It’s a mean world after all

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

There’s a hypothesis floating out there somewhere called the “mean world hypothesis.” It suggests that the emphasis on crime and violence on television leads viewers to perceive the world–or more precisely, society–as more dangerous than it actually is.

This has all sorts of ill effects. It means that even as crime has been decreasing, people often perceive that it has been increasing. It leads to higher funding for police and prisons, even at the expense of education, which might help to reduce crime. It also diverts attention from white collar crime, which is probably at least as costly and at least as dangerous, but which the criminal so-called justice system rarely involves itself with.

And I’m probably not stretching too far to suggest that it combines with the racism and classism of the criminal so-called justice system, both of which Jeffrey Reiman documents at length in The Rich get Richer and the Poor get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, to stigmatize groups that are already at a disadvantage and to legitimate what David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel define as structural violence–the deprivation of various forms of opportunity–in Peace and Conflict Studies.

It becomes a self-fulling prophesy. As a number of great anarchists have pointed out, prison is a dehumanizing experience. People who survive it emerge brutalized and a little less human. They face limited prospects for employment, so are compelled to further crime, which is one reason recidivism rates are so high.

And word has it that a prison experience is particularly brutal for incarcerated ex-cops. Contemplating this, it well-behooved Johannes Mehserle to put on the performance he did on the witness stand in his trial for the murder of Oscar Grant with a shot in the back on a BART station platform.

I’m guessing that this, in combination with expert testimony suggesting Mehserle would have been justified in using a taser on Grant, will lead the Southern California jury–with no African-American members–to fail to convict Mehserle. This will reinforce a widely held view in Oakland neighborhoods and elsewhere that the so-called justice system protects whites–and police in particular–against blacks.

It is as if the criminal so-called justice system is seeking a race war, the better to exterminate blacks who, due to structural violence, already suffer a reduced life expectancy in many inner cities. That might be even a little meaner than what we’re doing to them already.

But that’s not all I’m thinking of. Paul Krugman is certainly not alone in attempting to explain that trying to cut spending while joblessness is so high will undermine any recovery, effectively leading to further deficits. As Krugman put it,

Both textbook economics and experience say that slashing spending when you’re still suffering from high unemployment is a really bad idea — not only does it deepen the slump, but it does little to improve the budget outlook, because much of what governments save by spending less they lose as a weaker economy depresses tax receipts.

Now Krugman’s projecting a third great depression, but as he also notes, “anti-stimulus appeals to a fundamental meanness of spirit that is always present in the political world.”

That last comment bears a little further exploration. He’s right, but without analysis, he offers little in the way of explanatory power. And without that explanation, Robert Samuelson’s muddled analysis, which confounds all of a very disparate Europe, that among numerous possibilities suggests that “greater debt frightens investors” might persuade. But even this deserves further exploration–and for the same reason as the last line I quoted from Krugman.

This entire debate, pitting unemployment against an illusion of fiscal prudence, with the latter prevailing, suggests that the financial system–which is apparently accountable to no one–is more important than the people who are unemployed, whom both Krugman and Samuelson suggest may now be permanently unemployed. Why is that so? If the financial system is so broken as to condemn so many people, we should welcome its demise.

But we don’t. Because we’re mean. Just as the criminal so-called justice system excuses the crimes of the rich, just as it offers greater comfort to a cop who shot a man dead who was face down on a platform than to the deceased’s family, and just as we keep hearing from politicians that we have extended unemployment benefits long enough, we will protect the financial system even against the people it is supposed to serve.

I am reminded of a passage from George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think:

The world must be and must remain a competitive place. Without competition, there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person. If competition were removed, self-discipline would cease and people would cease to develop and use their talents. . . .

Even if survival were not an issue, even if the world could be made easier, even if there were a world of plenty with more than enough for everybody, it would still not be true that parceling out a comforable amount for everyone would make the world better and people better. Doing that would remove the incentive to become and remain self-disciplined. Without the incentive of reward and punishment, self-discipline would disappear, and people would no longer be able to make plans, undertake commitments, and carry them out. All social life would come to a grinding halt. To prevent this, competition and authority must be maintained no matter how much material largesse we produce.

Lakoff, I should hasten to explain, is describing the conservative “critical father” morality system. And in fact, we are producing much more than we need, so we ought to be able to afford to be generous. But the liberal “nurturant parent” perspective that would suggest greater cooperation and greater compassion for people is nowhere to be seen in our politics or in our society. We have become mean and we have embraced meanness.