Emory Richardson

Notes on Culture and Context

Language and the Victory over Consciousness

A friend sent me a Russian viral meme the other day; one of the deep, inspiring types, your “wisdom in 250 words or less” stories. My general attitude towards such things is that although they sublimely reflect the passive attitudes of some large group of people, they’re hardly likely to be more than a moralistic afterbirth of philosophy in the scheme of things. In this case, it may well be a real story; and the message actually provoked me to consider the phrase.

I was explaining to my elder son that you can’t say “I’ll victory” in Russian. I mean, there’s just no singular first person in the future tense for the word “I was victorious” – maybe “I’ll be victorious”, but by no means “I’ll victory”.

“How do you say it, then?”, he asked me.

“Rephrase it. For example, ‘I shall achieve victory”

My younger butted in:

“Yeah, with a helping verb of achievement”

You couldn’t say whether he had actually gaffed, or made a joke. At six, he’s already an artist.

“But you can say it in the future in the plural…” mused my elder son.

“Yes – we’ll be victorious”

And suddenly I thought, how beautiful and proper. In the Russian language there can be a personal victory, but only as an accomplished fact. But to predict it, to promise to win – that’s impossible, unless you do it in the plural: together! WE will be victorious.

This is language. It determines our consciousness. It determines us as a people. If something is absent in a language that’s present in other languages, it’s no mistake. The same if it has something unique.

Объяснял старшему сыну, что в русском языке нельзя сказать «победю». Ну нет первого лица единственного числа будущего времени у слова «победил». Может быть «побеждаю», но никак не «победю».

— А как тогда? — спросил старший.

— При помощи вспомогательного глагола. Например «я одержу победу».

Немедленно встрял младший:

— Да-да! При помощи вспомогательного глагола одержимости!

И не поймёшь — всерьёз ляпнул или пошутил. В свои шесть младший уже артист.

— А вот у множественного числа есть будущее время… — размышляет сын.

— Да. Победим, — соглашаюсь я.

И вдруг думаю, насколько же это красиво и правильно. В русском языке может быть личная победа — но только как свершившийся факт. А вот загадывать на неё, обещаться победить — нельзя. Можно — только если ВМЕСТЕ. МЫ – победим.

Это язык. Он определяет сознание. Он определяет народ. Если в языке нет чего-то, что есть у других народов — это неспроста. И если есть что-то уникальное — тоже.

My friend thought this was beautiful and very appropriate and proper. In a way, the thought is beautiful – whatever we do, we can only succeed together. However, we had a brief argument that centered around etymology. According to a Russian literacy column in an Ekaterinburg newspaper  (not the most reliable source, but enough in the context of the social network chat this originated in), a hundred years ago, there were actually two correct forms of the verb, but they disappeared over the course of the century. I suspected that the disappearance of the first person singular could have been the result of years of collectivist propaganda; my friend’s reaction was that the thought is beautiful and proper all the same. Beauty is fine, but I had doubts: after all, it’s apparently still unclear enough to some Russians as to warrant an explanation in a literacy column in a newspaper that the two first person singular forms fell out of use in orthodox language a hundred years past. I would float a guess that in the less literate villages, they still use it occasionally, so in a sense, the beauty of the thought that Russians are all together is similar to the beauty of the thought that America is the land of the free: it’s nice, but it ignores a lot of less-than-beautiful facts. In America’s case, slavery and racism; in Russia’s, the continued presence of a form that may have fallen out of general use for any number of reasons wholly unconnected to the special “togetherness” of the people as a nation. However, what’s more interesting is what made me recall the argument a few weeks later.

A college student in an English camp asked with some trepidation “Is it true that Americans think they won the Second World War?” This is a relatively common question in Russia any time a conversation touches on something remotely related to the military. The first time I encountered it, I was confused: “What, you think the Nazis won?!?!!” The Russian then invariably continues on to clarify that it was not America, but the Soviets that won the Second World War. This has happened to me a number of times, but it wasn’t until the conversation about the verb to be victorious/to win (победить) that it occurred to me that this could also simply be an issue of translation, either linguistic or cultural. It has also, as chance would have it, begun popping up in the modern world recently; one Russian friend of mine was outraged that the Ukraine has begun saying that it wasn’t Russians that won the war. The issue is this: when Russians ask “Кто победил во второй мировой войне?” they don’t actually mean “Who won the second world war?” which is one way to directly translate the phrase. And it’s not that the translation is incorrect; it’s perfectly appropriate and used by newspapers, in books, and by the Russians themselves when speaking English. However, judging by the largely uniform subsequent conversations, what they tend to mean is “Which country is most responsible for the victory over fascism in World War Two?” I can imagine the Russians who have talked to me about this asking their friends while they were studying in the States: “Who won the Second World War?”, hearing the answer “We did!”, and then, as the Russians say, пошло поехало, it going downhill from there. Patriotic feelings get involved, history buffs get out their pens and diagrams, and the boys start measuring their armies and comparing the size of their losses. (Honestly, it’s worth noting that the Eastern Front campaigns were far more intense and protracted, which led to Soviet losses exceeding all other parties combined. There are of course numerous reasons for this, and not being a historian, I’m not going to try to go into them here.)

However, this conversation could take a much different course. When a Russian asks кто победил, he means “Who is most responsible for the victory over Nazi Germany”, but an American hears, “Who won the war, the Allies or the Axis?”, and answers “We [the Allies] did”, which a Russian hears as “We, America, were responsible for the victory!” This misunderstanding is lost in the patriotic squabbles that follow when the outraged Russian begins to explain to the American who has dismissed the Soviet war effort that his country sat out the war and the Soviets saved the world, and the broadsided American responds that America did no such thing, have you ever heard of Normandy, and what about the USSR starting the war on Hitler’s side, thank you very much? If not for this misunderstanding, an American would likely be able to calmly admit that the Soviet war-effort was extremely important, and the Russian would compliment the landing at Normandy and lend-lease equipment, and both sides would conveniently forget the Stalin-Hitler alliance.

What’s most interesting about this for me is one word could become so saturated with unspoken meaning as to change the valence of a conversation; a conversation that could have been positive becomes negative, not because of poor translation, but because group socialization differences in the different countries and languages. In Russia and the former Soviet Republics, World War II is still a major event; every May, every city and town is filled with soviet-realism posters proclaiming “Thanks for the victory grandpa!” (“Спасибо деду за победу”), bumper-stickers proclaiming “to Berlin!” (“На берлин”), poster-board mortars sticking out of sunroofs, and on the Victory Day itself, serious military hardware rumbling down the streets. No mention is made of an Allied victory, which is understandable insofar as the celebrations have their roots in Cold War Communism. The words победа and победить are steeped in this Russia-centric patriotism to the point that the lack of first-person singular future form of the verb would become important enough to compose a patriotic parable on, without anyone noticing that the words themselves have become very much in-group jargon. Moreover, to the extent the language is a pro-social tool and jargon is anti-social, the words have even become anti-social. How many other such terms are floating around our languages?

What terms and words immediately provoke group-oriented behavior? Slurs are an obvious example: using the word fag as opposed to gay, or nigger as opposed to black or African-American will immediately identify the speaker’s group. But what about more subtle examples? How are children’s attitudes towards math shaped differently by lessons with large amounts of math jargon versus lessons in conversational language? What about perceptions of a job applicant who says “I been” or “y’all” as opposed to one speaking a more standard dialect of white English? How many are we simply unaware of due to the masking of constant unconscious usage?

Masculinity in Russia

“So where are the prostitutes better, Russia or America?” he asked as we played pool. I was dumbstruck by the question, and coughed out that I’d never been to a prostitute in either place. The guy was a perfectly well educated, well-off 20 something, and the contrast has made the moment stick with me. Not only was visiting a prostitute considered normal enough behavior to ask for ratings, but to do it in front of women. Until that moment, I had never really thought much about gender roles in Russia. It’s become clear though that, Russian culture expects a different kind of “manly” behavior.

Beyond being personally competent in the quality of prostitutes, the idea of being a man in Russia is much more connected to sexual prowess – and prowess which extends beyond one woman, really no matter what your feelings about the matter are. I’ve been told that men will even tell their friends that they got laid and then came home to bang their wife or girlfriend without actually having done it, simply to keep up the image. It’s omnipresent in Russian film, and although it’s by no means absent in Hollywood, Russians treat it with a wink and nudge, as though it couldn’t be otherwise. From discussions of “secret places” in a man’s telephone and memes making light of various female responses to cheating to the turning point of the film Leviathan in which the protagonist’s best friend sleeps with his wife, it’s almost everywhere. Case in point:

 Be a man

“Be a man”

As there is in the US, there’s a strong tough-guy culture, of the sort that in the US drive spotless F150s to work. In Russia, of course, there are no F150, but what’s notable is that while in the US, there’s also a very large segment of men who would roll their eyes at the truck and the Budweiser in the front seat, I’ve not encountered such a group in Russia. Quite the contrary, the sort of simple man philosophy is viral in Russia. These two videos, one essentially about American views on masculinity and one about Russian views, came up in my social networks about the same time. They’re a study in contrast.

The American, biceps showing, street, and a bit vulgar, is talking about the absurd tough-guy images of masculinity we’re fed and encouraged to model ourselves on, as well as some of the deplorable consequences of those images. The Russian, didactic and buttoned up, is talking about an equally absurd male-model image of masculinity Russians took to in the the 2000s, but criticizing it from the traditional gender role position – and with a barb at the end for non-traditional gender roles. In essence, he’s supporting an aspect of the absurd tough-guy image of masculinity that the American is criticizing. However, it’s also interesting to note whereas the American complains that our image of masculinity doesn’t allow men to write poetry, the Russian offers to read some of his verses to excited Russian teens on national prime time TV. Whereas the American complains about the image of masculinity that treats women as sexual objects, the Russian attacks the macho men for trying to be playboys when they should have been soldiers. Moreover, both of them are playing up to their audiences: the American swears, talks with a street whine and bass, and is dressed to show his physique; the Russian is addressing Russian hoods – “po zhizni”, or “in real life” is a phrase with strong connotations of tough guy culture, and his homophobic slur is likewise (at least to a certain degree) aimed at reenforcing his own manliness.

The odd thing is, whereas in the US, much of the change in male roles was seemingly spurred by feminism (as far as I understand, at least), in Russia feminism is not popular. “I’m both a horse and bull, a woman and a man”, goes the saying. Women openly disdain feminism and men are expected to fulfill traditional roles. If we look at gender roles as a game both sexes have to play, where do they, and the changes they undergo, really come from?

Cursing, in Russia and Elsewhere

My seminar with the local English teachers today was centered around the theme of love, and we ended with several love songs of the more literary type. One of them, Ani DiFranco’s song Untouchable Face, has the great chorus “fuck you / and your untouchable face / fuck you / for existing in the first place”. A teacher objected: “isn’t this baaad English?!” It’s an interesting question of culture; on the one hand, yes, we generally think of fuck as a bad word. It made it on to Carlin’s list of 7 dirty words. Our society’s attitudes towards cursing have certainly changed in the last 50 years, but fuck is still a dirty word. On the other hand, we say it and hear it regularly in songs; sure, the radio censors it, but singers sing it. Films and books are another question though: would you have Scarface stop swearing, or would you call it an essential part of his character? Would you say that the verse below is ruined by the presence of an obscene word? Or is it an accurate expression of a particular feeling, a case of “using the right word and not its second cousin”, as Mark Twain said?

This Be the Verse, by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

So what makes a word bad? The Russian language is a textbook example. Russian obscenity, russkiy mat, I’ve been told, holds a special place in their language, unlike cursing in English. “It simply has different connotations” is what I’ve been told; it is a language all its own, the language of thieves-in-law (a type of mafia), thugs, murderers and lowlifes. Although I’ve done no textual analysis, on the basis of 3 years in Russia I beg to differ. I hear it on the streets, in the gym, in schools, among children, and in films, and in the first three, to a far greater degree than I could ever imagine in English. It is scarcely possible to imagine how often Russians curse – the word “blya” (whore/shit) can appear almost every third word, simply walking down the street. What’s different is not Russian society’s use of obscenity, but their attitude towards it. The educated class in Russia, although they curse as regularly as they do in any other country, is simply more fastidious about it. When I first arrived, I was telling a Russian friend about a song I was learning in Russian, in which the chorus is “to hell with war”, and was surprised to see her grimace and respond “I really can’t stand swearing”; since then, I’ve heard her say “Fuck!” as many times as I would expect from any normal person.

However, there’s something to the characterization of obscenity as a mark of the lower class: in essence, vulgarity is defined by its use in the vulgar classes. We associate obscenity with the uneducated (and therefore, poor, bad, dangerous, immoral, and so on – not one step removed from the Greeks, but with a sanctimonious veneer of pluralism), and despise it because we despise those classes; however, it is also despicable because it represents an inarticulate expression of the speaker’s thoughts or feelings. When the expression qualifies as art, however (which is something that, in this sense, is almost exclusively a product of the upper classes), we excuse it: it adds authenticity. Whereas Ani DiFranco’s chorus of “fuck you”, in juxtaposition with an elegant metaphor “the neon sign on the horizon, rubbing elbows with the moon” is a artistic device that gives “rawness” and “authenticity of emotion”, “Fuck the police” is just an obscenity, even in a song that has achieved cultural landmark status and raises legitimate complaints against American policing. The difference is in the connotations implied by each case; is it authentic, or is it vulgar? Artistic or vulgar? Aristocratic or vulgar?

Russian cultural attitudes towards cursing exemplify the problem: cursing does denote vulgarity in many situations, but we ignore it in many others. In doing so, however, we haven’t quite confronted the fact that our condemnation or exoneration is a class act, denoting our upbringing and education. The Russian attempt to ban obscenity in art was met with scorn in the West and resentment among artists, but one must admit that it does represent a legitimate response to the dichotomy, even if it is ham-fisted and sanctimonious. Russians are still arguing, in a sense more openly (if that’s not too ironic), about whether or not it’s appropriate to admit that vulgarity is a fact of life. Is the lack of education denoted by the common usage of obscenities something to be scorned, or is it a legitimate expression of emotion correspondent to an equally legitimate socialization?

Are obscenities something to be avoided in art? When does swearing really feel uncultured for you? Are your attitudes the same as your parents or friends? Do you have any friends whose attitudes differ?

Truthiness

Facebook is going to implement a feature that allows users to flag content as false. Aside from the obvious issue of the enormous headache that US fans of the partisan media theory, adherents of any nationalistic narrative, conspiracy theorists,  and other 4chan-type mentality groups are going to give developers in tagging en-masse ideologically objectionable content, there’s the absolutely fascinating problem of figuring out how to tell if a thing is true when you have absolutely no connection to the events in question or any actor in them. In my opinion, this is one of the basic problems of the internet age.

What are the attributes of a true story – or, how does one distinguish it from a rumor? Facts can no longer be considered the main problem; the glut of “facts” available on the internet would overcome any researcher, and  in any case, the narrative they fit into is much more telling. After all, how many discussions have you had in which someone admitted that they got a fact or two wrong, reviewed the syllogisms underlying their beliefs, and then reported back to you that they had changed their minds? Even supposing someone had the good will and intellectual honesty to do that, no one has the time to do it every time they hear something doubtful.

Our beliefs don’t depend on facts; our beliefs are simply the picture created by the facts that we’ve chosen to notice, attach significance to, and report as arguments. Any time one is shown to be false, another one can be chosen to take its place, or the contradicting fact can be reinterpreted to support our belief; we generally call this “spin”.

So how does one cut past the spin, disinformation, and so on? This is a pressing question; people today are almost required to have beliefs about an array of issues about which they are hardly capable of having any particular knowledge. The result is that their thinking is substituted by the thinking of a much smaller number of people and organizations who do a lot of the thinking for us, and then spread their ideas through the social networks as memes. Luckily, since the main social network today is no longer the ephemeral word-of-mouth, over-the-fence type, but the immortal-memoried Internet, these memes are recorded and can be tracked. That means they can also be analyzed, which means that any characteristics distinguishing fact from fiction are waiting to be culled from the data.

What do you think identifies something as true or false? What sets off your bullshit alarms? Can truth be conceived of as the result of the speciation of communicative goals?

Russian New Year’s – Lay Off Us!!

To the casual observer, Russian New Year’s is just a combination of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. There’s the Christmas dinner, the exchanging of gifts, champagne, and watching the clock. However, this is a superficial difference. New Year’s is something entirely alien; America is a country of Puritans – Russian New Year’s is a bacchanalia ratting the windows. Although it begins with very stout traditions, the main idea is “don’t touch us for two weeks! Lay off our Russian people from the first to the thirteenth of January!!”, to quote a Russian song.

Tradition Number 1: Olivye Salad. Like all Russian salads, this is a mayonnaise based heart-attack. It began as a concoction of expensive meats with mayonnaise in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and after Sovietization slowly became a vegetable-based pastiche with mayonnaise; unlike in America, where every family makes their own Christmas dinner, in Russia, a New Year’s without Olivye Salad is like Christmas without a tree.

Tradition Number 2: The President’s Speech. Can you imagine Americans all gathering round to listen to the President at Christmas or New Year’s as we raise our champagne flutes? Of course not. But that’s probably because Dick Clark spent 40 years introducing us to people we like more than our Presidents – rock stars. In Russia, the President gets the last 10 minutes before the clock strikes midnight to tell everyone how great they all are, and insert a bit of national pride into their holiday mood. This year, Putin used it to “welcome Crimea home”, as he put it.

Tradition Number 3: Drink your burning wishes! The moment the President has stopped speechifying (everything in Russia is recorded ahead of time: check out the ridiculously staged everything in annual New Year’s program – it’s recorded in October, apparently) the clock strikes midnight. You then have to immediately write down your heart’s deepest desire on a little piece of paper or, more often than not, napkin, light it on fire, toss the burning scrap into your champagne flute, and drink it up before the clock stops striking.

All of this is somewhat superficial though. The main difference is what comes after New Year’s: another ten days off work (usually, the break starts several days before New Years) . Of course, there are stores that are open, but they also show how different this holiday is from the American counterpart. The shelves aren’t restocked for several days afterwards. Presumably, they’re presuming that everyone is eating holiday leftovers, kind the week of turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, and other turkey remains following Thanksgiving. I, having not planned for this, am subsisting on cured sausages, mussels, and kompote, a juice made from boiled fruit, having ventured out onto the empty streets to find that the shelves of the open stores have yet to be restocked.

IMG_2601

Visits with family, excessive drinking, getting out of the city, vacations to Europe or Turkey generally commence the 3rd of 4th of January – the 2nd is devoted to sleep and rehydration. There doesn’t seem to be anything else particularly unusual about what the Russians do with those two weeks; but it’s the fact of the two weeks that is remarkable and unusual. What on earth would we do in the US with required two weeks off?

Choice in Russia

I saw an interesting TED talk by a psychologist named Sheena Iyengar the other day. She was talking about choice, and mentioned that she had run a survey to collect data on attitudes towards choice in Eastern Europe; before administering the survey, she offered them several types of soft drinks, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, etc – 7 to be exact – and one man’s response to the offer so surprised her that she began logging the responses.

Here, I interviewed people who were residents of formerly communist countries, who had all faced the challenge of transitioning to a more democratic and capitalistic society. One of the most interesting revelations came not from an answer to a question, but from a simple gesture of hospitality.When the participants arrived for their interview, I offered them a set of drinks: Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite –seven, to be exact.

During the very first session, which was run in Russia, one of the participants made a comment that really caught me off guard. “Oh, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all just soda. That’s just one choice.” (Murmuring) I was so struck by this comment that from then on, I started to offer all the participants those seven sodas,and I asked them, “How many choices are these?” Again and again, they perceived these seven different sodas, not as seven choices, but as one choice: soda or no soda. When I put out juice and water in addition to these seven sodas, now they perceived it as only three choices — juice, water and soda.Compare this to the die-hard devotion of many Americans, not just to a particular flavor of soda, but to a particular brand.

This resonates with my own experience in Russia, but in its general alienness to American sensibilities, rather than particular attitude toward choice. The first thing that came to mind was a situation that suggests a society which has adopted an almost radical consumerism. Having worked at several elite schools in Russia, I’ve found choice to be available in such a way that it works to the detriment of both the school and customer.

Certain students in Russia are given an option of choosing the level at which they would like to study English. This is a problem because in the dominant classroom model, students are assumed to be on similar levels, and textbooks cater to that model; an upper-intermediate book will have material adapted to such a level, and it simply isn’t feasible to use it for a 45 or 90 minute lesson with a group of 10 insecure and only half-interested teens who are still at the pre-intermediate level. The number of unknown words, difficult questions to discuss, and a presumed knowledge of grammar require a level of discipline and drive that they simply don’t have. It’s very important to the success of a classroom that students be at approximately the same level – that means testing and separating students into groups.

Wealthy Russians, however, have gotten used to the idea that money gives them the right to choose everything. In effect, it means that if these parents decide that their ““How are you?” – “My name is Dasha”, “How old are you?” – “I’m from Russia””  child should be studying in an intermediate group, or if their elementary-level child really wants to study with her pre-intermediate friend, they’ll demand it until they get their way. Of course, all means that their child ends up learning very little, and harming the general progress of the group. I’m not sure if they pay extra or not, but the attitude of “I pay a lot of money for this service, and that means I own you”  is not something I’ve ever seen among people buying a service as part of group. In part, this is probably encouraged by Western ideas of customer service in hotels; in part, due to the bribe economy of the 90s that is only just beginning to be clamped down on. And it’s not true of the general population. However, it’s clear that the Western policy of consumer choice has been radically expanded in Russia in some contexts, and that in Russia this policy is both a product of and a reaction to the transition from the Soviet order to a capitalistic one, just as the attitude towards the seven soft drinks which Ms. Iyengar discussed is.

So that this blog post doesn’t get too long, here are some other interesting cultural oddities relating to choice in bullet-point form:

  • Menus in the post-Soviet space are quite often extensive; upon trying to order, you’ll find that only a few of the items are actually available.
  • Students and employees are routinely required by their organizations to attend political speeches and government gala type events; and yet, this doesn’t provoke outrage at the violation of one’s free speech – or, expression of choice in politics – but resentment at having been made to spend time on something so useless as a political event.
  • Russian schools and universities have no electives; instead, they have “tracks” in school – math or language. In university, the only choice you have is what to major in.
  • There are “correct” interpretations of Russian literature; one is not allowed to disagree with one’s teacher in judging Natasha Rostova in War and Peace. You are free to argue with your teacher, but you cannot turn in an essay which disagrees with the official version.
  • Before the events in the Ukraine, Russians often explained their vote for Putin by saying “there aren’t any other candidates”; other candidates were removed from the ballot due to suspect claims of illegitimacy by Putin’s party.

Bad Heuristics: Social Political Judgment And the Communication Breakdown

A gunman shot two police officers Saturday. I thought that the most notable thing about it was not news itself, but the reaction to it. The link I was sent was a rag from the New York Post, so it was of course rather jaundiced: “Gunman executes 2 NYPD cops in Garner ‘revenge’”. Apparently the police union chief, Patrick Lynch, blamed the mayor in the hackneyed philippic that passes for political conviction these days; to Lynch, the lack of support for the police by the political establishment in the wake of their non-indictments in the Garner and Brown cases is tantamount to encouraging cop-killing.

Reports say that the man drove to New York to shoot cops after shooting his girlfriend in the stomach, posting his intentions to social networks and saying it could be his last post. In other words, he committed a violent crime, and afterwards suddenly decided to commit another violent crime. This seems to me to make the fact that he chose to shoot cops incidental. Quite simply, the man was most likely mentally unbalanced, and that’s the cause of his actions. We can certainly speculate that the the heightened societal focus on cops fixated this man on the police, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was mentally ill; in any other context, I think Patrick Lynch would have recognized that, which makes the really interesting thing here the semiotics – Patrick Lynch’s own psychology in interpreting events.

The police brutality vs. line-of-duty dichotomy of judgment, perhaps just as the entire political debate of the last 10 years, is a manifestation of in-group vs. out-group conflict, or intergroup behavior. In short, intergroup behavior is when John treats Jane not according to the content of her character, but the according to pre-conceived notions he has about her group. 

 “Whenever individuals belonging to one group interact, collectively or individually, with another group or its members in terms of their group identification, we have an instance of intergroup behavior” (Sherif (1966))

In application, this means that when Officer John interacts with a member of the public as a cop, his behavior will be directed by his awareness that he’s a cop and the person he’s interacting with is not. Gone are John and Jane; in exchange we have A Police Officer and A Possible Criminal. The problem from the point of view of the police brutality side is that the black people Officer John interacts with go from “possible criminal” to “criminal” more often than white people. Perhaps even a step further – that the people he interacts with as though they were criminals get harsher treatment if they’re black than if they’re white, regardless of how they got classified as criminals to begin with. From the line-of-duty side, on the other hand, the problem is that the public doesn’t understand that Officer John needs to put himself in the role A Police Officer and Jane in the role of A Possible Criminal; mistakes, of course, are made, but they could all be avoided if Jane The Possible Criminal would do everything possible to let The Police Officer make certain Jane is really A Law-abiding Citizen.

I don’t think any of the above is in dispute. However, Patrick Lynch’s statement, imputing a sinister cause to an event with a very common and simple explanation, shows that he is acting out of hostility to the people challenging the police about their behavior. Henri Tajfel’s explanation of hostility towards out-groups fits the current situation very neatly.

Conceptions of out-groups are generated in their social and historical contexts and then transmitted to individual members of groups and widely shared through a variety of channels of social influence. At least three social functions of these conceptions can be distinguished: justification of actions planned or committed against out-groups; perception of social causality, especially as it relates to large-scale distressing events (such as inflation, unemployment, a lost war, etc) whose complexity needs to be reduced to simpler proportions; and a positive differentiation of a social group from relevant out-groups. This threefold framework is useful in the integration of some recent research which relates to one or more of these group functions. Thus, Billig and Guillaumin presented extensive descriptions, based on data from contents analyses, of the “conspiracy theories” of social causation in which the evil intentions and actions of selected target groups become the assumed “cause” of the ills befalling society at large.

To apply this to the current situation, Patrick Lynch has differentiated his in-group, the police, as justice-loving, self-sacrificing public servants, justified their actions in the context of keeping the peace in a dangerous environment, and simultaneously blamed collusion among out-groups for his group’s current embattlement. What’s important about this is that it implies that he is interpreting events entirely through these in-group/out-group heuristics; in other words, he’s stopped listening in any meaningful sense of that word and is simply voicing his stereotypes as a member of a group. Unfortunately, those stereotypes are sounding rather racist and reflecting poorly on his group.

Looking at issues through this paradigm is extraordinarily revealing, but sometimes disturbing. Although what I’ve pointed out above certainly doesn’t go this far, the effects of social identity and group favoritism on our judgment seem at times to be so complete that they all but determine our reactions and actions. Supposing that to be the case, what can we really expect of ourselves and our leaders?

How often do you question your first judgments? How many times in your life have those judgments undermined a core value or your identification with a valued group?