Category: politics

on rights and monuments

When I was in college I wrote a paper on the controversial Georgia State Flag, which at the time included a portion of the Confederate Battle Flag. Since I was attending the University of Georgia, I was right in the thick of the debate, and was familiar with the arguments that such a symbol was more about southern history than slavery.

However, my position in the paper was that state symbols should represent all people, and because the Confederate Battle Flag was also a symbol of slavery, I argued that It failed to represent all Georgians, and thus should be removed. My position was bolstered by the fact that the St Andrews Cross was added during the 1950’s, as a protest to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

The state finally did the right thing and updated the flag in 2003. History was not erased because the old flag still lives on in museums, history books, and bumper stickers. There is no censorship or strictures against speaking about or displaying the old flag. History is alive and well.

Since that time, controversy over divisive art and symbols has only grown in fervor, and my position has remained mostly sympathetic to, if not overtly supportive of, movements who seek more inclusive imagery on our public lands. When it is difficult to remove divisive symbols (such as due to structural reasons), particularly ones rooted in slavery and the insubordination of blacks and Native Americans, I have supported solutions that balance things out by including historical footnotes, or diversifying the art on display.

However, I do not support movements who seek to use threats of violence or intimidation against private individuals or organizations who display controversial art, such as what is currently happening at Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery (just down the street from me), where a confederate memorial exists. The cemetery is currently closed through the weekend due to death threats.

Today the Mayor of Seattle issued a statement calling for both the removal of the memorial as well as a Lenin statue on display in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. No mention is made of the rights of the individual to free speech and to be free from violence or harassment. In spite of the fact that both sit on private property, the Mayor thought it was his powerless duty to command that they be removed, and thus to further contribute to the erosion of free speech norms.

While everyone is welcome to protest or critique the public display of divisive statues, monuments or other imagery, the right to display them is guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution, and the protection of that right is sacred. Public officials have no place in the debate over what 1st Amendment protected behavior a private individual engages in on his or her own property.

Furthermore, using threats of violence and intimidation are hostile to the 1st Amendment, and even if coming from private citizens, such behavior is a direct violation of the sacred rights of the individual. When the sacred rights of individuals are eroded, either through state action or mob mentality, injustice occurs and the marginalized are the first to lose. This is all very ironic considering that many of the groups protesting this memorial are presumably aware of the importance of freedom of speech to the protection of the oppressed. But then again, maybe not.

Additionally, because the United States is a diverse country, people will often disagree on the meaning behind certain symbols. Oftentimes, those against the symbols will have their reasons why they are racist or derogatory, while those who display the symbols will have their reasons why they aren’t. Rarely do both sides agree that a symbol represents injustice or atrocious behavior. In those rare cases, such as the display of a Nazi Swastika, the groups who engage in the behavior are publicly shunned. No infringement of sacred rights is necessary.

But somewhere between the Swastika and Statues of Abraham Lincoln, there lies statues of Vladimir Lenin and memorials to the confederacy. Like the Swastika, many people find them to be highly offensive, and would prefer not to have to look at them at all. Unlike the Swastika, a large number of Americans embrace them both for historical, sentimental or aesthetic reasons that have nothing to do with a stated moral support for injustice such as slavery or totalitarianism. Even if these folks are wrong about what those symbols represent, the point is that being wrong is their 1st Amendment Right.

The best way to settle such disputes is by protecting the rights of individuals to display controversial imagery or art. The most powerful aspect of the 1st Amendment is the right to respond by non-violently airing your grievance in public and/or by erecting your own statues or imagery to counter those that offend you. The alternative is that we become an America of offense, where we settle our disputes through violence and intimidation rather than via the assertion of our own rights. A diverse America will need to decide which direction it wants to go.

on nazi punching

Since most people agree that Nazism and its variants are horrible belief systems, and because there is a strong historical precedent for the opposition to Nazism in this country (including actually fighting against them and winning), I would rather spend more time discussing tactics for how to respond to the neo-Nazis among us, than on why it’s bad to support Nazis, since that basically goes without saying. But just in case, I condemn all things Nazi and it’s morally depraved to support or espouse Nazi ideology.

On the violence question, there are a couple of options for us as a country. The first option is that we can embrace a norm of Nazi punching, which is the same thing as condoning violence as a means of handling some of the minority among us who espouse such an ideology. The second option is that we engage the Nazis among us in peaceful dialogue, and attempt to encourage as many of them as possible to detract from their Nazi ways by offering other forms of unity for them to rally around.

The upside of option 1 is that it will increase the risk of being a Nazi in America, and so presumably some Nazis might self-censor or otherwise conceal their Nazi ways. This is good because it might reduce the chances that more people will adopt Nazi beliefs, and minimize the possibility that our country may ever embrace a fully Nazi way of life (this would be nearly impossible anyway given that ours is a diverse society, vs Nazi Germany which was homogeneous and whose ethnic identity Nazism was built around). It’s also a positive because Nazism is a special evil whose very existence is repugnant to most of us.

On the other hand, the downside of embracing a norm of violence against Nazis is that it might increase the attraction to Nazism that some people might feel, by bringing it undue attention and by making some Nazis out to be victims that deserve sympathy, rather than revealing them as the morally repugnant people they really are. It’s also problematic because we won’t be able to change people if we don’t know who they are. We are better off allowing them an opportunity to vent, and countering their filth with reasoned argument and emotionally compelling rationales to join our side and reject the Nazi way of life.

Another salient downside is that more people might adopt the norm of violence and use it loosely against others for whom they oppose. For example, someone might invoke the norm against extremist Muslims, because many in this country find extremist Islam to be morally repugnant. We might also see the norm used sloppily so that innocent people get hurt. Everyone seems to have a different definition of who is a Nazi, and I have seen the term used more and more loosely, up to and including at least a few people who apply it to anyone who voted for Donald Trump.

Furthermore, a norm of violence against Nazis fails to take into account that Nazis, and those who get lumped in with them, will respond in kind. So we can assume that Nazi punching will result in counter punching. And since punching is really just a stand in for violence, we can expect violence against Nazis will result in counter violence against those who oppose them. Inevitably, violence would probably escalate in the absence of tolerance so that we can expect intergroup conflict to become more widespread. And while I think the probability that such violence would devolve into a full scale Civil War is extremely low, the possibility that it might manifest in asymmetric warfare (ie terrorism) is highly likely.

In conclusion, a norm of Nazi punching must be justified by weighing it against both the upsides and the downsides, and by considering both the short and long-term consequences of a norm of violence against those we oppose. Justifications for Nazi punching must be made and not just be assumed to exist because Nazis are evil (and other platitudes of virtue signaling and bombastic chauvinism).

If Nazis really were in control of the country, versus the bumbling idiot we currently have (who is most certainly not a Nazi), then the question of violence would be different. For now, most Nazis are simply losers who lack an ability to identify with wider society, so they have formed extremist groups where they can associate with others on the fringe. We are not talking about anything close to being accepted by the vast majority of Americans, including the vast majority of right wing Americans and Trump supporters. Dealing with them is objectively not the same thing as dealing with an armed state like Nazi Germany.

Perhaps the greatest false equivalency of this whole mess is that what we have here is anything close to what happened there. It’s not. And we are fools to think otherwise.

the danger of “speech is violence”

There are a number of ways to fight back against the racists and the neo-Nazis in 2017 America, but perhaps the worst, and most ineffective, is to equate speech with violence. Trust me that we don’t want to continue down that rabbit hole.

For those of you who don’t know, the notion that “speech is violence” is a meme, or disease, of rising popularity on the left, and it is in opposition to the oft cited “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” saying that many of us were brought up on. It is the philosophy that fuels groups such as the AntiFa, the left wing version of the Alt-Right.

Equating speech with violence in a diverse nation is a recipe for disaster, because it implements something akin to a culture of honor norm for offensive speech. Only in this case, one’s honor extends to their group, so offending one’s group is the same as offending one’s honor, and thus one must fight back violently to suppress the violent attacks emanating from someone’s mouth against themselves or their group. Cultures of honor have more violence because, by definition, there are more potential flash points where violence might occur.

Our society is far better off learning ways to confront those who espouse hatred non-violently, and to bring them back towards a more amenable center. The alternative is that we adopt extreme positions that force an ever greater number of people to the fringe of one side or another, and virtually guarantee future incidents like what we saw in Charlottesville. The disease is spreading. Help fight back before it takes over completely, and there is no going back.

the case against guilt

Building off this Quillette piece, which questioned the popular notion that global poverty was caused by injustice, I got to think about whether there might be a more effective way to encourage people to want to help their fellow man.

In summary, the piece argued, quite convincingly in my mind, that if global poverty preceded many of the world’s great injustices (colonialism, imperialism, etc), then it can’t be named as the primary culprit in the inequality between nations. Of course, the piece doesn’t deny that these things caused great harm, it just questions whether the world is as it is today primarily due to injustice, rather than other factors. While I agree with the authors that it’s unlikely that injustice caused global poverty, I recognize that many people are emotionally tied to that narrative, and are sparked into action out of a sense of guilt for the sins of their ancestors.

So let’s assume that injustice did cause global poverty, such that in the absence of historical injustice, the world today would be generally well off. Even if that’s true, it implies that the best reason we have to want to help others is to pay them back. But not all wealthy countries would be equally on the hook, since some, like South Korea, are relative newcomers and have not had time to inflict harm upon others in any meaningful way. So if a sense of justice is the most important reason why we help others outside our own borders, then some countries would have no reason to make any contributions. If we wanted more action, we’d also need more corresponding injustice. Furthermore, assuming those nations that are guilty of past sins are not condemned to eternal punishment, then someday they too will have paid their debt, and presumably, at that point they would owe nothing to anyone but themselves. But what if there is still great amounts of poverty and suffering in the world?

To further complicate matters, a motive from justice requires proof of an actual injustice, and some people will inevitably have a higher bar than others. Such individuals will argue that we must first accurately determine how much harm was caused, and how much of that harm has extended into the present. Then, such individuals would argue that we weigh the harm against any restitution that may already have been paid. For example, in the case of colonialism, the guilty nations have also contributed many positive things to the world, from science and technology to international institutions that have contributed to global peace (not to mentioned Einstein & the internet). I believe this fairly accurately explains much of the rift between right and left in the west, on issues of international aid in particular (but also other things, like immigration).

In conclusion, the standard of proof that is required for a motive from justice is its biggest weakness. Perhaps then, might I propose compassion instead? There is no proof of obligation with compassion. Nobody has to be compassionate, but the average person will want to show compassion when it is demonstrated that compassion is necessary. All that’s needed for compassion is proof of suffering or a people in need. Of course, folks will still disagree about how much compassion is required (and whether other countries are pulling their weight), but because compassion is open ended, there won’t be squabbles about whether the debt has been paid. And countries who feel as though they owe the world nothing wouldn’t have any excuse, other than a lack of compassion (which doesn’t bode well for their image. Here’s looking at you @saudi arabia). Of course, there’s always a chance that people could lend more compassion, but most people won’t pay back more on a debt than is owed. Therefore, let’s try a new approach moving forward, the compassionate one.

social justice tradeoffs (continued)

The other day, I wrote about the tradeoffs between mutually incompatible social justice goals. I highlighted a paper by the sociologist, Chris Martin, that examines these tradeoffs in the areas of race & gender.

Around the management of race relations, Martin discusses the tradeoff between unity (color-blind) and proportionality (color-conscious) based approaches, which he describes as “polar opposites”. Unity models minimize distinctions between individuals or groups, with a focus on the common ingroup cohesion. By contrast, proportionality models highlight distinctions with an emphasis on reparative policies such as affirmative action. The differences between the two polar opposites results in tradeoffs.

While some academics and activists acknowledge tradeoffs such as these, many do not. In this case, a common view is that unity based approaches cannot correct social injustice, and so therefore they are “color-blind racism”. Martin does not reject the hypothesis that “color-blind racism” is a tradeoff in the direction of unity, but he proposes that a 2nd variable also exists, “color-blind unity”. With the addition of color-blind unity, Martin proposes that unity models can be considered antiracist, too. Thus, activists can alternate between unity and proportionality depending on the situation.

Building upon Martin’s thesis that both unity and proportionality are antiracist, I want to highlight another tradeoff that I believe exists in proportionality models, given that proportionality is the dominant focus in 2017. The tradeoff I am referring to is what I call “injustice false positives”. A false positive happens when we incorrectly identify an attribute or condition as being present. An injustice false positive happens when we incorrectly identify injustice, such as racism or bigotry, as being the cause for a particular behavior or event. For example:

  • Caleb, who is African American, believes his colleague, Jeff, who is white, is racist, because Jeff never acknowledges him in passing. Is Jeff racist, or is Jeff a grump?
  • Mariam, who is Muslim, believes that she is discriminated against at the airport for wearing the hijab. How else can she explain why she gets occasionally selected for extra screening? Has Mariam experienced discrimination, or randomized screening?
  • Jose, who is Mexican, is responsible for identifying bias incidents at his school. Upon examining some data, he notices that a particular immigrant group is dropping out at a higher rate than the school average. Jose believes the higher dropout rate is evidence that this immigrant group is experiencing discrimination. Is this evidence for discrimination, or economic disadvantage (or something else)?

In any of the three cases above, we can’t know for sure whether an injustice has occurred without further information. It may be that one has, or it may be that there is a more ordinary explanation. It’s also possible that there is injustice, such as economic injustice, but it’s not related to racism or bigotry. However, in most cases, it is possible that the details may be fuzzy. In those situations, probabilistic assumptions are made, but probabilistic assumptions are not absolutes, so people are going to inevitably be wrong.

In a system where there is an intense focus on proportionality, injustice false positives are unavoidable and will increase in frequency (versus false negatives, which may increase in the opposite direction). Due to these tradeoffs, it is in the interest of diverse societies, so long as they value harmony and equality, to embrace both unity and proportionality based approaches to antiracism. That might mean that, in some areas, we may have to become comfortable with disproportionality, because disproportionality occurs naturally as much as, if not more than, it is caused by racism or prejudice (I want to stress here that I am not referring to poverty, crime, or general hardship. We should not become comfortable with those). In fact, we may even learn to embrace disproportionality, in the absence of injustice, as just another form of diversity. After all, how can diversity thrive if policy treats everyone as literally indistinguishable clones? But on the other hand, we may have to learn to also come to terms with the fact that difference breeds competition and conflict, and this too occurs naturally.

In conclusion, the primary goal of diverse societies should be to reduce the negatives and maximize the positives of both unity and proportionality focused approaches to antiracism. By doing so, we may be able to achieve something like maximal unity in conjunction with minimal injustice.

racism doesn’t cause police shootings

There is no longer any question as to whether racism is the primary cause of police shootings. Enough data has at this point been amassed to know for certain: It’s not. Furthermore, there is no longer any question as to whether racism is the best explanation for why African Americans are killed more often than whites by police. Enough data has at this point been amassed to know for certain: It’s not.

Police shootings are caused by a lot of things: armed suspects, incompetent cops, unarmed suspects who appear armed, trigger happy cops, suspects in the commission of a violent crime, suicide by cop, poor lighting, inadequate training, etc. Similarly, the demographic gaps in who gets shot by police are caused by a lot of things, but the best explanation is that group differences in violent crime rate results in group differences in exposer to police, as well as group differences in how often officers are exposed to individuals more likely to be armed or aggressive towards cops. These are what the facts say. They are empirical observations supported by loads of data.

Many who read this who believe racism explains why cops shoot black people more often than white people will retort that officers often fail to deescalate. Sure, but a failure to deescalate is not racism. Then they will reply by showing videos of white people, in similar situations to infamous videos of blacks getting killed, being subdued rather than shot. Fair enough. I’ll reply by showing other videos of white people in similar situations actually getting shot. Or maybe I’ll reply by showing black people in similar situations being apprehended.

Then, someone will point out that officers are often biased. Understandable. But the evidence for officer bias is hardly conclusive. Not to mention, bias is actually a weak predictor of human behavior in the real world. In fact, the implicit association test (IAT), the gold standard for bias measurement, has come under fire as being an unreliable instrument that doesn’t actually do what its biggest proponents say it does. Folks will still claim bias, and that’s fine. But there is far more evidence for the explanations I’ve provided above than there is for bias.

Finally, someone will jump in and say that “systemic racism” and “white supremacy” explain the gaps. But notice the progression here, from empirically testable to unfalsifiable. Of course, systemic racism might in some way be a factor, but at some point we have to prove it. Otherwise, we are just “believing” it’s so. But just believing doesn’t actually make it so, and since it’s hard to know for sure how systemic racism exactly effects officer behavior, we can only make general claims. Such as, for example, that changing certain laws or relaxing our enforcement of specific statutes might reduce some types of law enforcement interactions that are at risk of turning deadly. All that’s possible. But we can’t say for certain anything beyond mere conjecture.

For the time being though, the best explanation we have for why officers shoot blacks more often than whites, at least at the time of the incident, does not include racism. Our country would do well to move beyond thinking otherwise.

white people getting shot by police with their hands up

I have engaged in countless debates and write ups, on Facebook and elsewhere, with people who are convinced that the *cause* for why police shoot African Americans at a higher rate than they shoot other groups is a result of racism and bias.

Most folks are well intentioned and are genuinely concerned about the plight of our African American communities, as they and all of us should be. They see racism and historical injustice as an explanation for why those communities, in so many areas of this country, are in such turmoil today. And I would agree with them.

But on this topic, and after thoroughly enmeshing myself in the data and the stories for at least the greater part of three years now, I am convinced that a better explanation for the gap in how often blacks are shot by police versus other groups is violent crime rate, not racism, not unconscious bias.

Some of the disagreements come down to technicalities and confusion about what causation means, because I am referring to statistical causation of the gap in shooting rates, while others see single incidents as proof of a larger trend. I have tried to explain that such an intense focus on single perspectives from isolated incidents scews our perception and says nothing about the bigger picture, but to no avail.

Regardless though, single incidents can draw attention to a cause that people need to pay more attention to. And when statistics back up the concern, those single incidents can be a powerful catalyst for change.

Which is why I am drawing everyone’s attention to this video, which I was only made aware of this morning. The video shows an unarmed white man being shot by the police, who confused his wallet for a gun. The officer was acquitted earlier this year by a Federal Appeals Court, who ruled that “After careful consideration and review of a video recording of the shooting, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Davidson, we conclude that a reasonable officer in Hancock’s position would have feared for his life.”

Because the suspect was white, the explanation for why the officer shot him could not have been racism or unconscious bias against white people (the officer was also white). Therefore, the next best explanation for the shooting was that the officer genuinely feared for his life and made a tragic mistake. I would argue that this video presents a compelling case example of the phenomenon of why police may shoot unarmed men, whether they be black or white.

As such, if we want to understand the gaps in how often African Americans get shot in this manner, we must look elsewhere beyond racism and unconscious bias for the explanation, and statistics actually back this up. In that endeavor, the best place to start will be with the differences in violent crime between groups. Otherwise, no matter how many tears are shed over such tragedy’s, our solutions to the problem, so often focused on reducing racism and bias, will be about as effective as a cat chasing its tail.