Monday, May 6, 2013

Phoenix Jones: be that guy?

This is the promised second part of the Don't Be That Guy article regarding Seattle authorities and Phoenix Jones. My first article pretty well railed exclusively at Seattle for being at best unethical and at worst unconstitutional in some of its methods to antagonize Phoenix Jones and the Rain City Superheroes Movement (RCSM) in the past. Now I'm going to look a little bit more objectively at Phoenix Jones and the concept of the real-life costumed hero in a slightly more analytical light.

First, I need to step back and announce my own bias in this issue. I was perhaps eleven years old when I first learned about the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964 (warning: if you haven't read about it before, it is a disturbing case). The case and the crime itself were both terrible and shocking to me, but the concept of the "bystander effect" was the most repugnant aspect. Few things rankle my sensibilities as a man and a human being as the thought of witnesses doing nothing to help Ms. Genovese in her hour of need. We have innumerable proofs that the "bystander effect" is alive and well today--just look at how many incidents of real violence you can find on Youtube or Facebook, all shot in calm, detached precision. Now, it's very easy for me to paint people caught in the "bystander effect" as villains and to idealize anyone breaking that mold as a hero worthy of comic books. And that's not necessarily fair.

I also don't know what Phoenix Jones is like as a person--what his true motivations are. I know what he says publicly and the smattering of disjointed real-life reports from the Seattle media and his own group's web presence, but I don't really know if he does it out of altruism or egotism. I do know, however, that I want to believe he's a genuine hero, like the kind idolized in stories predating our four-color magazines with the Scarlet Pimpernel or any heroes falling under Joseph Campbell's Heroic Cycle (all of which have to step outside of society in some way in order to help redeem it). But the cynic can plausibly say that Phoenix and the RCSM are dangerous glory-seekers with no place in these situations. I could not accept such a view, but it's a plausible one.

But the authorities of Seattle, with some shockingly high violent crime rates per capita (3,400 incidents estimated for this year in a city of only 600,000 people), are taking it upon themselves to expose, humiliate, mock, and denigrate private citizens who are, at worst, recklessly eccentric? Terrible.

Other than the assault charge I mentioned before that was used as an unethical ploy to expose Phoenix Jones to the city and then promptly dropped, I haven't found any criminal charges leveled against him. He's not breaking any laws, and even if he's nothing but swagger he still gives a lot of people a sense of optimism in the fight against crime. The word 'vigilante' is used occasionally, but it doesn't apply and just highlights an Asgardian grasp of the word (see my victory by English Major to elaborate on that reference).

"...I don't really know if he does it out of altruism or egotism. I do know, however, that I want to believe he's a genuine hero..."

America has a long and proud history of vigilantism, actually. It predates the creation of our country. The colonial Carolinas saw the creation of a group called the Regulators that tried to overthrow corrupt officials and sheriffs and establish their own ethical system of law. But American vigilantism is best known in the mid-to-late 1800s, when mob lynchings, mass jailbreaks, and regular townsfolk were known to assemble and violently oppose established force. But what vigilantism is, at its core, is an individual or group of individuals pursuing justice outside of the decision of the presiding government. An individual or group of individuals does not become a vigilante until it acts on solely personal standards of justice that somehow inhibit or exclude the government's standard.

Therefore, what Phoenix Jones and the RCSM do is not vigilantism. We don't really have a term for what they're doing--civilians interposing themselves into petty street crime in order to prevent and report said crime to late-coming authorities. I'd say an optimist might call that 'good samaritanism' and a pessimist would call that 'reckless meddling' or something. The point is, however, that they aren't necessarily breaking the law, however unwise one might think they're being.

And yet--at least according to comments on all his articles I've read--for anyone that doesn't view Phoenix Jones as a hero, he and his crew are criminals, stupid, and deserve punishment of either a legal or karmic nature. There's very little middle ground, apparently. Why is that? Why, with all his publicity and stated good will, is he such a polarizing topic?

The first issue for most is the costume. They see graphic design, costuming, and a certain amount of stage presence and they immediately identify it as phony and childish. For them dress-up is a thing you do as a kid for fantasy. Indeed, the only acceptable costumes for such people are uniforms--which are by their nature designed to squelch individual identity. The other benefits and factors relating to formalized clothing and appearance are lost on them--such as the intimidation of anonymity that is at once so distinct and unique as to be totally conspicuous. And, in a society in which everyone is at least superficially aware of comic book heroes, wearing a well-designed costume can probably also serve as unspoken shorthand for motivation or intent. Heck, just two weekends ago I threw my two year-old into the arms of a masked man for a photo op because he was dressed like Spider-Man. If some random grannie had tried to touch my boy without express permission, however, I'd probably slap her. A properly worn costume in the right venue can assure us even without it being an officially recognized uniform.

But. These same factors can go into the choice of disguise a criminal might wear--however much less likely. When I used to work at a bank, I studied nearby robberies with a peculiar passion. Someone coming into my branch might be the next robber in the wave, and it'd be up to me and my sturdy "next teller" sign to stand up for our customers' deposits. And there were a few costume elements used by robbers, especially around Halloween. The social effects of the right costume could work to make innocent people afraid as well as criminals. So Phoenix Jones' and the RCSM's costumes are only as effective as they are distinct and recognizable--and when they pursue those ends it becomes easy to look like tour-mongers.

"The word 'vigilante' is used occasionally, but it doesn't apply and just highlights an Asgardian grasp of the word."

Compounding, there's the fear as a cosplayer (or, rather, potential cosplayer at this point) that such incidents might make it more likely for people to understand wearing costumes for pure fun. Phoenix Jones himself might even have to deal with this, if he enjoys cosplay itself--probable, considering he highlights costume ideas for himself and his girlfriend on his Facebook page. When a uniform of community service or even of "vigilantism" is so similar to one worn for conventions and photoshoots, does it confuse the issue or even endanger participants on either side? I doubt it, but it certainly is a situation where I imagine neither party wants to be mistaken for the other.

Secondly, I believe there's an addictive quality to the "bystander effect", such that for some people it's odious and offensive to see someone stepping out of line and pointing their finger back at the crowd watching these violent crimes happen. I suspect this is the primary motivation for most people who really hate on Phoenix Jones, and there is a point to be had. Many of us end up clinging to the bystander behaviors because we regularly train ourselves to make the safe, reserved decision. The one that is most certain to end with me healthy and hale. We hear about people trying to save someone else from drowning only for them both to go down, and we adjust our requirements of ourselves. So of course when the RCSM goes out on patrol and does stuff we've already presumed stupidly dangerous, we have to insult and mock them. Because they can't be right. We won't let them.

Thirdly, there's the "safety professional" arguments, which I believe are the least valid response to Phoenix Jones and the RCSM. It's also the most common. "If he wants to help people, he should become a cop or a soldier..." "He's just playing around. Grow up. Get a job..." are the general sentiments in front of these arguments. In a nation where only one in nearly two hundred people is a law enforcement officer, this idea is dangerously charitable to crime of all sorts in our society. It's tantamount to pledging that criminals and police are the only sides involved in a war, and that law-abiding citizens are neutral in the fight. Obviously, though, crime concerns us all, and to treat it otherwise is the worst kind of enablement. What people normally mean with this though is that trained, salaried professionals are the only trustworthy agents of justice in society, which is at least as bad. Training is one thing, but just because something is your job doesn't mean you're the only one culpable for responsible behavior. We don't have to be janitors to know that when you stop up the toilet boil, you really should do something about it. Saying it's not your job and treating that as license to be indifferent just ensures the mess will spread before the professionals can get there.

And, as an aside, Phoenix Jones stresses on his facebook page that he doesn't view Seattle's police negatively, despite their rocky and sometimes hypocritical treatment of him. He respects and works with the police--he just doesn't aspire to be one.

So what am I saying? That morally conscious individuals should be gearing up and taking it to the streets like Phoenix Jones and the RCSM? Well, not exactly, and funny enough that's not Phoenix Jones' message either. It's about waking up to being socially responsible for what you say and do, about not sitting back and waiting for other people to do what you know you should be doing. It's about helping first and foremost, without waiting to be asked. All it takes is being needed and responding to the needs of others rather than making excuses.

So, unfortunately, it's much more virtuous and insidious a calling than merely getting dressed up and patrolling the streets.

Tights would be easier.

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