"He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it."
Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.
Recently, I read “The Shooting of an Elephant” by George Orwell and was reminded, once again, of his timeless prescience (despite the dated Orientalist language).
If you’re not familiar, the short essay is about an incident during his time as a member of the British Police Force in British occupied Burma (now Myanmar). An escaped elephant is wreaking havoc on the townspeople and Orwell is tasked to handle the situation. Initially, he has no intention of killing the elephant. However, after the expectation is placed upon him by the townspeople, his status is elevated. He is no longer an occupier, a nuisance, but a problem-solving valuable member of the group who must now deliver a kill or be shamed. His entire being—his self-worth—becomes synonymous with the task of killing the elephant. Even knowing that his action is morally objectionable, he persists nonetheless. It becomes a matter of survival: Either the elephant dies and he is validated, or the elephant lives and he is worthless.
Survival hinges on a creature’s ability to adapt to its surroundings, or a knowledge of how the environment works—an understanding of its tacit rules. Translated to society, these rules take the form of social order. How we interact with each other and “survive” in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our friend groups, etc. In the natural world these rules, for the most part, are unwritten and unmalleable, but in society most of these rules are constructed by laws. Essentially, our methods of adaptation are conditional to those who write the laws, which then engender our system of values, ultimately becoming a psychological matter. Our entire being—our humanity—becomes linked to our methods of adaptation.
Consider this: If you live in New York City, you are less likely to drive a car because of 24 hour subway access. Conversely, if you live in Los Angeles, you are more likely to drive a car for lack of convenient public transit. Therefore, certain things like a road trip or bar hopping may be held in different regard depending on which city you live in. The value of public transit versus vehicular travel are totally different.
Taking it further: In New York City, fare evasion is widespread and the city is trying to crack down on riders. Many—including myself—consider this an attack on the poor (more on this later), but it’s not only poor riders who are turnstile jumping. Some do it out of convenience, some because they simply forgot, and some out of sheer protest, but what’s clear is that the city has neglected the subway system for years (Financial mismanagement and Albany politics have siphoned money out of the MTA into other projects, preventing much needed infrastructure maintenance and upgrades.) and it is having an effect on its riders.
The city’s lack of care—its relationship with the subway system—trickles down to the people. By creating an environment of neglect, its riders will similarly adapt to those conditions. At a certain (our current) point, it goes beyond whether or not one can pay the fare, but whether anybody needs to pay the fare. It becomes psychological. If the city has deemed the subway unimportant—or unworthy of attention—so will the riders. The environment has shaped its inhabitants.
How we deal with homelessness (and poverty in general) is the same. The city constructs anti-homeless benches and fences, treating them like pests and vermin. This engenders an incredibly toxic stigma for the homeless, being seen by society not as people who need help, but purely a nuisance that needs to stay out of sight. Because there is no effective aid for homelessness, they become the frequent targets of assault and harassment with no where to go. The city has valued the homeless as second class citizens and, tragically, its citizens have collectively adopted this view as well. This is not to say people have forgotten how morally reprehensible it is to view others this way (though many may have), it is that we have grown accustomed to it. We have adapted.
Now this may all seem very obvious. If a system is created around a certain ideology, that is the type of culture it will produce. You create an economy that believes people are greedy, you will create greedy people. You create a justice system that believes POC are more prone to criminality, you will create POC communities that are more prone to criminality. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then perhaps that is the way to break out of this cycle.
If our “face grows to fit” the mask, why not think about what kind of mask we want to wear? It is not good enough to simply say that we want to “end capitalism” or “stop police brutality.” We must go further and think about exactly what kind of society we want. Paraphrasing what Rutger Bregman said, “we must envision the utopia we want to live in, then work backwards.” Big, bold visions of the type of grand society we want to live in. We have to think about what kind of culture we want to create. What kind of environment we want to adapt to.
Bill Bratton’s “broken windows” policy assumed that by punishing the pettiest of crimes, you can nip the culture of criminality in the bud. However, the policy is premised on the idea of stigmatization and ultimately created a culture of over-policing, which was deemed unconstitutional in New York City, and further entrenched existing racial tensions. What if we took the fundamental idea of “broken windows” and instead of punitive action, we invested care into it? A small neighborhood in Flint, Michigan did just that.
A coalition of community leaders, activists, and business owners decided to implement a “busy streets” policy approach to reducing crime. Instead of policing, they decided to plant community gardens, repair public benches, and maintain the streets to keep it busy. They implemented minor city beautification strategies as a crime deterrence… and it worked. Though community greening by itself as a means of crime reduction is still inconclusive, creating an environment that is cared for is crucial in developing a culture of care regardless. Simply having clean and busy streets is not the solution to poverty and crime. However, if we are to implement public policy that aspires to the utopian idea of a caring society, our general outlook and modes of action must change from punitive solutions to wholistic ones.
“He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” What kind of face do we want?