A few days ago I was have a Facebook back-and-forth with Julian Dibbell about this Atlantic blog post about the now infamous Lt. Pike of the UC-Davis police force.
To roughly summarize the Atlantic argument: Lt. Pike, like all of us, is the product of an institution: the police force. Institutions socialize individuals into them. What Pike did is not as attributable to him as it is to the institutional practices of policing. And we should be focusing on those rather than the corporeal person through whom those practices manifested themselves.
In the discussion with Julian I pointed out that I don’t actually disagree with the merits of this argument. Like my good friend Will Frank, who in his thesis articulated something that had been stewing in my head for years in a less coherent fashion, I don’t believe that human beings have free will sufficient to meaningfully assign moral praise or blameworthiness. We are all fundamentally products of systems and of institutions; the behavior which comes out of us is not because of us, but because of what happened to us.
But I also feel strongly that it is OK – more than OK, it is important and necessary – to condemn Lt. Pike for his brutal actions, and to make a strong stand against them as things which are wrong and bad.
In the week or so since this discussion took place I’ve been trying to figure out how I can hold both of these ideas in my mind at the same time.