Gender in the Central Park 911 Call

Beyond racism, the incident provides deeper insight into aggression and gender.

Posted May 30, 2020

Pixfuel, royalty free image
Source: Pixfuel, royalty free image

The incident in which Amy Cooper, a young white woman walking her dog in Central Park, called 911 to falsely claim she was being threatened by an African American man has sparked national outrage. She called the police after the man, who was bird watching, asked her to put her dog on a leash, as she was required to. The woman was promptly fired from her job at the investment firm Franklin Templeton because the company says it has no tolerance for racism. Further legal action against her is being pursued. The woman has apologized profusely and apparently sincerely. 

That racism can fuel such an incident does not necessarily mean that racism alone is what sparked the altercation. A closer look at this altercation provides deeper insight into the roots of human aggression

While it may appear that almost anything can unleash aggression and violence in people, this is not true. By necessity, we are biologically equipped to carry out aggressive behavior to confront a threat. However, engaging in aggressive and violent behavior puts one’s life and limb at risk, so this behavior is very highly regulated by complex neural circuitry. Only very specific triggers will activate an aggressive reaction. 

Advances in neuroscience are revealing that different triggers for aggression are controlled by different neural circuits. I use the mnemonic LIFEMORTS to easily remember these nine triggers. There is not space here to review them, but to cite one example familiar to everyone, the “F” for “family” trigger is well known as the “momma bear response” of a mother exploding in violence to protect her young. This reaction is shared by males, but the “momma bear” name highlights the shocking capacity of the “meeker” sex to unleash such situational violence.

Males are widely recognized as being physically aggressive and quick to respond to a perceived threat with violence, while women tend to engage in indirect aggression. Again, the reasons are deeply embedded in our biology. The survival-of-the-fittest struggle which forged the human brain and body selected males for physical attributes of strength, resulting in men being on average significantly heavier, stronger, and larger than females. It makes no sense to enter into combat with a person who outweighs you by 50 to 100 pounds. Thus, females engage in indirect aggression, such as gossip, sabotage, poisoning, etc., rather than going fist-to-cuffs as males are prone to do. That’s what Amy Cooper did in calling 911: She attempted to induce others to come to her aid to confront her perceived foe. A male in the same situation might have been more likely to have gotten into a fight.

So what was the trigger that caused this woman to feel she was being threatened and needed to strike back? If you watch the video and listen to the woman, she is reacting to the man telling her what to do and refusing to stop filming her with his phone. 

The “I” trigger, for “insult” is a frequent cause of snapping. Violence sparked by disrespect and insult fill the daily news, from barroom brawls to interactions among strangers and even loved ones. Not so long ago, duels to the death were an accepted response to insult. For any social species, an individual’s rank in the social structure determines their privileges and success, which are essential for survival; for example, access to resources, mates, and command over others. Among social animals, including most primate species, violence is how social rank is established.  “Don’t tell me what to do!” is the manifestation of this perceived challenge to one’s status—in this case, being told to leash her dog by someone she may have felt did not have the status or authority to do so. We have seen how being told what to do can lead to anger and violence during the COVID pandemic as violence, even deadly violence, has erupted when someone told someone else to wear a face mask. 

Not wanting to be filmed is also a common perceived threat, because it is an invasion of privacy.  “Sir, I’m asking you to stop. Please stop recording me,” Amy Cooper pleas in the video. Being photographed touches on the same trigger that is tripped when someone violates our space, home, environment, or personal life. Laws that protect us from people entering our home or using photographs or videos of us without our permission are the legal recognition of this type of provocative and threatening situation. (This is the “E” for “environment” trigger in LIFEMORTS.)

The essential question is whether or not Cooper would have called 911 to falsely accuse her perceived adversary of threatening her if the man had been Caucasian. The man’s race comes into this incident when she threatens the man that she will call the cops. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she warns.

The racism of American society, especially against African Americans, is evoked here. Racism in America is a source of injustice, inequality, lack of opportunity, and violence that has rocked our society for centuries and persists today. It is much easier, and perhaps more comforting, to condemn and dismiss the act of one person than it is to recognize this.

Finally, racism is not the only type of discrimination our society is grappling with. If the same argument had occurred between two men in Central Park and resulted in a fight, would the incident have become national news, perceived and punished in the same way?