Sunday, December 24, 2006

Lecture 3: Agents of Social Control: Introduction

Lecture 3: Agents of Social Control: Introduction
Deviant Survival Guide
Copyright 2006 by drewkitty

I lied at the end of L2. I will be discussing the police in lecture L5. However, the police are not only agents of social control, they are the "last resort" agents of social control. Where all other means fail, the police are granted a monopoly on state-sanctioned aggressive violence.
We've talked around the definition of social control in L2, deliberately. People who first hear the concept tend to think of it as a monolitic mass, an Orwellian lock-step of the totalitarian regime. However, this is merely a flavor of social control -- "Stalin Lite: More Steel, Less Love, More Hate." Even the most democratic, egalitarian and even non-hierarchical societies (and never mind for the moment that matriarchies exist almost entirely in fiction) have extensive regimes of social control.

Without some elements of social control, society and civilization cannot exist. I can see the anarchists screaming already, "Hey, what about anarchy?" Anarchy is merely social control reduced to a comparative threat analysis -- is he bigger than me? Do I have heavier armament than he does? Does she have any friends who would revenge her? Not surprisingly, a real anarchy rapidly adopts a more authoritarian -- and less uncertain -- means of governance, such as feudalism.

Social control acts to reduce uncertainty and increase prediction in a social system. This is an essential point that bears harping on for a minute. Most of the major political and economic systems require some degree of predictive ability to work. In corrupt Colombia (or Los Angeles), you want to know that the bribe you paid today will equal favors tomorrow. In totalitarian regimes, the KGB-equivalent only has authority because you know that if you evade them, they'll get you -- eventually -- it's just a matter of time. In a democracy, you want to know that your representative will be motivated by future fear of your electoral displeasure, Diebold notwithstanding. And on the city streets of all three, the only thing that may protect you from that street punk with the knife is his concern that a cop car may be just around the next corner.

Good for you, bad for him.

The first step in Iraq in restoring social control -- and in countering any insurgent movement, not incidentally -- is to increase confidence among the common citizen that they can go to the market and buy food without being blown up; get to work without being machine-gunned; and have something to do other that sit around on your butts and talk politics, for lack of industrial work that needs to get done. This is increasing certainty in the social system. The insurgent is trying to throw a wrench in the works by setting off car bombs, disrupting industrial production, and randomly bombing markets. Chaos favors the weaker player.

I would add that the level of routine violence that can be tolerated by a "civilization," contrary to popular belief, is actually extremely high. Northern Ireland is an excellent example; with Israel serving as a current testbed. In World War II, the Germans, Japanese, British and Chinese continued to go to work every day with buildings coming down around their ears -- and in Stalingrad, workers in the tank factory repaired tanks in time for the tanks to shoot through the walls of the factory at advancing Germans. But the violence was predictable, and shielded as much as possible by regimes of social control. The otherwise useless air raid siren made the bombings psychologically predictable, and thus tolerable.

It is unpredictable violence, being struck down at random, that breaks civilizations. Rome survived being taken over by invader after invader, until the Goths came in and didn't know enough to take over the machinery of government, killing pretty much at random. Thus fell Rome. In Bosnia, the most feared enemy was the marketplace sniper. Everyone had to go and buy food. And every day, two or three people would be killed. But nobody knew who it would be, except that it might very well be them. Random violence is how you end up with entire nations (Bosnia, Cambodia) with PTSD.

So the first and foremost goal of any regime of social control is to assert a monopoly on violence. NEVER FORGET THIS. Even in America with a strong legal and social tradition of the right of self defense, violence is seen as a proper monopoly of the government. (You may want to re-read the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States at this point. It has nothing to do with gun regulations per se. A closer translation to modern English would be, "The ordinary people assert the right to use force to defend themselves, their families and their nation from all enemies.")

Once social control has carried out the essential task of making social violence predictable and political violence impossible, only then can resources be spared for secondary issues. One implication is that police are not there to fight crime. As J. Edgar Hoover put it, "Justice is incidental to social order." This is coming from the man who ordered the literal execution of the Black Panther movement.

Social control is far from the only social force in society -- there are many others, like overlapping waves and ripples. However, social control is more like oil on the waters, or a breakwater -- if the waves get too high, they are either "smoothed out" (informal social control) or "smack into the breakwater kicking up spray" (formal social control.)

Agents of social control are persons. Society never does anything -- only people take actions. Just as there is no literal "zero" you can point to in the real world, there is no "society" out there. All we have are people. Society is a sociological concept we use to refer to the shared beliefs and aggregate behaviors of a mass of people. Like the zero, it has no existence in reality. To quote a famous economic theorist, "No one in war has been killed by a piece of Gross National Product." In the same way, society has never executed anyone -- but a law enforcement officer flips the switch and barbeques a Death Row inmate, in a manner authorized and prescribed by law, in obedience to a capital warrant.

Without a zero, mathematics would fall apart. Without the concept of society, sociology would fall apart. But the map is not the territory, and "society" as a knowledge map has "There Be Dragons Here" written in the center of the map, not the edges. The edges are more clearly defined than the center. Deviants help define the edges. In fact, Durkheim points out that without deviants, you can't have a norm.

Thus we must study the agent of social control. This is about deviant survival, and if you as the deviant are going to have to survive something thrown at you, it will most likely be an agent of social control doing the throwing. Know thy enemy.

The full-time agent of social control is fairly rare. We've already established that social control is not the dominant force in society, and it takes money to pay people's salaries, so it's not surprising to find that only a small fraction of the population is being paid to mind other people's business. These include public and private agents and investigators, managers of quasi-public spaces, security personnel (who are basically lobotomized managers), field response personnel of public and private agencies (your firefighter/paramedic does more social control than your peace officer, believe it or not!), and various and sundry other occupations.

However, it is a common part of many jobs and occupations to help support the regime of social control. Anyone who participates in the hiring process, and particularly background checks, is doing a social control function. Anyone who covers the front desk, answers the phones, or even swipes the credit card reader is participating in "The System."

Formal agents of social control typically function as part of a bureaucratic system. Because of the powers and authorities granted to formal agents, they come under intensified surveillance and control themselves. The typical emergency response vehicle has a tracking device installed for a reason, and it isn't just "officer safety." The people in charge of the bureaucracy, and the organizations and regulatory agencies, do their best to influence and mold their minions -- and the organizational and institutional culture takes this input and warps it according to a combination of history, street experience, and the influence of informal leaders among the rank and file.

"In the world, people think of a criminal as dangerous and desperate. But the criminal hiding in a house is terrified of the whole world against him. He is a pheasant. The samurai who enter to arrest are hawks." Muyashi says it well, as usual. Members of organizations draw strength from their culture, from their uniforms, from their training and from each other. While some forms of deviance are tolerated inside such organizations, others are not -- and doing anything that could damage "the team," such as turning fellow members in for misconduct, is taboo.

So if you know the rules by which formal agents operate, and the informal ways that they are interpreted in the field, and an inkling of what they consider morally right and abhorrent, you can play them like a cheap trumpet. This will be explored in detail in Lecture 5.

Informal agents of social control are under far fewer restrictions, and are thus paradoxically more dangerous than formal agents of social control. Within their little spheres of power, they often are completely dominant. If the gas station attendant orders you out of the store, you can either comply or the police will be called. A later appeal to the off-site manager serves little purpose. This is why racial discrimination in informal settings persists when formal discrimination has been clearly made inappropriate; and the most rigidly controlled social system, the military, has all but eliminated it.

This is the "Little Gods" problem. Much as secretaries wield enormous informal influence, and janitors can make your life miserable (an excellent example is shown in the movie "The Terminal"), the informal social control agent is often making up for their lack of power in any other venue by misusing the little authority they enjoy. (This abuse assures that they will never get more.) Also note that these "Little Gods" are more likely to have prejudices or to themselves come from a deviant background.

So we've drawn a distinction between the agents of formal social control, and the agents of informal social control. Now let's look at some of the specific mechanisms they can use to influence your life.

To quote President Kennedy regarding the U.S. Navy SEALS, "They can help a government out, or help a government OUT." So you can either be looking for a service or a favor from a social control agent, or you can be hoping to avoid negative sanctions they might direct at you.

This duality is one of the problems that poor people have with the police. Since poor people are less able to afford to protect themselves, they need the police more often than most people. However, the poor are more in the public eye, and the law is biased against them in many non-subtle ways.

  • "In its majestic equality, the law forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges." -- Mark Twain
  • A concealed knife, first offense, is a felony. A concealed handgun, first offense, is a wobbler. If you can afford a lawyer, it's gonna be a misdemeanor. Otherwise a felony. Justice is a luxury for the rich.
  • Posting bail for the rich is a minor problem. Posting bail for the poor is an earthshaking event that can savage finances and households.
  • Rich people use drugs on their estates. Poor people use drugs on street corners. Rich people buy from their friends. Poor people buy from street dealers. Who do you think gets caught more often?

Thus, the police are a source of tyranny and oppression to the poor -- even when the police are professional and "neutral" in their obedience to the law. Add in active bias, and the poor are hosed -- needing police more, but getting "serviced" negatively instead.

If you are looking for services provided -- whether this is a job, or an apartment, or health care -- stealth mode can be extremely useful. If you are trying to avoid harassment or arrest, simple avoidance can be very powerful. Don't drive around at 3 in the morning, and you probably won't be "suspicion-stopped" by the police. Make sure you've dotted your Is and crossed your Ts. Fill out the application completely. Keep your car registration current. Look legit.

The next layer down is to have a good explanation or excuse. "I'm going to a costume party" works every now and again, but not every night. The problem is that explanations and excuses fall flat, and most social control agents know how to detect them. This works better on mundanes.

Being proud of who you are can gain you respect. This has worked for the racial minorities and to a lesser extent for gay people. However, if you're sufficiently out there in your deviance, excessive pride can get you thrown down a stairwell with your hands cuffed behind your back. Ouch.

The best advice I can give if confronted by an agent of social control is: Know what you want. Act accordingly. If you want a quiet night, don't give the officer static. If you want to cause a scene and show off in front of your friends, you'd better know exactly what you're doing -- because playing softball with hardball players can really suck for you.

Short-term "passing" is different from blending in with an existing work culture, or living in the same apartment complex with your landlord. Little mistakes and oddities add up, and you don't want to be in a position where your boss or landlord thinks you're a liar.

Tell the truth, but benignly. Keep your end of the deal, whatever the deal is. Most landlords will put up with almost anything as long as the rent is paid, in full, in cash, and on time -- no excuses, and don't damage the property.

Homework assignment: name two informal and one formal agent of social control who have influenced your life in the last year.

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