I recently had a conversation with someone who seemed entirely motivated by kindness and also entirely, dangerously wrong.
The subject was prisons, and more specifically the treatment of prisoners:
Steven Hayes, who was convicted of a deadly 2007 home invasion in Connecticut that was so brutal it gained international attention, is receiving hormone therapy in prison as part of a gender transition https://t.co/jaDpU5UQEp
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve read a few books on prisons, crime, and legal systems. My opinion of the American legal system is that it is kind of terrifying; it usually catches the right person, but not always; unscrupulous people absolutely can use it to destroy your life.
Prisoners can be divided into roughly three groups:
People who shouldn’t be there (innocent, or their sentences are absurd for their crimes)
People who should be there, but feel genuine remorse
Some prisoners shouldn’t be there at all, some should be treated better than they currently are and given more support for reintegration to the non-prison world, and some should be tortured to death.
Over in real life, I try hard to be kind to others. I hand out cookies and hot cider on cold days to the neighborhood kids, volunteer with the homeless, and feel bad about eating animals.
But kindness requires… policing. Children cannot play on the playground if it’s full of homeless druggies. Homeless shelters cannot help if they are full of strung-out druggies, either. Even eating “free range” chickens requires that farmers raising chickens in batteries be prevented from slapping a fraudulent “free range” sticker on their meat.
Kindness alone is insufficient for creating a “kind” world. Many people are not nice people and will take advantage of or harm others if given the chance. Being “kind” to such people simply allows them to harm others.
My interlocutor in the conversation about the “trans” inmate basically argued that taxpayers should fund cross-sex hormone therapy for a man who raped/tortured/murdered a family (raped and murdered their kid, too), because it is medical care that prevents pain and suffering.
This argument is flawed on two grounds. The first is obvious: the entire point of prisons is to cause suffering. Prison isn’t fun; if it were fun, people would want to be there. Prison has to be unpleasant in order to function as any sort of deterrent, and we do actually want to deter people from committing crime. (In this case, the fellow should suffer to death, but that’s irrelevant, since the death penalty isn’t on the table in Connecticut.)
This doesn’t mean that I want to torture all of the prisoners–see above–but that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that punishment is an part of what prisons are for.
The second flaw is the matter of obligation. We may not wish to cause further harm to an inmate–having determined that prison is sufficient already–but that does not obligate us to relieve suffering that we didn’t cause in the first place.
This is a very common conversation in the car: “Mom! I forgot my toy! We have to go back!”
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to go back. You had half an hour to get ready, so you had plenty of time to get Mr. Fuzzy before we left. Hopefully you’ll plan ahead better next time.”
Yes, kiddo is going to cry, but he’s old enough to remember Mr. Fuzzy; it’s not everyone else in the car’s job to fix his mistake.
The fact that someone wants to undergo a sex change does not mean they need to; they may be unhappy because they cannot, but there are 2.3 million other people in prison who are also unhappy because there are things they cannot do. There are people who will never attend their children’s birthday parties; men whose wives will leave them; women whose sick and aging parents will die without saying good-bye.
Life is filled with tragedies; there is nothing special about wanting to be a girl that it sets it above the others and obligates tax payers to pay for it.
I am fine with paying for actual life-saving medical care, up to a point–diabetics in prison shouldn’t be denied insulin, for example. But wanting to be a girl is not an emergency. It’s a luxury, and once you’ve torture murdered a few people, you don’t get luxuries anymore.
To this is replied that I am, in some way, denying the inmate’s humanity, or perhaps drawing lines in the sand that could get shifted in difficult cases to cause harm to someone I do not want harmed, etc. The idea that we should not decide a trivially easy case because someday a more difficult case may come along is obvious nonsense, and “humanity” in this context is meaningless. I wouldn’t torture a dog, even though they aren’t human. I think it is immoral to kill or mistreat great apes, elephants, and dolphins.
Dolphins don’t torture humans to death.
If we are going to remember that someone is a human, we should remember his victims. They were humans; he is merely a member of Homo sapiens, a distinction he neither earned nor made meaningful.
There are several sleights of hand, here. The first is the exchange of causing harm and preventing harm. We may have an obligation not to cause harm, but we lack one to prevent harm. The second is the classification of sex hormones as necessary medical care. It is not; no one dies from not undergoing HRT. The third was characterizing a denial of medical care as a human rights violation. Human rights, you know, the things the UN decided were important after the Holocaust.
Put these three sleights together, and wanting to spend my money on my own children instead of on sex hormones for a murderer is equivalent to shoveling people into ovens.
I don’t think most of these sleights my interlocutor made were intentional–rather, I think she (or he) is a very kind person who has been effectively deceived by others who prey on her niceness.
Step one in fixing this sort of problem is to realize that kindness cannot exist in a vacuum: predators have to be stopped or children will be murdered, and we do this via coercion, which is, yes, painful. Step two is realizing that money (and resources) is limited, and that spending it on one thing requires not spending it on something else. Once we realize that, we have a quick and easy morality test: would sane people take money from their children in order to spend it on this?
In this case, normal people find the idea abhorrent: no loving parent would deprive their children in order to provide a murderer with luxuries.
If your “kindness” leads to acting abhorrently, it isn’t really kindness.
It seems like a lot of our problems in modern America stem from wanting to act as a unified entity but not actually being a unified entity.
Of course, we never were. No one in 1776 thought Massachusetts and Georgia were culturally or economically the same. They were so different that the whole country was set up as a “confederation” of nearly-independent states that just cooperated for reasons of national defense and trade efficiency.
Of course, that didn’t work so well and, over time, the nation installed a more and more powerful federal government, but differences in how people thought the whole thing should be run were still strong enough that we ended up fighting a civil war in the process.
That’s bad enough! But today we have nukes. We affect other people, not just ourselves, and other people are understandably concerned about those nukes. They’d like us to be a wee bit consistent in where we’re pointing them and maybe give them a heads up if we’re about to destroy their country.
Which we might be able to do if we were a single entity. But we’re not. We don’t even have the same people in power from year to year.
What’s that, we just let people vote, and if some 51% of us decide to vote for the guy whose policy is “nuke all of the penguins and use global warming to cancel out nuclear winter,” then that’s the law of the land?
Yes, that’s how democracy works, horrifying as it may sound.
The only sane response is a buildup of technocratic and bureaucratic apparati devoted to thwarting the will of the people in order to make sure no one nukes Antarctica in a fit of democratic fervor (or self-serving fervor, an actual concern during the Nixon administration.)
Who prevents the Deep State that’s supposed to prevent the president from going off the deep end from going off the deep end?
Meanwhile, we can’t get our national act together even on much simpler questions, like “Is rent control good?” or “How should we teach kids to read?” or “is abortion murder?”
Yet despite the fact that we really aren’t a single entity, we get perceived as one. We basically perceive ourselves as one. The actions of people at the other end of the country (or the world) we feel reflect on ourselves, even when we might from some rational standpoint admit that we really don’t have any control over those people and we shouldn’t be implicated in some giant mass guilt schema because of them.
In short, half of us want to run things one way and half want things the other way, and one of the side effects of this is absolute horror that some people are being RUDE.
The conservative joke about liberals is that liberals aren’t in favor of open borders, they’re just opposed to anything that would prevent open borders.
Liberals, of course, are concerned that closing the borders is rude. Muslim bans are rude. Attacking journalists is rude. Trump is rude.
Half of the country wants to welcome immigrants, and the other half doesn’t, and the net result is liberals feel like the conservatives are rude to their guests and conservatives feel like liberals are rudely imposing guests upon them.
Meanwhile, Japan manages to have a reputation for politeness even without an open borders policy, proving that life is not actually a choice between two and only two diametrically opposed sides.
The Japanese have refined the art of politely saying “no”, such as “I am sorry, but that is very difficult,” or “We are very busy right now; we will have to address this later.”
Having rules of etiquette and politeness (where everyone understands, of course, that “I am very busy,” really means, “No”) allows people to wiggle out of difficult situations without losing face.
It may be true, for example, that the average American doesn’t really want to die for the sake of Montenegro, a small nation that didn’t even exist when the average American learned geography. Montenegro was only officially declared a country in 2006, and certainly no American was ever asked whether they want to die for it. Now, a normal person might think it a wee bit presumptuous and rude to just straight up expect a bunch of strangers in a foreign country to be willing to give up everything and die for you, without even asking in the first place, but that people don’t like dying in strange lands never seems to occur to politicians. No, it is telling Montenegro that we aren’t so keen on the idea that’s the rude part. (Much better to wait until Montenegro is in dire straits and then weasel out of it, of course.)
Well, regardless of what works with North Koreans, being rude to your allies is a bad look. A country needs some sort of consistency, or it stops being a reliable partner at all and just becomes a rampaging elephant.
At least with a dash of formal politeness, I think people could feel a bit better about themselves and the conduct of the country. Maybe they’d calm down a bit.
Dignity seems like an under-developed concept in political discussions relative to its importance in basic human interactions.
Dignity is close to honor.
There are many polls and quizes that attempt to determine your political values or orientations along axes like Tradition vs Choice or Authority vs Freedom. Haidt’s framework of moral attitudes highlights five realms:
• Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.
• Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.
• In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.
• Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.
• Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.
Authority/respect gets closest to what I mean by dignity, but in the US, we tend only to think in terms of respecting those higher than us in the social order.
I am thinking of a more comprehensive respect; an essential dignity that all people possess or should be encouraged to possess.
When you talk to the poor, the aged, the infirm, what do they want? An end to suffering, of course–but also dignity.
Our desire for dignity explains a variety of otherwise inexplicable political phenomena. Why do whites focus more on the actions of a New Zealander who kills Muslims than a Nigerian who kills Muslims, for example? Because whites feel that the misbehavior of the New Zealander reflects badly on them; their collective dignity has been lowered. The actions of a Muslim or a Nigerian don’t reflect on non-Muslims or non-Nigerians; whites feel no collective shame or guilt over these incidents.
(Note: “white” and “Muslim” are not exclusive categories and plenty of Muslims have pale skin, but I lack better terminology.)
Similarly, much of the liberal opposition to Trump probably stems from a perception that he is undignified.
People don’t need to be at the top of the hierarchy to be treated with dignity; good social norms, I suspect, can help people respond to and treat people lower than themselves with respect, as well.
Our society seems to be engaged in an absurd dance where people fight for honor and respect by demanding it from people significantly lower than themselves on the social totem pole. For example, a female professor complains about a university janitor who assumed she was merely the wife of a male professor; a black woman complains that the minimum wage shop employees didn’t let her into the shop after closing time; another professor harasses road crew laborers over a “men at work” sign. These absurd cases all involve women trying to assert power over people who have far less power than themselves in the first place, like a prince having a peasant executed for getting mud on his boots.
Of course, our system doesn’t simply content itself with declaring divine right; it insults us by also claiming that these peasants are the ones with the real power.
Since these folks are not actually princes, though, they probably aren’t just on run-away power trips; I suspect instead that they feel a mis-match between the level of respect they want from society vs the level they get. Since they can’t get any more respect from normal avenues/their peers, they’ve turned instead to targeting the weak, like a D&D player pouring boiling water on an anthill to grind XP.
Such behavior should be called out for the undignified farce that it is.
That said, much of modern life feels designed to humiliate and degrade; the Cabrini Green housing projects were so ugly they seem intentionally soul-crushing.
RationalRevolution has an interesting article on capital redistribution with a few points of relevance to our current discussion:
Capital ownership has become increasingly concentrated throughout American history. When the country was founded roughly 90% of citizen families owned meaningful capital from which they derived income, primarily land. Today less than 10% of American families own meaningful capital from which they derive income prior to retirement. …
The other important fact that is often overlooked is the fact that over that past 100 years the portion of the population directly owning their own capital has declined at a pace that exceeds the rate of financial asset acquisition. In other words, 100 years ago a far greater portion of people owned their own business and worked for themselves or within a family owned business. The largest portion of these people were farmers who owned their own land and equipment. As small businesses were overtaken by larger corporations, more people became wage-laborers. Some of these people acquired stock or other financial assets, but the acquisition of financial assets has not offset the decline of directly owned capital assets by individuals over time. Even today, the majority of self-employed people have no meaningful capital assets. The majority of the self-employed today are primarily selling their labor, as consultants, contractors or service workers.
In other words, back in the 1800s, the vast majority of Americans were self-employed; most owned their own small farms. To be self-employed is to be your own master. Since then, the number of self-employed has declined steadily, while the number employed has generally increased. (Admittedly, the increase in people receiving wages around 1865 has nothing to do with a decline in small business ownership.) Who knows what the Uber-Revolution holds, but for now, we have transitioned from a nation of self-employed farmers to a nation of employees, and I think it’s getting to people.
Man or beast, even in poverty we can feel dignified if we have the respect of our neighbors, and even in wealth we can be degraded, degenerate.
There are a lot of political issues that hinge, to me, on dignity. Restrictions on speech are restrictions on dignity, for a free man can speak his mind and a slave cannot. A revolution in social norms, either because of technology or regime change, leaves people unsure of what commands respect from their neighbors. And in a sort of moral, spiritual sense, when we expect people to violate their own natures, we violate some essence of human dignity. Humans are not infinitely malleable; each of us has our own particular nature. A fish cannot be expected to swim, nor a chicken to fly; we recognize something cruel in expecting a rooster not to crow or a dog not to bark.
I admit this isn’t exactly fully fleshed-out philosophy.
Society has become, incredibly, even more obsessed with celebrities than it used to be.
I do not follow celebrities of any sort (unless “Niels Bohr” counts as a celebrity,) and my TV viewing is limited almost entirely to documentaries and children’s media, yet against my will I know who the Kardashians are, the basic plot of Rick and Morty (the Atlantic of all magazines ran an article on the show), way too much about Linda Sarsour, what Alexandria Cortez wore to work today, and every single Trump fart.
This is all gossip, and gossip is a sin.
How can you tell if something is gossip:
Are you talking about a conversation that happened between two other people, neither of whom are present? Then it’s probably gossip.
If you deleted the names, would it still be an interesting story? If not, then it’s gossip.
Along with this increase in gossip has come an increase in demands for purity in one’s acquaintances. These arguments tend to go like this: “Linda Sarsour once talked to a guy who said a bad thing, therefore Linda Sarsour agrees with these bad things.” Even worse, people demand purity in the people merely near famous people or talking about them, eg, “This guy went to a conference where a white supremacist was also in attendance, so he deserves to lose his job,” or “An evil guy said he liked something this other person wrote, therefore the thing this person wrote is evil.”
All of this gossip is coupled with endless demands that you remember who these people are. “Ben Shapiro said blah blah blah!” I don’t know who that is, nor do I care. “OMG, did you hear the stupid thing Jordan B. Peterson said?” I truly don’t care. If you think JBP is stupid, don’t read him. “Wow, just wow, this mildly famous male feminist just got accused of doing something bad so we all need to rally the entire country around attacking him RIGHT NOW.”
I don’t know how people manage to care this much about minor celebrities. It’s all getting really old.
Stop with all the gossip. Evaluate an argument on its merits, not based on who said it.
If epigenetics does introduce scientific novelties to the conventional understanding of biology, then according to the model it also has equally significant ethical and political implications.
What responsibility do I–as an egg-bearing person–have to ensure the health of my children and grandchildren’s epigenenomes? Society affirms my right to smoke cigarettes, even though they may give me cancer down the road–it’s my body and I am allowed to do what I wish with it. But what if my smoking cigarettes today causes cancer in a future, as yet unborn grandchild whom I never meet? What about her right to chose not to be exposed to carcinogens? Who am I to take that from her–and what right has society, the government, or anyone else to tell me what I may or may not do with my own body in the interests of some future people who may never come into existence?
I am summarizing, perhaps badly; you may read the whole post over on Dr. Robison’s blog. (Of course Robison is himself trying to summarize an argument I am sure he lays out in much more detail in his book.)
Here is my hastily written response, in the interest of clear conversational threading:
I’m not sure epigenetics constitutes such a fundamental shift in our understandings of genetics and inheritance as to actually warrant much change in our present policies. For example, you question whether policies should be enacted to restrict a 12 yr old girl’s right to eat what she wishes in defense of her unborn grandchild’s epigenome, but we today don’t even restrict a pregnant woman’s right to drink or smoke. Cocaine is illegal, but last time I checked, women didn’t go to prison for giving birth to crack babies. For that matter, women are allowed to kill unborn babies. I’m not commenting pro or against abortion, just noting that it is legal and most people consider death kind of a big deal. So I don’t think society is about to start outlawing stuff because of its negative effects two generations down the road.
On the other hand, if you look at the data on smoking, rates have definitely been falling ever since the tobacco-cancer link became news. The gov’t didn’t have to outlaw smoking for a lot of women to stop smoking for their children’s health.
But let’s return to the philosophical argument. All men are created equal… or are they? I do not think the Founding Fathers ever meant equality in a genetic sense. They could see with their own eyes that some men were tall and others short, some wise and others foolish, some virtuous and others criminal. They could see see that sons and daughters took after their parents and that a great many people started life in horribly unfair circumstances while others lived in luxury. They could see the cruel unfairness of disease, disability, and early death. Their rejection was not of biological or factual inequalities but of spiritual inequality. They rejected the notion that some men are created special by God to rule over others, and some men are created inferior by God, to be ruled over.
You state, “However, the evidence emerging from epigenetics suggests this is not the case. Instead of individuals of each generation being born with a pristine copy of their biological essence, they are inheriting a genetic endowment riddled with markers of the experiences of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on. And these inherited epigenetic markers, as more and more research is showing, are having direct effects on the physical and mental health of individuals from causes not actually experienced by these individuals.”
I think there is a mistake here in regarding genetics as “pristine” in some form. What if my mother is an anxious person, and I, through environmental exposure, grow into a similarly anxious person? What if my mother has a gene for anxiety, and I inherit it? What if I possess a de novo genetic mutation that causes me to be anxious? And what if I suffer a genetic deletion in one of my chromosomes that causes anxiety? How is any of this different, functionally, from some trauma my mother suffered (say, a car accident) causing epigenetic changes that are subsequently passed on to me?
What is pristine about Down’s Syndrome, Williams’, or Klinefelter’s? Or just having the random bad luck to get genes for short, dumb, and ugly?
“For example, research in epigenetics shows that the choices and experiences of individuals in one generation are conditioning the basic nature of individuals of subsequent generations, which indelibly affects how those new individuals will exercise their own rights. ”
It can’t be indelible. For starters, you only inherit half of each parent’s genome–thus half their epigenome. So right there’s a 50% chance you won’t inherit any particular epigenetic marker. By gen two we’re talking 25% chance, and that’s not counting the constant re-writing of our epigenomes. However, I don’t think the policy implications for countries are all that different from our current thinking. We can say, for example, “If we have X level of pollution in the water, then Y number of people will get cancer,” and it’s a public health problem even if we don’t know “they’ll get cancer because of epigenetics.”
So let’s broaden the inquiry a bit. Not how does epigenetics impact classical liberalism (which is behind us, anyway,) but how do genetics, epigenetics, heritability, et at all influence our modern sensibilities? Modern liberalism is built almost as a reaction against former racialist notions of “blood”, with a consequent belief that people are, on average, about genetically equal. This butts up against the realization that some people are gifted and talented from birth, which many people quietly rationalize away while knowing they are being a bit dishonest, perhaps on the grounds that this is tantamount to statistical noise.
But the whole notion of “meritocracy” becomes more problematic if we admit that there’s a large genetic (or accidental, or environmental, or anything outside of free will,) contribution to IQ, educational attainment, mental illness, your chances of getting a good job, how other people treat you (because of attractiveness,) etc. Should a person who is dumb through no fault of their own suffer poverty? Should an ugly person be denied a job or a date? There’s an essential unfairness to it, after all.
But by the same token, what are you going to do about it? Declare that everyone under a certain IQ gets free money? What sort of incentives does that set up for society? And what does it do to someone’s self-image if they are Officially Delcared Stupid?
But this is all focused on the negative. What if we find ways to make people smarter, healthier, stronger? I think we’d take them. Sure, we’d have a few hold-outs who worry about “playing god,” (much as today we have people who worry about vaccines despite the massive health improvements public vaccination campaigns have cause.) But in the end we’d take them. Similarly, in the end, I think most people would try to avoid damaging their descendants’ epigenomes–even if not through direct public policy.
Addendum: while I am skeptical of most claims about epigenetics, eg, people claiming that epigenetic trauma can be transmitted for over a century, there do seem to be some things that cause what we can here characterize as multi-generational epigenetic effects. For example, the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages back in the 70s, not only causes cancer in the women it was given to, but also in their daughters. (It also results in intersex disorders in male fetuses.) In the third generation (that is, the sons daughters of the fetuses that were exposed to DES their mothers took during pregnancy,) there are still effects, like an increased risk of irregular periods. This is not necessarily “epigenetic” but similar enough to include in the conversation.
People think memetic viruses are just going to ask politely about infecting you, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Hello, can I talk to you today about the importance of WWIII with Russia?”
No. Mind-viruses are not polite. They USE you. They use your empathy and compassion to make you feel like a shit person for rejecting them. They throw dying children in your face and demand that you start a war to save them.
They hijack your sense of yourself as a good person.
I call this the empathy trap.
Why did this take Stone Cold’s breath away? Why is it shocking?
It’s a basically true statement– the 3/5ths compromise originated in 1783 and was still around in 1789, when the 2nd Amendment was proposed–but soare “California became the 31st American state when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person,” “Napoleon invaded Russia when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person” and “The New York Times was founded, the safety elevator was invented, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first child employment laws, the first telegrams were sent, and Jane Eyre was published when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person.”
A lot happened between 1783 and 1861.
As unpleasant as the 3/5ths compromise is to think back on, we should remember that it was not passed because proponents thought black people only counted as “3/5ths of a person,” but because they didn’t want slave owners using census counts of non-voting slaves to get more votes for their states in the federal government. The 3/5ths compromise actually reduced the power of the slave-owning states relative to the non-slave owning states, in exchange for a break on taxes.
So this isn’t shocking because it’s factually true (I can come up with a whole list of equally true but unshocking statements) nor because the 3/5ths compromise was evil.
Perhaps it is shocking because it points out how old the 2nd Amendment is? But there are many other equally old–or older–things we find completely mundane. Mozart was writing operas in the 1790s; US copyright law began in the 1790s; Edward Jenner developed his smallpox vaccine in 1796; Benjamin Franklin invented the “swim fin” or flippers back in 1717. I don’t think anyone’s throwing out their flippers just because the concept is older than the entire country.
No; it’s shocking because “I was deemed 3/5ths of a person” appeals immediately to your sense of empathy.
Do you respond, “That doesn’t matter”?
“What do you mean, it doesn’t matter that I was considered only 3/5ths of a person? That matters a lot to me.”
“Oh, no, of course, I didn’t mean that it doesn’t matter like that, of course I understand that matters to you–”
Now you’re totally off-topic.
In order to see that this is a non sequitor, you first have to step back from the emotion. Push it aside, if you must. Yes, slavery was evil, but what does it have to do with the 2nd Amendment? Nothing. Reject the frame.
Mitochondrial memes are passed down from your parents and other trusted members of your family and community. You don’t typically have to be convinced of them; children tend to just believe their parents. That’s why you believed all of that business about Santa Claus. Meme viruses, by contrast, come from the wider community, typically strangers. Meme viruses have to convince you to adopt them, which can be quite a bit harder. This is why so many people follow their parents’ religion, and so few people convert to new religions as adults. Most religious transmission is basically mitochondrial–even if the Jehovah’s Witnesses show up at your doorstep fairly often.
To spread faster and more effectively, therefore, meme viruses have to convince you to lower your defenses and let them spread. They convince you that believing and spreading them is part of being a good person. They demand that if you really care about issue X, then you must also care about issue W, Y, and Z. “If you want to fight racism, you also have to go vegan, because all systems of oppression are intersectionally linked,” argues the vegan. “If you love Jesus, you must support capitalism because those godless commies hate Jesus.” Jesus probably also supported socialism and veganism, depending on whom you ask. “This photo of Kim Kardashian balancing a wine glass on her ass is problematic because once someone took a picture of a black woman in the same pose and that was racist.” “Al Qaeda launched an attack on 9-11, therefore we need to topple Saddam Hussein.” “A Serbian anarchist shot some Austro-Hungarian arch duke, therefore we need to have WWI.” “Assad used chemical weapons, therefore the US needs to go to war with Russia.”
Once you are sensitive to this method of framing, you’ll notice it fairly often.
While polygyny (the practice of having multiple wives) is fairly common throughout the world, its inverse, polyandry (multiple husbands) is quite rare. Off the top of my head, I’m familiar with only two polyandrous societies: the Inuit (Eskimo) of Canada and the Toda of India. (Note: while this article uses the present tense for ease of writing,we are actually discussing historical situations. Modern social norms in both of these groups are probably different.)
What inspires similar marriage customs in such dissimilar environments?
The Inuit live in one of the world’s most extreme environments, where death is little more than a blizzard or failed hunt away. It’s an environment where private property effectively doesn’t exist because no one can consistently secure enough food to survive–without sharing, your neighbors will die, and if your neighbors die, so will you.
When every family faces the strong and constant threat of starvation, excess children are killed; since women do not do the heavy work of hunting seals and caribou in Inuit society, female children are more likely to be killed than male
The result is a skewed sex ratio upon adulthood: more males than females. In a society with strong norms about sharing, men who cannot secure a wife of their own accept that they must share or go without.
While the Toda live in a much lusher environment than the Inuit, I have the impression that land scarcity (due to encroachment by their neighbors) was an issue. If a population is already eating all of the food produced by its land and cannot obtain new land or make the land more productive, then the population cannot grow; each couple can only afford to raise two children. A woman who marries young can have a dozen children; even if disease takes half of them, that’s still 4 more children than she and one husband can support. The result, again, is infanticide. But if a woman takes 3 husbands (typically brothers), the situation is ameliorated: she can now afford to raise 4 children.
So polyandry: limited resources=> infanticide=> not enough women to go around.
Polygyny, by contrast, seems to happen more often in cases where men (or at least some men) can afford to raise a great many children. Often they achieve this by taking resources from other men (eg, an emperor can afford a large harem because he taxes peasants, or a warlord may just take wealth directly,) but sometimes they luck into great abundance, like the early Mormons.
Of course, some men practicing polygyny can force other men to practice polyandry.
There is a commonly-believed strategic model of terrorism which we could describe as follows: terrorists are people who are ideologically motivated to pursue specific unvarying political goals; to do so, they join together in long-lasting organizations and after the failure of ordinary political tactics, rationally decide to efficiently & competently engage in violent attacks on (usually) civilian targets to get as much attention as possible and publicity for their movement, and inspire fear & terror in the civilian population, which will pressure its leaders to solve the problem one way or another, providing support for the terrorists’ favored laws and/or their negotiations with involved governments, which then often succeed in gaining many of the original goals, and the organization dissolves.
Unfortunately, this model, is in almost every respect, empirically false.
It’s a great essay, so go read the whole thing before we continue. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.
Now, since I know half of you didn’t actually read the essay, I’ll summarize: terrorists are really bad at accomplishing their “objectives.” By any measure, they are really bad at it. Simply doing nothing would, in most cases, further their political goals more effectively.
This is in part because terrorists tend not to conquer and hold land, and in part because terrorism tends to piss off its targets, making them less likely to give in to the terrorists’ demands. Consider 9-11: sure, the buildings fell down, but did it result in America conceding to any of Al-Qaeda’s demands?
The article quotes Abrams 2012:
Jones and Libicki (2008) then examined a larger sample, the universe of known terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006. Of the 648 groups identified in the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incident database, only 4% obtained their strategic demands. … Chenoweth and Stephan (2008, 2011) provide additional empirical evidence that meting out pain hurts non-state actors at the bargaining table. … These statistical findings are reinforced with structured in-case comparisons highlighting that escalating from nonviolent methods of protest such as petitions, sit-ins, and strikes to deadly attacks tends to dissuade government compromise. … Other statistical research (Abrahms, 2012, Fortna, 2011) demonstrates that when terrorist attacks are combined with such discriminate violence, the bargaining outcome is not additive; on the contrary, the pain to the population significantly decreases the odds of government concessions.3
(Aside: Remember, right-wing violence doesn’t work. It’s stupid and you will fail at accomplishing anything.)
Another “mystery” about terrorism is that it actually doesn’t happen very often. It’s not that hard to drive a truck into a crowd or attack people with a machete. Armies are expensive; coughing on grocery store produce is cheap.
If terrorism is 1. ineffective and 2. not even used that often, why do terrorist groups exist at all?
Terrorists might just be dumb, stupid people who try to deal with their problems by blowing them up, but there’s no evidence to this effect–terrorists are not less intelligent than the average person in their societies, anyway. People who are merely dumb and violent tend to get into fights with their neighbors, not take airplanes hostage.
Gwern suggests a different possibility: People join terrorist organizations because they want to be friends with the other terrorists. They’re like social clubs, but instead of bowling, you talk about how going on jihad would be totally awesome.
Things people crave: Meaning. Community. Brotherhood.
Terrorist organizations provide these to their members, most of whom don’t actually blow themselves up.
Friendships cultivated in the jihad, just as those forged in combat in general, seem more intense and are endowed with special significance. Their actions taken on behalf of God and the umma are experienced as sacred. This added element increases the value of friendships within the clique and the jihad in general and diminishes the value of outside friendships.
Enough about terrorists; let’s talk about Americans:
“Jihad” is currently part of the Islamic cultural script–that is, sometimes Muslims see some form of “jihad” as morally acceptable. (They are not unique in committing terrorism, though–Marxist terrorists have created trouble throughout Latin America, for instance, and the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka were one of the world’s deadliest groups.)
Thankfully, though, few major groups in the US see jihad or terrorist violence as acceptable, but… we have our exceptions.
For example, after a Jewish professor, Bret Weinstein, declined to stay home on a “Day of Absence” intended to force whites away from Evergreen State College, WA, violent protests erupted. Bands of students armed with bats and tasers roamed the campus, searching for Weinstein; the poor professor was forced to flee and eventually resign.
During a Berkeley protest on August 27, 2017, an estimated one hundred antifa protesters joined a crowd of 2,000–4,000 counter-protesters to attack a reported “handful” of alt-right demonstrators and Trump supporters who showed up for a “Say No to Marxism” rally that had been cancelled by organizers due to security concerns. Some antifa activists beat and kicked unarmed demonstrators and threatened to smash the cameras of anyone who filmed them.
Antifa, like terrorist groups, typically attract folks who are single and have recently left home–young people who have just lost the community they were raised in and in search of a new one.
The article recounts an amusing incident when a terrorist organization wanted to disband a cell, but struggled to convince its members to abandon their commitment to sacrificing themselves on behalf of jihad. Finally they hit upon a solution: they organized social get-togethers with women, then incentivised the men to get married, get jobs, and have babies. Soon all of the men were settled and raising children, too busy and invested in their new families to risk sacrificing it all for jihad. The cell dissolved.
Even Boko Haram was founded in response to the difficulties young men in Nigeria face in affording brides:
Our recent study found that marriage markets and inflationary brideprice are a powerful driver of participation in violence and drive recruitment into armed groups. Armed groups often arrange low-cost marriages for their members, help members afford brideprice, or provide extra-legal opportunities to acquire the capital necessary to take a wife. In Nigeria, in the years in which Boko Haram gained influence under founder Mohammed Yusuf, “items required for [a] successful [marriage] celebration kept changing in tune with inflation over the years.”66 A resident of the Railroad neighborhood of Maiduguri, where Yusuf established his mosque, recalled that in just a few years, Yusuf had facilitated more than 500 weddings. The group also provided support for young men to become “okada drivers,” who gained popularity for their affordable motorbike taxi services — who often used their profits to afford marriage. Thus, Boko Haram’s early recruits were often attracted by the group’s facilitation of marriage. Even in the aftermath of Yusuf’s assassination by the Nigerian state and the rise of Abubakar Shekau, the group has continued to exploit obstacles to marriage to attract supporters. The women and girls that are abducted by the group, estimated to number more than 6,000, are frequently married off to members of the group.
Antifa of course aren’t the only people in the US who commit violence; the interesting fact here is their organization. As far as I know, Dylan Roof killed more people than Antifa, but Roof acted alone.
I suggest, therefore, that the principle thing driving Antifa (and similar organizations) isn’t a rational pursuit of their stated objectives (did driving Milo out of Berkley actually protect any illegal immigrants from deportation?) but the same social factors that drive Muslims to join terrorist groups: camaraderie, brotherhood, and the feeling like they are leading meaningful, moral lives by sacrificing themselves for their chosen cause.
Right-wingers do this, too (the military is an obvious source of “meaning” and “brotherhood” in many people’s lives).
And the pool of unmarried people to recruit into extremist organizations is only growing in America.
But we don’t have to look to organizations that commit violence to find this pattern. Why change one’s avatar to a rainbow pattern to celebrate gay marriage or overlay a French flag after the Charlie Hebdo attack?
Why spend hours “fighting racism” by “deconstructing whiteness” online when you could do far more to help black people by handing out sandwiches at your local homeless shelter? (The homeless would also appreciate a hot lasagna.) What percentage of people who protest Islamophobia have actually bothered to befriend some Muslims and express support toward them?
The obvious answer is that these activities enhance the actor’s social standing among their friends and online compatriots. Congratulations received for turning your profile picture different colors: objective achieved. Actions that would actually help the targeted group require more effort and return less adulation, since they have to be done in real life.
Liberal groups seem to be better at social organizing–thus I’ve had an easier time coming up with liberal examples of this phenomenon. Conservative political organizations, at least in the US, seem to be smaller and offer less in the way of social benefits (this may be in part because conservatives are more likely to be married, employed, and have children, and because conservatives are more likely to channel such energies into their churches,) but they also do their share of social signaling that doesn’t achieve its claimed goal. “White pride” organizations, for example, generally do little to improve whites’ public image.
But is this an aberration? Or are things operating as designed? What’s the point of friendship and social standing in the first place?
Interestingly, in JaneGoodall‘s account of chimps in the Gombe, we see parallels to the origins of human social structures and friendships. Only male chimps consistently have what we would call “friendships;” females instead tend to live in groups with their children. Male friends benefit from each other’s assistance in hunting and controlling access to other food, like the coveted bananas. A single strong male may dominate a troop of chimps, but a coalition can bring him to a bloody end. Persistent dominance of a chimp troop (and thus dominance of food) is thus easier for males who have a strong coalition on their side–that is, friends.
From these things therefore it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it … inasmuch as he is solitary, like an isolated piece at draughts.
And why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech. … speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities, and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a city-state.
Most people desire to be members in good standing in their communities:
Thus also the city-state is prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually.  For the whole must necessarily be prior to the part; since when the whole body is destroyed, foot or hand will not exist except in an equivocal sense… the state is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to their whole, while a man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal or a god.
Therefore the impulse to form a partnership of this kind is present in all men by nature… –Aristotle, Politics, Book 1
The spread of the internet has changed both who we’re talking to (the people in our communities) and how we engage with them, resulting in, I hypothesize, a memetic environment that increasingly favors horizontally (rather than vertically) transmitted memes. (If you are not familiar with this theory, I wrote about it here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Vertically spread memes tend to come from your parents and are survival-oriented; horizontal memes come from your friends and are social. A change in the memetic environment, therefore, has the potential to change the landscape of social, moral, and political ideas people frequently encounter–and has allowed us to engage in nearly costless, endless social signaling.
The result of that, it appears, is political polarization:
According to Pew:
A decade ago, the public was less ideologically consistent than it is today. In 2004, only about one-in-ten Americans were uniformly liberal or conservative across most values. Today, the share who are ideologically consistent has doubled: 21% express either consistently liberal or conservative opinions across a range of issues – the size and scope of government, the environment, foreign policy and many others.
The new survey finds that as ideological consistency has become more common, it has become increasingly aligned with partisanship. Looking at 10 political values questions tracked since 1994, more Democrats now give uniformly liberal responses, and more Republicans give uniformly conservative responses than at any point in the last 20 years.
This, of course, makes it harder for people to find common ground for compromises.
So if we want a saner, less histrionic political culture, the first step may be encouraging people to settle down, get married, and have children, then work on building communities that let people feel a sense of meaning in their real lives.
Still, I think letting your friends convince you that blowing yourself is a good idea is pretty dumb.
Homo sapiens is about 200-300,000 years old, depending on exactly where you draw the line between us and our immediate ancestors. Printing (and eventually mass literacy) only got going about 550 years ago, with the development of the Gutenberg press. TV, radio, movies, and the internet only became widespread within the past century, and internet in the past 25 years.
In other words, for 99.99% of human history, “mass media” didn’t exist.
How did illiterate peasants learn about the world, if not from books, TV, or Youtube videos? Naturally, from each other: parents passed knowledge to children; tribal elders taught their wisdom to other members of their tribes; teenagers were apprenticed to masters who already knew a trade, etc.
A hundred years ago, if you wanted to know how to build a wagon, raise a barn, or plant corn, you generally had to find someone who knew how to do so and ask them. Today, you ask the internet.
Getting all of your information from people you know is limiting, but it has two advantages: you can easily judge whether the source of your information is reliable, (you’re not going to take farming advice from your Uncle Bob whose crops always fail,) and most of the people giving you information have your best interests at heart.
The internet’s strength is that it lets us talk to people from outside our own communities; it’s weakness is that this makes it much easier for people (say, Nigerian princes with extra bank accounts,) to get away with lying. They also have no particular interest one way or another in your survival–unlike your parents.
In a mitochondrial memetic environment (that is, an environment where you get most of your information from relatives,) memes that could kill you tend to get selected against: parents who encourage their children to eat poison tend not to have grandchildren. From an evolutionary perspective, deadly memes are selected against in a mitochondrial environment; memes will evolve to support your survival.
By contrast, in a viral meme environment, (that is, an environment where ideas can easily pass from person to person without anyone having to give birth,) your personal survival is not all that important to the idea’s success.
So one of the risks of viral memes is getting scammed: memetically, infected by an idea that sounds good but actually benefits someone else at your expense.
In the mitochondrial environment, we expect people to be basically cautious; in the viral, less cautious.
Suppose we have two different groups (Group A and Group B) interacting. 25% of Group B is violent criminals, versus 5% of Group A. Folks in group A would quite logically want to avoid Group B. But 75% of Group B is not violent criminals, and would logically not want to be lumped in with criminals. (For that matter, neither do the 25% who are.)
In an ideal world, we could easily sort out violent criminals from the rest of the population, allowing the innocent people to freely associate. In the real world, we have to make judgment calls. Lean a bit toward the side of caution, and you exclude more criminals, but also more innocents; lean the opposite direction and innocent people have an easier time finding jobs and houses, but more people get killed by criminals.
Let’s put it less abstractly: suppose you are walking down a dimly-lit street at night and see a suspicious looking person coming toward you. It costs you almost nothing to cross the street to avoid them, while not crossing the street could cost you your life. The person you avoided, if they are innocent, incurs only the expense of potentially having their feelings hurt; if they are a criminal, they have lost a victim.
Companies also want to avoid criminals, which makes it hard for ex-cons to get jobs (which is an issue if we want folks who are no longer in prison to have an opportunity to earn an honest living besides going on welfare.) Unfortunately, efforts to improve employment chances for ex-cons by preventing employers from inquiring directly about criminal history have resulted in employers using rougher heuristics to exclude felons, like simply not hiring young African American males. Since most companies have far more qualified job applicants than available jobs, the cost to them of excluding young African American males is fairly low–while the cost to African Americans is fairly high.
One of the interesting things about the past 200 years is the West’s historically unprecedented shift from racial apartheid/segregation and actual race-based slavery to full legal (if not always de facto) racial integration.
One of the causes of this shift was doubtless the transition from traditional production modes like farming and horticulture to the modern, industrial economy. Subsistence farming didn’t require a whole lot of employees. Medieval peasants didn’t change occupations very often: most folks ended up working in the same professions as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (usually farming,) probably even on the same estate.
It was only with industrialization that people and their professions began uncoupling; a person could now hold multiple different jobs, in different fields, over the span of years.
Of course, there were beginnings of this before the 1800s–just as people read books before the 1800s–but accelerating technological development accelerated the trends.
But while capitalists want to hire the best possible workers for the lowest possible wages, this doesn’t get us all the way to the complete change we’ve witnessed in racial mores. After all, companies don’t want to hire criminals, either, and any population that produces a lot of criminals tends not to produce a whole lot of really competent workers.
However, the rise of mass communication has allowed us to listen to and empathize with far more people than ever before. When Martin Luther King marched on Washington and asked to be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, his request only reached national audiences because of modern media, because we now live in a society of meme viruses. And it worked: integration happened.
Also, crime went up dramatically:
While we’re at it:
Integration triggered a massive increase in crime, which only stopped because… well, we’re not sure, but a corresponding massive increase in the incarceration rate (and sentences) has probably stopped a lot of criminals from committing additional crimes.
Most of these homicides were black on black, but plenty of the victims were white, even as they sold their devalued homes and fled the violence. (Housing integration appears to have struck America’s “ethnic” neighborhoods of Italians, Irish, and Jews particularly hard, destroying coherent communities and, I assume, voting blocks.)
From the white perspective, integration was tremendously costly: people died. Segregation might not be fair, it might kill black people, but it certainly prevented the murder of whites. But segregation, as discussed, does have some costs for whites: you are more limited in all of your transactions, both economic and personal. You can’t sell your house to just anyone you want. Can’t hire anyone you want. Can’t fall in love with anyone you want.
But obviously segregation is far more harmful to African Americans.
Despite all of the trouble integration has caused for whites, the majority claim to believe in it–even though their feet tell a different story. This at least superficial change in attitudes, I believe, was triggered by the nature of the viral memetic environment.
Within the mitochondrial meme environment, you listen to people who care about your survival and they pass on ideas intended to help you survive. They don’t typically pass on ideas that sacrifice your survival for the sake of others, at least not for long. Your parents will tell you that if you see someone suspicious, you should cross the street and get away.
In the viral environment, you interact far more with people who have their own interests in mind, not yours, and these folks would be perfectly happy for you to sacrifice your survival for their sake. The good folks at Penn State would like you to know that locking your car door when a black person passes by is a “microaggression:”
Former President Obama once said in his speech that he was followed when he was shopping in a store, heard the doors of cars locked as he was walking by, and a woman showed extremely nervousness as he got on an elevator with him (Obama, 2013). Those are examples of nonverbal microaggressions. It is disturbing to learn that those behaviors are often automatic that express “put-downs” of individuals in marginalized groups (Pierce et al., 1977). What if Obama were White, would he receive those unfair treatments?
(If Obama were white, like Hillary Clinton, he probably wouldn’t have been elected president.)
For some reason, black people shoplifting, carjacking, or purse-snatching are never described as “microaggressions;” a black person whose feelings are hurt has been microaggressed, but a white person afraid of being robbed or murdered has not been.
This post was actually inspired by an intra-leftist debate:
Shortly after the highly successful African-star-studded movie Black Panther debuted, certain folks, like Faisal Kutty, started complaining that the film is “Islamophobic” because of a scene where girls are rescued from a Boko Haram-like organization.
Never mind that Boko Haram is a real organization, that it actually kidnaps girls, that it has killed more people than ISIS and those people it murders are Africans. Even other Black African Muslims think Boko Haram is shit. (Though obviously BH has its supporters.)
Here we have two different groups of people with different interests: one, Muslims with no particular ties to Africa who don’t want people to associate them with Boko Haram, and two, Black Muslims who don’t want to get killed by folks like Boko Haram.
It is exceedingly disingenuous for folks like Faisal Kutty to criticize as immoral an accurate portrayal of a group that is actually slaughtering thousands of people just because he might accidentally be harmed by association. More attention on Boko Haram could save lives; less attention could result in more deaths–the dead just wouldn’t be Kutty, who is safe in Canada.
Without mass media, I don’t think this kind of appeal works: survival memes dominate and people take danger very seriously. “Some stranger in Canada might be inconvenienced over this” loses to “these people slaughter children.” With mass media, the viral environment allows appeals to set aside your own self-interest and ignore danger in favor of “fairness” and “equality” for everyone in the conversation to flourish.
So far this post has focused primarily on the interests of innocent people, but criminals have interests, too–and criminals would like you to make it easier for them to commit crime.
Simon Mol (6 November 1973 in Buea, Cameroon – 10 October 2008) was the pen name of Simon Moleke Njie, a Cameroon-born journalist, writer and anti-racist political activist. In 1999 he sought political asylum in Poland; it was granted in 2000, and he moved to Warsaw, where he became a well-known anti-racist campaigner. …
In 2005 he organized a conference with Black ambassadors in Poland to protest the claims in an article in Wiedza i Życie by Adam Leszczyński about AIDS problems in Africa, which quoted research stating that a majority of African women were unable to persuade their HIV positive husbands to wear condoms, and so later got caught HIV themselves. Mol accused Leszczyński of prejudice because of this publication. …
Honorary member of the British International Pen Club Centre.
In 2006 Mol received the prestigious award “Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression”.
In February 2006, further to his partner’s request for him to take an HIV test, Mol declined and published a post on his blog explaining why not:
Character assassination isn’t a new phenomenon. However, it appears here the game respects no rules. It wouldn’t be superfluous to state that there is an ingrained, harsh and disturbing dislike for Africans here. The accusation of being HIV positive is the latest weapon that as an African your enemy can raise against you. This ideologically inspired weapon, is strengthened by the day with disturbing literature about Africa from supposed-experts on Africa, some of whom openly boast of traveling across Africa in two weeks and return home to write volumes. What some of these hastily compiled volumes have succeeded in breeding, is a social and psychological conviction that every African walking the street here is supposedly HIV positive, and woe betide anyone who dares to unravel the myth being put in place.
On the 3rd of January 2007 Mol was taken into custody by the Polish police and charged with infecting his sexual partners with HIV. …
According to the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, he was diagnosed with HIV back in 1999 while living in a refugee shelter, but Polish law does not force an HIV carrier to reveal his or her disease status.
According to the police inspector who was investigating his case, a witness stated that Mol refused to wear condoms during sex. An anonymous witness in one case said that he accused a girl who demanded he should wear them that she was racist because as he was Black she thought he must be infected with HIV. After sexual intercourse he used to say to his female partners that his sperm was sacred.
In an unusual move, his photo with an epidemiological warning, was ordered to be publicly displayed by the then Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro. MediaWatch, a body that monitors alleged racism, quickly denounced this decision, asserting that it was a breach of ethics with racist implications, as the picture had been published before any court verdict. They saw it as evidence of institutional racism in Poland, also calling for international condemnation. …
After police published Mol’s photo and an alert before the start of court proceedings, Warsaw HIV testing centers were “invaded by young women”. A few said that they knew Mol. Some of the HIV tests have been positive. According to the police inspector who had been monitoring the tests and the case: “Some women very quickly started to suffer drug-resistant tonsillitis and fungal infections. They looked wasted, some lost as many as 15 kilograms and were deeply traumatized, impeding us taking the witness statements. 18 additional likely victims have been identified thereby”. Genetic tests of the virus from the infectees and Simon proved that it was specific to Cameroon.
In other words, Simon Mol was a sociopath who used the accusation of “racism” to murder dozens of women.
Criminals–of any race–are not nice people. They will absolutely use anything at their disposal to make it easier to commit crime. In the past, they posed as police officers, asked for help finding their lost dog, or just rang your doorbell. Today they can get intersectional feminists and international human rights organizations to argue on their behalf that locking your door or insisting on condoms is the real crime.
So I’ve been doing a long project on crime/criminals. So far I’ve read about pirates, Angola Prison, horseback outlaws, outlaw motorcycle clubs, and currently, the mafia.
The books are good, but this is not light reading. After reading about meth whores abusing their kids for a chapter or two, you find yourself wanting to head over to the nearest church.
And I’ve got two and a half books left to go.
Obviously I don’t like crime. Few people do. I’d like for criminals to go away.
I also don’t want non-criminals accidentally imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. I don’t want petty criminals over-punished for minor crimes that don’t warrant it. I don’t want a system where some people have access to good lawyers and a shot at “justice” and some people don’t.
I wish we could talk about crime, and the police, and the justice system, and how all of that should work, and subjects like “do the police shoot people inappropriately?” without getting dragged into the poison of tribal political bickering. I especially don’t like the idea that as a result of people trying to prevent one form of murder (police shootings), far more people have ended up being murdered by common criminals. (At least, that’s what the data looks like.)
Obviously we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people in which there may in fact be a trade off between level of police / justice system violence and level of criminal violence. If you have 10 suspects and you know 5 are serial killers but you don’t know which 5, imprisoning all 10 will get the killers off the streets but also imprison 5 innocents, while freeing all of them will result in a bunch more murders. It would be nice to be perfect, but we’re not. We’re humans.
I think there are a lot of problems with the way the legal/justice system operates, but I don’t see how we’re going to get anywhere with fixing it. People need to be genuinely motivated to make it better, not just tribally interested in taking a side over BLM. And most people really aren’t interested in fixing it.
I’m often reminded of a passage in Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day (which I read ages ago) in which he expressed frustration at his fellow academics. You see, Venkatesh was doing street-level, real live research in–I think it was Chicago–by actually going into ghetto neighborhoods and making friends with the people, interacting with them, seeing what their lives were really like. At the same time, Venkatesh was a university student studying “poverty” or something like that, and so would frequently attend lectures by academic types talking about ways to address poverty or fight poverty or what have you, and it was obvious to him that many of these lecturers had no idea what they were talking about.
And really, people do this a lot. They propose a bunch of feel-good solutions to problems they don’t actually understand.
This is pretty much all of politics, really.
I remember a conversation with a well-meaning liberal acquaintance that occurred shortly after I finished Phillipe Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in el Barrio. She suggested that better public transportation networks would help poor people get to resources like public museums, which would enrich their lives. I thought this was a stupid response. People trying to make ends meet by acting as lookouts for crack gangs or struggling to find a job after getting out of prison do not care about museums. I said something to that effect, and I don’t think she likes me anymore.
Deep down inside, I wish we lived in a kumbaya-world of happy bunnies frolicking in the forest and children holding hands and singing about how happy they are. I wish people were honest, and pure, and well-intentioned. I wish we could go to the museum, experience beauty, and feel connected to each other and history and culture. I wish none of us had to wear suits and that jobs didn’t grind up people’s souls and spit them out. I wish people could see the humanity in each other, because when we stop seeing that, we stop being human.
And to a large degree, we live in a very nice world. We live in a world with medicines and antibiotics. Where child mortality is low and mothers rarely die in childbirth. Where surgery is done with anesthesia. I have a comfortable home, lots of books, and plenty of food. I spend much of my time reading about times and places where these weren’t the norm, which makes me quite grateful for what I have. It also sometimes keeps me up late at night when I should be asleep.
It’s a good world, but it isn’t kumbaya world. It’s a world with criminals and idiots and mal-intentioned people. It’s a world that got to be good because people worked very hard to make it that way (many people died to make it that way) and it’s a world that doesn’t have to stay that way. We can ruin it.
While researching the previous Cathedral Round-Up, I came across what I think is a professor’s old Myspace page. Suddenly this professor went from “person who wrote really pretentious-sounding dissertation” to “human being.” They were a kid once, trying to figure out their place in this world. They looked sad in some of their pictures. Were they lonely? Outcast? Bullied?
I hate “dissertation language” and hate how simple (sometimes even reasonable) ideas get wrapped up in unnecessarily complex verbiage just to make them sound astonishing. I hate it on principle. I hate how the same people who talk about “privilege” use a writing style that is, itself, accessible to and performed by only an extremely privileged few. Much of it is self-centered drivel, and pretending it has anything to do with uplifting the pure is unadulterated hypocrisy.
All of this internet-driven SJW political signaling is really performative morality. When you are in the context of a real flesh and blood human being in your own community whom you’ll have to interact with repeatedly over the course of years, you’ll try to be faithful, honest, dutiful, loyal, dependable, etc., and you’ll value those some traits in others. Put us on the internet, and we have no need for any of that. We’re not going to cooperate in any meaningful, real-world way with a bunch of people on the internet. Morality on the internet becomes performative, a show you put on for a 3rd-party audience. Here the best thing isn’t to be dependable, but to have the best-sounding opinions. Status isn’t built on your long-term reputation but on your ability to prove that other people are less moral than you.
I noticed years ago that people on the internet often did not debate honestly with each other, but would lie and distort the other person’s argument. Why would they do this? Surely they couldn’t hope to win by lying to someone’s face about their own argument! It only makes sense if you assume the goal of the discussion isn’t to convince the other person, but to convince some other person watching the debate. If you get lots of approval from your adoring Tumblr/Twitter/whatever fans for saying all the right things and accusing your opponents of being all of the wrong, immoral sorts of things, then who cares what the person those remarks are actually directed at thinks of them?
And who cares if you are actually a good, decent, reliable, honest person?
As someone who writes a blog that often discusses other people’s work for the sake of my own audience, I must admit that I, too, am guilty here.
But hey, at least I haven’t put a meathook up anyone’s ass.
So I guess I’ll just end by encouraging everyone to go and be decent people.