Monday, September 24, 2007

The Taser Situation--An Analogy

Here's how I see Andrew Meyer's behavior in the University of Florida tasering incident. This doesn't take into account Meyer's possible behavior before the video I've seen (so the question of how he got to the microphone, and his behavior prior to his "questions" aren't part of the analogy, though I still think that behavior is critical to understanding the police reaction), and it does involve some speculation. And it involves a bit of humor (I hope). Let me know where I may be straying from the situation in this analogy.

Say you’re a customer at Target. You’ve bought a widget, and the damned widget doesn’t widge. So now you go to Target to return or exchange your widget, because you still have a bunch of widging that needs to be done and you can't widge with the widget you've bought.

Unfortunately, it’s after work, and you had to work late today. You don’t get to Target until eight and they close at nine (I don’t know if that’s the case—I’m pretending). When you walk inside you see that the line at the return counter is ridiculously long. Like the day after Christmas, it seems everyone and his brother needs to return something.


So you get in line and you watch the line shorten much more slowly than you’d like, while your watch seems to have found a turbo gear. You’re getting antsy that you’re not going to get to return your widget before they close. A woman tries to return a thingamajig that she bought at Wal-Mart, and it’s kind of like the thingamajig Target sells, and she can’t understand why the woman behind the counter won’t just take it. Another guy can’t find his receipt, and he’s holding up the line while he searches for it. Another old couple—so old their oxygen tanks need oxygen tanks—struggle to understand the situation the customer service peon is presenting them with. This is all ridiculous. You could be in and out of here quick as hell if it weren’t for all of these cretins.

Then, finally, you’re second in line. Almost your turn.

And the woman at the counter says, “Sorry, we’re closed. Come back tomorrow.”

Maybe you understand on some level that the store needs to close at a specific time. Maybe you vaguely understand that you just came up unlucky, that you’ll have to come back another day.
But maybe you want them to bend the rules for you. You say, “I’ve been standing in this line for an hour. You’re here to take returns, and I have a right to have my widget returned.”

And while it's true they had been there to take returns, they no longer are. But the woman behind the counter takes pity on you and says, “Okay, come on,”—the customer ahead of you just left when they said the store was closing, and there aren't any other customers around—“I’ll return your widget.”

So you walk up to the counter, and instead of handing the woman your widget, you say, “I’m going to preface my return, and then I’ll offer you my widget for returning.” The woman is irritated, but she doesn’t shut you off, even though she’d be within company policy to do so. So you start by endorsing a book you read, and then you offer some opinions on the rankings of investigative journalists in America. And then, rather than handing the woman your widget, you start shoving all kinds of products onto the counter. A whatchamacallit, a thingamajig, a gewgaw, and you’re reaching for more.

At this point the security guard grabs you by the arm. “You need to leave now.”

But you haven’t even gotten to your widget. Damn. You push the security guard away and try to continue your return, but the security guard grabs you again. You break away. Now there are three security guards around you, and you’re screwed. You’re leaving, whether you want to or not. But you have a right to return your widget! The company’s policy says so! Your rights as a consumer are being violated!

And you continue to thrash and resist. The security guards try to keep you immobilized, but you won't stop thrashing.

"Don't tase me, bro," you say.

You know if you stop struggling you won't get hit with the TASER, but for some reason you decide to keep struggling. You keep it up until they handcuff you and taser you.

My point is this: Meyer was acting within a context. Shouting "free speech" and "civil rights" without context is like saying Jeffrey Dahmer was an inventive chef. We already know the cliché exceptions to the right of free speech, like yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, so there's no point covering that. Free speech isn't absolute or universal. I would argue that it's situational beyond those hard boundaries as well. Sometimes, no matter how much you want to yap, you need to shut up. Not because you're wrong, but because you're in the wrong situation.

In another post I'll discuss what I see as the differences between Meyer's tasering and the Kent State shootings.


Jim said...

There's ethical responsibilities that accompany our rights. Part of that is not yelling "fire" in a crowded movie theater.

A lot of people who spout off about free speech have no concept of this. They're pushing the boundaries but in actuality don't know where those boundaries are.

Free speech is situational, too. There are times when it's right to invoke it and others when it's wrong.

Nathan said...

I don't think this analogy works for Meyer's behavior and the tasing for the following reasons:

1. The setup does not correspond to Meyer's situation. I have not seen anything yet that confirms the audience was told that no more questions would be taken. And even if it did, Kerry acknowledged him and took the question, so it seems a moot point.

2. In the analogy, the Target shopper starts a ruckus before he is assualted by the police. In Meyer's case, he did not get disruptive until the police assaulted him. He was calm, if intense.

3. The Target shopper brings up things that are immaterial to his goal of returning his widget. Meyer's question was elaborate but his comments were pertinent to the questions he wanted answered. Despite the interruptions, he delivered his questions in a reasonable amount of time. Of course, "reasonable" is a relative term.

4. The Target shopper is tased and then keeps on struggling. Meyer strugged against an illegal arrest by the police, was pinned to the ground, and then tased multiple times.

A few other thoughts:

I'm not convinced that returning a product to Target and engaging a politician in a public forum are an acceptable analogy. Like you said, free speech is partly about context. Getting pissy with a clerk making minumum wage about a matter that is not of life and death importance is different from questioning a public official about matters that are exactly about life and death.

By necessity, political speech is not necessarily polite, disruption-free, or even legal. When Martin Luther King and others held sit-ins in "White Only" locations there were being disruptive. But the points they had to make outweighted propriety.

Your Target shopper's behavior and Meyer's behavior is not akin to yelling "fire" in a theater. The shopper/Meyer did not knowingly spread misinformation or put others at risk.

And by the way, I get to yell fire in a theater. It is the responsibility of the theater patrons to not trample each other on the way out, whether there is a fire or not. Of course, if I did yell fire in a theater I'd be an asshole.

I look forward to the next post.

Jason said...


I hope this exchange isn't heading toward hard feelings, but it seems we disagree rather sharply on some points, which I further hope can be instructive (to me at least). That said, here are some responses.

1. I’ll concede that there are facts about the Meyer situation that we don’t have yet. In fact, that is the point of my previous post on this matter. It’s mostly the assumptions being made that irritate me about this whole situation. But as for the Kerry acknowledgement: that’s the part in the analogy where the Target employee agrees to take the return. I’m accounting for that, so I’m not sure how this would be a failure in the analogy.

2. In what way is my Target shopper “starting a ruckus” before the security guard grabs his arm? I don’t see how the shopper’s behavior departs from Meyer’s, relative to their situations.

3. My point there is that what Meyer said prior to assaulting Kerry with a series of questions he didn’t allow him time to respond to, much less answer, were also immaterial. Meyer can ask Kerry why he conceded the election on the day without also telling us that he thinks Greg Palast is the best investigative journalist in America. He can ask Kerry if he really wanted to be President without also telling Kerry he read a book, let alone taking a minute to tell him that.

4. Since the word “tased” is the last word in my analogy, and because that word represents the act of tasing (Tasering? I’m uncomfortable with these ugly verbs.), I think it’s pretty clear that in this analogy there is no post-taserifying struggle. As for the “multiple times” he was taserized, there’s even room there for questions. I don’t know about the specific model of taser those campus police were using, but I know at least some of them deliver a series of shocks with each push of the button. Meyer certainly received three or four jolts, but that doesn’t mean the cop was hammering on the button like a rat on a feeder bar. It may have been that the machine shocks four times when the button is pushed once. But I don’t know. Something else I don’t know.

A few thoughts about a few other thoughts:

You say that “[g]etting pissy with a clerk making minumum wage about a matter that is not of life and death importance is different from questioning a public official about matters that are exactly about life and death.” This is a critical point, I think: Meyer was throwing out questions about the 2004 election, not about the war in Iraq. Certainly, Iraq would probably have developed differently if the 2004 election had resulted in a Kerry win, but let’s not conflate the two. The election and the war are different things. And the answers to Meyer’s questions don’t have that life-or-death connotation to them.

You also say, “By necessity, political speech is not necessarily polite, disruption-free, or even legal.” The problem here is that those police are on hand to prevent disruption and illegal behavior. If there’s a fault in that it’s not with the individual police, but with their function being at odds with Meyer’s agenda, if he had one. The reason we can admire King, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, et al., is because they acted knowing they could, and likely would, run afoul of the authorities, and they were willing to accept that sacrifice for the higher purpose they served. What was Meyer’s higher purpose?

I’m still unconvinced. Meyer doesn’t have carte blanche to act however he wants in that context, even if his action is speech. There are codes of conduct implicit in certain situations, and even if he has the right to speak he doesn’t have the right to disrupt a function he’s pretending to partake in.

Nathan said...

Don't worry about any hard feelings on my part. Actually, this exchange has been pretty fun. As much as I liked all the positive reactions to my blog post, it's good to be challenged.

On the first point, I think we do have enough information to make a determination about the situation. Like you, I would like to see a longer tape, before Meyer took to the microphone, but we know that (a) Kerry was taking questions from the public, (b) he acknowledged Meyer, and (c) Meyer was calm and polite until authorities interfered.

What I was getting at in my second point is that Meyer was civil and not disruptive in making his point. Looking at the footage, his screaming and physical resistence was a reaction against police intervention, an intervention that I believe was wrong and illegal. The police escalated the situation and I believe Meyer was within his rights to resist arrest. The Target shopper in your example starts throwing things around before the police officer interferes.

On the third point, Meyer was giving information to create a complete question. Identifying the book and talking up Palast's credentials gives Meyer and his question some credibility in Kerry's and (maybe more importantly) in the eyes of the public. It distinguishes him from a knee-jerk conspiracy theorist, for example. And despite the interuptions Meyer did give his questions in a reasonable amount of time. In the Target analogy, the shopper's lecture on customer service is not necessary for him to return his widget. Fully explaining his question is essential for Meyer to make his point(s).

On the fourth point, in the matter of life and death questions, it is true that Meyer's questions were not entirely about life and death matters (although Meyer's questions about the possible invasion of Iran would qualify), but they were about social justice and democracy, and I would give that siginficant weight.

I think your final statement pretty well sums up the issue here:

"Meyer doesn’t have carte blanche to act however he wants in that context, even if his action is speech. There are codes of conduct implicit in certain situations, and even if he has the right to speak he doesn’t have the right to disrupt a function he’s pretending to partake in."

I think his delivery (the means) was justified by the points he was trying to make (the ends), although his "disruption" was a reaction against an illegal action by the authorities.

I don't want to make too much of Meyer. He is no angel, and he would have been much more defensable if he had delivered his comments a bit differently (sticking to one subject, being more focused and concrete, and all the other things we tell our Comp 101 students), but I found the police action (and the inaction of his fellow students) so abhorant that I drew the conclusions about the situation that I posted on my blog.

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