How Psychoanalysis Helped Me Rethink Police Brutality

by H. N.

This article addresses sensitive political matters regarding the Hong Kong/mainland China relationship. The author has decided to not provide their full name or contact information to avoid running afoul of Beijing’s national security law for Hong Kong.

“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time!” “Five demands, not one less!” “Corrupted cops, may your whole family die!” These chants of protestors penetrated me as I marched with a million peaceful demonstrators. I was initially hesitant to join in the cursing of the families of corrupted cops, wondering how spreading further hatred could be helpful at all. But the urgent cries for justice brought back images of police brutality; rage seemed to infiltrate and spur me, and I found myself, too, chanting fiercely the words of hatred: “Corrupted cops, may your whole family die!”

It was the first day of 2020, during Hong Kong’s annual new year rally—six months since the commencement of anti-government protests. In June 2019, more than a million Hong Kong people rallied to protest the Hong Kong-China extradition bill. With the government’s refusal to meet the people’s demands and its escalation to police brutality, the protests, too, quickly escalated. What followed was a year of unrest filled with violence, anger, and injustice. The city’s peacefulness and orderliness had completely broken down, leaving it more divided than ever.

These days, it’s no longer surprising to see tear gas wafting across the city, civilians being pepper-sprayed, high-school students being arrested, or police kneeling on the necks of protestors, handcuffed face-down on the pavement with blood streaming from their faces. While the society is, sadly, growing accustomed to scenes of police brutality, there continue to be regular exclamations of unbelief: “How can they [the police] do that?” “Are they even human still?” Trying to make sense of such brutal behavior, many of us have resorted to the dehumanization of police officers.

Two weeks after the New Year’s demonstration, I was back at the University of Pennsylvania for the spring semester. I was enrolled in an exciting course taught by Drs. Lawrence Blum and Barbara Shapiro, called “Psychoanalytic and Anthropological Perspectives on Childhood,” in which we studied how internal psychic processes can give rise to different cultural behaviors, helping us make sense of some otherwise potentially mystifying ritual practices (e.g., female genital circumcision). The course, ultimately, taught me how psychoanalytic concepts can help us better comprehend the seemingly incomprehensible—to see the humanity in even the most unfamiliar and often disturbing social behaviors and customs. This was fascinating to me—but also, initially, threatening: if all human behaviors can be explained in human terms, then seeing certain people (e.g., the brutal police officers in Hong Kong) as other or less than human was no longer an option. I had to learn, instead, to keep pressing harder and harder on the question: What makes fellow a human being—a trained police officer, in particular—capable of such brutality?

According to Sigmund Freud, moral concepts are parts of the psychic structure called the “superego.” This is what we often call “conscience,” and it is shaped both by societal values and by an internalized image of an ideal self. The superego often acts against the “id,” the wholly unconscious part of the mind that relentlessly pursues the satisfaction of its every desire. The “ego,” according to Freud, serves to mediate conflicts between the “superego” and the “id.” Emotions of guilt and shame punish the ego for failing to live up to the superego’s strict standards and “repressing” the wild urges of the id.

Most of the police officers wear heavy gear and masks, and many of them remove the identification numbers from their uniforms, further concealing their identity from the public and making it much more difficult to hold them accountable for their actions. Thanks to my study of psychoanalysis, I understand now that this technique of concealment effaces an individual cop’s identity and, with it, their own sense of responsibility; they become part of a collective, anonymous mindset, which, potentially, enables them to dissociate, to detach themselves from any sense of personal responsibility or guilt they might otherwise feel. The moral demands of the superego (the image of an ideal self) may thus become far less pressing, freeing up some of the more selfish and even violent impulses associated with the id.

I have also come to understand that the use of dehumanizing language can actually help promote and facilitate police brutality. Some officers, including the police spokesperson, have referred to protestors as “cockroaches.” This is infuriating, and many see it as evidence of the deteriorating humanity of police officers themselves. And yet, psychoanalysis helps us to understand that the dehumanization of others is a very human act—it is a defense mechanism against guilt which further abets the justification of behaviors that are otherwise suppressed by the superego’s moral standard (Grand 1998). Ironically, the dehumanization of others as a way of coping (an undesirable way of coping, obviously) with some inner psychic conflicts is a very human characteristic.

I myself have also engaged in dehumanizing behavior by calling police officers “dogs.” I’ve done so because I’ve wanted to distance myself from the violent officers; by denying their humanity, I was trying to say: “I’m nothing like them.” However, in doing so, I was also disavowing our common humanity and the fact that I, too, sometimes experience (whether consciously or unconsciously) violent impulses. By opposing police brutality without seeking to understand the drives and motivations that lead to their intolerable actions, I’ve allowed myself to slip into a simplistic “self v. other” way of thinking, making it too easy for me to perceive all police as brutal, which does nothing to help overcome divisiveness and the violence it spawns.

To make the situation even more complex, we all tend, to some extent, to internalize societal stereotypes through a process sometimes called “introjection,” whereby our “sense of self [is] derived from the perceived experience of that self in the minds of others” (Altman, 63). Social media are full of dehumanizing images and descriptions of police. These images and descriptions are not only a condemnation of police brutality and a call for justice, but also a way of labelling all police as beasts, thereby promoting further disidentification and stereotyping. If introjections do actually happen—if people eventually come to believe and, as it were, become the definition of themselves in the minds of others—by constantly labelling police as morally reprehensible beings, we might ourselves be complicit in turning morally self-aware officers into brutal people.

Thinking in a more psychoanalytic way has thus made me a bit more humble—and prompted me to reflect more on the language I use and the social media posts that I share concerning police brutality. Especially during this time of unrest, we should stop dehumanizing one another and disengage from vindictive actions that serve only our worst impulses. At the end of the day, we do not want to create even more hatred and violence as we seek, rightly, to denounce police brutality and continue to work towards the goals of justice and freedom.

This way of understanding police brutality is by no means a justification of police brutality. I still strongly believe that shining a bright light on police brutality is a requirement of justice for all. Nonetheless, by understanding better, with the help of psychoanalytic concepts, what motivates police brutality—as well as our own aggressive impulses—we might find more peaceful and effective ways of combatting the prejudice, mistrust, and violence that threaten us all.


Works cited

Altman, Neil. 2006. “Whiteness.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 75.1: 45-72.

Grand, Stanley. 1998. “Letter.” Journal of The American Psychoanalytic Association 46.2: 654-655.


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