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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Improvisation in Crisis

This morning, I found an extraordinary video of a gunfight happening just outside of an elementary school in Mexico.  The video isn't extraordinary because of the violence (although extreme violence is never easy to watch or hear about); it's extraordinary because of how the teacher responds to the violence.  Despite the sound of automatic gunfire erupting just outside the classroom, the teacher maintains her cool and even leads the students in a playful call-and-response song.  She is able to improvise in the middle of crisis.  After watching this video, I began to wonder: How much of improvisation is spontaneous?  How much of it is learned? 

A couple years ago, I published an article called "Escaping Embarrassment: Face-Work in the Rap Cipher" in Social Psychology Quarterly.  This particular paper is drawn from ethnographic fieldwork of street corner rap ciphers (sessions) in South Central LA.  In the paper, I argue that improvisation ("freestyling" in this context) is something that requires a lot of practice.  Over time and with lots of training, rappers develop a series of "go-to" rhymes that they use and recycle in creative ways, particularly when they encounter potentially embarrassing moments while freestyling with each other.  Although they recycle the same words, phrases, and rhyme schemes, they do so in novel and unique ways.  This is the same for jazz musicians, athletes, preachers, soldiers, customer service clerks, and virtually anyone who has ever undergone rigorous training to respond in different kinds of situations.  For those interested, here's an old video of Open Mike, Flawliss, and CP freestyling with each other.  The rappers in this videos are main characters in my book, "Blowing Up: Rap Dreams in the Hood," which is under contract at the University of Chicago Press.

Improvisation isn't something that just magically appears out of thin air, right? It's something that a person has already encountered in their past.  It's something that they have played with, experiment with, and as such, is something that they can use in a moment of need, right?

These days, I'm beginning to second guess some of these ideas.  I'm starting to wonder if social scientists (myself included) are blind to stuff that isn't really observable or measurable.  Maybe there's also something that we could call "pure improvisation."  Maybe there are behaviors and actions that are not so easily summarized as a unique combination of what you've already learned and practiced?  

In the case of this video, maybe the teacher and children have had practice responding to gunfire (Sadly, in areas ravaged by drug cartel violence, this might be the case for many).  Or, maybe this woman has tapped into something that eludes practical explanation.  What do you all think?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Violent Fantasies and Forgiving

For the past 1.5 years I've been studying people who are victims of gun violence.  After meeting them at the University of Pennsylvania's outpatient trauma clinic, I follow them around to learn about the many challenges that people face while trying to rebuild their lives.

Time and time again, I've come across individuals whose lives are disrupted in ways that exceed what most folks can even imagine.  In addition to the psychological scars that remain long after a person leaves hospital care, people often live with chronic injuries that make even the most routine activities (e.g. sleeping, brushing teeth, laughing) tricky and often quite painful.

For instance, "David" is a 25-year old African American man who was in the peak of his physical life when he was nearly gunned down.  One evening while walking home from a friend's house, he passed by a large group gathering inside of a high school's parking lot.  As he ventured closer to see what was happening, he realized that two women were fighting each other.  As he started walking away from the scene, someone in the crowd pulled out a 9mm and started firing shots into the crowd.  David got hit twice: one bullet hit his leg, the other hit him just beneath his shoulder blade.  The first bullet entered and exited his body cleanly.  The second bullet, however, broke through the surface of a thick wall of muscle, zig-zagged around in his back for a bit, and then settled into a tuft of soft tissue just beneath his shoulder blade.  In addition to making most physical activity requiring upper body strength painful, David fears yawning and laughing--two activities that cause the retained bullet to irritate the tissue in his back.   

David's story is fairly common.  Most gunshot victims live with a range of injuries that will never really go away.  In this context, it's not hard to see why many victims (and their loved ones) have trouble forgiving those who were responsible for their injuries.  In fact, during "life after the shooting"  victims and their loved ones often fantasize about exacting revenge on the person who shot them.  These fantasies range from Rambo-esque stories of victims going on a rampage guns-a-blazing, to more cold and calculated plans of staging a special ops-like ambush that ends with the shooter dying a slow and painful death in front of them.

From what I can tell, victims feel empowered by these kinds of violent fantasies.  Also, it seems that victims don't really have any real intentions of following through on these revenge scenarios.  Some of the victims who have the most elaborate revenge fantasies that would make John Woo or Quentin Tarantino proud, have done very little to actually carry out some of these scenarios.

On the other side of the coin, I have also stumbled across stories in which victims say that the only way to truly move past being a victim is to forgive the person responsible for your pain and suffering.  For instance, I remember a story of a Rwandan woman who forgave the man responsible for killing her entire family with a machete.  Now, she has him over for dinner from time to time. I also recently stumbled across an NPR story of a victims mother who has forgiven her son's killer.  In addition to informally adopting him as her new surrogate son, the mother now lives next door to her son's killer, and says that she hopes her son's killer will graduate from college and get married--two events that she never got to experience with her biological son.

What do you all think?  Is healing only possible when one forgives?  Or, do violent fantasies--particularly those that leave us feeling empowered--have a role in healing as well?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Who's crazy?

I woke up this morning and found out that Jared Loughner--the man who killed 6 people and wounded 13 others during a mass shooting in Tucson, AZ--has been deemed by psychiatrists and psychologists to be "unfit" to stand trial.  A BBC report claims that Loughner had outbursts during preliminary hearings and is now undergoing additional evaluations to see if he will ever be able to stand trial. 

All of this made me reflect on the case of Aileen Wuornos, dubbed by the media as "America's first female serial killer."   In David Broomfield's documentary, "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer," we learn that Aileen underwent the same kinds of psych evaluations and was deemed competent enough to stand trial, and ultimately to be put to death.  In fact, Broomfield tells us that Aileen underwent a very brief, 15-minute psych evaluation the day before she was executed.  This happened around the same time when she was developing elaborate conspiracy theories about how the police allowed her to continue murdering in order to sell the rights to movies, books, and other entertainment.  At one point, she tells Broomfield that she thinks the mirror in her prison cell is wired.  If you're interested, here is some creepy footage of Aileen's final interview.

These two cases make me wonder how the criminal justice system processes different folks who kill.  Namely, how does the criminal justice system determine when someone is or someone isn't fit to stand trial?  Does the type of murder shape how the criminal justice system evaluates a person's mental health?