I’m at NSW Parliament at the moment participating in the Sydney Drug Roundtable organised by state and national MPs who have assembled an impressive group of leading figures in the drug and alcohol field in NSW
Reflecting on the points made by various participants and the examples they have given has made me think about the affective dimensions of care, policing and government more broadly.
Working on the (generous) assumption that police are concerned with the quality of their relations with citizens and want to promote “order” and harmonious relations within the community, there must be ways of making police and authorities aware of their own implication in the production of these relations and their affective qualities: e.g. trust, mistrust, contempt, respect, feelings of inclusions/exclusion, goodwill, aggression, etc.
The practices available to authorities are wide-ranging, of course, and the ones they adopt in a given situation make all the difference:
Sniffer dogs for example not only exacerbate drug harm, but position police as moral detectives and citizens as suspects, fair game for hassling at any moment. Despite recent deaths at music festivals (complete with massive drug dog operations) police have bullishly rejected the possibility of allowing pill testing at dance events: Imagine wanting to enhance the agency of citizens to look after themselves. Unthinkable!
Meanwhile the recent ads for roadside drug testing in NSW reveal little interest in encouraging safer driving, but are bent on reasserting the power of police to discredit people on the basis of any drug consumption. (The tests themselves are unable to measure impairment and have been known to pick up traces of drugs consumed well before the driving event – days in some cases).
The ads are clearly designed to threaten and scare citizens for their presumed moral transgressions: not simply intoxicated drivers, but anyone who might be inclined to smoke a joint or use illicit substances occasionally. They smack overwhelmingly of the desire to intimidate. Just take a look! (There is no escaping it): The aggression is dumbfounding.
As police and civil experts know, there are other ways of addressing and engaging with citizens that promote trust and safety and generate more friendly and co-operative relations. Indeed, the concept of “community policing” is premised on precisely such principles.
The history of collective experience in the fields of HIV and drug policy consistently demonstrates that the penalization, punishment and criminalization of disapproved behaviours (like risky sex and/or drug use) is counterproductive. Criminalization alienates people from authorities and produces paranoia, distrust, and evasion of the very services that are entrusted with the task of caring for citizens. This is why the decriminalisation of drug use is such an urgent priority.
The use of punitive strategies in relation to matters of public health alienates people and produces evasion, avoidance, contempt and aggression towards authorities. After all, these authorities are institutions whose existence is premised and justified by the desire to improve the health and welfare of the population and care for citizens. They were never designed, not should they operate as, repellents.
A question that needs to be posed more expansively and taken on as a key priority, then, concerns the affective climate that social authorities want to promote. There is a choice here: the government can choose to promote the goodwill of citizens by anticipating and expanding their agency, or it can treat them with contempt by belittling and intimidating them, and then just sit back and watch the results. They won’t be pretty.
If you treat people with contempt, they rapidly lose respect for you, and either retaliate aggressively or withdraw from further engagement entirely. Until social authorities understand the implication of their own practices in the making of particular affective climates, they will be locked into their stubborn attachment to enforcement, which rebounds with escalating violence.