Death by Tatoo-Covered Skin Cancer

An Analysis of Overpolicing

I would like to begin this essay by a story about my grandmother. Last time I saw her, she met my lover for the first time. And I think grandma didn't like her visible tatoos, because at some point during lunch, she started to explain, totally unprompted, why tatoos are unsafe and how they can kill you. "You know", she said, "if you have skin cancer and the tumor is covered by the tatoo, you may not notice it until it's too late and die". The story is funny (in a way), but it also made me think. After all, you have to pay respect to the creativity at play here. Coming up with top-of-the-hat explanations on how tatoos might kill you, without knowing anything at all about tatoos, is a skill. It's like an improv exercise, and my grandmother is rather quite good at it. She always seems to find a compelling way to prove things she doesn't like are "dangerous". And in the household in which I grew, ladies displayed a mastery of this skill I cannot but bow to.

The trick is that the threat does not need to be substantial, or even verified, to be claimed. The story only has to be plausible. It doesn't matter how many people actually die from undetected tatoo-covered skin cancer. Or that, interestingly, black tatoos actually partially protect from UVR. What "dangerous" means, in this context, is "I can invent a story making vaguely sense in which it kills you".

So, this is an essay about where this skill comes from -- about I call conservative policing, and what happens when it goes too far and fall into overpolicing. Overpolicing is what's at play when people protest against having to wear face masks by arguing, despite every evidence of the contrary, that it's actually bad for their health. That behavior is truly baffling if you don't understand that right-wingers have a habit for doing that all the time -- not liking something, finding a story in which it kills you, then pushing it again and again, angering themselves to the point where they are threatening enough for the rest of us to let them do whatever they want. If you try to oppose them, then you're part of the "danger", and the more opposition they face, the more the danger is dangerous. They are on the side of safety, and you are either a naive buffoon or an irresponsible deathbringer. You cannot really argue with them either, because they already set the debate on dubious grounds. They are not saying that whatever they dislike is too dangerous, compared to what good it brings, or more dangerous than what they happen to like. That would be things we could debate on. But they are merely claiming that it is dangerous. And the way they seem to define what "dangerous" means ("it is possible to imagine it killing you"), they are right.

Policing is, at its core, the business of saying what shouldn't be done. And conservative policing is telling people what they shouldn't do for their own safety. Both aren't bad things in themselves. As much an anarchist as I am, I have to recognize that telling people "don't do X" isn't always a bad thing. And "don't do it because it might harm you" is a pretty valid thing to say. It is good to tell people to not stick forks in power sockets, to not anger a wild bear, or to not drink and drive. The rule stating that dangerous things should be avoided is a sensible one and we all need a bit of conservatice policing in our life.

What isn't sensible is when you use it in bad faith to push an agenda, or when you're being overzealous and dogmatic about it. Those are too different behaviors, but they are related in the way that they both imply losing focus about how much of a threat something poses to only see the fact that it poses a threat. And that's what overpolicing is. And the more you live in a culture and community where people engage in such arguments, the more you see it working, the more you start doing that yourself and that's how my grandmother learned that skill: by existing in a culture where this is how points are made. At some point, finding random excuses for saying something is dangerous and therefore bad becomes a habit, an instinctive reaction to disliking something.

The way conservative overpolicing defines dangerosity makes everything worthy of the name "dangerous" -- any kind of stuff, activity, behavior, belief, person, object or food. You can always tell a story that starts with you doing the stuff and ends with you dying. If you don't set reasonable expectations on how serious the threat has to be, you are condemned to live in a state of perpetual inhibition, in a world where everything should be avoided if you think long enough about it.

So, since you have to live anyway, what's left for you is a life restricted to what you don't think about. It is all about who point fingers and (who or) what has fingers pointed to. Conservative politicians and media will make you think about how what they don't like is dangerous. If not for you, for your wife, your kids or your dog. Drugs, porn, homosexuality, veganism, violent movies, Islam, transgenderism, atheism, sexwork, role-playing games, BDSM, communism, tatoos, abortion, rock music, MMORPGs, New Age, divorce, rave parties... But they don't like to talk about the dangers of monogamy, capitalism or christianity. Those are the good things. And even if they all could be said to be dangerous according to their own definition, they will never run a story about how night shifts are bad for your health. And if you try to do it, then they just have to listen politely, do nothing, and start pointing fingers somewhere else.

All policing isn't conservative. There are other reasons you can invoke for things to be avoided. I may have to think about it more, but it seems to me that reactionary discourse is a lot about how what they do threatens us, and centrist discourse about what we shouldn't believe because it is not proven. But this will have to wait for another time, because today, I would like to talk about how progressive policing works. Mainly, it had to do with what shouldn't be done because it hurts the vulnerable, the weak and the oppressed.

It seems to me that, in the last decade or so, we've assisted to a resurgence of this kind of policing. After a period of time where policing in itself was frowned upon as an inherently right-wing thing, we've saw more and more policing happening in leftist communities (you should not harass women, misgender trans people, wear dreadlocks if you're white, make rape jokes, etc., etc.), pushed by feminists, antiracists, LGBT+ advocates, etc., as a way to make leftist spaces, previously mainly dominated by white heterosexual males, safer and better for women, BIPOC and LGBT+ people. And, if I had to evaluate it, I would say that it is, overall, a very good thing. A lot of improper behaviors were adressed, confronted, and sometimes ended. What I'm writing should in no way be understood as an opposition to that. Again, I do not believe that policing is inherently bad, and progressive policing is... well... progressive.

But we've also seen people pushing it into the overpolicing zone.

It seems to me that we've trained ourselves to provide top-of-the-hat explanations about how something we don't like harms minorities. Since we all believe that what participates in systems of oppression should be avoided, it is efficient, when you want to attack something, to explain why it does. And, not always, but sometimes, I don't think we really take the time to care about if the harm is real and substantial. We only have to provide a plausible explanation about why what someone said or did might have been hurtful to someone of a minority class, how it could have participated in the reproduction of a system of oppression, how it might reinforce harmful stereotypes, how it might divert energies and/or resources away from people who need them most, how it contributed to climate change, how it gave money or exposure to people doing bad things, how it might be weaponized against the weaks, how it is a privilege (meaning that everyone cannot afford it, and so it is unjust), etc., etc. And when we have a plausible story, no matter how substantial is the actual harm being done, we call the stuff "problematic".

But the dire truth is that everything participates in systemic oppression at some length. That's where "systemic" comes from. We cannot live without participating in capitalism, but we cannot live either without participating in sexism, racism, transphobia, etc., either. We are all us in this system, we participate in it, and we are trying to dismantling it from where we are while still trying to manage to have a happy and successful life. That is what happening. This truth has been used a lot as an excuse to continue harmful behavior and not listening to the oppressed. This has been used a lot to oppose change. But it is still true.

What this means is not that we should accept harmful stuff, and sexism, and racism, and transphobia. What this means is we need to care about how much harm is actually being done when we consider something. Is it substantial? Is it more or less than the alternatives? What good does it also brings? If "problematic" means "I can make up a story in which it makes life harder for someone with a handicap", then everything will when you think of it long enough, by the very nature of what "handicap" means. And we will all live in perpetual inhibition, only able to do things as long as we don't think about too much about it, fearing the fingers and the way they can point to us.

At this point, I should remark that no form of policing is confined to a political side. Leftists might engage sometimes in what I call conservative policing ("don't go in a protest with contact lenses, you might have problems") and right-wingers in progressive policing and overpolicing ("finish your plate, there are hungry children who cannot eat in Africa"). So this is, in real life, more complex that the broad categories I envision. Those behaviors just seems to me more common in some places than others, and I think it is linked to the ethical mindsets they are emanating from.

Conservative policing is more common in groups where taking care of yourself and your safety is considered to be your own responsibility. Conservatives strongly believe that, at the end of the day, it is your job, and not anyone else, to keep you safe and sound. Self-preservation is for them a moral value of the utmost importance, and therefore people who get hurt only have themselves to blame. This is why they actively seek for people telling them to not do things because it is dangerous. They want to be warned about the dangers. They are exposed to a lot of fearmongering propadanga, but also they want to read papers about what might harm them, because they believe nobody will help them if they get hurt and then they will be on their own. And the more it is true, the more ruthless the world become, the more we are alone and abandonned when we get hurt, the more conservative policing will be strong.

Progressive policing flourish in spaces where caring for justice, for the oppressed and the underprivileged, are moral values held high. So, of course, leftist spaces. That is why a lot of leftist infighting looks like people telling each other how the way they are behaving in ways that hurt the oppressed. And sometimes, it does, and sometimes, it looks like a lot of bad faith is involved. It looks like valid points, and it even would be valid points in other contexts, but it is not much that an improv exercise. Progressive overpolicing is not liking something, finding a story in which it harms minorities, then pushing it again and again, angering ourselves to the point where we are threatening enough for people to let us do whatever we want. And I am under the impression that we are collectively learning to behave like that, because it works.