The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 2016)

Simply Seeing

B.D. McClay

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 3)

Of all our senses, vision is the one most overburdened with meaning. Seeing is linked to rational judgment, yet also to self-deception: Descartes fretted over the stick that seems straight in the air, bent in the water. Seeing allows us into a shared world, but also creates doubt that anyone sees precisely your world. Justice is traditionally blind because it is impartial; blindness can also stand for willful stupidity. Leaning on both of these meanings, movements attempting to draw attention to injustice or suffering often employ the language of visibility. Invisible People, for instance, is a charity that conducts video interviews with the homeless. “Some content may be offensive,” its website warns. “Our hope is you’ll get mad enough to do something.” People just don’t see how bad things are; if they did, well…

The hope of making people mad enough to do something is also behind many of the videos of killings by police that have been posted online in recent years. In 2011, for instance, a homeless man named Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by six policemen, and a thirty-four-minute video of the encounter was captured by a security camera and subsequently uploaded to YouTube by the Orange County Register. Today, even casual users of Facebook or Twitter can watch a video of someone dying before even realizing what they are looking at.

“Do something” often means pushing for police to wear body cameras. If videos document the problem, maybe videos can also be the solution. The thinking goes that body cameras—like the dashcam before them—will provide a deterrent to the use of violent force, and, after the fact, evidence when police are charged with misconduct. “Police officers, just like everyone else, behave differently when they know they are being watched,” argued the author of a 2015 op-ed on the website of the American Constitution Society. “It follows that officers would be much less likely to engage in abusive, racially discriminatory, or harassing behavior when they are on heightened notice of possibly being held to account.”

Possibly, but not certainly. In the first half of 2016, according to the Washington Post, far more incidents of civilians being shot by the police were caught on video, largely thanks to body cameras. But the shootings themselves also increased—by six percent. (The number of police officers who died in the first half of the year also rose, from sixteen to twenty.) Although the number of police charged with crimes has climbed, the number of police convicted of murder or manslaughter charges remained at zero in 2015. To pick, more or less at random, nine high-profile cases involving video—Kelly Thomas, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, and Charles Kinsey—only two so far have ended in indictment or conviction.

So body cameras may not prove that effective at deterrence. And it’s hard to convict a police officer of misconduct. There’s another argument for their utility—that instead of making you see the problem, the videos will teach you how to see what others see, to become part of a world that may be inaccessible by normal seeing.

When Ralph Ellison sought to communicate what it was like to be a black man in twentieth-century America, he also spoke of “being seen.” He did this not only in his 1952 novel Invisible Man but also in his 1989 essay “On Being the Target of Discrimination,” in which he described a “lesson” learned in childhood: “the sudden ways good times could be turned into bad when white people looked at your color instead of you.” If invisibility is the problem, seeing does not always lead to compassion, empathy, or new understanding.

Cameras seem to present the facts as they are. A camera can take in all of our associations with seeing and make something coherent from them. It gives us uninterpreted observation, yet from a particular point of view. The viewer gets the world as it is, but also the world as it is seen. It is a technological solution to the limitations of personal perspective—whether a person is limited by class, prejudice, or privilege.

To think that seeing is the solution, however, is to ignore Ellison’s contention that seeing is also the problem. If there’s no such thing as simply seeing, the camera offers only another “something” to see, not access to a new kind of seeing. And what people see is determined by a number of things—whether they identify more with the dead person or the police officer, whether they are more focused on the content of the video or the motivation of the person behind the camera (assuming that a human finger, not surveillance software, started the recording), and whether they regard these videos as part of a larger story or as the record of a series of isolated incidents that should be evaluated individually.

When one Internet commenter described the video of Philando Castile’s death as “the coldest most calous thing i have ever seen,” we might have wondered whether the description referred to the woman filming the video or to the death depicted in the video. (The comment, it turns out, referred to the woman.) By itself, the image does not have the power to force one interpretation or the other. A camera cannot be a technological substitute for empathy or politics; it cannot, by itself, solve or address the problems that beset police departments across America. The recent Department of Justice review of the Baltimore Police Department drew some of its most shocking material from the BPD’s own records. If the people recording themselves already don’t think there’s a problem, why should more recording worry them?

“Without a politics,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, “photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow.” If the videos are, ultimately, good—and I think they are, although I often choose not to watch them—it is not because they solve any problem but because the truth has a moral claim that supersedes its usefulness. But people should not expect that such videos can do anything except record what happened, or that routinizing their production is a solution to the violence they document. What we see, in the world or in a video, is in part what we have trained ourselves to see. What has a police officer been trained to see when he approaches a car? That would be a good place to start.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.3 (Fall 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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