Alexis Madrigal feels bad for John Pike.
The UC-Davis cop who pepper-sprayed a bunch of students last month inspired Madrigal’s sympathy because, as the Atlantic editor put it, “Structures, in the sociological sense, constrain human agency. And for that reason, I see John Pike as a casualty of the system, too.”
Perhaps Madrigal’s own agency is somewhat constrained (in the sociological sense) by the structure of his Atlantic editorship. Maybe the demands of his job nudge him toward nuance even when it’s contraindicated. Maybe that’s why he cautions, “If we vilify Pike, we let the institutions off way too easy.”
Nonsense. In fact, we can vilify both, quite handily. There’s no need to separate Pike from the institution; John Pike is the institution.
Lest you think I have no sympathy at all for Lt. Pike, please remember: I like hitting people. It brings me joy. So I sympathize with Pike, in a way that perhaps Alexis Madrigal can’t, because Alexis Madrigal has never (I presume) punched someone in the face and thought, “Oh, yeah.” Being faster, or stronger, or more skilled, or more devious, or just plain luckier than someone else—even if only for an instant—is a rush. It’s a thrill. And it makes me feel good about myself and about my life.
However, I do not admire this trait in myself. In fact, I think it’s despicable on many levels, and I’m regularly appalled by how strong and persistent and integral it is to my personality. But I’ve long since abandoned any hope of changing what is evidently a very primal element of my character. Instead I manage it by limiting my expression of these feelings to the strictly defined arena of martial arts sparring. This keeps me out of trouble. The legal kind—and other kinds too.
The structure of the sparring ring constrains me. It enforces an essential honesty by ensuring that I will not do all the hitting. It requires me to risk something—a lot of things, actually. Apart from hurting, getting hit makes me feel slow and stupid and weak. It leaves me shaken and envious and angry about life in general. A certain amount of that is, I firmly believe, good for me.
Sparring is structured to make you experience both sides of power. It distributes risk and reward more or less equitably between the participants. Whatever thrill you get out of dominating or attempting to dominate your opponent has to be paid for, at market rates. There are no free lunches in the ring.
I suspect John Pike has had a lot of free lunches. And yes, that’s due in large part to the structure in which he functions, the UC-Davis police force. But not entirely.
Let me put it this way: One of the most irresponsible things a human being could do would be to put me in body armor and a helmet, hand me a weapon, and point me toward a crowd of troublemakers. I’m not saying I’d end up macing a bunch of defenseless teenagers like Lt. Pike did, but I couldn’t vouch for my good behavior at, say, a Westboro Baptist Church protest. With the risks to myself reduced practically to zero, and the domination of others simplified to the touch of a button—how easy it would be to brush aside the better angels of my nature (who are a pretty scurvy crew at the best of times) and enjoy only the positive side of power. Free lunch!
Like I said, it would be irresponsible for anyone to put me in that position. It would be doubly irresponsible for me to put myself in that position. I know what I’m capable of, better than anyone else. I know I need a different kind of structure if I don’t want to end up acting like an asshole.
Sure, if I were empowered by some system to pepper-spray whoever the hell I wanted, I could blame the system for my behavior. If I had been trained by a system, my worst tendencies nurtured and fostered by the system, its structures, its policies—I could blame the system. And if I were a chicken-shit bully, that’s exactly what I’d do.
But the ultimate blame, in the greatest measure, would belong to me. Because I joined the agency. I took the training and the paycheck. I shaped myself to the system and imbibed its policies, and used my brains and my body to enact them. Presumably I got some sense of professional fulfillment out of the transaction as well.
Social structures may constrain human agency, but we have—in this country at least—considerable agency to choose the structures that will constrain us. For example, I chose a system that requires me to wear a plastic mouthguard and allow people to kick me. John Pike chose a system that put him in body armor and gave him permission to gas students who disobeyed his commands. I’m not saying that makes me better than him, necessarily. I’m just pointing out that one of us is currently the subject of four separate Tumblrs, and it’s not me.
We not only have the power to choose the structures we operate in; we also have tremendous power to resist their constraints from within. When we resist, we can change the structures, as well as ourselves.
The students at UC-Davis understood this better than Lt. Pike. One of them, a post-doc named Kristin Koster, spoke eloquently about witnessing the pepper-spraying incident. “When you protect the things you believe in with your body," she explained, "it changes you for good. It radicalizes you for good.”
And, I would add, when you protect the things you’re paid to believe in with shiny weapons, that can cause pain and suffering for others without any risk to you, it changes you for bad. It radicalizes you for bad.
The student protestors risked their safety in order to challenge the university and its duly sworn representatives. “Here are our bodies,” they said when they plunked themselves down, en masse, on a sidewalk. “Show us the limits of your decency.”
And John Pike showed us. He used a biological weapon instead of a can of spray paint, but he basically graffitied a big “FUCK YOU” across the student body of UC-Davis. We supposedly admire law enforcement officers because they risk so much to protect us. John Pike risked nothing. That’s not good policing, or even over-reacting. That’s abuse of power.
And what was the official reaction to Lt. Pike’s actions? Police Chief Annette Spicuzza claimed Pike and his fellow officers were in danger; that students had “cut them off from their support.” In this official version of reality, a small peaceful protest is re-imagined as the Battle of Bastogne, with a circle of cross-legged, jeans-wearing students assuming all the menace of several divisions of Panzers, while John Pike acts the part of Patton’s Third Army, smashing through the enemy line to relieve the siege.
UC-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi initially said she was “sorry for what happened,” as if apologizing for an unruly spouse who had gotten drunk and pissed on the carpet at a dinner party.
It’s as if these people can’t even see the video everyone else is watching. As if their YouTube Safety Mode is set to “Unquestioned Authority.”
People aren’t born with that kind of reality filter. They have to build it for themselves. Those structures Alexis Madrigal is talking about, the ones that constrain us? Yeah, we build them around ourselves. We strengthen them every time we see or take part in an exercise of power that isn’t equitable—unless we make some attempt to balance the scales.
When you don’t regularly experience both sides of power, you make bad choices. Over time, those choices add up. When you have a high-status title, and everyone listens attentively to you; when you carry a weapon and strut around barking orders at people who are either too meek to stand up to you or too polite to tell you what an ass you look like, you forget that the real world isn’t actually structured in a way that assures you victory, control, respect, and continued power.
In short, you run into a little problem that economists like to call “moral hazard,” and I like to call “not getting kicked in the nuts often enough.”
Hitting people, pepper-spraying them, and similar abuses of power, have the potential to yield significant benefits for those who employ them. Under normal circumstances, they also have costs, or “consequences.” I punch you in the solar plexus; you kick me in the temple. I pepper-spray you while you are legally exercising your First Amendment rights, and I get sued and thrown in jail. When you create a system that maximizes the benefits of power and eliminates its costs, people in that system have little incentive to curtail their use of power. That’s not “constraint”; it’s unwarranted license.
Oddly enough, this is exactly the problem that the UC-Davis students were trying to draw attention to when Lt. Pike gassed them. They were protesting massive tuition and fee increases prompted by the general economic collapse. They objected to the fact that they and their school were being punished for the bad behavior of bankers (some of whom sit on the school’s Board of Regents), who took risks with other people’s money and got bailed out with federal tax dollars. Moral hazard, you see.
What to do about all this? How to change the structures that caused all this violence? My own experience with moral hazard in the sparring ring leads me to propose the following solution for the corrupt financial system the UC-Davis students, and the Occupy movement, are protesting. Every time a banker, CEO, broker, or other fiduciary agent loses, steals, or gambles away a million dollars of someone else’s money, we should refrain from plucking a million dollars from the public treasury and handing it over to the risk-taker. Instead, we should designate some neutral third party to kick the offender in the nuts (or punch them in the head, if they’re female, though that’s statistically pretty unlikely). This system restores the balance; it reintroduces risk in an immediate and meaningful way, and it doesn’t involve the SEC. Everyone wins.
And because I understand his position all too well, I offer this advice to Lt. John Pike, if he ever wants to rejoin decent society: Dude, you have to apologize. Big time. And you’d better mean it, and you’d damn well better look like you mean it.
And what should you do after that, Lieutenant? I could recommend some soul-searching, or meditation, or anger management classes. But what you really ought to do is take off your body armor (it looks like a tight fit on you anyway; I imagine it chafes), find the nearest boxing gym or martial arts school that will allow you through its doors, and get into the ring with someone roughly your own size. Take a couple of shots to the head, maybe a kick in the groin. Act as tough as you want, and pay for it out of your own pocket for once.
See if it’s worth the price.