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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Target Intimidating Customers by Impersonating Police: Nietzsche on Weakness Seeking to Dominate

In the PBS series Downton Abbey, the Victorian countess, magnificently played by Maggie Smith, delivers a reverberating line as fit for my hometown in the second decade of the twenty-first century as for a village in Britain a century earlier. Referring to the local physician, who had just been raised to the position of military manager of convalescent centers during World War I, the countess remarks in frustration after a rejected request, “We give these little people power and it goes to their heads like strong drink.” This poignant quote fits like a glove in the case of the typical store manager and assistant managers, especially in my decaying hometown in the U.S. a century after World War I. In this essay, I apply Nietzsche's philosophy to a rather distinct pattern that I discovered there decades after I had left for college.
Walking through the electronics department of a Target store two days after Thanksgiving in 2013, I noticed two college-aged guys wearing badges and hand-cuffs helping customers locate desired merchandise and operating the department’s cash register. The spectacle caught my eye on account of the excessively pessimistic over-kill. Was it smart to rely on two college students to fight off the expected riot after Black Friday?
After picking up some underwear in the clothing department, I headed to the store’s line of cashiers. It so happens the cashier ringing up my sale had been a police officer for fourteen years before stepping down due to knee surgery. After I quickly described what I regarded as overkill in the electronics department, she hastened to explain her own resentment.
“Those two guys didn’t have to stand attention—remaining perfectly still for a long time—at a police academy. The guy with the Justin Bieber hair really gets to me.”
“I see your point,” I said in a reassuring tone borne of having lived enough years to sympathize. “Can they even use the handcuffs?” I asked. “A store employee can’t keep a customer from leaving a store—that would be false-imprisonment!” I added as my opinion gained focus.
“That’s true,” the police veteran answered matter-of-factly. “They can’t use the handcuffs.”
“Giving handcuffs to those guys and telling them they can’t use them is just asking for trouble,” I said as I shook my head in utter disbelief mixed with disgust.
“The cuffs are to intimidate customers,” the cashier explained as my jaw seemed to drop to the sterile tiled floor.
“Well, that’s one way to attract customers,” I remarked sarcastically. "This goes beyond even the typical control fixation people have in this town." In hindsight, I should not have been surprised, for having the distinction of being the third most miserable city in the U.S. hinges not on the high crime and unemployment rates, but, rather, on the pervasive mentality and attitude.
"The intent to intimidate is probably illegal," I said to get the former policewoman's opinion. She nodded. Thinking out loud, I realized that having sales associates wear badges, uniforms, and handcuffs constitutes a more serious crime--that of impersonating a police officer. At the time, I was about to pay, but I could not bring myself to pay; I had suddenly hit an invisible wall. “I would be an utter hypocrite, writing as I do on business ethics, were I to buy the clothes in spite of the blatant intimidation,” I said as one thought led to another and finally to a decision.
“I don’t blame you,” the cashier replied in a hushed tone.

"I just can't enable the mentality I'm seeing here," I explained as if I were apologizing to a sympathizer.
As I walked out of the store, I was struck by an omission; the cashier had not offered a percent discount on my purchase. In a way, the cashier had unintentionally defended the validity of the intention to intimidate by committing a crime. I looked down at the pavement ahead of me and shook my head in utter astonishment as I took in the sheer presumptuousness of a store manager or corporate management thinking that fake police badges and real handcuffs are perfectly o.k. as a show of potential force in order to intimidate existing customers. Such over-kill without any sense of going too far in terms of active or passive aggression (e.g., power-trips) epitomizes the acidic local mentality drunk on aggressive power-trips in Rockford, Illinois, leider meine Heimstadt. 

Both the malevolent managers at Target, whether in the stores or at the corporate headquarters, and the clueless yet presumably infallible Rottweilers who aggressively guard their little turfs in insignificant Rockford as if on speed can serve a useful purpose here as I try to answer a question that Friedrich Nietzsche, a late nineteenth-century European philosopher posed but could not answer. How is it that the weak "new birds of prey," whose urge to dominate must presumably be sated whatever the cost, get the self-confident strong to willingly renounce their native strength and be dominated by the sick birds. Nietzsche singles out the weak moralizing of what he calls the "ascetic priest" figure in the second essay of The Genealogy of Morals. Foisting Thou Shalt Not on the strong is, Nietzsche argues, the way that the new birds of prey get their cruel poison into the strong. In place of self-confidence, the beguiled, infected strong feel ashamed of their inherent strength in overcoming interior and external obstacles. 

I see an additional way besides the use of morality as a velvet weapon of resentment. The new birds of prey can gain a momentary advantage over any of the strong who step onto any of the little turfs, whether by an unhappy accident or through enticement (i.e., lies). By leveraging actual authority, which is valid only on a small bit of turf, to squeeze out as much discretion as possible to add on still more directives, the puerile pests can harness individuals of noble strength by insisting that the rules must be obeyed as if they had the force of public law. Masking their lack of self-control over their sick urge to dominate, the weak taskmasters of the herd know all too well the value that appearing strong has even as a lie in being able to draw on societal levers of legitimate force, such as the police, to intimidate the strong into capitulating to the power-trip as if it were founded on anything substantial.  

The strong are indeed subject to the actual authority of the weak who have can exercise some power as low functionaries, such as bus drivers and store employees. Crucially, their reach is limited to their tiny turfs. Whereas the "herd animals" cannot but cross the lowlands as they are naturally herded by the sort of weakness that simply must dominate others, such as by extracting a relatively low-potency pleasure out of the power in being cruel. Whether rich or poor, the "noble strong" (i.e., courageous and of strong will in overcoming obstacles) can hopefully find a way around the primitive lairs (i.e., external obstacles), such as a Target or Walmart store. To the extent that the strong cannot avoid the weak birds of prey who work as functionaries, any bullying bosses among the tiny Lilliputians really can ensnare Gulliver, even if only temporarily as he is, after all, a giant in Lilliputian terms. Even though generally speaking weakness cannot (by definition) conquer strength, little swirling eddies of weakness applying whatever feeble power it has into churning the occasional river current that happens to stray into what looks like a smooth patch of water off to the side. The artificial tumult can indeed cause even a substantial fish to lose its bearings and be tossed around, subject for a time to the overreaching of the power-tripping weakness. 

If a person who is naturally self-confident in his or her strength cannot avoid a Target or Walmart store, or taking a city bus, he or she can at least minimize the time spent under the watchful eye of a lurking functionary while --and this is important--viewing him or her from a pathos of distance, lest the strong foreigner become infected, and thus more recognizable to the sick Lilliputian hunters. This can happen merely in being hoodwinked into believing that the snares are not by any means trivial or avoidable, and thus that the tiny taskmasters are worth taking seriously--that their power is commensurate to the potent pleasure of power obtainable only by the strong in overcoming mighty (rather than tiny) obstacles. 

For the natural law that strength cannot be subject to weakness to hold rather than putrefy at certain points, the strong must not inhale the bad air that pervades and surrounds the invasive animals from among the herd who regularly dominate the herd animals, whether the passive cows be on a city bus headed to a Walmart or Target store, or already inside it. That a bus driver or a store's sales clerk, cashier or manager somehow feels entitled as if by right or false equivalence to dominate the strong can be likened to arrogance on stilts during a flood. The cow-in-charge stubbornly forces the strong into the more familiar (and useful) category of weakness, refusing to view the strong as anything else. 

For one thing, the weak who relish dominating others resent the strong for being strong (as if strength could be anything else). Secondly, if the strong do not detect the category mistake, they are more likely to accept the suitability and perhaps even the inevitability of being treated as a herd animal and thus subject to the primitive whips and snares. Because resentment plays a role in the motivation of the weak birds of prey to extend their domination to cover the strong, I suspect that the assignment of strength to fit within weakness does not stem from an incapacity to distinguish the two. After all, strength must first be recognized to be resented. 

The sickness is palpable, or readily observable, in the twisted nature of the social reality that the dominating functionaries, such as those at Target, have invented and try to enforce of the healthy. Remind a store manager that customers are not "guests" and you (as a "guest") will find a solar flair of anger suddenly taking the place of the fake smile to force you back into your place. The perversion in the manager's mindset also comes to the water's surface should he or she feel humiliation rather than just anger and, yes, jealousy as you self-confidently move on, having obviously come to the conclusion that it really doesn't matter what mentality Target's management and that assistant manager have and are determined to impose on the herd of shoppers. Regarding such petulant functionaries who have no sense of the impropriety of their urge to impose, and thus dominate, Nietzsche has the person of noble strength say, what are these parasites to me? Let them get what they can. The problem arises when the strong themselves get ensnared as part of the booty, for Gulliver ought to be able say in a carefree manner, Let the Lilliputians have their harmless little snares! even as he walks through their village.