Monthly Archives: December 2014

Death and destruction and the whys of those who hand it out

I am unsure of what to write about this week.

I was going to write about how people mix or don’t mix with others who are different from themselves.  There’s a lovely simulation tool that shows how ghettos form and how communities can naturally separate.  I think I’ll save that one for later.

On Tuesday of last week, a group of barbarians descended on a school in Pakistan with guns, ammunition and the intent to use them against as many people as possible.  148 people were killed, 133 of them children.  Thousands of lives have been changed forever.

Every time I hear of yet another atrocity, I find myself filled with a burning desire to go to whoever did it, pluck them out of wherever they happen to be and to put them in a room and speak to them.  I need to know why they did what they did.  I want to discover what can turn a presumably-rational human being into someone who can do unspeakable acts to another human being.  I am going to assume that people are rational, as a rule, and that the people who slaughter children in schools do it for reasons that they consider to be rational.  There is motive behind their actions and something, somewhere, has convinced them that, when looked at in a particular way, the only logical action in a particular circumstance is to enter a classroom, set fire to a teacher, then mow down the terrified students with automatic weapons.

In my mind, I ask them to explain what they did and the reason why they did it.  And the reason behind the reason.  And the reason behind that reason.  And so on.  At some point, the realisation dawns that they have caused unmeasurable distress to another living, breathing human being, and ended their life.  Healing can only begin after this realisation has taken place.

All I need is invincibility mode coupled with a touch of omniscience and the ability to walk through walls.  Should be done by Friday.

And now the government of Pakistan is falling for the provocation by announcing that it will execute 500 people convicted of terrorist offences, lifting a moratorium on executions in place since 2008.  Fighting fire with fire is always a recipe for peace, of course.  And all of those people in prison have cast-iron convictions.  Naturally.  Vito Cornelius puts it succinctly in The Fifth Element when he says “evil begets evil, Mr President: shooting will only make it stronger.”

My children had an interesting thought, last week.  We were talking about consent and bodily autonomy.  My eldest said “wouldn’t it be good if war was by consent?”  We thought about this for a bit and decided that war would come to a complete and abrupt halt if everyone had to obtain consent before shooting at someone else.  “‘Scuse me, but can I shoot you?”  “No.”  “OK.  I’ll be going then.”  Sadly, that is as unrealistic a hope as my plan to dig into the psyche of those who shoot up schools.

During the week in which some of us celebrate the birth of Christ (also called the prince of peace), I’m going to take a moment to ponder an alternative approach to those who are different from ourselves.  A refugee right from infancy, Jesus went about showing others how to be fully human to each other: how to value everyone you see as a person, even those from different communities, even those who have been caught in the very act of naughtiness.

But I’m not so naïve as to forget what his own people did to him.

Why do police officers keep killing people?

There.  I said it.

There’s a boatload of coverage in the news about two men dying at the hands of law-enforcement officers over in the US at the moment.    When the police shot and killed Michael Brown, there was widespread unrest in Ferguson.  When a Grand Jury declined to prosecute the officer who killed him, it happened all over again.

More recently a New York man was tackled to the ground and held in a choke-hold by officers, which led to him suffocating to death.  Again, a Grand Jury let the officer off.  Have a nice day.

It is easy for a British blogger to wave a finger at those unruly gun-toting Americans and their penchant for killing each other, but we’re far from perfect over here.  In 2011, police shot and killed a black man, Mark Duggan, which was followed by rioting that spread across several cities.

I guess that the simplest explanation that I have been able to come up with is that police officers are people too.  In childhood, we are trained to look at the police with respect verging on awe.  When we prepare our children for the big wide world, we tell them to look for a police officer if they get lost or get into trouble or something like that.  Go to the police: they will look after you and make everything right again.

As we mature, we learn to think about many things differently, mostly because our view of those things is challenged in some way by events and/or education.  For the privileged majority of us, we don’t have many interactions with the police, so our exalted view of these brightly-clad keepers-of-peace never has cause to be challenged, so we enter adulthood still with a child-like view of the police.  In professional life, we encounter all manner of people, some of whom are saintly in their manner, some are scum and we feel sullied just being in the same room as them.  It turns out that every single profession on the planet is populated by a broad range of people (I was going to be a little more general than that, but then I considered that “profession” can include the trade in illegal narcotics.  It can also include politics.)  Anyway, my point is that everywhere you go in life, you meet people who come from a broad range of backgrounds, with a broad range of outlooks on life.

It turns out that the police are no different.  Some police officers are scum, just like the rest of us.  Some police officers are saints.  Most police officers fill the spectrum between those two extremes.  Every day, they show up for work, bringing their own preferences, their own experiences and their own prejudices with them.  In return for their dedication to duty, we give them power and privilege.  In court, there is a presumption that the police officer in the dock will be telling the truth and the person they dragged there will be saying whatever they need to to get out, colouring the truth, being selective with the truth and/or actually lying under oath.

So, what does this have to do with the Ferguson case, the New York case or the Tottenham riots?  Well, the dead men, in each case, were black.  Using the US as an example, the US prison population (the people who have been stopped by police, arrested for something, then charged, found guilty and sent to prison) is around 707 per 100,000 of population.  Discounting the Seychelles for being tiny, this is the largest proportion of the population of any other country in the world.  Of those 707, nearly 40% are “non-Hispanic black”.  Given that non-Hispanic black people comprise just 12.2% of the general population, this seems a little disproportionate.  This puts 4.8% of black men in American prisons, compared to 0.7% of white men.  For some reason, being a black American man makes you nearly 7 times as likely as your white compatriots to end up in prison (after which, your right to vote is withdrawn for life).

Now, these numbers are not news.  In the context of this blog, they do point at two things, specifically, that the police force and the general criminal justice system tends to be comprised of people and that these people are just as tribal as the rest of us.

Clearly, the pedestal upon which we place our law-enforcement community, right from beat-officers all the way to Supreme Court judges is hugely undeserved.  They’re just like the rest of us, subject to all of Humanity’s frailties.

The main question we’re left with is what to do about it?

Check your privilege: how even nerds get it horribly wrong

I’m a nerd.  Have been all my life.  It may be one of the reasons that people decided that I was a good target for bullying.  In fact, my life-as-a-nerd is not hugely different from most other nerds I’ve spoken to or read about.  Being bullied at school is something of a rite of passage, almost as if you’re not a proper nerd if you haven’t lived through several years of Hell at the hands of more powerful peers.

In some ways, this is good, as I am now more able than many people to spot bullying and to address it, and I have a very good understanding of what bullying does to a person, so I’m less likely to minimise it with a “boys will be boys” or “that’s just kids for you”.

Fine.  But…

As a man, and as a male-nerd, however, there does appear to be a large blind spot, and it’s woman-shaped.  Nerd culture tends to focus on the male-nerd and, particularly, with his awkwardness around women.  Largely, this will be caused by a series of painful rejections by girls while at school, which will have caused our nerd to associate contact with women with being laughed at and general non-locallised feelings of shame.  One common reaction to this is ghettoisation, and male nerds will wall themselves off from all unneccessary contact with women.  A side-effect of this, of course, is that the nerd never gains practice at interacting with women (it is worthwhile to recognise, at this point, that women are not classed as people, here, because they can appear mysterious and far-away creatures that are best understood through stereotype).

Now, the fun begins.  Misogyny runs so deeply through our culture that it is often completely invisible to the untrained eye.  It is “normal”, and deviations from normal are the things that get noticed: the normal is just there.  Nerds see that the culture teaches that women are desirable things to get hold of: nearly everyone has one, and that women are pretty and curvy and ubiquitous.  Advertising hoardings have pictures of them, showing acres of flesh, to advertise cars, toothpaste, haemhorroid cream and so on.

Even in exclusively nerd spaces like the comic shop, this sexual-object model is pervasive.

Nerds, in spite of what we may think, are human too, and are quite able to discriminate and feel stepped upon when our narrow world-view is challenged.  We will react in the same ways as most others, in fact, and will begin by denying the problem, then move on to dismissing the perceived-attacker’s stance and on to striking them down.  In extreme cases, we end up with Gamergate, which shows an ugly substratum of nerd culture at its very worst.

Of course, the nerd in my illustration above is a stereotype himself and, as such, is strictly limited in his usefulness in my argument.  Sadly, however, this stereotype has become one because it does describe the characteristics that can be observed in many nerd spaces.  As with all stereotypes, there are many exceptions to them and I am encouraged that the number of exceptions is growing with time.

It’s not all bad, as I mentioned, and there are nerds who seem to understand this.  Not only are women nerds more visible now than they were, but the men are realising that their ancient biases are just that and are challenging their own prejudices.  Together, the women nerds and the men-who-can-learn are working to create new nerd spaces that respect all people: men, women, non-binary-gendered individuals, nerds, non-nerds, and nerd-ish-people all together.

I would love to attend Nine Worlds next year (I probably won’t, but that’s another matter), and I hold it up as an example of a con that has a great reputation and a great anti-harassment policy.  Whilst it’s a shame that we need to have such policies to remind people that we’re all people, until such time as society’s changes render them obsolete, it’s good to know that even nerd spaces are starting to implement them.