Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Are you a trouble maker?


When you confront and question the authority of someone who has more physical force than you do, are you looking for trouble? Should you know better and try not to anger those in power?

These are the questions that resulted from my recent encounter with a Facebook post by the campus police at my university. They posted a surveillance photo of two individuals and were looking for help in identifying them for the purpose of bringing them for an interview. After asking the police a few questions on their Facebook page, I was given an answer that the motive for interviewing these two individuals was that they were seen walking in "non-public areas" and that some university staff members labeled these individuals as "suspicious". However, there was no clear definition of "non-public" areas or if being in these areas was an offence of any sort. The police stated that walking in "non-public areas...is generally not an offense although there could be contraventions under the Trespass to Property Act." However, they did not explain when and how walking in these "non-public" areas stops being a legitimate exercise of one's freedom of movement and starts being trespass of property.

Thus, we have to conclude that the only offence of these two individuals at this point, according to the police, is that their location and physical appearance were not pleasing to some staff members. The police stated that they "routinely" follow this procedure when there are such complaints.

My initial plan was to examine and question this policy. After all, the fact that some activities are "routinely" done does not automatically make those activities right or justified. To illustrate this point, let us use an extreme example of routine operations performed by state authorities in the past. In World War 2, thousands of Jews were routinely killed in gas chambers. Does this mean that it is ok to kill Jews? Second, is just looking "suspicious" to some people a sufficient reason for being forced to talk to some people (i.e., the police) you may have no desire to talk to?

I'm sure I looked suspicious to many people many times. To illustrate this, we can take a look at the photo on the right. It was taken this morning while I was going to work. The individual in this photo looks suspicious to me. The way he is dressed and his facial expression look like a cause for concern to me. If I didn't know that this individual is someone with a PhD in economics on his way to work, a proud father of two happy children, a loved husband and son, a recipient of multiple academic awards and scholarships, and a person whose worst offence was a "rolling stop" at an all-way stop sign, I would be weary if I saw him in a "non-public" area. I would think this individual may be a safety concern. But, is my suspicion a sufficient condition for interfering with this individual's freedom. Is my subjective judgment, based only on his physical appearance, sufficient for forcing him to justify his presence at a particular place? Does my suspicion imply he is supposed to justify his freedom to someone even though he has not committed any crime? I will leave the answering of these questions to you.

Something else caught my attention--the reaction of one of my family members to my plan to post the above questions on the university police Facebook page. That family member said: "You're really looking for trouble." Although this was said in a semi-humorous tone, we both knew that the truth behind it wasn't all that funny. What it meant is that, when you provoke those in power, you better be prepared for the consequences.

But, there is something more to this statement than that. There is an implied judgment in it--it is you that is causing trouble, not the person in power. Somehow, he or she has no choice but to retaliate, to punish, and it is up to you to choose whether you want to be punished or not. It is your fault if you get punished. All of a sudden, we turn to labeling you as the trouble-maker without the slightest question about the moral justification for the actions of the person in power.

Without intention of equating this situation with any tyrannical regime, I will draw a few implications from this experience. No wonder it took special kind of intellectual and spiritual strength to oppose tyrannical regimes in the past when a typical reaction to those that attempt to oppose or question any authority is that they are troublemakers. No wonder there weren't more people like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King. It takes a special kind of courage to be a "troublemaker" in a society where force of the powerful is seen as a law of nature, unchangeable, and morally unquestionable.

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