Monday, 2 June 2014

"Locus Of Control"

Comments are still down at "Thinking Taiwan". So I make my comments here; once more on Cheng Chieh (鄭捷), the MRT mass-murderer...

Public commentary at various places has tended to frame his crime with an extremely high aspect-ratio; much meta-talk about blame attribution, yet remarkably little on how to effectively stop people like Cheng. My first blog post after learning about his crime was on precisely the latter aspect. Minor alterations to the design and equipment of train carriages may help, but the practical details themselves are less important than the will to defend ourselves successfully.

Since the social sciences cannot reliably predict behaviour at a sufficiently fine scale, it seems unquestionable that we are more likely to stop rampage killers by stopping them in physical proximity once they reveal themselves in public spaces, than we are by stopping them at a distance from having studied and predicted their behaviour. That being the case, why so little attention to the question of how to stop killers in close proximity? What values were being served by the interest in why Cheng committed mass murder? There are several obvious, non-competing conjectures...

First, the impulse to make sense of an apparently senseless act. Added to this is the fact that Cheng's crime was a shock to the web of implicit values and expectations that make it possible for people to use the MRT on a daily basis.

Second, there is the social psychology - and politics - of blame attribution. Michael Turton for example, was quick to cite Mark Ames' book that blamed mass murders on "neoliberal" ideology. The reasoning there is that mass-murders are a result of people cracking under pressure from within institutions assailed by "neoliberal reforms".

Third, there is the social psychology of public self-defence from blame attribution. The principal of Tunghai university for instance, was keen to pre-empt any attribution of blame to the university by claiming culpability for not having "loved" Cheng enough. Others insisted that it would be "facile" to attribute his crime to an hitherto undetected mental illness, and that further stigmatization of mental health issues should be avoided.

Fourth, there is the possibility of deflecting attention away from other subjects such as the broader question of social sanction for the various means and extent of self-defence. That question leads directly to private firearms ownership.


All of these possibilities may be in play at the same time. However, another more disturbing possibility occurs to me. The preference for talking about why Cheng did what he did over the question of how to stop people like him is surely because that is the type of information that only an external, institutional authority can act on, via the commissioning of academic studies and so on. Information on how to react to the presence of a killer in that kind of public space (e.g. using a fire extinguisher as an improvised weapon) goes directly to the individual self as a locus of authoritative action. The slant of the discussion toward the killer and away from self-defence reflects the broader tendency to dislocate values from the individual for sublimation to external, collective authority.

We are not expected to be responsible for our own defence and the defence of those around us. That function was long ago expropriated by external authority.

I may be making too much of this. Perhaps the initial reason I gave above is sufficient to account for the interest in Cheng himself. However, if there is something that can be regarded as a cause of Cheng's crime, and we do not simply write it off as unexplainable (though that may be an option), then a loss of perceived control would be my bet. What may have brought about his particular loss of control I will not pretend to know, but I find the premise of external authority throughout much of the public discussion somewhat ominous. The coercive displacement of individual values in this culture was already systemic prior to democratization, and continues to this day (its' profile is disturbingly large in the education system). If loss of control was what really wrought Cheng's psychosis, and if a displaced locus of defence was what disabled some passengers from noticing Cheng's armed approach, then it is disturbing on quite another level to see the same thing at work in the public commentary in the days after the crime...

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