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Emotional Responses to the Andrew Meyer & John Kerry Incident: A Psychological Study in Issues of Power, Anger and Authority

September 20th, 2007 by Howard Ditkoff

By now, most of the country has seen the widely played video of University of Florida student Andrew Meyer being held down and tasered by police while screaming “Don’t tase me, bro!” after asking some questions of Senator John Kerry in a rather heated tone at a forum. I am not going to give any more of the details of the event itself here as they are widely documented.

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.

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    15 Responses to “Emotional Responses to the Andrew Meyer & John Kerry Incident: A Psychological Study in Issues of Power, Anger and Authority”

    1. ronny Says:

      Hi Howard,

      Thanks for your insights. For me as a coach and service professional I believe it is our duty to spread the word about the right of freedom of speech. Here in Europe it all started with a silence after the Kristallnacht on November 9–November 10, 1938.

      “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” (George Orwell)

      Keep up the good work,

      Ronny

    2. SystemsThinker Says:

      Ronny,

      Personally, I just don’t think it’s really a First Amendment issue. Meyer wasn’t arrested for simply speaking or for the content of his questions. He was being pulled away for ignoring repeatedly being asked to stop and to limit his comments in the same way that I’m sure every other speaker would have. Surely at a public forum there are limits to what someone can do. I think the real issue is simply how aggressively he was treated, far beyond what I believe was necessary, and, more importantly, how some people seem almost gleeful about him being tased. I think that reaction, seemingly lacking any empathy at all for him simply because he was confrontational in his approach, is the most disturbing part of this story.

    3. ronny Says:

      I can’t go with you here. You use the word “confrontational”, I use the words “young and enthused”.
      As a university student I had a big mouth at meetings. I protested, argued with authority, trowed eggs and never got arrested or even toughed by the police.

      My parents have fought for more freedom in the sixties, their generation has become quite as a mouse now, they are enjoying their lives ;-))

      I know what they are doing, cause they are my niche. They are living and looking at situations as in computer games or reality show.

      I’m sorry to say this, but when you have power you have to be very careful with it and this was not the case. Socrates was not a polite man and they’ve asked him to drink the poison. GAME OVER…

      This way we are not respecting freedom of speech and this is not the way we will save the world.

      Ronny
      http://www.techie-powertools-for-coaches.com

    4. SystemsThinker Says:

      Ronny,

      I think the evidence coming out is pretty clear that Meyer was definitely more than just enthused and was actively confrontational both during the event on tape, as well as before the videos begin. There is some evidence that he may have even staged this for the camera on purpose. One could even argue that the real issue was that Meyer, by refusing to adhere to limits that all other speakers had to adhere to, was actually infringing on other people’s free speech rights.

      I’m willing to consider all of those possibilities. But none of them justify the tasing or the sense of deep anger I see pouring out toward Meyer on the part of some. And furthermore, I hear nobody talking about whether, even if this was a staged, confrontational act, it may have been justified in any way by the circumstances in our society.

      Anyway it’s a fascinating incident that touches on so many different issues at once. Thanks for the thoughts.

    5. Abandoned Stuff by Saskboy » Blog Archive » Brutal police in Florida taser charismatic activist Says:

      […] A very interesting analysis of people’s thoughts and feelings toward the event can be found. Sphere: Related […]

    6. Braxton Says:

      Saw you comment at my site, thanks for adding your two cents worth.

      To answer your question, the rant in which you found my comments was based on some of the more annoying things id seen in the news lately. With respect to Meyer, he knew what he was doing, and i have no sympathy for someone who provokes a response. He got more than he bargained for, I suspect. FWIW, the police did cross a line. But, its my belief that when the cops tag you, you cooperate fully. If the cops do something wrong despite your full cooperation, thats another matter entirely.

      But then, I dont actually exist. What do I know?

      Braxton Hicks.

    7. Emotional Responses to the Andrew Meyer & John Kerry Incident « resist/revolt Says:

      […] Read the full article at  Emotional Responses to the Andrew Meyer & John Kerry Incident: A Psychological Study in Issues o… […]

    8. CL Jahn Says:

      Howard, I agree that the kind and level of emotional response to this issue does reflect past association with authority figures, but is not the only factor.
      I feel the police were waaay out of line. But I have had good relations with police officers - my godfather was on the job 30 years, my best friend wears a badge on the Jersey shore, and a surprising number of my friends are in law enforcement in one way or another.
      I absolutely understand the difficulties facing cops every day they are on the job. At the same time, we are not a police state; the police are supposed to enforce our laws, but they do not get to control us in any but the most dire circumstances.
      There’s a lot of blame to go around in the events surrounding Meyer’s tazing. But there was absolutely no action on his part that should have resulted in what happened. The cops should not have engaged him, they should not have grappled him, and they should not have tazered him.
      What did he do? He got so worked up that he couldn’t get his question out the way he intended, so he kept asking different versions of it. It was irritating to watch, and I’m sure it was aggravating for those waiting to hear Kerry’s reply. He asked his question at a forum specifically INTENDED for someone like Meyer to ask someone like Kerry the kind of questions Meyer was asking. Despite all the claims to the contrary, there simply wasn’t any grounds for the cops to be involved, even if Meyer would not shut up. The moderator should have intervened, or the sound operator should have turned off the microphone; I run these kinds of events all the time, and that’s WHY we have moderators, and sound operators.

      I disagree that one should quietly surrender when your rights are being violated - and there is no doubt about it, his first ammendment rights were absolutely brutalized that day. I commend Meyer for standing his ground.

      The cops were absolutely in the WRONG. PERIOD.

    9. SystemsThinker Says:

      CL,

      I didn’t mean to imply that all reaction to the story is based on unresolved psychological issues from past experiences. Certainly some people are simply objectively looking at the situation and are angry about it. It’s a reasonable response. However, you can sometimes pick up on some subtle differences in when people are angry about the event itself vs. when the event is triggering something more personal for them. I’m glad to see people like you who are taking a broad-minded view of the incident and still feel upset by it. This post was mostly meant to discuss why, for some people, the incident is triggering something deeper than that. I agree with you that really it was probably unnecessary to stop Meyer. If everyone did what he did, events might become almost untenable. But in that situation, toward the end of the event, and with Meyer seeming to have finally wrapped up his questions, I think it would have made more sense to just let things go on. As for the sound board and tech people taking charge of dealing with the situation, that may also have been a better way of handling it. I am not as familiar as you with those issues, but it certainly sounds like a better plan than what happened. Thanks for the comment.

    10. Jack Says:

      If you bite lion’s tail you haven’t any reason to complain when it does more than just pull its tail out of your mouth. Meyer doesn’t receive any special treatment because he is young and enthused.

      He created the situation. He cut in front of the line. He taunted the police and then he resisted arrest. He shouldn’t have been tased, but then again had he handled himself differently he wouldn’t have had this happen.

    11. SystemsThinker Says:

      Jack,

      1) I was hoping that trained human police officers had better impulse control than a lion.

      2) He wasn’t saying Meyer should get special treatment for being young and enthused. He was saying just the opposite. That he in fact got special - and extra agressive - treatment because he was young and enthused and shouldn’t have. He should have been treated much the same as someone asking the same questions without enthusiasm. His voice tone shouldn’t have been an issue as long as he was not physically threatening anyone.

      3) We agree, he shouldn’t have been tased and that’s really the key point. If he handled himself differently, yes it wouldn’t have happened. If the police had handled themselves differently we can say the same. There were many factors and Meyer himself is certainly one. He is partially responsible for being arrested, no doubt. But by the time the taser came out, he was already held down and had nothing else he could have really done. We could talk about a million things that played a part in him being tased including the invention of tasers and his own conception and birth. But I feel the officer who chose to tase him has ultimate responsibility for that act.

    12. Man tasered, arrested for asking good questions of Sen. John Kerry « Scanlyze Says:

      […] of the First Amendment Why are students getting Tasered on video? THE SHOCK HEARD AROUND THE WORLD. Emotional Responses to the Andrew Meyer & John Kerry Incident: A Psychological Study in Issues o… Andrew Meyer, John Kerry and Campus Security: Clusterfuck […]

    13. Arianne Says:

      I believe you are a very bright and intelligent young man. The way you view the incident with others responses rather than your own, clearly shows your thinking “outside the box” as they may say. I found your blog about the incident not only fascinating but intriguing, in light of the way others have responded. You not only led me to read your blog but allowed me to take a moment and realize that my thoughts on the situation were so personal that I really didn’t take the time to consider anyone else’s. Though while I was writing my blog, I was so heated at the fact that this man was treated so unjustly and others were justifying it with his own actions. Thank you for allowing me to read your blog, and to give me the insight to later not only respect the views of others, but to consider them more carefully next time I have such a strong opinion about an incident.

    14. SystemsThinker Says:

      Arianne, thanks for the kind words. I do try to think outside the box. Definitely the main point of the post was to show how we often respond to situations without realizing the unconscious personal issues it is triggering and that are the real leverage points for us. If we can find those, we can turn a lot of situations that are upsetting into constructive opportunities for growth. I have a long way to go on doing this too. When those buttons get pressed, it’s hard for any of us to stay objective, but it’s a skill worth working at. Thanks again.

    15. Ryan DeRamos Says:

      Howard,

      On a very unrelated note, I finished “Beyond Civilization.” Thank you for the recommendation a few months ago. While it started out as an appendix to the other “Ishmael” trilogy, Quinn’s more detailed ideas (especially the business model) near the end are fantastic!

      Cheers!
      Ryan


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