We’d probably have to begin by recognizing that there are two critical elements here that, while linked, need to be formally distinguished. The first is the process of imaginative identification as a form of knowledge, the fact that within relations of domination, it is generally the subordinates who are effectively relegated the work of understanding how the social relations in question really work. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, for example, knows that if something goes terribly wrong and an angry boss appears to size things up, he is unlikely to carry out a detailed investigation, or even, to pay serious attention to the workers all scrambling to explain their version of what happened. He is much more likely to tell them all to shut up and arbitrarily impose a story that allows instant judgment: i.e., “you’re the new guy, you messed up—if you do it again, you’re fired.” It’s those who do not have the power to hire and fire who are left with the work of figuring out what actually did go wrong so as to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The same thing usually happens with ongoing relations: everyone knows that servants tend to know a great deal about their employers’ families, but the opposite almost never occurs. The second element is the resultant pattern of sympathetic identification. Curiously, it was Adam Smith, in his Theory of moral sentiments (1762), who first observed the phenomenon we now refer to as “compassion fatigue.” Human beings, he proposed, are normally inclined not only to imaginatively identify with their fellows, but as a result, to spontaneously feel one another’s joys and sorrows. The poor, however, are so consistently miserable that otherwise sympathetic observers face a tacit choice between being entirely overwhelmed, or simply blotting out their existence. The result is that while those on the bottom of a social ladder spend a great deal of time imagining the perspectives of, and genuinely caring about, those on the top, it almost never happens the other way around….
Now, in contemporary industrialized democracies, the legitimate administration of violence is turned over to what is euphemistically referred to as “law enforcement”—particularly, to police officers, whose real role, as police sociologists have repeatedly emphasized (e.g., Bittner 1970, 1985; Waddington 1999; Neocleous 2000), has much less to do with enforcing criminal law than with the scientific application of physical force to aid in the resolution of administrative problems. Police are, essentially, bureaucrats with weapons. At the same time, they have significantly, over the last fifty years or so, become the almost obsessive objects of imaginative identification in popular culture. It has come to the point that it’s not at all unusual for a citizen in a contemporary industrialized democracy to spend several hours a day reading books, watching movies, or viewing TV shows that invite them to look at the world from a police point of view, and to vicariously participate in their exploits.
David Graeber, The Dead Zone of the Imagination
This is why that article in the Washington Post by cop Sunil Dutta sounds so exasperated. It’s the usual “I’m a lowly bureaucrat, despite the control I have over your life. If i bother to take my blinders off and treat you like a human being, I’ll get fired. Why can’t you understand that and empathize with me like all the other good Americans who watch CSI and Sherlock and understand what being a cop is about?”