Friday, January 5, 2018
Thursday, December 28, 2017
The month of April, 2015 was an eventful one. Among the notable events for that month was the launching of the critically acclaimed Daredevil series on Netflix near the beginning of the month. Like so many other things in popular media recently, this series was based on a comic book series. However, this show surprised both viewers and critics in how intense the drama was, how deep the character’s struggles and personal development were, and how gritty and realistic the crime and violence were portrayed.
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
The end of April saw a real-life drama in Baltimore, Maryland, which reached world headlines. Baltimore resident Freddy Gray was apprehended by police and died of spinal injuries while in police custody. These suspicious circumstances, combined with a heightened profile of news stories featuring police violence in recent months, spurred Baltimore residents to stage a series of protests within the city itself. As tensions mounted during the protests, these erupted into riots featuring looting, fires, destruction of property, violence and threats towards civilians, businesses, and police. All of this lasted for about a week before it began to deescalate.
The situation in Baltimore was not an isolated incident. An almost identical riot occurred in late 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting of resident Michael Brown by a police officer. The clear implication of these incidents being that communities are more and more frequently seeing themselves as being the victims of police authority rather than the beneficiaries of their protection.
While communities, politicians, and the media have been quick to place the blame for these incidents on racial divides, there is an even more fundamental psychological principle at play which is being overlooked by both police and community, and that is this: the moment one person is given authority to enforce any kind of rule or law over another person, there is a deep and pervasive split that occurs between the person with the badge and the person without.
This phenomena was most famously documented in the notorious “Stanford Prison Experiment” of 1971, wherein a number of students at Stanford University - all white - were randomly selected to role-play as prisoners and guards in a makeshift prison. The experiment – initially slated to run for two weeks – had to be terminated after only a week when the students acting as guards began to adopt abusive authoritarian roles, and the play-acting became real to them.
Put simply, as soon as the badge goes on, the officer of the law and the civilian adopt an “us versus them” mentality. This is re-enforced for the officer when the majority of people with whom they interact are people who are lying to them, hiding things from them, or have some kind of criminal intent or history. They begin to see people as being untrustworthy, and ultimately, to dehumanize them.
Meanwhile, those under police authority - suffering the consequence of this dehumanizing – begin to see the police as untrustworthy, abusive, and bad. So that when a police officer approaches a civilian, both the officer and the civilian have already judged the other to be untrustworthy and inhuman before the encounter has even begun.
This tension is self-perpetuating. As officers become more abusive and violently reactive, those under police authority become more hostile, rebellious, and violent toward the police. And as the violence and lack of cooperation with authority increases, so does the abuse the authority imposes. When the tension bursts, it results in riots like those seen in Ferguson and Baltimore.
So what is the solution?
Return for a moment to the subject of Daredevil.
In many respects, Daredevil’s “origin story” is typical of superheroes. A mishap gives Matt Murdock superhuman abilities, and then the childhood loss of a loved one inspires him to use these abilities to fight crime.
What makes Daredevil unusual is the conundrum of morality that his origin story poses. Matt’s father is a small-time boxer whose natural talents in the ring are somewhat stymied because he is under the thumb of some shady gambling rings.
With his super-hearing, Matt is now able to hear his Father, Jack Murdock, being told to throw fights for the gamblers. This puts Jack in a moral dilemma. He could continue to act dishonestly, shame his son, and continue down a criminal road – or he could do the right thing, win the fight, and make his son proud – which would inevitably cause the criminals to kill him and leave his son an orphan.
Although only a comic book plotline, this dilemma is essentially the same as the “Heinz Dilemma” proposed by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. This dilemma tells the story of a man with a sick wife who needs a certain type of medicine in order to get better. Her husband, Heinz, cannot afford the medicine, borrow enough money to buy it, or convince the druggist to sell him the medicine at a lower cost; so he breaks in and steals the medicine. It then asks the subject to judge whether what Heinz did was right or wrong.
Jack chose to embrace the higher moral values at the expense of his life. Heinz took the moral low-road and saved his wife’s life. And so the difficulty: do questions of moral absolutes only matter when the stakes are low, or do they still matter when lives are involved?
The problems faced by both those in police authority and those under it are heavy, and the solution is evidently not the use of excessive force or violence on either side. And yet this is the most immediate temptation, and the one most encouraged by peer and mob pressure on both sides. The tide may never turn, but if it is to turn, it will only do so by a few individuals who stand up and treat the other side with respect, as dignified human beings, no matter how they actually feel about them. Throughout history, it has never been the violent men and women who have affected social reform or change, but rather those who were willing and able to stand up and speak with respect for themselves and with respect for those who hated them.
Having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil. -1 Peter 3:16-17 English Standard Version (ESV)