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.

the tradeoffs in social justice advocacy

This is a fascinating paper by sociologist Chris Martin, of Emory University, about the tradeoffs between mutually incompatible social justice goals. He focuses his analysis on intergroup race relations and gender parity in academic fields.

On race relations, Martin discusses the tradeoff between unity (color-blindness) vs proportionality (color-consciousness) based approaches to antiracism. He examines how many academics and activists do not recognize a tradeoff exists, and often consider unity based approaches to be “color-blind” racism. He points out that not acknowledging the tradeoff results in biased research, which will lead to problems down the road. I want to point out before I move forward that Chris Martin is not white (I believe he is Indian).

Chris, on the other hand, recognizes that a tradeoff exists. What this means is that as our society moves away from color-blind policies, intended to increase intergroup harmony and feelings of mutual respect, and towards color-conscious based policies, intended to reduce perceived structural injustice via interventions such as affirmative action, there will be more tension and less harmony between racial groups. But tradeoffs can exist in the opposite direction as well. For example, a society that is structurally unjust, but only focuses on unity, will be unable to remedy such corruption and unfairness.

It seems to me that Chris’ recommendations are the only really sensible ones. Basically, he compels academics and social justice advocates to recognize the reality of such tradeoffs, and to embrace once again unity based approaches to intergroup relations as antiracist. I agree.

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.

coming to terms with our nature so we don’t kill each other

This form of anti-Muslim bigotry is truly horrifying. I condemn it in the loudest possible terms, and yes, bigotry of this sort is terrorism of the worst kind.

Which gets me to thinking about this and other types of attacks we are seeing across the West: there is a shared human nature that spans race and religion, and a secular understanding of that nature is crucial to developing the kinds of policies that will help to prevent our societies from devolving into a state that could have been far better, had we done a few things differently.

The ways in which Western elites have grown to fetishize difference without understanding how difference can cause the fringe of society, so weak and unable to cope with the rights of others, to act out against their fellow countrymen in this way is, in my mind, one of the most overlooked and under-discussed challenges in all of these debates about mass migration.

Yes, people of different backgrounds can live together peacefully. But I join with Jonathon Haidt and others in their call for Western governments to wake up and to begin to prioritize a discussion on these issues that takes far more seriously some of what the best science has to say about human nature. As such, those fields that derive their theories from the rejection of truth and objective human knowledge should be excluded, because they are part of the problem not the solution.

First and foremost, we must centralize our understanding of human behavior in the context of our evolved instincts, instilled in us through generations upon generations of natural selection. If anyone were to ask me upon which foundational texts such discussions would be based, I recommend two books as a starting point: The first book is On Human Nature by EO Wilson, and the second book is Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. A few others like Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Better Angels Of Our Our Nature would also be crucial.

But we can’t live in the clouds any longer. If our desire is to maintain any semblance of social trust and harmony, then it is upon all of us to educate ourselves on what the best science says about these issues and take part in the great debate in as productive as manner as possible. Otherwise, we leave the future of our societies in the hands of the directionless and untalented blowhards currently leading us all towards the brink.

coming to terms with my ignorance, not embracing it

On any given day, on any given topic, I think it’s safe to assume that I know less than 1% of what can possibly be known about most issues in the news.

So let’s say you have a news worthy topic where there are two individuals involved, that means you have two perspectives. Only knowing one perspective means you know only 50% of what can possibly be known about a particular event involving those two folks. Obviously, when I say “known”, I mean having a firm enough grasp of something to be able to develop educated opinions about it. I don’t mean some extreme version of knowing like the ability to know all the positions of atoms in the universe during time x.

Ok. So if you have an issue involving 4 people but only know the perspective of one, then you only know a quarter of what can be known. With 8 people, if you only know the perspective of a single individual, then you now only really know 1/8 of what can be known. All of this and so on all the way down.

Once you appreciate how little you really know about most things, it’s fun to watch people who are so confident in their positions that are basically developed from ignorance. I would say that most political debate is people screaming at one another from positions of ignorance about topics they can’t possibly know much about, because those topics are incredibly complex.

Because it takes time to develop knowledge about most important issues, one can generally develop a pretty decent estimate about any given person’s ability to know much at all about it based on certain data points about their life. Key variables would include whether they have a demanding job that sucks up most of their time during the day, and perhaps if they have kids that take up lots of their time at night.

Assuming that most of the average busy person’s day is taken up by these types of important activities, and assuming that the average issue takes at least a couple hours of dedicated reading to even know 5% of what can be known, then the vast majority of the population has no time to know much about much, including me.