The Sub-human Factor at UC Davis and Beyond

11/22/2011 06:15 pm ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

You can get it on Google or any of the sites you use for almost any brand of what we call the news. Occupy Wall Street student affiliates on the UC Davis campus were blasted with pepper spray by the local police. As a result, firings will surely occur, and one of them may be the President of UC Davis herself.

The news is everywhere, and the arrogance and swagger of the policeman who seemed like he was about to win a pissing contest as he blurted to his colleagues and onlookers about his intention to spray the peaceful (let's emphasize this because it is important) protestors, is -- yes -- disturbing. It also speaks, beyond the time and place of its occurrence, to the bullying and sadism that can occur whenever one group or person becomes sub-human to another.

It is my own view that this will not be solved by the removal of one college president, although this is a judgment call that has its own weight and complexities to which I am not privy. For me, it is a cultural epidemic we have to look at if we want to address bullying as most people say they want to. For me, this is more of a present danger that needs to become so clear that we cannot run from it any longer.

Bullying thrives when there is an imbalance of power, and little actual or emotional equality. It thrives whenever we stop respecting the humanity of the other, any other, whether that includes Iraqi detainees, prisoners, poor people, those who disagree with us or who are not like us. Whenever we start justifying acts of sadism by assuming one group has the right to dehumanize another, we become part of the world of genocide, if only in that we begin to numb ourselves to its casualties.

One of the casualties of our time is caring about others. My emphasis has included the urgency of our using the invaluable information we already have in developmental psychology and bring it back into our lives so we respect and practice arenas of coping with vulnerability, enhancing attachment between parents and children, us and each other. The use of so called "positive" psychology has too often included the elitist assumption that if we have the right attitude, the right "stuff," we will thrive. The humility that comes from putting ourselves in another's shoes, recognizing the effects of both trauma and temperament on survival, from respecting difference in culture and more, has been more and more an endangered "species," an endangered feeling state.

We are on the eve of the Thanksgiving festivities, for so many a time of stress, and this year a time for economic stress as much as anything else. Turkey, family, loneliness and actual thanksgiving are part of this most national of holidays. When we pause to take stock of what we have to be thankful for, many of us mention the possibility of living our dreams -- a possibility that should not be dwindling as we speak -- and we think of freedom. However, there is no freedom that contains discipline and responsibility, without the emotional capacity to evaluate information, without the emotional freedom and obligation to think things out and through.

There is all the less emotional capacity to think if we are afraid to recognize the information within the information we receive. In terms of UC Davis, generally a quiet campus, there was a group of peaceful protestors sprayed and treated so sadistically and their pleas for help ignored that permanent damage may have occurred in one or more cases (see the youtube, it's everywhere).

There was a group of human beings against whom one other human being perpetrated violence by announcing his oncoming acts of cruelty in public, with no shame. To be sure, he did not see the human beings he was spraying as human beings. He (and those colleagues who added on their own acts of brutality, disgust and dehumanization) anticipated applause and in some households there may in fact be just that, the gloating that consumes some of us when another group takes on that subhuman status and we are glad at their pain.

We all have this capacity -- to lessen to our minds another's human status and to think we are inherently better. And so it is hard for us to get to know the bullies in our children's midst because it is hard to admit our cruelty and potential for that cruelty. I am calling attention to this capacity for cruelty so we might study it, so we do not stop in blaming or firing one person or some people only. The cruelty at Davis took place because one cop thought or knew other people would approve, as the bullying in our schools occurs the same way. Bullies don't bully in isolation -- they have bystanders who cheer and bystanders who look the other way.

We need to know more about human functioning and about how we tend to project our unwanted parts onto others. If we don't study the facts of history and of the present we will learn nothing. And if we can't learn when the facts reflect on or against us or our friends and colleagues, we won't absorb the information that will be ejected and another form of human pollution.

Emotional pathways to absorbing knowledge -- this is a good part of my purpose in the present, and something about which I can feel thankful I am able to focus. However, I could use more company in a field ripe with an urgency for discovery and practice and as yet all too lonely and empty of company.

To the students of Davis: Thank you for showing your humanity, your vulnerability, your decency. We need you, we need your passion and your honesty.