Max Gregg

Normative Bastardy

April 1, 2021   /  

Name: Max Gregg
Major: Philosophy
Advisor: Dr. Evan Riley

In the contemporary United States, the phrase All Cops are Bastards (ACAB) is a prominent political slogan asserted by police and prison abolitionists. As such its interpretation is highly disputed and has garnered a great deal of public scrutiny. In this project I examine the truth conditions of ACAB and inquire as to whether the contemporary US exemplifies such conditions. I take ACAB to be an Aristotelian Categorical generalization which is not falsified directly by the presence of exceptions, and I take bastardy to be a certain type of vicious, sadistic violent activity which is perpetrated in support of an arbitrary social hierarchy.

ACAB then is a reasonable assertion within a police state—a state where bastardy is a virtue and where the state controls the occupational labor, epistemology, and normative virtues of a society. I argue briefly that the United States, because of its propagandic media and prison labor system has some of the features of the ideal police state, and that police in the U.S. act not as mere legal enforcers but as normative enforcers.

In the next section I explicate my view further by addressing two objections: how an Aristotelian normativity can fit into a Foucauldian analysis of the society and how police can eb said to be acting intentionally if they too are subject to the false epistemology of the police state.

I end my analysis of ACAB by discussing its place in abolitionist praxis and prescribe a series of epistemic reforms which will lead to a pluralist understanding of human flourishing; I also stress in this section the importance of the material deconstruction of the police state and the construction of an anarcho-syndicalist coalitional system of mutual aid.


Max will be online to field comments on April 16:
noon-2pm EDT (PST 9-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening) and 4-6 pm EDT (PST 1-3pm, Africa/Europe: late evening)

68 thoughts on “Normative Bastardy”

  1. Hi Max!

    Congratulations, I really enjoyed hearing about your research–it’s thrilling to see the results of all your hard work paying off!! Can you give an example of the broader, and more open social norms that communities should create to dismantle the police state and promote this flourishing? Again, congratulations, I can’t wait to see where you end up next!

    1. Thank you Emma!
      So the way I see it, when we say “promotion of flourishing,” there’s a sort of cultural picture that’s built up in the minds of Americans (think suburban house, good job, two kids, a dog… etc). My contention is that in order to have non-bastardly social norms it will be important for us to take a hard look at that definition of flourishing and open it up to include other ways to live happily and successfully. So the norms that are created here wind up looking a lot like generosity and tolerance for cultural practices that may be difficult at first to understand (a section I wound up cutting from my IS actually discussed the practices of things like eating horse meat, taboo in the US but a delicacy elsewhere abroad, and that in a society with a broader definition of flourishing notions that make ostensibly benign cultural practices taboo become obsolete). To me that looks a lot like building up Universal Basic Incomes and localized social safety nets so that a diversity of flourishings becomes possible. I think it opens up the creative potential of our cultural practices, and would create a culture wherein everyone’s individual glorious weirdness is allowed to shine through their expression of what is important to them.

      1. Fantastic, I’m glad that you shared some of what you weren’t able to fully fit into your I.S.! It’s fascinating to hear the concrete policies and norms that you theorize could help to move us away from a police state–and allow everyone to bask in their glorious weirdness. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Max! As a social scientist (and definitely NOT a philosophy major) I always learn so much from different ways of thinking about abolition through other disciplines–thank you for sharing your project!!

  3. I think taking ACAB as an intensional definition, instead of an ethical critique, is really interesting. It’s why there’s so much backlash whenever that phrase is used; people assume it indicates some kind of absolute moral failing, but I think the way you’ve contextualized it here is perfect. Cheers, and congratulations!

    1. Don’t get me wrong, I surely think it does constitute a moral failing, but maybe not the type of moral failing that belongs only to the cop!

  4. Max, congratulations!!! Your IS is incredibly interesting and important. How familiar were you with Aristotle’s and Foucault’s ideas before you started this project?

  5. This is awesome, Max! Congratulations! What inspired you to study this topic for your IS?

    1. Funny story on that one!
      I originally was very focused on the notion of social agency – the phenomena of a group of people acting together in a robust way in order to achieve something an individual couldn’t (think putting on a play) – and I thought that a paradigm case of social agents with an internal culture would be police themselves. I wanted originally for the “ACAB” bit to be a very small part of the project, but I realized about halfway through that it honestly was the most important part (and possibly the source of the social agency)

  6. What a great presentation, Max! As a biologist, these concepts are completely new to me, but you really broke down your IS so that I could grasp the big picture. Congrats, my friend!

  7. So interesting Max, as always you are able to move such high-level thought and academia into approachable conversation and understanding and it is always appreciative! As someone who is so invested with words and meanings, I wonder your thoughts about how using a pejorative label on a cop may shield/shift the bastardy actions and vitriol away from the department or the state itself? Just a really thought provoking presentation and congratulations! (Can I please finally borrow that vest)

    1. Fabulous question Gian, thanks for reading!

      In the later bits of my IS I discuss the praxiological aspects of “ACAB” as a true assertion, and I decide pretty quickly that alone the mere identification of bastards (be they individual or departmental) is insufficient to hold police to account. That is to say; realizing that ACAB is a great start, and the application of it to specific officers does no harm to the project of creating an equitable world, but it also holds no one (not even the officer, who is always working within his state defined role) to accout

  8. Fantastic job, Max! A timely, well-thought, careful analysis with some rather interesting findings. Nice!

  9. Amazing work, Max! Your thesis is very thoughtful and will spark so many meaningful conversations. What do you think a coalition at The College of Wooster would look like? What kinds of social norms would you like to see forming?

    1. What an interesting question!

      I’ll start by saying that I don’t believe Wooster itself should be a coalition, though it does seem to have social norms and a set of agents who may have (in a sense) cultural practices, I think that culture shouldn’t have such a defined border as “people who paid to go to a college together.” We’ve already got a diversity of cultures on our campus, and as such I think that students here would belong to myriad and overlapping coalitional identities. Wooster might be a great michrocosmal place to try out a space of toleration between smaller (in Woo’s case maybe too small) coalitional communities.

      That being said, the social norms I would want to put in place are already exemplified pretty well on a day-to-day level by our students. A lot of what I’d want to build up is a revaluation of what we are truly doing at college (think: “am I just here to get a job? Should I be?”) I think such an evaluation would result in a banishment of the weird American individualism at colleges, and would therefore lead to a space where the community holistically learns from and works alongside one another in order to achieve what colleges always say they want: well-rounded intelligent stress-free students. Exclusivity would likely fall apart, there’d be a much wider diversity of food on campus, rather than having only an on-campus chapel, we’d have congregations of all sects and faiths which were willing to tolerate and accept those around them. Oh, and obviously we wouldn’t have Campus Security as it is currently instantiated. Quite likely we’d have some mechanism of safety, but it would need to start from and serve the community and its interests (rather than breaking up parties or dispersing crowds their job would become a lot more difficult – it would involve being in a crowd and ensuring that everyone was authentically safe, and to work very hard at de-escalation if ever anything wasn’t) Instead of being worried about being in trouble when the “post bastardly security” rolls by you’d look at them as most folks do firefighters. You’d know that they’re not there to get you in trouble, but to make sure you’re protected and able to do what you like.

      I hope this has helped! You’ve asked a question that I don’t think can be answered by an individual, in part because coalition building must be a dialectical process which

  10. Max,
    Congratulations on your accomplishment and thank you for sharing your great work! It is always a pleasure to be reminded of why I enjoyed studying Philosophy at Wooster so much, and I can’t wait to see where you go and what you do next!

  11. Well done, I really enjoyed the presentation ad for a 6min presentation it was very informative.

    I do have one question; how and where did this police state start?

    1. Well, I’m not a historian and I don’t think that the police state is a static thing. I think that police states have been around since at least the feudal era, a stratified serfdom is kind of the natural end of a police state. I also don’t think all police states are all the same; the Soviet police state for instance, is pretty massively different than the Tsarist police state.

  12. Max! You have always loved philosophy from Day 1 in EJS and it shows. You are so well spoken and chose such a fascinating topic to look at that is so relevant. Thank you explaining your work in such a wonderful way.

  13. I really enjoyed learning more about your I.S. via this very well-done presentation. I am especially interested in philosophy with real-world, timely applications; many people outside our profession don’t always see how applicable even ancient philosophical views can be. This really came alive in your work. Celebrate your success! Congratulations!

  14. Super interesting and well presented Max! Brilliantly done. 🙂 So proud of you! Cheers!

  15. Max, you have truly outdone yourself this time…The only thing more on-point than your impeccable fashion sense is the eloquence with which you present this (genuinely fascinating) topic. I’m only impressed.

    Perhaps my favorite aspect of your project is the way in which you balance the focus on individual action vs. systemic processes. By defining the bastardy of cops as intensionally characteristic of cops as an occupation, you focus on their social role rather than their individuality; yet you also justify a focus on the concrete actions of such agents of the state as a worthy object of analysis and critique, instead of just throwing your hands up in the air and yelling, “it’s The System!” I really appreciated that balancing act.

    Alright, you knew a question was coming, didn’t you? Well, here it is: Your project is refreshingly productive rather than merely critical, and you’re very clear about what sort of ethics you wish to be implemented instead of what we currently have. That being said, I worry about a certain paradoxical structure at the heart of any emancipatory politics: the upholding of genuine pluralism vs. the necessary enforcement of societal norms for the sake of society’s survival. After all, regardless of how horizontal we make our power structures, there is always still the question of power as such, and who gets to make the rules. I’m reminded here of Derrida’s concept of democracy’s autoimmunity, where the very notion of sovereignty itself–even in its most democratic manifestation–necessarily entails that the sovereign must be essentialized and de-pluralized in order to be a sovereign at all, thus negating the very freedom and pluralism it’s supposed to defend. This may be an irresolvable antinomy at the heart of all genuine democracy, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it regardless. Again, great job Max!

    1. Scotty, your question is as usual thoughtful and difficult, but here’s my best shot:

      First weird thing: “Democracy” as such, I do not think is entirely necessary in order to get rid of police states. Because I advocate for a localist concentration of governance, I think we might need to get used to having benevolent non-democratic cultural mini-states living in concert with democratic ones (I’m thinking now about a series of lectures David Graeber gave where he discussed a particular indigenous group which, in the summer was essentially an autonomous collective, but each winter would revert purposefully to an oligarchical structure with a rotating family serving as oligarchs each particular winter)

      Okay, my closet monarchism out of the way onto your question:
      The notion of a properly free and democratic state does sound like it would be difficult to maintain, especially given the notion of sovereignty you’ve described. I think my best answer to this follows from that oft shared pop-philosophy argument Karl Popper makes about tolerance: We’d need to enforce tolerance and fail to tolerate intolerance. Presumably there would also need to be discussions on autonomy and the like, but I would like to think that if everyone were invested in a system which allowed for them to flourish, then violation of the autonomy and respect of others wouldn’t be quite as satisfactory or cognizable at all.

      If I come up with a more satisfying argument I’ll surely reply again, thank you for always making me think friend!

  16. Your roundtable got me fired up and that’s how you know it was good! Thank you for always been an inspiration and fashion icon on campus.

  17. Congrats on completing your IS, Max! This is a really interesting topic. I’m sure it will be a critical piece of research in police and prison abolition for other philosophers (and sociologists!)

  18. Fantastic project, Max. I like the way you combine very technical philosophical distinctions with very concrete real world issues having an immediate ethical import. I have two questions about the notion of bastardy. The first regards the relation between the concept of bastardy and that of ethical responsibility. It strikes me that one thing that is characteristic of the bastard is their failure to take responsibility or (in the case of the police) their being removed from taking genuine responsibility by the place of power they have in the system. I suppose in some sense this is simply the other side of the “special privileges” which you talk about here (the privilege of not having to take responsibility for certain actions), but it seems to me a special kind of special privilege in that it takes away the conditions of genuine agency. Yet, as you point out, these special privileges are themselves demanded by the bastard who is at the same time depriving themselves of genuine agency in this Kantian sense that requires responsibility. The bastard is not a victim, but rather a perpetuator of their own dehumanization as well as the dehumanization of the one brutalized by them.

    This leads me to my other question. What do you think about the notion of toxic masculinity as a form of bastardy? (cw: sexual violence) That is, insofar as one accepts the role of “man” as defined by predominant toxic strains of our everyday thinking about masculinity, one takes oneself to have special privileges (and a corresponding lack of responsibilities) and to perform acts of violence that support patriarchical power structures. I’m particularly thinking that masculinity as defined by the “Men’s Rights” crowd is a kind of bastardy, insofar as their conception of masculinity seems to require a certain kind of violence and to involve a certain self-dehumanization on the part of the male brutalizer (whose acts of brutality are seen as resulting from an “essential maleness” and so to some extent outside of his control) as well as a dehumanization of the brutalized.

    1. Micah, thank you for the complex questions which I will answer in reverse order:

      as to the toxic masculinity question:
      The first example I give of bastardly violence in the I.S. itself is actually that of the homophobic schoolyard bully – simultaneously enforcing a standard of toxic masculinity and sexual orientation. So in short, yes! Toxic masculinity is absolutely a form of bastardy insofar as it is defined by the benefactors of the police state.

      For the question of genuine agency, I’ll admit I did couch this answer in an uncomfortable place in the research, because I took it to be the case that in order to authentically condemn or hold responsible police, it would be necessary to understand them not only as bastardly individuals, but as a social agent (a bastardly whole). Following from Searle and Bratman’s readings of social agency, this doesn’t require that the agent give up their agency, so much as lend it to the collective who is taking the action in question. I do also see your point about Kantian autonomy, and honestly I can only concede that point entirely. The police officer is their own subjugator, because in order to be a police officer they must have already committed themselves to a mistaken understanding of human flourishing.

  19. What a great project Max! I learned a lot watching your well thought out presentation. Good luck and all the best to you as you graduate and head out in the world. And I like the vest too!

  20. I remember when you first told me about your project in the lounge and look at how far you’ve come! Very proud of ya Max🖤💛

  21. Congratulations! Flourishing, yes, as carbon in many manifestations, ever changing and recombining, loving and marveling to be alive! I appreciate the way you define your terms, so I can understand more easily. Well done!

  22. Amazing work Max! Best of luck with your future plans! I know you are going to do amazing things!

  23. Congratulations on your research Max! I appreciate your tackling of this topic – I personally have weighed the usefulness “ACAB” in terms of whether it is productive or detrimental in the desperately-needed efforts to combat police-state attributes found in American society and police brutality.

  24. Awesome project, Max! I peppered you with enough questions at Roundtable, so today I just wanted to emphasize how impressed I was with this project and how you executed it! (although perhaps one day I really do want to pick your brain about how virtue ethics and Foucault might fit together!!)

    1. I absolutely wound up wringing those questions for about 30 pages of content, so thank you for helping me find a satisfactory conclusion

      I think the quickest way I can explain is through the lens of multivocality (aka core-dependent homonymy). Aristotle takes it to be the case that “health” is a thing, even though the family relation it seems to point to can have wholly different instantiations. I might say “running is healthy” and “that baby is healthy” but obviously I’m not talking about two identical notions of health – its meaning is flexible and the interaction of health with the context of the healthful activity or thing is important for understanding its meaning. This relational understanding of health does not render health non-objective or non existent, it just means that we need to conceptualize health as multivarious.

      I take virtue to be a similar thing, Foucault’s virtues as related to the society are obviously going to be historic (and therefore somewhat fluid or developing) but the telos of human beings as social seems to be objective (we don’t call it a human being unless it has certain traits that lead it towards social behavior) so while the virtues appear to change, human flourishing is always going to have some very small base characteristics (freedom of movement, the ability to acquire sustenance, etc.). The habituation of which is virtue! Essentially, just because we’re not all following the same virtues, we can follow them to the same end which is a better (for our present conditions) human world.

  25. Max! This was SO interesting. I had no idea your topic was on this. I think this is a phenomenal way of looking into such a heated and contested topic currently, and because of its political nature, I had never really looked into its philosophical connotations or even its rhetorical nature as a phrase that has an all encompassing connotation. Very well done!

  26. What a fantastic project, Max! I’m so glad that you shared it.

    I’m not going to lie: your skillful & apt work with Aristotelian ideas brought a bit of a tear to my eye…

    Many, many congratulations!

    1. Thank you so much professor!!! Hearing that makes my heart swell, I thought about you often reading the Michael Thompson (Aristotle plus jellyfish will do that to ya)

      Thank you

  27. Great job Max! As someone who has never taken a philosophy course, this definitely gave me a lot to think about. I was wondering if this research has changed your relationship with the phrase ACAB? Do you still deploy it (assuming that you do) because it is a common unifying phrase or is there more going on in the background now?

    1. Thanks!

      So first thing’s first, I totally still say it. But I think I say it in vastly different contexts now. Individual police Bastardy and brutality is still a good deploying space, but also anytime I hear about some project of an oil company to move in and “develop” someone else’s country I find myself thinking about how this is an extension of the police state, and that maybe all oil companies are also bastards!

  28. This is so interesting Max! Can’t wait to see where you head next. Best of luck with your post-grad plans!

  29. Well done Max! I really enjoyed watching your presentation and reading through your material!
    Congratulations on completing IS!

  30. Max, awesome project and winner for best I.S. title without a colon. If anything, it gives me a lot of substantive info on what I’m saying actually means (because a lot of time I think we just say stuff).

  31. Congratulations on completing such a fantastic IS, Max! I am impressed with how you broke down the phrase ACAB to really get at the heart of what it means, and in the ways you propose to move forward. I can’t wait to see what you do in the future! I know you will have a positive impact anywhere you go.

  32. Max, congrats on taking on this topic, with all its political, sociological, and philosophical implications. I loved the way your thesis seamlessly connects these various disciplines. In particular, the way you keep the examination of ACAB fundamentally philosophical, in spite of all its unrelated connotations, is commendable. As someone who is slightly partial to the existentialists, I could not help but think how someone like Sartre would have approached this same issue if he suddenly came back to the US, and examined this same problem . It has some parallels to the state France was in during the German occupation. What a wonderful thesis, Max…congratulations!

  33. This is highly interesting, Max! Very topical, and you explore it so well. You’ve really exemplified the importance of interdisciplinary research, great work!

  34. Max! Thank you for such an informative and thought-provoking window in of your research. The fruits of your labor are blooming beautifully, and it is so rewarding to see it flourishing itself.

    Enough with the puns.

    As I’ve seen some people in the comments point out, the lens in which you present your research, and explain the “all” in ACAB make it quite clear that the systemic issue of America’s policing goes above any one person (or cop). However, I wonder if your explanation is enough for the crowd that commonly takes that acronym to heart. So my question is thus: did you account in your research for a way to counteract individualistic and anecdotal critiques that commonly occur against ACAB? Think, “Well my ___’s a police officer and they’re so ___ and ___ so surely not all…” And furthermore, how can we break this down outside of the grammar of academia?

    Truly wonderful work, Max. Cheering you on from the other side of the monitor!

    1. Thanks for the question Dav! My quick answer to the “Hey what about my uncle?” objection is that I do not contend that each individual police officer is individually a bastard (which seems somewhat absurd) rather the phrase ACAB (and I honestly think that this is the sort of logic that a protestor would go in for) is to say that policing makes for bastardly action. I.E. people don’t necessarily become police because they’re bastards, rather they become bastards because a successful police officer is by the nature of the job, a bastard. The job requires bastardy, so a successful cop is a bastardly cop.

  35. Great job, Max!! Your presentation was so easy to follow and you are so articulate!

  36. Well done, Max! It has been a pleasure watching your topic and research develop since last spring, and you did an amazing job summing it up in your video in a way that was still digestible for someone outside of the discipline. You should be very proud of the work you did, and I cannot wait to read the full thing!

  37. So timely and interesting. I’ve always felt very conflicted about the use of ACAB, and this makes me think a lot about the topic. Congrats on your completion of I.S.!

  38. Hi John with an h, it’s Jon without an h (unless you’re Jon without an h…)
    Congratulations on this important work and all your successes thus far! So proud of you!

  39. Congratulations Max! I would love to hear you speak more about this in person before we graduate. Best of luck with all your future endeavors!

  40. Congratulations, Max! This was fascinating — what a great IS subject, and such an interesting theoretical engagement with extremely timely topics. I really appreciate this work and your approach to explaining it!

    Wishing you great things ahead!

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