The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

The Use of Force: Law Enforcement as a Reflection of Society

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M.S.W.

The use of physical force is an instinctual response to a real or perceived threat.  In a moment of fear, who has not found themselves raising a voice, or raising an arm, or seeking a way to constrain the other and protect self?  The use of force to bring conflict under control should be a last resort and applied judiciously, yet with rising emotional intensity, it easily becomes the first resort, setting in motion an escalation of conflict.

The use of force introduces serious obstacles to settling conflict. One is that force often begets more force; damage is done and the number of grievances between opponents increases, providing fuel for further conflict.  A second pitfall is overkill. The use of force, unless strictly disciplined, easily becomes excessive.  In his writing on aggression, Edward O. Wilson (1978) observes that humans are strongly predisposed to slide into deep, irrational hostility when faced with external threats, and moreover that we are inclined to escalate hostility to a level that will overwhelm the source of the threat by a wide margin of safety.  A third obstacle is that force hardens the polarization between the parties.  Even when force does succeed in changing the behavior of others, it is likely to stiffen their inner resentment and resistance which wait behind a façade of submission for the opportunity to retaliate.

This aspect of our human emotional system has played a large role in history.  Most societies have a record of settling conflict with the use of force: a record of wars, conquest, and rebellion, along with a record of establishing systems to regulate and resolve conflict.  The police and military are given a large share of authority and responsibility for this daunting social role.

In his writing on the emotional process in society, Murray Bowen described the role of the police:

“The police occupy a special place in the social system.  They are charged with maintaining law and order in a more lawless society.  It would require a person with a high level of differentiation to meet requirements of total firm fairness.  …A less differentiated person would automatically go either toward leniency or cruelty.”  (Bowen, 1978, p. 446)

The police are a reflection of the larger society, of the level of chronic anxiety and the level of maturity in the society.  The functioning of the police can be objectively understood only in this larger context.  The harsher treatment of the poor, minorities, and people of color, and the more lenient treatment of affluent and white people in the justice system reflect the projection process and extreme social stratification in our nation.

The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25th, 2020, witnessed via video across the nation, and coming on the heels of a number of egregious killings of black citizens by white police officers in recent months, has shaken the conscience of many Americans. Some are looking at the police as the problem; others are looking more deeply at the historical roots of racism in which law enforcement and the law itself have been instruments of systemic injustice.  As the pandemic reveals the disproportionate costs to the black community in both health and economic effects, we see more clearly what the African American experience in this country has been.  Brought forcibly from Africa to the shores of the Americas, enslaved for two and a half centuries, freed by the 13th Amendment into a society that continued to forcibly extract their labor and prevent them from exercising the rights of citizenship, black Americans have endured remarkably.  Not only endured but enriched the culture of the society by magnitudes.

Some of the thinkers whose writing I follow are suggesting that this is a historic time, a time of “national reckoning” with racism and inequality.  Problems can seem intractable until a certain tipping point is reached, relationships shift, new energy is sparked, more flexible and creative thinking opens up new options for change.  This may be the hopeful side of what the pandemic has brought. There is hope to be taken from the heightened public interest in looking at racism in our country, from the examples of mature policing that de-fuses rather than intensifies conflict, and from the number of complex thinkers and writers who are looking beyond the surface to the core of the problems.

Dr. Bowen saw an increased average level of differentiation in the society as the key to solving our problems, and saw differentiated leadership as essential.  Asked whether increasing level of differentiation is equated with power, he explained:

“They are not in the same ballpark. …The notion of ‘power’ …has to do with other people, and specifically with exerting control and domination over others. …Differentiation deals with working on one’s own self, with controlling self, with becoming a more responsible person, and permitting others to be themselves.”  (Bowen, 1978, p. 409)

Bowen, M.  1978.  Family therapy in clinical practice.  New York:  Jason Aronson

Wilson, Edward O.  1978.  On human nature.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University


Stephanie Ferrera

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