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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Reflections On the Outsider Looking In

March 19, 1997|ROBIN ABCARIAN | Robin Abcarian co-hosts a morning talk show on radio station KTZN-AM (710)

Five years ago, the mandate was clear: the Insider had to go. And no one in the ranks would be a suitable replacement. There had to be a change, a fresh start. This was, we thought, the best possible solution. Given the entrenched--and, as many perceived it, destructive--culture of the organization, no other course was possible.

So bring us a brand-new police chief, the city said back in 1992. Bring us somebody we don't know, somebody different, somebody from somewhere else. And it wasn't just official Los Angeles expressing these sentiments. It was virtually all of Los Angeles, at least those of us who were not part of the organization itself.

New blood, the city demanded of the Police Commission. Someone with a commitment to reform, someone who would take the helm of the Los Angeles Police Department and transform the institution into something that would look upon us as its employers, its supporters, its allies, not its enemies.

Bring us, we said, an Outsider.

And you know what happened after that.

*

The Outsider commands a vaunted place in our imaginations and in our realities as well. Because we don't know him (or her), he is a canvas for the vivid projections of our hopes, our desires, our fears. The term limits movement for legislators, for instance, virtually codifies our infatuation with the Outsider as a force for good.

As a literary device, the Outsider reveals us to ourselves by seeing through eyes unsullied by experience or expectation. (Current popular culture example: the TV show "3rd Rock From the Sun.") Or the Outsider moves among us with a mysterious purpose. He is a high plains drifter, come to town to avenge a past affront. Or perhaps a white knight come to rescue the fair maiden from a life of drudgery and office work.

We allow the Outsider in for a variety of reasons: to teach us about ourselves, to diversify the gene pool, to infuse us with new purpose or to save us.

Usually, though, the Outsider makes us anxious.

Families deal with this strain all the time. With each wedding or remarriage, an outsider violates the integrity of what anthropologists like to call "kin groups." "The human animal forms tight in-groups," says Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University anthropologist. "Through history, this had an enormously adaptive purpose: that group would keep you alive. And there were tremendous allegiances.

"Kin are people who share your genes. So even relatives that you marry are not kin. I mean, at Christmas, your own husband is the outsider when you are with your family of origin."

As she spoke, I thought of my grandmother, who grew up poor in a tightknit Armenian clan. She was loath to extend hospitality to people to whom she was not related. "Don't give any of this food to outsiders," she would say, a stunning demand of four social grandchildren who routinely brought friends home for meals. "Odars," she would call them, the Armenian word for "others."

I became the outsider myself when I married a man with two children. And though we talk so much nowadays about "blended" families, many never really coalesce. Some studies that have followed stepfamilies in therapy have shown that it can take as long as four or five years for stepparents to be regarded as kin among the family into which they've married.

Because people spend so much time at the office, work groups can take on the characteristics of kin groups, Fisher says. "A group at the office can be very much like a [family] band. A newcomer can be very suspect or feared, because the forces in that group can be very strong."

Which gets us back to the LAPD.

*

The Outsider may be welcome or needed, as was perceived to be the case with Police Chief Willie L. Williams, but he was also, paradoxically, hugely suspect, especially among the rank and file.

"In nature, there is a tremendous amount of prejudice against outsiders," says Fisher, who is an expert on relationships. "In nature, the black sheep is a real concept. A group of brown horses will be prejudiced against a white horse, dappled cows against a solid cow. The concept of us and them runs deep in the animal community."

Likewise, Fisher says, among humans distrust of outsiders can be ferocious. And for good reason.

"We grew up in small communities, where we knew everybody and owed something to everybody," she says. "A new person who comes in is sort of a free spirit. They don't have a backlog of connections and responsibilities and favors that they have done. So they can be dangerous until they are firmly embedded in the system of obligations."

Perhaps the problem with Chief Williams was that he was not clear about whose system of obligations he was to have embedded himself in. Was it the community's? The department's? The Police Commission's?

Somewhere along the line, he seems to have made a drastic miscalculation. If his successor can figure out where Williams went wrong, this city may well end up with a police chief who lasts more than one five-year term.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is rabcarian@aol.com.

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