, but take note of their body language, body armor, and methods.
In contrast to this, here’s the now famous famous video of the cops spraying seated, non-violent ‘Occupy’ protesters at UC Davis. For an account of one of the students who was pepper-sprayed, a really interesting and compassionate description of the day leading up to that event, see here. What is perhaps most shocking is that the cop who did this was not someone with a history of violence, and in fact seems to have been well liked. The question then, is why this happened.
The Continuum of “the Banality of Evil”
It seems to me there is a continuum, that what we see in the Egypt footage is simply the more extreme version of the same mentality we see in the Davis footage. Each of these policemen and soldiers have people they love. They likely think of themselves as doing something good, otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing it, would they? I think people who enjoy and glory in ‘being evil’ are only in the movies. Hitler and Stalin convinced themselves and their followers they were saving their countries from worse evils, no matter the cost. I don’t think anyone wakes up and decides to ‘be evil’ that day.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt famously analyzed Adolf Eichmann, the overglorified accountant and bureaucrat that supervised Hitler’s Holocaust, making sure of its efficiency, keeping records, etc. Captured after World War II and put on trial in Israel in 1961, Eichmann hardly looked like a monster, a fact Arendt went in person to Jerusalem to confirm at the trial for herself. Balding, with a pot-belly, Eichmann looked as far from the evil he was as possible. Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the fact that THIS is what ‘real’ evil looks like. Eichmann argued in court that he “was only following orders.” Never again. Humanity needs to learn from this lesson, forever.
Evil is frighteningly banal. People who do evil things have good sides. Hitler liked children. I’m sure many people who have done evil things have also done good things. They get hungry. They cry, have lost and loved. It’s much, much scarier to think of people who have done evil things like this. Rather than people who ‘are’ evil, who just enjoy it for fun like we see in films, if people who generally think they are good have found ways to rationalize evil, terrible actions, then any of us could be doing similar things. Rather than a clear binary between ‘good guys’ and ‘evil people,’ there’s a terrifyingly slippery slope that any of us could in theory fall down, no matter how much we might think ourselves ‘good.’ Few things are scarier.
Felix Guattari famously said ‘everybody wants to be a fascist.” I think there’s a deep truth here. We all have evil within us, and the potential that it could come out and turn into action is something lurking in all of us. To deny this is dangerous. Only being aware of this can help us prepare for situations that could bring this side to the surface. Extreme situations. And only knowing the types of situations, and the types of rationalizations and justifications that people in the past have used to convince themselves they were ‘really doing good’ when doing evil can help us prepare in case we ever find ourselves in such terrible situations. We have a duty to study evil, and how it justifies itself, so that we can prepare ourselves, form defenses against our own inner potential for evil.
Let’s return to some less extreme situations. I don’t think anyone of these police/army in these videos thought of themselves when younger as the type to do these sorts of things. Each likely has family they love, and who love them. They likely think of themselves as good people making tough decisions in tough situations. While they might look back and question this narrative, many likely will not, and those that do will have to question much of what they held dear until then.
For psychoanlaytic theorist Slavoj Zizek, it’s the Hollywood images of evil that allow us to distract ourselves from the possibility that evil could look like any of us. It’s terrifying to think of people who do evil things as not being the one-dimensional villains we see in Hollywood. It means that any of us could do evil things. And it makes it difficult to tell if things we have convinced ourselves are good are actually justifications for doing terrible things. If evil people don’t actually act like Hollywood villains, how can we tell we’re not actually evil? If people doing evil generally think they are the ‘good guys,’ what criterion could we use to tell we are not those people?
The Public for Which They Act
Look at the army/police in these videos. In situations like this, it’s usually training that takes over, ‘muscle memory’, people switch their brains off and rely on reflex. That’s why armies and police do so much of what Foucault calls ‘disciplinary’ training of the body to produce ‘muscle memory.’ Act first, think later, that’s the police/army mode of training. Reflex over reflection. This is why we need other reflexes, other training. Training of our mental and emotional muscles, perhaps, to recognize these sorts of situations, and help us keep our inner guard up, lest we ever become this.
Any of us could have been drafted into the army in a different point in time or in a different country in the world. A good friend of mine from Israel, an ultra-lefty, did his required 2.5 years in the Israeli army like everyone else of college age. Had we been born elsewhere, or during other time periods, any of us could’ve been drafted, put in situations not fully of our control. And armies train the body to react, before the mind has time to think. In crisis situations, adrenaline starts pumping, and the ‘reptile mind’ that nature evolved us with to ‘fight or flight’ takes over. Thought and emotions beyond fear are put on hold for the aftermath.
How would we react? How could we know that this wouldn’t be us? What makes people able to convince themselves that acts like we’re seeing here could ever, in any world, be the ‘right’ thing?
Then there are the photos from Abu-Graib. In those photos, American soldiers Lyndie England and Charles Graner famously gave a thumbs up as they smiled at the cameras. I won’t reproduce the truly terrible photos here. But for whom did they smile?
According to psychoanalysis, there’s an ‘implied gaze’ in any of these images, of the people or public for whom these soldiers thought such acts would gain approval. That’s who they’re smiling for.
If you look at lynching photographs from the American South, some of the most disturbing and graphic images ever created, very often you see whites with a mutilated, tortured body of a black person, usually a man. And they often smile at the camera. Many of these images were in fact made into postcards and sold as souvenirs. Again, I won’t reproduce these horrific images here. For those who want to know more about this very, very difficult subject, not something I mention lightly, and hesitate even to post a link to, here is a source. DO NOT go here unless you can handle this, and treat these images with the proper respect and care due them. And please do not follow this link just to look at the images, at least have the care to read the whole article, which puts them in context. Hazel Carby’s careful, disturbing, and important essay comparing the Abu Graib photos and lynching photographs is here – warning, these images are extremely graphic, again, do not go there unless you have the seriousness of mind to deal with these issues, and proper reverence for the victims of torture, mutilation, and murder.
Looking into the eyes of those who smile into the camera, we need to ask what public they smile for, what imagined other incarnates the gaze implied in these images. Certainly for the lynching photos it was a white racist public that considered these acts ‘good.’ For the Abu-Graib photos, it was an assumed group of other Americans, perhaps soldiers, or members of the American public, that felt ‘terrorists’ deserved to be tortured as some sort of payback for 9/11.
Many have argued that the policemen in the UC Davis video is himself a victim of sorts, a victim of a society and system that has trained him a certain way such that he could consider such actions worth doing. Clearly there is premeditation in this video. What influences could make a person think this way?
With the Abu-Graib photos, what sort of training made them capable of this? To what extent were they made to know these sorts of things would be tolerated by their superiors? Many accounts of these events have since confirmed that this was the case. And yet we are always told it is simply ‘a few bad apples.’
In all these situations, there are the non-violent, and the violent who feel their violence is justified. And there are certain ways that you can recognize the mindset which allows this sort of violence in the way people hold their bodies and speak. There is a rigidity to the posture, a self-certainty necessary to act in these sorts of situations in which questioning would stop the firing of the trigger, the firing of the pepper spray. The binary, circular reasoning of George W. Bush “you’re either for us or against us,” or “you need to take the fight to them before they bring it here,” of preemptive strike. The Giuliani or Cheney smile of the the unilateral imposition of force, and a making fun of others as ‘weak.’ The cynicism that humans are fundamentally like this, so might as well be ‘honest’ and be the strongest in a dog-eat-dog world. The lack of an attempt to do otherwise. The glee at finally being able to use the force that’s been stockpiled, the hope that ‘the enemy’ will provoke and give the excuse for ‘shock and awe,’ a chance to push the doves aside. The ‘this is what we trained for, boys!” mentality which signals the turning of the brain off, and the turning of the primal instincts on. Such a dissociation of the critical side of the brain then leads to the hazy feeling like ‘it was somebody else’ who did these things after these people are put on trial. The security forces in these situations then finally get to use the fancy high-tech toys they trained for using only in ‘extreme situations.’ Such training can only make you want an end to the tedium of everyday policework, the adrenaline rush of the high of the extreme situations when the fancy but violent ‘toys’ come out.
But it is questioning that can save us from becoming this. When Gandhi developed his methods of non-violent revolt, he famously had his fellows prepare mentally and emotionally for the beatings they expected to come from the British police. But he famously argued that after doing monstrous things, the British would see what they’d become. And the monstrous regime would fall. Which it did. Gandhi’s insight was that if the police saw that the system had made them into monsters, they would eventually turn on the system. All he had to do was ask the system to stop, and place non-violent bodies, seated, on the ground. The British turned themselves into monsters right there.
Everybody Wants to Be a Fascist
Any of us have the dark potential in us to become those monsters. We have a duty to study this monstrosity, to develop counter-reflexes, so this never becomes us in reality. And it is our duty, our ethical duty, to study not only the individuals, but the systems that makes these individuals possible. And to notice it’s less severe manifestations before they can grow bigger. It’s a slippery slope, and only vigilance can protect us, and we need to nip early signs in the bud before they grow cancerously larger and more dangerous.
What types of discourse, training, and systems make the UC Davis pepper spray incident possible? In addition to muscle memory, and training to let the fight/flight instinct come out, there is the imagined public that would approve of violence as justified. Whenever there are the non-violent, those with signs or even rocks against armed police, those non-violent masses with the signs are always right, no matter how wrong their demands might be. Those with rocks are always more right than those with guns. The non-violent, and those advocating non-violent methods, are always more right than those who advocate force.
Whenever we’re justifying violence, usually as a ‘lesser of two evils,’ we need to ask ourselves if we’re starting down the slippery slope. And this is never a simple issue. There will always be shades of grey. Real ethics is like this. Is it ethical to kill a mosquito that wants to feed off you while you sleep? What about eat a plant? Eat an animal? Spray protesters in the eyes for ‘breaking rules’?
It’s impossible to live at all an be totally non-violent. Just to eat is to destroy the energy of something else in the universe, even vegetarians kill plants. Completely good and completely evil are extremes that are dangerous fantasies. There are people and violence, and shades of grey. Ethics is the attempt to determine which violences are allowable for the greater good. I think eating plants is clearly acceptable, though it is still violence. The UC Davis event is clearly unjustified. Eating animals? Killing mosquitoes?
Each person must answer for themselves, and we have a non-stop string of small decisions, everyday, of this sort. There is no life possible without these questions. To continue on without protesting is tacit acceptance of the status-quo. We are always making ethical decisions, like it or not, by both our actions and non-actions.
There are no simple answers to ethical questions. They are always messy. But some approaches and deeds are clearly evil. We need to learn to recognize them, and the behaviors and systems that promote them.
Against Patriotism, Hardness, ‘Law and Order,’ and traditional Gendering
Like patriotism. When has patriotism ever not lead to violence? Patriotism in peacetime is simply preparation for time of war. Which is why team sports with local city ‘patriotisms’ so easily become preparation for nation versus nation combat. As many critics have argued, American football is perhaps the most frighteningly military of all the sports. While sporting events like the Olympics might sublimate violent aspects of patriotism to less violent ends, draining off dangerous tensions, they also foster the fantasy that these nations are distinct and need to compete. This furthers the fantasy that citizenship of something like nations is more than a fiction, and makes denying members of other nations full access to things easier. For example, the discourse of national boundaries is what makes it so easy for so many Americans to justify allowing immigrants to work in this country illegally yet not get full rights and benefits like healthcare, even as most Americans benefit from the low cost of this labor that keeps various products and services cheap.
Patriotism and nationhood are perhaps the clearest example of discourses that seem harmless, even beneficial, yet help incline the slippery slope to real violence, and make it easier to slide down that path. I think the language our societies use to train police and army members, as well as a supportive public, do this as well. We are told to ‘support our troops,’ which means to cheer them on in a patriotic way, convincing them they are doing good, when the only way to support them truly would be to get them out of these terrible wars. Only when we start to see war as disgusting failure of diplomacy rather than glorious can we begin to imagine a coordinated, global disarmament of armies like we have started, yet only begun, with nuclear weapons. Obviously no single nation can disband it’s army when surrounded by others (Costa Rica did this, but it has the US for its protection). But armies could be slowly phased out across the planet if done in a coordinated way.
And with these discourses comes the way of holding the body that we’ve already mentioned. The stiff back. The defensive body language. Boundary protection. Wilhelm Reich famously analyzed the posture of the Fascist troopers in his Mass Psychology of Fascism, and his description of this was that the ‘body armor’ of posture of the Fascist military displays was similar to the mental states he encountered in his paranoid psychotics patients. Protect boundaries at all costs. Softness will lead to vulnerability, fight softness, weakness, ‘female’ worldviews at all costs.
And here is where we see how this gets gendered. Men are trained to be hard, firm, distant, cold, and to value machine-like precision. The language of so many politicians is laden with the desire for the hard, firm, swift, decisive, toughness, language infused with hyperbolic, paranoid forms of masculinity, as opposed to what is seen as ‘feminine’ values, like self-questioning, empathy, softness, nurturing, forgiveness, etc.We even see this in the way politicians always push math and science education over reading and writing, arguing that we need science and technology studies so we ‘don’t fall behind’ other nations, particularly in terms of defense. But might it be alright to ‘fall behind’ if one didn’t create a dog eat dog world, and could imagine cooperation?
Like patriotism, hyperbolic masculinity is a training from near birth to prepare people for violence against others. Which isn’t to say that we should all dress in high heels and skirts to avoid war. Hyperbolic femininity is simply this form of masculinity in reverse, an attempt to attract this form of violent worldview and support its fantasies. We need new forms of gendering in which men can wear skirts, women pants, but none have to demonstrate hardness, or advertise the lack thereof to get the hard folks to find them attractive. And gay forms of femininity and masculinity are so often based on imitations of these models. All of these need to be queered if we’re to find an ethical way forward.
Beyond the discourses of patriotism, security, and gender, another form of discourse that fosters violence is the language that turns people into numbers and figures. The ‘death by spreadsheet’ that doesn’t speak of lives lost, but only of quarterly returns. Accountants trained to ‘increase profits’ by ‘decreasing overhead’ are trained not to see people, only figures. And as a result, ‘nobody’ seems to be at fault when people are increasingly denied healthcare.
And who makes all our cheap products, and how can we advocate for their better treatment? Is it unethical to buy from large chains, when all our products today are made in substandard labor conditions overseas, and those that are ‘made in USA’ exclude those overseas from work to live? How can we buy ethically, and help make sure that labor practices overseas are ethical? A first step is to at least care, to see each product as linked to real people who made them overseas, and each person can start to think from there. I don’t have a solution, and I buy clothes at big chains, because I don’t see the alternatives as being necessarily more than a panacea. We need a real movement for international labor justice, and it needs to start here, where we have the purchasing power to enforce international labor standards, not push them down like we currently do.
Returning to the army and police, the discourse of ‘law and order’ and ‘security’ so often creates the very conditions of paranoia and violence that make it necessary, and the result is a spiral. Stockpiling weapons makes others do the same. When bin Laden attacked the US, the proper response would’ve been to understand what the US had long done to make the Arab world hate it, and then do the OPPOSITE of what was expected. Build schools and hospitals. Instead of sending armies that breed terrorists faster than anything else we could’ve done, each school and hospital we build converts one committed terrorist away from violence. Violence breeds violence, generosity breeds cooperation.
And when you question yourself, it breeds the same in others. We all know from fights on a personal level. When adrenaline is high, people get ugly and violent. When one party says ‘maybe this partly my fault,’ the other usually begins to do the same. Adrenaline starts to decrease, and violence is defused. Be ready to be slapped in the face a few times first. But as Gandhi showed, the British only had the stomachs to beat the Indian population into a pulp for so long before they began to question themselves. No regime can fight non-violent masses for too long. And every violent regime is supported by tacit assent of masses working in their names, the ‘public’ for which the violent smile into the camera. We need to be forever vigilant lest we ever be that public.
Diversity verging on chaos is something lacking our society, lined with Starbucks and Duane Reades, corporate chains, sterile office parks. We are nowhere near in danger of having too much disorder. While there will always be those who seek to profit off lax security, our society would decrease the need for theft if it was more equal, with healthcare and living wages and a social safety net and access to social mobility and education for all. There’d simply be less motive to steal! Rather than build gated communities and hire security guards. Want to be safe? Build schools and hire more teachers for the poor neighborhoods around your mansion, rather than buy armed security guards, and crime will start to go down because there’ll be less need for it.
The Risk of Hypocrisy in All Ethical Discourse
I can’t say I’m safe from ever doing evil things either. All of us have done things we’re not proud of, though thankfully I’ve done nothing even close to what we see in these videos. But all of us have done bad things, particularly in our tacit lack of action against evils done in our names. And it feels hypocritical to even write about the need to be vigilant against our own darksides when none of us are free from having done bad things. But speaking out like this is part of what keeps us honest later. We remember what we said, and then we feel we have to live up to our own words.
To continually question one’s own past, one’s own present, and the potentials in one’s future, is I think the only ethical path. To continually question how you might have wronged others, and what you can do to fix this. Listening to others, to see if they have gripes you may not have thought of. As one therapy teacher put it in a class when I was training to be a therapist (I’m paraphrasing, and likely combining a few speeches, if not a few teachers):
“You might think to yourself, how will I know I won’t make a mistake and say something wrong to a patient? You will, it’s impossible not to. You can never know everything about a patient, and so you’ll always get something wrong, say something you couldn’t have known would be hurtful or damaging. But it’s not whether you fuck up. It’s how you handle it that makes all the difference. Instead of getting defensive, explain you didn’t realize, how can you make things right? Teach me what I did wrong, so I don’t do it again? That makes all the difference.”
I think this has deep ethical implications. In Jean-Francois Lyotard’s crucial book on ethics The Differend, he argues that very often our language makes it difficult for us to even have the terms to give voice to the words of others, and others may feel our language makes it impossible to voice how they feel they have been wronged (a situation Lyotard calls a ‘differend’). We may need to learn the very language of another, their way of speaking even if in English, to understand how we messed up. After all, advocates for border fences speak the language of ‘illegal’ and ‘citizenship,’ while advocates for immigrant laborers speak of things like ‘suffering’ and ‘all deserving medical care.’ These are different sub-languages. And we may need to learn whole new ways to speak, listen, and think.
But to do this, we need to continually listen to others for ways we may have wronged them, or how our attitudes and languages, often those we were trained with as younger, could predispose us to commit or support or not see various types of violences. We’ve all learned that ‘she was asking for it by dressing that way’ are ways of speaking and thinking that promote a worldview which makes rape against women much more likely, and to replace this with ‘no means no.’
What other changes like this might we not even yet be aware need to be done to make the world a less terrible place? Only by continually questioning ourselves, and listening to the complaints of others, even ones about our very categories of looking at the world, can we begin to fight the slippery slope of violence. And we need to speak about this, despite the risk of hypocrisy, to help keep ourselves honest, to have something to have to live up to.