Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Feigning Security: A review of Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

An Israel/Egypt barrier. Photo Credit: Idobi via Wikimedia Commons
Why, in the wake of enthusiasm for globalization and the burgeoning of a cosmopolitan global identity, is the world seeing a resurgence of wall building on national borders? Wendy Brown takes this question as her challenge in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Her primary examples are the US-Mexico border fence and the Israeli Security Fence, in addition to walls and fences in India, Saudi Arabia, and all over the globe. The putative aim of these walls is stopping the flow of persons, labor, drugs, crime, and the general promotion of security, but they consistently fail to sufficiently address these concerns, and only serve to create new problematic dynamics.

Because the walls are futile, Brown suggests that a deeper explanation for the desire for walling is needed. Her answer explores political theory, theology and psychoanalysis. And indeed, in Brown’s telling, it is the futility of the walls themselves that is most revealing. The more national boundaries become diluted by globalizing forces, she argues, the more important it becomes that individuals and states build physical structures to reinforce our artificial divides. But the act of reinforcement reveals it’s own insufficiency; walls can never serve the purpose of sovereignty, and their existence only emphasizes the concept’s frail nature. And while they fail as solutions to any range of problems, walls produce new and different challenges, and often stir up anxieties on both sides. Their purpose, therefore, is merely to satisfy a psychic (if not pathological) urge for both power and protection.

While Brown’s analysis is insightful and revealing, it lacks greater context. She provides compelling accounts of the historical concept of sovereignty and the contemporary phenomenon of walling. But crucially, she skims any serious contemporary theorizing of sovereignty and cosmopolitanism, and only gestures at a historical understanding of walling. So while the theory she presents about the political function and meaning of walls is attractive, and certainly accurate to some extent, many questions remain about its generality and historical specificity.

So why is sovereignty so important in modern politics? Brown argues that the concept has deep theological roots. Sovereignty is a feature of divinity, of an absolute ruler with dominion over time and space. It is this feature of nation-states, that it has rightful claim of jurisdiction over a people and a territory, which legitimates governmental use of force, and distinguishes insiders from outsiders. The outsiders are the un-ruled, unpredictable, barbaric, while the insiders are bound by legitimized law and order. (These distinctions themselves produce contradictions. It is that lack of “ordered society” beyond the boundaries of the state that justify war, destruction, and disregard on the part of sovereign, supposedly the beacon of rightness and security.)

Because sovereignty grounds the legal order just as God grounds the moral order, sovereignty has become evermore important in a secularized age. Indeed, the significance of sovereignty’s absolute status is intensified for a secular society without God. In political theory, Brown says, sovereignty plays the role of the “unmoved mover,” as without it, none of the other tools for political rule can gain any traction. There’s no sense in halfway sovereignty, just as a weakened God is no God at all.

Can this be reconciled with Brown’s chosen title, which contains the eponymous concept of “Waning Sovereignty?” With some semantic flexibility, we can see what she means. Sovereignty isn’t waning, but the illusion of sovereignty is. Sovereignty is a fiction nations tell themselves, the citizens and their governments, for the purpose of their own survival and comfort. The pursuit of strengthening borders, with the use of the newest technology and 24-hour surveillance, just serves to show that the concept of sovereignty is less important in our world than it once was. As Hannah Arendt argued in On Violence, violence is used by those without power, or whose power is diminishing. Power is the capacity for control without the need for violence; sovereignty that needs to prove itself with physical blockades displays its own irrelevance. The fantasy of the concept cannot persist against the challenges of a globalized world and is bound to fade.

And yet this raises a question: Does Brown prove too much with this argument? Sovereignty is a fiction, true, but it’s not clear what we should draw from that fact. Fictions can serve a purpose, and point in useful directions. The attempts to preserve old-fashioned fantasies of sovereignty through the buildings of walls are both futile and wrongheaded, and Brown is convincing on this point. But the concept of sovereignty is a shifting one. Democratic sovereignty poses some peculiar problems, but it solved several problems of the totalitarian sovereignty proposed by Thomas Hobbes. At times, Brown is optimistic for the arrival of a post-sovereignty world. But it’s not obvious this world will be preferable in every way to the world we have now. Nor is it obvious that sovereignty, though certainly strained, is in its death throes. Perhaps the possibility for new forms of sovereignty could prove fruitful, but Brown primarily analyzes the work of historical sovereignty theorists.

It’s also unclear how new the phenomenon of walling up borders and insecure sovereignty is. Brown notes that walling has always been a part of political practices, and that their spectacle has always been a large part of their appeal. But she argues that the particular global context is new. However, Brown offers little defense for this thesis. She takes it as given that globalization, such as it is, offers unique challenges to sovereignty.  

This is not obviously so. Many contemporary liberal democratic states have an enduring stability that many ancient civilizations would have envied. Globalization offers many challenges, to be sure, but so do coups, annexation, invasion, and any number of threats to sovereignty that are less common in contemporary industrialized countries than has been the case historically. And some threats to sovereignty, such as globalized power structures, e.g. the United Nations, the European Union, and World Bank, which many do view as threats, fail to produce the dynamics Brown concerns herself with (no one is building walls to Greece.)

And in the case of the Israeli Security Fence, one of Brown’s prime examples (though also, she admits, a “hard case” for her theory,) is more a force of colonization than a reactionary defense of sovereignty. To be charitable, we could read these as one in the same goal, but this would remove any temporal context from Brown’s thesis. The post-war creation of the modern Israeli state is not readily seen as a feature of contemporary globalization.

Additionally, we might wonder: Why does the US build a wall to Mexico, but not to Canada? Brown’s answer must be that Mexico is seen as more of a threat to American sovereignty that Canada. But what are the reasons Mexico is more threatening than Canada? Without delving into detail, the answers would surely contain racial, political and economic motivations. But if something along those lines is correct, it’s not clear what work “sovereignty” is doing in the explanation, and why we think it should generalize globally. Xenophobia and international tensions exist for a myriad of reasons, and in every known global context, and they reflect a lot more than the fragility of the notion of sovereignty. Indeed, it seems that racial and cultural divides would be the reason to worry about waning sovereignty, rather than the other way around.

As mentioned above, these walls mostly fail to accomplish the purported goals. If they’re not merely evaded, they create new problems of their own. Security on borders immediately raises the stakes of crossing, but can induce a microcosm arms race, thus decreasing overall safety.

Most often, walling advocates miss the larger picture. Drugs only cross walled borders because there’s demand for the drugs within the border. Undocumented laborers only migrate because there are potential employers. Those in favor of walls are opposed to the very forces within their own nation who make the walls (in their view) necessary. But this discord threatens to undermine the very sovereignty that the walls are supposed to fortify. If law cannot be maintained within the country, the distinctions between the two sides of the walls become less clear. And with dissident forces within the walled nation contesting the need for the borders, those who favor walls sometimes feel compelled to become vigilantes in defense of the border. But this fully brings to the fore the challenges posed to sovereignty; it cannot possibly be defended by the work of vigilantes, which themselves undermine the state’s authority.

Drawing on psychoanalysis, Brown describes the persistence of the desire for walls despite these tensions as a form of psychological defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms need not be rational, but reflect our desire to cling to an imagined sense of security and protection, even if doing so can undermine the fantasy. Thus she writes, “ The wish for sovereign protection that generates and sustains religion is so powerful and emerges from such a primal psychic experience that it cannot be addressed by an other force or allayed by science or reason… the desire for walls appears as a religiously inflected one.” (132)

The account is attractive, but need we be so psychologized? Is it not safe to assume that many people simply don’t recognize the empirical facts of the futility of walling, and fail to realize the contradictions involved? Those who should know better, as Brown notes, often simply pander to those who believe the walls are necessary.

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty applies a relatively simple paradox fruitfully to intensely fraught and complex nature of contemporary geopolitics. While not fully successful, Brown’s work is illuminating and sharp, and provides us with a number of conceptual tools with which to reflect on the borders of nationhood. Surely a bigger toolbox could find even greater depth to behold.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Stop lying to children

A stork, not carrying a baby. Photo Credit: Apurbasen via Wikipedia

Over at Practical Ethics, Hannah Maslen discusses some interesting (though seriously limited) research indicating that children who are lied to by an experimenter under particular conditions are more likely to lie to the experimenter. She suggests that since we don't want children lying, we should avoid lying to them when we can.

But this is just sound childcare advice, because these are situations in which the experimenter is quickly found out to be lying. And any decent educator would tell you not to lie to a child if the child will soon discover the truth (except, perhaps, in dire circumstances). The child will lose trust in the liar, diminishing the effectiveness of any childcare or education.

The interesting ethical question is, when is it bad to lie to children, regardless of whether or not it achieves one's broader goals?

Maslen writes: 
Most people would agree that telling young children that babies get delivered by storks is not the sort of lie we should be concerned about. 
I think we should be concerned about these kinds of lies. Obviously it's not a tragedy if a parent tells this lie, but I think there are serious reasons to avoid doing it. It plays on a child's trust and gullibility to avoid a parent's discomfort. It contains confusing misinformation that, at some point, the child will have to confront was a lie. And it (perhaps) promotes a propensity to lie. All of these, I think, would be reasons not to lie to an adult, and they apply equally against lying to children.

If it's inappropriate at a given age to discuss the mechanics of human reproduction, why shouldn't we just say to a child "That's something we'll talk about when you're older"?

More on this to come.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The problem with "black on black crime"


Remember Rudy Giuliani? He decided to share some of his thoughts on the recent discussions of racial politics and violence regarding events in Ferguson:
The fact is that I find it very disappointing that you're not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We are talking about the significant exception here [in the Brown case]. I'd like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this.
I think Giuliani is wrong here, though I think people often do a bad job of explaining why he is wrong. For example, the incomparable Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in response to Giuliani:
It's almost as if killers tend to murder people who live near them. Moreover, it seems that people actually hold officers operating under the color of law to a different standard.
The first point is of course completely apt, and as the Washington Post acknowledges, most murder is intra-racial. But that doesn't really weaken the force of Giuliani's critique; his point is that, if you want to prevent black people from getting murdered, it's best to protect them from black murderers. The claim that the best way to protect white people is to protect them from white murderers doesn't change this claim. (Of course, neither of these is actually a strategy, but a general point about the focus such strategies ought to have).

The second point might be true, that we ought to hold police officers to a higher moral standard, but I'm not sure it actually gets to the root of the problem with Giuliani's argument. Because even if a certain act is more morally objectionable, if another act or group of acts is in effect more costly, it is prudent and wise to concern ourselves with the costly acts rather than the more objectionable acts. 

Let me explain this with an example. Suppose it's a bad thing to litter in the park. Some people, who are really evil, might throw away their batteries on the park because they like doing bad things. Suppose this is more objectionable than somebody who just litters because they are careless, or they don't realize the harm that it does. If the vast majority of the litter in the park is done by careless litterers, and our goal is to protect and support the value of the park, it makes the most sense to focus our efforts on reducing the careless litter, rather than the minimal litter of the really bad actors.

In fact, we might see campaigns decrying the evil litterers, while ignoring the much more numerous casual litterers, as a kind of moral fetishism, an overemphasis on blameworthiness that actually distracts us from what is really most important: protecting the park. This, I think, is the claim that Giuliani (and so many others) are making when they bring up "black on black crime".

Although the structure of the claim is, on my view, valid, it misses out on some important details.* First, Giuliani is just mistaken that no one talks about crime within African American communities. Those discussion happen all the time but (1) many white people just don't care enough to listen and (2) these discussions happen within black communities that, unsurprisingly, do not include many white people. Discussions about police brutality and interracial violence will involve the whole country, so these will be the conversation that conservatives of Giuliani's disposition pay attention to, but that doesn't mean that other conversations aren't also going on.

And, perhaps more importantly, the problem of white supremacy and racial oppression is the context in which intra-racial violence among African American communities arises. As Coates has discussed at length, this is system of oppression has deep effects today. One of the effects, for instance, of a distrust of the (mostly white) police is that disagreements are handled with force and violence is allowed to escalate. And the general disadvantage that black people face in our society foments the ingredients of conflict.

The redirection to "black on black crime" is an attempt to obscure this, and hide the fact that any societal structures play a role in the oppression of communities and the perpetuation of violence. There are several motivations for this obfuscation, some of which I have discussed previously

But it's more pernicious than just obfuscation, because underlying this argument is the assumption that either black people or "black culture" is somehow deeply troubled and flawed. The conservative response to this is to prescribe blanket moral condemnation: "Fix your culture", "fix your community", "where are the fathers?". Instead, we might think that there are deep socioeconomic and broader cultural effects in play, within a nation whose history includes a legacy of racial animus. Thinking that violence is just a "black people problem" trivializes this history and is thoroughly patronizing.

It might seem here that I'm just turning from blaming one culture to another. To some extent that's true, though I'm much less interested in the moral condemnation of individuals here and more interested in understanding the dynamics of power and oppression that structure society. And while it is a racist fantasy to imagine that somehow African Americans just have an inferior culture and simply need to better themselves, it is uncontroversial that our society is the product of doctrines of white supremacy and cultural superiority.

The broader argument of Coates' piece (linked to above) is a bit strange. He makes an interesting analogy to the problem of "American on American" crime, which is far more common than crime from muslim terrorists. Yet so much more of our national conversation (and budget) exists around addressing the much smaller problem of Muslim terrorists. This analogy is meant to show that the Giuliani and similarly minded conservatives are hypocritical, and that the "black on black crime" argument reveals racial bias, because they don't make the connection to American-on-American crime.

It's an interesting point, but I think it cuts the wrong way for Coates. His brief discussion about American crime vs. Muslim terrorist crime is actually compelling. We do worry more as a country about terrorist attacks than we do about, say, gun control, which is plausibly to our detriment. So the suggestion would be that if conservatives are to revise their hypocritical views, the should worry more about American on American crime (which, in fact, conservatives do talk about a fair amount, though not in that language), not that their dismissal of police brutality and white supremacy is misguided.

For the reasons I've given above, I think this dismissal is misguided. But Coates, to whom I am intellectually indebted for much of my thinking on this topic, neglects these points in this post, with problematic results.

*Both of these point have been discussed by Coates previously, to who has greatly helped to clarify my thoughts on the matter. I don't mean to make any general critique of Coates here, who is exceptionally thoughtful on these topics--I simply mean to critique the brief argument I quoted above, which many have employed, but is in my view too flippant.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The worst argument in the world

Photo Credit: tobym via Flickr
Over at the Reason.com, Peter Schiff gives yet another warning that inflation might still be just around the corner, a warning we've heard constantly over the last several years. I'm not an economist, but it's clear these predictions have proved phenomenally wrong, repeatedly, and yet they persist.

More interesting to me, though, is one of the arguments we've heard over the years that Schiff here repeats. It is, in my view, a version of the worst argument in the world.
Mainstream economists (who hold sway in government, the corporate world, and academia) argued that as long as the labor market remained slack, inflation would not catch fire. My fellow Austrian economists and I loudly voiced the minority viewpoint that money printing is always inflationary-in fact, that it is the very definition of inflation.
If Schiff, and his fellow Austrian economists, were right about this, there would be no question. The title of his piece, "Where is the inflation?" would have an obvious answer. It would be in the Fed's balance sheets, where we've seen a huge expansion of the monetary base.

But this is a mistake. Because, obviously, Schiff sees the problem for his worldview: the monetary base has expanded significantly (i.e. the Fed has "printed money") but inflation remains modest. These things, after all, are measured in different ways. So printing money is not, by definition, inflation.

But suppose it were true that inflation just meant the printing of money. Well, then the question would be, who cares? That means that we've printed lots of money, that is, expanded the monetary base. But to say that means we've also had inflation is to just repeat yourself, because they mean the same thing. What we want to know is if there are any negative effects of printing money--but having a definitional relationship tells us nothing.

What I think Schiff wants to say is that money printing always necessarily leads to inflation, that is, rising prices. And rhetorically, it's tempting to illustrate this necessity by appealing to, or declaring a, definitional relationship. But instead, this move actually negates any substantive assertion, and merely makes confusing use of words that have better definitions.

Inflation is the general rise in the price of goods and services across the economy. Printing money, or monetary expansion, is the macroeconomic tool that the Fed has of essentially increasing the supply of money ("money printing" is, of course, misleading because money is no longer just printed dollars and cents, but the term as metaphor is suitable). It does this by lowering interest rates or buying treasury bonds. Schiff might think that, always and in every case, monetary expansion leads to inflation. But if that even if that were true, they wouldn't mean the same thing.
Take another example, "the square root of 9" and "the sum of 1 and 2" are both necessarily 3. But that doesn't mean that the two phrases mean the same thing. Clearly they do not.

This argument even fails for Schiff on his own terms; if monetary expansion and inflation were the same thing, if one means the other, then there's no argument to be had. That might sound good for Schiff's case, but it really indicates that he hasn't made any interesting or worthwhile claims at all. He might has well have said, as philosophers are prone to, "all bachelors are unmarried men". 

In fact, it's worse than this--the definition of bachelor is uncontroversial. But if you're introducing a definition that is controversial, for words that have perfectly good definitions already, you're just making matters more confused.

Once you realize this argument for the sham that it is, you realize that people use it all the time. But it's just a trick, an illusory argument. The reason I think it's the worst argument in the world is that it seems so powerful--relationships of necessity are important, and definitional necessity appears to be the strongest kind of necessity--but it is entirely vacuous.

Consider another example (courtesy of Derek Parfit in On What Matters). Some people think that "the morally right action" just means "the action that has the best consequences." These people think this is a declaration of the truth of consequential moral theory, but in fact it is the opposite. It means that moral theory is nothing more than consequentialism, which is just an assertion. Such an assertion could have no more meaningful effect on our lives than the realization that garbanzo beans and chickpeas are the same thing.

The problem for a consequentialist who held this view is that a non-consquentialist could completely agree. In fact, it's always a generous move in an argument to accept your interlocutor's definitions. So as before, I might accept that "morally right" means "having the best consequences", but any question I had about such actions with the best consequences (such as, is there always conclusive reason to act thusly?) would thusly apply to "morally right" action. I might ask, is there always conclusive reason to do what is morally right? Ought I do what is morally right?

Normally we might think that "what I have most reason to do" or "what is morally right" or "what I ought to do" all refer to the same concept.* But if I accept the consequentialist definition of "what is morally right", I have to use other (to me, synonymous) phrases to ask the pertinent question. If she chooses to define all of these phrases in her special way, she may do so, but she simply leaves her interlocutor unable to question what is most interesting--and not in a helpful way.

Definitions and words are just the tools with which we have arguments. But arguments are actually about the features of the world and the things that matter to us. You can adjust the definitions of the words to mean whatever you like, and it might seem like you're making a point. But really, you blur the intuitive connection that words have to the features of the world and the things that matter to us. And this makes argument less clear and less helpful, and our thinking more muddled. 

What I've said here might seem to suggest that there's never any point in arguing about definitions. That's not quite correct--and I'll show why in a subsequent post(which--I anticipate--will be (even!) more interesting to readers than the topics covered here).

*Some people do not accept this. More on this later.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Is there anything wrong with sex-selective abortion?

Photo Credit: Marcus Hansson
Over at Oxford's always interesting "Practical Ethics" blog, Nicholas Shackel addresses the question of sex-selective abortion (that is, choosing to have an abortion based on the sex of the fetus), a hot topic in British politics.

He concludes that if we think abortion is broadly permissible, then we must also think that sex-selective abortion must be permissible. Essentially his argument is that if an action is permissible, then the reasons we have for carrying out said action cannot make it impermissible. However, this conclusion is a mistake. (What follows is a modified version of my comment left on Shackel's post.)

There are, it seems to me, two reasons to object to abortion as a method of sex selection(and, indeed, any method of selecting the sex of a fetus):

(1) It shows a lack of proper respect for persons generally by exhibiting sexist prejudice. This is most plausible if it is female fetuses being aborted. In the same way we could think selective abortion of fetuses that we (if it were possible) could predict would grow up to be homosexual or transgender is wrong, or (as many believe) aborting fetuses we suspect will be disabled is wrong, we might think aborting female fetuses is wrong.

(2) It could have bad consequences, in particular, disrupting a (supposedly valuable) gender balance in the population.*

Either of these conditions could render certain abortive conditions wrong, even if we generally think there is a right to abortion. This is because the general permissibility of abortion could be seen as legal position rather than a moral one. And this, to my mind, is the most plausible view.

Even if we think abortion is morally generally permissible following either of the arguments Shackel mentions, this doesn’t entail that it’s never wrong to have an abortion. Suppose someone had an abortion even though they wanted and would have cared for the child lovingly, simply to spite a pro-natalist family member. That seems to be a bad reason to have an abortion, and that person would be open to moral criticism. But even though we might want to say this act was morally wrong, we wouldn’t want to criminalize this kind of abortion, for the same reason we don’t want to criminalize any number of morally wrong actions.

If we believe either (1) or (2) above, we might think that criminalizing sex-selective abortion would be appropriate. It certainly wouldn’t stop all cases of it, because as Shackel mentions, there are several work-arounds. But having prohibitions in place would offer some forms of disincentive, and might promote the kinds of norms we want promoted. And since many people in fact value honesty, even when it fails to help them achieve their ends, we might expect that fewer sex selective abortions would occur.

I don’t have a settled view on this, because I’m not sure how successful (1) and (2) are. But I do think there is a more of a legitimate argument here than Shackel seems to think.

*Some feminists who accept these arguments suggest we should permit sex selection in cases where families are just trying achieve a balance of these sexes of their own children. This is interesting, but it doesn't seem to me to actually avoid either the objections in either (1) or (2). If only families with female children opt for the balancing forms of sex-selective methods, then the problems re-emerge.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Verbal harassment is wrong, even if you're trying to be nice

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler
Before delving into the substance of this post, I have a few comments on the subject of men writing about feminism. Several feminist writers have expressed misgivings about "male allies" in feminism. I think these pieces are important. One of the main thrusts feminist thought is the recognition that male voices have historically been dominant in social discourse, and female voices have been largely suppressed and erased. For a movement that seeks to address that disparity, the threat of men taking over the discussion or undermining it should be taken seriously.

One common method of defending privilege is denying the experiences of the oppressed. Feminism shines a light on female experiences that have often been denied or ignored, and in that way, men have little to contribute to feminism. However, we all have a part to play in improving our society, and shaping cultural values.

Which brings me to the topic of street harassment. A woman recently posted a video compiling some of the verbal harassment she faced walking around New York City. I know women face this harassment all the time, but the video made it startlingly vivid for me.

Some people (mostly men, but a few women) did not see all the comments in the video as harassment. This is a huge problem. As Kat George puts it, "Women feel vulnerable on the street, period. When a man interacts with her on any level she did not invite, it’s threatening, period." Another way to put this would be to look at the simplest definition of harassment, which is "unwanted attention." Since we can assume, and many women have said, that being frequently verbally commented on in the streets is unwanted, we should classify such comments as harassment.

George goes on to list several behaviors that absolutely constitute street harassment, and I think no reasonable person should disagree. However, there is one argument in her article that I do disagree with. She writes,
I retweeted the post from my personal account, and while many sane people expressed support for the article, some responded with questions like, “But don’t you think some of those guys were just trying to be nice?” No. No I don’t think that. Not for one second.
And later,
...after enough years of encountering enough different kinds of people engaging in enough different kinds of interactions, all women (YES, ALL WOMEN) develop a sixth sense: We can immediately tell if someone is, in fact, being “nice”, or if their seemingly innocuous words or actions are laden with latent undertones of objectification and entitlement, and the threatening implications that go along with someone who holds that view – who views you as a less-than-human thing which they want and feel entitled to have – has set their sights on you. We can tell. 
This line of argument seems to me to be unnecessary, and incorrect. To be clear, I'm not denying that women may experience this "sixth sense" about the intentions of men. But I do deny that they in fact have access to the intentions of others, because discerning others' intentions is a notoriously difficult task(indeed, attributions of this sort are consistently plagued with prejudice). In fact, the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that we often don't even know what our own intentions are.

But George needn't have made this argument at all. The intentions of the offender don't determine the wrongness of the act (though they might somewhat mitigate the blameworthiness of the individual.) Men shouldn't comment on a woman's appearance in the street, even if he is only trying to pay her a compliment.

Regardless of what a man intends by his comments, he is likely to contribute to the objectification, fear, and discomfort that women are openly telling the world they feel. This is sufficient reason for concluding that these comments ought to be omitted. Because this argument doesn't't rely on any false assumptions, it is stronger than George's argument. This argument also has the plausible result that, for instance, gay men don't get a pass for commenting on a random woman's appearance on the street (yes, it happens).

It destroys the false dichotomy of good men vs. bad men implicit in George's view. It's just not the case that just some men are a scheming to objectify women, and women just need to avoid these men. Men, who might in all sincerity believe they are simply complimenting a woman, are likely to intact be harassing her.

Which, in the end, is the point of George's list of harassment behaviors. It shows that, as we really should expect, there are some things that shouldn't be done if we want a polite (and safe, and secure, society.) And it councils all men that, even if they think their intentions are pure, they should probably just let that woman walk by in silence.

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.