South Carolina, Self Regulation and That Child Beating A$$hole

Thursday, October 29, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under General


South Carolina....just fucking no.

I worked for quite some time with at-risk children in a school setting. School was skipped, homework left incomplete, and defiance, aggression and “back-talk” abounded. Did the kids’ smart mouths and disrespectful attitudes ever make me want to hit them?

Hell to the no. Because I’m a fucking grownup with fully-developed self-regulation skills. And because there are always reasons for negative behaviors. Seeing only the behavior without considering its underlying cause is a short-sighted and ignorant way to handle the situation.

When I see the teenager on the now infamous video, I see a girl in pain. How about we discuss the fact that she was in foster care due to issues at home? That she was asked to leave because she glanced at her cell phone (and apologized for it at the time)? That her “defiance” was her stating that she had done nothing wrong? (Another girl agreed, and was also arrested.) Does it matter that the officer in question had a history of violent behavior? Does any of that matter?

The sad fact is, to many, the circumstances leading up to her beating do not matter. And when I see people disregard this, I see broken people. I see deep-rooted issues. I see the little children they used to be hearing, “Don’t whine, there’s no excuse for that behavior.” I see dysfunction in the masses.

This girl needs help, not violent repercussions. Not abuse. And in the video I saw, the officer was most certainly abusive. Violent. Scary. The adolescent brain is a little unstable and labile as a rule. But the cop is not a child. He showed a gross lack of self-regulation. He lost control. He himself is broken, very likely another victim in the ongoing cycle of abuse endorsed by our society. He needs serious help, not high fives.

The Importance of Self-Regulation

Here’s where things might get a little controversial, but I’ve seen too many ignorant comments on this issue to pretend that it isn’t a real problem. Some of these comments include:

“She was being disrespectful.”

“She should have just listened.”

What I hear in these comments are people parroting back what they heard as small children, perhaps as a justification for spanking or other in-home violence.

I hope I’m wrong, at least for some of these commenters, but the numbers are not pretty. Hitting at home is common. I’m not even going to address the fact that spanking is a very real trauma no matter how much we try and downplay it. I won’t discuss lowered IQs, altered brain regions or increases in anxiety and depression for those who were hit as children. Today, let’s just stick with a broader idea: that the modeling of spanking changes how we interpret this video.

Spanking normalizes the idea that when someone disrespects you, it is okay and even justified to hit them in response. There are many watching this video saying, “She was disrespectful.” But regardless of disrespect, there is never an excuse to hit another human being. It’s fucking bullshit to assume that because you say something I don’t like—or attack my integrity or insult me—that I have some right to go after you. You cannot physically assault someone because they happen to have an opinion you dislike, even if that opinion is, “You’re a dick.” It only demonstrates a lack of self-regulation on the part of the attacker. Moreover, the premise that “I got hit and turned out fine,” is never true. For those who were hit, the way they see the world is forever altered unless they address and question their belief system. Those who were hit are generally more likely to think that hitting can be justified. That abuse can or should be tolerated. That pain is an acceptable behavioral deterrent.

This is a common ideal. It might even be “normal.” But it is NOT okay.

Part of the confusion here might be based on a misunderstanding of what respect actually is. Respect isn’t just listening to people who are bigger than you. Respect and compliance don’t necessarily go together. And none of those things equal trust.

Compliance and the Mistrust of Authority

Let us not kid ourselves: real respect begins with trust.

As a little review: 

  • Hitting does not beget trust.
  • Aggression does not beget trust.
  • Fear does not beget trust.
  • Throwing a fucking child over a desk DOES NOT BEGET TRUST.

Part of what we saw in that video is the propagation of an environment of mistrust. If you watch abuses of power growing up, you are unlikely to trust, on a deep visceral level, those who propagated these abuses. This is not to say that all police officers are bad: Cops are people too. There are good ones and there are bad ones. But those who have seen abuse at the hands of cops are less likely to assume that they are going to have a good experience with one.

Despite my straight As, nerdy, “not-doing-shit-wrong” nature, I learned not to trust the police very early. I saw them do things they should not have done to friends of mine. I witnessed racial profiling. I was on the outside looking in for much of it: white privilege is a monster and not a subject I can do justice to here, though we should recognize that these injustices occur more frequently in minority populations.

I do not purport to have experienced what my friends did; I have not experienced more constant and poignant injustices related to the color of my skin. But the injustice of what I did see has never left me, even if some of it did not happen TO me. And today, though I am compliant when I get pulled over, it is out of fear and not respect.

For many, compliance is the goal. But compliance is not in and of itself a measure of success. Having a child hide things from you out of fear does not make them more likely to succeed in life; in fact, the opposite is true. Having people comply when officers are present and flip them off when they walk away does not create a healthy environment for anyone, including the police.

Part of this is a matter of biology. In harrowing situations, the brain reverts to bottom up processing: body responses first, before logical reasoning, as opposed to logical reasoning leading to bodily responses. Fight or flight or freeze, baby. And when this happens, we need a way to calm down, a person who can step in and defuse the situation, a person we can ACTUALLY trust. Officers aren’t likely to be that person for those who have witnessed abuse. Instead, it is more expected that stress levels would soar ever higher with the presence of an officer or other authority figure, triggering self-preservation behaviors like defensiveness or fleeing instead of “well, maybe I need to just listen.” The presence of an officer might even trigger shutting down, possibly making one sit stock-still at a desk while waiting for the threat to pass. There will always be a familiar tingle in my chest when I am forced to deal with the police, even though I am not statistically likely to be harassed. But none of us can completely leave our pasts behind. And all the children in that classroom are now less likely to trust the police based on what they saw that officer do, regardless of how good and compliant they are.

Today I can see my mistrust of authority for what it is and address the issue logically when it arises. But in grossly undeserved neighborhoods where mental health treatment is unavailable, fostering this introspection is more difficult. It is also more difficult when you are continually witnessing abuses  of power like the one seen in the classroom in South Carolina. 

And, make no mistake, it is abuse. It is a continuing cycle that reinvents itself every generation when we value compliance over understanding, the infliction of pain over conversation, fear over trust.

Condoning the behaviors in South Carolina is a disservice to all the good cops out there. It is a disservice to children who need some discussion and someone to trust instead of a beating. It is a disservice to a humanity that did not evolve to harm those we care for.

Violence is never the answer. To argue otherwise shows how broken we truly are.

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