A Neutral Observer Might Detect a Pattern Here

Ijeoma Oluo, a Seattle writer, has been tweeting “Don’t Do That and They Won’t Kill You” advice since yesterday. New York Magazine helpfully provided an annotated list of the fatal encounters she’s described.

Much too often, the apparently dangerous and criminal behavior at issue seems to have been “Being in Public While Black”.

Do many cops really see black Americans as so much more lawless and threatening than the white Americans they meet up with?

Today I saw a link to the video below. It shows how unreliable direct perception can be. It’s called the McGurk Effect in honor of the scientist who discovered it. From Wikipedia:

The effect was discovered by accident when McGurk and his research assistant … asked a technician to dub a video…. while conducting a study on how infants perceive language at different developmental stages. When the video was played back, both researchers heard a third phoneme [a perceptually distinct unit of spoken language] rather than the one spoken or mouthed in the video.

A couple weeks ago, in Cleveland, two cops responded to a 911 call, which can be heard here. The person who called 911 said that someone in the park (“probably a juvenile”) was scaring people with a gun (“probably fake”). 

It isn’t clear yet what the 911 dispatcher told the two officers to look for, but the black 12-year-old with the authentic-looking pellet gun was shot as soon as they arrived on the scene. From the New York Times:

Tamir Rice was killed by a rookie Cleveland police officer who quit a suburban police force after his supervisors determined two years ago that he suffered a “dangerous loss of composure” during firearms training and was emotionally unprepared to cope with stresses of the job. The officer, Tim Loehmann, 26, shot the child within two seconds after his patrol car pulled up next to the boy.

The Cleveland police said the child, who had what turned out to be a replica gun that shoots small plastic pellets but looks like a semiautomatic pistol, was told to raise his hands, but instead reached to his waistband for the object. Surveillance video of the killing that was released last week showed, however, that the shooting happened so fast it was hard to know whether the officer issued any real warnings or whether the boy could have understood them if he did.

I wonder what the young cop who had been fired by another police department saw when he and his veteran partner drove into that park. I wonder what the more experienced officer saw. It’s possible, even likely, that they didn’t see the same thing. Whatever each of them saw, however, it’s clear that one of them shouldn’t have arrived in that park with a gun in his hand, ready to use it, given what he apparently perceived.

Philosophy of Perception: A Contemporary Introduction by William Fish

Fish provides an overview of several current philosophical theories of perception, including arguments for and against. The theories he considers are Sense Datum, Adverbial, Belief Acquisition, Intentional and Disjunctive theories. Except for the last chapter, the discussion is almost all concerned with vision, which seems short-sighted.

He distinguishes the theories by their respective responses to three propositions: the Common Factor principle (“Phenomenologically indiscriminable perceptions, hallucinations and illusions have an underlying mental state in common”), the Phenomenal principle (“If there sensibly appears to a subject to be something which possesses a particular sensible quality then there is something of which the subject is aware which does possess that quality”), and the Representational principle (“All visual experiences are representational”).

Fish tries to figure out whether the theories are better explanations of the phenomenological or epistemological aspects of perception. I found the Disjunctive theories most convincing, especially the one offered by Mark Johnston, but there wasn’t enough detail provided to form a conclusion.  (5/16/10)