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Culture and Police
In a June 16 essay published in The Atlantic, writer David Brooks summarizes two beliefs about why some police officers commit acts of excessive violence:
Individual issues: some “bad apples” exist in any organization or profession.
Systemic issues: giving people power — and guns — to patrol a neighborhood is inherently oppressive, an issue that is magnified by racist legacies and discriminatory policies.
Although Brooks notes the rationality of each theory, he argues that another concept is responsible for tensions with (and within) police departments — “culture.”
The evidence suggests that the bulk of the problem is on a different level, neither individual or systemic. The problem lies in the organizational cultures of some police forces. In the forces with an us-versus-the-world siege mentality. In the ones with the we-strap-on-the-armor-and-fight culture, the ones who depersonalize the human beings out on the street. All cruelty begins with dehumanization—not seeing the face of the other, not seeing the whole humanity of the other. A cultural regime of dehumanization has been constructed in many police departments. In that fertile ground, racial biases can spread and become entrenched. But the regime can be deconstructed.
To support his thesis, Brooks cites a 2015 study led by police psychologist Daniel Blumberg. That research concluded that new police recruits are actually MORE altruistic, honest, trustworthy, and “incorruptible” than average college students. Additionally, the police recruitment process effectively screens applicants who display behaviors indicative of becoming a “bad apple.”
How can we make sense of this research in the face of videos that show “overly screened police officers” violating not only department protocols, but also basic standards of human decency?
During the past month of protests against racial injustice, many activists have demanded that police forces should reflect the cultural diversity of the community. But Brooks outlines the challenges with that overly simplistic solution:
Even hiring a diverse police force is no panacea. A 2016 Justice Department investigation into the Baltimore Police Department found consistent racially biased policing, in a force where, in 2015, more than 40 percent of the cops were African American. The problem lay not only in the minds of individual police officers, but also in the culture of the departments into which the officers entered.
Brooks elaborates on the process of how and why things go wrong: police departments recruit altruistic people, but then indoctrinate them — consciously or not — with an us-vs-them mentality. Workplace cultures, especially in professions with dangerous elements, can be deeply entrenched. Junior officers quickly absorb their department’s attitudes.
Nauseating Displays of Loyalty
Rob Henderson is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, specializing in human nature and psychology. In one of his recent newsletters, he discussed “nauseating displays of loyalty” (a concept inspired by a scholarly publication from Victor Chung-Hon Shih).
The most obvious example: dictators who insist that citizens profess over-the-top expressions of admiration. Henderson contends these practices are less about ensuring people’s loyalty, and more about reinforcing the leader’s power. Refusing to comply usually leads to (public) intimidation, ostracization, and punishment. To avoid being singled out, people take extreme steps to show more admiration than anyone else.
The end result? Ridiculous situations like standing ovations that go on for HOURS because every single person is afraid of being the first one to sit back down. As another example, Henderson describes a North Korean child’s reaction to the news that “the fearless leader has died”:
The death of Kim Il-Sung (grandfather of Kim Jong-Un) is announced. A student finds that he can’t bring himself to tears. But he’s surrounded by classmates who are sobbing. The student suddenly realizes that “his entire future depended on his ability to cry: not just his career and his membership in the Workers’ Party, his very survival was at stake. It was a matter of life and death.” In desperation, he forces himself to cry.
This level of theatrics does not really exist in North American society, but we definitely see demonstrations of loyalty within partisan factions. In 2020, both the COVID pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have polarized communities to the point where many people feel that ‘if you want to be part of this group, then you MUST believe these specific ideas.’ No exceptions. Suppose you consider yourself socially progressive AND you personally believe that looting is never appropriate, no matter the circumstances. Would you feel comfortable posting your opinions on social media? On the flip side, imagine that you self-identify as a staunch conservative, but support the government’s power to mandate face masks. Can you freely share your views at a community barbeque?
Henderson contextualizes how “nauseating displays of loyalty” function in democratic countries:
Suppose that instead of a single dictator, there are many effective individuals. They are not necessarily in contact with one another. But they’re members of the same social class. These individuals generally adhere to the same beliefs. They want others to hold these beliefs, too. Like our dictator, they also want loyalty. But they’re not a single dictator, so they don’t expect people to say, “The Supreme Leader is awesome.”
Rather, they might want to extract certain statements or articles of faith that indicate loyalty. Statements can’t be factual—anyone, including the non-loyal, can say something that corresponds to reality. Not useful.
The statements must be a little bit silly. Only those who are loyal would say them. It helps if they aren’t obviously untrue, though. Lies would startle potential newcomers.
In their fascinating book The Mind Club, Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner describe the idea of “minimal counter-intuitiveness.”
The idea is that supernatural beliefs have the best chance of flourishing when they are weird, but not too weird.
From craft beer to CrossFit, and from Apple devices to organic produce, we see lots of instances where people go out of their way to demonstrate fealty. And these examples are all superficial. In spheres like politics, religion, and ethnicity, you can identify many situations where individuals with shared values are VERY interested in enforcing allegiance within their community.
Let’s return to the discussion of police departments. David Brooks suggests that departments have perpetuated the ideas that (1) police work is extremely dangerous, and (2) officers must remain on edge to survive a shift. These perspectives are rational. After all, police officers DO get shot. Hollywood also fuels the vision of violence-filled police experiences — a television show about parking tickets and wellness checks would not compare to the action of Bad Boys or Training Day.
But when you look at the facts, a different reality emerges.
Since 1976, the rate that police officers are killed on the job has dropped by 75%. In terms of “fatal injuries on the job,” police officers rank eighteenth, well behind mechanics, groundskeepers, farmers, delivery drivers, and sanitary engineers. Fishers and loggers die at more than FIVE TIMES the rate of police officers. As you might expect, police officers ARE more likely than other professionals to die from acts of violence. Still, even for police officers, car-related incidents (conventional car collisions, roadside accidents, and high-speed chases) claim more lives than firearms. An average police officer would need to work for ~7,750 years to have even a 50% chance of dying on the job.
But place yourself in the (standard issue) shoes of new police academic recruits. When told by a senior officer that every encounter with the public poses a lethal danger, would you bring up stats about workplace safety? Unlikely. And even less likely if you were from an underrepresented demographic and worried about “fitting in” with your peers.
Cultures create unity and unity holds together the culture. In many cases, distorted beliefs are more effective at holding things together than true facts. Anyone can believe something that is grounded in reality, but only true disciples will commit to believing something that is false (according to skeptics). Over time, this us-versus-them mentality fortifies in groups, moving them to adopt more extreme viewpoints.
A Marketing Manifesto
I want to connect the notion of us-versus-them mentalities to my broader perspectives about the marketing industry.
In the contemporary business world, marketers have been divided into two separate tribes: brand marketers and performance marketers. When I get contacted by executive recruiters, they usually indicate a desire to find a CMO that leans heavily to one side or the other of the divide. Each tribe approaches marketing in its own way, uses its own vocabulary, and brings real value to the table. Each tribe also idolizes a set of core beliefs that are plainly wrong. At first glance, these “wrong” beliefs usually seem reasonable, but upon closer examination, the ideas fall apart. I previously described why few police officers question the mythic ideas perpetuated by departmental cultures. Similarly, marketers “within the tribe” rarely question the sacred principles handed down in schools and offices.
As a result, Brand Marketers continue to believe in the value of concepts like “brand personality” and getting customers to LOVE your product. Performance Marketers, on the other hand, obsess about the integrity of their A/B testing and attribution models. Because there are only two tribes, questioning these beliefs is dangerous; you can lose your membership in the tribe — or even part of your identity.
I recently penned a “manifesto” to describe the goal of Marketing BS. Here is a short excerpt:
Brand Marketers and Performance Marketers are both very, very wrong. I am interested in a third way.
Call us mavericks or iconoclasts. We are counter-intuitive thinkers who care more about getting to the truth and driving impact than riding perverse incentives, corporate bureaucracy, and status games to the corner office.
We are not interested in doing things just because they have “always been done that way.” But we also have no interest in new fads just because it is fun to chase shiny objects. We understand that most of what works is pretty simple and the hard part is executing consistently in the face of all the challenges life throws at you.
We are outnumbered. There are not a lot of us. But we have an oversized impact on our companies and the world.
If you are a “third way” CMO, please join us. If you are struggling to get your team to move past the dichotomy of “brand versus performance” marketing, invite them to join as well. Marketing BS works best when an entire marketing organization reads and discusses the ideas together. The current Marketing-Industrial Complex is a Goliath, but maybe together we can bring enough people into the fold to change the world.
I worry a little that this new “tribe” of marketers is defining itself by NOT collecting irrational beliefs required for membership. Based on Rob Henderson’s descriptions of loyalty, that means we might never form a coherent tribe. Alternatively, we might slowly develop — and fiercely defend — irrational beliefs.
Henderson might be right. But struggling toward the truth is the only way I know how to live. I am hoping that I can find a small subset of marketers that want to take the journey with me. The experience will be a lot easier with friends and colleagues at our side, so please forward this email to any marketers you think might be interested in this “third way.”
And if you don’t buy into this third way and would prefer to stick with your tribe, I totally understand. We will be here for you in case you ever change your mind.
If you are still with me, I am excited to continue on the journey together.
Keep it simple and stay safe,
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Edward Nevraumont is a Senior Advisor with Warburg Pincus. The former CMO of General Assembly and A Place for Mom, Edward previously worked at Expedia and McKinsey & Company. For more information, including details about his latest book, check out Marketing BS.