Friday, August 27, 2010

The Banality of Burglary

We returned from our recent trip to southern Ontario to find that someone had broken into our house. It could have been a lot worse -- damage was limited to the front door and its sidelights, they only took a few small items, our cat was unharmed, and so far at least the insurance company is being decent about it all. Still, it's not a fun thing to come home to.

I've been thinking about what I might write about this unfortunate circumstance -- one of the perqs of being a writer, after all, is experiencing the same highs and lows in life as everyone else but at least getting the consolation of turning the less pleasant stuff into material. As I've reflected on the experience, what I've come up with is how painfully ordinary, banal, even boring it all is. That may not be the recipe for an engaging blog post, but I'll proceed nonetheless.

The key to this conclusion is the contrast between my initial palette of reactions to being burgled, and those that have come to the fore after further thought. I think everyone who experiences something like this gets a feeling of violation and a range of other anxieties and worries. But I think for someone like me, who is privileged enough to live a largely safe and secure life, it is also initially experienced as a rupture, an unexpected and dramatic qualitative shift in reality, a negative newness. At least for an unsettling moment, perhaps a few days, the idea of "home" is disrupted. Gut level expectations about privacy and safety and what one can reasonably do are suddenly confronted by reality holding a big spoon and stirring vigorously.

The very modest material impact in this case means my emotional response has been relatively mild, but I've still felt flickers. I've had moments of worrying about what might have been. I've caught myself obsessing about what we could have done differently. Despite their cooperative orientation so far, I've had anxieties about making some sort of bureaucratic slip-up with the insurance people and inadvertently increasing the expense and hassle for myself. I've also had flashes of anxiety not about the material impacts but about ridiculous things like the possibility that one notebook among the dozens on my shelves might be invisibly gone, and even now someone is poring over my petty insecurities, work worries, sexual shames, and rough-rough drafts, and hooting with laughter. Yes, very silly.

As I've gotten past this moment of rupture and disorientation, the experience of having one's house burgled is still a violation, still a source of worry, but its utter ordinariness comes into view -- that is, the not-terribly-interesting point that this happens all the time and that it is an entirely predictable outcome of current social relations.

The most ordinary of the ways in which the anti-social behaviours that in our society get understood as 'petty property crime' are ordinary is the observation that they happen regularly. This is a kind of gross ordinariness that we are trained not just to see but to be hyperattentive to by local newscasts, the Toronto Sun, right-wing politicians, skillful media manipulation by police forces, and the bombardment of police procedurals and Cops clones on television. In fact, all of those sources not only hammer away that such things happen, they work hard to make us think they happen far more often than they actually do, thereby inflaming our fear so that it can be manipulated for reactionary political ends. It is years of that sort of lie that made it politically not-risky for Stephen Harper to stand up earlier this summer and commit to building lots of shiny new prisons despite a steady, long-term decline in the numbers of people to put in them even by the system's own oppressive rules, and then explain this contradiction with flummery about a scary rise in unreported crime into which he has some kind of mystical insight. Yet, despite this long-term pattern of deception, exaggeration, and manipulation, it still would be inaccurate to ignore the fact that things like having your house broken into do sometimes happen and are pretty ordinary. The problem with the sources listed above is that they obscure pretty much every other piece of information you might need to really understand this reality, and all the other ways in which such anti-social behaviours are ordinary.

Such occurrences are not just ordinary by the fact that they happen; they are also ordinary in how they happen. That is, the ways in which our lives are organized into privilege and oppression by social relations operate just as much in the context of this kind of anti-social act as in every other sphere of life. For instance:

  • The fact that my initial experience of the break-in was a kind of rupture was highly dependent on the privilege of being able to regularly experience home as "safe" and "private." Many people don't experience home in those ways, for multiple reasons. In some homes, there is regular violence and violation by one of the inhabitants, usually a man. In others, the residents experience each other as important sources of support and solidarity but they exist in a broader physical community into which heightened levels of violence and anti-social behaviour have been organized by oppressive social relations.
  • The damage and loss inflicted by the burglary need to be addressed somehow. Despite relative financial security and relatively modest damage and loss, addressing them will be far more expensive than we could manage out-of-pocket. That meant making an insurance claim. And to do that, you have to file a police report. So despite a highly critical understanding of policing and of capitalist property relations, basic pressures of living in this context pushed us to act in ways complicit with those particular social relations.
  • The act of calling the police was politically distasteful but personally not threatening. This is very different than the experience of some people who live in poverty and many people who are racialized, who regularly have negative experiences of the police, including sometimes when they are calling on the police for support or help of some kind.
  • Relatedly, our experiences of insurance officials have been easy, supportive, courteous, and accepting. Though these things can't be linked in a one-to-one way with experiences of poverty and racialization, it is likely that people who are living in poverty and/or are racialized would be more likely to encounter difficulties.


It is also distressingly ordinary why incidents like this happen. Current social relations:

  • create needs, including both elementary material needs that we often call "poverty" but also a series of less visible but no less real needs that you might loosely group under the label "alienation";
  • constrain the choices that many of us have for meeting those needs, often in quite severe ways;
  • damage people in ways that stunt out capacity to act in other than anti-social ways, including the many insidious ways that capacity for empathy and human connection by privileged folks get eroded;
  • actively glorify and reward certain kinds of massively anti-social behaviours done in the service of profit or "the nation"; and,
  • pointedly ignore or define away other kinds of massively anti-social behaviours.


Of course, given that, a small proportion of people navigate their lives by sometimes engaging in the kinds of anti-social behaviours that might get understood as 'petty property crime.' And by the way, saying that isn't to discount people's agency and responsibility, and it isn't to claim that anti-social behaviour isn't a problem. It clearly is a problem. But it is a problem much larger than that subset of anti-social behaviour that get read into the category "crime" (which also gets used to label plenty of behaviours that I wouldn't consider anti-social at all). What is also a problem is that we have a complicated nexus of relations that are in large part about controlling people or attacking/subordinating particular populations, but which also respond to a narrow subset of anti-social behaviours by labelling them "crimes." That portion of their activity is a major source for the legitimacy they are accorded by many in the population, despite the massively anti-social overall impact of these relations of policing and criminalization.

To repeat, anti-social acts exist and are a problem, even if they are sometimes understandable. I also think the left doesn't always do a good job of proposing how to respond to such acts here and now, as we work for the social transformation that will address root causes. But even with all of those provisos, our current social relations don't just create needs and make it hard or impossible for many people to meet them, but are themselves predicated on horrific, massive anti-social acts that get glorified or ignored. Given that such wholesale violence and harm are sanctioned and/or ignored by elites and many ordinary people, how can we be surprised when people choose retail-level anti-social acts to respond to their material and immaterial needs some of the time?

It's all very ordinary. It has all been said before. But still it surrounds us, still shapes our everydays when we think everything is fine, and the just-as-ordinary everydays when some unexpected consequence jumps out and rubs our nose in the fact that it isn't fine, and wasn't fine, and won't be fine until we make it fine.

1 comment:

Scott said...

[Comment spam removed. Unlike most comment spam that appears on my site, this was not selling a product but rather was selling ideas -- ideas that were completely unrelated to the post to which they were appended. Comments are welcome, but only ones that are relevant.]