Friday, October 30, 2015

Obey, or else

There has been quite the kerfuffle this week surrounding a police officer in South Carolina who attacked a female black student, tossed her halfway across her classroom onto a concrete floor, and was subsequently fired for his actions.  Multiple students filmed the incident on their phones and I am glad they did - it seems likely to me that nothing of consequence would have happened to the cop had the damning videos not been immediately circulated far and wide.

Most of my network is appalled at the video footage and cannot fathom how this could be justified.  If the teen in question had a gun, a knife, or otherwise been very dangerous I could see the officer's level of violence being warranted, but the officer could not have thought he was in any danger.  The man had combat training, could reportedly benchpress 600 pounds (?!?), and was standing over a teenage girl who couldn't have threatened him even if he literally had one arm tied behind his back.  So why did he attack her?

It is an old and familiar answer - she was resisting authority.  That is, she had pulled out her phone for a minute and been told to leave class, which she refused to do.  Refusing to obey direct orders while being black is something this particular white officer could not condone, so in a fit of rage he attacked.   Unsurprisingly he was accused of having a history of prejudice towards black students and a track record of over the top violence - not an ideal candidate to work at a high school, one would think.

But there are those who defend him.  The line of defence they use boils down to a simple idea - she did not obey.  (There is some hand waving about her fighting back, but when someone with literally five times your strength is lifting you into the air your hands ineffectually hitting at them is not assault.)  This lack of obedience, of blind deference to authority, warrants severe and immediate punishment by this line of thinking.  When a cop tells you to do something, you do it, no matter how wrong it may be, and if you do not then expect to be attacked for your temerity.

It speaks to a worldview that I can't get behind.  Essentially it boils down to the idea that doing as you are told by the powers that be is a inherently moral act, and not doing what you are told is immoral.  The natural extension of this is that if you disobey you are bad, and thus deserving of any suffering that comes your way.

This makes me think of the five pillars of moral behaviour model - Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Respect, Sanctity.  Conservatives tend to believe in all five pillars, whereas liberals tend to only believe in Care and Fairness.  It is one of the explanations of why right and left have such a hard time talking to one another... it is difficult to discuss what we ought to do when we can't even agree on what sorts of things we might use to decide if a given thing is moral in the first place.

Attacking the student was not caring.  It was not fair.  It was an angry, emotional response to a lack of respect for his position of authority over her.  That isn't justified, it isn't moral, and we ought to make it clear that blind obedience isn't a moral necessity.

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