Thoughts on UC Davis

This is a perfect subject for my imaginary future documentary series “it’s not that simple”.   This is one of those complicated issues that gets boiled down to an overly simplistic they’re bad/we’re good dichotomy.  One of my favorite authors, Dan Gardner, asked a simple question on twitter, “Many aren’t answering the question: What should the cops in the video have done? Nothing? If so, can anyone veto cops by sitting down?”

I work hard to be a skeptic.  I try as much as possible to not let ideology be the only thing that shapes my point of view.  It’s not always easy, but I try.  I don’t always succeed, but I try. 

With this case it’s a little easier.  I may be a lefty liberal, but I have a cousin in the police force and the police have always treated me well.  And I think the police, just like I think the government, is made up of people who are trying to do their best.  A lot of these far left people have the same hatred/distrust of the police as the far right has for government.  They’re the Gestapo or Nazis.  They’re all evil jackbooted-thugs. 

On the other side.

The protesters are all dirty hippies with no respect for the law.  A bunch of lazy, spoiled, entitled rich kids who should just shut up and get a job.  The police had every right to do that and more, because these people are breaking the law.

Once again, it’s can’t possibly be that simple.  What’s funny is that we’ve had the Milgram experiments show that people will follow orders from people who are authority figures, with very little prompting.  The Stanford prison experiment showed that even if you randomly assign people to guard and prisoner, the guards will start to dehumanize the prisoners and abuse authority.  We know that in group/out group mentality causes people to view “others’” in a negative light, even when you randomly assign people to a group.  Yet, while psychologists, and some psych students, know this the general public doesn’t seem to know this, and nothing has ever been implemented to mitigate these effects in the real world. 

Were the cops in the wrong at UC Davis?  This blogger makes a compelling case and the level of detail convinces me.  But the idea that the cops are just naturally horrible people just isn’t fair.  The above mentioned experiments show that regular people would do the same thing in the same situation.  (As have subsequent experiments and even Abu Ghirab & Guantanamo)

But the question remains, what are cops supposed to do?  Can anyone just refuse to cooperate with the police by sitting down and win?  If they are unable to convince you to move via their words, what then?  Physically moving someone is always brutal and can cause broken bones or fractures.  Tasers could cause heart attacks.  Rubber bullets leave welts and can cause more serious harm.  Pepper spray seemed the least harmful, but even it can cause chemical burns.  I’m sure even if we had phasers we could set to “stun” like Star Trek there would still be people claiming it’s abusive.

I don’t go to UC Davis, I don’t know how disruptive the protests were.  I don’t know what the police were told to do.  I just know that demonizing any group only keeps real solutions from being enacted.  My favorite experiment about in group/out group bias is this one that showed how to eliminate the bias.  I don’t think that experiment’s solution can be applied to this situation, but it does show that you can get groups that were enemies to become friends or at the very least cooperate.  And, we’re going to need a little more coming together if we intend to do more than just protest the world’s problems.


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