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Chapel Hill: Shifting Expectations from East to West to East

February 15, 2015

By, Malcolm L. Rigsby, Ph.D., J.D.

As a sociologist and criminologist I must seek objectivity in my reasoning about society.  When headlines on heinous events such as the killing of three Muslim students, a lone Black man, the burning to death of a Palestinian in Israel, the killing of an American citizen by ISIS, or a homeless immigrant beaten to death in a U S city come to my attention I must control the guttural human emotion that touches my heart.  In this short essay I am calling out not only to my many friends across several cultures, but to Americans and foreigners who are also receiving similar reports that may urge a tit-for-tat exchange of violence.  Rather than allow emotion to dictate our categorization of groups or cultures based on the actions of one or a few, we must seek logic and reason as a means to cope, analyze portrayed events and seek change that will lead to positive social intercourse.

Since 9/11 there has been a growing fear in America.  This fear is not an excuse to categorize sub-cultures as evil demonized collections of people.  However, fear and other emotions, as basic behavioral and animalistic responses are often employed by social structures as a means of social control of the masses.  A bit of truth combined an authoritative but skewed report that directs the receiver of the message to focus upon a “demonized” target will drive some that receive the message to a behavioral response.  A response is always needed to initiate the inertia of the crowd and masses to follow the authority blindly, unquestioningly and immediately.  This process is used both by those seeking to preserve the status quo, and by those that wish to change it.  We see it employed in convincing people to support their country’s design to engage in war as well as in social activists seeking to bring a change to society as in reform of marriage in the U. S. A.  In order to spread the message the sponsor of the message must plan how the message will be distributed to the audience.  Each sponsor must enjoy a certain amount of power and authority in order to receive an initial audience.  In keeping this analysis simple the sponsor must have at its disposal an initially receptive audience that if recruited to the cause will become a type of midlevel distributors of the message and of which the public audience will listen to and believe.  Examples include members of the public that have actually perceived or experienced the fear “personally”, public personalities that can spread the message with “knowledge”, and the media who spreads the message with “authority”.

The fear and distrust of, apprehensions against and characterizations of quote “Muslims” in America is an example of our post-9/11.  Similar examples are plentiful across the globe.  Fear has fed the patriotism that has made the American military’s presence in the “War against Terrorism” possible without a draft.

What must be considered in our analysis of other cultures and sub-cultures within each of our societies is that as human beings we all share certain universals.  We all seek love, respect, a future ability to make a living, the need for religion, the need for family… these are only a few basic commonalities that bind us, rather than segregate us.  Granted, due to our histories, traditions, religions, governmental politics and structure we all have differing expectations of how these basic universals are played out and constructed.  Religion from a sociological analysis distinct from theology which explains the truth of the religion and falsity of other religions as a means to the Divine, provides each culture an understanding of self, relationships, family and above all answers to the unknown such as what will happen to each of us after our life.  Each religious tradition seeks to explain and provide these social needs.  As with the social institution of religion we must use cultural relativism and objectivity in seeking to locate within each of us our common expectations; our values and norms.  For example “life has value and it should not be taken”.  The problematic is that we all realize that groups and governments make exceptions to the values and norms of their society.  So what does this mean to our current post-9/11 era and tragedies such as Chapel Hill, Ferguson MO, and on?

Let’s say that in America we have three categories of people.  The first category is the “mentally ill” who for either psychological or physiological reasons are unable to adhere to the expectations of society.  The second category are the “deviant” who fail to accept either the value or norm and consequently feel inner pressure to make adaptations to the expectations of our society in regards to the value and behavior related to human life.  The third category are the “normative” or mentally stable and well socialized.  They accept and expect the value that life has and they accept the norm that we should not kill other humans.

These three categories may be compared as follows.  The mentally ill are susceptible to being manipulated by what they experience or perceive they experience in terms of sight, hearing, and feeling.  A distorted presentation of may easily become reality and moreover an accurate experience may be perceived as something different.  For example a news report of an isolated event may become paranoia against a type of person such as described in the news report.  The deviant on the other hand have rejected some or all of the society’s social expectations.  As an example these people may simply hate some or all “others” about them.  They may be indifferent to life of others or even self.  Moreover they may even desire the experience of taking another life.  This last example is problematic since our society may desire to treat the person that simply hates as a case for mental treatment.  In some instances this may be a mistake that will prove tragic for later victims.  Regardless the analysis both the mentally ill and deviant may be similar in objective analysis, but very different in terms of subjective analysis.  Failure of the society to identify the type and then treat or segregate the type will create some level of likelihood regarding future victims of the individual’s behavior in playing out their perceived situations or their rejection of society’s values and norms.

The third type is the normative category.  These are the ones that we might proclaim “how could such a good and normal person like Jack/Jill do such an evil thing?”  These are the people that may be religious or not, they may be professional or not; they seem like the ideal construct for the society.  The commonality underlying each type is the motivation to act which is generated by an event occurring in social structure and a promoting interaction within society.

Such alignments of social structure and social interaction promote justifications for action.  Action may be analyzed as rational, irrational or non-rational.  Rational action uses logic to think through and weigh the cost and the benefit of a given act.  Irrational action is converse to logic.  Non-rational action is oblivious to considering the logic of action.  A case in point is exemplified by how media and other social institutions of structure in society align with religion, politics and government to justify a socially accepted deviance from the norm.  This is the case of war and glorification of what would otherwise be defined as “intentional taking of the life of a human being” or “intentionally and premeditatedly killing another human”.  On the one hand we would call these either homicide or and enhanced murder.  These laws are logically relate to superior norms of virtually all societies called law and they serve the universal need for order and safety.  Moreover, these types of laws function to preserve and care for the overall society.  However, we make exceptions.  Sometimes more so than other times government must align its framed argument for war with the institutions and organizations of society such as religion, education and media to promote a face for the enemy.  This demonization of the opponent is attempted in order to secure the following by the general public.  It is easier for us to hurt evil demons than if we see them as people just like us.  When war is or becomes unpopular demonizing is enhanced through films, news, caricatures such as political cartoons and other distorted depictions.  Real life events may be dramatized to create a guttural, behavioral, and emotional crowd like response that will promote mobilization.  A byproduct of this activity in this example is called patriotism.  Like behavioral responses such as fear, patriotism is often a good thing and is integral to a society’s survival.  However, these crowd like behaviors unchecked or over promoted may lead to heroism that is hegemonically translated into a new understanding of values and norms for the society.  From these we get Sgt. York, Audie Murphy, Cris Kyle and others.  Media spreads these values and norms through simulations in the form of Gary Cooper, Bradley Cooper and even Audie Murphy playing himself.

It was Emile Durkheim that concluded that deviance has at least two roles for society.  It is not only destructive in society but often plays a role in shaping the evolution of every society.  Deviance in measured and orderly quantity and regulated degree of quality of life change is often positive to both a stable and orderly society that allows it to change and function in a way to assure its survival.  The problem is that external and internal stimulations that bring deviance in relation to expected values and norms may come too fast, in too great a quantity and quality.  When this occurs the masses of society may lose their understanding of norms and values and moreover become uncertain of whom and what to believe.  The society at large comes to question what and how to evaluate in making determinations of whether their beliefs and behavior are supporting of or diverging from the societal values and norms.  We are exposed to such levels of strain that we suffer anomie or severe social wide loss in directing our lives.  The society loses the glue that creates consensus and helps us to somewhat regulate ourselves.  In our post-9/11 world we have a generation of young people approaching adulthood that has known nothing but the quote “war on Islam”.

Our media provides us a smorgasbord of military operations and perceptions of race and immigration.  Is it surprising that I overheard a young adult the other day remark that he was “ready to join the military and be a sniper so he could experience killing without fear?”  The point is; what the person said is neither illegal or out of norm if we are at the point of glorifying within an entire generation a changing concept of “value of life and norm of not killing”.  When a society evolves, its norms and values change.  Is it surprising that we have so many cases of PTSD over the past 20 years?  When these people come home many don’t receive the assistance to readjust to the norms of society.

Moreover, media presents the demonized other in the form of skin color, immigration status and religion.  This presentation combined with immense doses of this type of portrayal not only affects the values and norms of the normative type but also the mentally ill and the deviant.  Such portrayals combined with our failure to properly diagnose mental illness and treat it in isolation when needed as well as deal swiftly, surely and certainly with the criminal deviant who present a danger to human life or safety has served to justify and motivate such behavior as we have seen in Chapel Hill and perhaps in general terms Muslim lives, Black lives, immigrant lives, trafficked humans, and Palestinian lives just to name a few.

We must remember we can be patriotic to our society while not overbearing and rejecting of those about us that are seeking to be integral parts of our society.  We must remember that forces of motivation that serve the necessary military that protects us from external invaders and law enforcement that protects us from internal and increasingly external criminals must be kept in check and balanced against freedoms and human and civil rights.  These structural forces must sometimes utilize a process of skewing reports to keep society motivated and cohesive in the fight, but with all cases of skew there is a bit of distortion and failure of the data to calculate exactly.  There is always some degree of error.  The question is how much error the American and other societies will allow in order to feel safe, yet not create enduring hatred due to prejudice and discrimination.  We must begin to examine the facts before we simply buy in on the message.  A behavioral response such as demonization leads to ill consequences and requires no thought.  It is a response, neither rational nor irrational, but non-rational.

We must become logical and rational in our evaluation of what structures of society tell us we must believe.  There will most likely be a grain of truth in all messages.  Like the hungry dog, we must not automatically snatch the bait and devour it.  Sometimes there is poison in the bait.  Let’s seek the truth and logically respond as a nation of people held together by principles, values and norms.  Let’s understand that snipers have a role in war, but they should not become role models to which we aspire.  We must realize that police must be given respect and we must respond with respect if an officer believes there is reasonable suspicion to stop us.  But, they must remember that they cannot be misled by presentations of a demon culture.  They cannot use their power to try to gain the authority to stop and frisk without reasonable suspicion and certainly not abuse the force and deadly force against citizens except after announcing it and for safety of the officer, the public, or the detainee and only then if there is no other way.

Malcolm L. Rigsby J.D., Ph.D. is assistant professor of Sociology and Coordinator of Criminal Justice in the U.S.  He is a publication peer reviewer, is published in journals and news columns, is active in presentations in sociology and criminology and serves on discussion panels. His interests include social movement, religious conversion in prison, comparing Islamic and Christian conversion, and transforming sociality.  He is active in documentary film review and travels in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle-east

Tags: American Sniper, Chapel Hill, Copenhagen, Sniper, Palestine, Ferguson, Muslim Students, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Muslim Lives Matter, religion and hate, religion, Islam, terrorism, terrorists, media, identity, crime

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