Every democratic society takes pride in having open discussion and debate, even when their governments prefer to keep certain subjects off the table if not out of sight. Freedom of thought and expression stands as a fundamental precondition to keep people involved in the business of government. In most modern democracies, the only effective power most people have is to vote. But the freedom to vent one’s opinions in both private and public places creates and helps to maintain the complex social bonds that define society itself.
To some extent, the distinction between venting opinions and conducting constructive debate has been lost in the media-dominated society we live in. When cultures decline and fragment into multiple opposing camps, people no longer recognize the important truth that contradictory discussion and debate are qualitatively different than the right to vent an opinion.
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In any form of democratic dialogue, the topics of debate should remain open-ended, even after its conclusion is seen as favorable to one side or another. The aim of debate should not be to discredit one side and validate the other. It should be twofold: first, to attribute sufficient weight and credence to a proposition for it to be widely accepted, and second, to build awareness and appreciation of its limits and weaknesses. The first can be called the reward for the winning side, but the second can be thought of as the merited recompense of the losing side.
On the issue of how to respond to rampant police violence that has become a major issue in the US, Amanda Taub, in an article for The New York Times, highlights one of the difficulties at the heart of the debate in what she calls a “divided society.” Citing witnesses, she observes that the current culture of policing “offers double protections to the dominant class or group: Police violence preserves their position in the social hierarchy, and by encouraging it through implied permission rather than through explicit top-down orders, those in power maintain plausible deniability about their role in the brutality.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Carefully left unstated in all official communication as a means of broadening the range of behaviors allowed to infringe the law without being held to account by the law
The current crisis in the US that has emerged in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody revolves not just around police violence, but more broadly around interracial relations. In theory, these issues can be regulated explicitly by the law. But focusing on the law would be a mistake since the real issue concerns cultural norms that no law can regulate. Americans have never been comfortable with the gray area where the explicit meets the implicit. Americans prefer to “see it in writing.” US culture has cultivated the belief that, when push comes to shove, the explicit trumps the implicit.
In all governments, whether despotic or democratic, the law is explicit and deemed to be absolute. Lawyers make a living disputing how to interpret it, but they cannot change it. In every culture, however, there are a myriad of implicit ways of identifying permissible behaviors that contradict both the letter and the spirit of the law. This plays out differently according to two important variables: the type of government and the characteristics of its social culture.
In a democracy, laws are drafted and ratified after a complex procedure that usually consists of electing representatives authorized to engage in open debate to draft the laws. Once drafted, they must be confirmed before being enforced. For all their solemn formality, laws remain subject to review through the judicial system.
This fundamental truth about the law produces two consequences. The first is that laws possess the positive, enforceable power to regulate some of the behavior of both people and institutions. The second is that the existence of a law does not definitively close the discussion of its aptness within the culture. Even more radically, it cannot settle the ethical question of what is right or wrong. Laws sometimes betray the very reasons for which they were designed, either because they were not thoroughly thought out or there is another undrafted “law” that calls them into question: the law of unintended consequences.
All human cultures manage the interactions and transactions among their members by evolving frameworks of interpretation that do not rely on the law. Most cultures recognize a stable core of behaviors governing the perception of politeness, respect and mutual recognition that, nevertheless, may evolve over time. This can include variations induced by historical trends (fashions, fads). These play out in the form of conscious and unconscious emulation between individuals and groups. Cultures also act like playwrights, writing the scripted roles that people play as if they were actors on the stage, though always with some more or less limited scope for improvisation.
Tom Tyler, a Yale Law School professor cited in The NY Times article, describes the culture of today’s police: “Internally and externally, they have cultivated an image of themselves as warriors prepared to use force against a dangerous population, rather than guardians of their communities.” The article cites Ed Mullins, the head of New York’s police union who wrote in a letter: “We will win this war on New York City. It’s good against evil and good always wins.”
It’s the culture, not the law that has scripted this role play. The official, explicit role of the police is to “serve and protect” the community and to maintain the peace. But thanks to a perceived policy of “implied permission,” the role of urban police has evolved into that of a quasi-religious army battling the largely imaginary forces of evil.
No culture ever breaks free from the historical attitudes that reigned in its most ancient past. The Puritans who founded the first colony in New England believed they represented “the good” engaged in a battle against the forces of evil. Their war even had the luxury of possessing an eastern and western front.
The English monarchy, which they deem too High Church to meet their puritanical principles, represented the eastern front. In the west, the enemy was the savages who inhabited the land they were seeking to turn into the New Jerusalem. King James I’s government in England was too despotic and collectivist for their taste. And, of course, the savages were constitutionally incapable of assimilating their culture dictated to them by the Divinity.
Fast forward 400 years and the modern version of New England’s Puritan culture has cast “liberals” (i.e., socialists, communists and protesters) into the role of the proponents of a government wishing to repress their freedoms and the emancipated slaves from the American South, now spread throughout the nation’s cities, as the savages incapable of adapting to the culture of the “shining city on a hill.” For the defenders of good against evil, the protesters and the blacks represent the enemy army.
As Amanda Taub points out in The Times article, this ideological reading of the nature of US society meets the requirements of the dominant class, who have encouraged the development of a culture of police violence to comfort “their position in the social hierarchy” as well as “maintain plausible deniability about their role in the brutality.” The police have been programmed, not by the law, but by the culture, to protect the shining city on the hill from the savages below and the unruly protesters who have joined forces with them.
Part of the dominant class appears ready to envision a solution in the guise of “reform” through new laws and procedures. That is their way of denying that it’s the culture rather than the laws and procedures that need changing. Others, willing to challenge the dominant class, propose the alternative of “defunding the police,” which isn’t about money at all but about restructuring the culture.
If Americans could be honest about the issues, or if they could simply recognize that culture is more powerful than their belief in the almighty law, they might find the solution by reframing the slogan as “deculture the police” rather than defund it.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.