Emotional Responses to the Andrew Meyer & John Kerry Incident: A Psychological Study in Issues of Power, Anger and AuthoritySeptember 20th, 2007 by Howard Ditkoff
What I’ve found most fascinating about the situation are the responses.
Clearly there has been a significant proportion of people that has responded with anger and indignation to what they view as the police using far too much force on Meyer without just cause. Some of those people go as far as to claim that the action was an attempt to deny Andrew Meyer his First Amendment rights and to unfairly and/or illegally suppress his pointed questions about some highly sensitive issues.
On the other hand, many people I have spoken with have defended the police. Even while admitting that their actions may have been rather heavy-handed, they will bring up – and reasonably so – the fact that police officers work in an atmosphere of great danger. Thus, they argue, we need to be sympathetic to the fact that the officers were responding to a person who was in fact resisting arrest, regardless of whether or not the arrest was originally justified or not.
But what is most striking to me is the level of emotion with which I’ve seen many people, including myself, respond on both sides of the issue. While some certainly take a rather balanced and objective view of the incident, others respond in such a way as to raise suspicion about whether the present situation is really the root source of the feelings it has triggered. As the phrase goes “When it’s hysterical, it’s historical,” and I have come to believe that many people are reacting to this event based mostly on their own past experiences with authority figures during their development and/or their own coping responses to those experiences.
At the risk of oversimplification, I see these strongly emotional responders falling into three main groups:
- Some have managed to have generally good experiences with authority figures, or are authority figures, and they seem more likely to side with the police.
- Others have had very bad experiences with authority figures, whether those may entail having their identities or beliefs suppressed and stifled or being the targets of physical violence. Therefore, highly skeptical of abuses of power of the type by which they themselves have been victimized in the past, they tend to identify and side strongly with the student. Indeed, it is my hypothesis that Andrew Meyer’s own expressions of anger towards both John Kerry and the police, as well as his motives for soliciting attention with his confrontational questions and his frantic cries for help, stem from projections rooted in a perception of past injustices at the hands of authority figures.
- But the group that I find most fascinating of all are those that have had bad experiences with authority figures, but seem to have internalized the rationalizations of their physical or emotional abusers and come to identify more with them than with their fellow victims of abuse. Perhaps surprisingly to many, but actually quite understandably given the nature of coping and defense mechanisms, I have found this group to be the most vociferous defenders of the police action out of anyone.
Not only have members of this group sided with the police, but they seem to feel outright personal hostility toward Meyer. The basis of their hostility seems to be little more than the fact that Meyer spoke in an antagonistic way when asking his questions to one authority figure (John Kerry, ironically someone himself quite familiar with standing up to authority figures from his Vietnam protest days) and that, perhaps unlike them in their own struggles with authority, he did not bow down or cower in fear when challenged by other authority figures (the police).
My hypothesis is that seeing a young student openly express anger, while strongly and unflinchingly standing up to authority – for better or for worse - brings up conscious or unconscious memories of their own failure to stand up for their inner child during their own moments of victimization. Thus, highly threatened by the awakening of such an awareness, rather than tracing their feelings to the source and facing down their own abandonment and suppression of the reasonably hurt and angry parts of themselves, they instead project those feelings onto the person whose actions a strong part of them blames for unpleasantly triggering them.
It is also interesting to consider into which group the various police officers involved in this incident would fall and how these same dynamics may have affected their actions.
There is no question that Andrew Meyer was not a total angel in the situation. He was indeed somewhat antagonistic and confrontational in his voice tone and he did struggle to avoid arrest once the police stepped in. Most of the members of the third group – abuse victims who have come to identify with their abusers and to resent those who resist authority - that I have heard defending the police action condemn Meyer by comparing his case with other examples where controversial questions were asked in a calmer tone of voice. The implication is that simply because Meyer asked his questions in a more antagonistic tone, the police were then justified in being more aggressive in taking away his microphone – despite Kerry’s stated willingness to respond - and beginning to arrest him. And once they became aggressive, of course, they argue, Meyer had no right to resist that aggression. In doing so, they believe, he only justified the further escalation of violence that led to him being tasered.
The fact of the situation is that while asking questions antagonistically and confrontationally at a forum may diminish the chances of attracting the sympathy of a certain part of the population, it is, within limits, not illegal. Asking tough questions passionately, even if the reason is, as some have suggested, to bring attention to oneself, is not, within limits, illegal. In fact, given the sorry state of our democracy and our world in the wake of authoritarian leaders who have abused their power, ignored the Constitution and common welfare, and shrugged off the importance and rights of the average citizen, it may be a downright healthy and much-needed expression of indignation. And speaking in a way that happens to trigger discomfort in some segment of the population, no matter how unpleasant they may find it, is not, within limits, illegal. While he did undoubtedly test those limits, I don’t believe that Andrew Meyer went beyond those limits in this situation.
More importantly, no matter what tone of voice a person uses or how stubbornly they refuse to cower in the face of aggression from authority figures – right or wrong – this absolutely does not, in my mind, justify the use of a taser at a point where the person is already fully restrained and poses no threat to anyone.
This incident will be remembered by most for several reasons. It will be remembered as yet another milestone in the switch, catalyzed by technology, from a corporate-monopolized to a citizen-driven media, able to break and widely promote stories that would have previously received little attention from the major media outlets. It will be remembered as a pivotal moment, along with the Michael Richards incident, in the use of widespread video and web 2.0 technology to expose an ugly, and previously rarely seen, underbelly of our culture. And it will become a touchpoint in the debate over police brutality that we can trace back through the Rodney King incident and beyond.
But I will remember it even more as an incident that provoked responses which provided fascinating insight into the emotional and psychological dynamics of many people in our country as they relate to issues of power, authority, justice and freedom. And yes, my view, too, is shaped by my own past experiences.
Tags: abuse, andrew meyer, anger, authority, authority figures, coping, culture, defense mechanisms, democracy, emotional abuse, emotional triggers, emotions, first amendment, freedom of speech, inner child, john kerry, media, michael richards, personal development, physical abuse, politics, power, projection, psychology, social justice, suppression, technology, the media, unconscious, victimhood, video technology, violence, web 2.0
Included in: Carnival of the Green #96