The Soldier And The Policeman’s Trained Attention And Its Pathologies

In the chapter ‘Focus’ in his book of essays,The Examined Life, Robert Nozick writes:

The ability and opportunity to focus our attention, to choose what we will pay attention to, is an important component of our autonomy. [p.122]

In a footnote appended to this sentence, Nozick continues:

What we presently focus upon is affected by what we are like, yet over the long run a person is molded by where his or her attention continually dwells. Hence the great importance of what your occupation requires you to be sensitive to and what it ignores de jure or de facto, for its pattern of sensitivities and insensitivities–unless a continuing effort is made to counterbalance this–will eventually become your own.

Consider then, the soldier and the policeman, and the pathologies that are said to famously exist within these professions (each of which has been reckoned a pinnacle of masculinity in some dimension or the other): trauma, anomie, depression, rage, anxiety.

The soldier and the policeman are required to constantly detect danger, manifest in person and place and situation and object; they are taught to respond with hostility, with armed and dangerous bodies. (Some soldiers, if they are unlucky enough, work as policemen in occupied territories; counterinsurgency work and such patrolling and policing must surely count among the ‘dirtiest’ occupations of all.) They are finely tuned to turn their attention persistently and consistently in these directions; they return from tours of duty of urban spaces and warzones with their danger-and-hostility detectors turned on. They are on edge, irritable and tense and taut, filled with rage and fear, all easily manifest in domestic violence and suicide. They bring older selves to their professions and return with newer ones created in the crucible of their new work, where their focus and attention has been systematically diverted and focused, as it had been taught to, in the academy, in advanced training. There, they had been taught, repeatedly, to ignore many human qualities–for instance, the humanity of those they kill on the battlefield or those they capture, interrogate, handcuff, or imprison. It is, indeed, one of their ‘core competencies,’ the hallmark of their profession, and one they must perfect through practice over the course of their careers. They must be competent, at finding targets and perps, who are now not humans any more, but ‘enemies’ and ‘criminals.’ (On a related note, consider the anecdotal reports that oncologists are notoriously unsympathetic doctors. They might well be; after all, they are exposed to death all too often; all too many of their patients simply do not survive. This could result in greater sensitivity to death, but their work would be too onerously affected were they to let it affect them in deeper, more emotional ways.)

It should not surprise us that soldiers and policemen are ‘damaged’ thus by their work. Their ‘patterns of sensitivities and insensitivities’ have been altered, with little effort to ‘counterbalance’ them. Sometimes their enemies and opponents suffer the brunt of this; unfortunately, on many other occasions, it is their family, their neighbors, and friends and loved ones that do. We, as their parent society, bear some measure of responsibility for those we have so created and trained. A different society might eschew the need for such professions; till then, we remain with the pathologies we have set in motion.

Trigger Warnings For Assigned Readings?

On Monday, I wrote a brief note here on Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, commenting on its very distinctive tragicomic style. Earlier in the day, my class had discussed–among others–parts XI and XII of the novel, two sections in which the violence and depravity in the abandoned mental hospital reaches new depths. Rape and a stabbing death are its most prominent features. Our discussion went well; I had asked students to bring in examples of passages they found satirical, and we talked about how these served to make Saramago’s broader ethical and political commentary more distinctive.

Later that evening I received an email from a student, who noted that the graphic nature of the reading might have been traumatic to those in my class who might have been affected by similar trauma. She asked me to provide a ‘trigger warning’ for the readings in future.

I wrote back to the student, apologizing for any distress caused her, and asked her to come in to meet me during my office hours. She has not written back to me yet, but I expect we will meet soon enough.

Meanwhile, this morning, in class, I began by talking to my students about the email I had received–without naming the author, of course. I acknowledged that the reading might have been experienced quite differently by the many readers in my class, each bringing to it their unique personal backgrounds and experiences; I went on to note that in the first class meeting of the semester, I had pointed out that the subject material of the class–a concentration on post-apocalyptic literature–was likely to involve many difficult emotional and intellectual encounters and that our reading of Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach had already exposed us to some very painful and melancholic ruminations on death and dying. I noted that the readings which remained in the semester would often take us down similar paths (I made especial note of  Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road at this point.) I then wrapped up by reminding my students that they would often encounter reading material in college which would be distressful in many different dimensions, but again, this did not mean that no sensitivity could be shown to those who might find them traumatic.
We then returned to our final discussion of Blindness.As I was taken unaware by my student’s email, I do not know if my responses are adequate or appropriate. All and any comments are welcome.
Addendum: Thanks to all for your comments. I’ve deleted the email text I had originally reproduced here and replaced it with a paraphrase.