Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Separate and Privileged

Disparate treatment based on one's race (and/or other characteristics) is alive and well (as if this were in some doubt). Being a member or being perceived to be a member of a particular racial/ethnic group continues to give rise to differential treatment. Over the past weeks, there has been a great deal of attention to the disparate treatment African-American men in particular receive from White police officers and certainly the lethal aftermath of some of these confrontations.
The disparate treatment isn't restricted to police officers (though their reactions are of significant concern given that they carry firearms and use them). A number of filmed social experiments over the years indicate the contrasting reactions White and Black men can experience with respect to the same activities. For instance, some years ago, Oprah Winfrey presented the story a young White man named Josh Sullivan who took pills to darken his skin so that he could appear as an African-American male and experience what that was like. Here is the clip: 

In contrast to his experiences as a White man, while Black, Sullivan experienced what it was like to be stopped by the police for no apparent reason, followed around while in a shop as well as refused a place in a restaurant despite there being spaces - experiences he never endured as a White man. With respect to this privilege he held, Sullivan observed: "Whites receive this prima facie respect. I walked into a room and regardless of how much money I had in my pocket, there's a certain level of respect that I get from folks. And the first thing that I realized when I was Black was it's gone. You don't get any of that. You know White people get this respect and Black people are constantly trying to prove that they deserve it or worthy of it." 

Another striking illustration can be seen in the following footage from ABC's "What Would You Do?" It illustrates the differing reactions people have while witnessing a person commit a particular illegal activity (stealing a bike) based on the thief's race (and gender). In one instance, it is a White male, the second instance an African-American male, and the third, a White blonde haired woman. The reactions are partly comical but nevertheless revealing. One word of caution of course is that these are clips that ABC had selected and we must trust that the reactions presented are in some representative of those elicited when encountering the three different "thieves".

What we witness is that the African-American male is consistently confronted, while the other two White thieves tend to enjoy a much different experience, with the female enduring the least scrutiny. One of the more striking and interesting reactions were those of the older African-American women in the footage who gave the White male thief the benefit of the doubt on the assumption that stealing wasn't something we associate with young White men. None of this is surprising when we consider that Whiteness is often inherently associated with "goodness" and Blackness or darker skin tones are almost automatically associated with criminality, wrongfulness or at the very least suspicious behavior. (As an aside this privileging of Whiteness or fairness is replicated in other societies and cultures - see my earlier blog posting here).

These differential experiences can (not surprisingly) have profound implications for one's experience of law and law enforcement. The differences may come into play when dealing with sentencing disparities in a criminal matter, whether someone receives bail, who will be identified as a suspect or a "person of interest" or the credibility accorded to certain witnesses. And yes of course at a more basic level there is the presumption of innocence and whether it is really experienced equally.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Subaltern Resistance in the City of Joy

For many, depictions of Asia and Africa can consist of a variety of (sometimes competing) archetypes. Amongst these embodiments is the image of poverty and life in slums replete with disease, crime, and open sewers. For many living in such countries, these images reify certain caricatures of the "developing" South/East and simultaneously provoke (naturally) defensive responses as though such tropes of otherness singularly define the nations' existence and that of its people. Yet embedded within films that display such imagery, there are still other powerful narratives that depict more than just the abject poverty - there are also stories about law and resistance.

In this posting, I shall explore, in particular, one film's exploration about law and resistance, The City of Joy, directed by Roland Joffé. The film was based on the book of the same name written by Dominique LaPierre about the rigors of life in Calcutta's Anandnagar (City of Joy). At the time of its filming, in the early 1990s, there were local protests against the production for fear that it was portraying India in a poor light. The filming nevertheless continued and it was eventually released in 1992.

At first glance, the film appears to model and replicate the notion of a Western savior (in the form of Dr. Max Lowe played by the late Patrick Swayze) swooping in to save the local residents of the slum - from the miseries of disease (such as leprosy) and from the local mafia crime lord and his son who extract high rents from the local residents and businesses. Max does indeed improve their lives through his medical skills and his assistance. Yet, as the film progresses, another narrative develops that highlights the subjectivity of the local residents, and in particular, the resistive qualities of the relatively docile Hazari Pal (played by Indian actor Om Puri). While Max acts as a catalyst to inspire and taunt individuals such as Hazari into action, it is ultimately their own decisions to resist that makes them legal agents/subjects in their own right. Before explaining how Hazari asserts his (legal) subjectivity as a resister, rather than merely being saved by an outsider, I shall explain how and in what manner law plays a role in this film.

The "legal" framework is not one that centers around the legal norms of the governments of India, the state of West Bengal, and/or the city of Calcutta - it is an informal (if not illegal and unjust) system of norms created by a local crime lord and enforced by his son, Ashok, and their henchmen. The crime lord's control in many ways operates like a mini-government/fiefdom. He mandates that "taxes" be paid for "protection". When Max and other residents of the slum seek to build a free clinic to treat lepers without paying the crime lord's tax, and thus engage in their own form of a tax revolt, they are besieged by "protestors" - in essence the crime lord's hired thugs. The clinic is damaged and the property destroyed. The residents eventually capitulate and agree to be "protected". This crime lord-operated "government" also functions as a licensor for rickshaw pullers who must pay fees to work as pullers. It is a system that limits free(er) enterprise and places restraints on commerce.

Hazari's legal subjectivity as a resister emerges in two ways within this normative context. First, it comes into play when Hazari takes defiant steps to pull his rickshaw without the permission of the crime lord. After Ashok deprives Hazari of his "license" to pull a rickshaw (retribution for his part in setting up the leprosy clinic without the clinic paying taxes), Hazari decides, after some prodding from Max, to reconstruct/repair an unlawfully acquired rickshaw with the intention of using it to earn money. This act of reconstructing the rickshaw is itself an act of resistance against this local polity that restrains him from earning a livelihood of his choosing. Hazari furthermore involves himself in a strike by rickshaw pullers against an increase in "fees" imposed by Ashok. During the strike, Hazari asserts himself by urging his fellow pullers to continue to strike after Ashok threatens to take away their rickshaws if they persist in their strike. He advances to where Ashok is situated and grabs the microphone to speak to the rickshaw pullers. This causes a commotion and Hazari is arrested for this act. Later in court, before the judge, he in effect proudly declares his right to strike and to carry a rickshaw without having to pay illegal fees to Ashok (who has now taken over the mini-government after his father's passing) as well as bribes to actual policemen. The judge agrees with Hazari's rights to strike and pull a rickshaw without let or hindrance and furthermore issues a restraining order preventing Ashok from prohibiting Hazari from pulling his rickshaw. The judge formally legitimizes his act of resistance which here is in furtherance of a right to earn a livelihood, not to mention more essentially, a basic right to liberty in carrying on a livelihood of his choice. Although his defiance comes at a cost as he must pay fifty rupees as a fine for his part in the "disturbance" or stay in jail for several days. Legitimized resistance thus comes comes at a cost.
Second, after undermining Ashok's control by being able to pull his rickshaw, Hazari's penultimate act of defiance is manifested by physically confronting Ashok directly. While transporting his kids (a teenage daughter and two younger sons) and Max on the rickshaw, Hazari is stopped by Ashok and his henchmen. As Ashok takes hold of Hazari's daughter and threatens to disfigure her face with a razor blade, Hazari lashes out and lunges at Ashok. Although stabbed, Hazari physically bests Ashok and is on the verge of killing him when Hazari notices his children are watching and witnessing. He then stops and admonishes Ashok to stop his oppressive activities against him and the other residents of the slum.

More than just another movie that portrays life in the Third World as tantamount to a slum dwelling, The City of Joy is a film about normative (and indeed oppressive) structures and how resistance can operate within such structures - indeed to defeat or substantially undermine the system itself in defence of larger and perhaps more fundamental legal principles (e.g. the right to work, right to liberty and notions of fair taxation and good governance). Furthermore, the film also recognizes Indian/Third World characters as having subjectivity to reconstruct legal normativity without having it delivered upon them by outsiders (read: Westerners) as saviors. Undoubtedly Max's character is influential and is a catalyst. But he does not, vis-a-vis this informal governing structure, act as its vanquisher. Indeed through much of the film, Max hardly ever wins a fight (of course this is usually because he has to face 3-4 of the crime lord's henchmen at once). It is ultimately Hazari who frees the residents of the slum from Ashok's oppressive control.

None of this of course is to suggest that there is nothing problematic about other aspects of the film perhaps, however I will reserve that for another blog posting.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Right versus Rule

The latest installment of the Star Trek movie series, Star Trek Into Darkness, presents viewers with a good dose of fantasy and escapist entertainment. Beyond this, however, Star Trek Into Darkness also presents audiences with questions relating to the balance between acting in away that is right and acting in a way that is in compliance with the strictures of governing rules.

This issue first appears early in the movie, when the iconic Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise is forced to chose between following orders not to reveal the Enterprise to other planets or saving both an indigenous civilization and Kirk’s friend and first officer Spock from an erupting volcano. Over Spock’s objections, Kirk’s choice is the latter option. After returning from the mission, Spock reports Kirk for violating his orders and the rules governing Star Fleet, and Kirk is relieved of his command of the USS Enterprise as a result.
Shortly thereafter, this balance again appears in a conflict between Spock and Kirk. Following an attack on Star Fleet headquarters, Kirk is again promoted to captain of the Enterprise and, despite their differences, selects Spock as his first officer. The initial parameters of the mission are to hunt for the terrorist responsible for the attack on Star Fleet headquarters and kill him. When Spock is made aware of the orders, he strenuously objects to them on the grounds that extrajudicial killing violates the rules and laws of Star Fleet. At first Kirk disregards these objections, however when he announces their orders to the general crew he changes them to capturing the terrorist and transporting him back to Earth for an appropriate trial. Kirk attributes much of this decision to the points raised by Spock.

During the course of the movie, we learn that the Enterprise is being set up in order to start a war between Star Fleet and the Klingons, and that Star Fleet’s chief admiral had used and then intended to destroy superior warriors from another planet to craft battle strategies. It also is revealed that the terrorist the Enterprise is hunting, Khan, was used by the chief admiral and then forced to attack Star Fleet headquarters on the threat that his own crew would be killed if he failed to do so. Kirk is confronted by the chief admiral, who gives Kirk the option of surrendering Khan or having the Enterprise destroyed. Kirk refuses to surrender Khan on the basis of the near certainty that Khan will be killed by the chief admiral. In an effort to save the Enterprise, Kirk and Khan find a way onto the chief admiral’s own ship, only to have Khan kill the chief admiral – against Kirk’s wishes – and take Kirk and several others from the Enterprise hostage.
Among those left in control of the Enterprise is Spock, who agrees to the terms requested by Khan in exchange for the return of Kirk and the other hostages. Assuming that Khan will renege on his part of the bargain, Spock engineers a plot in which the targets of Khan’s request are switched with weapons that ultimately will be used to destroy Khan’s ship. This is something that could be questioned given Spock’s adherence to the rules above all else, yet he does so to save the Enterprise, Kirk and the other hostages. Once the hostages are returned to the Enterprise, the ship encounters a potentially fatal loss of power. In order to save the ship and crew, Kirk enters the radioactive area of the ship to start the power device needed to provide the ailing Enterprise with the necessary energy to return to Earth. In the process, Kirk is exposed to deadly levels of radiation. Before his death, he and Spock talk and each notes that they acted to save the ship and the crew in the way that the other would have done – Spock acting outside of the rules and Kirk following his duty to save the ship rather than protecting himself.

To the relief of audiences everywhere, Kirk is ultimately saved through a transfusion from, rather ironically, Khan. It is obvious that both Kirk and Spock are changed by their experiences throughout the movie, although Spock is perhaps more demonstrably changed in terms of demeanor. More than an interesting series of plot twists, however, the continued stressing of right versus rules as a bi-polar and strictly construed narrative raises important questions of law and morality in the larger cultural context. This narrative itself highlights the question of whether in fact there is such a bi-polar binary – and indeed whether there should be such a relationship – and further asks if it is better and more culturally acceptable to use a flexible construct of the relationship between right and rules.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Getting Close: Fatal Attraction and the Construction of Mental Illness

Characters in films, television and other mediums of popular culture have a normative value. They are standard-bearers against whom others who share certain characteristics with these particular characters are or may be judged. Characteristics may include race/ethnicity, nationality, religion, education, class, sexual orientation and/or political affiliation. They become standard-bearers because of their behaviour, conduct and/or personality traits.

When people are constructed as heroes, they are often seen as persons largely worth emulating, despite their flaws (to the extent that they exist). Conversely, through the creation of villains, producers of popular culture have the ability to attach considerable stigma(s) to specific classes of people. This can then influence others to view such people through that filter and justify certain violent or otherwise harsh responses as normatively proper and just. To the extent that they may have any redeeming qualities they are largely overshadowed by their flaws.

Throughout the past century, a number of groups have been constructed as the dangerous and violent "other" through certain characters - indigenous people, African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Jews communists, labour unions and of course Muslims and/or Arabs in recent decades have also been caricatured.[1] Their "barbaric" nature and conduct is then used to justify the violence meted out against them in film and television. This is a way of priming audiences to view the character's counterparts in the real world as equally malevolent and thus deserving of harsh treatment or punishment.

Adding to the classes of people mentioned above are those who have have mental illnesses or disorders and the presumed violent tendencies that embody them. In a recent interview, American film and television actor Glenn Close spoke about her regrets respecting the way her character in Fatal Attraction, Alex Forest, was portrayed. In particular, she reflected on how the film contributed to the stigma that people with mental illnesses were violent. Such portrayals cast "the stigma that [most] people with mental illness are violent. And that is not the truth."[2]  

Close argues that producers of popular culture must be responsible in the way people with mental illnesses are portrayed. In essence, characters ought to be contextualized, even if their actions are not justifiable. She posits: "I think as public figures, as entertainers, that we have a moral responsibility to only portray characters that if they have disruptive behavior, or behavior that is negative, that is has to be responsibly explained." Close states, "I really do not believe that we can any more just say, 'Let's make our bad person somebody mentally ill. That's really easy.'"

What is often striking is the lack of responsibility that producers of popular culture assume in the work they create. Close (at least now) defies this standard in a positive way and recognizes that the way characters are portrayed and dehumanized and/or decontextualized may have serious ramifications for how people are perceived and treated in the real world.[3]     

1. See Michael Paul Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987).

2. That films can produce or perpetuate such stigmas is hardly a revelation. Scholars have examined this phenomenon as well for some years. See eg LEA Walker et al, "The Myth of Mental Illness in the Movies and Its Impact on Forensic Psychology" in MB Gregerson (ed), The Cinematic Mirror for Psychology and Life Coaching (New York: Springer, 2010) at 171-192; Otto F Wahl & J Yonatan Lefkowits, "Impact of a Television Film on Attitudes Toward Mental Illness" (1989) 17(4) Am J Community Psychol 521, online: 

3. One film which presented a more nuanced view of mental illness was A Beautiful Mind (ABM). In ABM Nash is not seen as being perfect by any means but he is not depicted in the ways that others with mental illness are portrayed - violent. Still this is not to say there aren't other criticisms to be laid against it. Anthony David, a professor of cognitive neuropsychiatry, articulates that while ABM is engaging and compassionate, it nevertheless reinforces "most of the enduring myths about severe mental illness, not least the link between genius and madness, the healing properties of the love of a good woman, and the brutality of some psychiatric treatments." Anthony David, "A Beautiful Mind" (2002) 324 Brit Med J 491, online:

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Legal Satire?: Doonesbury and "Transvaginal" Rape

So often, a subject or an issue may be characterized as "political", "religious", "social" or "economic", yet they are not mutually exclusive. Something that is characterized as political may very well (and often does) have economic, social and indeed legal implications. In a series of cartoons this week, Doonesbury's writer and artist Garry Trudeau satirizes the implications of Texas' sonogram law.

The law mandates that a physician who is to perform an abortion must prior to the abortion perform a sonogram and display the image of the foetus, make audible the heart auscultation of the foetus for the woman to hear and explain the results of each procedure. A 24 hour waiting period must take place between the sonogram and abortion procedure. See Texas Medical Providers Performing Abortion Services v. Lakey, 667 F.3d 570 (5th Cir. 2012).

The implications of such a procedure in early first term abortions are that doctors must perform the sonogram vaginally with the use of a ten-inch sonogram "wand".

In one strip, Trudeau depicts a scene where a woman seeking an abortion who does not want to undergo the sonogram procedure is told that it is mandated by law. The content of the strip is described as follows:

In the stirrups, she is telling a nurse that she doesn’t want a transvaginal exam. Doctor says “Sorry miss, you’re first trimester. The male Republicans who run Texas require that all abortion seekers be examined with a 10″ shaming wand.” She asks “Will it hurt?” Nurse says, “Well, it’s not comfortable, honey. But Texas feels you should have thought of that.” Doctor says, “By the authority invested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape."

The cartoon sketch is not only a political statement against those who have passed and advocate this law, it is also one that projects a view of legal normativity, specifically in relation to criminal law and the offense of rape. In Trudeau's view (amongst others) the procedure amounts to state-mandated rape. He asserts:

Texas’s HB-15 [bill] isn’t hard to explain: The bill says that in order for a woman to obtain a perfectly legal medical procedure, she is first compelled by law to endure a vaginal probe with a hard, plastic 10-inch wand. The World Health Organization defines rape as “physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration — even if slight — of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object.” You tell me the difference.

In justifying the use of the word rape, Trudeau further explained that "[c]oercion need not be physically violent to meet the threshold."

Proponents of the law will of course naturally object to this position arguing that a woman who wants to have an abortion is not being raped during these sonographic "procedures" as the woman seeking the abortion has a choice to consent to them.

True enough, there are times where patients must consent to certain invasive or otherwise uncomfortable preliminary procedures before undergoing a major or principal treatment or procedure. However, there is a difference when these invasive preliminary procedures are necessary. The patient has to make a choice to forego the main treatment or procedure or go through through the preliminary procedures and acquire the main procedure. Where the invasive procedure is not medically necessary and is invasive as the one prescribed under the impugned law, the circumstances are not the same. The choice is not nearly an acceptable one given the procedure that they must be forced to undergo is not medically necessary.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Songs of Freedom: Sun City and the Anti-Apartheid Movement

During the mid-1980s, artists in the music industry lent their voices, instruments, star power and time to the famine in Africa. Several songs were produced leading up to the epic Live Aid concert in July 1985. Much of this was waged toward generating money and sympathy for victims of the famine. However, in 1985 another powerful song was released - a song of protest against the inherent inequality (and crime) of apartheid in South Africa - Sun City.

Sun City is a resort located in the former bantustan of Bophuthatswana. Bantustans were constructed as "independent" or "autonomous" homelands" created by the South African state to which Black South Africans were forcibly relocated. No nation outside of South Africa recognized the independent nature of these bantustans. In these bantustans, Van Zandt saw strong parallels with the reservation system in the United States and the relegation of indigenous Americans to these reservations.

Sun City, as a resort sought to draw in tourists and vacationers - including music and performing artists. Van Zandt perceived performances by foreign artists from the Global North at Sun City as a legitimation of apartheid. As a way of attacking and throwing attention on the immorality of apartheid, and these bantustans, Van Zandt wrote Sun City. A song, album and video were produced bringing together rock, folk and rap artists - including Van Zandt, U2, Bob Dylan, Run DMC, Bruce Springsteen and many others top contemporart artists. The lyrics touch upon important themes relating to law and politics.

It focuses on the agency of international artists to boycott giving performances in South Africa during that era and specifically resorts such as Sun City. The chorus (full lyrics reproduced below) repeats the incantation: "I say, I, I, I, I ain't gonna play Sun City." While the tone of the lyrics and the manner in which they are sung are defiant, it is about defiance in furtherance of fundamental legal principles including equality. It's about the deprivation of equality through forced relocation and violence against those resisting apartheid - considered by the United Nations as a crime against humanity. The concept of equality is enshrined in numerous international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. The song was also in furtherance of the UN's cultural boycott of South Africa, which some prominent musical artists and cultural icons, such as Queen and Rod Stewart disobeyed.

The agency of artists is linked to the notion of freedom and responsibility of those who can deligitimize apartheid and the failure to act appropriately in light of the legal deprivations tied to apartheid. This is reflected in the following verse:

It's time to accept our responsibility
Freedom is a privilege nobody rides for free
Look around the world baby it can't be denied
Why are we always on the wrong side

Another verse powerfully ends with the following line: "We're stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back" delivered angrily by Bruce Springsteen and Bono (of U2) at different points in the song.

Tied to the notion of agency and the failure to engage in a manner to weaken and undermine the South African government, the song criticizes the Reagan administration's discredited policy of constructive engagement, which mirrored Margaret Thatcher's in England. The policy sought to avoid economic boycotts against South Africa in favour of incentives. In light of this policy, Reagan vetoed measures passed by the United States Congress with significant Republican support in the Senate rejecting President Reagan's stance. In 1986, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act with a significant enough majority thus overriding Reagan's veto. The Act forbade any new United States trade and investment in South Africa. Similar legislation was passed in European jurisdictions as well as Japan.

Ultimately, Nelson Mandela and other anti-Apartheid leaders were released from South African detention facilities. Apartheid was formally dismantled and popular elections were held resulting in Mandela's historic election as President. A number of factors led to this result. Sun City was part of a phenomenon of endeavours to boycott and protest apartheid. However much or little Sun City played a role in its dismantling (in the United States - it purportedly received little radio airplay), songs and other forms of popular culture can play a critical role in drawing attention to a political cause against an ongoing international violation and in articulating a vision of law and justice.

Sun City

We're rockers and rappers united and strong
We're here to talk about South Africa we don't like what's going on
It's time for some justice it's time for the truth
We've realized there's only one thing we can do

I ain't gonna play Sun City

Relocation to phony homelands
Separation of families I can't understand
23 million can't vote because they're black
We're stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back

I ain't gonna play Sun City

Our government tells us we're doing all we can
Constructive Engagement is Ronald Reagan's plan
Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope
This quiet diplomacy ain't nothing but a joke

I ain't gonna play Sun City

Boputhuswana is far away
But we know it's in South Africa no matter what they say
You can't buy me I don't care what you pay
Don't ask me Sun City because I ain't gonna play

I ain't gonna play Sun City

It's time to accept our responsibility
Freedom is a privilege nobody rides for free
Look around the world baby it can't be denied
Why are we always on the wrong side

I ain't gonna play Sun City

Relocation to phony homelands
Separation of families I can't understand
23 million can't vote because they're black
We're stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back

Lyrics courtesy of:


Michael C. Beaubien, "The Cultural Boycott of South Africa" (1982) 29 Africa Today 5.

John Harris, "The Sins of St Freddie" (14 January 2005).