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Defending stones

Before heeding the call of criminal justice, I was a landscape architect. While in architecture school, I learned there is little (from an aesthetic point of view) worse than a design that almost works.

In a segment for CNN.com, Ayse Saygin, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, discusses her research on how human brains respond when we regard these near-misses. To study this, she shows test subjects three videos: clip one is of a metal robot; two, a human; and three shows a very human-like robot. The brain happily processes the first two images, but when shown the human-like robot our brains essentially throw up a flag, saying ‘hey that thing isn’t quite right.’

Scientists call this hiccup “the uncanny valley.” The idea was first articulated in 1970 by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori. He theorized that our response to a humanlike robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as the robot approaches — but falls short of — a completely convincing lifelike appearance. This uncanny valley captures a whole host of shortfalls: puppets; clowns; realistic animation (i.e. the movie Polar Express); mannequins; prosthetic limbs; false teeth; toupees; masks and yes, robots.

It’s as if we are hard-wired to detect the cubic zirconia of human form. Mori offered no concrete conclusions about the purpose of this discernment, but he suggested it probably has something to do with self-preservation.

One of my favorite examples of this aversion comes from a story by the comedian Jerry Clower. Clower told the preposterous tale of a man who had trained a monkey to hunt raccoons using a pistol and a flashlight. When the fellow took the monkey to show another coon hunter, the second man exclaimed, “Ooh, get that thing outta here! He looks too much like folks!”

This explains why “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp,” a 1960s TV show with dressed up apes was as creepy as it was funny. We can expand this to the whole realm of quasi-human monsters: vampires; Frankenstein; zombies; and the Terminator. They are all just close enough to us while being sufficiently distinct to elicit discomfort. So too is it with clowns. Fear of clowns is common enough that the term “coulrophobia” was coined to describe the condition (although you won’t see it specifically delineated in the DSM-IV Code).

All of this gets tied up — both psychologically and socially — in an affinity for normalcy. Around the turn of the last century, German psychologist Ernst Jentsch used the term “unheimlich” to describe the uncanny. He states, “… someone to whom something ‘uncanny’ happens is not quite ‘at home’ or ‘at ease’ in the situation concerned, that the thing is or at least seems to be foreign to him … the word suggests that a lack of orientation is bound up with the impression of the uncanniness of a thing or incident.” Jentsch emphasizes that the uncanny, “… arises from an experience of the uncertain or undecidable.”

A similar dynamic is explored in the late 19 century by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his writing about “anomie.” Anomie is often translated as “normlessness,” but it’s better understood as insufficient normative regulation — we can’t tell what’s expected — “normal.”

When society is in a time of upheaval or rapid change, individuals can experience anomie — old rules don’t seem to apply and new ones aren’t clear. We become detached. Social bonds break down. Normative values become generalized rather than personally embraced.

Of course, none of this is new to the human condition. We want to know what’s expected, what’s real. In 350 BC Aristotle stated, “that which underlies a thing primarily is thought to be in the truest sense its substance.” We hunt ceaselessly for meaning, context and the essential essence. Philosophers from time immemorial have considered the “eo ipso” — the thing in itself.

Even so, there are those among us who are not as fettered to normalcy, expectations or laws. Renegades, mad geniuses, iconoclasts, malcontents, artists, and yes — criminals. They perturb the boundaries. They challenge. They subvert. In so doing, they make us grow. They strengthen our mutual bonds. They make us defend tradition. Like stones in the river of society, they push against the banks and dare us to defend them.

Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com

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