Saturday, October 18, 2014

Why "Privilege" Is So Hard For People To Understand

John Stewart does his best to explain the concept of "white privilege" to Bill O'Reilly. The discussion is interesting, though a lot of it feels very much "two steps forward, one step back."

The concept of "privilege" itself is not very difficult to understand. The idea that there is a certain type of privilege associated with belonging to a race (or gender, or any other socially recognized characteristic) simply means that societal benefits (and the lack of societal burdens) are more heavily distributed among members of that race. White privilege in the United States is the legacy of imposed white supremacist policies and attitudes that shaped our government, our institutions, and our culture. There are many different forms of privilege, just as there are many forms of disadvantage.

It seems it's more difficult to accept the reality of the concept of privilege than to understand, though one's ability to accept a belief and one's capacity to understand it are in practice intertwined. Obviously, it's hard to accept a belief that you don't understand, but it also seems that resistance to a certain belief can undermine one's understanding of it. This is clear in the video above.

One point of confusing for O'Reilly is purely mathematical. At one part of the discussion, he lists President Obama and Oprah Winfrey as proof that white privilege doesn't exist, or perhaps rather to show that African Americans are not systematically disadvantaged. But this is clearly a mistake, because statistically we should expect some people from disadvantaged groups to be exceptionally successful in society's terms. The point is that in general, there will be more obstacles for members of these groups than for members of the privileged group, and these obstacles will have significant costs.

He also makes the mistake on the other side of the problem, when he asks Stewart if they are both well-off only because they are white. But the point isn't that everyone who is white will have a well-paying job or become famous, but that it will in general be easier for white people to occupy the spotlight than people of other races. But "easier" doesn't mean "easy", and this is no reason to discount the skill and talent both O'Reilly and Stewart have developed to have achieved what they have achieved.

Even more deeply though, there's a fearful undercurrent to O'Reilly's remarks. It's not just that his own success is apparently threatened if racial privilege played any part in it (though insecurity is certainly a factor). But he is worried that those who are worse-off will use "disadvantage" as an excuse to avoid helping themselves.

The worry here is quire common among American conservatives, and I think it might be genuinely more complex than is often recognized. To be sure, conservatives don't want disadvantage to be used as an excuse because they think it might be seen to justify taxation and redistribution of wealth away from the wealthy and privileged. On this point, they are just factually and morally wrong. Historical and continuing injustices have severely privileged certain groups at great cost to others, and this unequivocally justifies financial redress (before considering any other moral reasons we might have for pursuing socioeconomic justice).

But there's another worry here that is legitimate, if unfounded. Do the concepts of "privilege" allow for the abdication of responsibility? If we acknowledge that we are thoroughly influenced by our culture and circumstance, do we diminish the importance of personal choices? That is, can disadvantage an excuse for any bad actions done by those who are oppressed?

Certainly not. The importance background factors does not mean that we cannot, to some extent at least, take ownership of our actions. We are the ones who are acting, we are not mere dice being rolled. (Obviously, such claims require a plausible account of choice and freedom for support, but I take my potential interlocutors in this instance to be on board with these assumptions.) Surely, many of the consequences of our actions are completely our of our control, but this doesn't imply that our actions are divorced from our agency.

The conservative mistake is confusing this kind of responsibility as attributability, as T. M. Scanlon has deemed it, with substantive responsibility. Responsibility of the first kind allows us to make judgments about individuals and the choices they make. Substantive responsibility concerns what obligations a person has because of choices they've made. It is an error to assume that because someone has made choices for which they are responsible(in the first sense), that they are necessarily obligated to bear the full weight of the consequences.

Assessing which choices produce which obligations and duties is a complex task, and a hallmark of daily moral life. I won't attempt to give a sketch here. But it is the claim of many, including myself, that the background circumstances of an individual's life, the privileges and disadvantages they carry, should weigh significantly in our judgments of what they deserve.

This view preserves our judgment that the actions of others are open to moral assessment, while clarifying that this is not the sole determinant of what individuals are owed.  To those who are interested only in reducing their responsibilities to the disadvantaged and oppressed, the clarifications I have made here will seem to make little difference. But for those who believe that injustices and unfortunate life circumstances demand compensation, but don't wish to give a blanket acquittal to those who act wrongly under bad conditions, this view has considerable appeal.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

When Police Make Things Worse: The Slaying of Kajieme Powell

If someone points a gun at you and asks you to do something, you are probably going to do it. The only rational thing to do is to do whatever you can to preserve your life.

This is not what Kajieme Powell did when armed police officers approached him in St. Louis and asked him to drop the knife he was wielding. Instead, he yelled, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” The officers shot the 25-year old at least nine times, killing him.

The St. Louis police released cell phone video of the incident, believing it to exculpate their officers. (Warning: this video may be very disturbing to some viewers.) In light of recent events, they are commendably aiming for increased transparency. Many observers however, found the footage deeply troubling

For instance, the police’s account of the incident does not seem to quite match the video, and the extent of the force is clearly excessive. He is shot several times after hitting the ground. But, perhaps even worse, the footage certainly suggests that Powell might have had some form of mental illness, which should have significantly altered how the police handled the situation.

As many will point out, it is difficult to judge what someone has to do when their personal safety is threatened. Police officers put their lives on the line when carrying out their duties, and often have to make split second decisions under volatile conditions. No one should believe this job is easy, or that officers capriciously use deadly force.

But it should also be clear that what the police did here was wrong. Drawing weapons should always be a last resort, especially when an individual like Powell presents with irrational behavior.  Police are obligated to use non-violent means and maintain safety, to the best of their ability,

We know that the nearby Ferguson, Missouri is deeply troubled, and the issues that led up to Powell’s death are wide in scope. But this death is just one in a long history of police being ill-equipped and poorly trained to address the struggles posed by mental illness. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if the officers in this case had acted differently, but the officers in question did nothing to keep a bad situation from becoming a lethal one.

I don’t wish to condemn anyone, but we need a police force that is familiar with and informed about mental illness. As I wrote in June, those with mental illness are much more likely to be killed than to kill someone else.  But our cultural conceptions of mental illness encourage us to see these individuals as a dangerous element to be controlled, rather than a vulnerable population in need of help.

I won’t argue that Powell wasn’t dangerous, there’s certainly good reason to suspect he was. But raising and firing weapons on a populated street corner endangered not only Powell, but bystanders as well. Why weren’t less perilous tactics employed first? Bringing guns into the situation only raises the stakes and the anxiety levels of everyone involved, and it makes a worse outcome more likely.

I have worked with many individuals with mental illness, often managing severe aggressive and self-injurious behaviors. But when the individuals I care for enter into an aggressive or destructive episode, the last thing they need is to be threatened with force. What they need is physical protection and de-escalation strategies.

When officers approach an individual who is acting erratically and does not appear to be thinking rationally, they are likely concerned for their own safety. This is understandable, but this fear ought to be modulated with care and regard for the wellbeing of everyone involved.

Many times I have worried for my personal safety in my own line of work. A few times, I have been injured badly enough in my work to seek medical attention. But as someone working in the field of mental health, I understood these were the risks I had chosen.

Many police forces have specially designated crisis teams who are familiar with the challenges of mental illness. But since officers do not always know what they will be confronted with until they arrive on a scene, they all must understand the basic approaches demanded by these delicate situations. Learning to do this takes significant time and training, but we know how to minimize violence.

It’s true that the police have the right to defend themselves, but they are also entrusted with the paramount responsibility of keeping our communities safe. Their approach must be one which diminishes, and hopefully eliminates, violent confrontations, or they are failing to protect and serve.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

When Your Opinion Doesn't Matter

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times' Josh Barro fired up his political rivals a couple weeks ago with this tweet:
Of course, much of the reaction was hyperbole and misrepresentation. Barro was clear in saying that these attitudes must be stamped out, rather than the individuals who harbor such attitudes. Unsurprisingly, this distinction failed to ward off the references to gay Hitler.

On the one hand, it's not difficult to see how people get the false impression. "Stamp them out" and "ruthlessly" are hardly tempered phrasing, and anyone using such words should expect to enrage opponents. But the status of the two sides in this ideological conflict have always been asymmetrical. Queer individuals have been consistently maltreated, brutalized, oppressed, economically disadvantaged, psychologically damaged, and more by those who harbor bias against them. There is no comparable assault of any kind to the other side, and there never will be. So any intense language must be understood in this context.

Still, those like Erick Erickson of Red State seem to think that Barro has crossed the bounds of civility that should be allowed in debate. Their own forays into ridiculous caricature aside, one can see why Erickson and his ilk feel this way. Honest and open discussion are only possible when both sides can speak respectfully to each other, so we have good reason to be polite and courteous to those with whom we have even profound moral and political disagreements.

This argument, however, only takes us up to a certain point. Some ideas are now considered too retrograde to be even worth giving a decent hearing. We just have no need to consider the ideas of those who think slavery should still be legal, though undoubtedly some of these people exist. And I would feel entirely comfortable laughing at someone in the face if they suggested that women's participation in the democratic process was up to debate. As Barro explained, this is how we should start to act toward those with oppressive views on sexuality and gender:
Erickson, and those who agree with him, will never concede this point. But that's just fine, it's not meant to be conceded. The point is that those who espouse anti-LGBT views are becoming irrelevant, and are not worth the effort of civility. Barro's audience is those who already agree with him on the substantive issue. He argues that, as a matter of strategy, we ought to focus on creating a climate in which airing anti-LGBT views would be embarrassing and worthy of ridicule.

Civility is only ever required of a movement when changing hearts and minds is a pressing and important goal. Since countless polls and demographic data suggest that the US is well on its way to becoming far more accepting of LGBT citizens, there's much less need for public figures like Barro to be measured and conciliatory. We are not far, it would seem, from a time when discriminatory views based on sexual orientation and gender identity are virtually historical relics, as The Onion once imagined. If polite and inclusive dialogue is no longer seen as necessary, this is a strong indication that society has made significant progress on these matters.

Another positive sign is the shift in rhetoric on the other side of the debate. It's pretty rare to hear sustained arguments against marriage equality these days, and there's even less discussion of the moral failings of being gay in mainstream sources. Rather, the proponents of discriminatory views and policies are much more likely to defend their right to hold such views (which I have argued is meaningless anyway) instead of providing reasons to think that such views are correct. 

This supports several interpretations. First, social conservatives feel the need to play the victim in this area, which those who are winning an argument rarely do. Second, they realize on some level that their own arguments are pretty weak or unsupported, and they are therefore reluctant to express them. Third, and relatedly, they perceive that their own arguments would make them come off as bigoted and and outdated, which indicates that society at large is not that sympathetic to their position.

From my perspective, I am generally willing to engage to some extent with those who I think are pretty radically misguided. I enjoy argument for its own sake, and I like to do my best to meet people where they are coming from. And I think you can encounter some interesting and relevant ideas even when dredging up long settled debates. But with limited time and energy, there is certainly much I am not willing entertain.

We are an improved society when particular questions are left off the table. If Barro and I are right, the question of whether or not queer citizens should be regarded with same respect as everyone else is swiftly becoming one of those we need not dwell on. Contra J. S. Mill, we do not need to keep around objectors to every moral position in an effort to stave on complacency. There are many other important moral questions that demand our attention. Societies should be judged on what they take for granted.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Atlantic's View of Polls Doesn't Make Any Sense

Photo Credit: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

The Atlantic's Derek Thompson provides us with the predictably provocative headline, "Millennials' Political Views Don't Make Any Sense". In case we're easily offended, the tag line reassures: "That's not a harsh assessment. It's just a fair description."

This would be hardly surprising news. Most people aren't political analysts, and many are only casually interested in politics. Worse still, you could probably show that even most politicians have views that are not totally coherent, artfully crafted as they may be. (Barack Obama's pre-2012 views on gay marriage never had a semblance of logical consistency.) And as the youngest voting block, it wouldn't be surprising that the under-30-year-olds would have a less than stellar grasp of the major issues facing society.

So I was actually pretty surprised to find that Thompson doesn't prove his case at all. Not even close. I'll take the evidence he offers in turn.
[Millennials are] for smaller government, unless budget cuts scratch a program they've heard of. They'd like Washington to fix everything, just so long as it doesn't run anything.
These are obviously broad summaries, and come from a poll done by the Reason Foundation, hardly an unassailable source. Even still, as broad summaries, the views aren't totally incoherent. It's reasonable to say that you think the government should be smaller, but it should preserve programs that you're familiar with. And it's not a crazy idea that Washington could offer a lot of solutions to various problems without taking over anything in particular.

Consider next what Thompson calls a "smorgasbord of paradoxes":
  • Millennials hate the political parties more than everyone else, but they have the highest opinion of Congress.
  • Young people are the most likely to be single parents and the least likely to approve of single parenthood.
  • Young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama when he promised universal health care, but they oppose his universal health care law as much as the rest of the country ... even though they still pledge high support for universal health care. (Like other groups, but more so: They seem allergic to the term Obamacare.)
Not one of these is a paradox. You could think that political parties are a really bad force in politics, but that the individuals who make up the congress are on a whole doing better than the country seems to think. You could think that single parenthood is bad, but still end up as a single parent; more plausibly, the group of individuals who are the single parents could be quite distinct from the group who think single parenthood is bad. And you can support universal healthcare, but not think that Obamacare is the best way to achieve it. This last view is not only coherent, but it also seems to be the correct position to hold.

In fact, Thompson acknowledges that some of these views can be coherent. He writes:
... you can technically support (a) reducing the overall tax burden and (b) raising taxes on the wealthy by raising the investment tax and absolving the bottom 50 percent of Social Security taxes. Somehow, I think what's happening is simpler than young people doing the long math of effective tax rates. I think they're just confused.
You don't need to do math to see that reducing overall taxes and raising the portion paid by the rich is possible. It's possible on its face. Instead of realizing this, Thompson informs us that it's already his opinion that they're confused. I would be interested in whatever led him to that conclusion, rather than this series of pseudo paradoxes.

This is also strange:
Perhaps it should be [confusing] when we're using a couple thousand subjects to guess the collective opinions of 86 million people. 
As far as I know, that's generally how polling works. As far as sample sizes go, 2000 is pretty impressive. As long as they were selected with sufficient randomness, there's good reason to think the poll is representative.
Millennials are more liberal than the rest of the country, particularly on social issues, but they get more economically conservative when they make more money. 
This is not surprise, nor is it divergent from larger trends. It is also not incoherent.
  • On spending:
    Conservatives can say: 65 percent of Millennials would like to cut spending.
    Liberals can say: 62 percent would like to spend more on infrastructure and jobs.
  • On taxes:
    Conservatives can say: 58 percent of Millennials want to cut taxes overall.
    Liberals can say: 66 percent want to raise taxes on the wealthy.
  • On government's role in our lives:
    Conservatives can say: 66 percent of Millennials say that "when something is funded by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful."
    Liberals can say: More than two-thirds think the government should guarantee food, shelter, and a living wage.
  • On government size:
    Conservatives can say: 57 percent want smaller government with fewer services (if you mention the magic word "taxes").
    Liberals can say: 54 percent want larger government with more services (if you don't mention "taxes").
Let's take this in turn.

On spending: You can cut total spending and spend more on infrastructure and jobs.

On taxes: You can cut taxes overall and raise taxes on the wealthy.

On government's role in our lives: You can think that the government is often inefficient and wasteful, but that we still need it to ensure a certain baseline welfare standard. Even if a service is provided inefficiently, it's likely still better that it's provided at all.

On government size: Now, there are ways to expand the government without raising taxes. You could simply grow the economy (and thus revenue), or raise deficit spending for a while.  However, I acknowledge that these postulations would be a stretch to make these views look consistent.

Fortunately, there's no need to make these views consistent. If 57% of millennials believe in smaller government when taxes are mentioned, and 54% believe in bigger government without taxes being mentioned (and we assume that bigger government means higher taxes), then only an overlapping 11% of people need to have incoherent views (probably a bit more, given that some people decline to answer). But if 11% of millennials have incoherent views, does that justify the assertion that millennials' political views make no sense? Of course not. Only a minority of them demonstrably have views that make no sense.

And once we realize this, the entire argument looks silly. Even if a majority can be found to assent to each of two conflicting views, this only implies that a small minority have irrational views. 

As I said, I wouldn't be surprised if many millennials had a very confused political views. I would be surprised, rather, if they didn't. But I think this would hold across generations, and is to some extent a mundane fact. It's quite fashionable to complain and criticize millennials, but little of the work that does bothers to actually compare them to any other group.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Life without procreating: child-less or child-free?

Photo Credit: Alejandro Hernandez via Flickr
In recent years, there's been a growing movement of individuals who proudly claim a lack of desire to procreate.

This lack of desire takes many forms. Some are merely ambivalent, and figure that in the face of ambivalence, it is best to err on the side of not creating unwanted life. Others believe that they would not be good with children, or simply wish not to have children.

Some are persuaded by moral arguments, which can also take a variety of forms. Arguments concerning the use of resources or the distribution of goods in the world may count in favor of those in particular places in society refraining from reproduction in specific circumstances, but do not offer a universal prescription. Alternatively, some writers, such as Seana Shiffrin and David Benatar, argue that in most imaginable cases, it is wrong to bring another person into existence. Some such beliefs may underlie the motives of those at the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.

Regardless of our opinion on the more hard-line arguments, there appear to be some compelling reasons for many people in wealthy nations to reduce or forgo their procreative intentions. Most notably, additional individuals in wealthy nations increase the environmental burdens that these societies place on the planet. And our the resultant obligations we would have to our children greatly reduce out capacity to fulfill our obligations to those who already exist, especially the worst-off among us. It is thus better to never bring these countervailing obligations into existence, if we can.

Note, importantly, that the reasons we have not to bring and individual into existence do not equally count in favor or killing or neglecting already existing individuals, including those we might already have brought into existence.

Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons
Those people who choose to live their lives without procreating often refer to themselves or their lifestyle as "child-free." However, as Christine Overall points out in Why Have Children?, this terminology carries a regrettable negative connotation.

Consider how the suffix -free is most often used. "Cancer-free." "Debt-free." "Drug-free." These terms carry with them the implication that what one is free from is some kind of burden or unwelcome element. Since "child" describes a class of persons, the implication that they are a burden to be free from is hardly appropriate. We would never say of a parent with children who do not have any disabilities that they are "disability-free."

In place of this term, Overall uses the term "childless." But unfortunately, this term also feels inadequate. The suffix -less carries the reverse implications of -free. It suggests that what is lacked is to be missed. Think of "homeless," "restless," "hopeless." In the case of childless, it implies that there is something missing from a life without children.

But this is what many of those who choose not to have children dispute. Life can be fulfilling, rewarding, and meaningful without choosing to reproduce and without raising children.

In light of this impasse, it's preferable to eschew both terms, and use the neutral phrase "without children" or "those without children." Unfortunately, like many an apt phrasing, it is clunky and unpoetic. But it is better to be seen as a poor writer than to imply objectionable attitudes.